By Dr. Frank Tunstall
Imagine your home without a Bible in the house, and what your life would be like if you could not read the Bible for yourself. Imagine going to church in a world in which the Bible is in Latin and can be read only by educated priests. Imagine that the small amount of the Bible you know is because a priest took the time to encourage you to memorize it.
John Wycliffe, an Englishman, was born in just that kind of world in 1328.
Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg church in Germany on October 31, 1517, and the Protestant Reformation was born. Protestant churches around the world are now entering into a yearlong celebration of the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation.
The goal of this article is to offer some foundation as our 500-year celebration of the Protestant Reformation is at hand. [My master’s thesis at the University of Tulsa (1969) was John Wycliffe and His Influence, 1370 – 1415, and my academic major was medieval history.]
John Wycliffe’s ministry in England preceded Luther by about 150 years. Wycliffe is important because as the most famous scholar of his day in Europe, he was responsible for teaching doctrines that became cornerstones in the Reformation, even though they were deemed heretical in his lifetime. Wycliffe was also the first person to translate the Bible into English. These alone are enough for Wycliffe to live in church history as the morning star of the Reformation.
In Wycliffe’s day, the Roman Catholic Church owned one-third of all the land in England, but neither the churches nor the priests could be taxed. This obviously stirred strong jealousy against the church as monies flowed from England to the papacy in Rome. [The “Brexit” vote of the English people in 2016 to withdraw from the European Union has similarities to the situation in Wycliffe’s day; Englishmen have always felt strongly about living on their island as independent people.]
John Wycliffe earned his doctorate from Oxford in 1372. He soon emerged as Oxford’s most prominent teacher, and it gave his ideas widespread influence. He was recognized as the flower of Oxford scholarship. Wycliffe strongly supported disestablishment from Rome. It was a courageous decision, but it also won for him lifelong enemies among the bishops and archbishops in England, as well as from the papacy. They were determined to hold their privileges tightly in the Roman Catholic religious system, and Wycliffe’s teaching threatened them. Consider Wycliffe’s thinking:
“If it were agreed that whenever the pope or his vicar pretends to bind or loose, he really binds or looses, how does the world stand? For then if the pope pretends that he binds by pain of eternal damnation whoever resists him in his acquisition of goods moveable and immovable, that man is so bound. And consequently it will be very easy for the pope to acquire all the kingdoms of the world.”
Wycliffe came to understand clearly that the papacy needed to undergo major reform. In 1378, for one example, the church in Rome faced a major schism. It came to be known as the Babylonian Captivity of the papacy, with first two and then three rival popes vying for power. The second throne of the papacy was in Avignon, in France. The problem lasted for the next almost 40 years until the dispute was resolved in Baden, Germany, at the Council of Constance (1414 – 1418). The papacy moved back to Rome in 1417.
When Wycliffe rejected the historic and visible church and its ecclesiastical system as the final authority, he replaced it by asserting the supreme authority of the scriptures. To Wycliffe, the Bible was more than the foundation of discipline and dogma as the Church of Rome had taught through the centuries. Instead, the Bible was the only and ultimate authority for life and practice. Wycliffe believed the scriptures alone show how the church should operate, and his standard was the Acts of the Apostles.
“Were there a hundred popes and all the friars turned into cardinals,” said Wycliffe, “their opinions in matters of the faith should not be accepted except in so far as they are founded on scripture.”
Wycliffe believed a personal knowledge of God’s word would certainly aid in the salvation of the people’s souls; after all, the scriptures had been translated “from Hebrew into Greek and from Greek into Latin, and from one language into another.” Wycliffe concluded there could be only one reason for keeping the Bible out of the English language – to make sure the people lived in ignorance. He also was convinced if they could read the Bible for themselves, it would expose the secret sins of the Roman ecclesiastical system.
“The New Testament is full of authority and open to the understanding of simple men, as to the points that be most needful to salvation…. He that keepeth meekness and charity hath the true understanding and perfection of Holy Writ, for Christ did His laws not on tables, or on skins of animals, but in the hearts of men…. The Holy Ghost teaches us the meaning of Scripture as Christ opened its sense to the Apostles.”
To Wycliffe, the scriptures were supreme. Based on this biblical supremacy, he rejected the concept of purgatory and disapproved of clerical celibacy, pilgrimages, selling indulgences, and praying to saints. Wycliffe believed strongly that priests (clergy) should pay taxes and submit to the authority of their king. He also rejected the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. Each of these teachings would later become pillars of the Reformation.
Arguably, Wycliffe’s most famous statement that has lived to this day is this: “A ploughboy with the Bible would know more of God that the most learned ecclesiastic who ignored it.”
Wycliffe’s high view of the authority of scripture led him to take the pope himself to the bar of judgment. Wycliffe faced the striking contrast between the wealth and power of the 14th-century church and the pure, simple life of the first century, New Testament Christians. He proceeded to mount the wings of withering eloquence to speak of the pope as “the prince of liars,” “a most arrogant man and cruelly vindictive,” one who is “always provoking wars,” “unquestionably satanic and diabolic,” and “against Jesus Christ.” By about 1380, Wycliffe had come to the sincere conclusion that “the pope is fallible and is the antichrist, making blasphemous claims.”
Martin Luther would later share Wycliffe’s opinion regarding the universal church of Rome. In short, Wycliffe was a scholar who lived some 150 years ahead of his time. [Even in the modern era major differences exist between Roman Catholicism and the Protestant churches that sprang out of the Reformation, but, thankfully, the rhetoric is not nearly so sharp and cutting.]
It was totally predictable the church authorities would deal with Wycliffe. Wycliffe’s old enemy, Bishop Courtney of London, was elevated in 1381 to Archbishop of Canterbury. Three weeks into his new role, Courtney set out to put Wycliffe’s ideas on trial. Of the 46 propositions drawn from Wycliffe’s writings, 10 were considered heretical and 14 others as erroneous.
In short order, Wycliffe was forced out of Oxford and exiled to a small pastorate in Lutterworth but was not tried as a heretic. There Wycliffe lived the last two years of his life. In the providence of God, those were his most productive years. He and some of his followers set out to translate the scriptures from the Latin Vulgate into English. Wycliffe’s primary contribution to the effort was translating the New Testament.
Wycliffe died of a stroke on December 31, 1384, and was given honorable burial in Lutterworth. Thirty-one years later the Council of Constance tried Wycliffe for heresy, even though he had been dead for three decades. He was found guilty – of course. Church officials dug up his body, burned his remains, and threw the ashes into the river Swift. In their eyes, Wycliffe had finally received his just treatment as a heretic.
Wycliffe’s teachings, though suppressed, were not silenced; to the contrary, they continued to spread. As a later chronicler observed:
“Thus the brook hath conveyed his ashes into Avon; Avon into Severn; Severn into the narrow seas; and they into the main ocean. And thus the ashes of Wycliffe are the emblem of his doctrine which now is dispersed the world over.”
Yes, Wycliffe was booted out of his alma mater. But at Oxford University in England, Wycliffe College is now named after him, where he continues to this day to be recognized as the morning star of the Reformation.
Inspired by the great inspiration of John Wycliffe’s life, Wycliffe Bible Translators was launched in 1942. The goal of this highly important ministry is to see by 2025 a Bible translation project started in every tongue in the world that does not have a Bible.
Republished with permission.