John Wycliffe: The Morning Star of the Reformation
Many know the name Wycliffe as a Bible translation. John Wycliffe was a pioneer for translating the Bible into the English language when it was previously only available in Latin. His convictions and allegiance to the Gospel were not only inspiring to those who continued to study and follow in his ways after his death, but they were a key proponent against the legalistic and sometimes immoral acts by the Roman Catholic Church.
John Wycliffe was one of the most well-known reformers of his time. While not much is known about his younger life, we do know he attended Oxford University, completing his doctorate in 1372. While most of those who we knew in the Reformation were preachers or teachers, Wycliffe made his mark in philosophy, theology, and ecclesiastical politics in the mid-1370’s where his reformation work began.
Wycliffe spent most of his adult life at Oxford University. By the time Wycliffe had graduated, he was known as one of Oxford’s leading philosophers and theologians. Wycliffe, though brilliant, was not well liked by the Roman Church. His opinions against things such as England supporting the Roman Church financially got him into hot water, but that didn’t deter Wycliffe’s convictions.
The Roman Church began to request financial support from England, who was already struggling, as they were preparing to fight the French. Under the request of the Roman Church, Wycliffe advised his local lord, John of Gaunt, to tell Parliament not to comply with the requests of the Roman Church for financial support. England at the time was struggling, and Wycliffe made the argument that all taxes should be kept for England. He continued to argue that the church was already too wealthy and Christ called his disciples to poverty, not wealth. He was a man so set on his convictions he is quoted as saying, “I am ready to defend my convictions even unto death….”
Wycliffe was a champion for the inerrancy and sufficiency of Scripture. He is quoted saying, “The Gospel alone is sufficient to rule the lives of Christians everywhere - any additional rules made to govern men's conduct added nothing to the perfection already found in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
These statements furthered as Wycliffe began to defend the Scriptures, and he even stated that Scripture’s authority was above the pope and the church. Of course this never sat well with the papacy, and they wanted to do something about it.
Wycliffe was substantially placed on house arrest where he dove even deeper into the Scriptures. He began to refute things, such as the confessional, stating, “Private confession. . .was not ordered by Christ and was not used by the apostles.”
One of the big things that caused tension with the Roman Catholic church was that Wyclife battled against transubstantiation, insisting that the bread and wine do not actually become the body and blood of Christ, but that Christ is spiritually, not physically, present in the Eucharist.
Transubstantiation was by now a dogma of the Roman Church ,and his opposition to this doctrine marked him as a heretic.
Wycliffe became extremely convicted about access to Scripture. At the time, Scripture was only available in Latin; however, he had a desire to make the word accessible to the english people, and with his good friend, John Purvey, he began translating the Bible into the English language. This feat made the church extremely angry. Their reaction was to say by translating the word into English, it was “by this translation, the Scriptures have become vulgar, and they are more available to lay, and even to women who can read, than they were to learned scholars, who have a high intelligence. So the pearl of the gospel is scattered and trodden underfoot by swine.”
Wycliffe’s simple response was, “Englishmen learn Christ's law best in English. Moses heard God's law in his own tongue; so did Christ's apostles.”
The hierarchy wanted to destroy the manuscripts in which Wycliffe and Purvey were spinning out. Even today there exists about 150 manuscripts, complete or partial. This shows that in the 15th century, Wycliffe’s manuscripts were widely distributed. For this reason, the Wycliffeites in England were often designated by their opponents as "Bible men". Just as Luther's version had great influence upon the German language, so did Wycliffe's, by reason of its clarity, beauty, and strength, influenced English.
Officials began to conspire to convict him of heresy; however, Wycliffe died before they became successful. He also died before his translation was complete. His friend, Purvey, is credited with the Wycliffe translations we know today.
43 years after his death, Pope Martin V had officials dig up his body, burned his remains, and threw the ashes into the river Swift. Wycliffe's teachings, though suppressed, continued to spread. It was later quoted by Thomas Fullar in the Church History of Britain in 1655 that "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."
Wycliffe’s influence was short but substantial. His contributions to the Reformation and to the Scriptures we know today are infallible. His faithfulness brought forth a whole new generation hungry for Scripture, and he made it accessible to the language we still know, read, and love today.
1330 - 1384
Chelsi Woods is the coffee-loving Content Manager for Whole Magazine and a writer for the Reformed Outlook. She is a Jesus-loving, tattooed soccer mom to a beautiful, blue-eyed 12 year old girl and “Choo-Choo” to a 9 year old nephew and 4 year old niece. Her hobbies include communicating in gifs, playing guitar, and bad dad jokes. Chelsi’s passionate pursuit is to teach women solid, Biblical truths focused in spiritual growth, loving God with our minds, all while glorifying God and enjoying Him forever.