John Wycliffe returned to Lutterworth never to see Oxford again. The enemies of truth had succeeded in driving the reformer out of University life, but so powerful was his influence there that with the combined authority of his tormentors they could do no more than drive him from Oxford to his retreat in Lutterworth, which soon became a centre from which the word of life was dispatched to the four corners of both the nation and the world. It is here that he would embark upon what was to be the most important aspect of his work. God had another part of His purpose to fulfil in His servant’s life before he was called into His presence. This work was the completion of the translation of the Holy Bible from Latin into English.
Ever since his spiritual awakening Wycliffe had worked faithfully in promoting the Scriptural standards in both Church and State, but now his final two years of life would be devoted not only to Bible translation but also to the instruction of his preachers. He had been working on translating Scripture since 1374, but now he had the time to put the finishing touches to it. Despite the fact that the Vulgate was not a perfect translation, for it was the only version available to the clergy, and also that Wycliffe believed in the divine inspiration of the Word of God, we can be certain that he took the greatest care as he considered each verse. The beloved King James Version has similarities with Wycliffe’s translation, for example in Matthew 11:28-30 we read, “All ye that travail, and are overcharged, come to me, and I shall refresh, and fulfil you. Take my yoke on you, and learn of me, for I am mild and meek in heart; and ye shall find rest for your souls. For my yoke is soft, and my charge light.” Also John 6:35-37, “I am the bread of life; he that cometh to me, shall not hunger; he that believeth in me, shall never thirst.”
The Whole Bible was almost finished before he died, but it would be his friend, Nicholas of Hereford, who would complete it in 1388. There are no complete editions of the Bible before Wycliffe‘s translation. John Purvey (who assisted the reformer in his translation work) wrote in his preface, “Though covetous clerks are mad through simony, heresy and many other sins, and despise and impede Holy Writ as much as they can, yet the unlearned cry of Holy Writ to know it, with great cost and peril to their lives. For these reasons and others a simple creature hath translated the Bible out of Latin into English.” Up until late in his life John Wycliffe had accepted the Apocrypha as inspired, but he soon came to see that these added books were not part of the Holy Scriptures. Though we say that Wycliffe’s Bible was the first in the English language, we have to acknowledge that others before him had attempted to produce portions of Scripture in English. It would be his Bible translation that would set the groundwork for what was to come, his translation being the foundation of Protestant thinking in England. It was an English Bible that was to be read by the common man. Up until this point in history, Latin, being the language of the educated, meant that the Scriptures could not be read by the common man, and even if he could he was forbidden by the Church to do so. In the thirteenth century the papacy had declared, “We forbid the laity to possess any of the books of the Old and New Testament, except perhaps the Psalter or Breviary for the Offices of the Hours of the Blessed Virgin, which some, out of devotion, wish to have; but having any of these books translated into the vulgar tongue we strictly forbid.” John Wycliffe ardently believed that they should have the Bible so as to reveal salvation to them, “The New Testament is of full authority, and open to the understanding of simple men, as to the points most needful to salvation.”
We see that this was another of the Vatican’s decrees that Wycliffe rejected, for he knew the real reason behind such a ban on the Bible. Rather than the common man misunderstanding or abusing God’s sacred word, as Rome had suggested, they would have their eyes opened, not only to God’s provision of perfect salvation in Christ, but also to all the unbiblical doctrines and practices of the Church. It goes without saying that his English translation was not well received by the clergy. Archbishop Arundel had the following to say about Wycliffe, “This pestilential and most wretched John Wycliffe of damnable memory, a child of the old devil, and himself a child or pupil of Antichrist … crowned his wickedness by translating the Scriptures into the mother tongue.” They saw this translation as the work of Satan, very piously they claimed that the “Gospel pearl is everywhere cast out and trodden under foot of swine”. We have to suppose that this accusation would not have been levelled against him if he had produced a translation few could read.
Since he was a formidable character to deal with, he responded to his accusers by saying, “You say it is heresy to speak of the Holy Scriptures in English. You call me a heretic because I have translated the Bible into the common tongue of the people. Do you know whom you blaspheme? Did not the Holy Ghost give the word of God first in the mother tongue of the nations to whom it was addressed? Why do ye speak against the Holy Ghost? You say that the Church of God is in danger from this book. How can that be? Is it not from the Bible only that we learn that God hath set up such a society as the Church on earth? Is it not the Bible that gives all its authority to the Church? Is it not from the Bible that we learn who is the builder and sovereign of the Church, what are the laws by which she is to be governed, and the rights and privileges of her members? Without the Bible, what proof has the Church to show for all these? It is you who place the Church in peril by hiding the divine warrant, the epistle of her King, for the authority she wields and the faith she enjoins.” Then he adds, “Christ and his apostles taught the people in the language best known to them. It is certain that the truth of the Christian faith becomes more evident the more the faith itself is known. Therefore the doctrine should not only be in Latin but also in the common tongue, and as the faith of the Church is contained in the Scriptures, the more these are known in the true sense the better. The laity ought to understand the faith, and since the doctrines of our faith are in the Scriptures, believers should have the Scriptures in a language familiar to the people, and to this end the Holy Ghost endued them with knowledge of all tongues. If it is heresy to read the Bible then the Holy Ghost Himself is condemned who gave in tongues to the apostles of Christ to speak the word of God in all languages that were ordained of God under heaven. If Christ was so merciful as to send the Holy Ghost to heathen men, why should it be taken away from us in this land that be Christian men? If you say that believers are heretics, then thou make Christ a heretic. If thou condemnest the word of God in any language as heresy, then you condemn God as a heretic that spoke the word, for He and His word are all one, and if His word is the life of the world how many Antichrists take it away from us that are Christian men, and allow the people to die for hunger in heresy?”
Now that he had a time of relative peace and quite, before the storm broke over him again, he was able to work on his theological manuscripts, as well as to train others to carry on the work he had started. He had already completed a commentary on the whole Bible back in 1376, but now he began to reproduce all such books in English. He had completed about one hundred and sixty works on various theological subjects during his life, but it would be for his work of translating Scripture that he became known as ‘The Father of English Prose’.
Realising that one man could not reach every lost soul in the country, he sent out preachers into the villages and towns to teach the common people the word of God, for until many copies of the Bible could be reproduced, this was the ideal method of opening blinded eyes. When we consider the fact that the printing press had not been invented yet, that every copy of the Bible (or portions of it) had to be written out by hand, we quickly realise and acknowledge the dedication of both the reformer and his followers. Even after the Roman Catholic Church sought to destroy every trace of Wycliffe’s Bible there are still one hundred and seventy handwritten copies available today. His preachers were able to put the word of God into the hands of the king, the royal family, government officials and the common man. These preachers were known as Lollards. The term was thought to be derived from the Dutch lollaerd meaning to mumble or mutter, but it is more likely to come from the Latin lolia meaning cockle [tares]. Since the preachers were known as heretics by the Church of Rome use was made of Matthew 13:30 from the Latin, “Suffer the cockle to grow until the harvest”. Thomas Aquinas used this exact expression when speaking of heretics.
Despite all of this work he did not neglect his responsibilities to his congregation at Lutterworth. He taught as simply as possible so that every person present could understand the gospel of Christ. His sermons were copied by hand and distributed to others further afield , eventually being translated into other languages. Unfortunately few of these sermons are available to the modern reader.
The Catholic hierarchy did everything possible to destroy the work of Wycliffe’s preachers, but it was his constant prayer that they would be successful in winning many souls to Christ; “Ah, Lord Jesus, are these sinful fools, and in some cases fiends of hell, more witty and mighty than Thou, that true men may not do Thy will without authority from them? Ah, Lord God Almighty, all wise and full of love, how long wilt Thou suffer the Antichrists to despise Thee and Thy Holy Gospel, and prevent the health of the souls of Christian men? Lord of endless righteousness, this Thou sufferest, because of sin generally reigning among the people; but of Thine endless mercy and goodness, help Thy poor wretched priests and servants, that they possess the love and reverence of Thy Gospel, and be not hindered to do Thy service.” Regarding the resistance to the gospel by the clergy he had declared that, “God in His grace, will raise up for the king from his ministers those who will show up the folly and procedure. Worldly prelates command that no man should preach the gospel but according to their will and limitation, and forbid men to hear the gospel on pain of the great curse, but Satan in his own person does never do so much despite to Christ and to His gospel, for he quoted Holy Writ in tempting Christ and thereby would have pursued his intent, and since it is the counsel and commandment of Christ to priests generally to preach the gospel, and as this they must do without leave of prelates, who it may be are fiends of hell, it follows that priests may not do the commands of Christ without leave of fiends.”
Some of his opponents objected to the fact that the Lollards were ill-educated and therefore not truly trained for the ministry. The priests and monks ridiculed them, but they became a formidable force to be reckoned with by the enemies of truth. Though as a scholar and theologian he laid great stress on learning, it was John Wycliffe’s belief that it was not vital for evangelism. His view was that they could spend years in education while millions of souls go to a Christless eternity. He explains, “If divinity were learned on that manner as the apostles did, it should profit much more than it does now by the manner of the priests. Men of scholarship travail vainly for to get new subtleties and the profit of the Holy Church by this way is hindered. An uneducated man with God’s grace does more for the Church than many graduates. Scholastic studies rather breed than destroy heresies.” It was his opinion that the educated prelates knew nothing worthwhile, yet they raked in great wealth for themselves. It is probably for this reason that his preachers came from the poorer ranks of society. He believed that each one of them were ordained of God to administer the sacraments, for they were filled with the knowledge and power of God.