1320 - 1384
As Marco Polo began his famous
journey to the far east in 1324, John Wycliffe
turned four years old. The radical Franciscans
were denouncing the riches of the Papacy,
and Pope John XXII was mid way through his
reign The world was at peace; and Rome held
ultimate authority in the lives of the people
of the continent and the British Isles. From
Augustine and Constantine till the birth of
Wycliffe, the Church was the centre of every
Wycliffe was born in 1320 and studied Theology
in Oxford. His training and disposition led
him to oppose the ownership of English land
by the Papacy, on religious and theological
grounds rather than merely economic. From
1376 onward Wycliffe published tracts which
decried the secularization of the Church.
This secularization, he maintained, was beneficial
neither to the Church or the State. In 1377
the Pope issued a Bull condemning in 18 theses
the writings of Wycliffe. Wycliffe's reaction
was violent. He began to denounce the Pope
in vehement writings. From 1378 to 1379 Wycliffe
published his theological system in a series
of tracts. The main thesis of these works
was that the Scriptures are the foundation
of all doctrine. This was the turning point
of doctrinal history. To this point Tradition
was placed, by Rome, alongside Scripture as
a source of doctrine; but Wycliffe disputed
this notion and John Hus of Prague and Martin
Luther as well as Huldrych Zwingli and John
Calvin would adopt the view of Wycliffe. Wycliffe's
doctrine of the Church was likewise revolutionary.
He saw the Church as a spiritual institution
and not a political one. Thus the pre-reformation
work of Wycliffe lay in his doctrines of Scripture
and the Church.
The significance of Wycliffe cannot be overlooked.
His movement towards Scripture and Church
as spiritual society were the foundation stones
on which the later Reformation would be founded.
He, nevertheless, did propose ideas that were
very controversial. He suggested that human
freedom was non-existent; to the point that
everything that a person did was predetermined.
Yet without Wycliffe, there could not have
been a Reformation. Or, for that matter, an
English translation of the Bible. Wycliffe's
translation is well known. He did his work
from the Latin Vulgate; thus giving the English
people the first translation of the Scriptures
in their own language. His translation was
consulted by Tyndale, Coverdale, the Bishops,
and of course the Authorized Version translators.
He was a translator before Luther; a theologian
before Calvin; and a reformer before the Reformation.
He died in 1384. The floodgates opened by
Wycliffe would reach fruition in Zwingli and
John Wycliff studied at Oxford
and became the first person to begin a systematic
translation of the Bible into English. He
accepted nothing but the Bible as authority
for Christian dogma, stating: "I suppose
over this that the gospel of Christ be [the]
heart of the corpus of God's law; for I believe
that Jesus Christ, that gave in His own person
this gospel, is very God and very man, and
by this heart passes all other laws."
Priests and even the pope himself, Wycliffe
went on to argue, might not necessarily be
in a state of grace and thus would lack authority.
Such doctrines appealed to anticlerical sentiments
and brought Wycliffe into direct conflict
with the church hierarchy, although he received
protection from John of Gaunt.
The beginning of the Great Schism in 1378
gave Wycliffe fresh opportunities to attack
the papacy, and in a treatise of 1379 on the
Eucharist he openly denied the doctrine of
transubstantiation. He denounced the Church
hierarchy and maintained that the church should
give up its worldly possessions. Although
he and his followers, the Lollards, had some
support in the 14th century, Wycliff was denounced
by Pope Gregory XI. Perhaps the name was derived
from the Dutch term lollaerd, meaning mumbler.
After the peasant's revolt of 1381, Smith
commented that "anxious priest and frightened
landlords were quick to assume that heresy
in faith produced revolution in society,"
and as a result, the sect was driven out of
Oxford in 1382, but some devout members circulated
Wyclif's teachings as well as the 1394 "Lollard
Conclusions." Wycliffe's work was ultimately
condemned by a synod in London, and many Lollards
were persecuted in the 15th century.
However, Wycliffe's ideas helped spread the
doctrines of the Reformation during the 1500's.
The Wycliffe Bible: Wycliffe also put his
teachings into practice. Beginning at Oxford,
but continuing especially after he left Oxford
for Lutterworth, Wycliffe began a translation
of Scripture which he completed before his
death. Although he did not know Scripture
in its original languages, and translated
Scripture from the Latin Vulgate, he gave
a remarkably accurate translation which enabled
the common people to hear the Scriptures in
their language for the first time.
We include here a few verses
of his translation of Genesis 1 -- in the
old English which he used.
"In the firste made
God of nougt heuene and erthe. The erthe forsothe
was veyn with ynee and void, and derknessis
weren vpon the face of the see; and the Spiryt
of God was born vpon the watrys. And God seide,
Be maad ligt; and maad is ligt. And God sawg
ligt, that it was good, and deuydid [divided]
ligt fro derknessis; an clepide [called] ligt
day and derknessis, nygt. And maad is euen
and moru [morn], o day. Seide forsothe God,
Be maad a firmament in the myddel of watres,
and dyuyde it watres from watrys".
It is difficult for us to
imagine how these simple and familiar words
must have thrilled the hearts of thousands
when they heard them for the first time. The
translating of the Scriptures was also extremely
dangerous, because the church had forbidden
that the Scriptures be put into the language
of the common people. Nevertheless, even though
printing had not been invented, many copies
must have been made laboriously by hand, for
there are still nearly 170 hand-copied Wycliffe