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John Wyclif’s legacy

January 2003 | by Roger Fay

When Pope John XXIII condemned the Bohemian Reformer John Hus to the flames as a heretic, at the Council of Constance in 1415, he also anathematised the Englishman John Wyclif.

Wyclif, a former Rector of Lutterworth, had died 30 years earlier. Nevertheless, in 1428, the local bishop exhumed his bones, then burnt and scattered them in the River Swift.

Heresies

What was Wyclif’s teaching? Why did it arouse such wrath that, even though long dead and buried, he was so abused? The Council listed 45 ‘heresies’ including:

‘The material substance of bread and … of wine, remain in the sacrament of the altar…

‘Christ is not identically and really present in the said sacrament in his own bodily persona…

‘That Christ instituted the mass has no basis in the gospel…

‘Tithes are purely alms, and parishioners can withhold them at will on account of their prelates’ sins…

‘Excommunication by a pope or any prelate is not to be feared since it is a censure of antichrist…

‘The Roman church is Satan’s synagogue; and the pope is not the immediate and proximate vicar of Christ and the apostles…

‘It is not necessary for salvation to believe that the Roman church is supreme among the other churches.’

Morning star

John Wyclif has been called ‘the morning star of the Reformation’. As the characterisation suggests, his path was a lonely one.

As an Oxford don, Wyclif’s teaching was greatly influenced by a distinguished contemporary, Thomas Bradwardine, who had been saved through reading Romans 9:16: ‘it is not of him that wills, nor of him that runs, but of God who shews mercy’.

Bradwardine said, ‘I had no liking for such teaching, for towards grace I was still graceless … but afterwards … the truth before mentioned struck on me like a beam of grace’.

Eventually Wyclif’s expressed views, similarly Augustinian, became so radical that even his erstwhile protector John of Gaunt was unable to shelter him from the church.

Wyclif’s former allies, the friars, turned against him, and his writings were condemned as heretical.

John Wyclif moved to Lutterworth in 1382, expecting to be martyred there. But ill health, exacerbated by overwork, brought about his early death in 1384.

Relevance

What was John Wyclif’s legacy? And is it still relevant 650 years later?

Of its relevance there can be no doubt. In new, highly significant developments, Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster,preached before the Queen at Christmas 2001 and took part in the Queen Mother’s funeral at Westminster Abbey.

We can expect to see a growing warmth between the English Crown and Roman Catholic hierarchy as Catholicism moves ever closer to centre-stage.

John Wyclif’s ministry was exercised in the context of a dominant mediaeval Roman Catholicism. Its grip over English society had been unchallenged for centuries.

Wyclif’s contemporaries, like Geoffrey Chaucer, protested vociferously at clerical avarice and worldliness. But very few were prepared to lay the axe to the root of the tree.

Wyclif was the exception. He saw clearly that the fundamental issue was one of authority. Which is the final arbiter – the pope or the Scriptures?

Wyclif was in no doubt: ‘Were there a hundred popes and all the friars turned into cardinals, their opinion in matters of faith should not be accepted except in so far as it is founded upon Scripture’.

Legacy

Foremost among the precious things that Wyclif bequeathed are his writings. Recently, the author met a Reformed Baptist pastor who was converted as a Roman Catholic law student, through studying John Wyclif, particularly on transubstantiation.

Secondly, John Wyclif and his followers achieved the first ever translation of the whole Bible into English. John Purvey completed the second – more idiomatic – edition some years after Wyclif’s death.

Wyclif’s Bible may be flawed in its dependence on the Latin Vulgate, but it is still a vigorous and beautiful rendering:

He forsothe woundid is for oure wickidnesses,
defouled is for our hidous giltes;
the discipline of our pes up on hym,
and with his wannese we ben heled.
Alle wee as shep erreden,
eche in to his weie
bowede down, and the Lord
putte in hym the wickidness of us alle.
             (Isaiah 53:5-6).

Lollards

Thirdly, John Wyclif set in motion the Lollard movement.

He held that the rapacious, worldly orders of clergy were ‘the twelve tormentors of the church’. The laity were so many sheep without a shepherd. But how could the many be fed by the very few who really did understand?

Wyclif realised that while it was impossible for each parish to have a priest ‘teaching both in deed and sermon the faith of Christ’, an itinerant ministry could still convey the gospel everywhere to the downtrodden people. (Indeed, this was the original purpose of the friars, a group who instead peddled anecdotes and fables.)

He supplied his ‘poor priests’ – mainly uneducated and unbeneficed clerics – with tracts, sermons and the vernacular Scriptures. He was confident that they were ‘ordained’ by ‘Jesus Christ bishop of our souls’.

Indeed, he maintained, ‘an unlettered man with God’s grace can do more for the building up of the church than many graduates’.

Conversions

Universities, towns and villages were all legitimate mission fields.

The ‘poor priests’ itinerated in the West of England, while preaching Lollard laymen – like John Aston, John Purvey, William Swinderby and William Smith – took to the road, each ‘like a bee’, ‘preaching not only in churches and churchyards, but also in markets, fairs and other open places where people congregate’.

Many people, of all classes, including nobles like Sir John Oldcastle, were converted.

The authorities reacted with vigour and detestation. William Arundel, Archbishop of Canterbury, moved to stamp out Lollardy at both Cambridge and Oxford Universities.

De Haeretico Comburendo was passed in 1401. Lollards would be burnt at the stake if they did not recant. Many did recant – but others did not. Their noble story is told in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.

Leaven

By 1455 England was embroiled in the War of the Roses. A distracted state and church now believed Lollardy to be a spent force. They were wrong.

It is appreciated today that the early English Reformation was not effected simply by Henry VIII’s political self-assertion, coupled with infiltration by Continental Lutheranism. There was another, more mysterious, leaven at work.

During the fifteenth century, Lollard beliefs had been quietly fermenting among the ordinary folk of England – a fact discovered by scholars like A. G. Dickens (Lollards and Protestants in the Diocese of York 1509-1558).

For example, Robert Barnes was contacted in 1526 by people from Steeple Bumpstead, who admitted to possessing the vernacular Scriptures but were still eager to obtain Tyndale’s ‘heretical’ new version.

There was also John Frith, who was asked to instruct a certain ‘Christian brother [who] desired to know my mind as touching the body and blood of Christ’. He ‘only needed instruction in the outward eating’.

A new itinerancy

These ‘Brethren in Christ’ (or ‘Known men’ or ‘Just Fast men’) had preceded the English Reformation, even as the gospel had run ahead of Paul to Rome (Acts 28:14-15).

The legacy of a century of Lollardy allowed the full-blooded Reformation – when it finally arrived in England – to proceed with all good speed.

Today, our increasingly ‘mediaeval’ nation needs to be viewed through the eyes of John Wyclif and his Lollards.

The incoming tide of superstitions – old and new – can only be counteracted by a new evangelical itinerancy, committed to teaching the gospel in every suburb, village and hamlet. In short, we need to re-evangelise the land and prepare it for a new Reformation.

Why be overawed by the task, or cowed by the abounding unbelief and false religion of our day? And why wait for the ecclesiastical niceties to be ironed out before such a task is undertaken? The Lollards show us the way in all respects.

Lifting up Christ

The days are dark, but we do have the Bible in our own language. Let those who love the gospel take it with all speed into every part of our nation – regardless of the cost.

Let established churches ‘spin off’ groups to plant a witness in local villages and housing estates. Our congregations may shrink for a while – but the cause of Christ will grow.

And if, like John Wyclif, we preach ‘Jesus Christ and him crucified’ we can be sure that we will be sowing seed ready for God’s use.

‘Lift up, wretches’, cried Wyclif, ‘the eyes of your souls and behold him that no spot of sin was in, what pain he suffered for sin of man.

‘He swat water and blood to wash thee of sin; he was bound and beaten with scourges, the blood running down by his sides, that thou shouldest think on him and flee all cursed malice.

‘He was nailed to the cross with sharp nails through hands and feet and stung to the heart with a sharp spear that all thy five wits should be ruled after him, having mind on the precious wounds that he suffered for man.’

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