The Reformation Context (Part 11)

Wycliffe has been interpreted through a variety of lenses. He has been hailed as religious radical, a man on a mission to start a new religious movement. He has been identified simply as a typical academic, asking new questions and wrestling with ideas that unfortunately led to his being denounced a heretic. He has been viewed as a political activist, writing to benefit the people of England over and against the control of the papacy. And lastly, he has been identified as an embittered careerist – having lost his job and the respect of the important people he sought to retaliate in his writings. While each view hits on different aspects of his life and thought, none are a true picture of the man. Wycliffe was a man devoted to Christ. It is from this place of Christian devotion that his reform efforts arose.

Wycliffe’s theology did not start with Scripture. That is to say, while he would eventually come to the conclusion that Scripture was the only truly authoritative source of Christian doctrine, he didn’t start at that conclusion. He was trained as a typical scholastic and worked through the great medieval works of theology at the time. Wycliffe’s thought, then would have been highly influenced by the voices of his education at Merton College. Seeds of his thought are found, then, in many scholars prior to him. So, Robert Grostête opposed the wealth and immorality of the monks. Likewise, Thomas Bradwardine called for a return to Augustinian views of grace and predestination. In many senses, Wycliffe was not saying anything new. He was developing old ideas with fresh insight and in a time that was ready to receive them, but his thoughts were surely influenced by many others before him.

Wycliffe wrote extensively, more than any other Medieval Englishman in history. His doctrinal contributions can be somewhat difficult to parse out, at times (especially his views on transubstantiation), but we may attempt to summarize his views as follows:

  1. The church has become corrupt and as a result has forfeited its rights to authority.
  2. The English crown has the right and responsibility to seize property from the church and to help in her reform.
  3. The Pope should reflect the person and character of Christ in his ministry, and to the degree that he doesn’t he may be more akin to the antichrist than the vicar of Christ.
  4. The true church is not the visible ecclesiastical structure of popes, cardinals, bishops, etc. but all the saints predestined by God for salvation.
  5. Priests cannon know if they are elect and therefore do not have any real spiritual authority over the church. In fact they might even be reprobates if the fruit of their lives does not reflect their election to Christ
  6. Neither confession to a priest, nor baptism, were necessary for salvation.
  7. The Bible is the only source of true spiritual authority.
  8. The Bible says nothing about the ecclesiastical structure of popes, cardinals, bishops, etc.
  9. Transubstantiation need refined and reconsidered. While Wycliffe did not outright reject the view that Christ’s body and blood were present in the elements, he challenged aspects of the traditional interpretation.
  10. The average Christian should be able to appeal directly to God through the Scriptures, and therefore an English translation of the Bible should be written.
  11. Prayer to and veneration of saints is idolatry.

Wycliffe’s theology did not have the enduring impact in England for which he would have hoped. But, it did spark something of a fledgling movement.

The Lollards were Wycliffe loyalists who further developed and continued to propagate the man’s teachings. The term, Lollard, is probably derogatory – it is not entirely clear from where the name comes (some suggest it’s Dutch for “mumblers of nonsense,” other suggest it is linked to the word for “weeds,” and used in reference to the parable of the tares in Matt. 13). Lollard theology is difficult to summarize, and the exact influence of Wycliffe on what followed is still debated today. The Twelve Conclusions of the Lollards did, however, reflect many of the ideas of Wycliffe himself. Yet, whatever difficulties we have in summarizing their overall theology, we may confidently say that the heart of Lollardy was the use of the English Bible.

While William Tyndale, who came much later, tends to get all the glory for the English Bible, the Wycliffe Bible (as it was known), deserves much appreciation and respect. While Wycliffe was not involved in the actual translation of these Bibles, he influenced its development. It was translated from the Latin Vulgate, not the Hebrew and Greek, but it was, at the time, highly celebrated. The church, of course, did not like it, but scholars and educated laity alike adored it. 250 copies of the Bible have survived to date, which reveals just how widespread its acceptance and use was.

The development of “vernacular theology,” as it has been called, was key to brining many people into contact with the Word of God personally for the first time. It removed the Scriptures from the private domain of the educated clergy and gave them back to the church as a whole. In the words of Wendy Scase:

Wycliffe’s contemporaries believed that the centerpiece of his thought was the authority of Scripture: this earned him the by-name Doctor Evangelicus. Wycliffe’s De Veritate Sacrae Scripturae argues that the Bible is the unerring authority against which all truth claims must be measured. For Wycliffe, the authority of Scripture provided the basis for critique of eucharistic theology, the ecclesiastical hierarchy, the organization of the church, and the claims to authority of the clergy and the religious orders. The correct interpretation of scripture is not the preserve of clergy and theologians; anyone with humility of heart (even a layperson or a female) might have access to the wisdom of scripture.

If, for Wycliffe, the Bible was the measure of all truth claims, and its truths accessible to laypeople as well as clergy, Lollardy came to be seen as this belief in action. A number of projects used the vernacular to expand access to the Word of God beyond the circle of clergy trained to read Latin. (“Lollardy” in The Cambridge Companion to Reformation Theology, 19)

The emphasis on access directly to God and to His Word was a notion that found great interest in England at the time. With literacy rates on the rise, and with interest in personal spiritual study growing, the time was ripe for a vernacular translation of the Scriptures. The theology behind the development of an English Bible would also pave the way for the European reformers to come.

Lollardy was able to gain some footing in the country because of the influence of anticlericalism at the time. Disdain for the ecclesiastical authorities, the abuses of the church, and the massive wealth of its priests, friars, and bishops was staggering. Despite the vows of poverty that so many clerics had taken, they owned more land and had more wealth than even many nobleman. The Black Prince in particular, was very vocal about his anticlerical views and his support of Lollardy gained it some hearing in the English court. The Lollard Knights, as they were known, were part of the gentry in King Richard II’s court. Their presence was tolerated but for a while, before they were forced out, or arrested, and ordered to recant. After an attempted revolt by the Lollards was squelched, it drove the movement underground. Though it no longer held any influence in the country, the Lollards lie in wait for the impending Reformation.

Wycliffe’s reform didn’t amount to a great deal in terms of immediate change in the church in England. But his commitment to the Word of God as the final authority for faith and life, and the application of that doctrine by his followers in the development of a vernacular theology, prepared the soil for the Reformation’s critiques over 100 years later. If he was not himself a “reformer,” he was a “forerunner” to the Reformation.

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