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He had been dead and buried for a few decades, but the church wanted to make a point. His remains were exhumed and burned, a fitting end for the “heretic” John Wycliffe. Wycliffe once explained what the letters in the title CARDINAL really mean: “Captain of the Apostates of the Realm of the Devil, Impudent and Nefarious Ally of Lucifer.” And with that, Wycliffe was only getting started.
Wycliffe rejected the doctrine of transubstantiation, which states that the elements of the bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper become the actual body and blood of Christ. He was against priestly absolution, he spoke out against indulgences, and he denied the doctrine of purgatory. He rejected papal authority. Instead, he asserted that Christ is the head of the church. And he had a profound belief in the inerrancy and absolute authority of Scripture. He fully believed that the church of his day had lost its way. Scripture alone provided the only way back. Now we see why the medieval Roman Church wanted to make a statement against Wycliffe.
John Wycliffe has often been called “the Morning Star of the Reformation.” Jan Hus, another pre-Reformation reformer, felt obliged to express his supreme debt to Wycliffe. And though he lived long after Wycliffe’s death, Martin Luther, too, felt an obligation to recognize the pioneering reforms of John Wycliffe. Luther stood on the shoulders of Hus, who stood on the shoulders of Wycliffe. Hus, Luther, and the other Reformers were indebted to him. So are we. Wycliffe was indeed “the Morning Star of the Reformation.”
The term morning star has been used alternately to refer to either the star Sirius or the planet Venus. It appears brightest in the predawn, the time when darkness still dominates, but also the time of promise—the time of the promise of the dawn and the rising sun. So John Wycliffe is situated historically between the darkness and the morning light.
John Wycliffe was born around 1330 and died on December 30, 1384. His century was one of growing disillusionment with the medieval Roman church. There was disillusionment with the church hierarchy and also with the church’s piety (or lack thereof). These were times of unrest. The long reign of the night, of the darkness, had taken its toll, especially on the laity. They bore the brunt of a wayward church. And perhaps none was more acutely aware of this than John Wycliffe.
Oxford University became Wycliffe’s home in 1346, during his teen years. As soon as Wycliffe arrived at Oxford, he witnessed all the pomp and circumstance of convocation, which included a Mass in honor of the royal family and the scholars at Oxford. Wycliffe then settled into the academic routines of attending lectures and disputations. Wycliffe would sit under and be profoundly influenced by the theologian Thomas Bradwardine and the philosopher William of Ockham. He studied broadly, learning science and mathematics; law and history; and, of course, philosophy. At Oxford, Wycliffe soon moved from the rank of student to that of scholar, later becoming master at Balliol College. Wycliffe’s first writings would be in the field of philosophy.
Biblical studies, and later theology, however, captured his attention and piqued his interest the most. Wycliffe qualified as a doctor of theology, allowing him to lecture on the subject. He also became embroiled in church politics in the 1370s, the decade in which the crisis in the papacy would come to a head, ending the Avignon Papacy and marking the pope’s return to Rome. Wycliffe drew upon his vast education, applying his keen mind and his philosophical competency to the pressing ecclesiastical and theological problems of his day.
Luther famously had his “95 Theses.” While not having quite as many, Wycliffe had his own theses (that is, arguments) against the church. One thesis declares, “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 this and other ideas, Pope Gregory XI condemned Wycliffe.
But Wycliffe had friends in high places, and his condemnation had little effect. The mother of the boy king Richard II favored Wycliffe, as did John of Gaunt, the young king’s uncle, who wielded significant influence. These supporters swayed Parliament against the pope and for Wycliffe. At Oxford, the students and faculty rallied to his support.
These controversies and censures did little to dissuade Wycliffe. In fact, they propelled him further into his studies and writings, resulting in even more compelling arguments against the religious status quo in favor of reforms. Later, the tide would turn against Wycliffe, and he and his followers would be persecuted.
Two important works penned during the 1370s had a significant and lasting influence. In the first, On Divine Dominion (likely written in 1373-74), Wycliffe levels arguments against papal authority. Any authority held in the church ultimately derives from maintaining fidelity to the Word of God. Authority that sidesteps or runs counter to God’s Word is no authority at all and has no right to rule in the church, Wycliffe argued. In the second work, On Civil Dominion (likely written in 1375-76), Wycliffe makes a case for the civil authorities not to be at the mercy of the church. Instead, he argues that the patrons of the church, the royalty and nobility in England, need not financially support the church or church officials who are in error or corrupt. It is not surprising, then, that Pope Gregory XI condemned Wycliffe and his ideas.
These books of Wycliffe made their way onto the banned book list. But that didn’t keep them from reaching Jan Hus. Wycliffe’s books also influenced Martin Luther. Luther’s The Babylonian Captivity of the Church reflects ideas in On Divine Dominion, and Luther’s Advice to the German Nobility reflects ideas in On Civil Dominion. Finally, Thomas Cranmer enlisted these “heretical” ideas in his efforts to persuade Henry VIII to break from the Roman Catholic Church and establish the Church of England. These were influential books indeed.
Yet it would be other writings of Wycliffe that would have the most profound influence. In 1378, Wycliffe wrote On the Truth of Sacred Scripture. Here we see the beginnings of the doctrine so crucial to the Reformation: sola Scriptura (Scripture alone). In this work, Wycliffe makes the case that all Christians have a right to the Word of God in their own language. Wycliffe so believed in this principle that he devoted his later years to translating the Latin Vulgate text into Middle English. He was joined by others, such as Nicholas of Hereford and John Purvey. These labors culminated in what would come to be Wycliffe’s crowning achievement—the Wycliffe Bible.
The Wycliffe Bible consisted of hand-copied manuscripts—hundreds of them. They were put into service by Wycliffe’s troupe of pastors, the so-called poor priests. They had very little to their name, and they likely were not all that impressive looking. A friend of Wycliffe once described him as having a “spare, ill, emaciated frame.” His poor priests likely fared no better. But they had copies of the Bible.
These preachers came to be called Lollards. Soon that term was expanded to apply to those who followed Wycliffe’s teachings. The Lollards grew and grew. “Every second man that you meet,” the saying went, “is a Lollard.”
Lollard is a Dutch word meaning “to mumble” or “to murmur.” Since Wycliffe’s followers were preaching and reading the Bible in English, not in Latin, they were derided as mumblers and murmurers. But they weren’t mumbling. They were speaking the truth. The Lollards even had their Wittenberg Door moment, nailing a petition to the doors of Parliament’s Westminster Hall in 1395. The Lollards extended Wycliffe’s influence well beyond his lifetime, and even on into the British Reformation of the sixteenth century.
While attending church on December 28, 1384, Wycliffe suffered a severe stroke, his second. He died two days later. Post tenebras lux—”after darkness, light”—is the slogan representing the Reformation at Calvin’s Geneva. The sun did rise in the Reformation of the sixteenth century, and the light of the gospel chased the darkness away. But we can all be grateful for the pioneering efforts of the fourteenth-century Oxford scholar John Wycliffe, the Morning Star of the Reformation.