Saturday, June 13, 2015

John Wycliffe (1328-1384) : First Light of the Reformation by Chris White

John Wycliffe

In 1302, pope Boniface VIII issued a papal decree known as Unam Sanctum [one holy church] to all of Europe.  This official message declared that there was one true church composed only of those who were baptized and obedient to the Roman pontiff because as the vicar of Christ, he is the supreme ruler over the inhabitants of the earth.   This assertion of supreme authority came at a time when the papacy and church hierarchy was receiving pushback from many quarters throughout Europe including branches of the church and different monarchs.  Although the statement is the epitome of superbia and was considered so by many at the time, it reflected an overall view of the nature of the Christian church that was so deeply seated, it truly was considered heresy to think otherwise.  In many regards the idea of papal supremacy is the debate that led to the Catholic-Protestant division two centuries later.  In looking at the life and career of John Wycliffe, it is important to understand this conflict because he was a devoted clergyman and theologian who in his public life and pastoral practice both implicitly and explicitly challenged this idea.

Pope Boniface VIII

Wycliffe’s life intersected with what was one of the darkest centuries in Western Europe.  Born in 1328 in the county of Yorkshire England, Wycliffe would witness in his lifetime the Black Death which took as much as 50% of the populace in some places, the bloody conflict of the Hundred Years War with France (which actually lasted well beyond 100 years), and finally the Western Schism of the Church where rival claimants to the papacy divided Christians for nearly 40 years.  Christ promised his disciples that as long as they were in this world there would be tribulation (Jn. 16:33) but it seems that the life and times of John Wycliffe received an extra portion of trouble somehow.

The Black Death took 50% of the populace in places

Of John Wycliffe’s early life not much is known.  The Wycliffe family raised sheep and lived in a village some 200 miles outside of London.  What early education he received probably came from his local priest.  In 1342 Wycliffe’s village comes under the leadership of the Duke of Lancaster, John of Gaunt, the second son of King Edward III.  Later in life there would be strong ties between the Duke of Lancaster and Wycliffe but it is not likely the two knew each other prior to Wycliffe’s rise to national prominence.  In 1345, when Wycliffe is 17 years old, he begins to attend Oxford University starting what would be a long and distinguished academic career.  Like most students in his socio-economic status paying for college was a struggle, but he was able to work his way through college living very modestly in a residence near his school.
Oxford today

Wycliffe was to be associated with the colleges of Oxford as a student, academic, and teacher for almost the remainder of his life.  In 1361 he received his Master of Arts degree and in 1372 was made a doctor of theology.  If this seems like a long time to be in school it should be remembered that the length of training to teach and be ordained for ministry was much longer in this period of history.  Once Wycliffe received the Master of Arts, he worked as a minister and a professor while continuing his studies towards his doctorate.  When he received his doctorate he was also made the rector of Lutterworth church, a position he held for the remainder of his life.

In terms of biography, speaking of Wycliffe’s education is a bit more important than just explaining that he had credentials he could put on a resume.  He was a man of humble beginnings who was able to attain expert status in interpreting and understanding the Bible.  He had equal interest in law and philosophy and studied them quite deeply as well.  The sum of this prepared him to be an able spokesman for the English crown to the papacy as well as made him one of the most well-known and trusted theologians in all of Europe.  In essence, Wycliffe’s greater influence was that he was truly learned and intellectually honest.  This would bring both fame and controversy as time went on, but it is why he is important as a forerunner of the Protestant Reformation.
Wycliffe the preacher

Between 1374-76 Wycliffe develops and publishes what has been called his “Dominion Theory.”  This is the idea that all resources in the world are God’s and He alone gives them to men.  If anyone misuses these in some way, God is quite justified in removing them and giving them to another as an act of discipline or punishment.  No one possesses anything by “divine right” but at the pleasure of God.

As this idea played out in historical context, England was at the time facing a possible war with France.  Strapped for cash, England was also facing great demands from the Catholic Church for more and more support.  Wycliffe goes against the church and urges parliament not to comply with their demands.  He argued the church already had enough wealth and Christ urged his disciples to poverty not aggrandizement.  This certainly made him popular with the state (at least for the moment) but earned him the attention of Pope Gregory XI who issued five papal bulls against Wycliffe on this theory calling it error from the master of errors.

In 1377, Wycliffe is condemned at a meeting he has with church officials at St. Paul’s cathedral in London.  Later that year he is put under a house arrest when he refuses any further questioning before the bishops.  When Wycliffe is summoned to a trial at Lambeth Palace (home of the Archbishop of Canterbury) the following year, the queen mother and other prominent citizens of London show up to give their support which in turn made a conviction of heresy exceedingly impolitic in that moment.
And then, as so often happens in history, the sudden death of Pope Gregory XI that year stopped all efforts to silence Wycliffe. 

The Western Schism

The papal election that summer was to result in the division of Christendom for the next 36 years.  Gregory XI had only recently returned the papacy to Rome after a 70 year hiatus in Avignon.  Gregory and several of his predecessors were Frenchman as well as many of the cardinals.  The fear that the cardinals would elect another Frenchman and the papacy would return to Avignon caused riots in Rome and death threats against the conclave.  Under duress, the cardinals elected an Italian bishop who took the name Urban V.  Feeling bad about making such a choice under pressure and not particularly liking their choice, most of the French cardinals leave Rome and hold another election where they choose Clement VII as a rival pope and they do return to Avignon.  And so with all the confusion and division that ensued in the wake of rival papacies, John Wycliffe found himself out from all the scrutiny for at least a while.  This gave him the room to enter into even greater controversy the following year.

In 1379, Wycliffe publishes his controversial views on the Eucharist (also known as Communion or the Lord’s Supper).  In his day the idea of transubstantiation was accepted as dogma by the Church.  Transubstantiation is the belief that when an ordained priest consecrates the bread and wine used in this ceremonial meal, it actually becomes the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ even though its external appearance is unchanged.  This idea, which has a long and deep root system in Christian history, comes from an extremely literal understanding of John 6:53 which reads: “So Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.’”  What is being suggested in this view is that the eternal life is assured and sustained by regular participation (eating the body and blood of the Lord) in this meal.  A further entailment of this idea is that only an ordained priest under the authority of his bishop and ultimately the pope is authorized to consecrate the meal and thus confer this benefit to the Christian. 

This doctrine also became a means of enforcing the pope’s views or wishes.  On many occasions, if a prince, king, or even teacher in the church said or did something at odds with the pope, what was known as an interdict would be issued against them.  An interdict withholds some or all the sacraments until further notice.  Imagine being a king with an entire population fearing for their souls because they are being denied the Eucharist because of some choice you made.  More than once was this used to bring pressure to bear on a secular ruler.

Wycliffe saw this idea as something quite novel (it had only become the official teaching of the Church at the Lateran Council of 1215) and from his theological and philosophical perspective thought the idea to be unsound.  From a pastoral perspective, he felt the practice to be idolatrous and superstitious and putting too much emphasis on the priest.  Wycliffe came to write a treatise called De Eucharista which directly attacked transubstantiation.
"it all depends on the definition of 'is'"

When President Bill Clinton was facing impeachment during January of 1999, he famously deflected the idea that he perjured himself when he had previously denied a relationship with Monica Lewinsky with the now famous “that all depends on what the definition of ‘is’ is”.  Apparently John Wycliffe preceded Mr. Clinton by several centuries in his parsing of the word ‘is’ when it came to his understanding of the Eucharist.  On this topic Wycliffe gave special meaning to the word ‘is’ when it came to his understanding of Christ’s words “this is my body.”  Wycliffe believed that the consecrated host was still bread, but “is” the body of Christ in terms of its significance and effect in the believer partaking in the Eucharist.  Known as the “receptionist view”, Wycliffe emphasized the faith of the communicant over priestly consecration as to how the body and blood of Jesus are partaken in the Lord’s Supper. He believed that the bread and the wine on the altar remained bread and wine after their consecration.  Christ was present and received in the Eucharist on the basis of faith by the individual communicant.

By 1381, Oxford University was put under pressure by the church and Wycliffe was so controversial that he is officially banned from his teaching post.  Still a pastor he moves to the parish church of Lutterworth where he serves the remainder of his life.  It is in this exile of sorts, Wycliffe develops some of his most influential theology which gives shape to what a reformed Christian church will eventually look like in the next 200 years.  
Wycliffe influenced many preachers to go out in England

Wycliffe, himself a noted preacher, felt that preaching of the Word of God was the most important thing people needed and the most neglected task of the church.  He was also critical how many of the common practices of church were connected only by tradition but not by direct teaching from scripture.  Things like confession to a priest or masses to relieve the dead in purgatory he believed to be unbiblical and abominable.  Wycliffe emphasized in his teaching that the believer only needed one mediator before God and that was Christ alone.

During this period Wycliffe and several aides translated the Bible from Latin to English. Technically this would be a translation of a translation but it is the first English Bible and sets a tone for future reformers such as Tyndale and Luther to produce vernacular scriptures.  What is important to know is that the audience for this Bible was the common person.  Latin was the language of educated clergy and French the language of the educated Englishman.  In Wycliffe’s time more and more ordinary people were learning to read and Wycliffe believed it was God’s will that the common man could have greater access to the Bible by hearing it preached in his own language.  Both Wycliffe and Luther strategically published their books in the common language to give their ideas a broader reach.  Wycliffe, unfortunately lived prior to the mass-production of books and so his audience was obviously more restricted than Luther’s but it still had a wider reach than it would have if it were only written in Latin.

Wycliffe the Bible translator

The detractors of Wycliffe had great criticism of his Bible translating activities.  For the Church, Latin was the language of the learned.   Something as important as the Bible should not be available to the unlearned and untrained to read on their own, but should be interpreted for them by the clergy.  In this sense, it was said that Wycliffe had “thrown pearls before the swine.”  In one sense, this criticism is not entirely unjust.  People who attempt to interpret the Bible without proper understanding can and do make a mockery of its contents all the time.  However, on the other side of the equation, the general message of the Bible is relatively clear and accessible to all who read it, even those without a faith commitment.  Thus, a lay person who reads the Bible, although they may require some guidance at times, can certainly read it to his or her own edification without much problem. 

An interesting unintended consequence of Wycliffe’s translation of the Bible was that it unified the form of English that was spoken in Britain because of the Bible’s popularity.
Wycliffe actually died in the pulpit

Probably one of Wycliffe’s more influential writings was his treatise known as De Ecclesia.  In it he explains the nature of the Church is not the visible organization (with its pope, cardinals, bishops) but the congregation of the predestined.  The only head of the church then is not the pope, but Jesus himself.  Wycliffe, not one to fear controversy, pointed out that it was quite possible that even the pope may not be of the elect.  While the church on earth will always be a mixture of wheat and tares as Jesus said it would, the true church will always be composed of those whom the Lord has called to himself and who live by faith.  Even as the Medieval church emphasized the external structures and the use of sacraments as the guarantee of eternal life, Wycliffe pointed to the ancient path of the prophets and apostles who taught that the just shall live by faith.  This too would be an idea picked up and carried forward by the later Reformers.

Even as the Roman Catholic church has a long memory of those it considers saints and martyrs, it has an equally long memory of those it considers heretics.  John Wycliffe had the good fortune of dying and going to heaven in 1384 after a second stroke and a life wearied by conflict with the church hierarchy and the burden of many labors on behalf of its people.  In 1418, some 34 years after his death, 260 separate charges of heresy were brought against him at the ecumenical council of Constance and the conclusion of the council, which also condemned to the flames John Huss a popular preacher also influenced by Wycliffe, was that he was to be posthumously condemned, executed and deprived of Christian burial.  The job of carrying out the sentence fell to the newly elected Pope Martin V who didn’t get around to carrying out this sentence for another 11 years.  In 1429, the pope had the bones of John Wycliffe disinterred from the church yard where he was buried, and then burned to dust (as would be done if he were burned at the stake) and the ashes cast into the nearby river Swift.  He was considered an ‘obstinate heretic’ by the Church but later generations would look upon his influence and contributions and call him “the Morningstar of the Reformation.”  His light was the Scripture alone and his call was for the church to consider them the true voice of the Lord on earth.

Wycliffe's macabre posthumous execution

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