John Wycliffe: “The Morning Star of the Reformation” - page 2


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From the Winter 2012 issue of Knowing & Doing:  

PROFILE IN FAITH

John Wycliffe:  

"The Morning Star of the Reformation"1 

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

 

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Wycliffe, the Theologian

  When in 1381 John Wycliffe was banished from Oxford, a place he called his greatest love, he took up residence at his parish church in Lutterworth, near Rugby, in Northamptonshire. By this time he had entered the third and most important phase of his life. Going beyond his criticism of the abuses of church power and the conduct of its clergy, he began to attack Roman Catholic doctrine, just as Luther and Calvin later went beyond Erasmus in their theological reform. As a philosopher Wycliffe argued against the spiritual sterility of contemporary skepticism; as a churchman he argued against the worldliness and corruption of the church; as a theologian he argued for the supremacy of the Bible and its message of God’s salvation by grace. It is this later Wycliffe whom we honor as the pioneer of our English language, our English Bible, and our Protestant religion.
  Wycliffe preached the same message of God’s grace in Christ that sounded again in the Reformation two hundred years later:

Have a remembrance of the goodness of God, how he made you in his own likeness; and how Jesus Christ, both God and man, died so painful a death upon the cross, to buy your soul out of hell, even with his own heart’s blood, and to bring it to the bliss of heaven.8

Wycliffe’s preaching is concentrated in these few words from his sermon, “A Short Rule of Life for Priests, Lords,
and Laborers”:

At the end of the day, think about how you have offended God . . . and . . . how graciously God has saved you; not for your desert, but for his own mercy and goodness . . . and pray for grace that you may dwell and end in his true service, and real love, and according to your skill, to teach others to do the same.9

  Wycliffe’s instruction to people seeking salvation anticipated the words of Luther, Calvin, and Knox: “Trust wholly in Christ; rely altogether on His sufferings; beware of seeking to be justified in any other way than by His righteousness. Faith in our Lord Jesus Christ is sufficient for salvation.”10
  Wycliffe defined the church as the predestined body of the elect. The doctrine of election, going back to Augustine, who found it in the Bible and especially in the writings of the apostle Paul, had been rejected or ignored by the medieval church because it was a threat to the authority of the church and its sacramental system as the only means of salvation. “Neither place nor human election makes a person a member of the church but divine predestination in respect of whoever with perseverance follows Christ in love,” wrote Wycliffe.11 As these words make clear, Wycliffe accompanied his insistence on the doctrine of predestination with equal emphasis on the necessity for Christians to live according to the Bible’s teaching by following Christ’s teaching and example.
  Wycliffe denied the claim that the pope was head of the church and that people were subject to him for their salvation. The only true head of the church was Christ, said Wycliffe. Because popes claimed what belonged only to Christ, Wycliffe described them as “antichrists.” God’s grace, he preached, was available to every person without the need to believe in the claims of any ecclesiastical leader.
  Wycliffe rejected the Catholic teaching of transubstantiation of the bread and wine in the Eucharist into the body and blood of Christ. He believed that the elements remained what they were before the act of consecration, although “under the form of bread and wine is sacramentally the Body of Christ.”12 He sought to free people from their common superstitious and magical understanding of the Eucharist, and to show them its spiritual purpose and power. Like the later Reformers, Wycliffe claimed that he was not putting forth new teaching but restating and defending the doctrine of the ancient church against the innovations introduced by the “modern doctors.”13

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