John Wycliffe: “The Morning Star of the Reformation” - page 1

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From the Winter 2012 issue of Knowing & Doing:  


John Wycliffe:  

"The Morning Star of the Reformation"1 

by David B. Calhoun
Professor Emeritus of Church History, Covenant Theological Seminary, St. Louis, Missouri


To Wycliffe we owe more than to any one person . . . our English language, our English Bible, and our reformed religion.”2
  Who was this man to whom we owe so much?
  John Wycliffe was born into a wealthy family in Yorkshire, England, circa 1330. At age fifteen he went to Oxford, by then the greatest university in Europe. A few years later, the Black Death killed a third of the population of England, including Thomas Bradwardine, the archbishop of Canterbury. Bradwardine’s book On the Cause of God against the Pelagians, a bold recovery of the Pauline-Augustine doctrine of grace, would greatly shape young Wycliffe’s theology. Wycliffe completed his studies at Oxford, fulfilling his doctoral requirement by giving a series of lectures commenting on the whole Bible! As a teacher he soon became Oxford’s leading philosopher and theologian.
  Wycliffe first made his mark as a philosopher, writing in Latin many treatises opposing the spiritual sterility of the skepticism of his day.

Advocate of Church Reform

  Wycliffe began the second phase of his life when he became an advocate of church reform and entered the service of the king.  Somewhat like Erasmus more than a century later, he attacked the abuses of the church, from the priests to the pope. He insisted that Christ gave the church authority over the spiritual, but not the temporal, realm. He traced the corruption of the church to the time of Constantine, when the emperor was thought to have endowed the papacy with temporal possessions and thus “poured poison into the Church.”3 Wycliffe criticized priests who were

. . . so occupied in heart about worldly lordships, and with pleas of business, that no habit of praying, of thoughtfulness on heavenly things, or the sins of their own heart or those of other men, may be kept among them: neither may they be found studying and preaching the gospel, nor visiting and comforting the poor.4

  He insisted that the clergy should be stripped of all material, worldly privileges, to restore them to their proper spiritual life and work.
   Wycliffe’s help was gladly embraced by the state in its ongoing battle with the church over issues of status, power, and control. In the eyes of the popes of his time, Wycliffe stood for England against Rome and for the state against the church. The Catholic Church was unable to control or silence Wycliffe, because he had powerful supporters in the state, and the church itself was experiencing a time of great internal dissension. The so-called Babylonian Captivity (the relocation of the papacy to Avignon in 1309) was followed by the Great Schism (the division of Western Christendom in 1378 by the creation of two popes, one in Rome and one in Avignon). John Wycliffe saw this as a hopeful sign, saying that Christ “hath begun already to help us graciously, in that he hath cloven the head of Antichrist, and made the two parts fight against each other.”5
  Wycliffe lost much of his secular support, notably the protection of John of Gaunt, son of Edward III, who for years had protected him from the wrath of the church. When this nobleman lost his power, and the weakness of the church gave the state greater confidence in its ability to prevail, Wycliffe was no longer needed. It was not the first time, nor would it be the last, that a Christian leader discovers that “it is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in princes” (Ps. 118:9 NIV). Although Wycliffe now lacked political clout, the people still supported him. “If he is the weakest in power,” they said, “he is the strongest in truth.”6 In 1382 Wycliffe’s teaching was condemned by a council meeting in London. When the city was shaken by an earthquake, the Catholic officials interpreted it as a sign of God’s approval of their action. Others said, “If Wycliffe has been condemned by the bishops, then they have certainly been condemned by God.”7

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