John Wycliffe was born in 1328. His birth city is believed to be the factory village of modern-day Hipswell, in the North Riding of Yorkshire/ England, although historians have not been able to completely ascertain such information.1William Dallmann, John Wiclif. Concordia Theological Quarterly XI (St. Louis: 1907), 41.
He received his early education close to his home. It is not clear when he first came to Oxford University, but in 1345, he was already there, having kept himself closely connected to it until almost the end of his life.
Wycliffe was an English scholastic philosopher, theologian, preacher, reformer and university teacher, who left his mark in the history of the Christianity as one of the first dissidents from the Roman Catholic Church. Wycliffe was an earlier reformer born centuries before the peak of the Protestant Reformation, having defended some of the key ideals would later constitute the flag of such religious movement.
Wycliffe was one of the earliest opponents of papal authority and influence on secular matters. He was also one of the first proponents of translating existing Bible texts so that God’s word would become more widely available to the lay people. In fact, he was responsible for the first translation of Jerome’s Latin translation of the Bible (the so-called Vulgate) to an early ancestor of the modern English language (labeled by linguistics as Middle-term English).
Similarly to the great impact that Luther’s Bible translation had on the development of the German language, the clarity, beauty, and strength of Wycliffe’s translation also significantly influenced the early development of the English language as well as later English bible translations, such as the classic King James Version.
Wycliffe’s Early Oxford Years
During his period in Oxford, Wycliffe developed several theoretical essays on Logic, Epistemology, Metaphysics, and Scholastic Theology. It has already been suggested that such early academic years may have played a significant role in consolidating Wycliffe’s beliefs, being crucial to the later development of his social, religious and political positions in strong defiance of the Catholic Church. In his biography of Wycliffe, Lahey, for example, stated that:
It is not easy to connect this vituperative critic of the papacy, the friars, and the fourteenth-century ecclesiastical status quo with the abstractions of scholasticism. Yet Wycliffe’s later public life is incomprehensible without an understanding of his Oxford years.2Stephan E Lahey, John Wyclif Great Medieval Thinkers (Oxford University Press, 2009), 3.
The evidence that Wycliffe re-edited some of his philosophical works in a later period supports the assumption that he has never abandoned his earlier logical and metaphysical interests for exclusive political and reformative ones, as some authors suggest have previously suggested.3Mariateresa Fumagalli Beonio Brocchieri and Stefano Simonetta, John Wyclif: Logica, Politica, Teologia (Firenze: 2003).
Wycliffe on Logics and Metaphysics
In his first book De Logica (1360), Wycliffe explored the fundamentals of Scholastic Theology. Other two works following this same line are Logice continuacia and De Logica, Tractatus Tercius.
In another treatise on Logics called Insolubilia (1365) Wycliffe explored some paradoxical sentences called ‘antinomies’, such as: “This sentence is false.” In this book, Wycliffe deals with some deep questions regarding the existence and validity of such sentences (i.e. Do such sentences say nothing at all, or do they say something simultaneously both false and true?).
Additionally, in his work De Actibus Anime, Wycliffe explored the nature of ‘universals’ and their ultimate dependence upon God’s mind. In opposition to Plato, who supposed the existence of a distinct realm in which perfect and abstract entities like “Goodness” or “Circularity” existed apart from any substance, for Wycliffe every universal, as part of creation, derived its existence from God, the Creator. In the twentieth century, the theologian Cornelius van Til has recently proposed the same idea, implying a complete contingency of every ‘created being’ upon the ‘Creator’. Such total dependence of ‘creature’ or ‘created realities’ upon the ‘Creator’ has become quite popular in Reformed circles through the expression, ‘Thinking God’s thoughts after Him’. In line with Van Til’s Calvinistic theology, such statements expresses the ultimate contingency of every human thought, action or even historical event upon God’s eternal purpose and predetermination and, therefore, subject to the Creator’s sovereign dispositions.4Cornelius Van Til, A Christian Theory of Knowledge (Philadelphia: P&R. 1969), 271.
It is worth remembering that even when Wycliffe writes about pure Logic, his interests are not on the Philosophy of Language or on formal reasoning by itself, but ultimately on the ontological and theological implications of such questions. For Wycliffe, therefore, the syllogistic logic explored in his essays is not an ultimate goal on itself, but rather a means in order to achieve a better understanding of higher and more profound theological issues. In his own words:
Certain people who love God’s law have persuaded me to compose a reliable treatise aimed at making plain the logic of the Holy Scripture. For in view of the fact that many people go into logic having imagined that they would thereby come to know God’s law better, and then, because of the tasteless concoction of pagan terms in every analysis or proof of propositions, because of the emptiness of the enterprise, they abandon it, I propose to sharpen the minds of the faithful by introducing analyses and proofs of propositions that are to be drawn from the Scriptures.5Lahey, 9.
Having such a ‘God-centered’ approach to his speculative and theoretical investigations, it seems clear that logic and philosophy of language were only captivating to Wycliffe because they ultimately point toward the Creator of such complex realities. For him, one should study Logic in order to better understand the human mind because, as taught by the Scriptures, human thoughts, feelings and actions bear God’s image and likeness. The scholar’s goal should, therefore, consist in unveiling the mysteries of the human mind with the ultimate theological purpose of better knowing God.
Ultimately, such relationship between knowledge of the self and the knowledge of God has permeated the whole history of Reformed Theology. Calvin, for example, opened his Institutes of the Christian Religion with the following words:
Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.6John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (1599) 35.
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, once wrote a prayer:
Give me, O Lord, that highest learning to know Thee, and that best wisdom to know myself.7John Emory, The Works of the Reverend John Wesley (New York: 1831), 422.
This dualistic epistemological approach, which considers the ‘Knowledge of God’ and ‘The Knowledge of Reality’ as closely interrelated heuristic phenomena, is present in almost every one of Wycliffe’s works on Logic.
The Summa de Ente, for example, was divided in two books: the first one, composed of seven treatises, contains philosophical issues that address the understanding of Created Reality, while the second one, composed of six treatises, contains theological discussions that address the understanding of the Divine Reality. The strict division exemplified in such a work reveals Wycliffe as an early pioneer of a type of ‘Van Tillian’ Epistemology, given the strong emphasis on the ‘Creator-Creature distinction’ which permeates all his enquires about the nature and means of acquiring true knowledge. It is also worthy to emphasize that, in consonance with future reformers, Wycliffe has always presented himself as a defender of the primacy of the Creator over the created reality. In other words, the apparent ontological realism of the first book of the Summa de Ente is under complete subjection to the Augustinian theology which undergirds the second book.
Regarding the so-called ‘universals’, Wycliffe was convinced that they have an objective reality which both ontologically precedes and also causally directs every instance of the ‘particulars’. Such unique twofold hierarchical relationship between universals and particulars was for Wycliffe a reflection of the ontological primacy of God’s essence over His creatures as well as an inescapable consequence of God’s sovereignty over every individual event involving His creation.
Far from constituting merely speculative endeavors, for Wycliffe every philosophical and ontological issue approached in his theoretical works was deemed to possess very practical implications for the daily Christian life. In fact, Wycliffe could easily relate his logical concepts (such as the discussion about ‘particulars’ and ‘universals’) with very clear practical realities, such as the rebellious attitudes of individuals (particulars) who, behaving as ‘lords of themselves’ (pseudo-universals), do not recognize God as Lord. (Romans 1:1)
As stated by Wycliffe:
Beyond all doubt, intellectual and emotional error about universals is the cause of all sin that reigns in the world.8John Wycliffe, On Universals, trans. A. Kenny (Oxford: 1985), 162–165.
Furthermore, the redemptive sequence displayed in Wycliffe’s writings seems quite similar to the one later defended by Calvin, which begins with a deep understanding of oneself, followed by a feeling of displeasure regarding one’s total depravity, which leads to a deep desire to know more of God and His perfections and which ultimately culminates with a sincere aspiration of becoming like Him. In Calvin’s words:
Thus, from the feeling of our own ignorance, vanity, poverty, infirmity, and—what is more—depravity and corruption, we recognize that the true light of wisdom, sound virtue, full abundance of every good, and purity of righteousness rest in the Lord alone. To this extent we are prompted by our own ills to contemplate the good things of God; and we cannot seriously aspire to him before we begin to become displeased with ourselves.9Calvin, 1-2.
Overall, Wycliffe’s theology contained some views which can be considered the true precursors of key ideals of the reformation. An example of this is Wycliffe’s constant struggle against the prevailing ignorance of the lay people regarding the Scriptures. Although not fully embracing Thomas Aquinas’ ontological/epistemological symbiosis (in which sin was considered more as a substantial lack of knowledge or goodness than a moral dereliction), Wycliffe’s, however, defended that sin and ignorance do always walk together.
Taking advantage of his refined philosophical and logical education, Wycliffe attempted to employ the available tools of Scholastic Logic in order to expose the rationale of Scriptures and enlighten the darkness of ignorance in which the vast majority of the lay people of his time lived. In each body of his works, Wycliffe’s analytical rigor and even his literary (which includes a tendency to repeatedly return to specific cornerstone themes) suggest a mind deeply committed to correct past historical mistakes by the power of critical reason.
Another key point of Wycliffe’s theology is his emphasis on the notion of divine Lordship, exposed in detail in his work De dominio Divino (1373), a three-book treatise that examines how the relationship between God and his creatures is always centered in the concept of Lordship.
Once again, contemporary Van Tillian epistemology seems to have followed Wycliffe’s pathway, which begins with a strict dualistic ontology based on the Creator/creature distinction and progresses toward a Reformed theology centered on God’s lordship over his creatures. An example of this movement is the Theology of Lordship of the Calvinist theologian John Frame, a well-known disciple of Cornelius Van Til.
Wycliffe’s later philosophical works also suggests that the connection between the body and soul can be understood as an illustrative instance of servant/Lord relationship which, in his view, constitutes one of the most fundamental relations in all creation. Similarly, in his Dominium Treatises, Wycliffe explains how, in his view, the lovely and sacrificial Lordship attitude of God toward his creation should model all other instances of human lordship connections, both in terms of human ruling over nature as well in terms of social hierarchical relationships.
Wycliffe’s Later Years: Reformed Activism
While in Oxford, John Wycliffe was invited to serve at the court by John of Gaunt, who, at that time, acted as the ruler of England. Wycliffe first offended the Roman Catholic Church by defending the right of the English government to seize the property of corrupt clergyman.
In the theological field, Wycliffe attacked central dogmas of the Catholic medieval church, challenging, for example, the Doctrine of Transubstantiation with the claims that Christ was present spiritually rather than physically during the Eucharist, a position that was similarly adopted by Calvin a few centuries later and which became one of the main disagreements between him and Luther.
Wycliffe further denied the role of priests in mediating believers’ access to God, defending that every Christian had, in fact, free access to the Father solely through the redemptive work of Jesus Christ the son.
In 1382, deserted by his supporters, Wycliffe left Oxford and went to live at Lutterworth, where he died in 1384. Nevertheless, long before his departure, Wycliffe had already planted in Oxford the theological seeds of the reformation movement, and his combative spirit, as well as his energetic style of preaching and lecturing, would be later replicated by his followers, who became known as ‘Lollards’ (meaning ‘Mutterers’ or ‘Mumblers’).
There was a remarkably rapid growth in such reformation movement, to the point that, in 1395, the Lollards were already a well-organized group which benefited from a significant popular support. Some selected individuals, called “Lollard knights”, further helped to spread Wycliffe’s ideas throughout England by appointing priests to ecclesiastical livings who, in turn, taught such views to the ordinary people. In its own time, the Lollardy movement was widely perceived as by the catholic clergy as a dangerous threat to the state as well as to the church authority, since it encouraged the free access of all believers to God through the Scriptures.
The influence of the Lollardy was soon felt far away from England. After the marriage of King Wenceslaus’ sister, Anne, with Richard II of England in 1382, the philosophical writings of John Wycliffe became widely known in Bohemia, where they influenced the young student Jan Hus, who later became one of the great ecclesiastical reformers in that country and was eventually burned at the stake in 1415 for his ‘heretical ideas’. When Hus’ opponents suggested to him that he was a follower of the Lollardy movement and, therefore, a heretic, the historical tradition affirms that he stated that ‘he wished that his soul might be wherever that of Wycliffe was found’.10Matthew Spinka, John Hus: A Biography (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1968).
Similarly, it is said that John Knox, the leader of the Scottish Reformation, was unable to graduate from the University of St. Andrews because he refused to sign a repudiation of the Lollardy.
A famous historical document dating from 1407 called The Testimony of William Thorpe, supposedly written by a Lollard, stated:
I indeed clove to none closer than to him (referring to Wycliffe), the wisest and most blessed of all men whom I have ever found. From him one could learn in truth what the Church of Christ is and how it should be ruled and led.11Anne Hudson, ed., Two Wycliffite Texts: The Sermon of William Taylor 1406, The Testimony of William Thorpe 1407 (Oxford: Early English Text Society, 1993).
Much after Wycliffe’s death (in 1384), the Catholic Council which met at Constance in 1415, declared Wycliffe a heretic and under the ban of the Catholic Church. The Council decreed that all his books be burned and his dead body be exhumed. In 1428, under the command of Pope Martin V, his mortal remains were dug up and burned; the ashes were cast into the River Swift, which runs in Lutterworth. Ultimately, Wycliffe’s ashes became, for many historians, an emblem of his doctrine. As a later chronicler observed:
Thus the brook hath conveyed his ashes into Avon; Avon into Severn; Severn into the narrow seas; and they into the main ocean. And thus the ashes of Wycliffe are the emblem of his doctrine which now is dispersed the world over.12Charles Wells Moulton, ed., The Library of Literary Criticism of English and American Authors. (University of Michigan Library: 2009).
Wycliffe’s early Oxford academic years and his late active religious and political role as one of the most important precursors of the church reformation should not be understood as two separate and unrelated phases of his life. In fact, his theological works on Logics and Metaphysics should be viewed as the solid ground upon which he built his influential reformed doctrines, such as the universal access of all believers to the sacred Scriptures, the primacy of the authority of the Scriptures over the pope and the church tradition, the direct access of all believers to God without necessity of priestly mediation, and the rejection of indulgences.
|William Dallmann, John Wiclif. Concordia Theological Quarterly XI (St. Louis: 1907), 41.
|Stephan E Lahey, John Wyclif Great Medieval Thinkers (Oxford University Press, 2009), 3.
|Mariateresa Fumagalli Beonio Brocchieri and Stefano Simonetta, John Wyclif: Logica, Politica, Teologia (Firenze: 2003).
|Cornelius Van Til, A Christian Theory of Knowledge (Philadelphia: P&R. 1969), 271.
|John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (1599) 35.
|John Emory, The Works of the Reverend John Wesley (New York: 1831), 422.
|John Wycliffe, On Universals, trans. A. Kenny (Oxford: 1985), 162–165.
|Matthew Spinka, John Hus: A Biography (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1968).
|Anne Hudson, ed., Two Wycliffite Texts: The Sermon of William Taylor 1406, The Testimony of William Thorpe 1407 (Oxford: Early English Text Society, 1993).
|Charles Wells Moulton, ed., The Library of Literary Criticism of English and American Authors. (University of Michigan Library: 2009).