Work of John Wyclif and Its Impact
Dr. Herb Samworth
One of the
greatest privileges of a people is to have the Word of God in their
vernacular or spoken language. During the Middle Ages, however,
the official Bible of the Western Church, including the Church of
England, was the Latin Vulgate. This was the translation that had
been produced by Jerome in the latter part of the fourth century.
the clergy, few people knew Latin and, therefore, the majority could
not understand the Vulgate. In addition, the services of the Church
were conducted in Latin. As a result, the people were dependent
on their religious leaders for spiritual knowledge and instruction.
Although selected portions of the Scriptures had been translated
into English during the previous centuries, no complete English
translation of the Bible was available until the fourteenth century.
responsible for the first translation of the entire Bible into the
English language was John Wyclif. While many of the details of Wyclif's
life remain unknown, evidence indicates that he was born around
1330 in West Riding. He attended Oxford University where it quickly
became apparent that he possessed exceptional ability. He received
a Bachelor and Master's degree and took orders as a clergyman of
the Church of England. Later he studied for his Doctorate of Theology
and, upon successfully completing the requirements, he was appointed
Professor of Theology and Philosophy at his alma mater. Many considered
Wyclif to be the most prominent theologian in England and, indeed,
in all of Europe.
in which Wyclif taught at Oxford were difficult for a number of
reasons. England and France were engaged in a conflict that became
known as "the Hundred Years War" because it lasted nearly
a century. Living conditions of the peasants were deplorable and
social and economic discontent was rampant. In addition, the Black
Death, or the bubonic plague, ravaged Europe, leaving in its wake
devastation on an unprecedented scale. Nearly thirty percent of
Europe's population died of the plague while in other areas the
mortality rate exceeded fifty percent. These events cast a pall
of doom over the entire country and many believe that the end of
the world was imminent.
were convinced that the low spiritual condition of the Church was
the cause of these disorders. They believed God was chastising the
Church because of its moral condition. The prestige of the church
had fallen precipitously due to the scandal caused by the Great
Schism, a situation in which there were two rival Popes: one at
Rome and one at Avignon in France. This decline was also due to
widespread ignorance among the clergy. It has been estimated that
only one in four of the secular clergy could recite the Lord's Prayer
and even fewer knew the Ten Commandments. At a time when people
looked desperately for spiritual guidance and comfort from the Church,
little was forthcoming.
It was also
a period of doctrinal change in the church. At the Fourth Lateran
Council in 1215 the doctrine of Transubstantiation had been declared
an official doctrine. This doctrine taught that the elements of
the Lord's Supper, the bread and the wine, were changed into the
body and blood of Christ when consecrated by an ordained priest.
This pronouncement was the climax of a prolonged theological controversy
that had raged for two hundred years. Many, including John Wyclif,
rejected this teaching, declaring it to be an innovation and not
found in the Word of God.
Wyclif was disturbed by the feudal organization of the Church. The
Church was the largest landowner in England and was extraordinarily
wealthy. Many of the upper clergy were more interested in acquiring
lands and wealth than they were in meeting the spiritual needs of
the people. Wyclif's convictions on the wealth of the Church led
him to formulate a doctrine he termed as the "Dominion of Grace."
This doctrine taught that God was the Owner of everything and what
one possessed came as a stewardship from Him. Therefore, an individual
was not the owner but held them as one who must give an account
taught that one does not automatically become a Christian upon the
administration of the sacrament of Baptism. For one to be a true
Christian, there was the necessity of personal faith. A genuine
Christian was also responsible to obey what God commanded. By this,
Wyclif was not referring to the canon law of the Church but the
teachings of the Bible itself. However, one could not obey God if
he were ignorant of what God required. In order to know what God
required, it was necessary to have the Word of God in the language
a person could understand. Because of this Wyclif determined that
the Scriptures had to be translated into the English language.
of his teachings on the Dominion of Grace and the nature of the
Church, Wyclif became embroiled in conflict with many of the English
Clergy. In 1378 the Pope ordered him to come to Rome to defend his
teachings, but the Great Schism precluded him from leaving England.
On another occasion the Queen Mother protected him from the accusations
of the Clergy. However, his opponents were able to force him from
his professorship at Oxford. He left Oxford for the parish church
of Lutterworth about the year 1380. This apparent triumph of Wycif's
enemies was short-lived as this new position allowed him the opportunity
to translate the Scriptures into English.
640, The Cotton Wyclif New Testament in Middle English, c.1420
are divided as to whether Wyclif himself translated any portion
of the Scriptures into English but there is no doubt that he was
the moving force behind the translation. His co-workers, Nicholas
de Hereford and John Purvey, are credited with the two versions
of the Wyclif Bible: Wyclif A and B. The earlier translation by
Hereford, known as Wyclif A, is a more literal "word for word"
rendering of the Latin Vulgate with characteristic Latin word order
and construction. The later edition, the work of John Purvey and
known as Wyclif B, followed a more fluid translation principle known
as a "sense for sense" translation.
years of Wyclif's life at Lutterworth were occupied with the writing
of numerous tracts and books dealing with the nature of the church
and attacking the corruption of the English clergy. While preaching
from his pulpit on December 29, 1384 Wyclif suffered a stroke. He
lingered for two days and died on December 31, 1384 as an orthodox
member of the Church of England. This proved to be ironic as later
events would demonstrate.
to Wyclif in England
death in 1384 did not end his influence in England. Through the
work of itinerant preachers, known as the "Poor Priests,"
the knowledge of the Scriptures was disseminated throughout England.
These priests would travel throughout the villages and small towns
of rural England reading the Scriptures and preaching. As a result,
a movement known as the Lollards began. Much of the history of this
movement remains shrouded in mystery even after a period of nearly
six hundred years. Different meanings have been assigned to the
word "Lollard" itself. Some have speculated that it meant
a "low murmur" referring to the secret spreading of the
Word of God. There are differences of opinion regarding the influence
that even Wyclif himself had on the movement. Because of this uncertainty,
it is not possible to be dogmatic regarding the relationship between
Wyclif and the Lollards.
may have been the relationship of the Lollard movement and Wyclif
remains uncertain. However, there is no question that the reaction
of the English clergy against it was both swift and ruthless. In
1401, a law that permitted the burning of heretics at the stake
was enacted. In the Middle Ages, heresy was considered as soul murder
and thus a capital offense. Those convicted as relapsed heretics
were burned at the stake. The exact number who died is unknown,
but there are many accounts of Lollards who paid the ultimate price
for their faith.
the English clergy, meeting at Oxford under the direction of Archbishop
Thomas Arundel, passed what are known as the "Constitutions
of Oxford." These laws outlawed the reading and translation
of the Scriptures into the English vernacular without the permission
of the bishop. The laws declared the English translation of the
Bible to be illegal. Those who were discovered with copies could
be charged with heresy. The Constitutions of Oxford remained in
effect for nearly one hundred and thirty years until King Henry
VIII licensed the Matthews Bible to circulate in 1537.
to Wyclif Abroad
however, was not the only country influenced by the work and teachings
of John Wyclif. During Wyclif's professorship at Oxford University,
numerous students from Bohemia crossed the English Channel to study
under him. The reason for this was because the Queen of England
during this time was Anne of Bohemia. These Bohemian students imbibed
the teachings of Wyclif and carried them back to their homeland
where they influenced a young clergyman by the name of John Hus.
Wyclif's view of the Church and soon began calling for the reformation
of its abuses and a return to the teaching of the Word of God. In
1415 he was summoned to appear at the Council of Constance, a council
convened by the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund to reform the church.
The Council of Constance had three objectives: to resolve the problem
of the Great Schism (the cause of unity), to deal with heretical
teaching including the case of John Hus (the cause of faith), and
to establish the power of church councils as the supreme authority
in the church (the cause of reformation).
to the Council of Constance under a safe conduct order issued by
the Emperor that granted him the freedom to leave at any time. After
disputations with the Church officials, it became evident that the
teaching of Hus and Wyclif were identical. Hus' teaching was declared
heretical and his safe conduct order was revoked. In Medieval thinking,
it was not required to honor a promise made to a heretic. On July
6, 1415 John Hus was burned at the stake.
teachings were also declared heretical. Some two hundred and forty
of his writings were condemned. Although Wyclif had died as an orthodox
member of the English Church, he was declared to be a heretic thirty-one
years later in 1415. Finally, in 1428, on the express orders of
the Bishop of Rome, Wyclif's body was exhumed, his bones burned,
and the ashes thrown into the River Swift. The result of this action
was not lost on Thomas Fuller, an English Church Historian of the
17th century, writing on the life of John Wyclif:
river conveyed Wyclif's remains into the Avon, the Avon into the
Severn, the Severn into the narrow seas, and they into the main
ocean. And thus the ashes of Wyclif are the emblem of his doctrine,
which now is dispensed all the world over.
true words. The work of Wyclif provided the English-speaking people
the Bible in their vernacular language for the first time in their
history. Although the translation was from the Vulgate and the manuscripts
had to be hand copied, the knowledge of the Scriptures spread throughout
Evaluation of John Wyclif
of the Reformation have called John Wyclf the "Morning Star
of the Reformation." The morning star is the first light that
dispels the gloom of darkness. There is no doubt that Wyclif lived
in a time of moral and spiritual darkness. However, through his
study of the Word of God, he became convinced of the need for a
thorough doctrinal and moral reform of the Church. There were many
who shared Wyclif's conviction that a moral reform was necessary
but did not see beyond the correction of outward abuses. Wyclif
believed that the Church could not be truly reformed until it was
corrected according to the Word of God.
that this reformation could only occur when the people possessed
the knowledge of God's Word. It was impossible for them to have
acquaintance with the Word of God as long as the Scriptures remained
imprisoned in a language few could understand. Therefore he set
himself to the task of giving his people the Scriptures in their
ways the Reformation began on October 31, 1517 when Martin Luther
posted his Ninety-five Theses on the door of the Castle Church in
Wittenberg. However, Luther traced his spiritual lineage to John
Hus and, by extension, to John Wyclif. One hundred years before
Luther was born, John Wyclif advocated the doctrinal reform of the
church by the Word of God. Truly he was the "Morning Star"
of the Reformation.