RPM, Volume 14, Number 17, April 22 to April 29, 2012

The Enlightening Message
of the 'Morning Star' of Reformation:
The Life and Theology of John Wycliffe




By Tobias Alecio Mattei, M.D.

Reformed Theological Seminary
M.A.R Program - Virtual Campus

University of Illinois at Peoria
Neurosurgery Department - Peoria/IL - US

Contact
tobiasmattei@yahoo.com



Introduction:

John Wycliffe was born in 1328. It seems that his birth city was the factory village of modern-day Hipswell in the North Riding of Yorkshire/England, although such information is not certainly precise according to historians. 1

He received his early education close to his home. It is not known when he first came to Oxford, but he is known for already been there in 1345, having kept himself closely connected to it until almost the end of his life.

Wycliffe was an English scholastic philosopher, theologian, preacher, reformer and university teacher, who became known in the history of the Christianity as one of the first dissidents from the Roman Catholic Church and a defender of the ideals which, some decades later, would constitute the flag of Reformation.

In relation to his beliefs, Wycliffe was one of the earliest opponents of papal authority influence on the secular power as well as one of the first proponents of making Bible texts available to the lay population. In fact, he was responsible for the first translation of Jerome's Latin Bible (the 'Vulgate') to an early ancestor of the modern English language (called by the linguistics 'Middle-term English').

Similarly to the impact that Luther's translation had on the development of the German language, the clarity, beauty, and strength Wycliffe's translation had a deeply influenced the early development of English language as well as later English translations of the bible, such as the classic King James version.

The Early Oxford Years:

During his period in Oxford as a theologian Wycliffe, developed several theoretical essays on Logic, Epistemology, Metaphysics, and Scholastic Theology. Several authors have tried to relate such academic years with the latter active political role played by Wycliffe in his defiance of the Catholic Church. As it has already been stated:

It is not easy to connect this vituperative critic of the papacy, the friars, and the fourteenth-century ecclesiastical status quo with the abstractions of scholasticism. Yet Wycliffe's later public life is incomprehensible without an understanding of hit Oxford years. 2

The evidence that Wycliffe re-edited some of his philosophical works in a later period supports the assumption that he has never abandoned his earlier logical and metaphysical interests for exclusive political and reformative ones, as some authors suggest. 3

Wycliffe on Logics and Metaphysics:

In his first book 'De Logica (1360)', Wycliffe explored the fundamentals of Scholastic Theology. Other two works followed this same line: 'Logice continuacia' and 'De Logica, Tractatus Tercius.'

In another treatise on Logics, called 'Insolubilia (1365)', Wycliffe explored some paradoxical sentences called 'antinomies', such as "This sentence is false." In such work, he deals with the question concerning the existence and validity of such sentences (Do such sentences say nothing at all, or do they say something simultaneously both false and true?).

Additionally, in his work 'De Actibus Anime', Wycliffe explored the nature of universals and its ultimate dependence on God's mind. Different from Plato, who supposed a realm in which perfect and abstract entities like "Goodness" or "Circularity" existed apart from any substance, for Wycliffe every universal, as part of creation, derived its existence from God, the Creator. In our days, the theologian Cornelius van Til has recently made such contingency of every Created Being upon the Creator very popular in the reformed circles through the slogan 'Thinking God's thoughts after Him'. Following Van Til's calvinistic theology, such statement expresses the ultimate contingency of every thought, action or historical fact upon God's eternal purpose and predetermination and, therefore, subject to the Creator's sovereignty. 4

It is worth remembering that even when Wycliffe writes about Logic, his interests are not on the Philosophy of Language or on the formal reasoning by themselves, but ultimately on the ontological and theological problems involved in such issues. For Wycliffe, therefore, the syllogistic logic explored in his essays serves as tool in order to reach such higher and more profound theological goals. In his own words:

Certain people who love God's law have persuaded me to compose a reliable treatise aimed at making plain the logic of Holy Scripture. For in view of the fact that many people go into logic having imagined that they would thereby come to know God's law better, and then, because of the tasteless concoction of pagan terms in every analysis or proof of propositions, because of the emptiness of the enterprise, they abandon it, I propose to sharpen the minds of the faithful by introducing analyses and proofs of propositions that are to be drawn from the Scriptures. 5

Having such a 'God-centered' approach, one can realize the ultimate theological interest of Wycliffe's on Logic. For him, one should study Logic in order to better understand the human mind because, as taught by the Scriptures, human thoughts, actions and feelings, bear God's image and likeness. The scholar's goal should, therefore, be to unveil the mysteries of the human mind with the ultimate theological purpose of knowing God better.

In fact, such relation between the knowledge of the self and the knowledge of God has permeated the whole history of Reformed Theology. Calvin, for example, opened Institutes of the Christian Religion with the following statement:

Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. 6
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, once prayed:
Give me, O Lord, that highest learning to know thee, and that best wisdom to know myself. 7

This dualistic epistemological approach regarding the interrelation between the 'Knowledge of God' and 'The Knowledge of Reality' is present in almost all the logical works of Wycliffe's.

The 'Summa de Ente', for example, is divisible into two books: the first one, composed of seven treatises, contains philosophical issues that address the understanding of Created Reality, while the second one, composed of six treatises, contains theological issues that address the understanding of the Divine Reality. The strict division exemplified in such work reveals Wycliffe as an early pioneering of a kind of 'Epistemological Van Tillianism', given his strong emphasis on the 'Creature-Creature distinction' in all his enquires about the nature and the means of acquiring true knowledge. It is worthy, however, to emphasize that, within such distinction Wycliffe always presented himself as a defender of the primacy of the Creator over the creation. In other words, the Realistic Ontology of the first book, dedicated to philosophy and knowledge of created things, is totally dependent on the Augustinian theology of the second book, which explores the ways through which human knowledge of God is possible.

In relation to the so-called 'universals', Wycliffe was convinced that they have a reality which is prior and which causally directs every 'particulars'. Such universal-particular relation was, for Wycliffe, a reflection of the temporary primacy of God's being over his creatures as well as the causal effects which God's will posses on every aspect of the existence of individual human beings. Far from being merely speculative, for Wycliffe, every philosophical and ontological issue approached in his theoretical works, possessed very practical implications for the daily life of Christians. In fact, Wycliffe could easily relate his logical concepts (such as the discussion about 'universals') with clear practical realities, such as the rebellious attitudes of individuals which are 'lords of themselves' and, although know God, does not recognize him as Lord (Romans 1:1)

As stated by him:

Beyond all doubt, intellectual and emotional error about universals is the cause of all sin that reigns in the world. 8

Furthermore redemptive pattern presented by Wycliffe in his writings seems very similar to the one defended by Calvin: beginning with a deep understanding of the own self, followed by a feeling of displeasure regarding one's depravity, and finally leading to a deep desire to know more about God and his perfections and become like him. In Calvin's words:

Thus, from the feeling of our own ignorance, vanity, poverty, infirmity, and-what is more-depravity and corruption, we recognize that the true light of wisdom, sound virtue, full abundance of every good, and purity of righteousness rest in the Lord alone. To this extent we are prompted by our own ills to contemplate the good things of God; and we cannot seriously aspire to him before we begin to become displeased with ourselves. 9
Overall, Wycliffe's theology can be considered as a true precursor of the enlightenment of the reformation, for example, taking in account his constant struggle against the ignorance of the lay people regarding the Scriptures. According to Wycliffe's beliefs sin and ignorance always walks together.

Therefore, using his refined philosophical and logical education Wycliffe tried to employ the tools of Scholastic Logic in order to expose the reason of Scriptures and enlighten the darkness of sin and ignorance in which the lay people of his time lived. In each body of his works, Wycliffe's analytic rigor and tendency to return to specific issues suggest a mind determined to resolve error by using remorseless reason.

One interesting point in the theology of Wycliffe is his emphasis on the concept of Lordship, exposed with details in his work 'De dominio Divino â€" 1373', a treatise in three books that examines how the relation between God and his creatures is always centered in the concept of Lordship.

A similar movement from a Van Tillian dualistic Ontology with basis on the Creator/Creature distinction toward a theology centered on God's lordship was noticed recently in the reformed circles when the famous Calvinistic theologian John Frame (with well-known Van Tillian background) published his Theology of Lordship.

Wycliffe's later philosophy also illustrates how the relation of soul to the body prefigures the Lord/servant relation, which he views as the most fundamental human relation in the whole creation. In his 'Dominium' Treatises, he explains how the lordship relation of God toward his creation should model all other instances of human lordship relations, both concerning human's ruling over nature as well over the ruling over other human beings in the social context.

The Later Years: Wycliffe's Reformed Activism:

While in Oxford, John Wycliffe was invited to serve at the court by John of Gaunt, who was, at that time, acting as a ruler at England. Wycliffe first offended the Roman Catholic Church by defending the right of the English government to seize the property of the corrupt clergyman.

In the theological field, Wycliffe attacked central dogmas the Catholic medieval church, opposing, for example to the Doctrine of Transubstantiation with the claims that Christ was present 'spiritually' rather than 'physically' during the Eucharist.

Wycliffe further denied the role of the priests in mediating believer's access to God, and defended that every Christian had, in fact, free access to the Father solely through the redemptive work of Jesus Christ.

In 1382, deserted by his supporters, Wycliffe left Oxford and went to live at Lutterworth, where he died in 1384. Nevertheless, at this time, Wycliffe has already planted in Oxford the seeds of the reformation movement and his combative spirit, as well as energetic character of preaching and lecturing, would be later replicated by his followers who became known as 'Lollards' (which means 'Mutterers' or 'Mumblers').

Such reforming movement grew significantly in strength in few decades so that, in 1395, the Lollards were an organized group with popular support. Some so-called "Lollard knights" helped to spread Wycliffe's ideas around England by appointing priests to ecclesiastical livings that then taught their views to ordinary people. At that time, the Lollardy movement was widely perceived as a threat to the state as well as to the church authority, since it encouraged the free access of all believers to God through the Scriptures.

The influence of the Lollardy was soon felt far away from England. After the marriage of King Wenceslaus' sister, Anne, with Richard II of England in 1382, the philosophical writings of John Wycliffe became widely known in Bohemia, where they influenced the young student Jan Hus, who later became one of the great ecclesiastical reformers in that country and was eventually burnt in 1415 for his so-called 'heretical ideas'. When his opponents suggested to Jan Hus that he was a follower of the Lollardy and, therefore, a heretic, it is said that he stated that 'he whished that his soul might be wherever that of Wycliffe was found'. 10

John Knox, the leader of the Reformation in Scotland, it said to have been unable to graduate from St Andrews because he refused to sign a repudiation of Lollardy.

A famous historical document dating from 1407 called 'The Testimony of William Thorpe' supposedly written by a Lollard stated:

I indeed clove to none closer than to him, the wisest and most blessed of all men whom I have ever found. From him one could learn in truth what the Church of Christ is and how it should be ruled and led. 11

Much later his death (in 1384), the Catholic Council, which met at Constance in 1415, declared Wycliffe a heretic and under the ban of the Catholic Church. The Council decreed that his books be burned and his remains be exhumed. Under the command of Pope Martin V in 1428, his mortal remains were dug up, burned, and the ashes were cast into the River Swift, which runs in Lutterworth. Wycliffe's ashes were, for many historians, an emblem of his doctrine. As a later chronicler observed:

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. 12

Conclusions:

Wycliffe's early Oxford years and his late active political role as one of the precursors of church reformation should not be understood as two separate and unrelated phases of his life. In fact, his theological works on Logics and Metaphysics should be viewed as the solid ground upon which he built his so influential reformed doctrines, such as: the universal access of all believers to the sacred Scriptures, the primacy of the authority of the Scriptures over the pope, the church and the tradition, the direct access to God without priestly or church mediation and the rejection of indulgences.

Acknowledgments:

Spezielle Dankbarkeit für Pastor Pat Sheets und Familie für ihr spezielles Freundschaft, vorbildliches Leben und kluge Leitung unserer Kirche (Oak's Campus/Riverside Church- Peoria/IL) unter der Lordschaft von Jesus Christus

Notes:

1. William Dallmann. John Wiclif. Concordia Theological Quarterly XI. 1907. St. Louis. p. 41.

2. Stephan E Lahey. John Wyclif. Great Medieval Thinkers. Oxford Univ. Press. 2009. Pg. 3.

3. Mariateresa Fumagalli, Beonio Brocchieri Stefano Simonetta. John Wyclif Logica, Politica, Teologia. Firenze. 2003.

4. Cornelius Van Til. A Christian Theory of Knowledge. Nature and Scripture. Philadelphia: P&R. 1969. pg. 271.

5. Stephan E Lahey. John Wyclif. Great Medieval Thinkers. Oxford Univ. Press: 2009. Pg. 9.

6. John Calvin. Institutes of the Christian Religion. 1599.p. 35.

7. John Emory. The works of the Reverend John Wesley. New York. 1831. pg. 422.

8. John Wycliffe (trans. A. Kenny). On Universals. Oxford, 1985. Pg.162â€"165.

9. John Calvin. Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1599. Pg. 1-2

10. Matthew Spinka. John Hus: A Biography. New Jersey: Princeton University Press. 1968.

11. Anne Hudson, ed. Two Wycliffite Texts: The Sermon of William Taylor, 1406 -- The Testimony of William Thorpe, 1407. Early English Text Society. Oxford. 1993.

12. Charles Wells Moulton. The library of literary criticism of English and American authors. University of Michigan Library. 2009.



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