John Wycliffe: “The Morning Star of the Reformation” - page 4


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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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  The parson in The Canterbury Tales was a Lollard.20 In the general prologue Chaucer introduces him:

There was also riding with us a good man of religion, the poor parson of a small town. He was poor in wealth, perhaps, but rich in thought and holy works. He was also a learned man, a clerk [a scholar or theologian], who preached Christ’s gospel in the most faithful fashion and who taught his parishioners the lessons of devotion. He was gracious, and diligent; in adversity, as he proved many times, he was patient . . . He had a large parish, with the houses set far apart, but neither rain nor thunder would prevent him from visiting his parishioners in times of grief or dearth . . . He gave the best possible example to his flock. Perform before you preach. Good deeds are more fruitful than good words . .. He . . . protected his flock from the wolves of sin and greed that threatened it. He was a true shepherd . . . He wanted to draw people to God with kind words and good deeds . . . He simply taught, and followed, the law of Christ and the gospel of his apostles.

  Instead of a tale, the parson preached a sermon, a long one, praying that at the end of their journey God would guide and use him; he also reminded his fellow travelers that “our pilgrimage on earth is an image of the glorious pilgrimage to the celestial city.” He took his text from Jeremiah: “Stand upon the old paths and find from old scriptures the right way which is the good way.”21
  The Lollards, without the intellectual support of Oxford and the protection of the ruling class, were forced to work with great caution. Not unlike the early Christians in the Roman Empire, they were heard of only when they came to the notice of the authorities. For more than a hundred years, the bishops sought them out, seizing their fragments of manuscript Bibles, attempting to force them to recant, and burning some of them at the stake. Wycliffe’s preachers persevered, however, in the English Midlands and the Welsh border country, East Anglia and the west of England, and as far afield as Scotland.22

Wycliffe’s Reach

  Wycliffe’s teaching spread far beyond England and Scotland to central Europe, through the political alliance between England and Bohemia, and influenced scholars and preachers including John Hus. A Bohemian psalter shows a picture of Wycliffe striking the spark, Hus kindling the coals, and Luther brandishing the lighted torch. Erasmus wrote to the pope in 1523, “Once the party of the Wycliffites was overcome by the power of the kings; but it was only overcome and not extinguished.”23
  An unusual tribute to Wycliffe occurred in 1533, when the Protestant Reformer John Frith was burned at the stake. Shortly before his martyrdom, Frith praised the “sincere life” of John Wycliffe. It is the first recorded use of the word sincere in English to refer to a person. Previously the word was used to describe the purity of physical things—things whole and unadulterated. It was a good word for a later Protestant to use for “the morning star of the Reformation.”24
  In 1415, more than thirty years after his death, the Council of Constance formally condemned forty-five “errors” of Wycliffe. Thirteen years later, in 1428, his bones were dug up and burned. The eloquent words of a seventeenth-century writer proved to
be true.

They burned his bones to ashes and cast them into the Swift, a neighbouring brook running hard by. Thus the brook conveyed his ashes into the Avon, the Avon into the Severn, the Severn into the narrow seas and they into the main ocean. And so the ashes of Wycliffe are symbolic of his doctrine, which is now spread throughout the world.25

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