In the 14th Century, Oxford was the most outstanding university in the world and John Wycliffe was its leading Theologian and philosopher.
The Black Death (the Bubonic Plague), which killed a third of the population of Europe, led Wycliffe to search the Scriptures and find salvation in Christ.
The King’s Champion
As a professor at Oxford University, Wycliffe represented England in a controversy with the pope. Wycliffe championed the independence of England from Papal control. He supported King Edward III’s refusal to pay taxes to the pope. (It was only one step away from denying the political supremacy of the pope over nations to questioning his spiritual supremacy over churches). The royal favour which Wycliffe earned from this confrontation protected him later in life.
Wycliffe’s patron and protector was John of Gaunt. This English prince was the most powerful political figure in late 14th Century England. Gaunt, known in his day as the Duke of Lancaster, was effectively the Prime Minister of England during the last years of the 50-year reign of his then senile father, King Edward III. Gaunt was “a wise diplomat, a bold soldier, the epitome of chivalry, hard on his enemies and always faithful to what he believed was best for England.” In 1399 Gaunt’s son ascended the throne as King Henry IV.
All Authority is Under God
In Wycliffe’s book Civil Dominion, he maintains that the ungodly have no right to rule. All authority is granted by God, but God does not grant any authority to those who are in rebellion against Him. Those who rule unjustly are in breach of the terms under which God delegates authority. So wicked rulers have forfeited their right to rule. In fact, all of those who lead blatantly sinful lives forfeit their rights in this world.
Corruption Disqualifies Leaders
Wycliffe also taught that the clergy of his time were so corrupt that the secular authorities had the right to confiscate their properties. The Roman church at that time owned about one third of all land in England and claimed exemption from taxation, yet the pope claimed the right to tax the English – to finance his own wars!
Wycliffe maintained that the English government had the God-given responsibility to correct the abuses of the church within its realm and to remove from office those churchmen who persisted in their corruption and immorality.
Servant Leadership and Sacrifice
Wycliffe taught that our personal relationship with God is everything. Character is the fundamental basis of any leadership. He emphasised apostolic poverty, insisting that those who claimed to sit on Saint Peter’s chair should, like the Apostle, be without silver or gold. To Wycliffe, those who claimed to follow the Apostles should live poor and humble lives spent in the service of the Church, setting an example of holiness. Therefore the pope of Rome should be a shepherd of the flock and a preacher who brings men to Christ. Wycliffe denounced the worldliness and luxury of the popes and the spiritual bankruptcy of the office of pope. The papacy had departed from the simple Faith and practice of Christ and His disciples. Wycliffe wrote: “Christ is truth, the pope is the principle of falsehood. Christ lived in poverty, the pope labours for worldly magnificence. Christ refused temporal dominion, the pope seeks it.”
Christ Alone is the Head of the Church
In his book “The Power of the papacy” published in 1379, Wycliffe argues that the papacy is an office instituted by man, not God. No pope’s authority could extend to secular government. The only authority that any pope might have would depend upon him having the moral character of the Apostle Peter. Any pope who does not follow Jesus Christ is anti-Christ. Wycliffe proclaimed that “Christ alone is the Head of the Church.”
Unbiblical Practices Condemned
The Church on earth Wycliffe defined as the whole company of the elect, those chosen by God. The Church is the body of Christ, a unity that knows nothing of popes, hierarchies, monks, friars, priests or nuns. Nor can the salvation of the elect be effected by masses, indulgences, penance, or any other devices of priestcraft. There is nothing in the Bible about transubstantiation, pardons, absolutions, worship of images, the adoration of saints, the treasury of merits laid up at the reserve of the pope, the distinction between venial and mortal sins, or confession to a priest. Compulsory confession Wycliffe considered “the bondage of anti-Christ.” Wycliffe declared that the reading and preaching of God’s Word “is of more value than the administration of any sacrament.”
God’s Law is Supreme
In a letter written by Wycliffe to pope Urban VI he maintained: “The Gospel of Christ is the body of the Law of God, Christ is true God and true man…the Roman pontiff is most bound to this Law of the Gospel…Christ’s disciples are judged…according to their imitation of Christ in their moral life…Christ was the poorest of men during the time of His pilgrimage…He eschewed all worldly dominion…never should any of the faithful imitate the pope himself, nor any of the saints except in so far as he may have imitated the Lord Jesus Christ…the pope should leave temporal dominion to the secular arm…God…has always taught me to obey God rather than men.” In this letter Wycliffe also refers to the “deceitful counsel…malicious counsel…anything contrary to the Law of the Lord” as “anti-Christ.”
Scripture Alone is our Authority
In 1378 Wycliffe completed the book “The Truth of Holy Scripture.” In it he wrote: “Holy Scripture is the pre-eminent authority for every Christian and the rule of faith and of all human perfection…it is necessary for all men, not for priests alone…Christ and His Apostles taught the people in the language best known to them…therefore the doctrine should not only be in Latin, but in the vernacular…the more these are known the better…believers should have the Scriptures in a language which they fully understand.” Wycliffe taught that Scripture contains everything that is necessary for our salvation. All other authorities must be tested by the Scripture. “Christ’s Law is best and enough and other laws men should not take, but as branches of God’s Law.”
Translating the Scriptures
Therefore Wycliffe supervised a handful of scholars at Oxford in the translation of the Latin Bible into the English language. This was the very first translation of the entire Bible into the English language. The only source that Wycliffe’s translators had to work with was a Latin hand-written manuscript of a translation made 1000 years previously. Wycliffe is called “the father of English prose” because of the clarity and effectiveness of his writings and sermons which did much to unify and shape the English language.
The Lollards Evangelise England
From Oxford, Wycliffe trained and sent out “poor priests” (the Lollards) into the fields, villages and churches, to preach in the marketplaces, to read and sing the Scriptures in English and to win people for Christ. These itinerant evangelists became a tremendous power in the land as they spread the knowledge of the Scriptures throughout England.
Persecution from Papal Pharisees
As a result of these activities and teachings, one pope issued five bulls against John Wycliffe for “heresy.” The Catholic Church tried him three times and two popes summoned him to Rome. However, Wycliffe wisely refused each summons and the political protection of the Duke of Lancaster and Queen Anne kept Wycliffe alive and free. He was never imprisoned. However, his followers were hunted down, expelled from Oxford and mercilessly persecuted.
Hatred for the Bible in the Common Language
To get an idea of the scandal and controversy engendered by Wycliffe’s Reformation, we should note what was written by Henry Knighton, a Catholic chronicler: “Christ gave His Gospel to the clergy…but this master John Wycliffe translated the Gospel from Latin into the English…common to all and more open to the laity and even to women…and so the pearl of the Gospel is thrown before swine and trodden under foot…the jewel of the clergy has been turned into the jest of the laity…has become common.” The Archbishop of Canterbury, Arundel, said: “that pestilent and most wretched John Wycliffe, of damnable memory, a child of the old devil and himself a child or pupil of anti-Christ…crowned his wickedness by translating the Scriptures into the mother tongue!”
The Bible in English – Banned
A synod of clergy in 1408 decreed: “It is dangerous…to translate the text of Holy Scripture…we decree and ordain that no-one shall in future translate on his authority any text of Scripture into the English tongue or into any other tongue, by way of book, booklet or treatise. Nor shall any man read, in public or in private, this kind of book, booklet or treatise, now recently composed in the time of the said John Wycliffe…on the penalty of the greater excommunication.”
Earthquake Interrupts Anathemas
In 1382, at a church council called by Archbishop Courtenay, 24 of Wycliffe’s teachings were condemned. During that council there was an earthquake. Wycliffe and the Lollards interpreted the earthquake as a sign of God’s displeasure with the corrupt and un-Biblical Roman clergy.
Rome vs. Jerusalem
Wycliffe scorned the idea that because Peter died in Rome therefore every Bishop of Rome is to be set above all of Christendom. By the same reasoning, he noted, the Muslim Turk might conclude that because they controlled Jerusalem, where Christ died, their Mullah has power over the pope!
Who Can Forgive Sins?
Wycliffe attacked the corruptions, superstitions and abuses of the friars and monks. He exposed their supposed powers to forgive sins as fraudulent. “Who can forgive sins?” Wycliffe taught: “God alone!” Christ alone is the Head of the Church and God alone can forgive sins.
Field Workers of the Reformation
Wycliffe’s field workers (the Lollards) helped to prepare the way for the English Reformation (in the 16th Century) by reading, preaching and singing the Scriptures in English in marketplaces, fields and homes throughout the land.
Turning the Tables
Summoned to appear before a church council Wycliffe rebuked the bishops for being “priests of Baal, selling blasphemy and idolatry in the mass and indulgences.” He then walked out of the assembly and refused a summons from the pope. When Wycliffe was excluded from teaching in Oxford, he withdrew to the congregation at Lutterworth, in Leicestershire, where he devoted himself to writing during his few remaining years.
Wycliffe’s Ashes and Doctrine
In 1428, 44 years after Wycliffe’s death, by order of the pope, the bones of Wycliffe were dug up and burned. As one historian commented: “They burned his bones to ashes and cast them into the Swift, a neighbouring brook running close by. Thus the brook conveyed his ashes to the Avon, the Avon into the Severn, the Severn into the narrow seas and they into the main ocean. And so the ashes of Wycliffe are symbolic of his doctrine, which is now spread throughout the world.”Wycliffe was the father of the Reformation – its morning star. Wycliffe’s writings and example inspired John Hus and Martin Luther.
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.”Proverbs 9:10
Dr. Peter Hammond
The Reformation Society
P.O. Box 74 Newlands 7725
Cape Town South Africa
The Reformation Roots of Western Civilisation
A Bold New Initiative for Reformation Today
Reformation FIRE for Africa