John Wycliffe

c. 1328-1384



John Wyclif, Translator and Controversialist
John Wyclif - help for understanding Scripture
St. Mary's Church Lutterworth - Wycliffe's parish










English theologian and reformer John Wycliffe (or Wyclif) was a precursor of the Protestant Reformation. Born in Hipswell, Yorkshire, Wycliffe was educated at Balliol College, University of Oxford. He received a doctorate in theology in 1372. He taught at Oxford University, where he became known as a brilliant scholastic theologian and the most respected debater of his time. Wycliffe gained prominence in 1374 during a prolonged dispute between Edward III, king of England, and the papacy over the payment of a certain papal tribute. Both king and Parliament were reluctant to pay the papal levies. Wycliffe wrote several pamphlets refuting the pope's claims and upholding the right of Parliament to limit church power. King Edward appointed him to a commission that in 1375 conferred with papal representatives at Brugge (Bruges), Belgium, on the differences between the Crown and the papacy. The conference failed, but Wycliffe won the patronage of John of Gaunt, fourth son of King Edward and leader of an antipapal faction in Parliament.

In 1376 Wycliffe enunciated the doctrine of "dominion as founded in grace," according to which all authority is conferred directly by the grace of God and is consequently forfeited when the wielder of that authority is guilty of mortal sin. Wycliffe did not state explicitly that he considered the English church to be sinful and worldly, but his implication was clear. On February 19, 1377, he was called before the bishop of London, William Courtenay, to give account of his doctrine. The interrogation ended when John of Gaunt, who had accompanied Wycliffe, became involved in a brawl with the bishop and his entourage. On May 22, 1377, Pope Gregory XI issued several bulls accusing Wycliffe of heresy. In autumn of the same year, however, Parliament requested his opinion on the legality of forbidding the English church to ship its riches abroad at the pope's behest. Wycliffe upheld the lawfulness of such a prohibition, and early in 1378 he was again called before Bishop Courtenay and the archbishop of Canterbury, Simon of Sudbury. Wycliffe was dismissed with only a formal admonition, however, because of his influence at court.

After the Great Papal Schism began in 1378, Wycliffe's views became much more radical. In various writings such as De Ecclesia, De Veritate Sacrae Scripturae, and De Potestate Papae he rejected the biblical basis of papal authority, insisted on the primacy of Scripture, and advocated extensive theological reform. That same year Wycliffe and certain Oxford associates defied church tradition by undertaking an English translation of the Vulgate, or Latin Bible, completed c. 1392, a remarkable achievement for its time considering it was several generations before the age of printing and about a century and a half before the first printed English version of the New Testament by William Tyndale.

In De Eucharistia Wycliffe repudiated the doctrine of transubstantiation. This bold declaration caused such a furor that John of Gaunt withdrew his support. Standing his ground, Wycliffe in 1380 began to send out disciples, called Poor Preachers, who traveled the countryside expounding his egalitarian religious views. The preachers found a ready audience, and Wycliffe was suspected of fomenting social unrest. He had no direct connection with the unsuccessful Peasants' Revolt in 1381, but it is probable that his doctrines influenced the peasants. In May 1382, Courtenay, now the archbishop of Canterbury, convened an ecclesiastical court that condemned Wycliffe as a heretic and brought about his expulsion from Oxford. Wycliffe retired to his parish of Lutterworth.

After Wycliffe died on December 31, 1384, his teachings were spread far and wide. His Bible was widely distributed by his followers, called Lollards. Ultimately Wycliffe's writings strongly influenced the Bohemian religious reformer John Huss (Jan Hus) in his revolt against the church. Martin Luther also acknowledged his great debt to Wycliffe. In May 1415 the Council of Constance reviewed Wycliffe's heresies and ordered his body disinterred and burned. This decree was carried out in 1428.

In its most developed form, Wycliffe's philosophy represented a complete break with the church. He believed in a direct relationship between humanity and God, without priestly mediation. By a close adherence to the Scriptures, Christians would, Wycliffe believed, govern themselves without the aid of popes and prelates. Wycliffe denounced as unscriptural many beliefs and practices of the established church. He held that the Christian clergy should strive to imitate evangelical poverty, the poverty of Christ and his disciples. Finally, Wycliffe disavowed serfdom and warfare.


References:
1996 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, Copyright 1996 Grolier Interactive, Inc.

Microsoft Encarta 98 Encyclopedia, Copyright 1993-1997 Microsoft Corporation.
Geddes MacGregor, Dictionary of Religion and Philosophy, New York: Paragon House, Copyright 1989 Geddes MacGregor.