John Wycliffe (also Wycliff or Wyclif), born c. 1330, was born in Yorkshire and educated at Oxford University. Fellow of Merton College in 1356 and Master of Balliol College circa 1360-1, he 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 of Wales, and of Edward’s brother, John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster, from 1371, serving as an envoy and propagandist.
Wycliffe made his reputation early 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 skepticism. 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), Wycliffe 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. Wycliffe’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, along with a number of friends at court (he was protected from ecclesiastical censure three times in his later years by Gaunt and by the Black Prince’s widow). His eucharistic doctrine was condemned by the Univerity in 1381, and Wycliffe’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 Wycliffe himself) were condemned by Archbishop William Courtenay at the Blackfriars Council in 1382. Wycliffe 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 Wycliffe’s doctrines in 1388, 1397, and finally at the Council of Constance in 1415. In 1428 Wycliffe’s remains were removed from consecrated ground and burned, and the ashes were cast into the River Swift.
Wyliffe’s philosophical influence at Oxford was considerable for at least a generation, though his later influence in England as a whole 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 Wycliffe. (Hus was convicted and burned for his heresy.) Many of Wycliffe’s writings survive only in Czech manuscripts.
Outside the field of philosophy Wycliffe’s ideas were not original and can be compared with similar views of contemporary European reformers. His importance lies in his role in propagating his ideas. Wycliffe was an energetic preacher in Latin and in English, as his surviving sermons show. Furthermore, Wycliffe 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 Wycliffe’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 Wycliffe himself, but Wycliffe certainly 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, Wycliffe’s secretary, for the second version, completed in 1397.
The modern-day Wycliffe Bible Translators, named in his honor, are committed to translating the Bible into all languages spoken around the world.
Wycliffe is commemorated on December 31 in the Calendars of the Church of England, the Scottish Episcopal Church, and the (Anglican) Church in Wales; and in that of The Episcopal Church on October 30.
compiled from The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, and the preface to the New English Bible
James Kiefer has provided a collect for the commemoration of John Wycliffe, 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 Wycliffe, 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.
The image of Wycliffe is taken from the website of St Mary’s Church in Lutterworth and is of a late eighteenth century portrait of Wycliffe that hangs in the church.