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John Wycliffe (/ˈwɪklɪf/; also spelled Wyclif, Wycliff, Wiclef, Wicliffe, Wickliffe; c. 1330 – 31 December 1384) was an English Scholastic philosopher, theologian, lay preacher, translator, reformer and university teacher at Oxford in England. He was an influential dissident in the Roman Catholic Church during the 14th century. His followers were known as Lollards, a somewhat rebellious movement, which preached anticlerical and biblically-centred reforms. The Lollard movement was a precursor to the Protestant Reformation. He has been characterized as the evening star of scholasticism and the Morning Star of the Reformation. He was one of the earliest opponents of papal authority over secular power. In assessing Wycliffe’s historical role, Lacey Baldwin Smith argues that Wycliffe expounded three doctrines that the established church recognized as major threats. First was his emphasis upon an individual’s interpretation of the Bible as the best guide to a moral life, as opposed to the Church’s emphasis on receiving its sacraments as the only way to salvation. Second he insisted that holiness of an individual was more important than official office; that is, a truly pious person was morally superior to a wicked ordained cleric. Wycliffe challenged the privileged status of the clergy, which was central to their powerful role in England. Finally he attacked the luxurious and exorbitant luxury and pomp of the churches and their ceremonies.
Wycliffe was also an early advocate for translation of the Bible into the common language. He completed his translation directly from the Vulgate into vernacular English in the year 1382, now known as Wycliffe’s Bible. It is probable that he personally translated the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; and it is possible he translated the entire New Testament, while his associates translated the Old Testament. Wycliffe’s Bible appears to have been completed by 1384, with additional updated versions being done by Wycliffe’s assistant John Purvey and others in 1388 and 1395.
Wycliffe was born in the village of Hipswell in the North Riding of Yorkshire, England in the mid-1320s. His family was long settled in Yorkshire. The family was quite large, covering considerable territory, principally centred on Wycliffe-on-Tees, about ten miles to the north of Hipswell.
Wycliffe received his early education close to his home. It is not known when he first came to Oxford, with which he was so closely connected until the end of his life, but he is known to have been at Oxford around 1345. Thomas Bradwardine was the archbishop of Canterbury, and his book On the Cause of God against the Pelagians, a bold recovery of the Pauline-Augustine doctrine of grace, would greatly shape young Wycliffe’s theology.
During this time there was conflict between the northern (Boreales) and southern (Australes) “nations” at Oxford. Wycliffe belonged to the Boreales, in which the prevailing tendency was anticurial, while the other was curial. No less sharp was the separation between Nominalism and Realism. He mastered most of the techniques.
Wycliffe became deeply disillusioned both with Scholastic theology of his day and also with the state of the church, at least as represented by the clergy. In the final phase of his life in the years before his death in 1384 he increasingly argued for Scriptures as the authoritative centre of Christianity, that the claims of the papacy were unhistorical, that monasticism was irredeemably corrupt, and that the moral unworthiness of priests invalidated their office and sacraments.
Early career-At Oxford
Wycliffe completed his arts degree at Merton College as a junior fellow in 1356. He was Master of Balliol College in 1361. In this same year, he was presented by the college with the parish of Fylingham in Lincolnshire. For this he had to give up the headship of Balliol College, though he could continue to live at Oxford. He is said to have had rooms in the buildings of The Queen’s College. As baccalaureate at the university, he busied himself with natural science and mathematics, and as master he had the right to read in philosophy. Obtaining a bachelor’s degree in theology, Wycliffe pursued an avid interest in Biblical studies. His performance led Simon Islip, Archbishop of Canterbury, to place him at the head of Canterbury Hall in 1365, where twelve young men were preparing for the priesthood. Islip had designed the foundation for secular clergy; but when he died in 1366, Islip’s successor, Simon Langham, a man of monastic training, turned the leadership of the college over to a monk. Though Wycliffe appealed to Rome, the outcome was unfavourable to him.
In 1368, he gave up his living at Fylingham and took over the rectory of Ludgershall, Buckinghamshire, not far from Oxford, which enabled him to retain his connection with the university. Six years later, in 1374, he received the crown living of Lutterworth in Leicestershire, which he retained until his death. He had already resigned as prebendary of Aust in Westbury-on-Trym. Between 1372 and 1384, he became a Doctor of Divinity, making use of his right to lecture upon systematic divinity, but these lectures were not the origin of his Summa. In 1376, Wycliffe received a letter from his parents suggesting he join a different university; he declined to take their advice
It was in this period that he came significantly to the fore. He was among those to whom the thought of the secularization of ecclesiastical properties in England was welcome. His protector was John of Gaunt, who was acting as ruler at this time. He was no longer satisfied with his chair as the means of propagating his ideas, and soon after his return from Bruges he began to express them in tracts and longer works. In his first book, concerned with the government of God and the Ten Commandments, he attacked the temporal rule of the clergy: in temporal things the king is above the pope, and the collection of annates and indulgences is simony. But he entered the politics of the day with his great work De civili dominio. Here he introduced those ideas by which the good parliament was governed – which involved the renunciation by the Church of temporal dominion. The items of the “long bill” appear to have been derived from his work. In this book are the strongest outcries against the Avignon system with its commissions, exactions, squandering of charities by unfit priests, and the like.
To change this is the business of the state. If the clergy misuses ecclesiastical property, it must be taken away; if the king does not do this, he is remiss. The work contains 18 strongly stated theses, opposing the governing methods of the rule of the Church and the straightening out of its temporal possessions. Wycliffe had set these ideas before his students at Oxford in 1376, after becoming involved in controversy with William Wadeford and others. Rather than restricting these matters to the classroom, he wanted them proclaimed more widely and wanted temporal and spiritual lords to take note. While the latter attacked him and sought ecclesiastical censure, he recommended himself to the former by his criticism of the worldly possessions of the clergy.
Conflict with the Church
Theologically, his preaching expressed a strong belief in predestination that enabled him to declare an “invisible church of the elect”, made up of those predestined to be saved, rather than in the “visible” Catholic Church;.
The first to oppose his theses were monks of those orders that held possessions, to whom his theories were dangerous. Oxford and the episcopate were later blamed by the Curia, which charged them with so neglecting their duty that “the breaking of the evil fiend into the English sheepfold” could be noticed in Rome before it was in England. Wycliffe was summoned before William Courtenay, Bishop of London, on 19 February 1377, “to explain the wonderful things which had streamed forth from his mouth”. The exact charges are not known, as the matter did not get as far as a definite examination. Gaunt, the Earl Marshal Henry Percy, and a number of other friends accompanied Wycliffe, and four begging friars were his advocates. A crowd gathered at the church, and at the entrance of the party animosities began to show, especially in an angry exchange between the bishop and Wycliffe’s protectors. Gaunt declared that he would humble the pride of the English clergy and their partisans, hinting at the intent to secularise the possessions of the Church. The assembly broke up and the lords departed with their protege.
Most of the English clergy were irritated by this encounter, and attacks upon Wycliffe began, finding their response in the second and third books of his work dealing with civil government. These books carry a sharp polemic, hardly surprising when it is recalled that his opponents charged Wycliffe with blasphemy and scandal, pride and heresy. He appeared to have openly advised the secularization of English church property, and the dominant parties shared his conviction that the monks could better be controlled if they were relieved from the care of secular affairs.
The bitterness occasioned by this advice will be better understood when it is remembered that at that time the papacy was at war with the Florentines and was in dire straits. The demand of the Minorites that the Church should live in poverty as it did in the days of the apostles was not pleasing in such a crisis. It was under these conditions that Pope Gregory XI, who in January, 1377, had gone from Avignon to Rome, sent on 22 May five copies of his bull against Wycliffe, dispatching one to the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the others to the Bishop of London, King Edward III, the Chancellor, and the university; among the enclosures were 18 theses of his, which were denounced as erroneous and dangerous to Church and State.
The reformatory activities of Wycliffe effectively began here: all the great works, especially his Summa theologiae, are closely connected with the condemnation of his 18 theses, while the entire literary energies of his later years rest upon this foundation. The next aim of his opponents – to make him out a revolutionary in politics – failed. The situation in England resulted in damage to them; on 21 June 1377, Edward III died. His successor was Richard II, a boy, who was under the influence of John of Gaunt, his uncle. So it resulted that the bull against Wycliffe did not become public till 18 December. Parliament, which met in October, came into sharp conflict with the Curia. Among the propositions Wycliffe, at the direction of the government, worked out for parliament was one that speaks out distinctly against the exhaustion of England by the Curia.
Wycliffe tried to gain public favour by laying his theses before Parliament, and then made them public in a tract, accompanied by explanations, limitations, and interpretations. After the session of Parliament was over he was called upon to answer, and in March, 1378, he appeared at the episcopal palace at Lambeth to defend himself. The preliminaries were not yet finished when a noisy mob gathered with the purpose of saving him; the king’s mother, Joan of Kent, also took up his cause. The bishops, who were divided, satisfied themselves with forbidding him to speak further on the controversy. At Oxford the vice-chancellor, following papal directions, confined Wycliffe for some time in Black Hall, from which Wycliffe was released on threats from his friends; the vice-chancellor was himself confined in the same place because of his treatment of Wycliffe. The latter then took up the usage according to which one who remained for 44 days under excommunication came under the penalties executed by the State, and wrote his De incarcerandis fedelibus, in which he demanded that it should be legal for the excommunicated to appeal to the king and his council against the excommunication; in this writing he laid open the entire case and in such a way that it was understood by the laity. He wrote his 33 conclusions, in Latin and English. The masses, some of the nobility, and his former protector, John of Gaunt, rallied to him. Before any further steps could be taken at Rome, Gregory XI died (1378). But Wycliffe was already engaged in one of his most important works, that dealing with what he perceived as the truth of Holy Scripture.
The sharper the strife became, the more Wycliffe had recourse to his translation of Scripture as the basis of all Christian doctrinal opinion, and expressly tried to prove this to be the only norm for Christian faith. To refute his opponents, he wrote the book in which he endeavored to show that Holy Scripture contains all truth and, being from God, is the only authority. He referred to the conditions under which the condemnation of his 18 theses was brought about; and the same may be said of his books dealing with the Church, the office of king, and the power of the pope – all completed within the space of two years (1378–79). To Wycliffe, the Church is the totality of those who are predestined to blessedness. It includes the Church triumphant in heaven, those in purgatory, and the Church militant or men on earth. No one who is eternally lost has part in it. There is one universal Church, and outside of it there is no salvation. Its head is Christ. No pope may say that he is the head, for he cannot say that he is elect or even a member of the Church.
It would be a mistake to assume that Wycliffe’s doctrine of the Church – which made so great an impression upon famous priest Jan Hus – was occasioned by the western schism (1378–1417). The principles of the doctrine were already embodied in his De civili dominio. The contents of the book dealing with the Church are closely connected with the decision respecting the 18 theses. The attacks on Pope Gregory XI grow ever more extreme. Wycliffe’s stand with respect to the ideal of poverty became continually firmer, as well as his position with regard to the temporal rule of the clergy. Closely related to this attitude was his book De officio regis, the content of which was foreshadowed in his 33 conclusions: one should be instructed with reference to the obligations in regard to the kingdom—to see how the two powers, royal and ecclesiastical, may support each other in harmony in the body corporate of the Church. The royal power, Wycliffe taught, is consecrated through the testimony of Holy Scripture and the Fathers. Christ and the apostles rendered tribute to the emperor. It is a sin to oppose the power of the king, which is derived immediately from God. Subjects, above all the clergy, should pay him dutiful tribute. The honors which attach to temporal power hark back to the king; those which belong to precedence in the priestly office, to the priest. The king must apply his power with wisdom, his laws are to be in unison with those of God. From God laws derive their authority, including those which royalty has over the clergy. If one of the clergy neglects his office, he is a traitor to the king who calls him to answer for it. It follows from this that the king has an “evangelical” control. Those in the service of the Church must have regard for the laws of the State. In confirmation of this fundamental principle the archbishops in England make sworn submission to the king and receive their temporalities. The king is to protect his vassals against damage to their possessions; in case the clergy through their misuse of the temporalities cause injury, the king must offer protection. When the king turns over temporalities to the clergy, he places them under his jurisdiction, from which later pronouncements of the popes cannot release them. If the clergy relies on papal pronouncements, it must be subjected to obedience to the king.
This book, like those that preceded and followed, was concerned with the reform of the Church, in which the temporal arm was to have an influential part. Especially interesting is the teaching which Wycliffe addressed to the king on the protection of his theologians. This did not mean theology in its modern sense, but knowledge of the Bible. Since the law must be in agreement with Scripture, knowledge of theology is necessary to the strengthening of the kingdom; therefore the king has theologians in his entourage to stand at his side as he exercises power. It is their duty to explain Scripture according to the rule of reason and in conformity with the witness of the saints; also to proclaim the law of the king and to protect his welfare and that of his kingdom.
Views On The Papacy
The books and tracts of Wycliffe’s last six years include continual attacks upon the papacy and the entire hierarchy of his times. Each year they focus more and more, and at the last, the pope and the Antichrist seem to him practically equivalent concepts. (The Protestants, more than a century later, preached the same doctrine.)
Yet there are passages which are moderate in tone; G. V. Lechler identifies three stages in Wycliffe’s relations with the papacy. The first step, which carried him to the outbreak of the schism, involves moderate recognition of the papal primacy; the second, which carried him to 1381, is marked by an estrangement from the papacy; and the third shows him in sharp contest. However, Wycliffe reached no valuation of the papacy before the outbreak of the schism different from his later appraisal. If in his last years he identified the papacy with antichristianity, the dispensability of this papacy was strong in his mind before the schism. It was this very man who laboured to bring about the recognition of Urban VI (1378–1389), which appears to contradict his former attitude and to demand an explanation.
Wycliffe’s influence was never greater than at the moment when pope and antipope sent their ambassadors to England to gain recognition for themselves. In the ambassadors’ presence, he delivered an opinion before Parliament that showed, in an important ecclesiastical political question (the matter of the right of asylum in Westminster Abbey), a position that was to the liking of the State. How Wycliffe came to be active in the interest of Urban is seen in passages in his latest writings, in which he expressed himself in regard to the papacy in a favorable sense. On the other hand he states that it is not necessary to go either to Rome or to Avignon in order to seek a decision from the pope, since the triune God is everywhere. Our pope is Christ. He taught that the Church can continue to exist even though it have no visible leader; but there can be no damage when the Church possesses a leader of the right kind. To distinguish between what the pope should be, if one is necessary, and the pope as he appeared in Wycliffe’s day was the purpose of his book on the power of the pope. The Church militant, Wycliffe taught, needs a head – but one whom God gives the Church. The elector [cardinal] can only make someone a pope if the choice relates to one who is elect [of God]. But that is not always the case. It may be that the elector is himself not predestined and chooses one who is in the same case – a veritable Antichrist. One must regard as a true pope one who in teaching and life most nearly follows Jesus and Saint Peter.
Attack on Monasticism
His teachings concerning the danger attaching to the secularizing of the Church put Wycliffe into line with the mendicant orders, since in 1377 Minorites were his defenders. In the last chapters of his De civili dominio, there are traces of a rift. When he stated that “the case of the orders which hold property is that of them all,” the mendicant orders turned against him; and from that time Wycliffe began a struggle which continued till his death.
This battle against what he saw as an imperialised papacy and its supporters, the “sects,” as he called the monastic orders, takes up a large space not only in his later works as the Trialogus, Dialogus, Opus evangelicum, and in his sermons, but also in a series of sharp tracts and polemical productions in Latin and English (of which those issued in his later years have been collected as “Polemical Writings”). In these he teaches that the Church needs no new sects; sufficient for it now is the religion of Christ which sufficed in the first three centuries of its existence. The monastic orders are bodies which are not supported by the Bible, and must be abolished together with their possessions. Such teaching, particularly in sermons, had one immediate effect – a serious rising of the people. The monks were deprived of alms and were bidden to apply themselves to manual labor. These teachings had more important results upon the orders and their possessions in Bohemia, where the instructions of the “Evangelical master” were followed to the letter in such a way that the noble foundations and practically the whole of the property of the Church were sacrificed. But the result was not as Wycliffe wanted it in England – the property fell not to the State but to the barons of the land. The scope of the conflict in England widened; it no longer involved the mendicant monks alone, but took in the entire hierarchy. An element of the contest appears in Wycliffe’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper.
Relation to the English Bible
Some members of the nobility possessed the Bible in French, and some portions of the Bible had been translated into English as early as the seventh century under the auspices of the Catholic Church. While Wycliffe is credited, it is not possible exactly to define his part in the translation, which was based on the Vulgate. There is no doubt that it was his initiative, and that the success of the project was due to his leadership. From him comes the translation of the New Testament, which was smoother, clearer, and more readable than the rendering of the Old Testament by his friend Nicholas of Hereford. The whole was revised by Wycliffe’s younger contemporary John Purvey in 1388. Thus the cry of his opponents may be heard: “The jewel of the clergy has become the toy of the laity.”
In spite of the zeal with which the hierarchy sought to destroy it due to its alleged mistranslations and erroneous commentary, there still exist about 150 manuscripts, complete or partial, containing the translation in its revised form. From this, one may easily infer how widely diffused it was in the fifteenth century. For this reason the Wycliffites in England were often designated by their opponents as “Bible men.”
Wycliffe aimed to do away with the existing hierarchy and replace it with the “poor priests” who lived in poverty, were bound by no vows, had received no formal consecration, and preached the Gospel to the people. These itinerant preachers spread the teachings of Wycliffe. Two by two they went, barefoot, wearing long dark-red robes and carrying a staff in the hand, the latter having symbolic reference to their pastoral calling, and passed from place to place preaching the sovereignty of God. The bull of Gregory XI impressed upon them the name of Lollards, intended as an opprobrious epithet, but it became, to them, a name of honour. Even in Wycliffe’s time the “Lollards” had reached wide circles in England and preached “God’s law, without which no one could be justified.”
In the summer of 1381 Wycliffe formulated his doctrine of the Lord’s Supper in twelve short sentences, and made it a duty to advocate it everywhere. Then the English hierarchy proceeded against him. The chancellor of the University of Oxford had some of the declarations pronounced heretical. When this fact was announced to Wycliffe, he declared that no one could change his convictions. He then appealed – not to the pope nor to the ecclesiastical authorities of the land, but to the king. He published his great confession upon the subject and also a second writing in English intended for the common people. His pronouncements were no longer limited to the classroom, they spread to the masses. “Every second man that you meet,” writes a contemporary, “is a Lollard.”
In the midst of this commotion came the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. Although Wycliffe disapproved of the revolt, he was blamed. Yet his friend and protector John of Gaunt was the most hated by the rebels, and where Wycliffe’s influence was greatest the uprising found the least support. While in general the aim of the revolt was against the spiritual nobility, this came about because they were nobles, not because they were churchmen. Wycliffe’s old enemy William Courtenay, now Archbishop of Canterbury, called in 1382 an ecclesiastical assembly of notables at London. During the consultations on 21 May an earthquake occurred; the participants were terrified and wished to break up the assembly, but Courtenay declared the earthquake a favorable sign which meant the purification of the earth from erroneous doctrine, and the result of the “Earthquake Synod” was assured.
Of the 24 propositions attributed to Wycliffe without mentioning his name, ten were declared heretical and fourteen erroneous. The former had reference to the transformation in the sacrament, the latter to matters of church order and institutions. It was forbidden from that time to hold these opinions or to advance them in sermons or in academic discussions. All persons disregarding this order were to be subject to prosecution. To accomplish this the help of the State was necessary; but the Commons rejected the bill. The king, however, had a decree issued which permitted the arrest of those in error. The citadel of the reformatory movement was Oxford, where Wycliffe’s most active helpers were; these were laid under the ban and summoned to recant, and Nicholas of Hereford went to Rome to appeal. In similar fashion the poor priests were hindered in their work.
On 17 November 1382, Wycliffe was summoned before a synod at Oxford. He still commanded the favour of the court and of Parliament, to which he addressed a memorial. He was neither excommunicated then, nor deprived of his living.
Wycliffe’s Last Days
Wycliffe returned to Lutterworth, and sent out tracts against the monks and Urban VI, since the latter, contrary to Wycliffe’s hopes, had not turned out to be a reforming pope. The crusade in Flanders aroused the Reformer’s biting scorn, while his sermons became fuller-voiced and dealt with what he saw as the imperfections of the Church. The literary achievements of Wycliffe’s last days, such as the Trialogus, stand at the peak of the knowledge of his day. His last work, the Opus evangelicum, the last part of which he named in characteristic fashion “Of Antichrist”, remained uncompleted. While he was saying Mass in the parish church on Holy Innocents’ Day, 28 December 1384, he suffered a stroke, and died as the year ended.
In the decades after Wycliffe’s death, his teachings, spread by Jan Hus who translated the Trialogus, remained controversial. The Anti-Wycliffite Statute of 1401 extended persecution to Wycliffe’s remaining followers. The “Constitutions of Oxford” of 1408 aimed to reclaim authority in all ecclesiastical matters, and specifically named John Wycliffe as it banned certain writings, and noted that translation of Scripture into English by unlicensed laity is a crime punishable by charges of heresy.
Burning Wycliffe’s bones, from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (1563)
The Council of Constance declared Wycliffe a heretic on 4 May 1415, and banned his writings. The Council decreed Wycliffe’s works should be burned and his remains exhumed. On 6 July 1415, it also declared Hus a heretic, defrocked him, and had him burned at the stake. Hus’ followers soon rebelled; while the Hussite Wars lasted between 1419 and 1434, the Hussite movement spread through Middle Europe. In 1428, at Pope Martin V’s command for a posthumous execution, Wycliffe’s corpse was exhumed and burned and the ashes cast into the River Swift, which flows through Lutterworth.
None of Wycliffe’s contemporaries left a complete picture of his person, his life, and his activities. Paintings representing Wycliffe are from a later period. In the history of the trial by William Thorpe (1407), Wycliffe appears wasted and physically weak. Thorpe says Wycliffe was of unblemished walk in life, and regarded affectionately by people of rank, who often consorted with him, took down his sayings, and clung to him. “I indeed clove to none closer than to him, the wisest and most blessed of all men whom I have ever found. From him one could learn in truth what the Church of Christ is and how it should be ruled and led.”
Thomas Netter highly esteemed John Kynyngham in that he “so bravely offered himself to the biting speech of the heretic and to words that stung as being without the religion of Christ”. But this example of Netter is not well chosen, since the tone of Wycliffe toward Kynyngham is that of a junior toward an elder whom one respects, and he handled other opponents in similar fashion. But when he turned his roughest side upon his opponents, as for example in his sermons, polemical writings and tracts, he met the attacks with an unfriendly tone.
"All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness." -2 Timothy 3:16
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