John Wycliffe – how he anticipated the Reformers

An outline of the ways in which John Wycliffe’s teaching anticipated the work of the Reformers

England, and indeed Europe, in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries was a veritable cesspit in which wickedness was rife and immorality thrived. Those entrusted to that most serious duty of guiding and nurturing souls unto perfection in Christ, led only in this respect: that they were role models of iniquity and gross excess. What is still more shameful, is that they should arrogantly bear the title of Holy Church and pretend to perpetuate that most sacred of missions entrusted by Christ to His apostles.

Any representations of this period to the contrary – that scripture-derived qualities of honour, loyalty, altruism and suchlike were the defining characteristics of this age – are mere sentimentality whose only hope of credence lies in the remoteness of that time from this, and the indolence of contemporary scholarship to learn from its mistakes.

Evidence of this fact is easily elicited by the historical record. Let it suffice for our purposes to draw on the judgement of one whose erudition and objectivity stand above reproof:

Bishop J.C. Ryle observes that:

“for these three centuries before the Reformation, Christianity in England seems to have been buried under a mass of ignorance, superstition, priestcraft, and immorality. The likeness between the religion of this period and that of the apostolic age was so small, that if St. Paul had risen from the dead he would hardly have called it Christianity at all!”

It would be untrue to suggest that this condition was not evident to those whose consciences should have compelled them to act toward some remedy. However, the personal condition of those of whom the Church leadership comprised was little better than that of the whole. The sad fact is that in spite of the overtness of the Church’s corruption, no-one of significant resolve or standing in this period, other than Wycliffe, was moved to challenge the system. That Wycliffe recognised the terminal illness of the Church, and was emboldened to act, was the result of the deep sincerity of his religious conviction and duty. Whereas others were content merely to accept unquestioningly and unreasoningly the authority of a system, which by hook or by crook had ensured its domination over all affairs of public life and private conduct for more than a thousand years, John Wycliffe was divinely imbued with a sense of perspective over the spiritual affairs of men that would not allow him to continue his life except he spend the remainder of it in service to the cause of purifying the assembled body of the elect from papist usurpation and suppression of Gospel blessing.

Let us now look at how he went about severing our ties with that monstrous regime. I would doubt that, when first Wycliffe began to contemplate the grossness of Rome’s wickedness and illegitimacy to govern the elect, he conceived a strategy by which he might attain his end. Rather, I believe that Providence, while fortifying his resolve and illuminating his intellect, foreordained circumstances at all levels, from that of international import to the mundanities of his personal affairs, in such a way as to impel Wycliffe to initiate processes in European history that would prove to be irreversible and would lead ultimately to the Reformation of the Church.

The first of these circumstances was catalysed by the endemic greed of Rome in its insistence of payment of English debts unlawfully promised by King John. Patriotic, and possessing a God-fearing sense of justice and an acute awareness of the sophistic nature of Rome’s means of ever-consolidating her grip over the nations of Christendom, Wycliffe ensured that Pope Urban V, by this unjust act, served only to injure the Vatican and began to expose to the English people the deplorable motivation that drove the papacy to oppress the English as it did. Wycliffe’s vindication of England’s non-duty to resume the wastage of her funds he argues from scripture. In so doing, while evoking the wrath of the pope against him, he demonstrates to the people of his land at the same time the absurdity of double-headship of the Church and the unresolvable nature of the dichotomy between the authority of popes and that of kings.

This head-on conflict with Rome must be seen as a defining moment in English and European history. If championing this cause, and thereby placing himself directly in Rome’s deadly accurate line of fire, were Wycliffe’s sole contribution to our nation’s health, I hold that we could still gratefully remember him as giving ignition to the Reformation’s fuse. For, it having been shown at the highest levels, and with the King and Parliament’s full authority, that there cannot be two temporal rulers in England, a number of conclusions very damaging to Rome’s stronghold naturally follow, viz. that if England cannot have two heads, neither need have France, Germany or any autonomous nation; that if the pope can be resisted in England, he can be resisted elsewhere; that if the pope can be contradicted he cannot be infallible and, if fallible, nations should be free to reassess the necessity and nature of their subordination to him.

What Wycliffe taught before King and Parliament he consolidated at Oxford. A number of premises were provable to the minds of men who had seen at first hand so manifest an expression of papal ignominy: chiefly, that the pope’s role as Bishop of Rome was as overseer – he has no more power than ordinary priests to excommunicate or to absolve men, and that excommunication is only valid where the offence persists against God.

“No ecclesiastic, however elevated, can impart either good or evil by his benedictions, or his curses, except as these are in agreement with the law of Christ”.

To question the accepted character of papal headship was to invite debate on matters of doctrine disseminated down through the centuries by agents of that organisation over which the pope presided. What Wycliffe’s contemporaries and forebears had shrunk from, Wycliffe uncalculatingly broached. The doctrines built up by more than two hundred successive popes, Wycliffe laid siege to. The traditions and customs esteemed by Rome as of greater necessity for salvation than a humble acceptance of the plain words of Christ as expressed unequivocally in the Gospels, he attacked.

Wycliffe’s nearness to God kindled in him at the same time a compassion for those whose suffering he witnessed at the hand of Rome, and an intense hatred of the system that would go on necessitating these ills ad infinitum until challenged. His first attack therefore came against the hitherto accepted custom of purchasing absolution with alms. The system, he argued, was destructive on a number of fronts: chiefly, it taught the damnable heresy that we are redeemed with corruptible things such as silver and gold, and that rather than trusting to Christ’s righteousness imputed to us undeservedly by grace, we are enabled to acquire a false belief in our own worthiness to participate in the means of expiation of our sins.

“There is no greater heresy than for a man to believe that he is absolved from his sins if he give money… for thou must be sorrowful in thy heart, and make amends to God, else God absolveth thee not.”

Wycliffe showed that another evil nourished by this practice, and by other means by which the Church became inordinately wealthy, was the apathy and indolence effected in the clergy by the excessive luxury they were wont to enjoy, and the consequent lack of devotion to serious duty. He claimed that “alms were wasted in pomp and pride, gluttony and other vanities”.

Wycliffe, for whom religion was not a mere outward profession but a matter of greater gravity than life itself, considered that a priest must live wholly consecrated to the service of the elect, and that he should be free from worldly distractions, not engaging in secular occupations. As had been the case in most of Christendom for centuries, most leading roles in state were occupied by clergy when Wycliffe spoke against this.

Whilst condemning this practice, Wycliffe advocated its solution. Priests who neglected their calling were “foulest traitors”. No more should they be known as indulging themselves “in taverns, and hunting and playing at their tables”, but they should be “learning God’s law, and preaching”. To this end, Wycliffe raised a spiritual army who would not desert the standard, but would engage with the enemy on the front line: they would preach the Word of God.

“The highest service that men may attain to on earth” is “to preach the Word of God. This service falls peculiarly to priests, and therefore God more straightly demands it of them”.

Wycliffe’s revival of the great commission Christ entrusted to His apostles should be seen as his most valuable work toward reformation to this point, for it is the divinely appointed means by which sons are brought unto glory, the means by which the light of the glorious Gospel of Christ should shine unto them. Had Rome not lost anything of its credibility, had she not been enervated by Wycliffe’s opposition to her, had she not given to the world an horrific exhibition of her monstrousness when in 1378 she sprouted another head, I find that Europe must needs still see a Reformation of sorts, for we know that the Word that goeth forth out of His mouth shall not return void but shall prosper in the thing whereto He sent it. Wycliffe’s poor preaching priests were laying a foundation that would never be destroyed. A century and a half later that foundation would be gratefully built upon.

But on what basis did Wycliffe confront the Bishop of Rome and his collaborators? Against what standard did he condemn them? To which model did he exhort them to conform?

Had it been anything other than scripture that dictated his agenda and informed his campaign, Wycliffe would be no more than a meddlesome, pontificating agitator. Had he borne witness of himself, his witness would not have been true. But there was indeed Another that bore witness of him; One whose witness we know is true. In everything Wycliffe appealed to scripture and in so doing effectively formulated the doctrine that would come to be the cornerstone of the Reformation: the sufficiency and supremacy of Holy Scripture as the only rule of faith and practice.

“Holy Scripture is the faith of the Church and the more widely its true meaning becomes known the better it will be.”

Such was the strength of his conviction on this point that together with Nicholas Hereford he translated the Bible into the vernacular. Flouting criticism that he was thereby casting the Gospel pearl before swine, he worked to ensure that copies of his translation were circulated to an ever wider readership. Wycliffe rightly perceived that a free Bible is the beginning of all real freedom.

“Which are the countries where liberty, and public and private morality have attained the highest pitch? The countries where the Bible is free to all…”

Wycliffe’s acquaintance with scripture was of course second to none. By publishing the scriptures Wycliffe was preparing his hearers for a determined attack on the more diabolical doctrines held by Rome, namely those of transubstantiation and the sacrifice of the Mass. These he criticised as a “new religion founded by sinful men”. The dogma of transubstantiation received his special attention as it represented a very great danger indeed: if men could be induced to believe something that ran so contrary to their senses, to reason, and to an honest reading of scripture, there would be no limit to the absurdities, idolatry and superstitions their minds could be bent to embrace. The intellectual suicide they were being coerced to commit would bar them from receiving all Gospel blessing; they must conclude that the Bible is an unfathomable labyrinth of inaccessible riddles and mysteries that must remain the exclusive territory of the priesthood. By its insistence on transubstantiation Rome therefore kept its subjects docile, ignorant and dependent.

Wycliffe’s attack was vehement and unanswerable. None came forward when invited to gainsay him. The ire he evoked in Rome was unrestrainable. That his life was preserved and he was able to die peacefully at home, and having done all to stand, was miraculous. Wycliffe had proved a deadly foe to the enemy of the Gospel. It had not been a battle fought in some remote quarter, but a conflict visible to all. The impression made upon the Church was indelible. Rome’s grip would not be released in that day, but her proud and mighty arm was surely withered. Wycliffe had wrestled against principalities, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.

In denouncing the cardinal errors of Rome, maintaining Scripture’s sufficiency and supremacy, reviving the apostolic ordinance of preaching and giving to the people God’s most precious Word in their own tongue, Wycliffe had lit a beacon that would never be extinguished, but whose flames would be fuelled and fanned by God’s life-giving Spirit working through His witnesses and would within two centuries shed its light abroad and consume the darkness of spiritual oppression in Europe. We must never forget to thank God for sending us Wycliffe, morning star of the Reformation.

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