John Wycliffe (also spelled Wyclif, Wycliff, Wiclef, Wicliffe, or Wickliffe) (mid-1320s – 31 December 1384) was an English theologian, translator and reformist. Wycliffe was an early dissident in the Roman Catholic Church during the 14th century. He is considered the founder of the Lollard movement, a precursor to the Protestant Reformation (for this reason, he is sometimes called "The Morning Star of the Reformation"). He was one of the earliest opponents of papal encroachment on secular power.
Wycliffe was also an early advocate for translation of the Bible directly from the Vulgate into vernacular English in the year 1382, now known as the Wycliffe Bible. It is believed that he personally translated the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; and it is possible he translated the entire New Testament, while his associates translated the Old Testament. Wycliff's Bible appears to have been completed by 1384, with additional updated versions being done by Wycliffe's assistant John Purvey and others in 1388 and 1395.
Wycliffe received his early education close to his home although nothing about his life is certain. It is not known when he first came to Oxford, with which he was so closely connected until the end of his life, but he is known to have been at Oxford around 1345. He was influenced by Roger Bacon, Robert Grosseteste, Thomas Bradwardine, William of Occam, and Richard Fitzralph.
Wycliffe owed much to William of Occam's work and thought. He showed interest in natural science and mathematics, but applied himself to studying theology, ecclesiastical law, and philosophy. His opponents acknowledged the keenness of his dialectic, and his writings prove he was well grounded in Roman and English law, as well as in native history.
During this time there was friction between the northern (Boreales) and southern (Australes) "nations" at Oxford. Wycliffe belonged to Boreales, in which the prevailing tendency was anticurial, while the other was curial. Not less sharp was the separation over Nominalism and Realism. He mastered most of the techniques.
Between 1366 and 1372, he became a Doctor of Divinity, making use of his right to lecture upon systematic divinity, but these lectures were not the origin of his Summa. In 1368, he gave up his living at Fylingham and took over the rectory of Ludgershall, Buckinghamshire, not far from Oxford, which enabled him to retain his connection with the university. Six years later, in 1374, he received the crown living of Lutterworth in Leicestershire, which he retained until his death. He had already resigned as prebendary of Aust in Westbury-on-Trym.
Wycliffe's more important participation began with the peace congress at Bruges. There in 1374 negotiations were carried on between France and England, while at the same time commissioners from England dealt with papal delegates respecting the removal of ecclesiastical annoyances. Wycliffe was among these, under a decree dated July 26, 1374. The choice of a harsh opponent of the Avignon system would have broken up rather than furthered the peace negotiations. It seems he was designated purely as a theologian, and so considered himself, since a noted scriptural scholar was required alongside of those learned in civil and canon law. There was no need for a man of renown, or a pure advocate of state interests. His predecessor in a like case was John Owtred, a monk who formulated the statement that Saint Peter had united in his hands spiritual and temporal power – the opposite of what Wycliffe taught. In the days of the mission to Bruges Owtred still belonged to Wycliffe's circle of friends.
Wycliffe was still regarded by papal partisans as trustworthy; his opposition to the ruling conduct of the Church may have escaped notice. It was difficult to recognise him as a heretic. The controversies in which men engaged at Oxford were philosophical rather than purely theological or ecclesiastical-political, and the method of discussion was academic and scholastic. The kind of men with whom Wycliffe dealt included the Carmelite monk John Kyningham over theological or ecclesiastical-political questions. Wycliffe's contest with Owtred and William Wynham (or Wyrinham or Binham) of Wallingford Priory and St Albans, the Benedictine professor of theology at Oxford, were formerly unknown, as were the earlier ones with William Wadeford. When it is recalled that it was once the task of Owtred to defend the political interests of England against the demands of Avignon, one would more likely see him in agreement with Wycliffe than in opposition. But Owtred believed it sinful to say that temporal power might deprive a priest, even an unrighteous one, of his temporalities; Wycliffe regarded it as a sin to incite the pope to excommunicate laymen who had deprived clergy of their temporalities, his dictum being that a man in a state of sin had no claim upon government.
Wycliffe blamed Wynham for making public controversies which had hitherto been confined to the academic arena. But the controversies were fundamentally related to the opposition which found expression in Parliament against the Curia. Wycliffe himself tells how he concluded that there was a great contrast between what the Church was and what it ought to be, and saw the necessity for reform. His ideas stress the perniciousness of the temporal rule of the clergy and its incompatibility with the teaching of Christ and the apostles, and make note of the tendencies which were evident in the measures of the "Good Parliament" of 1376-77. A long bill was introduced, with 140 headings, in which were stated the grievances caused by the aggressions of the Curia; all reservations and commissions were to be done away, the exportation of money was forbidden, and the foreign collectors were to be removed.
It was in this period that Wycliffe came significantly to the fore. He was among those to whom the thought of the secularization of ecclesiastical properties in England was welcome. His protector was John of Gaunt, who was acting as ruler at this time. He was no longer satisfied with his chair as the means of propagating his ideas, and soon after his return from Bruges he began to express them in tracts and longer works – his great work, the Summa theologiae, was written in support of them. In the first book, concerned with the government of God and the Ten Commandments, he attacked the temporal rule of the clergy – in temporal things the king is above the pope, and the collection of annates and indulgences is simony. But he entered the politics of the day with his great work De civili dominio. Here he introduced those ideas by which the good parliament was governed – which involved the renunciation by the Church of temporal dominion. The items of the "long bill" appear to have been derived from his work. In this book are the strongest outcries against the Avignon system with its commissions, exactions, squandering of charities by unfit priests, and the like. To change this is the business of the State. If the clergy misuses ecclesiastical property, it must be taken away; if the king does not do this, he is remiss. The work contains 18 strongly stated theses, opposing the governing methods of the rule of the Church and the straightening out of its temporal possessions. Wycliffe had set these ideas before his students at Oxford in 1376, after becoming involved in controversy with William Wadeford and others. Rather than restricting these matters to the classroom, he wanted them proclaimed more widely and wanted temporal and spiritual lords to take note. While the latter attacked him and sought ecclesiastical censure, he recommended himself to the former by his criticism of the worldly possessions of the clergy.
The first to oppose his theses were monks of those orders which held possessions, to whom his theories were dangerous. Oxford and the episcopate were later blamed by the Curia, which charged them with so neglecting their duty that the breaking of the evil fiend into the English sheepfold could be noticed in Rome before it was in England. Wycliffe was summoned before William Courtenay, Bishop of London, on 19 February 1377, in order "to explain the wonderful things which had streamed forth from his mouth". The exact charges are not known, as the matter did not get as far as a definite examination. Gaunt, the Earl Marshal Henry Percy, and a number of other friends accompanied Wycliffe, and four begging friars were his advocates. A crowd gathered at the church, and at the entrance of the party animosities began to show, especially in an angry exchange between the bishop and the Reformer's protectors. Gaunt declared that he would humble the pride of the English clergy and their partisans, hinting at the intent to secularise the possessions of the Church. The assembly broke up and the lords departed with their protege.
Most of the English clergy were irritated by this encounter, and attacks upon Wycliffe began, finding their response in the second and third books of his work dealing with civil government. These books carry a sharp polemic, hardly surprising when it is recalled that his opponents charged Wycliffe with blasphemy and scandal, pride and heresy. He appeared to have openly advised the secularization of English church property, and the dominant parties shared his conviction that the monks could better be controlled if they were relieved from the care of secular affairs.
The bitterness occasioned by this advice will be better understood when it is remembered that at that time the papacy was at war with the Florentines and was in dire straits. The demand of the Minorites that the Church should live in poverty as it did in the days of the apostles was not pleasing in such a crisis. It was under these conditions that Pope Gregory XI, who in January, 1377, had gone from Avignon to Rome, sent on 22 May five copies of his bull against Wycliffe, dispatching one to the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the others to the Bishop of London, King Edward III, the Chancellor, and the university; among the enclosures were 18 theses of his, which were denounced as erroneous and dangerous to Church and State.
The reformatory activities of Wycliffe effectively began here: all the great works, especially his Summa theologiae, are closely connected with the condemnation of his 18 theses, while the entire literary energies of his later years rest upon this foundation. The next aim of his opponents – to make him out a revolutionary in politics – failed. The situation in England resulted in damage to them; on June 21, 1377, Edward III died. His successor was Richard II, a boy, who was under the influence of John of Gaunt, his uncle. So it resulted that the bull against Wycliffe did not become public till 18 December. Parliament, which met in October, came into sharp conflict with the Curia. Among the propositions which Wycliffe, at the direction of the government, worked out for parliament was one which speaks out distinctly against the exhaustion of England by the Curia.
Wycliffe tried to gain public favour by laying his theses before Parliament, and then made them public in a tract, accompanied by explanations, limitations, and interpretations. After the session of Parliament was over he was called upon to answer, and in March, 1378, he appeared at the episcopal palace at Lambeth to defend himself. The preliminaries were not yet finished when a noisy mob gathered with the purpose of saving him; the king's mother, Joan of Kent, also took up his cause. The bishops, who were divided, satisfied themselves with forbidding him to speak further on the controversy. At Oxford the vice-chancellor, following papal directions, confined the Reformer for some time in Black Hall, from which Wycliffe was released on threats from his friends; the vice-chancellor was himself confined in the same place because of his treatment of Wycliffe. The latter then took up the usage according to which one who remained for 44 days under excommunication came under the penalties executed by the State, and wrote his De incarcerandis fedelibus, in which he demanded that it should be legal for the excommunicated to appeal to the king and his council against the excommunication; in this writing he laid open the entire case and in such a way that it was understood by the laity. He wrote his 33 conclusions, in Latin and English. The masses, some of the nobility, and his former protector, John of Gaunt, rallied to him. Before any further steps could be taken at Rome, Gregory XI died (1378). But Wycliffe was already engaged in one of his most important works, that dealing with what he perceived as the truth of Holy Scripture.
The sharper the strife became, the more Wycliffe had recourse to his translation of Scripture as the basis of all Christian doctrinal opinion, and expressly tried to prove this to be the only norm for Christian faith. In order to refute his opponents, he wrote the book in which he endeavored to show that Holy Scripture contains all truth and, being from God, is the only authority. He referred to the conditions under which the condemnation of his 18 theses was brought about; and the same may be said of his books dealing with the Church, the office of king, and the power of the pope – all completed within the space of two years (1378-79). To Wycliffe, the Church is the totality of those who are predestined to blessedness. It includes the Church triumphant in heaven, those in purgatory, and the Church militant or men on earth. No one who is eternally lost has part in it. There is one universal Church, and outside of it there is no salvation. Its head is Christ. No pope may say that he is the head, for he cannot say that he is elect or even a member of the Church.
This book, like those that preceded and followed, was concerned with the reform of the Church, in which the temporal arm was to have an influential part. Especially interesting is the teaching which Wycliffe addressed to the king on the protection of his theologians. This did not mean theology in its modern sense, but knowledge of the Bible. Since the law must be in agreement with Scripture, knowledge of theology is necessary to the strengthening of the kingdom; therefore the king has theologians in his entourage to stand at his side as he exercises power. It is their duty to explain Scripture according to the rule of reason and in conformity with the witness of the saints; also to proclaim the law of the king and to protect his welfare and that of his kingdom.
Wycliffe's influence was never greater than at the moment when pope and antipope sent their ambassadors to England in order to gain recognition for themselves. In the ambassadors' presence, he delivered an opinion before Parliament that showed, in an important ecclesiastical political question (the matter of the right of asylum in Westminster Abbey), a position that was to the liking of the State. How Wycliffe came to be active in the interest of Urban is seen in passages in his latest writings, in which he expressed himself in regard to the papacy in a favorable sense. On the other hand he states that it is not necessary to go either to Rome or to Avignon in order to seek a decision from the pope, since the triune God is everywhere. Our pope is Christ. It seems clear that Wycliffe was an opponent of that papacy which had developed since Constantine. He taught that the Church can continue to exist even though it have no visible leader; but there can be no damage when the Church possesses a leader of the right kind. To distinguish between what the pope should be, if one is necessary, and the pope as he appeared in Wycliffe's day was the purpose of his book on the power of the pope. The Church militant, Wycliffe taught, needs a head – but one whom God gives the Church. The elector [cardinal] can only make someone a pope if the choice relates to one who is elect [of God]. But that is not always the case. It may be that the elector is himself not predestined and chooses one who is in the same case – a veritable Antichrist. One must regard as a true pope one who in teaching and life most nearly follows Jesus and Saint Peter.
This battle against what he saw as an imperialised papacy and its supporters, the "sects," as he called the monastic orders, takes up a large space not only in his later works as the Trialogus, Dialogus, Opus evangelicum, and in his sermons, but also in a series of sharp tracts and polemical productions in Latin and English (of which those issued in his later years have been collected as "Polemical Writings"). In these he teaches that the Church needs no new sects; sufficient for it now is the religion of Christ which sufficed in the first three centuries of its existence. The monastic orders are bodies which are not supported by the Bible, and must be abolished together with their possessions. Such teaching, particularly in sermons, had one immediate effect – a serious rising of the people. The monks were deprived of alms and were bidden to apply themselves to manual labor. These teachings had more important results upon the orders and their possessions in Bohemia, where the instructions of the "Evangelical master" were followed to the letter in such a way that the noble foundations and practically the whole of the property of the Church were sacrificed. But the result was not as Wycliffe wanted it in England – the property fell not to the State but to the barons of the land. The scope of the conflict in England widened; it no longer involved the mendicant monks alone, but took in the entire hierarchy. An element of the contest appears in Wycliffe's doctrine of the Lord's Supper.
In spite of the zeal with which the hierarchy sought to destroy it due to what they saw as mistranslations and erroneous commentary, there still exist about 150 manuscripts, complete or partial, containing the translation in its revised form. From this, one may easily infer how widely diffused it was in the fifteenth century. For this reason the Wycliffites in England were often designated by their opponents as "Bible men". Just as Luther's version had great influence upon the German language, so Wycliffe's, by reason of its clarity, beauty, and strength, influenced the English language as the King James Version was later to do.
Wycliffe's Bible, as it came to be known, was widely distributed throughout England. The Church denounced it due to the many errors in translation.
In the midst of this commotion came the Peasants' Revolt of 1381. Although Wycliffe disapproved of the revolt, he was blamed. Yet his friend and protector John of Gaunt was the most hated by the rebels, and where Wycliffe's influence was greatest the uprising found the least support. While in general the aim of the revolt was against the spiritual nobility, this came about because they were nobles, not because they were churchmen. Wycliffe's old enemy William Courtenay, now Archbishop of Canterbury, called in 1382 an ecclesiastical assembly of notables at London. During the consultations on 21 May an earthquake occurred; the participants were terrified and wished to break up the assembly, but Courtenay declared the earthquake a favorable sign which meant the purification of the earth from erroneous doctrine, and the result of the "Earthquake Synod" was assured.
Of the 24 propositions attributed to Wycliffe without mentioning his name, ten were declared heretical and fourteen erroneous. The former had reference to the transformation in the sacrament, the latter to matters of church order and institutions. It was forbidden from that time to hold these opinions or to advance them in sermons or in academic discussions. All persons disregarding this order were to be subject to prosecution. To accomplish this the help of the State was necessary; but the Commons rejected the bill. The king, however, had a decree issued which permitted the arrest of those in error. The citadel of the reformatory movement was Oxford, where Wycliffe's most active helpers were; these were laid under the ban and summoned to recant, and Nicholas of Hereford went to Rome to appeal. In similar fashion the poor priests were hindered in their work.
On 18 November, 1382, Wycliffe was summoned before a synod at Oxford; he appeared, though apparently broken in body in consequence of a stroke, but nevertheless determined. He still commanded the favour of the court and of Parliament, to which he addressed a memorial. He was neither excommunicated then, nor deprived of his living.
The Council of Constance declared Wycliffe (on 4 May 1415) a stiff-necked heretic and under the ban of the Church. It was decreed that his books be burned and his remains be exhumed. The latter did not happen until twelve years afterward, when at the command of Pope Martin V they were dug up, burned, and the ashes cast into the River Swift, which flows through Lutterworth. This is the most final of all posthumous attacks on John Wycliffe, but previous attempts had been made before the Council of Constance. The Anti-Wycliffite Statute of 1401 defamed Wycliffe's name and also extended to persecute Wycliffe's remaining followers. The "Constitutions of Oxford" of 1408 took aimed to reclaim authority in all ecclesiastical matters, specifically naming John Wycliffe in a ban on certain writings, and noting that translation of Scripture into English is a crime punishable by charges of heresy.
None of Wycliffe's contemporaries left a complete picture of his person, his life, and his activities. The pictures representing him are from a later period. One must be content with certain scattered expressions found in the history of the trial by William Thorpe (1407). It appears that Wycliffe was lacking of body, indeed of wasted appearance, and physically weak. He was of unblemished walk in life, says Thorpe, and was regarded affectionately by people of rank, who often consorted with him, took down his sayings, and clung to him. "I indeed clove to none closer than to him, the wisest and most blessed of all men whom I have ever found. From him one could learn in truth what the Church of Christ is and how it should be ruled and led." Hus wished that his soul might be wherever that of Wycliffe was found.
One may not say that Wycliffe was a comfortable opponent to meet. Thomas Netter highly esteemed John Kynyngham in that he "so bravely offered himself to the biting speech of the heretic and to words that stung as being without the religion of Christ". But this example of Netter is not well chosen, since the tone of Wycliffe toward Kynyngham is that of a junior toward an elder whom one respects, and he handled other opponents in similar fashion. But when he turned upon them his roughest side, as for example in his sermons, polemical writings and tracts, he met the attacks with a tone that could not be styled friendly.
John Wycliffe died December 31, 1384. In spite of all the action taken against him, he had never been excommunicated; therefore, he was buried on consecrated ground. In 1428 his bones were taken from the grave in Lutterworth churchyard by the English bishop at the command of the Pope, burned to ashes, and thrown into the river Swift.
Wycliffe's first encounter with the official Church of his time was prompted by his zeal in the interests of the State. His first tracts and greater works of ecclesiastical-political content defended the privileges of the State, and from these sources developed a strife out of which the next phases could hardly be determined. One who studies these books in the order of their production with reference to their inner content finds a direct development with a strong reformatory tendency. This was not originally doctrinal; when it later took up matters of dogma, as in the teaching concerning transubstantiation, the purpose was the return to original simplicity in the government of the Church. But it would have been against the diplomatic practice of the time to have sent to the peace congress at Bruges, in which the Curia had an essential part, a participant who had become known at home by his allegedly heretical teaching.
Since it was from dealing with ecclesiastical-political questions that Wycliffe turned to reformatory activities, the former have a large part in his reformatory writings. While he took his start in affairs of church policy from the English legislation which was passed in the times of Edward I, he declined the connection into which his contemporaries brought it under the lead of Occam. Indeed, he distinctly disavows taking his conclusions from Okham, and avers that he draws them from Scripture, and that they were supported by the Doctors of the Church. So that dependence upon earlier schismatic parties in the Church, which he never mentions in his writings (as though he had never derived anything from them), is counterindicated, and attention is directed to the true sources in Scripture, to which he added the collections of canons of the Church. Wycliffe would have had nothing to gain by professing indebtedness to "heretical" parties or to opponents of the papacy. His reference to Scripture and orthodox Fathers as authorities is what might have been expected. So far as his polemics accord with those of earlier antagonists of the papacy, it is fair to assume that he was not ignorant of them and was influenced by them. The Bible alone was authoritative and, according to his own conviction and that of his disciples, was fully sufficient for the government of this world (De sufficientia legis Christi). Out of it he drew his comprehensive statements in support of his reformatory views – after intense study and many spiritual conflicts. He tells that as a beginner he was desperate to comprehend the passages dealing with the activities of the divine Word, until by the grace of God he was able to gather the right sense of Scripture, which he then understood. But that was not a light task. Without knowledge of the Bible there can be no peace in the life of the Church or of society, and outside of it there is no real and abiding good; it is the one authority for the faith.
These teachings Wycliffe promulgated in his great work on the truth of Scripture, and in other greater and lesser writings. For him the Bible was the fundamental source of Christianity which is binding on all men. Wycliffe was called "Doctor evangelicus" by his English and Bohemian followers. Of all the reformers who preceded Martin Luther, Wycliffe put most emphasis on Scripture: "Even though there were a hundred popes and though every mendicant monk were a cardinal, they would be entitled to confidence only insofar as they accorded with the Bible." Therefore in this early period it was Wycliffe who recognized and formulated one of the two great formal principles of the Reformation-- the unique authority of the Bible for the belief and life of the Christian.
It is not enough realized that, well before Luther, Wycliffe also recognized the other great Reformation doctrine, that of justification by faith, though not in fully worked out form as Luther achieved. In Christ stilling the Storm he wrote: "If a man believe in Christ, and make a point of his belief, then the promise that God hath made to come into the land of light shall be given by virtue of Christ, to all men that make this the chief matter."
In Plato, knowledge of whom came to Wycliffe through Saint Augustine, he saw traces of a knowledge of the Trinity, and he championed the doctrine of ideas as against Aristotle. He said that Democritus, Plato, Augustine, and Grosseteste far outranked Aristotle. In Aristotle he missed the provision for the immortality of the soul, and in his ethics the tendency toward the eternal. He was a close follower of Augustine, so much so that he was called "John of Augustine" by his pupils. In some of his teachings, as in De annihilatione, the influence of Thomas Aquinas can be detected. So far as his relations to the philosophers of the Middle Ages are concerned, he held to realism as opposed to the nominalism advanced by Occam, although in questions that had to do with ecclesiastical politics he was related to Occam and indeed went beyond him. His views are based upon the conviction of the reality of the universal, and he employed realism in order to avoid dogmatic difficulties.
The uni-divine existence in the Trinity is the real universal of the three Persons, and in the Eucharist the ever-real presence of Christ justifies the deliverance that complete reality is compatible with the spatial division of the existence. The center of Wycliffe's philosophical system is formed by the doctrine of the prior existence in the thought of God of all things and events. This involves the definiteness of things and especially their number, so that neither their infinity, infinite extension, nor infinite divisibility can be assumed. Space consists of a number of points of space determined from eternity, and time of exactly such a number of moments, and the number of these is known only to the divine spirit. Geometrical figures consist of arranged series of points, and enlargement or diminution of these figures rests upon the addition or subtraction of points. Because the existence of these points of space as such, that is, as truly indivisible unities, has its basis in the fact that the points are one with the bodies that fill them; because, therefore, all possible space is coincident with the physical world (as in Wycliffe's system, in general, reality and possibility correspond), there can as little be a vacuum as bounding surfaces that are common to different bodies. The assumption of such surfaces impinges, according to Wycliffe, upon the contradictory principle as does the conception of a truly continuous transition of one condition into another.
Wycliffe's doctrine of atoms connects itself, therefore, with the doctrine of the composition of time from real moments, but is distinguished by the denial of interspaces as assumed in other systems. From the identity of space and the physical world, and the circular motion of the heavens, Wycliffe deduces the spherical form of the universe.