Rev. Stewart is a missionary in the Protestant Reformed Churches, currently working in Northern Ireland.
In John Wycliffe’s day (c. 1324-1384), most of Europe professed to be Christian. The Roman church was dominant in the west and the Orthodox churches in the east. Godly Waldensians worshiped in the Alps and their environs, and there were also heretical groups in diverse places. In Europe, only Lithuania yet remained pagan, and southern Spain was under Muslim control.
Two major events lowered the status of the papacy in the fourteenth century. First, during the “Babylonian captivity” (1309-1377) the papal court, after a millennium at Rome—the eternal city, with all its sacred associations—moved to Avignon in southern France. Second, the Babylonian captivity was soon followed by the “papal schism” (1378-1417), with two or three rival claimants to the papal tiara fulminating anathemas against each other. Wags asked the question, How many pontifical bottoms can sit on the one papal chair? Many churchmen (known as the conciliarists) looked to a general council in the west to solve the problem. The popes, of course, did not take kindly to answering to a general council, for this compromised their papal supremacy.
The fourteenth century also saw the advent of the Black Death (especially 1348-1349). In two short years about a third of the population of Europe was dead. “Why could the holy Roman Catholic Church not do anything about it?” people wondered. “The pope, Christ’s vicegerent on earth, seems impotent.” Some, especially in southern Germany, resorted to whipping themselves with the scourge (flagella). The flagellants believed that their self-inflicted tortures would appease the divine wrath.
There was a widespread recognition that something was wrong and that some sort of church reform was necessary. While the conciliarists urged reforms of administration and church polity, and the flagellants tried self-sacrificial propitiation, the mystics preached personal inner renewal through union of the soul with God. Those drinking at the southern European waters of renaissance humanism presented classical learning and moralism as the panacea. Others looked to the Holy Roman emperors or powerful Christian kings to reform the church. Only a few, like the Waldensians and Wycliffe, understood how far the Roman Church had departed and that the heart of her problem was doctrinal.
But, more specifically, what were the problems in the Roman Church in Western Europe? A treatise by William Durand, absentee Bishop of Mende in France, was submitted to the Council of Vienne (1311) containing these words:
The whole Church might be reformed if the Church of Rome would begin by removing evil examples from herself … by which men are scandalized, and the whole people, as it were, infected…. For in all lands … the Church of Rome is in ill repute, and all cry and publish it abroad that within her bosom all men, from the greatest even unto the least, have set their hearts upon covetousness…. That the whole Christian folk take from the clergy pernicious examples of gluttony is clear and notorious, since the clergy feast more luxuriously … than princes and kings.¹
One need only read Geoffrey Chaucer’s (c. 1345-1400) Canterbury Tales to see that these indictments of the whole Roman Church also applied to England.
Most obviously, the church was grotesquely wealthy. It is estimated that she owned a third of the land of England. Many bishops lived in opulence, and many churchmen served and drew monies as royal civil servants, mere “Caesarean clerics” (as Wycliffe called them) who served the king (“Caesar”) in pursuit of worldly wealth and position. Then there was pluralism (churchmen holding and being paid for more than one church position) and its resulting absenteeism (churchmen never seen in their parish or bishopric). Wycliffe himself was guilty of these sins in his younger days, for in this way he was funded for his Oxford University education. As one would expect, the English were especially grieved at those absentee churchmen who were also foreigners. The papal court in Avignon (1309-1377) also required English money because, not only did the popes need to finance their Italian wars and to patronize literature and art, but they also needed to build their new French papal palace.
By the fourteenth century, the Dominicans and the Franciscans, which were founded in the previous century and had been widely seen as agents of renewal, were now almost as widely seen to be as decadent as the other monastic orders. Fourteenth century Englishman William Langland, in his famous Piers the Ploughman, denounced the four orders of mendicants (beggar monks)—Dominicans, Franciscans, Augustinians, and Carmelites—as covetous Scripture-twisters, declaring that they
Preached the people for profit and themselve
Glosed the Gospel as them good lyked.²
Calling the Dominicans and Franciscans by their other names (Jacobites and Minorites respectively), Wycliffe formed the first letters of the four mendicant orders into an acrostic, “Cain,” for he reckoned they were like the first murderer. Their convents he dubbed “Cain’s castles.” Wycliffe levelled his artillery against Cain’s castles in Objections to Friars (1382). In his On the Pastoral Office, Wycliffe widened his attack to include the four “sects” (bishops, monks, and canons, as well as friars) stating that they were “obviously harmful to the edification of the church.” Priestly celibacy had been decreed by Pope Boniface VII in 1079, and this “doctrine of devils” (I Tim. 4:1-3) led to widespread fornication amongst the Roman clergy.³ Time and time again, Wycliffe criticized the clergy for their gross ignorance of the Holy Scriptures. Wycliffe came to view the papal claims as blasphemous and even identified the pope as Antichrist.
In describing the state of the Roman Church in the fourteenth century, we need not only speak of her wealth and the corruption of her clergy; we also need to consider the development of her false doctrine. Pilgrimages; prayers for the dead; veneration of angels, relics, and saints; idolatrous devotion to Mary—all of these entered the church in the first half millennium. Soon purgatory was being widely preached. Early in the second millennium indulgences for the remission of temporal punishment in purgatory were bought and sold. The Council of Verona instituted the inquisition of heretics in 1184. The fourth Lateran Council of 1215 delivered the dogma of transubstantiation (the miraculous transformation of the wafer by the priest into the literal body, blood, and divinity of Christ in the mass). The Council of Valencia (1224) forbade the Bible to laymen and placed the Word of God on the Index of Forbidden Books.4 These are just some instances of the idolatry and corrupt teaching of the Church of Rome by the fourteenth century, by which she was more and more manifesting the marks of the false church (Belgic Confession 29).
The worst heresy of the Roman Church, and the root of so many of her other departures, was her heresy of free will. Augustine (354-430) fought manfully against Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism by and for the grace of God. But the Council of Orange (529) made fatal concessions to free will. In the centuries to come, most church leaders professed to be followers of Augustine, but they were not faithful to the truth of God’s sovereign grace. The Florentine Dante (1265-1321), in his Divine Comedy (c. 1307-1321), is typical of his age in his praise of free will. As in our own day, though most were deceived by this false doctrine, some were graciously given spiritual discernment. Thomas Bradwardine (c. 1290-1349), Oxford University professor and Archbishop of Canterbury (1349), protested that the church was running after Pelagius. Romans 9:16 (“So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy”) is the most quoted text in his great work The Cause of God Against the Pelagians. Against the prevalent free-willism of his day, Wycliffe taught the absolute sovereignty of God in election and reprobation.
A Typical Fourteenth Century Layman
Perhaps we can best sum up the state of the church in Wycliffe’s day by considering a typical English yeoman near the end of the fourteenth century. His life from cradle to grave was shaped by the sacramental system of the Roman Church. He was told that his original sin was washed away in baptism and that he received the Holy Spirit at confirmation to enable him to merit by his good works. Pilgrimages, prayers to the saints, giving to the church—surely these would help him to salvation. He worshiped and consumed the literal body and blood of Christ at the mass. By saying the required “Ave Marias” (Hail Marys) and “Paternosters” (Our Fathers), he did penance for his sins. At death, he received the last rites. Grace, he thought, came automatically (ex opere operato) through the sacraments. Through his proper exercise of free will and the prayers and sacrifices of the priests, he hoped to avoid Hell and spend as short a time as possible in purgatory.
He had heard that there were some heretics called Lollards, followers of some crazy theologian named Wycliffe, who said that people needed to hear and read the Bible in English, but he thought that the holy Roman Church would keep him safe. Sure, many priests and friars lived loosely, drank too much, and kept concubines. It was true that too much English money was being siphoned off to the continent; (it was said) that there were two rival popes; and that the popes, nowadays, were merely French pawns—and us at war with them!5 But these were the old ways, and he reckoned it was best to stick with them.
Thankfully not all closed their eyes to the light of the Scriptures. There were some who heard the Word of God in English from Wycliffe and the Lollards, understood it, and believed it by God’s grace. They were the true church in Wycliffe’s day.
1. Quoted in Will Durant, The Reformation (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957), p. 7.
2. Quoted in David Schaff, History of the Christian Church (USA: Hendrickson, repr. 1996), vol. 6, p. 307.
3. The papal law that priests cannot marry leads to the fornication, paedophilia, and sodomy of the priests in our own day.
4. In an article entitled, “Experts say Catholics still don’t read Bible regularly” (8 Sept., 2005), Carol Glatz writes, “Recent research conducted in Italy, Spain and France found that many Catholics consider the sacred Scriptures as something ‘reserved for the clergy’ rather than as an accessible resource for them to draw upon for truth and inspiration in their own lives” (http://www.catholicnews. com/data/stories/cns/0505102.htm).
5. The English fought against the French in the Hundred Years’ War on and off from 1337-1453.