John Wycliffe - Church Leader

John Wycliffe - Church Leader

Theology and ecclesiastical affairs had been in ferment for some time before the 16th-century upheavals now known as the Protestant Reformation, which left behind enduring divisions among Western Christian churches. For at least three centuries theologians had held divergent opinions on the possibility of conflict between the Bible and its interpretation by official teachers in the church.

These disagreements grew in heat and importance as calls for reform in the moral and institutional life of the church increased. Two of the most important figures in the tumultuous movements in theology and church life in the two centuries prior to the Reformation are John Wycliffe and John Huss.

John Wycliffe was born in Yorkshire, England, around 1330. He arrived in Oxford in the 1350s, at a time when the influence of the holistic approach to teaching theology that characterized late Scholasticism was on the wane. Scholarly interest now centered on particular problems in theology, and the application of logic and terminological reflection to treating those problems.

After Wycliffe had become a doctor of divinity and master of Balliol College, Oxford, the duke of Lancaster recruited him into his service and Wycliffe later represented King Edward III of England on a committee negotiating with papal officials in Bruges over the jurisdictions of the king and the pope. He soon decided to focus more keenly on matters of church reform.

Wycliffe’s philosophical and methodological ideas supported and reinforced his ideas on church reform. He stood for a radically biblical theology, taking the Bible as “an emanation of the supreme being transposed into writing,” denying that its authoritative interpretation rests with the bishops of the church, and calling for its translation into the vernacular.

Wycliffe’s doctrine of predestination held that God knows all the elect from all eternity, and that it is because God knows them to be elect that they are elect, and so members of the church. Therefore those who act in a way that is not in keeping with God’s law show themselves to be impostors, and if holders of office in the church, they forfeit their legitimacy as leaders.

Similarly Wycliffe denied the existence of a right to private property, seeing such a supposed right as mark of the church’s decline from a period of purity prior to the Middle Ages. The denial of a right to exclusive property and his radical theology of the Eucharist drew the most passionate reactions to any of Wycliffe’s doctrines.

Wycliffe denied that in the Eucharist the bread and wine change into the substance of Christ’s body and blood, though he claimed the body and blood of Christ are also present with the bread and wine. All 24 propositions of Wycliffe’s theology were condemned in 1382, but the protection of the duke of Lancaster saved him. He died of natural causes in 1384.

In 1415, however, the Council of Constance condemned Wycliffe as a heretic. That same council condemned and burned John Huss, the leader of a dissenting movement in Prague, in what is now the Czech Republic, for holding Wycliffe’s opinions.

Since Wycliffe’s views were more radical and inspired greater passion, the council convicted Huss, not very accurately, of holding Wycliffite views, and thereby justified his capital punishment. In fact he held similar ideas to Wycliffe’s, though generally in a more moderate form. Huss stood in the line of movement for reform that predated Wycliffe.

He held that one could appeal to Scripture to oppose canon law or even councils. While wicked prelates do not lose their title to office, Huss claimed that the members of the church owe them no obedience. Unlike Wycliffe, however, Huss held that bread and wine do change into the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist.

The Lollards were a popular English movement that drew deeply on Wycliffe’s theology. The movement began in Oxford around 1378. It posed a great enough threat to the government that in 1401 membership in the movement could bring punishment by death.

By 1415 after a failed attempt to oust Henry V and the condemnation of Wycliffe at the Council of Constance, Lollardy went underground and lasted mainly as a movement in northern England, inspiring various reform-minded preachers and social activists.