This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Conferences are being held, sermon series are being preached, a number of books have been published and innumerable blogs are being written to mark this tremendously significant occasion in history—the restoration of sound biblical beliefs and practices to Christ’s universal Church.
In the coming weeks I intend, Lord willing, to share a series of mini-biographies on several of the key leaders of the Reformation. Reading these brief accounts of their lives brings the benefits of (1) gaining a basic understanding of this vital period in Church History, (2) coming to have a deepened appreciation of the priceless Christian heritage that God provided for us in sovereignly bringing about the Reformation, and (3) being encouraged and challenged to make sure that our own Christian beliefs and practices are biblically sound and spiritually vibrant.
This first article features John Wycliffe (also commonly spelled Wyclif), who is sometimes called the Morning Star of the Reformation. He lived and died more than a century before the Protestant Reformation took place, but his influential teachings played a significant role in laying the groundwork for some of the reformations that occurred later.
It’s first necessary to briefly (in just two paragraphs! ) describe the religious and political setting of the era in which Wycliffe lived. For centuries the Roman Catholic Church and its popes had held unrivaled religious and political power throughout central and western Europe. But in the 1300s seismic shifts took place that began to change that. In the first place, the rise of nation-states and strong monarchies weakened the Church’s and the Pope’s claim to political authority and significantly diminished material revenues given to the Church. In order to supplement flagging revenues, the Church and Pope came up with a variety of questionable and objectionable measures such as instituting new taxes, charging significant fees for church service opportunities, and selling indulgences for the supposed remission of sins.
Secondly, France and England were continually at war throughout the fourteenth century, and other developing countries ended up picking sides in the ongoing conflicts, thus creating further disunity in Europe and the Church. Thirdly, from 1305 to 1377, in what is known as the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, six successive popes, all of French origin, chose to reside in the town of Avignon, near the border of France, rather than in Rome. For both religious and political reasons, many opposed and resented that change of location. Fourthly, the Great Schism of the Papacy took place from 1377 to 1407, in which period two separate successions of Popes, each with its own College of Cardinals, existed in Rome and Avignon, further splintering the Church.
John Wycliffe was born in Yorkshire, England, around 1330. Virtually nothing is known about his childhood. He was educated at Oxford University, earning the Master of Arts degree (1361), the Bachelor of Divinity (another master-level degree, about 1369) and the Doctor of Divinity (1372). In addition to studying and teaching at the university throughout those years, he was appointed as the rector of a Lincolnshire church and funded part of his education through that income. As was often done in that era, Wycliffe was actually an absentee rector through much of his career, needing only to provide a substitute to fulfill his pastoral responsibilities. Wycliffe became Oxford’s leading philosopher and theologian.
One of the burning issues of that era was the question of lordship or dominion. All agreed that the right to rule was granted by God. But some thought that only those appointed by the Church had the divine right to exercise such authority, while others believed that secular rulers who had not committed grievous sin were also qualified to govern. Wycliffe supported the latter position and further taught that any leaders, sacred or secular, who persisted in sin should be removed from office. He even went so far as to teach that secular authorities had the responsibility to remove unrepentant churchmen from office, as well as the right to seize the property of corrupt church officials.
These teachings, which were not motivated by political aspirations on Wycliffe’s part, brought him into favor with England’s secular rulers but into disfavor with not a few Church leaders. As a result, in 1377 the Pope condemned Wycliffe’s teachings, and the English Bishops tried to put Wycliffe on trial. But John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster and one of the most powerful people in England, intervened on Wycliffe’s behalf, and he was not brought to trial.
In the years that followed, the early years of the Great Papal Schism, Wycliffe continued to develop and teach other ideas that would have spelled his doom at any earlier time in the Middle Ages. He taught not only that the Bible is free from error or contradiction, but also that it contains the whole of God’s revelation and all that is necessary for salvation. There is no need for further teaching to be supplied by church tradition, the Pope or any other source. And all other authorities (including church tradition, canon law, councils and even popes) must be attested by the Scriptures.
Wycliffe also taught that the Bible is to be available to all Christians – laypersons and clergy alike. The latter conviction led some of Wycliffe’s followers, likely under his supervision, to translate the Bible into the common language of the English people. That translation, commonly called the Wycliffe Bible, was made from the Latin Vulgate rather than from the original Hebrew and Greek sources.
Concerning the papacy, Wycliffe taught that it was an office instituted by man, not by God. The Pope’s authority is confined to the church rather than extending to secular government. Furthermore, the Pope’s authority depends on his having the moral character of the Apostle Peter in leading a poor and humble life spent in the service of the Church and providing a clear example of Christian goodness. Such teaching implied the rejection of nearly all the recent popes in Wycliffe’s time. At first Wycliffe taught a Pope who does not follow Jesus Christ is the Antichrist. He later declared that the institution of the papacy itself is Antichrist.
Wycliffe challenged a wide range of medieval beliefs and practices: pardons, indulgences, absolutions, pilgrimages, the worship of images, the adoration of the saints and the distinction between venial and mortal sins. He gained the greatest opposition by rejecting the doctrine of transubstantiation, the belief that in Christian Communion the bread and wine (or juice) become the actual body and blood of Christ. Wycliffe believed, rather, that the bread and wine are symbols of Christ’s body and blood, that Christ is present in the communion elements sacramentally but not materially.
Because of such beliefs, Wycliffe was no longer allowed to teach at Oxford beginning in 1382. That same year William Courtenay, the new Archbishop of Canterbury and a longtime opponent of Wycliffe, convened a church council in which a number of Wycliffe’s teachings were condemned as heresy. Wycliffe withdrew to Lutterworth in Leicestershire, where he had been the absentee rector since 1374. There he devoted himself to writing and lived out the final years of his life in peace. After suffering a stroke in December, 1384, he died that New Year’s Eve.
Wycliffe received a Christian funeral and was buried in consecrated ground of the Church. But in 1414 the Council of Constance condemned him as a heretic. Consequently, his remains were disinterred and burned, and his ashes were thrown into the River Swift.
During his lifetime some of Wycliffe’s disciples went out into country villages and byways to minister to neglected souls there. They carried with them portions of the Wycliffe Bible and helped spread his teachings. They were derogatorily dubbed Lollards, which means “mumblers.” After Wycliffe’s death they were persecuted and became an underground, lower-class movement. But their ongoing influence helped pave the way for and bring about the English Reformation in the 1500s.
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Sources consulted: The Story of Christianity, The Early Church to the Present Day, Justo L. Gonzalez (Prince/Hendrickson, 2005), Vol. 1, pp. 324-48; Church History in Plain Language, Bruce L. Shelley (Word, 1982), pp. 233-48; Great Leaders of the Christian Church, John D. Woodbridge, Ed., “John Wyclif,” A. N. S. Lane (Moody, 1988), pp. 173-77.
Copyright 2017 by Vance E. Christie