John Wycliffe: the Reformation’s Morning Star

 
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Christians cherish their Founder’s commission: “Go into all the world and preach the good news” (Mark 16:15).

Luke, the first historian of Christianity, quotes the very last words of Jesus on earth: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1: 8).

There is enough child in most of us to love a story. For 2000 years, Christians have been doing what Jesus said, badly or well. We can look back on their experience, and even learn from it.

Water Cliff

I was busy as usual writing about Christian people and events when the editors of Signs asked me to write the story of John Wycliffe. How can we best fit Wycliffe into the narrative of what Christ’s people have done since He first commissioned them? One thing you might choose to do is rather simple: Use a good search engine. At the click of a few computer buttons, the Internet will offer you 1,250,000 references to an Englishman who is often called the “Morning Star of the Reformation.” Even so, we aren’t sure exactly when Wycliffe was born. Probably it was between 1324 and 1330. We believe he died from a massive paralytic stroke on December 31, 1384. His surname is also spelled in confusing ways, like Wiclif, Wye-cliffe or Watercliffe. The family name probably came from a rocky hill on the banks of the Tees River in Yorkshire.

When you search the Internet, be aware that perhaps as many as three other John Wycliffes lived in the same era. Our John is the Oxford scholar who first translated the Bible into English and was also a diplomat and a preacher.

The England of Wycliffe

The English language we speak today reminds us that after the Roman period, Britons were displaced by Anglo- Saxons and conquered by Normans.

In Wycliffe’s England, French was still used in courts of law, but Latin was the language of literature. Universities, set up long ago in Italy and Paris, were established in England two centuries before Wycliffe graduated.

Many of the populace remembered that a century earlier, English barons had extorted the famous Magna Charta from violent King John. Even so, there were ongoing contests between the king and the newly instituted House of Commons. What seemed like everlasting wars were being fought against France and even Scotland.

On a brighter note, people nicknamed “Lollards” were beginning to compare Christianity of the 14th century with the simple truths and practices of the early church.

The discovery of printing was yet future, so, all books were in manuscript form, copied tediously by hand. Therefore, they were rare and expensive. The Bible was a huge tome written in dead languages. Common people couldn’t even read it, let alone understand it.

Dangerous ideas

John Wycliffe was a commoner with a passion for lifelong learning. It took him until 1372 to earn his doctor of divinity degree from Oxford University.

Then, as the 1370s wore on, he came into greater prominence for his views on dominium (lordship and ownership) as expressed in a series of books: On Divine Lordship , On Civil Lordship , On the Duty of the King , On the Church, and On the Truth of Holy Scripture .

God is the true Lord and owner of all creation, Wycliffe declared. Both civil and church estates should be under the authority of the king. Church people are to focus on spiritual matters, stripped of temporal possessions except for the necessities of life: food, clothing, and lodging. Clergy should not hold civil office; the king should remove unworthy ones. Even more distressing for the rich and powerful was Wycliffe’s idea that “all ecclesiatics, from the pope on down, should live in poverty as Peter and the other apostles did” (Mircea Eliade, editor, The Encyclopedia of Religion , vol. 15, 489).

Greedy Englishmen hoped Wycliffe’s teachings might help them plunder the wealth of the church. In February 1377, he was summoned to appear before the bishops at St Paul’s in London.

By May, the pope had denounced 19 propositions from his writings. The Archbishop of Canterbury asked the faculty of Oxford to give an opinion on Wycliffe’s ideas: They stated that some of them “sounded ill” but that they “were all the same true.” When English peasants revolted in 1381, it was handy to blame Wycliffe; without any evidence he was connected to the uprising. After the murder of one archbishop, the new incumbent was able to get a council of bishops and theologians to declare 10 of Wycliffe’s propositions were “heretical” and 14 others were “erroneous.” One by one, Wycliffe’s supporters were forced to recant.

Burning bones

Gateway Films opens its impressive DVD on Wycliffe’s life with his bones being dug up and burned. Wycliffe was a bachelor, as clergymen were expected to be at the time; otherwise they had to pay good money for the “sin” of living with a woman they could never marry.

(The only pretty girl Wycliffe hugs in the movie is his niece.) The European Council of Constance (1415) burned John Huss as a “Wycliffite” heretic. Its order to burn Wycliffe’s bones took much longer to implement.

John Wycliffe helped the movement that sent Lollards around England as poor preachers, sharing the simple message of the Bible. He started people thinking in fresh ways about the meaning of Christianity and how it applied to daily life: for the king in his palace, the bishop in his cathedral, and the peasants in their hovels. He tried to give the English people a translation of the Bible in a language they could understand. Later, others would achieve that goal far more effectively.

The church Jesus formed was seriously deformed by the time Wycliffe was born. It would not be radically reformed until the 16th century.

But in the lives of people like John Wycliffe we see evidence that the darkness was dying. A morning star does not give much light, but it does give some. The scattering of Wycliffe’s ashes on the Swift River aptly symbolises the spread of his ideas to the wider world.

How true are the words of the psalmist as he tells God, “The unfolding of your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple” (Psalm 119:130).

John Wycliffe: Witness

The computerised index in my local library, more than six hundred years after John Wycliffe’s death, half a world away from England, lists 13 of its books with his name in their titles.

There are countless references to him in other books about Christian history.

The digging up and burning of his bones was a bold attempt to erase Wycliffe’s witness from the story of Christianity. It failed miserably.

According to Dominie Crossan, “Jesus left behind him thinkers not memorizers, disciples not reciters, people not parrots.” Despite all the limitations of his era, Wycliffe focused his keen mind on Scripture as the foundation of the Christian faith. Some historians suggest that he was the best educated man in England during the 14th century. Even so, he determined to “make righteousness readable” for the ordinary people that he mingled with so much and loved so well.

Jesus “pitched his tent among us” (John 1:14, Rotherham), living out His teachings, making God’s love visible by His interactions with people. Christ’s witnesses find in Him the effective template for their saying and doing. In an age of corruption and conflict, Wycliffe committed himself fallibly but effectively to the teachings of God’s Word.

At the end of an impressive volume, Paul Johnson suggests that “Christian history is a constant process of struggle and rebirth—a succession of crises, often accompanied by horror, bloodshed, bigotry and unreason, but evidence too of growth, vitality and increased understanding.” * That concept helps us assess the context and ideas of witnesses like Wycliffe.

Oh, by the way, the Great Commission is current for all the followers of Jesus.

Rotherham translates Matthew 24:14 graphically: “This glad message . . . will be proclaimed in all the inhabited earth” before the climax of the ages: Christ’s return. Witnesses are still required.

Urgently. Now!

* See Paul Johnson, A History of Christianity (New York, Simon & Schuster, 1976), 515, 16. “Paul Johnson, an English Roman Catholic, has given us the best one-volume history of Christianity ever done,” according to Richard Marius, writing in The Christian Century. An old but good book on Wycliffe is that by G. H. W. Parker, The Morning Star: Wycliffe and the Dawn of the Reformation, published by Paternoster (1965) as Volume III: The Advance of Christianity Through the Centuries.