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John Wycliffe - The Morning Star of the Reformation PDF Print E-mail

In the 14th Century, Oxford was the most outstanding university in the world, and John Wycliffe was its leading theologian and philosopher.

The Black Death ( Bubonic Plague), which killed a third of the population of Europe, lead Wycliffe to search the Scriptures and find salvation in Christ.


As a professor at Oxford University, Wycliffe represented England in a controversy with the Pope. Wycliffe championed the independence of England from Papal control. He supported King Edward IIIs refusal to pay taxes to the Pope. (It was only one step away from denying the political supremacy of the Pope over nations to questioning his spiritual supremacy over churches). The royal favour which Wycliffe earned from this confrontation protected him later in life.

Wycliffes patron and protector was John of Gaunt. This English prince was the most powerful political figure in the late 14th Century, England. Gaunt, known in his day as the Duke of Lancaster, was effectively the Prime Minister of England during the last years of the 50-year reign of his then senile father, King Edward III. Gaunt was a wise diplomat, a bold soldier, the epitome of chivalry, hard on his enemies and always faithful to what he believed was best for England. In 1399 Gaunts son ascended the throne as King Henry IV.


In Wycliffes book Civil Dominion, he maintains that the ungodly have no right to rule. All authority is granted by God. But God does not grant any authority to those who are in rebellion against Him. Those who rule unjustly are in breach of the terms under which God delegates authority. So wicked rulers have forfeited their right to rule. In fact, all of those who lead blatantly sinful lives forfeit their rights in this world.


Wycliffe also taught that the clergy of his time were so corrupt that the secular authorities had the right to confiscate their properties. The Roman church at that time owned about one third of all land in England, claimed exemption from taxation, yet the Pope claimed the right to tax the English to finance his own wars!

Wycliffe maintained that the English government had the God-given responsibility to correct the abuses of the church within its realm and to remove from office those churchmen who persisted in their corruption and immorality.


Wycliffe taught that our personal relationship with God is everything. Character is the fundamental basis of any leadership. He emphasised apostolic poverty, insisting that those who claimed to sit on Saint Peters chair should, like the Apostle, be without silver or gold. To Wycliffe, those who claimed to follow the Apostles, should live poor and humble lives spent in the service of the Church, setting an example of holiness. Therefore the Pope of Rome should be a shepherd of the flock and a preacher who brings men to Christ. Wycliffe denounced the worldliness and luxury of the Popes and the spiritual bankruptcy of the office of pope. The papacy had departed from the simple Faith and practice of Christ and His disciples. Wycliffe wrote: Christ is truth, the Pope is the principle of falsehood. Christ lived in poverty, the Pope labours for worldly magnificence. Christ refused temporal dominion, the Pope seeks it.


In his book The Power of the Papacy published in 1379, Wycliffe argues that the papacy is an office instituted by man, not God. No popes authority could extend to secular government. The only authority that any pope may have would depend upon him having the moral character of the Apostle Peter. Any pope who does not follow Jesus Christ is the anti-Christ.

Wycliffe proclaimed that Christ alone is the Head of the Church.


And the Church on earth Wycliffe defined as the whole wonder of the elect, those chosen by God. The Church is the body of Christ, a unity that knows nothing of popes, hierarchies, monks, friars, priests or nuns. Nor can the salvation of the elect be effected by masses, indulgences, penance, or any other devices of priestcraft. There is nothing in the Bible about transubstantiation, pardons, absolutions, worship of images, the adoration of saints, the treasury of merits laid up at the reserve of the Pope, the distinction between venial and mortal sins or confession to a priest. Compulsory confession Wycliffe considered the bondage of the anti-Christ.

Wycliffe declared that the reading and preaching of Gods Word is of more value than the administration of any sacrament.


In a letter written by Wycliffe to Pope Urban VI he maintained: The Gospel of Christ is the body of the Law of God, Christ is true God and true manthe Roman pontiff is most bound to this Law of the GospelChrists disciples are judgedaccording to their imitation of Christ in their moral lifeChrist was the poorest of men during the time of His pilgrimageHe eschewed all worldly dominionnever should any of the faithful imitate the Pope himself nor any of the saints except in so far as he may have imitated the Lord Jesus Christthe Pope should leave temporal dominion to the secular armGodhas always taught me to obey God rather than men.

In this letter Wycliffe also refers to the deceitful counselmalicious counselanything contrary to the Law of the Lord as anti-Christ.


In 1378, Wycliffe completed the book The Truth of Holy Scripture.In it he wrote: Holy Scripture is the pre-eminent authority for every Christian and the rule of faith and of all human perfectionit is necessary for all men, not for priests aloneChrist and His Apostles taught the people in the language best known to themtherefore the doctrine should not only be in Latin, but in the vulgar tonguethe more these are known the betterbelievers should have the Scriptures in a language which they fully understand. Wycliffe taught that Scripture contains everything that is necessary for our salvation. All other authorities must be tested by the Scripture. Christs Law is best and enough, and other laws men should not take, but as branches of Gods Law.


Therefore Wycliffe supervised a handful of scholars at Oxford in the translation of the Latin Bible into the English language. This was the very first translation of the entire Bible into the English language. The only source that Wycliffes translators had to work with was a Latin hand written manuscript of a translation made 1000 years previously.

Wycliffe is called the father of English prose because of the clarity and effectiveness of his writings and sermons, which did much to unify and shape the English language.


From Oxford, Wycliffe trained and sent out poor priests (the Lollards) into the fields, villages and churches, to preach in the marketplaces, to read and sing the Scriptures in English and to win people for Christ. These itinerant evangelists became a tremendous power in the land as they spread the knowledge of the Scriptures throughout England.


As a result of these activities and teachings, one Pope issued five bulls against John Wycliffe for heresy. The Catholic Church tried him three times, and two popes summoned him to Rome. However, Wycliffe wisely refused each summons and the political protection of the Duke of Lancaster kept Wycliffe alive and free. He was never imprisoned.

His followers, however were hunted down, expelled from Oxford and mercilessly persecuted. To get an idea of the scandal and controversy engendered by Wycliffes Reformation, we should note what was written by Henry Knighton, a Catholic chronicler: Christ gave His Gospel to the clergybut this master John Wycliffe translated the Gospel from Latin into the Englishcommon to all and more open to the laity and even to womenand so the pearl of the Gospel is thrown before swine and trodden under footthe jewel of the clergy has been turned into the jest of the laityhas become common.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Arundel, said: that pestilent and most wretched John Wycliffe, of damnable memory, a child of the old devil, and himself a child or pupil of anti-Christcrowned his wickedness by translating the Scriptures into the mother tongue!


A synod of clergy in 1408 decreed: It is dangerousto translate the text of Holy Scripturewe decree and ordain that no-one shall in future translate on his authority any text of Scripture into the English tongue or into any other tongue, by way of book, booklet or treatiese. Nor shall any man read, in public or in private, this kind of book, booklet or treatiese, now recently composed in the time of the said John Wycliffeon the penalty of the greater excommunication.


In 1382, at a church council called by Archbishop Courtenay, 24 of Wycliffes teachings were condemned. During that council there was an earthquake. Wycliffe and the Lollards interpreted the earthquake as a sign of Gods displeasure with the corrupt and un-Biblical Roman clergy.


Wycliffe scorned the idea that because Peter died in Rome, therefore every Bishop of Rome is to be set above all of Christendom. By the same reasoning, he noted that the Muslim Turk might conclude that because they controlled Jerusalem where Christ died, their Mullah has power over the Pope!


Wycliffe attacked the corruptions, superstitions and abuses of the friars and monks. He exposed their supposed powers to forgive sins as fraudulent. Who can forgive sins? Wycliffe taught: God alone! Christ alone is the Head of the Church and God alone can forgive sins.


Wycliffes field workers (the Lollards) helped to prepare the way for the English Reformation (in the 16th Century) by reading, preaching and singing the Scriptures in English in marketplaces, fields and homes throughout the land.


Summoned to appear before a church council, Wycliffe rebuked the bishops for being priests of Baal, selling blasphemy and idolatry in the mass and indulgences. He then walked out of the assembly and refused a summons from the Pope. When Wycliffe was excluded from teaching in Oxford, he withdrew to the congregation at Lutterworth, in Leicestershire, where he devoted himself to writing during his few remaining years.

In 1428, 44 years after Wycliffes death, by order of the Pope, the bones of Wycliffe were dug up and burned. As one historian commented: They burned his bones to ashes and cast them into the Swift, a neighbouring brook running close by. Thus the brook conveyed his ashes to 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.

Wycliffe was the father of the Reformation its morning star. Wycliffes writings and example inspired Huss and Luther.

This Article is taken from
The Greatest Century of Reformation

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