John Wycliffe, Luther’s Model for the Reformation

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In 1427 AD, the church dug up the remains of John Wycliffe. His remains were burned and the ashes thrown into the local river. After his death he had been tried and found guilty of heresy, leading to the events that had his remains burned and dispersed.

But this didn’t stop Wycliffe from having great influence over the next few centuries. After his posthumous burning, his writings and views spread throughout England and found their way into the hands of later Protestant reformers.

What had Wycliffe done to create such a stir within the Catholic church and the civil authorities of his native land, England? He stood up to the wealthy clergy that existed in England at the time. He was the first to translate the Bible into the native language of his people, Middle English. He pushed back on the selling of indulgences. He preached that the Bible had more authority than the local priest or even the Pope.

Ironically, much of what he stood for was resolved in 1965 during Vatican 2 and the Catholic Reformation during the middle of the 16th century. Many of his ideas were also used by Martin Luther during the Protestant reformation of the early 16th century.

In the 1370’s the Pope demanded money from England to pay for its defense against a potential attack by France. Wycliffe loudly protested the payment and suggested that the Pope use the money of the wealthy clergy of England, instead of taxing the already overtaxed English people.

Naturally, this created a great stir and Wycliffe was called to London to answer charges of heresy. There were large numbers of people supporting both Wycliffe and the church. The debate got so acrimonious a widespread brawl broke out and ended the meeting.

Afterwards, Pope Gregory issued 18 edicts denouncing Wycliffe and referred to Wycliffe as the “Master of Errors.” Wycliffe himself, stated that he didn’t see much difference between the Pope and the antichrist. A term Luther would also use to describe the Pope during the Protestant reformation.

Not much happened to Wycliffe because of his popularity in England and the Great Schism in the church in 1378, where two rival Popes were elected. For the balance of his life Wycliffe remained untouched by the authorities.

Wycliffe’s great accomplishment was translating the Vulgate Bible into Middle English. The Vulgate Bible was written in Latin, making it inaccessible for most of Europe during the middle ages. The Vulgate was written in 382 AD by Jerome and was considered the official Bible of the church.

Wycliffe believed that if Moses heard from God in his native tongue. Christ’s followers should also be allowed to read the Bible in their native language. Wycliffe with a group of associates, created a Bible that the people of England could read and understand. It was the first such translation of the Vulgate Bible. Today handwritten copies exist in England.

Luther, himself adopted this point of view nearly one hundred fifty years later in creating a German version of the Bible. Luther also agreed that the Bible was the authoritative source for all Christians and should be made available to the common person in a language they could understand.

While many consider Martin Luther the father of the Protestant Reformation, many of his ideas came from earlier clergy. Certainly, Wycliffe being the most prominent. Jan Hus, from Czechoslovakia was similar to Wycliffe and another contributor to Luther’s reformation. Hus was burned at the stake for his views. In Scholarly terms, Wycliffe is studied before Luther, because of his influence on his future impact on the Protestant Reformation.

Today Wycliffe is not the controversial figure he was in the 14th century. He is honored in by the Anglican church on December 31st each year. Oxford University has a theological school named after Wycliffe. If Luther is the father of the Protestant Reformation, Wycliffe is certainly the grandfather.

Wycliffe’s goal was to make the word of God, through the Bible,  available to all people. Today the full Bible is available in 671 different languages.

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman

Photo by Aaron Burden

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