John Wyclif (also Wycliff or Wycliffe), born circa 1330, was educated at Oxford University, Fellow of Merton College in 1356 and Master of Balliol College circa 1360-1, served a rector of Fillingham and later of Ludgershall and of Lutterworth (the latter two until his death in 1384). He was in the service of the Edward, the Black Prince, and of John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster, from 1371, serving as an envoy and propagandist.
Wyclif’s early reputation was as a philosopher. Reacting against the prevailing scepticism of Oxford thought, which divorced natural and supernatural knowledge, he returned to the philosophical realism of Saint Augustine and Robert Grosseteste. From the beginning his philosophy was religious in character, and it was fed by a sense of the spiritual sterility of scepticism. As a theologian he sought inspiration in the Scriptures and the Fathers rather than in the speculations of medieval Scholasticism, and he fulfilled his doctoral obligations at Oxford by an unprecedented, if unoriginal, series of lectures conmmenting on the entire Bible. His growing repugnance at the religious institutions of his time led to his gradual elaboration, on the basis of his philosophy, of a concept of the Church which distinguished its eternal, ideal reality from the visible, “material” Church, and denied to the latter any authority that did not derive from the former. His idea that the clergy, if not in a state of grace, could lawfully be deprived of their endowments by the civil power, its own authority dependent on being in a state of grace (De Civili Dominio, 1375-60), was condemned in 1377 by Pope Gregory XI. In his De Ecclesia, De Veritate Sacrae Scripturae, and De Potestate Papae (1377-8), Wyclif maintained that the Bible, as the eternal “exemplar” of the Christian religion, was the sole criterion of doctrine, to which no ecclesiastical authority might lawfully add, and that the papal authority was ill-founded in Scripture. In the later De Apostasia he denied, in violent terms, that the religious (monastic) life had any foundation in Scripture, and he appealed to the government to reform the whole order of the Church in England. At the same time in De Eucharistia he attacked the doctrine of transubstantiation as philosophically unsound and as encouraging a superstitious attitude to the Eucharist. Wyclif’s eucharistic doctrine was that the bread remained, and that Jesus was truly present in the bread, though in a spiritual and not a material manner.
These published doctrines gradually lost him substantial support in Oxford and reduced his following to a small by loyal group of sholars, probably also with some friends at court (he was protected from ecclesiastical censure three times in his later years by Gaunt and the Black Prince’s widow). His eucharistic doctrine was condemned by the Univerity in 1381, and Wyclif’s public refusal to comply in his Confessio created a scandal. The Peasants’ Revolt, popularly though erroneously attributed to his teaching – particularly his teaching on authority and grace – magnified the scandal, and a wide range of his teachings and followers (though not Wyclif himself) were condemned by Archbishop William Courtenay at the Blackfriars Council in 1382. Wyclif retired to Lutterworth, where he revised his polemics and produced a series of pamphlets attacking his enemies. After his death from a stroke on December 31, 1384, the continued activity of his disciples, who as they gathered strength among the less educated became known as Lollards, led to further condemnations of Wyclif’s doctrines in 1388, 1397, and finally at the Council of Constance in 1415. In 1428 Wyclif’s body was removed from consecrated ground.
Wylif’s philosophical influence at Oxford was considerable for at least a generation, though his later influence in England is less clear. However, his philosophical and theological writings exercised an influence on Czech scholars, especially Jan (or John) Hus, the Bohemian priest and preacher in Prague who was condemned as a heretic by the same Council of Constance as condemned Wyclif. (Hus was convicted and burned for his heresy.) Many of Wyclif’s writings survive only in Czech manuscripts.
Outside the field of philosophy Wyclif’s ideas were not original and can be compared with similar views of contemporary European reformers. His importance lies in his role in propagating them. Wyclif was an energetic preacher in Latin and in English, as his surviving sermons show. Furthermore, Wyclif proposed the creation of a new order of Poor Preachers who would preach to the people from an English Bible.
The first English versions of the entire Bible are the two associated with Wyclif’s work, made by translating the Latin Vulgate between 1380 and 1397. It is unknown what part of the work of translation was done by Wyclif himself, but Wyclif inspired the project, including the making of the second version after his death in 1384. Both versions were made by scholars who were his immediate disciples: Nicholas Hereford, largely responsible for the first version; and John Purvey, Wyclif’s secretary, for the second version, completed in 1397.
The modern-day Wyclif Bible Translators, named in Wyclif’s honor, are committed to translating the Bible into all languages spoken around the world.
Wyclif is commemorated on December 31 in the calendar of the Church of England, the Scottish Episcopal Church, and the (Anglican) Church in Wales.
- From The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, and the preface to the New English Bible, with amendments.
James Kiefer provides a prayer for the commemoration of John Wyclif, Theologian and Reformer:
O Lord, God of truth, whose Word is a lantern to our feet and a light upon our path: We give you thanks for your servant John Wyclif, and those who, following in his steps, have labored to render the Holy Scriptures in the language of the people; and we pray that your Holy Spirit may overshadow us as we read the written Word, and that Christ, the living Word, may transform us according to your righteous will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.