“God is sovereign lord of us all. The allegiance that we owe Him is direct, as is the oath of every Englishman to the king, not indirect through allegiance to a subordinate lord, as in feudal France. Hence the relationship of man to God is direct, and requires no intermediary; any claim of Church or priest to be a necessary medium must be repelled.” – John Wycliffe
Born around the year 1330, John Wycliffe lived with tenacity, fearlessness, and a refusal to be controlled by any ecclesiastical authority. Predating Martin Luther by approximately 140 years, Wycliffe helped to revive Augustinianism (especially predestination). He advocated the supremacy of the scriptures in determining doctrine, rejected the office of Pope, and advocated the abolition of the papacy. He rejected praying to saints in purgatory, and even opposed the existence of purgatory itself. Wycliffe stabbed at ecclesiastical corruption with intellectual acumen and the support of a discontented English catholic population, nobility included.
Wycliffe trained at Oxford in philosophy, theology, and mathematics and eventually earned a Doctor of Divinity in 1372. A few short years later, King Edward III appointed him rector of Lutterworth and there he dove headfirst into politics. In 1376, (two years after his appointment) he wrote On Civil Government/Leadership criticizing the temporal power of the Roman church and its authority in England. He attacked the papacy where it hurt: the purse strings, seeking to divest the church of its holdings in England. As a result of these actions, he has been called “both a patriot and a king’s man.” (Stacey) He had very powerful friends. By 1377 he had already been condemned by the current pope Gregory XI for his heretical doctrines. (Stacey)
In addition to political treatises, Wycliffe also wrote two ecclesiastically focused critical works. The first in 1378 entitled On the Church unleashed a firestorm on church authority. The second in 1379 entitled On the Eucharist challenged the biblical support of the mass and transubstantiation. He also helped to produce the very first translation of the bible into English. Ryan Reeves describes that Wycliffe’s theology “focused almost exclusively on biblical reading and biblical vernacular translations as a vehicle for change in the religious life.” Reeves continued that Wycliffe’s main tool of argument throughout his life was scripture. Wycliffe was of the opinion that. “If [the office of whatever ecclesiastical authority] is not found in Scripture, he either declares that they should be overthrown or he calls into doubt their existence entirely.” (Reeves) Wycliffe believed transubstantiation a novel idea invented at the 4th Lateran Council of 1215. Instead, Wycliffe advocated a different kind of Eucharist while preserving the real presence of Christ’s body and blood. (Reeves) As Reeves points out, Wycliffe did not develop a robust protestant theology. He did not have a doctrine of Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone) or justification by faith alone. He did, however, hold some ideas that would mark the later full-blown reformation period.
Wycliffe’s followers were called Lollards. Lollardy or Lollardism was a derogatory term that roughly meant someone who is without a brain, who mumbles, or is uneducated. They advocated the vernacular scripture and also rejected ecclesiastical authority in favor of civil authority. They did not believe the church needed to ordain priests but that lay people who knew the bible could go out and preach if they felt so inclined. It is in this that we may see some birth-pangs of the later radical reformation that would take place in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.
Wycliffe died of complications resulting from a stroke on December 31st, 1384. By 1415, long after his death, the Council of Constance condemned Wycliffe and all his followers. His bones were dug up, burned, and spread into the neighboring river. This council also condemned the reformer Jan Huss to the stake. Wycliffe would most likely have been dealt with sooner, but the papacy divided in continual schism between Clement VII and both Urban VI and Boniface IX (1378-1394) and later between Benedict XIII and Innocent VII, Gregory XII, and Martin V (1394-1423).
Fun Fact: Wycliffe survived five papal bulls, two papal summons to Rome, and three trials in England. He never went to prison and never went to Rome. (CHI)