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John Wycliffe

John Wycliffe

1320 - 1384

As Marco Polo began his famous journey to the far east in 1324, John Wycliffe turned four years old. The radical Franciscans were denouncing the riches of the Papacy, and Pope John XXII was mid way through his reign The world was at peace; and Rome held ultimate authority in the lives of the people of the continent and the British Isles. From Augustine and Constantine till the birth of Wycliffe, the Church was the centre of every person's life.
Wycliffe was born in 1320 and studied Theology in Oxford. His training and disposition led him to oppose the ownership of English land by the Papacy, on religious and theological grounds rather than merely economic. From 1376 onward Wycliffe published tracts which decried the secularization of the Church. This secularization, he maintained, was beneficial neither to the Church or the State. In 1377 the Pope issued a Bull condemning in 18 theses the writings of Wycliffe. Wycliffe's reaction was violent. He began to denounce the Pope in vehement writings. From 1378 to 1379 Wycliffe published his theological system in a series of tracts. The main thesis of these works was that the Scriptures are the foundation of all doctrine. This was the turning point of doctrinal history. To this point Tradition was placed, by Rome, alongside Scripture as a source of doctrine; but Wycliffe disputed this notion and John Hus of Prague and Martin Luther as well as Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin would adopt the view of Wycliffe. Wycliffe's doctrine of the Church was likewise revolutionary. He saw the Church as a spiritual institution and not a political one. Thus the pre-reformation work of Wycliffe lay in his doctrines of Scripture and the Church.
The significance of Wycliffe cannot be overlooked. His movement towards Scripture and Church as spiritual society were the foundation stones on which the later Reformation would be founded. He, nevertheless, did propose ideas that were very controversial. He suggested that human freedom was non-existent; to the point that everything that a person did was predetermined. Yet without Wycliffe, there could not have been a Reformation. Or, for that matter, an English translation of the Bible. Wycliffe's translation is well known. He did his work from the Latin Vulgate; thus giving the English people the first translation of the Scriptures in their own language. His translation was consulted by Tyndale, Coverdale, the Bishops, and of course the Authorized Version translators. He was a translator before Luther; a theologian before Calvin; and a reformer before the Reformation. He died in 1384. The floodgates opened by Wycliffe would reach fruition in Zwingli and Luther.

John Wycliff studied at Oxford and became the first person to begin a systematic translation of the Bible into English. He accepted nothing but the Bible as authority for Christian dogma, stating: "I suppose over this that the gospel of Christ be [the] heart of the corpus of God's law; for I believe that Jesus Christ, that gave in His own person this gospel, is very God and very man, and by this heart passes all other laws." Priests and even the pope himself, Wycliffe went on to argue, might not necessarily be in a state of grace and thus would lack authority. Such doctrines appealed to anticlerical sentiments and brought Wycliffe into direct conflict with the church hierarchy, although he received protection from John of Gaunt.
The beginning of the Great Schism in 1378 gave Wycliffe fresh opportunities to attack the papacy, and in a treatise of 1379 on the Eucharist he openly denied the doctrine of transubstantiation. He denounced the Church hierarchy and maintained that the church should give up its worldly possessions. Although he and his followers, the Lollards, had some support in the 14th century, Wycliff was denounced by Pope Gregory XI. Perhaps the name was derived from the Dutch term lollaerd, meaning mumbler. After the peasant's revolt of 1381, Smith commented that "anxious priest and frightened landlords were quick to assume that heresy in faith produced revolution in society," and as a result, the sect was driven out of Oxford in 1382, but some devout members circulated Wyclif's teachings as well as the 1394 "Lollard Conclusions." Wycliffe's work was ultimately condemned by a synod in London, and many Lollards were persecuted in the 15th century.
However, Wycliffe's ideas helped spread the doctrines of the Reformation during the 1500's. The Wycliffe Bible: Wycliffe also put his teachings into practice. Beginning at Oxford, but continuing especially after he left Oxford for Lutterworth, Wycliffe began a translation of Scripture which he completed before his death. Although he did not know Scripture in its original languages, and translated Scripture from the Latin Vulgate, he gave a remarkably accurate translation which enabled the common people to hear the Scriptures in their language for the first time.

We include here a few verses of his translation of Genesis 1 -- in the old English which he used.

"In the firste made God of nougt heuene and erthe. The erthe forsothe was veyn with ynee and void, and derknessis weren vpon the face of the see; and the Spiryt of God was born vpon the watrys. And God seide, Be maad ligt; and maad is ligt. And God sawg ligt, that it was good, and deuydid [divided] ligt fro derknessis; an clepide [called] ligt day and derknessis, nygt. And maad is euen and moru [morn], o day. Seide forsothe God, Be maad a firmament in the myddel of watres, and dyuyde it watres from watrys".

It is difficult for us to imagine how these simple and familiar words must have thrilled the hearts of thousands when they heard them for the first time. The translating of the Scriptures was also extremely dangerous, because the church had forbidden that the Scriptures be put into the language of the common people. Nevertheless, even though printing had not been invented, many copies must have been made laboriously by hand, for there are still nearly 170 hand-copied Wycliffe Bibles extant.


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