The first hand-written English language Bible manuscripts were produced in 1380’s AD by John Wycliffe, an Oxford professor, scholar, and theologian. Wycliffe, (also spelled “Wycliff” & “Wyclif”), was well-known throughout Europe for his opposition to the teaching of the organized Church, which he believed to be contrary to the Bible. With the help of his followers, called the Lollards, and his assistant Purvey, and many other faithful scribes, Wycliffe produced dozens of English language manuscript copies of the scriptures.
They were translated out of the Latin Vulgate, which was the only source text available to Wycliffe. The Pope was so infuriated by his teachings and his translation of the Bible into English, that 44 years after Wycliffe had died, he ordered the bones to be dug-up, crushed, and scattered in the river!
John Wycliffe (1320-1384) was a theologian and early proponent of reform in the Roman Catholic Church during the 14th century. He initiated the first translation of the Bible into the English language and is considered the main precursor of the Protestant Reformation. Wycliffe was born at Ipreswell (modern Hipswell), Yorkshire, England, between 1320 and 1330; and he died at Lutterworth (near Leicester) December 31, 1384.
The Early Life of John Wycliffe
His family was of early Saxon origin, long settled in Yorkshire. In his day the family was a large one, covering a considerable territory, and its principal seat was Wycliffe-on-Tees, of which Ipreswell was an outlying hamlet. 1324 is the year usually given for Wycliffe’s birth. Wycliffe probably received his early education close to home. It is not known when he first went to Oxford, with which he was so closely connected till the end of his life. He was at Oxford in about 1345, when a series of illustrious names was adding glory to the fame of the university–such as those of Roger Bacon, Robert Grosseteste, Thomas Bradwardine, William of Occam, and Richard Fitzralph.
Wycliffe owed much to Occam; he showed an interest in natural science and mathematics, but applied himself to the study of theology, ecclesiastical law, and philosophy. Even his opponents acknowledged the keenness of his dialectic. His writings prove that he was well grounded in Roman and English law, as well as in native history. A family whose seat was in the neighborhood of Wycliffe’s home– Bernard Castle– had founded Balliol College, Oxford to which Wycliffe belonged, first as scholar, then as master. He attained the headship no later than 1360.
The Early Career of John Wycliffe
When he was presented by the college (1361) with the parish of Fylingham in Lincolnshire, he had to give up the leadership of Balliol, though he could continue to live at Oxford. His university career followed the usual course. While as baccalaureate he busied himself with natural science and mathematics, as master he had the right to read in philosophy. More significant was his interest in Bible study, which he pursued after becoming bachelor in theology. His performance led Simon Islip, Archbishop of Canterbury, to place him at the head of Canterbury Hall in 1365.
Between 1366 and 1372 he became a doctor of theology; as such he had the right to lecture upon systematic divinity, which he did. In 1368 he gave up his living at Fylingham and took over the rectory of Ludgershall in Buckinghamshire, not far from Oxford, which enabled him to retain his connection with the university.
Roots of Wycliffe’s Reformation Activities
It was not as a teacher or preacher that Wycliffe gained his position in history; this came from his activities in ecclesiastical politics, in which he engaged about the mid-1370s, when his reformatory work also began. In 1374 he was among the English delegates at a peace congress at Bruges. He may have been given this position because of the spirited and patriotic behavior with which in the year 1366 he sought the interests of his country against the demands of the papacy. It seems he had a reputation as a patriot and reformer; this suggests the answer to the question how he came to his reformatory ideas. Even if older evangelical parties did not exist in England before Wycliffe, he might easily have been influenced by continental evangelicals who abounded. It is highly probable that the older type of doctrine and practice represented by the Iro-Scottish Christians of the pre-Roman time persisted till the time of Wycliffe and reappeared in Lollardism.
The root of the Wycliffe’s reformation movement must be traced to his Bible study and to the ecclesiastical-political lawmaking of his times. He was well acquainted with the tendencies of the ecclesiastical politics to which England owed its position. He had studied the proceedings of King Edward I of England, and had attributed to them the basis of parliamentary opposition to papal usurpations. He found them a model for methods of procedure in matters connected with the questions of worldly possessions and the Church. Many sentences in his book on the Church recall the institution of the commission of 1274, which caused problems for the English clergy. He considered that the example of Edward I should be borne in mind by the government of his time; but that the aim should be a reformation of the entire ecclesiastical establishment. Similar was his position on the enactments induced by the ecclesiastical politics of Edward III, with which he was well acquainted, which are fully reflected in his political tracts.
Political Career of John Wycliffe
The Reformer’s entrance upon the stage of ecclesiastical politics is usually related to the question of feudal tribute to which England had been rendered liable by King John, which had remained unpaid for thirty-three years until Pope Urban V in 1365 demanded it. Parliament declared that neither John nor any other had the right to subject England to any foreign power. Should the pope attempt to enforce his claim by arms, he would be met with united resistance. Urban apparently recognized his mistake and dropped his claim. But there was no talk of a patriotic uprising. The tone of the pope was, in fact, not threatening, and he did not wish to draw England into the maelstrom of politics of western and southern Europe. Sharp words were bound to be heard in England, because of the close relations of the papacy with France. It is said that on this occasion Wycliffe served as theological counsel to the government, composed a polemical tract dealing with the tribute, and defended an unnamed monk over against the conduct of the government and parliament. This would place the entrance of Wycliffe into politics about 1365-66. But Wycliffe’s more important participation began with the Peace Congress at Bruges. There in 1374 negotiations were carried on between France and England, while at the same time commissioners from England dealt with papal delegates respecting the removal of ecclesiastical annoyances. Wycliffe was among these, under a decree dated July 26, 1374. The choice of a harsh opponent of the Avignon system would have broken up rather than furthered the peace negotiations. It seems he was designated purely as a theologian, and so considered himself, since a noted Scripture scholar was required alongside of those learned in civil and canon law. There was no need for a man of renown, or a pure advocate of state interests. His predecessor in a like case was John Owtred, a monk who formulated the statement that St. Peter had united in his hands spiritual and temporal power–the opposite of what Wycliffe taught. In the days of the mission to Bruges Owtred still belonged in Wycliffe’s circle of friends.
Wycliffe was still regarded by the Roman Catholic Church as trustworthy; his opposition to the ruling conduct of the Church may have escaped notice. It was difficult to recognize him as a heretic. The controversies in which men engaged at Oxford were philosophical rather than purely theological or ecclesiastical-political, and the method of discussion was academic and scholastic. The kind of men with whom Wycliffe dealt included the Carmelite monk John Kyningham over theological questions (utrum Christus esset humanitas), or ecclesiastical-political ones (De dominatione civili; De dotatione ecclesiae).Wycliffe regarded it as a sin to incite the pope to excommunicate laymen who had deprived wicked clergy of their temporalities, his dictum being that a man in a state of sin had no claim upon government.
Wycliffe blamed the Benedictine and professor of theology at Oxford, William Wynham of St. Albans (where the anti-Wycliffe trend was considerable) for making public controversies which had previously been confined to the academic arena. Wycliffe himself tells (Sermones, iii. 199) how he concluded that there was a great contrast between what the Church was and what it ought to be, and saw the necessity for reform. His ideas stress the perniciousness of the temporal rule of the clergy and its incompatibility with the teaching of Christ and the apostles, and make note of the tendencies which were evident in the measures of the “Good Parliament”.
Wycliffe’s Public Declaration of his Ideas
Wycliffe was among those to whom the thought of the secularization of ecclesiastical properties in England was welcome. His patron was John of Gaunt. 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–his great work, the Summa theologiae, was written in support of them. In the 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.
Wycliffe’s Conflict with the Church
Wycliffe wanted to see his ideas actualized–his fundamental belief was that the Church should be poor, as in the days of the apostles. He had not yet broken with the mendicant friars, and from these John of Gaunt chose Wycliffe’s defenders. While the Reformer later claimed that it was not his purpose to incite temporal lords to confiscation of the property of the Church, the real tendencies of the propositions remained unconcealed. The result of the same doctrines in Bohemia–that land which was richest in ecclesiastical foundations–was that in a short time the entire church estate was taken over and a revolution brought about in the relations of temporal holdings. It was in keeping with the plans of Gaunt to have a personality like Wycliffe on his side. Especially in London the Reformer’s views won support; partisans of the nobility attached themselves to him, and the lower orders gladly heard his sermons. He preached in city churches, and London rang with his praises.
The first to oppose his theses were monks of those orders which 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 Feb. 19, 1377, in order “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 the Reformer’s protectors. Gaunt declared that he would humble the pride of the English clergy and their partisans, hinting at the intent to secularize the possessions of the Church.
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 May 22 five copies of his bull against Wycliffe, despatching one to the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the others to the bishop of London, 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 June 21, 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 Dec. 18. Parliament, which met in October, came into sharp conflict with the Curia. Among the propositions which Wycliffe, at the direction of the government, worked out for parliament was one which 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 the Reformer 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 the truth of Holy Scripture. The sharper the strife became, the more Wycliffe had recourse to Scripture as the basis of all Christian doctrinal opinion, and expressly proved this to be the only norm for Christian faith. In order to refute his opponents, he wrote the book in which he showed 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).
Wycliffe wrote, “The Church is the totality of those who are predestined to blessedness. It includes the Church triumphant in heaven… 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 can not say that he is elect or even a member of the Church.”
Statement Regarding Royal Power
It would be a mistake to assume that Wycliffe’s doctrine of the Church–which made so great an impression upon John Hus, who adopted it literally and fully–was occasioned by the great schism (1378-1429). 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 which lie in regard to the kingdom in order 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 honours 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 against 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 can not 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, had to do 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.
Wycliffe and the Pope
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 pope and Antichrist seem to him practically equivalent concepts. Yet there are passages which are moderate in tone; 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.
Wycliffe’s influence was never greater than at the moment when pope and antipope sent their ambassadors to England in order 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.” It seems clear that Wycliffe was an opponent of that papacy which had developed since Constantine. 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 Christ and Saint Peter.
Wycliffe distinguished the true from the false papacy. Since all signs indicated that Urban VI was a reforming and consequently a “true” pope, the enthusiasm which Wycliffe manifested for him is easily understood. These views concerning the Church and church government are those which are brought forward in the last books of his Summa, “De simonia, de apostasia, de blasphemia.” The battle which over the theses was less significant than the one he waged against the monastic orders when he saw the hopes quenched which had gathered around the “reform pope;” and when he was withdrawn from the scene as an ecclesiastical politician and occupied himself exclusively with the question of the reform of the Church.
Wycliffe’s Relation to the English Bible
The Bible ought to be the common possession of all Christians, and needed to be made available for common use in the language of the people. National honour seemed to require this, since members of the nobility possessed the Bible in French. Wycliffe set himself to the task. While 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 mass of the people came into possession of the Bible; even as the misguided cry of Wycliffe’s opponents stated: “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, 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 Wycliffeites in England were often designated by their opponents as “Bible men.” Just as Luther’s version had great influence upon the German language, so Wycliffe’s, by reason of its clarity, beauty, and strength, influenced English.
Wycliffe’s Activity as a Preacher
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 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.”
The Anti-Wycliffe Movement
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. The followers of John Wycliffe, the Lollards, grew greatly in number throughout the land.
“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, Courtenay, now Archbishop of Canterbury, called (1382) an ecclesiastical assembly of notables at London. During the consultations an earthquake occurred (May 21); 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.
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 Nov. 18, 1382, Wycliffe was summoned before a synod at Oxford; he appeared, though apparently broken in body in consequence of a stroke, but nevertheless determined. 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 position.
Last Days of John Wycliffe
Wycliffe returned to Lutterworth, and sent out tracts against the monks and Urban VI, since the latter, contrary to the hopes of Wycliffe, had not turned out to be a reforming or “true” pope, but had involved in mischievous conflicts. The crusade in Flanders aroused the Reformer’s biting scorn, while his sermons became fuller-voiced and dealt with 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 Wycliffe was in the parish church on Holy Innocents’ Day, Dec. 28, 1384, he again suffered a stroke, and was carried out the side-door of his church, in his chair. John Wycliffe died on the last day of the year, three days later. The Council of Constance declared Wycliffe (on May 4, 1415) a stiff-necked heretic and under the ban of the Church. It was decreed that his books be burned and his remains be exhumed. This last did not happen till twelve more years later, when at the command of Pope Martin V they were dug up, 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. The pictures representing him are from a later period. One must be content with certain scattered expressions found in the history of the trial by William Thorpe (1407). It appears that Wycliffe was spare of body, indeed of wasted appearance, and not strong physically. He was of unblemished walk in life, says Thorpe, and was regarded affectionately by people of rank, who often consorted with him, took down his sayings, and clung to him. Thorpe continued, “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.” John Hus wished that his soul might be wherever that of Wycliffe was found.
One may not say that Wycliffe was a comfortable opponent to meet. Thomas Netter of Walden highly esteemed the old Carmelite monk 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 opponentsin similar fashion. But when he turned upon them his roughest side, as for example in his sermons, polemical writings and tracts, he met the attacks with a tone that could not be styled friendly.
Wycliffe’s first encounter with the official Church of his time was prompted by his zeal in the interests of the State, his first tracts and greater works of ecclesiastical-political content defended the privileges of the State, and from these sources developed a strife out of which the next phases could hardly be determined. One who studies these books in the order of their production with reference to their inner content finds a direct development with a strong reformatory tendency. This was not originally doctrinal; when it later took up matters of dogma, as in the teaching concerning transubstantiation, the purpose was the return to original simplicity in the government of the Church. But it would have been against the diplomatic practice of the time to have sent to the peace congress at Bruges, in which the Curia had an essential part, a participant who had become known at home by heretical teaching.
Wycliffe earned his great repute as a philosopher at an early date. Henry Knighton says that in philosophy, Wycliffe was second to none, and in scholastic discipline incomparable. If this pronouncement seems hard to justify, now that Wycliffe’s writings are in print, it must be borne in mind that not all his philosophical works are extant. If Wycliffe was in philosophy the superior of his contemporaries and had no equal in scholastic discipline, he belongs with the series of great scholastic philosophers and theologians in which England in the Middle Ages was so rich–with Alexander of Hales, Roger Bacon, Duns Scotus, Occam and Bradwardine. There was a period in his life when he devoted himself exclusively to scholastic philosophy: “when I was still a logician,” he used later to say. The first “heresy” which “he cast forth into the world” rests as much upon philosophical as upon theological grounds.
Wycliffe on Philosophy
Wycliffe’s fundamental principle of the preexistence in thought of all reality involves the most serious obstacle to freedom of the will; the philosopher could assist himself only by the formula that the free will of man was something predetermined of God. He demanded strict dialectical training as the means of distinguishing the true from the false, and asserted that logic (or the syllogism)furthered the knowledge of catholic verities; ignorance of logic was the reason why men misunderstood Scripture, since men overlooked the connection–the distinction between idea and appearance. Wycliffe was not merely conscious of the distinction between theology and philosophy, but his sense of reality led him to pass by scholastic questions. He left aside philosophical discussions which seemed to have no significance for the religious consciousness and those which pertained purely to scholasticism: “we concern ourselves with the verities that are, and leave asidethe errors which arise from speculation on matters which are not.”
Wycliffe on Scripture
The Bible alone was authoritative and, according to his own conviction and that of his disciples, was fully sufficient for the government of this world (De sufficientia legis Christi). Out of it he drew his comprehensive statements in support of his reformatory views–after intense study and many spiritual conflicts. He tells that as a beginner he was desperate to comprehend the passages dealing with the activities of the divine Word, until by the grace of God he was able to gather the right sense of Scripture, which he then understood. But that was not a light task. Without knowledge of the Bible there can be no peace in the life of the Church or of society, and outside of it there is no real and abiding good; it is the one authority for the faith.
These teachings Wycliffe promulgated in his great work on the truth of Scripture, and in other greater and lesser writings. For him the Bible was the fundamental source of Christianity which is binding on all men. From this one can easily see how the next step came about: the furnishing of the Bible to the people in their mother tongue. Wycliffe was called “Doctor evangelicus” by his English and Bohemian followers. Of all the reformers who preceded Martin Luther, Wycliffe put most emphasis on Scripture: “Even though there were a hundred popes and though every mendicant monk were a cardinal, they would be entitled to confidence only in so far as they accorded with the Bible.” Therefore in this early period it was Wycliffe who recognized and formulated the formal principle of the Reformation– the unique authority of the Bible for the belief and life of the Christian.