In our study of the history of the doctrine of Scripture, the name of John Wycliffe (1330-1384) deserves a special place. An Englishman, well educated and trained, an Oxford professor, pastor and teacher, Wycliffe set forth in clear form the fundamental principles of the Reformed doctrine of Scripture more than one hundred years before the commencement of the Reformation. The first full English translation of the Bible is associated with his name as well. He truly deserves the designation, pre-reformer. His work is all the more striking in that the reformers Zwingli and Luther came to largely similar conclusions independently.
The details of Wycliffe’s early life are surrounded in obscurity, as are his university studies. He evidently studied at Oxford, and after concluding his studies was appointed to the livings derived from several different churches. In those days it was not uncommon for the parish minister to be absent from his charge, pursuing further studies and degrees, and Wycliffe was no exception, He continued to divide his time between scholarly labors and his parish responsibilities until he retired to his parish at Lutterworth in 1381.
Wycliffe’s labors and writings were affected by the changing political situation in his day and by international affairs. The English kings had had a longstanding dispute with the papacy concerning the payment of money to the church, which money was sent to the continent to fill the treasuries of the pope. The papacy at that time was under the power of the kings of France, England’s bitter political rival, and, in fact, the seat of the papacy had been moved from Rome to Avignon, France. Thus the English crown and the papacy were constantly at each-other’s throats over this matter of papal taxes. Further, the church in England controlled large tracts of land and property, much of it in the hands of monastic orders who were not responsible to the regular English clergy, nor under their authority, but answered to the pope alone. In addition the papacy claimed legal preeminence over other courts, claiming the authority to be the final court of appeals.
This display of temporal power and earthly wealth by the church set it at odds with the aspirations of the English crown, who coveted that wealth and power. It ran counter also to the growing sense of English nationalism. In 1337 England began a long drawn-out war with France which lasted for a hundred years. From this, England, formerly a medieval feudal state, emerged as a nation with power centered in a strong monarchy. Paralleling this development was the growth of English as the national language. Since the days of William the Conqueror (1066), French had been the language of the English nobility, courts, and schools. In 1362, however, a statute was passed by Parliament which decreed that all the proceedings in the courts of law should be conducted in English, and English also began to be taught in the schools.
In this changing political climate, Wycliffe stood forth not only as a reformer, but also as an English patriot. He served for a time as the king’s chaplain, as well as advisor to Parliament on several occasions. In 1374 he was sent to Bruges, in what is now Belgium, as part of a royal commission to discuss matters of difference between England and the papacy and to negotiate peace with France. The commission itself accomplished little, but Wycliffe returned to England and began a series of treatises on political and ecclesiastical reform.
He attacked the secular power and wealth of the church as being inconsistent with apostolic poverty, advocated the confiscation of church properties by the state, and denied the papal right to lay taxes and demands upon English churches. This brought him under attack by the ecclesiastical and particularly the papal authorities. The archbishop of Canterbury undertook proceedings against him, and when this failed the pope also became involved, issuing five bulls or decrees against Wycliffe’s errors. Wycliffe, however, was protected by his friends at court, his general popularity as a preacher, and by the University of Oxford, from being molested. Wycliffe’s attack upon the papacy gradually shifted from its abuses to the institution itself. In 1378 the current pope died and a new one was chosen in France at Avignon. A second pope was chosen at Rome. The resulting schism found the church with two popes, each claiming to be the sole representative of Christ and earthly head of the church. This quickened Wycliffe’s attacks upon the papacy and the corruption of the church. The spectacle of two popes excommunicating each other made the spiritual bankruptcy of the institution all the more apparent.
Wycliffe attacked the papacy on several levels: its corruption drew from him the charge, which the reformers were later to echo, that the pope was antichrist. But Wycliffe also began a searching examination of Scripture which led him to a rejection, not only of the institution, but also of much of the medieval doctrine of the church. Medieval theology had identified and equated the church in Scripture with the Roman institute. This, Wycliffe began to challenge. He, like the reformers who followed him, was a student of Scripture and of Augustine. He was led to the truth of sovereign predestination. This in turn led him to a clearer understanding of the doctrine of the church as the gathering of God’s elect, a spiritual and invisible reality, distinct from, though found in, the church institute. This idea was an advance beyond Augustine, and had significant consequences. If the church was spiritual, consisting of the elect alone, then an ungodly pope could not be its head, but Christ alone. Fundamentally this destroyed the whole Roman Catholic system. For if Christ alone was head, then there must be another basis of authority in the church than the visible pope. And so, Wycliffe turned to the Word of God and the Spirit of Christ as the sole authority for the faith and life of the church.
This was tantamount to theological revolution. If Scripture alone was the sole authority for faith and life, the law of Christ for His church, then the pope, tradition, and even church councils were subject to it. This reversed the false medieval idea of the church that Scripture received its authority from the church, but rather made the church subject to Scripture. As the reformers were to demonstrate, before that authority of the Word of God, neither pope, nor tradition and practice could stand. They must fall away.
Furthermore, if the church consisted only of the elect, then the church as institute could no longer claim to be the sole interpreter of Scripture, since an unbelieving clergy could not have the Holy Spirit. The right to understand and interpret Scripture was rooted in the Holy Spirit. Wycliffe began to assert the right of believers to study and interpret Scripture for themselves, and the necessity of doing so, since it was by His Word that Christ reigned over His church.
This led also to the development of new principles of interpretation. First of all, it led to the principle that Scripture interprets Scripture, as the Holy Spirit explained His own writings. The medieval church had placed human reason above Scripture. This principle of spiritual interpretation necessarily undermined the scholastic theology of the medieval church which had married Greek philosophy and Scripture. Wycliffe began to attack the Romish doctrine of transubstantiation of the bodily presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper, to attack pilgrimages, reverence paid to images, and other superstitions, none of which had any foundation in Scripture. In the second place he turned to the principle that Scripture as its own interpreter has one plain and natural meaning according to the Spirit. He rejected the use of allegory and other corrupt methods of medieval exegesis.
His conclusions necessarily led him to lay stress on the need for preaching. Scripture, he saw, made this the chief mark and task of the pastoral office. With this went the necessity of a clergy educated and steeped in God’s Word, and a Bible in the hands of the people. Nowhere did the pope and the Roman clergy show more clearly their bankruptcy than in the neglect of the pastoral function of preaching. At the heart of the Scriptures stood Christ, the head of the church, and His Word to His people. This must be preached. Men must be able to read the Word of Christ and follow it.
The result of this for Wycliffe was that he came under increasing attack. He was shielded by his friends, however, and left unmolested. For a time he was placed under house arrest at Oxford, though allowed to teach. He finally retired to his parish church, devoting himself to preaching and writing.
Under his instigation and probable direction a translation of the Latin Bible into English was begun. Wycliffe’s followers had the major part in this work, although he was also involved in the project himself, and the translation bears his name. At this time Greek and Hebrew were yet little known; Wycliffe knew neither language, and the basis of this translation was Jerome’s translation into Latin. There were two versions of it: an earlier, slavishly literal one which followed the Latin word order, and was therefore confusing and difficult to read, and a later one written in better English.
The circulation of the Scriptures, the Wycliffe translation, Wycliffe’s emphasis on preaching and his doctrines, found expression in the Lollard movement in England after his death. Wycliffe himself died unmolested in 1384. It was not until the 1400s that the Romish church fully managed to brand him as a heretic, ban his works, and gain some measure of success in eradicating his English translation of the Scriptures. His influence, however, lived on in the Lollard movement although it was forced underground, and was also felt on the Continent in the labors of John Huss, concerning whom we will have more to say next time, D.V.