John Wycliffe: heretic? or hero?

One of the gifts that is treasured by many believers around the world is the ability to read the scriptures on their own language. It is something that we take for granted; but it is not something that has always been available to people of faith.

On this day it is good to pause and remember that we have the Greek and Hebrew and Aramaic writings of scripture translated into English and available for us to read. On this day perhaps we English-speaking people might spare a thought for the 14th century theologian and preacher, John Wycliffe (1328–1384), who is remembered as the person who made the first English translation of the Bible.

This copy is a facsimile reproduction of the very first translation of the Scriptures into the English language. The Wycliffe translations were hand-written manuscript Bibles, pre-dating printing by 70 years [Gutenberg, 1455].
https://digitalcommons.cedarville.edu/preserved_by_hand/7/

That is the legend; in fact, scholars believe that Wycliffe translated the Gospels, oversaw the translation of the rest of the New Testament, and outsourced the translation of the Old Testament to a team led by Nicholas of Hereford; the whole was later edited and revised by John Purvey. See https://kingscollections.org/exhibitions/specialcollections/bible/first-english-bible/wycliffe-bible

In fact, the Anglican Church designates today, 31 December, as a day to recall John Wycliffe. See https://www.churchofengland.org/prayer-and-worship/worship-texts-and-resources/common-worship/churchs-year/calendar Wycliffe is also often honoured as “the father of English prose”, because the clarity and the popularity of his writings and his sermons in the Middle English dialect did much to shape our language today; see https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/issues/issue-3/john-wycliffe-did-you-know.html

From his theological writings, it has been deduced that Wycliffe believed that “scripture was the only authoritative reliable guide to the truth about God”. That was a view that was later expressed by the key figures in the various Reformations that took place in the 16th century. Wycliffe therefore maintained that all Christians should rely on the Bible rather than on the teachings of popes and clerics—a position that drove Martin Luther two centuries later, in his criticisms of the church.

It follows from this, that all Christians should have direct access to those scriptures to nurture their own faith. “Englishmen learn Christ’s law best in English”, he wrote; “Moses heard God’s law in his own tongue; so did Christ’s apostles.” The many translations of the Bible into English that were made in the ensuing centuries stand on the foundation of Wycliffe’s work.

Blogger MJH writes that, as a translator of the Bible, “John Wycliffe and his successors such as Tyndale and Coverdale stand in line with Christian tradition, with the anonymous Latinisers and Jerome, with the anonymous translators of the Coptic Bible and the Syriac Peshitta, with Cyril and Methodius.” See https://thepocketscroll.wordpress.com/2012/12/30/sixthy-day-of-christmas-commemoration-of-john-wycliffe/

Certainly, the long list of people who translated the scriptures into their own vernacular attest to the importance of contextualising scripture and making it widely available to the people of God—a commitment that has enriched the lives of believers over the centuries. My own denomination continues that commitment with an affirmation that “the Uniting Church lays upon its members the serious duty of reading the Scriptures [and] commits its ministers to preach from these” (Basis of Union, para.5).

As a pre-Reformation protestor, Wycliffe said that there was no scriptural justification for the papacy (as did Luther). He also taught predestination (as did Calvin and Zwingli) and the consubstantiation of the elements in communion (as is sometimes attributed to Luther), in distinction from the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. His theology also prefigured the Reformers in his affirmation that “faith in our Lord Jesus Christ is sufficient for salvation” (cf. Luther’s sola fide).

All of this, of course, set Wycliffe up for conflict with the authorities in the Roman Catholic Church. The “Constitutions of Oxford” of 1408 were issued after a synod called by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas of Arundel. This decree aimed to reclaim authority in all ecclesiastical matters, and specifically named John Wycliffe as it banned certain writings, and noted that translation of Scripture into English by unlicensed laity was a crime punishable by charges of heresy.

In May 1377, Pope Gregory XI issued five bulls against John Wycliffe for heresy. In all, the Catholic Church in England tried him three times, and two Popes summoned him to Rome, but Wycliffe was never imprisoned nor ever went to Rome.

Three decades after his death, the Council of Constance declared Wycliffe a heretic on 4 May 1415, and banned his writings, effectively both excommunicating him retroactively and making him an early forerunner of Protestantism. Many Protestants consider Wycliffe to be something of a hero, for he stood against the Roman Church by insisting that the scriptures should not be locked up in Medieval Latin, but rather should be available in the vernacular—in his case, Middle English.

So, John Wycliffe: Bible translator and theologian, preacher and pre-Reformation protestor, a Roman Catholic declared a heretic whose name is remembered and highly valued by Protestants … how do you assess him: heretic? or hero?

Author: John T Squires

My name is John Squires. I live in the Australian Capital Territory. I have been an active participant in the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) since it was formed in 1977, and was ordained as a Minister of the Word in this church in 1980. I have served in rural, regional, and urban congregations and as a Presbytery Resource Minister and Intentional Interim Minister. For two decades I taught Biblical Studies at a theological college and most recently I was Director of Education and Formation and Principal of the Perth Theological Hall. I've studied the scriptures in depth; I hold a number of degrees, including a PhD in early Christian literature. I am committed to providing the best opportunities for education within the church, so that people can hold to an informed faith, which is how the UCA Basis of Union describes it. This blog is one contribution to that ongoing task.

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