The Reformation: Context (Part 10)

The Reformation did not take place within a vacuum. It was, rather, part of a larger cultural context with shifting values, growing frustrations, and theological questioning. There were many efforts to promote reform prior to the actual movement known as the Protestant reformation. In the next couple of posts it behooves us to explore some of the forerunners to the Reformation and examine the ways in which each of these individuals or movements contributed to the theological landscape that prepared the way for the Reformations.

John Wycliffe is a name of particular importance when one considers the so-called forerunners of the Reformation. Wycliffe’s role as precursor to the reformation is significant. Wycliffe paved the way for the Protestant Reformation by making appeals to the spiritual authority of Scripture over and against the Pope.

Not much is known about Wycliffe personally. We have little documentation about his birth, childhood, and development. We have little personal detail or description of him too throughout his life. We may gather that he was an astute theologians and brilliant thinker, but we know little about his life and personality. K.B. McFarlane has commented on the challenging nature of writing about the person of John Wycliffe:

…it is unlikely that it will ever be possible to write a life, a real life, of Wycliffe. Too many of the essential ingredients have been lost. For one thing we are seriously handicapped by not knowing such pieces of purely factual information as when he was born, who his parents were and how he was reared. Indeed we know very little about the external events of Wycliffe’s career at any stage; we merely catch a series of glimpses…Our subject’s appearances are at the best intermittent and the gaps are long. (John Wycliffe and the Beginnings of English Non-conformity, 9)

While we may not be able to ascertain much, then, with regard to the biographical nature of Wycliffe, we can speak to his impact on the times. Here we have some ready information to analyze and synthesize with our understanding of the Reformations that followed him.

Wycliffe was a competent scholar, and had something of a notable career as a student at Oxford. In his early forties he was to receive one of the highest honors: a role in the King’s service. Wycliffe lived and wrote during the time of the Avignon Papacy. It was a time in which the church was collecting rather exorbitant taxes from all of Christendom. Wycliffe’s writing on the nature of lordship and dominion were exactly the kind of logical argumentation against ecclesiastical authority that the King of England could support. Wycliffe’s argument revolved around the example of Christ’s lordship, which was sacrificial and directed towards serving others. Here he argued that the church had no rights to private property or personal gain. More pointedly he argued, according to Justo Gonzalez, that “Any lordship used for the profit of the ruler rather than for that of the governed is not true dominion, but usurpation” (The Story of Christianity, vol. 2, 346).In fact, as Wycliffe saw it, the corruption within the church must lead to the conclusion that the ecclesiastical authorities within it were not in a “state of grace,” and had therefore forfeited all rights to their authority. This was a serious charge, and would later in life lead Wycliffe to the conclusion that the Pope himself was probably reprobate. His work On Civil Dominion was well-loved by English nobility and Crown; but it was just the start of the author’s problems with the ecclesiastical authorities.

The man’s real problems became pronounced when he began to teach about the nature of the true church. In Wycliffe’s theology, the true church was not the Pope, Cardinals, and priests but rather the collective congregation of all Christians. Borrowing from Augustine, Wycliffe believed the elect from all times and places were the invisible church, and while it was impossible to know precisely who was elect their fruit would reveal them. The problem, of course, was that the evident fruit of the ecclesiastical authorities was rather wicked and raised question about their own predestined state. His views were becoming more radical still and as a result many within the church were beginning to speak against him, even reporting him to the Roman Curia. In May 1377,  a number of his views were declared erroneous and subversive by Pope Gregory.

The Pope’s authority had been challenged and questioned much throughout its existence, and there were others before Wycliffe who had challenged him, but the time was ripe to see the theological foundations of Papal supremacy crack. In 1378 the Great Schism had just begun, and the Pope’s authority was dramatically weakened. Though Wycliffe’s career had all but died at this point, and the support of the crown and the patronage of the nobility had stopped, he continued to write. His works continued to develop the arguments on spiritual authority. DE Ecclesia (1378) and De Veritate Sacrae Scripturae (1378) were two profoundly explosive works which pointed away from the authority of the Pope and the Papal court to the Scriptures.

Wycliffe’s doctrine of Scripture is his most important legacy. His arguments developed over time, but the heart of his attack against the Pope was that nothing in Scripture supported his office. One could not appeal to the pope, after all he might not even be among the elect. The only means of ensuring truth and sound doctrine was for each man to appeal to Scripture for himself. This was a highly radical view, and one that would lead the man to work on an English translation of the Bible, a project fulfilled by later disciples.

As a result of that need for Scriptural awareness, the preaching of the Word of God was more important than the Sacraments, he said. The Sacraments had been corrupted in recent years anyways, he argued, particularly by the doctrine of Transubstantiation. While Wycliffe didn’t deny the presence of Christ in the host of the bread and the cup, but his followers would take his arguments further. The Lollards would infect deny transubstantiation. While his views of all these various subjects were not completely new (some orders of the Friars would have articulated similar ideas, though perhaps less radically and boldly), but that in part is why Wycliffe was viewed as so dangerous to the church: he was hitting a nerve. Wycliffe was challenging both the financial power of the church and its spiritual authority. In its place he was holding out the Holy Word of God.

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