An immediate observation is that this merely assumes the Scriptural evidence is in favor of Catholicism. However, we will dispense with the Scriptural matter, as that is not our focus, and proceed to the matter of the post-Scriptural historical record; the idea that Luther was doctrinally novel with respect to church history suffers from a serious defect—it is irreconcilable to historical facts. The Reformation, bursting forth as it did in the sixteenth century, was part of a tradition of earlier reformers who, like many of the prophets of the Old Testament, were crushed under the obstinacy of the reigning religious authorities.
This essay will sketch a brief biography of one such early reformer, John Wycliffe, with particular attention paid to a few of his more significant doctrinal positions. As will be shown, Wycliffe’s experience with the corruption of the Catholic Church led him to some of the same moral and doctrinal conclusions Luther would endorse some 130 years later. Indeed, that “John Wycliffe and his followers anticipated many of the key-doctrines of Protestantism has never been in dispute.”1 Some of these moral and doctrinal conclusions include: a preference for the authority of Scripture over and against papal primacy, a move toward Sola Fide, a rejection of transubstantiation, and a concern for a vernacular translation of Scripture.
Wycliffe’s Early Life, Education at Oxford and Political Career
John Wycliffe (c. 1324-1384), who is perhaps best known for inspiring vernacular translations of Scripture, was an Oxford educated professor who strongly denounced the moral and spiritual failings of fourteenth century Catholicism. The similarities in his work and life to later Protestant reforms have earned him the exemplary title “Morning Star of the Reformation.”
His early life is shrouded in mystery. This is due not only to Wycliffe’s lack of autobiographical materials, but also to the posthumous treatment the early reformer received at the Council of Constance (1414-1418). Here Wycliffe was officially declared a heretic and his body ordered to be exhumed and burned with his works. The embarrassment caused by this event to his staunchly Catholic family was of no small consequence, and all traces of his life and work were subsequently erased from his town of origin.2
What we do know is that Wycliffe was born c. 1324 somewhere in Yorkshire, England. He later came to Oxford, eventually earning not only a doctorate, but widespread recognition for his rigorous logic and scholarly learning.3 His interests, however, were not limited to academia; he left Oxford in 1371 to serve the interests of British royalty, first as a diplomat, and later as a polemicist.4
His service to the crown left him disillusioned with the political process, which, at the time, was deeply wedded to the affairs of the Church. To help finance his war with Milan, Pope Gregory XI had demanded 100,000 florins from England, in addition to a regular tribute already being paid. Wycliffe initially participated in these negotiations and refused to bow to Gregory’s demands, but his uncompromising stance eventually had him removed from the discussions. After his removal, his fellow diplomats were bribed with “prestigious and lucrative offices in the English Church,” and they signed a treaty giving enormous concessions to Gregory.5
This marked the end of Wycliffe’s direct participation in the political process and he returned to Oxford to write and preach about the various reforms he thought the Church so desperately needed. Since Wycliffe targeted the hypocritical opulence of the clergy, he earned friends within the ranks of royalty, who wished to use his theological arguments for their own ends and devices. This, however, earned him the attention of the Gregory XI, who eventually condemned many of his criticisms and repeatedly attempted to have him brought to trial.6
Wycliffe’s View of Scripture as the Final Authoritative Norm
In the same year the Great Schism (1378-1417) began, Wycliffe published The Truth of Sacred Scripture. This treatise contained principles quite similar to the later Reformation principle of Sola Scriptura. Wycliffe’s view of authority had developed such that he “sought to ground all his reforms in the authority of Scripture, arguing that it is the highest authority for every Christian. It provides the test of all Church councils and of the claims of religious experience.”7
The Great Schism not only raised Wycliffe’s view of Scripture, but served to further diminish the legitimacy of the papacy in his eyes:
At this time, his position also grew more radical. The scandal of the Great Schism encouraged this, and he began teaching that the true church of Christ is not the pope and his visible hierarchy, but rather the invisible body of those who are predestined to salvation—a point he drew from Saint Augustine of Hippo. Although it is impossible to know exactly who has been predestined, there are indications that many ecclesiastical leaders are in truth reprobate. Towards the end of his life, Wycliffe declared that the pope was among those who were probably reprobate.8Heiko Oberman has also argued that Wycliffe held to the scholarly concept of Tradition I.9 (Tradition I has been summed as: “Scripture was the sole source of revelation; that it was the final authoritative norm of doctrine and practice; that it was to be interpreted according to the regula fidei.”10) Whether Tradition I squares completely with the later doctrine of the Reformers, Wycliffe’s views, especially in light of his writings on the papacy, can safely be claimed as much closer to the later Reformers and incompatible with the then prevailing view of Roman primacy.11
Anticipation of Sola Fide
Although Wycliffe’s doctrine precedes Luther’s in many ways, the connection is less clear with Sola Fide.12 However, as Bruce Shelley explains, Wycliffe can still be said to have at least anticipated the Reformer’s later articulation:
The long-range significance of Wyclif’s teaching on dominion lies in its link with the Reformation. It was the English reformer’s way of emphasizing the spiritual freedom of the righteous man. He is a professor of ‘a dominion founded on grace.’ ‘God gives no lordship to his servants without first giving Himself to them.’ Every man, therefore, priest or layman, holds an equal place in the eyes of God. This personal relation between a man and God is everything; character is the one basis of office. The mediating priesthood and the sacrificial masses of the medieval church are no longer essential. Thus Wyclif anticipates Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone. Both men destroy the medieval barriers between the individual and God.13The Rejection of Transubstantiation
As he neared the end of his life, Wycliffe began to question the doctrine of Transubstantiation.14 He came to rejected it because it was:
a denial of the principle manifested in the incarnation. When God was joined to human nature, the presence of the divinity did not destroy the humanity. Likewise, what takes place in communion is that the body of Christ is indeed present in the bread, but without destroying it. In a ‘sacramental’ and ‘mysterious’ way, the body of Christ is present in communion. But so is the bread.15Here is where Wycliffe was most controversial, as his views contradicted the Fourth Lateran Council (1215). Many then dismissed him as heretical, although he still officially died in communion with the Church. As mentioned above, it was not until the later Council of Constance that he was condemned.
A Translation for the Commoner
Like Luther, Wycliffe was concerned with providing a translation of Scripture that the common person could read. While the extent to which he was directly involved in the process is unknown, “we need have no qualms about referring to the Wycliffite Bible, for it was under his inspiration and by his friends and colleagues that the work was done.”16
Gonzâles explains Wycliffe’s rationale for a commoner’s translation and the subsequent inspiration it gave his followers:
According to Wycliffe, it is true that Scripture is the possession of the church, and that only the church can interpret the Bible correctly. But this church that owns Scripture is the body of all who are predestined, and therefore the Bible ought to be put back in their hands, and in their own language. It was because of this claim that Wycliffe’s followers, after his death, saw to it that the Bible was translated into English.17While Wycliffe’s translation was not based on Greek or Hebrew manuscripts (but the Latin Vulgate), the spirit of Luther’s later vernacular translation is still quite apparent.
1 Arthur Dickens, The English Reformation (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1991), 46.
2 William Estep, Renaissance and Reformation (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1986), 59.
3 Justo Gonzâles, The Story of Christianity, Volume I: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation (New York: HaperCollins Publishers, 1984), 346.
4 Ibid., 346.
5 Estep, Renaissance and Reformation, 63.
6 Ibid., 61.
7 Anthony Thiselton, Hermeneutics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 125.
8 Gonzâles, The Story of Christianity, 347.
9 Heiko Oberman, The Harvest of Medieval Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1967), 371-378.
10 Keith Mathison, The Shape of Sola Scriptura (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2001), 85.
11 Cf. John Wycliffe, On the Truth of the Holy Scripture, trans. Ian Christopher Levy (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute, 2001).
12 Cf. Alister McGrath, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 180-187.
13 Bruce Shelly, Church History in Plain Language (Word Publishing, 1995), 226.
14 Ralph Keen, The Christian Tradition (Lanham: MD, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2008), 176-177.
15 Gonzâles, The Story of Christianity, 347.
16 F.F. Bruce, History of the Bible in English (Cambridge: The Lutterworth Press, 1979), 13.
17 Gonzâles, The Story of Christianity, 347.