H371 - The Reformation Before the Reformation: John Wycliffe

ASSIGNMENT: Read Kurt Aland, The History of Christianity, Vol 1, the last chapter.

As Marco Polo began his famous journey to the far east in 1324, John Wycliffe turned four years old. The radical Franciscans were denouncing the riches of the Papacy, and Pope John XXII was mid way through his reign The world (as it was known to the Europeans) was at peace; and Rome held ultimate authority in the lives of the people of the continent and the British Isles.

From Augustine and Constantine till the birth of Wycliffe, the Church was the center of every person's life. The so-called "Dark Ages" (a purely Protestant description) were simply a period of great calm brought about by the power of the Church.

John Wycliffe was born into this world of calm; but the waters would soon be stirred and Wycliffe would join the fray. England was soon plunged into the 100 Years War with France (from 1339 to 1453). This struggle was waged because some Englishmen were tired of the outrageous taxes they had to pay the Church; and France was the arm of the Church in the region. Between 1/3 and 1/4 of the land in England was Church Land! This desire to retain money and regain land that the English viewed as theirs brought them into direct conflict with the Papacy. The Pope wanted to retain the land and money and so the French were called to service; and they served well.

Wycliffe was born in 1320 and studied Theology in Oxford (he died in 1384).

His training and disposition led him to oppose the ownership of English land by the Papacy, on religious and theological grounds rather than merely economic. From 1376 onward Wycliffe published tracts which decried the secularization of the Church. This secularization, he maintained, was beneficial neither to the Church or the State.

In 1377 the Pope issued a Bull (an official document which prohibits the publication of certain writings) condemning in 18 theses the writings of Wycliffe.

Wycliffe's reaction was violent. He began to denounce the Pope (though, contrary to Luther, not the Papacy) in vehement and incredibly harsh writings.

From 1378 to 1379 Wycliffe published his theological system in a series of tracts.

The main thesis of these works was that the Scriptures are the foundation of all doctrine.

This was the turning point of doctrinal history. To this point Tradition was placed alongside Scripture as a source of doctrine; but Wycliffe disputed this notion and John Hus of Prague and Martin Luther as well as Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin would adopt the view of Wycliffe.

Wycliffe's doctrine of the Church was likewise revolutionary. He saw the Church as a spiritual institution and not a political one. Thus the pre-reformation work of Wycliffe lay in his doctrines of Scripture and the Church. It would be these precise doctrinal controversies which would later fuel the "Reformation" of Luther and Zwingli.

The significance of Wycliffe cannot be overlooked. His movement towards Scripture and Church as spiritual society were the foundation stones on which the later Reformation would be founded. He, nevertheless, did propose ideas that were very controversial. He suggested that human freedom was non-existent; to the point that everything that a person did was predetermined. His great animosity towards the Pope led him to make some outrageous personal statements; and his distrust of human nature very nearly led him to completely dehumanize humanity.

Yet without Wycliffe, there could not have been a Reformation. Or, for that matter, an English translation of the Bible. Wycliffe's translation is well known. He did his work from the Latin Vulgate; thus giving the English people the first translation of the Scriptures in their own language. His translation was consulted by Tyndale, Coverdale, the Bishops, and of course the Authorized translators. He was a translator before Luther; a theologian before Calvin; and a reformer before the Reformation.

After the death of Wycliffe there would not appear another Reformer before the Reformation until John Hus (1369 - 1415) In 1414 the Papacy attempted to put an end to the approaching schism by calling the council of Constance where Hus was condemned (and executed on July 6 1415) and Wycliffe again (though long dead) was reviled. But the tide would not be stemmed. The floodgates opened by Wycliffe would reach fruition in Zwingli and Luther. But the nagging question remains to this day: was the result worth the price? Was the fragmentation of the Church worth the result? A result which day by day grows more profoundly disturbing; for Church life is on the decline, and a sense of personal responsibility as a member of the Church is losing ground each day. One can say, at any rate, that when Rome was the only game in town everyone knew their duties.

When freedom was granted without responsibility the only result could be and was the laying aside of responsibility. (As a parenthesis, the reader should read Dostoevsky's "The Grand Inquisitor" in The Brothers Karamazov for a literary discussion of this fact).

One other event which took place before the Reformation; and which was absolutely essential for it, was the inventing of the printing press by Gutenberg in 1450.

Without the press, the Reformation would not have been able to spread its message with any success.

In the next section, we shall turn our attention to Luther, who is rightly hailed as "the little boy with his finger in the dam; who then pulled it out and let the floods come".