As indicated in the biographical section John Wycliffe’s theology arose from a number of influences, but more importantly from his personal study of God’s word. This does not mean that his theological thinking started with the Scriptures, but that as he came into contact with theological works in Oxford University for the first time, he was inspired to search the Bible for himself. Then, as he studied God’s word, he either confirmed or discounted what he had learned from the various theologians.
On entering Oxford University he would have been presented with the teachings and theories of a variety of respected men and works of that day, which would have included:
Robert Grostête, who at the age of sixty sought to bring reform to his church in Lincoln (1235). He objected to the immorality and avarice of the monks a hundred years before John Wycliffe’s denunciation of them. He exclaimed, “O money, money, money! how great is your power, especially in the court of Rome.” From this position he began to reject the authority and lifestyle of the pope (Innocent IV) and actually declared that he was really an incarnation of Lucifer. Grostête loved both God and His word, and he believed that it was safer to break the laws of the pontiff rather than those of the Almighty. He became known as the Searcher of the Scriptures, an adversary of the pope, and a despiser of the Romans. It is very likely that Wycliffe studied Grostête’s translation and commentary of the works of Aristotle.
Thomas Bradwardine, chaplain to Edward III and later Archbishop of Canterbury. He was an extremely pious man who also reverenced God and the Holy Scriptures, and was considered to be one of the greatest scholars of the age. The revelation of the power of the Cross of Christ inspired him to preach and teach on the eternal grace of God at Merton College, Oxford. His works were published and circulated throughout Europe, but were looked upon with deep suspicion by the Church. Especially noteworthy was his book entitled The Case of God Aginst Pegalius in which he called for a return to Augustinian theology. John Wycliffe would have been influenced by Bradwardine’s Predestinarianism.
William of Ockham (1285-1349). Known as Doctor Invincibilis or Unconquerable Doctor. He was a philosopher and scholastic theologian at Oxford University, and was considered to be one of the foremost experts of the Nominalist school of thought. His teachings, which stood against that of Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus, were denounced by Pope John XXII, and he was held in prison at Avignon from 1324-1328. He taught that logic could be used to prove that Christian beliefs such as the Trinity, Creation, and man’s free will were Biblically sound, though not through philosophical or natural reason, but only by a revelation from God. His doctrine of Free Will would have been a modifier of Wycliffe’s otherwise strict predestinarianism.
Church Fathers. Wycliffe would also have studied the lives and works of St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226), from whom he adopted his teachings on poverty. He may have read Francis’ Letters, Testament and Canticles of the Sun; St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430). Considered to be the leading doctor of the Roman Catholic Church. Wycliffe would have read Augustine’s autobiography entitled Confessions, and his other works, The City of God, Christian Doctrine, and The Nature of Grace. Predestination being a part of Augustine’s theology would no doubt have influenced the reformer also.; Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), another leading Catholic theologian and philosopher. He is described as a moderate Realist, from whom John Wycliffe would have arrived at his realist position. Aquinas produced about eighty works, the Summary Against Gentiles (which concerns the teachings of the Roman Church) and Summary of Theology (a summary treatise of theology) being the most important.
It must be remembered that there was no other theology but that of the Roman Catholic Church in Wycliffe’s day. Though there were works that differed from the Vatican’s position, these were always under the ban and unavailable to others. Therefore it is not surprising that the reformer’s introduction to theology was seated firmly in Catholicism, yet it is by none of the Church’s Fathers that he was brought to conversion in Christ, rather it was as he studied the Scriptures for himself that his eyes were opened to the realities of perfect salvation.
In some respects John Wycliffe did not say anything that had not already been said by others before him. What was different about this man is that he had the conviction and boldness to do something about what he believed. Nor did he allow his theology to be hampered by Rome, as was the case with Grostête and Bradwardine, for he was convinced that it was only through God’s authoritative and inspired words that men’s hearts could be set ablaze. It would be fair to say that the foundations of his theology had been laid down in the past, but that he did not permit anything other than that which was consistent with Scripture to shape him. Nevertheless, we should not expect to find every ‘i’ dotted and every ‘t’ crossed in Wycliffe’s theology. It is very possible that we would consider some of his teachings heretical ourselves, therefore a distinction needs to be made here. It is true to say that the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church are intentionally heretical, but that the reformer’s few erroneous views are accidentally heretical. The former seeking to deceive by masking the truth with tradition and falsehood, while the latter, though trying to make the word of God plain, did not have perfect understanding in some matters. In the places where modern evangelical Christianity differs from Wycliffe, it does not actually affect the salvation message he preached and taught. In fact we would find ourselves in almost full agreement with his theology, especially with regards to salvation.
Wycliffe’s theology gradually developed throughout the course of his life, especially as he cast off more and more of the fallacies of the Papacy. Because of his submission to word of God he quickly uncovered truths that had been forsaken or forgotten. Therefore we see that the most important aspect of Wycliffe’s theology was his reliance upon and promotion of the Holy Scriptures. It has been said that the reformer had a childlike faith in the Bible. The modern Christian catchphrase “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” could easily be put in his mouth for he certainly upheld the affirmation. Any doctrine that could not be proven by God’s written word was rejected as heresy by him, and as such was influential in changing the course of what was perceived to be Biblical truth for centuries to come.
A point of interest regarding his preaching style is best noted here. If John Wycliffe were alive today he would certainly make a good fundamentalist preacher. We would find him preaching a straightforward, convicting message based firmly on the Bible, without exaggerated anecdotes and gimmicks.
Below are several points of John Wycliffe’s theological position. These do not appear in any particular order of significance.
Justification by Faith
We usually credit Martin Luther with reintroducing this doctrine to the Church, but it is something that John Wycliffe very much believed, although his thoughts on the subject may not have been as advanced as that of later reformers. He writes, “Trust wholly in Christ, rely altogether on His sufferings; beware of seeking to be justified in any other way than by His righteousness. Faith in our Lord Jesus Christ is sufficient for salvation. There must be atonement made for sin according to the righteousness of God. The person to make this atonement must be God and man.” He saw that auricular confession as unacceptable and so remarks, “Privy confession made to priests is not needful, but brought in late by the Fiend: for Christ used it not, nor any of His apostles after Him.” Personal salvation does not depend upon the Church, or in the ministration of the pope or the priests in Wycliffe’s understanding, but it is solely upon the purpose and election of God (his thoughts on predestination will be discussed below).
Justification by faith for Wycliffe did not mean that a believing man had no further need for good works, for in his message entitled Christ Stilling the Storm he states, “Belief fails when it works not well indeed but is idle as a sleeping man … Each virtuous deed is strong when it is grounded upon the solidity of belief.” This level of thinking on justification and good works is in full agreement with the theology of the likes of John Wesley, and it confirms the apostle James’ statement that “Faith, if it hath not works is dead” (James 2:17). Though he saw that good works were important in the believer’s life, it is clear that he rejected the Roman Catholic notion of salvation by works, “If a man believe in Christ, and make a point of his belief, then the promise that God hath made to come into the land of light shall be given by virtue of Christ, to all men that make this the chief matter.” The reformers who followed Wycliffe would have little to differ with him concerning justification by faith.
John Wycliffe’s understanding of predestination is confined to those who are the true members of the Church and what the Church actually consists of. He distinguished between the visible and invisible Church as all evangelical believers do. The invisible Church is the true Church, and Christ only is the head of that body, not the pope. As for the visible Church, he wondered which pope, Urban or Clement, who were warring over the papacy at the time, was considered to be the head of the visible Church. He believed that no pope (or any man) had the right to such a position. The reformer described the Church of Christ as consisting only of those who have been predestined to enjoy Heaven. Non-elect men and women may indeed be part of the visible Church but that does not automatically qualify them as members of the true or invisible Church.
His Biblical starting point for promoting predestination, like all reformed theologians, is Romans 8:28-30, “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to His purpose. For whom He did foreknow, He also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom He did predestinate, them He also called: and whom He called, them He also justified: and whom He justified, them He also glorified.” In commenting on this passage of Scripture he writes, “This predestination is the principle gift of God, most freely given, since no one can merit his own predestination. Since it cannot be present without being present at the first moment of existence of the predestinate, it follows what is commonly said of grace that this is the principle grace. It can never be lost, since it is the basis of glory and bliss, which equally cannot be lost.” Therefore such predestination is a divine decree rather than the personal choice of any man.
When he came to recognising that even the true followers of Christ often fall into sinful ways his argument is very similar to that of reformed theology today. Realising that the predestinate does not always live according to righteousness he adds the teaching of ‘Final Perseverance’, that is, the elect are saved and remain so regardless of what sin they may commit. Wycliffe explains his theory as follows: “God loves Peter infinitely more even while Peter is denying Him than He loves Iscariot while Iscariot is in grace. For God’s love is unchangingly equal, so that He always loves Peter to Bliss [i.e. Heaven], since He knows he is to be finally converted, and He always loves Iscariot to everlasting punishment, since He eternally sees all past and future things as present.”
This left Wycliffe with a dilemma. How does a person know that he is actually one of the chosen and therefore be assured of eternal salvation? For although he acknowledges that a believer is saved by faith alone, he oversteps the mark by introducing something he calls ‘Special Revelation’, which those without such special revelation are without assurance of eternal life. He is forced to suggest that few of the elect can know that they are saved in this life; “Indeed, nobody knows whether he is himself predestined or not. Without a special revelation no one should assert that he is predestined; and similarly he should not assert that he is a member of the Church, or, for that matter its head.” It is very likely that his theory of predestination was formulated to prove that the Roman Catholic clergy had no right to think of themselves as the elect, rather than aiming at a purely Biblical approach to the subject. It is possible that if he lived a few centuries later this doctrine would contain less of anti-clericalism and be presented much more biblically.
The Sovereignty of God
Linked with predestination is the doctrine of God’s Sovereignty. Reformed theologians today invariably point back to John Calvin, who in turn points back to St. Augustine, when the subjects of election and predestination are raised. All the related issues involved with these doctrines find their foundation in what is termed The Sovereignty of God. Therefore personal salvation is a sovereign act of the Almighty rather than a man’s free will in choosing to accept this gift. John Wycliffe was every inch a reformed theologian in this respect.
Again, it must be remembered that Wycliffe studied and greatly admired Augustine of Hippo, although he only adopted his teachings up to a certain point. Therefore it should not surprise us to find that he understood the sovereignty of God after the Augustinian model. The only real difference between John Wycliffe and Augustine was that the former based his predestinarianism upon the omnipotence of God, while the latter was founded upon the doctrine of original sin. The reformer declares, “God’s goodness is the first cause only why He confers any good on man.”
This is definitely an area where the evangelical believer would disagree with Wycliffe, and rightly so. He held a belief in a form of Purgatory which differed from the traditional Catholic doctrine, but close enough to it for us to still reject it. To him Purgatory was not a place of pain, torment and suffering in a purging fire, but one of peaceful rest for the believer until he was ready to be promoted to Heaven.
His formulation of this teaching is probably the result of three things that were actually intertwined with each other. Firstly, he did not have perfect understanding on some issues, which in turn caused him to hold onto traditional beliefs of Rome. Secondly, some Scriptures would have been interpreted the Catholic way until he had clearer light on the subject. We can assume that his understanding of the parable of The Rich Man and Lazarus was faulty here. Lastly, until late in his life he still accepted the Apocryphal books as part of the Canon of Scripture, which have always been used by the Roman Catholic Church as proof texts to support Purgatory. Wycliffe’s slant was that he saw the elect in Abraham’s bosom, which he saw as equivalent to the blessed side of Purgatory. In fact his teaching extended to the accepted Catholic notion of the Church existing in three distinct parts, that is, in Heaven, on earth, and in Purgatory.
The issue of an intermediate state between earth and Heaven for believers has been raised continuously throughout the centuries. In all its forms the theory either twists Scripture or ignores its plain truth. Nevertheless, John Wycliffe did believe that the home of every true Christian was with God in Heaven and appears to have changed his position regarding Purgatory in later life. In his sermon entitled ‘The Armour of Heaven’ he declares, “Two places are ordained for man to dwell in after this life. While he is here, he may choose, by God’s mercy, which he will; but once he is gone from here he may not do so. For whichever he first goes to, whether he like it well or ill, there he must dwell for evermore. He shall never after change his dwelling, though he hates it ever so badly. Heaven or Hell are these two places, and in one of them, each man must dwell.”
The Authority of the Holy Scriptures
As stated on several occasions, the Holy Bible was the inspired word of God for John Wycliffe. His introduction to Scripture was through the Latin Vulgate version, until he was led of the Lord to produce a Bible in the English tongue. His name actually appears on two versions of the Bible. The first being a rigid literal translation. The second made by Wycliffe’s friend and secretary John Purvey, was much more idiomatic and was the most popular of the two.
Not only was the Holy Bible the Word of the Lord, God being its Author, but it is the responsibility of every man, woman and child both to know and abide by it, according to the reformer’s estimation. He expounds this subject in his book entitled ‘Of the Truth of Holy Scripture’ (1378), in which he states that the Holy Scriptures are the Word of God and Christ is the Author of them. The Lord Jesus Christ is in the Holy Scriptures, therefore to reject them is to reject Him. He sets out his position very clearly in the above mentioned treatise, in which he seeks to prove three things. Firstly, that the Holy Bible is free from all error and contradiction. Secondly, the Bible is the yardstick by which all doctrines, dogmas, and teachings are to be judged. Lastly, since the Bible is the word of God and directs him to salvation in Christ, every man should have it made available to him.
Wycliffe also endeavoured to show that the authority of Scripture is greater than the power of the human mind to comprehend it. By this he means that, if a person should find a supposed error or inconsistency in the Holy Bible, it is not the Scriptures that are at fault, but the interpretation given to it by man. To support this view and to prove that he was not teaching anything that the Church had not already accepted, he quotes Thomas Aquinas, who said, “It is not lawful to believers that there are any false assertions in the gospel, or in any canonical writings; nor can one say that the writers uttered any falsehood in them; that would mean that there would be an end of the certainty of faith, which rests upon the authority of Sacred Scripture.” Wycliffe’s view of the all-sufficiency of Holy Scripture set him apart him from the medieval schoolmen who recognised little if any difference between Scripture and tradition, both of which were for them part of authority. This Wycliffe would not have and he was put at pains to separate his purely Biblical theology from the medieval view. Though he appealed often to the Fathers and Doctors of the Church he put the Bible on a higher level than all of them. His constant battles with Rome were always because of her failure to abide by what was written in the Word of God.
Divine and Civil Dominion
John Wycliffe taught that God alone is the rightful owner of all things and often quotes Psalm 24:1, “The earth is the LORD’S, and the fullness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein”, to support this concept. He believed that God merely allows man to make use of what He has created as long as he continues to render service to Him by and through them. If man reaches the point where this trust is broken then God has every right to remove His blessings from him. Given Wycliffe’s anti-clerical approach to this subject we can readily see that he had the wealthy and corrupt Church hierarchy in mind when he formulated it. Central to Wycliffe’s ideas was God’s grace. This was opposite to the views of ‘The Divine Right of Kings’ and that of ‘Priestly Privileges’. His essays on ‘Divine Dominion and Civil Dominion’ teach accountability in the stewardship of the earth and the things that it contained. That is, God by his grace has given us these blessings, but man is not lord over them outside of God. Both in the Church and the State, if a man be found faithless and irresponsible, they may legitimately lose their position on prerogatives. Wycliffe writes, “Men held whatever they had received from God as stewards, and if found faithless could justly be deprived of it.” Again, “If through transgression a man forfeited his divine privileges, then of necessity his temporal possessions were lost also.” He illustrates his argument by stating, “If I lend you my horse on certain conditions and for a certain time, and you without authorisation go beyond the contract and its terms, your possession of my horse is surely unjust. So then, God stipulates with His servants for continual service, sets terms for use, and forbids abuse, there is no doubt that whoever abuses His power is in unjust possession of the goods of God without authorisation, and therefore the Almighty by the very fact deprives him of his right.” These ideas may have come to the reformer second-hand through Plato’s Republic and through the study of Augustine’s works. He sees these abuses of God’s gifts in light of man’s inhumanity to his fellow man, for as Wycliffe writes, “By the law of Christ every man is bound to love his neighbour as himself; but every servant is a neighbour of every civil lord; therefore every civil lord must love any of his servants as himself; but by natural instinct every lord abhors slavery; therefore by the law of charity he is bound not to impose slavery on any brother in Christ.”
John Wycliffe’s view of the Church was almost completely opposite to that of Rome’s understanding. He believed that the Church should have no control whatsoever over the State or landed property. Added to this, he believed that the State ought to intervene when the Church or her officials corrupted themselves by becoming worldly and materialistic rather than remaining obedient to the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. The same thought applied to an avaricious and erring pontiff, for Wycliffe saw such as a heretic and unworthy of his position, therefore he should be removed from office, with force if necessary.
Though we are aware of John Wycliffe’s involvement in the political world at certain times in his career, he in fact advices his followers to preach the gospel of salvation and not to enter into the political arena, “Christ’s fishermen should not meddle with men’s law, for men’s law contains sharp stones and trees by which the net of God is broken, and the fish wend out of the world.”
The Church should only be maintained by the offerings and tithes of the congregations, advises the reformer, it must not seek worldly mammon, it should not have its fingers in every financial pie or money making scheme. He came to this conclusion after many years observing how wealth had destroyed the Church, and he therefore did not want to see any of his followers falling into the same snare of the devil. On the subject of tithing he was very forthright, his teaching being the exact opposite to the activities of Rome, for he did not consider it was justifiable to force or coerce people to give against their will. If a Church is truly called of God then He will see to it that all its needs will be supplied.
He also proclaimed the Biblical teaching that the Church should never go beyond what the Holy Scriptures declared. Everything that she does or preaches must be contained in the Word of God. Because of this he rejected the many orders and sects that made up what was the Roman Catholic Church as being unscriptural. For Wycliffe there were only two permissible orders, they are, presbyters (bishops, pastors, elders) and deacons. Yet the Church was not its leadership (as in the Roman Church), but all of the people that God Himself has chosen to be members of the body of Christ.
Separation from Rome
We can readily understand why the reformer advised believers to separate themselves from Rome, for he had rejected the veneration of the Virgin Mary and the saints. He detested all forms of idolatry, dismissed the notion of the priest having some God-given power to forgive other men’s sins, and abhorred the false teaching that the pope of Rome was the supreme pontiff of both the Church and the whole world.
He plainly revealed what he thought of the Catholic institution when he said, “That Church hath been many a day in growing, and some call it not Christ’s Church but the Church of wicked spirits. A man may no better know Antichrist’s clerk than by this, that he loves this Church and hates the Church of Christ.” In his treatise entitled ‘On the Power of the Pope’ he writes, “A man may be reputed the Vicar of Christ by all human solemnity, rite, and reputation, and yet be a fearful devil, as is not beyond belief in the case of Gregory XI and his like. For if a man uses the tithes and goods of the English poor to marry off his nephew to an heiress, and supported the families of many of his kinfolk in worldly pomp, and bought his brother out of just imprisonment, and had many thousand men killed for worldly gain, and did not finally repent, who can doubt that he was a perpetual heretic and never a head or member of mother Church? I do not sit in judgement upon him, as some ecclesiastical superiors do; but I say that neither he nor anyone else is Vicar of Christ or of Peter unless he leaves worldly ways and imitates their conduct; and thus it is possible for a pretended Bishop of Rome to be the head of the members of the devil.” For this reason he calls for his listeners to separate from Rome and all of her teachings, otherwise they will be found following the devil rather than the Saviour Jesus Christ.
The Lord’s Supper
Transubstantiation is the very cornerstone and foundation of the Roman Catholic Church, for it is a doctrine invented by her scholars, but rejected by all who know what the Scriptures actually teach on the subject of the Lord’s Supper. Up until 1381 Wycliffe held to the traditional teachings regarding the Eucharist, but now he was vehemently attacking this false doctrine. It was the issue that caused him the most trouble since he was touching the very heart of the deception. In his work entitled On Apostasy and the Eucharist he writes, “The consecrated host which we see on the altar is neither Christ nor any part of Him, but the efficacious sign of Him. No pilgrim upon earth is able to see Christ in the consecrated host with the bodily eyes, but by faith.” Also, in Concerning the Eucharist he adds, “But as the followers of the old law were warned against worshipping images like God, so ought Christians to be warned that they do not worship that which the moderns call accidents and the earlier Church called bread and wine, as if they were the true body and blood of Jesus Christ.” He saw the mass as a relatively new form of idolatry brought about by Pope Innocent III (at the 4th Lateran Council – Decree 1, The Catholic Faith, in 1215). He even adopts a humorous approach to the subject by advising householders, “Do not let friars enter your wine cellars for fear they will bless every barrel and change the wine into blood.”
Transubstantiation was not only another human error, but also a devilish scheme to delude souls into Hell. Through it the papacy exalted the dignity of the priesthood by magically transforming mere bread and wine into the very body and blood of Christ. Though he rightly denounced as heretical the doctrine of transubstantiation, he did actually believe in what is commonly called Consubstantiation. This theory, accepted by some later reformers also, maintains that although Christ is not physically present he is spiritually present in the bread and wine. Wycliffe described the theory as follows, “The truth and faith of the Church is that Christ is at once God and man, so the Sacrament is at once the body of Christ and bread – bread and wine naturally, the body and blood sacramentally.”
It is important to note that there are two distinct doctrines involved in the celebration of the mass in the Roman Catholic Church. The first is the issue of what is termed ‘The Real Presence’. The second is transubstantiation itself. John Wycliffe never questioned the teaching concerning ’The real Presence’, that is, that Christ is actually present in the bread and wine. His attack on the mass was confined to the second issue namely transubstantiation, the changing of the elements into the literal flesh and blood of Jesus Christ. For him the elements physically remained what they were, but spiritually they were in reality the Lord’s body and blood. Since some non-Catholics dismiss any idea of Rome actually teaching transubstantiation it would be wise to add here the explanation given by the Council of Trent on the subject:
“Now there are three wonderful and stupendous things which in this Sacrament, the Holy Church without all doubt believes and confesses to be wrought by the words of consecration. The first is, That the true body of Christ, that very it which was born of the Virgin, and now sits in Heaven at the Right-hand of the Father is contained in the Sacrament. The second is that no substance of the elements remain in it; although nothing seems more strange and distant to the senses. The third, which is easily gathered from both the former, though the words of consecration fully express it, is that what is beheld by the eyes, or perceived by the other senses is in a wonderful and unspeakable manner, without any subject matter. And we may see indeed all the Accidents of Bread and Wine, which yet are inherent in no substance, but they consist of themselves; because the Substance of Bread and Wine is so changed into the Body and Blood of the Lord, that the substance of the Bread and Wine altogether ceases.”
We can understand why his attack on the Mass caused such a stir within the Roman Catholic Church.
Wycliffe’s belief in indulgences, as with other aspects of Catholic dogma, was contrary to the accepted teaching of the day. For him only God could distribute indulgences, he writes, “God alone grants indulgences, and only to whom He first made worthy”. Therefore they were only granted to those who have been made righteous by God, that is the elect, while the pope claimed to grant them to even the most sinful of men for a price. The reformer rejected the notion that the pontiff could offer such indulgences to anyone.
Regarding the so-called indulgences granted by the papacy Wycliffe describes them in terms of forgiveness that cheapens the grace of God. He asks a very practical question of those who believe in this doctrine, “Will then a man shrink from acts of licentiousness and fraud, if he believes that soon after, but with the aid of a little money bestowed on friars, an active absolution from the crime he has committed may be obtained?” He saw this teaching as yet another heretical invention of the spirit of Antichrist in the Church, stating that, “Every Christian should read the heresies that are publicly defended by Antichrist’s disciples, as it is publicly stated that a person condemned by Gregory XI is, as it were, a heretic; the fact is that just because the pope should imagine that he binds and looses in some manner, he does not automatically bind and loose, and undoubtedly the person who would be able to do the universal opposite of this would be raised high above all, that is, be God, and consequently he would be an omnipotent Antichrist; therefore bishops who obtain this kind of condemnation and to this day defend it tacitly or expressly, are undoubtedly collaborators or allies of this accursed man.” He boldly suggests that both the pope and those who accept his absolution are living in a fairytale land of make-believe. It is “false fantasy and spiritual treasure in Heaven, that if ever a pope is made a dispenser of this treasure at his own will, this is a facile word imagined without ground.”
Wycliffe saw the papal claim to absolve sin through the granting of indulgences for what it really was, a money making racket to enrich the Vatican and the clergy. Not only did they offer false hope, but “Prelates deceive men by feigned indulgences or pardons, and rob them cursedly of their money … men be great fools that buy these bulls of pardon so dear.” He tried to make his listeners and readers understand that it is impossible to buy the treasures of Heaven with the riches of this world, for “Since the Kingdom of God is worth only as much as your possession of it, then is little likelihood that the Kingdom itself could be bought with money, but only with a good disposition”.
In the 4th century the Emperor Constantine gave the Church the right to receive gifts and legacies and to control both money and lands. This was accepted by Pope Sylvester and became known legally as the Donation of Constantine. The leaders of the Church soon gave themselves over to worldliness and money, and began to wield temporal power while living like princes and kings. When one reads the Church Fathers of that period it is found that the word simony is made use of more frequently. Simony is basically the sin of buying and selling ecclesiastical offices, and the term is derived from the story in the Book of Acts where Simon the sorcerer desired to buy the power of the Holy Spirit from Peter. The apostle Peter regarded such a request as a damnable sin when he replied to Simon, “Thy money perish with thee, because thou hast thought that the gift of God may be purchased with money. Thou hast neither part nor lot in this matter: for thy heart is not right in the sight of God. Repent therefore of this thy wickedness, and pray God, if perhaps the thought of thine heart may be forgiven thee. For I perceive that thou art in the gall of bitterness, and in the bond of iniquity” (Acts 8:20-24). The Church has always since thought of simony as a grievous sin to be avoided at all costs.
Around the time he moved to Lutterworth he completed many of his theological works which included a treatise on the subject of simony. He originally saw simony as being part of his discussion on Dominion. He argued in ‘On Civil Dominion’ that the Church does not have the right to maintain perpetual endowments. Taking his text from Proverbs 30:15, “The horseleach hath two daughters, crying, Give, give”, Wycliffe informs us that Satan is a bloodsucking leech with twelve greedy daughters: the pope, the cardinals, the bishops, the archdeacons, the chancellors, the deans, the rectors, the priests, the monks, the friars, the clerks and the tithe collectors. None of these men were innocent of the crime of simony, for each of them would buy a higher position in the Church if they could raise enough money to do so. All of them were willing to rob their poor parishioners so they could advance themselves further up the ecclesiastical ladder.
John Wycliffe’s sword of judgement came down very heavily upon simony for he counted it as a detestable sin against both God and men, a sin that was rooted in personal pride and self-esteem. He writes, “Since according to Truth a sin against the Holy Spirit cannot be forgiven either in this world or in the next, it seems suitable to begin with this sin because simony is a leprosy that, because of the nature of the disease and its stubborn duration, cannot be cured except by a miracle which God does not often perform these days; furthermore, because of the disease’s contagion, the Church must take great care to avoid it”.
John Wycliffe was not always a pacifist, for in 1384 he began to change his mind regarding war. He published the treatise entitled ‘On the Office of the King’ in which he explained what he felt were the only conditions for a just war. He had come to realise that little or nothing is really gained through war (and the subsequent taking of thousands of innocent lives), especially when he considered the various conflicts that the papacy had involved itself in. He saw, through the eyes of compassion, that untold millions of people were left destitute, without loved ones, and in misery by crusades and campaigns. It is very possible that he had come to this conclusion after King Richard II and his government moved away from his position in favour of a compromise with Rome, wondering why the nation even bothered to fight against France and Scotland if this is all it brought. Another possibility would be that now, he enjoyed the peace and quiet in Lutterworth, and was happy to be free from his personal conflicts which he had faced at Oxford.
War was of the devil rather than of Christ, according to Wycliffe’s view, and to go to war is tantamount to following Satan himself. Now as a pacifist he believed that war was the fullest expression of a lack and violation of Christian love. He says, “It is clear that someone who engages in war of the usual kind strips himself of the rule of charity, since someone bare of charity is excluded from the Kingdom [of God], it is clear that whoever thus wages war, in the exchange for the empty or slight good of war gives away for nothing the bliss [of Heaven] he might have more freely and easily.” He added that men should not be warmongers but, “martyrs for the love of God … I read not in God’s law that Christian men should excel in fighting or battle, but in meek patience. And this is the means whereby we may have God’s peace.”
Nevertheless he saw that sometimes war was unavoidable and therefore justified when the safety of the nation was at stake, that is, defence was the only reason for taking up arms against another country.
Relics and Idolatry
It is a little difficult to fully understand John Wycliffe’s position regarding idolatry, for his thoughts are a little confused to say the least, though this aspect of his theology may have also been under review later in his life.
On one hand he writes that the religion of relics and icons are “an irregular and greedy cult” and “all men worshipping in any way these images and paintings sin and commit idolatry”. He considered devotion to saints to be both abhorrent and dangerous. On the other hand he believed that images could be used as aids to devotion where the people did not have the written word of God available to them. The pictures and icons would then be silent teachers of the gospel of Christ. He also believed it was correct to honour the Virgin Mary and to celebrate the five major feast days that are dedicated to her as long as Christians do not pray to her.
That Wycliffe was not an iconoclast is very obvious, but given a few more years it is likely that he would have reconsidered his ideas.
There is much more to the theology of John Wycliffe than is presented here, but it is enough to show that his thinking evolved as he was advancing closer to what we would term ‘conservative Christianity’. We could have discussed the Person of Christ, the Trinity and sin, but in these areas the reformer taught exactly what we accept as Biblical truth today. The subjects noted above are only given to show where he differed from the Protestant thought of this present age, but as stated earlier, given time, he would no doubt have cast off further erroneous aspects of Catholicism. In some respects theology can never be a completely private and personal thing, for in many ways it is influenced by other learned persons, history, and the affairs of the world around us. This is certainly true with regards to the theological thinking of Wycliffe, but God was able to use it to open the door so that the first light of the glorious gospel could penetrate the deep darkness of that time. Wycliffe’s theology set the stage for others who were to come and take the true word of God forward to future generations.