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     John Wyclif

John Wyclif

1. Philosophically, John Wyclif (1325? - 1384) was an ultrarealist, a vigorous defender of the via antiqua against the then prevailing nominalism. Already in the 1370's Wyclif held views about "dominion" or "lordship" that would justify, under certain conditions, the state's seizure or ecclesiastical property. These views were undoubtedly known to the crown at the time of his entry into royal service. He fully developed his position in two treatises, "On Divine Lordship" (1375) and "On Civil Lordship" (1376), based on lectures he had given at Oxford. God, declared Wyclif, is the supreme Lord on whose lordship all human lordship depends. God graciously bestows all possessions and powers, civil and ecclesiastical, as stewardships, not as permanent "property" but as temporary "loans", to be held on the condition of faithful service. Since only the righteous can exercise lordship rightfully, those ecclesiastics who are living in mortal sin forfeit all claims to temporal possessions. These may be justly taken away from them by the civil rulers, to whom God has given the lordship of temporal things, whereas to the church God has given the lordship only of spiritual things. This teaching was certainly pleasing to the unscrupulous son of Edward III, John of gaunt, duke of Lancaster, and to his greedy crew of nobles who hoped to become richer through such a sinful forfeiture of land and wealth by the church. This teaching also appealed to many commoners who had long been outspoken critics of the greedy clerics.

2. In February 1377, Wycliff was summoned to appear before the bishops assembled in London for examination of his views, but the protection of John of Gaunt frustrated the proceedings. In May of the same year pope Gregory XI issued a bull (decree) against Wyclif, ordering his to appear in Rome within thirty days; and in January 1378 the archbishop of London undertook further proceedings against him. All of these actions, however, were rendered useless by Wyclif's royal support and great popular favor. With the beginning of the Great Schism in 1378, he became ever more radical and embittered in his views, and ultimately rejected the whole traditional structure of the medieval church. Largely abandoning the political scene, he now devoted himself to theological study and writing. In his work "On the Truth of the Holy Scriptures" (1378) he asserted that Scripture is "the highest authority for every Christian and the standard of faith and of all human perfections". His seminal treatise "On the Church" (1378) defined the true church in Augustinian terms as "the totality of the predestined", a timeless and purely spiritual, thus invisible, body of which Christ alone is the head. Wyclif conceded in his book "On the Power of the Pope" (1379) that the visible church may well have an earthly leader, if such a one truly emulates Peter in apostolic simplicity and poverty. Such a pope would presumably be one of the elect; but a pope who grasps worldly power and is eager for riches is presumptively not of the elect and is therefore a veritable Antichrist. Other treatises followed. In "On the Eucharist" (1380) he rejected the dogma of transubstantiation as illogical, unscriptural, and unfaithful to the teaching of the ancient church. His own positive view, known as "remanence" holds that even after consecration the bread and wine remain material substances. The body and blood of Christ are truly present in the elements, not materially or carnally, but symbolically or sacramentally. He suffered a stroke in November 1382, which left him partly paralyzed. He suffered a second stroke on December 28, 1384, while hearing Mass and died three days later. He was buried in the Lutterworth church graveyard. In 1428, the bishop of Lincoln, obeying the mandate of the Councils of Constance in 1415, had Wyclif's remains exhumed and burned and the ashes thrown into the River Swift.

3. Wyclif has often been styled as a forerunner of the Reformation. This designation is correct if what is meant is his protest against ecclesiastical abuses, his exaltation of the Bible, and his contribution to the sum total of agitation that ultimately resulted in church reform. The fundamental doctrines of the Protestant reformers, however, owed little of their substance to the doctrines of Wyclif (or Hus), and were far more radical in their break with traditional teaching. Nevertheless, insofar as Wyclif and a great number of "orthodox" thinkers of the late Middle Ages were already confronting the same central issues that the Protestant reformers were to confront, they may be justly called "forerunners" of the Reformation. There remained a basic continuity of "questions", albeit not of "answers".


Sources utilized in these pages may include:
  • Everett Ferguson's: Backgrounds of Early Christianity
  • Walker's: History of Christianity (out of print)

    (These links will take you to book detail pages at Amazon.com)

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