The Personal Reformation of John Wycliffe

Some historians speak of a time when John Wycliffe was rummaging through some old chests that he had found in the University. One of these chests contained beautifully illustrated ancient parchments written by a monk of centuries past, and through them he came to understand his need for personal salvation. This portrayal of his first encounter with Christ is merely the work of romantic fiction rather than a description of what actually took place.

What we do know, and seems more likely, is that God brought John Wycliffe under the teachings of Professor Thomas Bradwardine (the Archbishop of Canterbury at that time). This man appears to have known and understood what the Holy Scriptures actually taught about salvation in the Lord Jesus Christ, and what the true Church really consists of. He laid great emphasis therefore on the written word of God instead of mystical and mythical stories that were in circulation in that era. There is hardly any doubt that Wycliffe would have been inspired to read the Holy Bible for himself by this godly man. He would have been influenced further by the writings of Robert Grosetete (the bishop of Lincoln and English Master at Oxford University), he being very vocal regarding the moral conditions of both Church and State. Grosetete had written against the Papacy of his day and stated that if Rome did not return to the Truth, as found in the Holy Scriptures, then she would be the cause of a great schism in the Church. This was an exact prediction of the coming Reformation in England. He was reprimanded for his outspokenness by Pope Innocent IV, and ordered to vacate the canonry of Lincoln and to give it instead to his infant nephew. Such is the foolishness of Rome!

Another man who inspired Wycliffe was William of Ockham (1285-1349), a theologian at Oxford University. He conducted an attack on the so-called orthodoxy of the Schoolmen of his day. He did not accept Augustine’s rejection of Free Will and so was accused of Pelagianism [from the teaching of Pelagius (350 AD), that is, Adam’s sin was not transmitted to the entire human race, therefore it was possible for man to live without sinning if he chose to do so. Man did not absolutely need God’s grace, but could come to Him when and if he desired to.] Though he did believe that man has a free will to accept or reject Christ, the accusation of his accusers is unjustified, for he never upheld any of the doctrines of Pelaguis.

Whilst in Oxford University’s Theology Faculty Wycliffe would have studied the Sentences of Peter Lombard (1100-1160), an Italian theologian. ‘Four Books of the Sentences’ was a four volume manual of theology that was a standard text book in the Middle Ages. So important were they that even Thomas Aquinas wrote a commentary on them. The Sentences were actually a systematic compilation of the teachings of the Church Fathers and theologians. John Wycliffe would be expected to lecture and debate the issues raised by Lombard. Alongside this he needed to be capable enough to lecture on the Holy Bible itself. From the outset he was determined to apply philosophical reasoninging to the exposition of Christian Doctrine and Holy Scripture.

Wycliffe also studied the teachings of St. Augustine. These encouraged him to meditate on Christ and Heavenly things, but though he quotes Augustine on many occasions he did not accept all of the notions of this Church Father. It is from Augustine that Wycliffe learned his predestinarianism, therefore he rejected the Franciscan teaching of Free Will and the mystical Knowledge of God. For him, though God is not beyond human knowledge, He being the source of all knowledge, must have known from the very beginning who would be saved, that is, who are the elect, that is, those predestinated to life eternal.

All of this was according to God’s working. Though it seems that Wycliffe did allow his thinking to be shaded by past Church Fathers, God was still putting the spark in his spirit that would eventually set all England aflame.

As he searched the Scriptures diligently for answers to his questions he became more and more convinced that the Black Death was indeed a judgement sent by God. If this was true, then he needed to find God’s mercy on a personal level. Through his study of the Holy Bible (Jerome’s Latin Vulgate version) he came to know Christ as his Lord and Saviour. In a very real way, the way that God had intended for every man and woman, the Scriptures set him free from sin and death: “ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32).

Immediately Wycliffe began to see that the teachings and dogmas of the Church of Rome were at variance with the written word of God. The lifestyle of those claiming to be the upholders of sacred truth sickened him to the core. The clergy were immoral, apathetic and a band of thieves in his eyes. He felt that it was his commission from God to denounce the Pope and his claims to infallibility, and to declare that only the Holy Scriptures were the supreme authority for the Church. From now on his strength would be in the word of God, and out of such strength he began to bravely attack all the unbiblical practices and beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church.

One of the first issues to be rejected by him was the idea that the Bishop of Rome, the priesthood, and other clergy were the Church. As he revealed in his work entitled Concerning the Church, the body of Christ is only made up of those who have been elected by God to salvation. From this position, the next step was inevitable, that is, he dismissed the notion that any pope or priest could excommunicate another Christian; for how can a mere man excommunicate someone whom God has chosen? As soon as light was shed upon his soul on a given subject he sought to demolish the error that raised itself against the truth. Because of his unbending adherence to the word of God and the preaching of the truth, he was given a new title (nickname) in the university, The Gospel Doctor.

Possibly due to the threat of excommunication his parents disowned him. News of his career in Oxford must have quickly spread all the way up to Yorkshire. Given the climate of fear that the Church had created amongst the people, especially when they thought that the pope could send a person into the fires of Hell for eternity, we can understand why the Wycliffe family disowned John. This, as Wycliffe must have realised, was a fulfilment of Jesus’ saying regarding this possibility that when a believer stands for the ways of God, “a man’s foes shall be they of his own household” (Matthew 10:36). It may be because of the pain he felt in his heart that he denounced the doctrine of excommunication.

With a great deal of hindsight we can see that God was honing this stone to reflect as much of Himself as possible. Wycliffe was being brought to a place where he would have to stand alone, if necessary, against the evil and depravity that was so prevalent both in the Church and in society. Though there were other men whom God could have chosen, men who knew the truth, it appears that they did not respond to the Scriptures as John Wycliffe did. It is possible that they were too fearful of the power of the Papacy to be of any active use to God. They did not have the faith and courage needed to stand up for the Lord whom they secretly honoured.

As all good Bible students should, John Wycliffe compared everything that the Roman Catholic Church, her theologians and fathers, taught alongside what the word of God actually said. He came to understand that the entire structure of the Papal Empire was built upon superstition and was therefore at variance with Holy Scripture. Rome claimed to be the custodian of all truth, that through her the Holy Bible was given, meaning that the Church created the Bible rather than the Bible the Church. As a result the Church (i.e. the pope) was the supreme authority not the Scriptures. Nevertheless, far from obeying the word of God herself Rome actually sought to destroy all knowledge of Scripture by replacing it with the traditions of men. The reformer saw it as his God-given duty to put to rights all the evils of the Church, he was wise enough to understand that any attempt to do this could not be achieved overnight, but would take time and patience, much personal danger and possibly death, for he was well aware of the fierce wrath of the Papacy.

This being the case Wycliffe stressed to his listeners the importance of reading and interpreting the Holy Scriptures for themselves, rather than relying upon a priest or a monk, who would no doubt twist and corrupt God’s pure word. Slowly but surely he emphasised the need to trust solely in God through the Lord Jesus Christ instead of the idolatrous celebration of the Eucharist or the veneration of images and relics. Such wisdom led him into a series of debates with church leaders on various theological issues, including the sacraments and the many abuses of the church. Consistently his appeal was to the Scriptures.