John Wycliffe (1328-1384)
In 1320’s, no one knows exactly, John Wycliffe was born in England. At that time the Roman Catholic Church was the only Christian church in Europe; and it was corrupt and full of problems. There was a division between rival popes, each claiming legitimacy and excommunicating the other. The harmful practices of indulgence sales and nepotism added to the ecclesiastical rot. Within that religious context, John Wycliffe became a teacher at Oxford. He was very smart and quickly became considered the best theologian among the faculty. By 1376 he was openly attacking the papacy by using scripturally-based arguments.
In 1376 he wrote On Civil Lordship which attacked papal corruption by arguing that God, like a feudal Lord, gave powers and offices. The recipient of these must be a faithful steward, accountable for the use of these powers and offices. Moreover, the unfaithful steward ought to be stripped of office and possessions. While this was an aggressive stance, he did not advocate using force against clerical officials.
He then wrote On the Pastoral Office. At that time most thought the role of the priest was to administer grace through the sacraments. In this writing Wycliffe said their job was to feed sheep, purge disease in the church, defend the sheep against wolves, and to preach the gospel. Since this was an assault on the philosophy and methodology of the priests of that day, On the Pastoral Office separated Wycliffe from the traditional church leadership of the day.
On the Eucharist was Wycliffe’s writing that attacked the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. This was the Roman Church’s teaching that described what was happening at communion, also called the (Lord’s Table, or Eucharist). Transubstantiation held that the bread and the wine of the communion went through a change that actually made it the body and blood of Jesus. Wycliffe thought this teaching was the foundation of Papal authority over the people. As long as the Church could control the grac that comes to the believer at communion, the people would be captive to the Church. He used three arguments against the unbiblical idea of transubstantiation:
First, it was illogical. Transubstantiation claims that the bread really becomes Christ’s body and the wine really becomes His blood – the substances change. However, it still looks, feels, tastes, and smells like bread and wine because the properties don’t change. It is really the body and blood of Christ but it seems like bread and wine. Wycliffe disagreed saying that you can’t change the substance of something without changing the properties. Bread was bread and wine was wine.
Second, Christ must be “sacramentally present”, not physically present at the Lord’s Table. Wycliffe famously commented, “a dog, a hog, or a mouse cannot eat our Lord.” When it is consumed it is bread and wine, not Jesus; but Jesus is with us at the Lord’s Table.
Third, the Catholic interpretation was inconsistent with many of the early church fathers. Wycliffe made an argument from church history.
Perhaps Wycliffe’s greatest influence , however, was his determination to give the people of England a Bible in their own language. He stated that “Scripture is the highest authority for every Christian and the standard of faith.” However, it is worth noting that Wycliffe did not affirm Sola Scriptura as it eventually became known nor how most Protestants are used to hearing the doctrine of scripture described today.
After his dismissal from Oxford in 1381, John Wycliffe also founded the Lollard movement, which was the name given to his followers. It was a derisive term from Dutch – “to mumble”. The implication was they were uneducated. Since their training was in English and not Latin they faced the accusation that they were unfit to represent God. People cast aspersions on their efforts and “lollard” came to mean heretical.
They went out in poverty, two-by-two, and they were ruthlessly suppressed; persecution eventually forced them underground. The first layman to be executed for heresy in England was a Lollard who wouldn’t recant. Much later the Lollards came out of hiding from persecution. They eventually blended into other reformed groups after being secretive for more than 100 years.
The cumulative effect of Wycliffe’s work was that beliefs at the heart of Catholicism were attacked. Teachings concerning the papacy, religious hierarchy, the Eucharist, and the exclusion of the Bible in the hands of the laity were challenged biblically. Moreover the evangelistic movement he began proved that Wycliffe was not just a systematic theologian, but a pastor concerned for all England.
The response to him was mainly negative. The Synod of London (1382) condemned 24 of his opinions. That became important because when Luther debated John Eck in early stages of Reformation, Eck gained a foothold by simply getting Luther to admit that his ideas were like Wycliffe, who had been condemned.
John Wycliffe died of a stroke in 1384; but that was not the end of his story. In 1415 the Council of Constance declared him to be a heretic and removed his body from burial in consecrated ground. His corpse was dug up and burned, then his ashes were thrown into the River Swift that flows through central England.
His ideas were those of Reformation thought. Sadly, they were not able to take hold in England. Later they would sprout again in Bohemia with John Hus and most significantly with Martin Luther in Germany. The Morningstar of the Reformation foreshadowed the great changes to come.