John Wyclif: real impact and revisionist history

wyclif

For every statement about John Wyclif, there is an equal and opposite statement about John Wyclif. There isn’t even universal agreement about how his name is spelled, ranging from Wyclif, to Wycliffe, to Wickliffe, among others. It was the 16th century historian John Bale who first called Wyclif “the Morning Star of the Reformation. ” Wyclif was lauded as the champion of preaching in the vernacular and credited as the first to translate the Bible into English. He seems to sometimes be mythologized into the man who was a precursor to the Protestant Reformation, who started the Lollards. But contemporary scholarship has called these claims into question. As more research has been done into this man, there seems to be debate over his specific contributions. Based on his writings, it is reasonable enough to have a sense of his theology. In many respects, it seems easier to have a sense of Wyclif’s reputation than his concrete accomplishments.

It is known that Wyclif had developed a reputation in his own day. His interests ranged from logic, to political philosophy, to Catholic polity, to the Bible, and the writings of the church fathers. Much of Wyclif’s influence was the result of his philosophical and theological work. To understand his impact as a preacher, it is essential to understand his views and the context out of which he came.

John Wyclif was born in Yorkshire to a family of modest resources in the shadow of the Bubonic Plague at the beginning of the 1330s. In around 1346, he left home for Oxford University. It was a time when people studied theology, law, or medicine. For Wyclif, it was a longer route to earning a doctorate than it tended to be for others, but this was likely the result of the financial resources available to him. In 1365, he became the head of Canterbury Hall. In 1372, Wyclif earned his doctorate, but by that point in time time, he had already become a prominent scholar.

In the mid to late 1370s, Wyclif began writing more regarding his views on politics and the Church. Among other topics, he dealt with criticism of the Papacy, and the functions of religious and political leaders. Preaching was the most notable way through which Wyclif was able to spread his ideas to the ordinary citizen, and he gained popularity in his lifetime. Through his writing, it was ultimately seen that Wyclif was more the philosopher than Biblical expositor. Without his reputation as a scholar, he would likely not be remembered as a preacher. It is further worth remembering that he was never a member of the clergy himself.

One of Wyclif’s earliest writings of influence was “On Civil Dominion,” published in 1376. In it, Wyclif challenged the conventional wisdom of his time by arguing that the rights of religious authorities were held in trust and that the sinfulness of the people in those positions disqualified them from the privilege of serving. While Wyclif believed that to be the case for church leaders, it did not hold true in the secular, political world. People were still to obey their political leaders, regardless of imperfections, just as Jesus had obeyed Pilate. This did seem to win him popularity with the British nobility, at a time when the British were paying more to the papacy than to the crown. This might have been part of the reason why Wyclif was fairly safe from backlash during his lifetime. Though he was not beloved by the Pope, he was protected in England, most notably by John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. However, propositions of Wyclif were condemned by Pope Gregory XI, but when the pope died in 1378, a schism ensued within the Catholic Church and aims to reconcile internal problems took precedent over persecuting the far away Wyclif. Ironically this schism would not be resolved until the Council of Constance, the same event where Wyclif was formally declared a heretic and where his bones were exhumed, burned, and thrown into the River Thames.

This was not the final controversy for Wyclif. In 1380, he fell from grace with many when he challenged the Eucharist in the way that it was understood. As part of his argument, Wyclif cited that the idea of transubstantiation was absent from the patristics. The doctrine of transubstantiation had not been official Catholic teaching before 1215. As a result of Wyclif’s views on the Eucharist, a council was called at Oxford to condemn these teachings, which cost Wyclif his position on the faculty and his support of John of Gaunt.

Leading up to the trial at Oxford, some of Wyclif’s most stringent opposition came from the friars, a group of whom Wyclif had been critical, notably in regards to their preaching. It is through these disagreements, and the contrast of styles, that his personal beliefs on preaching are best understood.

In the homiletical books written during the generations leading up to the time of Wyclif, there was emphasis placed on reading one’s audience, and the messages could become more focused on the hearers than on the subject being preached. For Wyclif’s sermons, these areas, especially in terms of curtailing the message to the audience, do not seem to have been of particular importance. When he spoke in the vernacular, it was cumbersome and erudite.

The friars often delivered sermons that focused more on stories and that were more flamboyant, and attempted to entertain, as well as to educate. For Wyclif, these were unessential methods for teaching the text, yet the easygoing style and fanciful storytelling of the preaching of the friars was popular among the people . For Wyclif, though his style was completely different, his preaching also drew crowds, which could have partially been due to the subject matter and his open criticism of the Church, especially in his early writings which dealt with corruption.

There were also differences between Wyclif and the friars, in terms of pericopes. For the friars, they tended to preach one verse sermons, whereas Wyclif, having been influenced by the patristics, focused on longer sections of text. More than simply the length of the pericope, the allegorizing that was common among the patristics also found favor among Wyclif.

Contrary to the friars (and the Catholic Church), while various catechetical subjects were worth learning about, they didn’t seem to go far enough for Wyclif. There were often biases towards specific doctrines, sacraments or other matters related to Orthodox teaching. Wyclif, though often preaching on political issues, also saw the value in the full revelation of scripture and thought that all of the Bible was worth teaching.

With these differences, Wyclif continued to spread his thoughts. After his tumultuous departure from Oxford in 1380, he became more reclusive in the waning years of his life. His writing remained critical of the Church hierarchy, and in many ways, became more polemical. He also undertook the task of editing sermons, though many of the sermons edited by Wyclif were not necessarily preached by him. Wyclif died peacefully in 1415.

The people who came to be associated with Wyclif were the Lollards. They seem to have been influenced by his preaching, and there is strong evidence that the English sermons attributed to Wyclif were edited by the Lollards. The Lollards had no central teachings or doctrine. People who were Lollards did not necessarily agree with everything which Wyclif taught.

Determining Wyclif’s impact is complicated. In certain respects, Wyclif is given too much credit. He was not the first person to advocate for the scriptures to be translated into the vernacular, nor for sermons to be delivered in the native tongue of their audience. He did not start the Lollard movement. And it can be difficult to argue that close companions of his were directly involved with the Lollards. He also wasn’t the first person to be critical of the Catholic Church or to show dissent in doctrines. The dialogues in which he found himself predated Wyclif and continued after his death.

He was greatly influenced by the patristics. The ideas themselves were not new, but in terms of his diversity of thought, his areas of interest, and his resurgence of these ideas (along with other thinkers in his day), and his opportunities to share ideas through both print and public proclamation, Wyclif’s message spread . In returning to bygone Christian eras and what the patristics believed, Wyclif didn’t see himself as a radical reformer but as someone illuminating Orthodox views.

Wyclif left an impression great enough that others in his day picked up his intellectual banner. The specific influence he had on the later Protestant reformers seems to be an even more difficult matter to understand. Part of the problem might be revisionist history. While Wyclif was a forward thinker in many respects, he was medieval in other ways. For instance, while he emphasized the Bible as God’s word and free of error, it’s not quite the same emphasis that came from the later reformers. Wyclif did believe in mortal sins. He didn’t have writings on a doctrine of justification or assurance. In looking at Wyclif’s views and drawing obvious parallels to the later reformers, it is easy to forget that these ideas had already existed.
One of the great contributions to preaching which Wyclif made was in going against popular thought and proclaiming the truth, as he saw it. The Catholic Church, as far as Wyclif was concerned, was not above reproach.

Wyclif’s views on who could preach were also a matter of significance. Throughout the generations preceding Wyclif, this was a fluid matter. There were times when priests and deacons could preach, but there were restrictions on others. Any sense of an unencumbered right to preach was enjoyed only by bishops and ordained clergy. Wyclif thought it better to grant more liberty in these matters, and that it certainly didn’t need to come on behalf of the Church hierarchy. After all, the Apostle Paul had begun preaching before ever meeting the first pope . There were efforts to push for licensure for preachers, and Wyclif was an outspoken opponent of this.

While it was true that there were preachers associated with Wyclif who lacked formal education, Wyclif believed that Jesus had appointed “the uncultured and the uneducated” to preach. For Wyclif’s thinking, when preaching was done with a sincere desire to present God, it was blessed. And since he believed that the purview of who could preach was broader than the understanding of the Church, he thought that it was outside of the will of God to try to hinder people from preaching. This is significant to Wyclif’s role in preaching, not so much because of his individual preaching or because of views on homiletics, but on his views of who could legitimately preach.

Those who came after Wyclif and who were influenced by his writing did not universally agree with his views. In the area of preaching, for instance, others still used illustrations and flourishes. This had been one of the criticisms Wyclif levied against the friars, and yet early Wyclif Bibles have various homiletical aides, for these very purposes.

The takeaways for the contemporary preacher from Wyclif’s life were his study of the scriptures. While he was influential in political writings and in writing about the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, Wyclif was also highly studied in the scriptures. As has already been established, he revered the Bible. Wyclif was influenced by other ideas. While he was largely protected from peril in his lifetime, he still wasn’t without pressures from the Church, but he was firm in his convictions.

At the end of her biography on Wyclif, G.R. Evans says: “History gains rather than loses when it becomes possible to treat a hero as a complex and fallible human being, with all the dimensions which enrich as much as they challenge the earlier, simpler pictures of the man who was hero and villain. ’

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Bibliography
Edwards, O. C. A History of Preaching. Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2004. Electronic.
Evans, G. R. John Wyclif: Myth and Reality. Oxford: Lion, 2005. Print.
John Wycliffe. By Ryan Reeves. N.p., 26 May 2014. Web. .
Levy, Ian Christopher. A Companion to John Wyclif: Late Medieval Theologian. Leiden: Brill, 2006. Print.

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