John Wycliffe – His life and thought

 

 “Blessed is the man that walks not in the council of the ungodly, nor delights in the seat of mockers, nor sits in the seat of ths scornful, but his delight is in the law of the Lord and in His law he meditates day and night”

Psalm 1: 1-2

 

Jesus said, “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” Matthew 5: 10. This scripture is very in line with the life of John Wycliffe. Let me tell you a little something about him. This is his story!

John Wycliffe or Wyclif was born in Yorkshire, England possibly in 1324, though some say 1330? It is believed that he was born in the town called, ‘Wycliffe’ as indicated in his name, though others claim he was born in ‘Hipswell’ about ten miles from ‘Wycliffe’ and others a town called ‘Spressell’? Although each propogated town is in the area of Yorkshire, the most consistant and accepted location for Wycliffe’s birth is ‘Hipswell’. The next most likely location is the town of Wycliffe. Today the town of Wycliffe is known as ‘Wycliffe-on-Tees’ in County Durham and in the town there is St Mary’s Church where Wycliffe was said to have been baptised as an infant? Likewise, at ‘Hipswell’ in North riding, Yorkshire, there is the church of St John, the Evangelist where in the original building that once stood, it is presumed that Wyclffe worshipped?

It is believed that John Wycliffe would have originally been named, ‘John de Wycliffe’ or ‘John of Wycliffe’. His early life, of which little is known, was part of an important period of English ecclesiastical history. We know that John was born into a respectable family, who owned considerable amounts of property who were clearly religious people, as most were back in those days. Roman Catholicism was a dominant force in religion and infant baptism its catholic tradition. Some claim that the Wycliffe family manor-house stood not far from the church where the infant John was probably sprinkled?

His childhood home would have been surrounded by the great beauty of the Yorkshire landscape, rugged hills and soft valleys. Such visual beauty offers clearness and peace and often gives rise to great thought and understanding. In such mountainous wilderness a person often has time to sit and to think and a young country boy may even develope a character reflective of the Lords creation or should I say, the Lord puts him there because his character reflects the mountains.

In 14th century England, most people were religious, and Christian church life was a huge part of family tradition. Families would attend Sunday services and very few questioned this practice or any other practice of the Church. But England was changing, voices began to rise. Catholicism was the dominant force of religion and the church ruled, the priests governed by their own authority and Scripture was second place to church tradition and the Bible was written in Latin, the language of ancient Rome, and only those who could read Latin could read the scriptures, if they could afford to own a copy? 

OXFORD

It is said that at some period of his early life he left his home town too pursue an academic life at Oxford University, which was then the leading University in Western Europe.

Wycliffe is knowm to have become Master of theology and worked and lectured at Balaiol College, which is now on Broad Street in Oxford. Wycliffe lectured and debated on a number of topics with his students. He was a Philosopher, Theologian and one of the most brilliant minds and men of God England has known, filled with the Holy Spirit and a gentleman, full of charity and dedicated to the needs of the poor. But he was not passive when it came to matters of Biblical truth and he had a sharp tongue. Rightly so, for a theologian will not fight, but he has a pen and his words are his weapon. Such was the case with John Wycliff and although he was a gentle man and a gentleman, he was not without sharpness in his words, maybe that is why I edentify with him? Wycliffe can often be found in sparp contrasting disagreement with the authorities for his use of cutting words, yet I guess it would be hard for any spirit filled man to not display cutting words with men who abuse the scriptures for their own financial and earthly domains. But it was through the Holy Spirit of God and His word which Wycliffe’s brilliance was to be so clearly displayed. No suprise then that he became known as “The Gospel Doctor”.

Wycliffe read the scriptures for the first time in Latin, he was not expert in Hebrew or Greek, nor did he read them but rather he studied the scriptures in the latin as translated by Jerome, in the 4th century. In Jerome’s Vulgate, Wycliffe saw the clear testimony of divine scripture, and the word of God set him in direct conflict with the established church that then ruled. Wycliffe did not see popery in the scriptures and so denied the authority of the Pope, the literal interpretation of Transubstantiation and he believed in sharp contrast to the church that the common man should be able to read the word of God in their own language. Wycliffe pointed out that the majority of the New Testament was written in Coine Greek, which was the common language of the people and Jerome translated the Coine Greek into latin, the common language of ancient Rome. Wycliffe then asked, ‘why should the Scriptures then not be in the language of the common man?’ But, the problem was that the Roman church which then ruled the church in England had elevated the Latin Vulgate so much so that they deemed it anathema to even think of having a Bible in the common English tongue. We see this type of translation issue today in the King James only movement, where an Old English Bible is regarded above all over translations, even arguably at times held above the Hebrew and Greek? And those who translated the scriptures from an original source, are regarded as heretical by those who hold exclusively to the King James Bible. Surely this is not what Wycliffe had in mind, since Wycliffe did not embrace the idea of the church and state intermingled as it was with the King James Bible by order of the King. However, William Tyndale who followed on from the work Wycliffe left behind, clearly desired such action to come about and not only does his book, ‘The obedience of the Christian man’ communicate this, but his final prayer as he was about to be strangled and burned at the stake reveals it too, in his own words, “Lord, open the eyes of the King of England”.  

WRITINGS AND BELIEFS

John Wycliffe is probably best known for his association with the title ‘the morning star of the Reformation’ and with the first English New Testament so-called named after him. But such is justifiably debatable as to if Wycliffe ever sought reformation? One major problem can be found in the many misunderstandings of Wycliffe’s beliefs by Protestants. Many do not read him, yet they claim to know what Wycliffe taught and believed? But in todays world, many of his writings are rarely seen and therefore the many things which he believed are not always explored as they should be? The writings of Tyndale are more popular, but even Tyndales writings are lesser known than lets say the writings of Luther or Calvin. These days so many new books are written and published, yet all too many old books lay un-published and such great contents are sadly neglected. But, if one were to read Wycliffe’s actual writings, one could argue whether or not Wycliffe was an actual reformer like the modern reformers today? One could doubt that Wycliffe believed in ‘Justification by Faith’ alone? One could argue that he believed in purgatory? Yet the question is: What did he believe? Well, lets look and let the facts speak for themself. 

1. THE NEW TESTAMENT

Few can doubt that Wycliffe held the Bible in the most highest esteem? His love of the scriptures found him in trouble and direct collision with the authorities through much of his life. He regarded the Word of as the Word of Christ and Christ is above all people, therefore the Bible is above all books. Wycliffe saw much corruption in the church and abuse of the scriptures and his studies of them caused him to depart from the church which had long since departed from the Truth. Tradition had taken over and can when tradition takes over from the scriptures, then the church becomes un-Biblical.

After many years of study of the Bible, Wycliffe found that the common people were being spiritually destroyed through lack of knowledge of the scriptures. Few questioned the authority of the church and dared not question it. Wycliffe knew that it was Gods will that everyman and woman and child born of woman should have the word of God and in his/her own tongue and that all people should freely read it, no one excluded. So rather than merely debate this or wait for others to rise up, he sought to translated the scriptures from out the latin which they were then held the most highly and into English, in the common tongue. If the people could have the word of God in their own language, then they would see how far the church’s doctrine had moved away from the Truth.

But did he actually attain this holy desire or see his dream come true? Well, that is a subject of much debate for although the Wycliffe New Testament was long believed to have been translated by Wycliffe himself, more recent modern scholarship argues that the translation itself was not the work of Wycliffe but of his followers, known as ‘the Lollards’. The claim goes that the Lollards translated the text in memory to Wycliffe who inspired the move. But is this scholarly claim absolute truth or is it merely theoretical? Did Wycliff translate some of the New Testament but not all of it? Well, let us look, for there are a few clues which could contrast this claim.

In 2010 I visited ‘Ludgershall’ in Buckinghamshire, the first parish at which Wycliffe was minister for a period of years and during my visit to ‘Ludgershall’ I learned that the ancient church building once held a room above the nave in which it is said that Wycliffe worked on his translation of the scriptures from Latin into English. Many could doubt this claim, but pure reasoning and logic would re-enforce it. For, the claim must have truth, because Wycliffe being a minister of common people who did not speak Latin must have translated the scriptures from the Latin into the common tongue as part of his weekly sermon. He preached week after week for a period of 6 years in that church, it is not likely that he read the scriptures in Latin and explored them in exposition in English? And if he did, which we certainly know he did, then would he not have preached from the whole of the New Testament? Thus, these are two fairly good reasons to believe that Wycliffe did actually translate the Wycliffe New Testament, if not all, then certainly a great amount of it.

2. JUSTIFICATION BY FAITH ‘ALONE’

Many deny that Wycliffe believed the doctrine of Justification by faith, since he stated much neccecity upon good works. But I do not believe that such claims are true. Wycliffe was not a Pelagian or denominal in any way. The problem with works and salvation is that people miss-understand or wrongly and ‘demonically’ claim that the good works spoken of in the scriptures are the works of the church, not the works of faith. Likewise it is also inacurrate to deny good works and also questionable to regard works as part of an ongoing Justification, for Justification is a once and for all act in the New Testament, but an ongoing perfection is far more accurate. For in actual fact, a good strong and Biblicaly healthy balance between faith and good works can be found throughout the Scriptures. Faith brings good works and are thus the works of faith and therefore come from faith and not merely from ourselves but from obedience and deeds of obedience, they are a product of faith and not the cause of faith. Now I know that many deny works of obedience in todays church, but such ideas are inconsistent with scripture. The Epistle of James is evidence of that, from which James could be seen so evidently in contrast to the many understandings of Justification by faith, that people re-interpret the text, because they fail to understand it correctly. Such as the case where Luther had no time for the epistle and when he translated it into German in 1520, he altered the text to make it fit with the theology. Wycliffe did not do this, but rather understood the doctrine correctly, that real faith brings forth good works, there is little else a real Christian can do but serve God not only in worship and praise but and in good deeds. As James said, “What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him?” James 2: 14. (KJV) Likewise in verse 17 of James, the Geneva Bible translation also says, “Faith, if it have no works is dead in itself”. Thus, a good healthy understanding of the sovereignty of God in salvation is not a contradiction to human responsibility and good works. God rewards the obedience of the Christian man in good works and even enables Christians to do them through obedience to the Holy Spirit, and if His people obey, then great will be our rewards in heaven.

An old review of Wycliffe’s understanding of Justification by faith reads like this, Quote:

“Faith in our Lord Jesus Christ is sufficient for salvation, and that without faith it is impossible to please God; that the merit of Christ is able, by itself, to redeem all mankind from hell, and that this sufficiency is to be understood without any other cause concurring.”

(The Writings of the Reverend and learned John Wycliff, D.D. The religious tract society, London. 1847. Page 41.)

Thus, I see no errors in Wycliffe’s understanding that Justification by faith brings for good works and this quote from Wycliffe makes it clear. Quote:

“Trust wholly in Christ, rely altogether on His suffering, beware of seeking to be justified in any other way than by His righteousness. Faith in our Lord Jesus Christ is sufficient for salvation”.

3. PURGATORY

Many believe that Wycliffe believed in purgatory, and we can be fairly certain that he did, at least at one point in his life. We must remember that Purgatory was an established teaching of the church and a belief that many took for granted. However, Wycliffe did not believe in purgatory when he read and studied the New Testament. Yet the belief remained in a sense, but he more understood purgatory as a place where believers go for a time before they enter heaven, where they rest and sleep. I do not believe this doctrine at this time, but for me it is not a fundamental enough doctrine for me to reject Wycliffe. However, I do not deny that there is evidence for this belief in the scriptures, but just because I personally do not believe the doctrine because of my understanding of Luke 23: 43, it does not mean I am correct, I could be wrong?

JOHN WYCLIFFE AT LUDGERSHALL

Not much is known about the private life of John Wycliffe because little of it is recorded. However, we know certain facts about his ministry, for example we know that Wycliffe was minister of Ludgershall from 1368-1374. A quiet little parish in the country where Wycliffe was able to continue his work and since Oxford was not far away, he could continue his accademic work at Oxford also. Of the whereabouts of his home in Ludgershall, I know nothing. He may have lived and worked from a room in the church building, but it is most likely that he had a vicarage somewhere in the parish?

During my time at Ludgershall it became hard to figure out what the parish was like in the time of Wycliffe, but if as it stands today is anything to go on, it is a very quiet town with one pub and a few scattered houses. To use the common term, “it’s well out in the sticks”.

The church at Ludgershall has much that dates back to the time of Wycliffe and is set in a very peaceful area amongst green trees and beautiful countryside. I was greatly blessed to sit and read the Wycliffe New Testament in this church and area, it was quite something.

In England, a town or city can either change almost beyond recognition due to over developement, or it can remain with little unchanged. It is hard for me to imagine Ludgershall today being very different to the Ludgershall of the past? It has a simplicity written over it and when looked upon in the context of John Wycliffe and his time, it has a pureness and honesty. When standing in the church one can imagine Wycliffe in the pulpit preaching from the Bible in the common English tongue and his words can be imagined as echoing throughout the whole building and into the ears and hearts of his listeners. A wonderful gospel of Biblical accuracy and honesty, and passionate discovery which free’s the soul from denominal loyalty through passionate love with the pure milk and meat of scripture. Today however, the parish at Ludgershall has departed from much truth and has embraced feminist theology, but since Wycliffe’s memory is strongly held on display at Ludgershall, one has a hope that Biblical truth can still return. If truth could flower in the hearts of the people while Roman Catholicism was dominant in Wycliffe’s day, then truth can flower once again in our day. That is the hope that Wycliffe’s memory inspires. That God may reform his church once again? 

In 1368 Wycliffe applied for an absence of leave for two years from the Parish at Ludgershall and this leave being permitted, he continued his studies at Oxford for a further two years. Wycliffe soon lost favour with men because the scriptures were regarded as a book of secondary importance and not of the most absolute and highest importance for rule of life and for docrtine.

LUTTERWORTH

Wycliffe had a strong devoutness to the work of evangelism and the free proclaimation of the gospel, with or without the support of officials and the state. I touched on this understanding a little earlier and although many could argue against Wycliffe’s understanding of church and state, the arguement works both ways. Christ certainly was rejected by the state as were the apostles and Paul too. The idea of the church and state working together could imply a kingdom upon this earth, but Christ said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight” (John 18: 36). Wycliffe seemed to realise this more than most I think? That in Biblical reality and in contrast to tradition, the whole New Testament concept had radically moved away from the state, in contrast to the Law of Moses, which was the state of its day. This claim differs from the later reformers who regarded and still do regard Wycliffe as the so called ‘Morning Star of the reformation’. One could doubt that he was the morning star of much of the reformation, but not all. Tyndale certainly worked outside the law but desired the law to come to a knowledge of the truth, as did Luther, who worked outside the law and both leading figures became outlaws. This contrasts the later reformers who had an objective to see the state church and the protestant movement work together. Today we see this mix of reformed theology and state in America where many popular ministers may well be more politically Biblical, than they are Bibically, Biblical? Wycliffe relied on bold preaching to conduct the affiars of the gospel. So it is likely that his time at Lutterworth was spent in spreading the gospel amongst the people of Lutterworth, to travellers and passers by and those who attended the services. I doubt very much that a man who had spent so much time in learning at Oxford and a master of theology, would lock himself away in his study and rely upon bringing people into the church to hear the gospel and not taking to church to the people. All too many modern ministers of our day, especially reformers, lock themselves away from the people and step out from their studies and libraries to walk through a glass tunnel which leads them directly to their pulpit. I don’t believe this is right, or Biblical, for although I recognise that a minister should not leave the word of God to serve tables, as Acts 6: 2 appears to claim, we must remember that these twelve apostles who said, ” It is not reasonable that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables” also wen’t out into the whole world “to preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16: 15) Paul told Timothy to “do the work of an evangelist” (2 Timothy 4: 5) And this ministry of evangelism is not pulpit based, but being out there in the community with all people, so a word to all minister, if you don’t evangelise out in the world, then you need to wake up.

So for a minister to ignore evangelism, is not absolutely in line with what the Bible states, or what Wycliffe saw in the text. All too many ministers desparately need to be more amongst the people, sitting with the down and outs, the prostitutes, the robbers, weeping with the victims, grieving with the those who have loved and lost, the sick and the lame, visiting prisons. But of course we all see different things in our experiences of life and church, but any minister who has no regular contact outside of his established building with his so-called flock, is not doing what the Bible says a minister should do, so let me say, ‘It is not Wyclifitte’ and its certainly not Biblical or Christlike.

What stands out to me mostly from John Wycliffe and his lifes work, is his absolute passion to see the gospel out amongst the people without the prior need of commentaries or interpreters. Both Wycliffe and Tyndale believed the Holy Spirit will guide the believer into all truth and it is our duty to take the gospel to them, that they might recieve it freely. It is likely that since Wycliffe desired to see the gospel rightly into the hands of the common people, that he took the gospel to them and did not rely on the people coming to him. All too many churches today think they are doing evangelism when they promote church outreach services, ministers, and their local gathering. Such could not be further from the truth. We are to take the pure milk of the gospel out to the people, that they may embrace Jesus and grow in His truth. Church life comes after conversion, and not before. Lutterworth reflects this aspect of evangelism, not merely in its modern setting, but in its ancient rurality of farmland and peasents, of whom Wycliffe did plead on their behalf that church might look to the needs of poor and not the wealthy needs of the clergy. It is often the case, even more so today, that the cleargy or the big time preachers, are wealthy off the gospel, while the common man struggles to survive his low pay, yet all too often he hears of the importance of tithing and buying books. Books which have high prices on them, and a 10% offering, which many poor families cannot afford. Strange is it not how Wycliffe’s writings and works cost him and not the other way around. The gospel was given to the people for free and at no charge, unlike the many organisations and ministries of todays church.

In 2010 I visited the market town of Lutterworth, which is most ascociated with Wycliffe and in Lutterworth can be found the actual church where Wycliffe was minister for the 2nd time, starting in 1374 or 1375 and ending on 31st December 1384, on the day of Wycliffe’s death.

The Foxe’s Book of Martyrs tells of how Wycliffe suffered a third stroke during a service while ministering the Lords supper to his his flock. He was carried out the side door on a chair and taken to the rectory where he died two days later. His body was buried in Lutterworth beside the church, and there is his remains lay until 30 years later when his decayed bones were exumed and burned by the Roman Catholic church. It is most likely that the authorities were attempting to either put fear into those who may follow his beliefs, like that of Jon Huss, whom they burned at the steal or they were attempting to erase Wycliffe’s memory from future generations. But his memory was never erased. And today, Wycliffe’s ambition is firmly in place and the Bible has been translated into the common tongue, more than I care to imagine. A practice which traces back to the life of John Wycliffe.

The chair which Wycliffe was carried out on can be seen to this day in Lutterworth, as can the pulpit from which Wycliffe preached. Though altered over the years, the pulpit can be found in part within use at the parish church in Lutterworth, of which the original pulpit was combined into another pulpit and is still used to this day. Today it is given the title ‘Wycliffe’s Pulpit’.

In Lutterworth I was shown an 19th century picture of Wycliffe in one of the rooms at Lutterworth church which shows Wycliffe with 11 or so converts being instructed by Wycliffe at the doorway of his vicarage. His motioning hand implying that he was instructing fellow Christians to go out amongst the people and take the Bible to them.

TITHES, NO. NOT AT ALL. MINISTRY IS NOT ABOUT MONEY

Wycliffe amazed me when I learned that he denied that congregations were bound to give 10% of their earnings to the church. Wycliffe taught that the Old Testament tithing was no longer binding for the Christian and although he supported the free giving of funds for a minister, money was not to be given if the priest failed to fulfil his role. Clearly Wycliffe did not support tea drinking ministers who fail to study the scriptures, deliver fluffy sermons that last 20 minutes and offer no meat but only milk to his congregation. Wycliffe’s boldness in his defence of the scriptures is evidence of what his sermons must have actually been like. Few are like Wycliffe in his plain boldness and clarity of declaration that when the church departs from the scriptures, it is time to depart from the church. In 1377 Wycliffe was called to appear before the courts in St Pauls, London. At his trial, it was evident that Wycliffe had too many friends and a great crowd gathered and the mob disrupted the trial and an earthquake is said to have taken place also. This was seen as an act of God.

WHY AM I SO INSPIRED BY WYCLIFFE?

John WycliffeWhat so passionately inspires me about John Wycliffe is his absolute devotion to seeing the actual word of God in the hands of the people. Not merely seen through denominal theology, commentaries or sermons, or well crafted creeds and authrorities, but through the pure word of The Word. Wycliffe never pointed people to his sermons, or to himself and said ‘if you want to know the truth of scripture, then read my book or hear my sermons, no, he pointed them directly to the pure Word of God and the accounts it contains. Wycliffe knew the reality and power of the scriptures that once they were given into the hands of the people, their truth will be known amongst those who are of the Spirit. But likewise, Wycliffe knew of the dangers that would come with mens abuse of the scriptures.

Wycliffe knew that translating the scriptures into English would not deminish the abuse of them, but it may even further their abuse, but still, we must see the Scriptures in the hands of everyman, for him to freely examine for himself without measuring them by creeds or with the aid or need of priests or popes, denominal authorities. So in answer to my own question “Why I am so inspired by Wycliffe?” The answer is that this is is my mission also. Not to promote my sermons or writings, although they are available, but to promote a return to the purity of the word of God and the words and truth it contains. Not measured by councils or creeds, commentaries or arguements, but by the pure rendering of the text of scripture and the Holy Spirit.

It is the work of the Holy Spirit and the pure power of the word of God alongside the obedience and passion of Wycliffe through which we have an English Bible today. All other English translations are mere shadows in comparison to the absolute, unselfish, un-political, none-financially driven motives of men such as Wycliffe and Tyndale, who’s absolute desire was to see the word of God given without corruption, directly into the hands of the common people, to read, to study and to freely interpret. Modern translations do not come anywhere near the absolute dignity and honour of early English translations such as these. The Wycliffe translation may be justifiably critiqued for its translation, but it can never be rightly critiqued for its pure heart and perfect desire.

I praise God for Wycliffe who through obedience to God, gave us the Bible in English.

Today, the writings of Wycliffe are not so easy to come by, but the Wycliffe New Testament is still published in modern spelling, and I would propose that all Christians and none-Christians everywhere, do what you can to get a copy of this wonderful translation and read it, study it and enjoy it. It was written for you!

Simon Peter Sutherland 

© 2011 S. P Sutherland

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