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Wycliffe’s Greatest Contribution
Wycliffe’s greatest contribution to church history was his elevation of the Bible to its supreme place and his insistence that it be made available to all Christians in their own language.14 In his book, The Truth of Holy Scripture, Wycliffe declared that Scripture was divinely inspired in every part and that it was the source of doctrine and the standard of life for all people, from peasants to kings and popes.
By the fourteenth century, a few portions of the Bible had been translated into Old English, but there was no version in the everyday language of most of the English people. John Wycliffe inspired and organized the work of providing such a Bible. There were two “Wycliffite” translations. The second and far superior was by John Purvey, an Oxford disciple of Wycliffe. Completed about 1395, a decade after Wycliffe’s death from natural causes on New Year’s Eve 1384, it was a translation of a translation, the Latin Vulgate translated into English. Purvey used the dialect of London, like Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales, making Middle English the dominant form of the language. Wycliffe’s vision and Purvey’s Bible prepared the way for the work of William Tyndale and the translators of the Geneva Bible in the sixteenth century and the King James Version of 1611, as well as the many English translations that have followed.
Wycliffe, Pastor and Preacher
An energetic and effective preacher, John Wycliffe created and encouraged a group of preachers or itinerant evangelists to proclaim the Bible’s message throughout England. Many of these “poor preachers” were common people without a great deal of education. Wycliffe, a great scholar, wrote that “an unlearned man with God’s grace does more for the church than many [college] graduates.”15
Wycliffe’s On the Pastoral Office expounds his view of what it meant to be a pastor. The book is divided into two parts: “holiness of life” and “wholesomeness of teaching.”16 In the second part he sets forth the duties of the pastor-preacher: “to feed his sheep spiritually on the Word of God,” “to purge wisely the sheep of disease, that they may not infect themselves and others as well,” and “to defend his sheep from ravening wolves.”17 The primary means of accomplishing these tasks is “sowing the Word of God among the sheep” by word and deed.
God ordains for a good reason that by the teaching of the pastor and his own manner of life his preaching to his sheep may be made efficacious, since this acts more effectively than mere preaching . . . The life of a good pastor is of necessity a mirror to be imitated by his flock.18
Wycliffe’s preachers were called Lollards by their enemies, a pejorative word meaning “mumblers.” Wycliffe instructed them:
Go and preach, it is the sublimest work; but imitate not the priests whom we see after the sermon sitting in the ale-house, or at the gaming table . . . After your sermon is ended, visit the sick, the aged, the poor, the blind and the lame and succour them.19
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