John Wycliffe (1330-1384)

Over the next few months we will be looking at scenes and incidents in the era known in history as the Protestant Reformation. But before we dive into the Reformation (1517) we are going to take some time and look at some of the historical characters that shaped and prepared the world for the Reformation. That first character is John Wycliffe (1330-1384).

Wycliffe was born on a sheep farm 200 miles from London. In 1346, at the age of 16, he left for Oxford University. Because of periodic flare-ups of the Black Death, he did not earn his doctoral degree until 1372. Nonetheless, by then he was already considered Oxford’s leading philosopher and theologian.

In 1374 he became rector of the parish in Lutterworth. Wycliffe was later turned down for positions in Lincoln and even the position of Bishop of Worcester. Around the same time, Rome demanded support from the church in England. This demand upon a nation that was raising financial support to repel a possible attack by France was not well received. In fact, Wycliffe advised his local leader, John of Gaunt, to advise parliament not to comply. He argued that the church in Rome was already too wealthy and Christ called His followers to poverty and humility not affluence and power.

To say the least, these comments and other teachings did not endear Wycliffe to the Roman Church. In fact, these comments (and others) moved Pope Gregory to issue 5 church edicts against Wycliffe, in which he was accused on 18 counts and referred to as “the master of error.”

Wycliffe was a man of courage. He was a man who believed the word’s of Jesus when he said in Matthew 10:28:

And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

Hear John Wycliffe at one of his hearings before the archbishop at Lambeth Palace:

“I am ready to defend my convictions even unto death … I have followed the Sacred Scriptures and the holy doctors.”

Wycliffe challenged the tradition of his day when he stated publically that the pope and the church were second in authority to Scripture. This did not sit well with Rome.

Wycliffe was placed under “house arrest” and was still allowed to continue his ministry in Lutterworth. During this time he studied the scriptures with intensity and wrote much about his conflict with official church teachings. He challenged the church’s view on communion and their teaching of transubstantiation; He challenged the church’s sale of indulgences; He challenged the confessional. All of these did not endear Wycliffe to the church in Rome, but two of his challenges raised Rome’s anger to a fever pitch: They were the doctrines of salvation (how one is justified by faith) and the doctrine of the scripture (primarily the belief that every believer should have access to the scripture in his/her own language – only Latin translations were available at this time and only accessible to the clergy and the very well learned).

Wycliffe on faith:

“Trust wholly in Christ; rely altogether on His sufferings; beware of seeking to be justified in any other way than His righteousness.”

Wycliffe on the Scriptures:

“Englishmen learn Christ’s law best in English. Moses heard God’s law in his own tongue; so did Christ’s apostles.”

Believing that every Christian should have access to Scripture he began translating the Bible into English, with the help of his good friend John Purvey.

The church bitterly opposed it:

“By this translation, the Scriptures have become vulgar, and they are more available to lay, and even to women who can read, than they were to learned scholars, who have a high intelligence. So the pearl of the gospel is scattered and trodden underfoot by swine.”

Wycliffe died of a stroke before his translation of the Bible was complete (and before the Roman authorities could convict him of heresy). The translation was supposed to have been completed by Purvey. The religious authorities had never excommunicated him because they feared public opinion – the people loved John and his fame was international. So he was buried in consecrated soil. But forty-three years later, the Council of Constance avenged itself of his criticism by condemning his teachings and ordering his bones to be dug up and burned.

But the burning of such a man’s bones could not end his influence. As John Foxe said in his book of martyrs, “though they digged up his body, burnt his bones, and drowned his ashes, yet the Word of God and the truth of his doctrine, with the fruit and success thereof, they could not burn; which yet to this day…doth remain.”

They couldn’t get rid of him. Wycliffe’s teachings, though suppressed, 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.”

The “Wycliffe” bible and his very public challenges to the church hierarchy were preparatory for the reformation and it’s battle with Rome and the papacy.

Wycliffe was a courageous man who believed strongly in the Word of God … Next week we will look at another pre-reformer b y the name of Jan Hus.

See you Sunday ~ Pastor Byron