By Dr. Herb Samworth
One of the greatest privileges of a people is to have the Word of God in their vernacular or spoken language. During the Middle Ages, however, the official Bible of the Western Church, including the Church of England, was the Latin Vulgate. This was the translation that had been produced by Jerome in the latter part of the fourth century.
Apart from the clergy, few people knew Latin and, therefore, the majority could not understand the Vulgate. In addition, the services of the Church were conducted in Latin. As a result, the people were dependent on their religious leaders for spiritual knowledge and instruction. Although selected portions of the Scriptures had been translated into English during the previous centuries, no complete English translation of the Bible was available until the fourteenth century.
The person responsible for the first translation of the entire Bible into the English language was John Wyclif. While many of the details of Wyclif’s life remain unknown, evidence indicates that he was born around 1330 in West Riding. He attended Oxford University where it quickly became apparent that he possessed exceptional ability. He received a Bachelor and Master’s degree and took orders as a clergyman of the Church of England. Later he studied for his Doctorate of Theology and, upon successfully completing the requirements, he was appointed Professor of Theology and Philosophy at his alma mater. Many considered Wyclif to be the most prominent theologian in England and, indeed, in all of Europe.
The days in which Wyclif taught at Oxford were difficult for a number of reasons. England and France were engaged in a conflict that became known as “the Hundred Years War” because it lasted nearly a century. Living conditions of the peasants were deplorable and social and economic discontent was rampant. In addition, the Black Death, or the bubonic plague, ravaged Europe, leaving in its wake devastation on an unprecedented scale. Nearly thirty percent of Europe’s population died of the plague while in other areas the mortality rate exceeded fifty percent. These events cast a pall of doom over the entire country and many believe that the end of the world was imminent.
Many people were convinced that the low spiritual condition of the Church was the cause of these disorders. They believed God was chastising the Church because of its moral condition. The prestige of the church had fallen precipitously due to the scandal caused by the Great Schism, a situation in which there were two rival Popes: one at Rome and one at Avignon in France. This decline was also due to widespread ignorance among the clergy. It has been estimated that only one in four of the secular clergy could recite the Lord’s Prayer and even fewer knew the Ten Commandments. At a time when people looked desperately for spiritual guidance and comfort from the Church, little was forthcoming.
It was also a period of doctrinal change in the church. At the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 the doctrine of Transubstantiation had been declared an official doctrine. This doctrine taught that the elements of the Lord’s Supper, the bread and the wine, were changed into the body and blood of Christ when consecrated by an ordained priest. This pronouncement was the climax of a prolonged theological controversy that had raged for two hundred years. Many, including John Wyclif, rejected this teaching, declaring it to be an innovation and not found in the Word of God.
In addition, Wyclif was disturbed by the feudal organization of the Church. The Church was the largest landowner in England and was extraordinarily wealthy. Many of the upper clergy were more interested in acquiring lands and wealth than they were in meeting the spiritual needs of the people. Wyclif’s convictions on the wealth of the Church led him to formulate a doctrine he termed as the “Dominion of Grace.” This doctrine taught that God was the Owner of everything and what one possessed came as a stewardship from Him. Therefore, an individual was not the owner but held them as one who must give an account to God.
Wyclif also taught that one does not automatically become a Christian upon the administration of the sacrament of Baptism. For one to be a true Christian, there was the necessity of personal faith. A genuine Christian was also responsible to obey what God commanded. By this, Wyclif was not referring to the canon law of the Church but the teachings of the Bible itself. However, one could not obey God if he were ignorant of what God required. In order to know what God required, it was necessary to have the Word of God in the language a person could understand. Because of this Wyclif determined that the Scriptures had to be translated into the English language.
Because of his teachings on the Dominion of Grace and the nature of the Church, Wyclif became embroiled in conflict with many of the English Clergy. In 1378 the Pope ordered him to come to Rome to defend his teachings, but the Great Schism precluded him from leaving England. On another occasion the Queen Mother protected him from the accusations of the Clergy. However, his opponents were able to force him from his professorship at Oxford. He left Oxford for the parish church of Lutterworth about the year 1380. This apparent triumph of Wycif’s enemies was short-lived as this new position allowed him the opportunity to translate the Scriptures into English.
Scholars are divided as to whether Wyclif himself translated any portion of the Scriptures into English but there is no doubt that he was the moving force behind the translation. His co-workers, Nicholas de Hereford and John Purvey, are credited with the two versions of the Wyclif Bible: Wyclif A and B. The earlier translation by Hereford, known as Wyclif A, is a more literal “word for word” rendering of the Latin Vulgate with characteristic Latin word order and construction. The later edition, the work of John Purvey and known as Wyclif B, followed a more fluid translation principle known as a “sense for sense” translation.
The last years of Wyclif’s life at Lutterworth were occupied with the writing of numerous tracts and books dealing with the nature of the church and attacking the corruption of the English clergy. While preaching from his pulpit on December 29, 1384 Wyclif suffered a stroke. He lingered for two days and died on December 31, 1384 as an orthodox member of the Church of England. This proved to be ironic as later events would demonstrate.
Reactions to Wyclif in England
Wyclif’s death in 1384 did not end his influence in England. Through the work of itinerant preachers, known as the “Poor Priests,” the knowledge of the Scriptures was disseminated throughout England. These priests would travel throughout the villages and small towns of rural England reading the Scriptures and preaching. As a result, a movement known as the Lollards began. Much of the history of this movement remains shrouded in mystery even after a period of nearly six hundred years. Different meanings have been assigned to the word “Lollard” itself. Some have speculated that it meant a “low murmur” referring to the secret spreading of the Word of God. There are differences of opinion regarding the influence that even Wyclif himself had on the movement. Because of this uncertainty, it is not possible to be dogmatic regarding the relationship between Wyclif and the Lollards.
Whatever may have been the relationship of the Lollard movement and Wyclif remains uncertain. However, there is no question that the reaction of the English clergy against it was both swift and ruthless. In 1401, a law that permitted the burning of heretics at the stake was enacted. In the Middle Ages, heresy was considered as soul murder and thus a capital offense. Those convicted as relapsed heretics were burned at the stake. The exact number who died is unknown, but there are many accounts of Lollards who paid the ultimate price for their faith.
In 1408 the English clergy, meeting at Oxford under the direction of Archbishop Thomas Arundel, passed what are known as the “Constitutions of Oxford.” These laws outlawed the reading and translation of the Scriptures into the English vernacular without the permission of the bishop. The laws declared the English translation of the Bible to be illegal. Those who were discovered with copies could be charged with heresy. The Constitutions of Oxford remained in effect for nearly one hundred and thirty years until King Henry VIII licensed the Matthews Bible to circulate in 1537.
Reaction to Wyclif Abroad
England, however, was not the only country influenced by the work and teachings of John Wyclif. During Wyclif’s professorship at Oxford University, numerous students from Bohemia crossed the English Channel to study under him. The reason for this was because the Queen of England during this time was Anne of Bohemia. These Bohemian students imbibed the teachings of Wyclif and carried them back to their homeland where they influenced a young clergyman by the name of John Hus.
Hus adopted Wyclif’s view of the Church and soon began calling for the reformation of its abuses and a return to the teaching of the Word of God. In 1415 he was summoned to appear at the Council of Constance, a council convened by the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund to reform the church. The Council of Constance had three objectives: to resolve the problem of the Great Schism (the cause of unity), to deal with heretical teaching including the case of John Hus (the cause of faith), and to establish the power of church councils as the supreme authority in the church (the cause of reformation).
Hus came to the Council of Constance under a safe conduct order issued by the Emperor that granted him the freedom to leave at any time. After disputations with the Church officials, it became evident that the teaching of Hus and Wyclif were identical. Hus’ teaching was declared heretical and his safe conduct order was revoked. In Medieval thinking, it was not required to honor a promise made to a heretic. On July 6, 1415 John Hus was burned at the stake.
Wyclif’s teachings were also declared heretical. Some two hundred and forty of his writings were condemned. Although Wyclif had died as an orthodox member of the English Church, he was declared to be a heretic thirty-one years later in 1415. Finally, in 1428, on the express orders of the Bishop of Rome, Wyclif’s body was exhumed, his bones burned, and the ashes thrown into the River Swift. The result of this action was not lost on Thomas Fuller, an English Church Historian of the 17th century, writing on the life of John Wyclif:
The little river conveyed Wyclif’s remains into the Avon, the Avon into the Severn, the Severn into the narrow seas, and they into the main ocean. And thus the ashes of Wyclif are the emblem of his doctrine, which now is dispensed all the world over.
These are true words. The work of Wyclif provided the English-speaking people the Bible in their vernacular language for the first time in their history. Although the translation was from the Vulgate and the manuscripts had to be hand copied, the knowledge of the Scriptures spread throughout the land.
Summary Evaluation of John Wyclif
Students of the Reformation have called John Wyclf the “Morning Star of the Reformation.” The morning star is the first light that dispels the gloom of darkness. There is no doubt that Wyclif lived in a time of moral and spiritual darkness. However, through his study of the Word of God, he became convinced of the need for a thorough doctrinal and moral reform of the Church. There were many who shared Wyclif’s conviction that a moral reform was necessary but did not see beyond the correction of outward abuses. Wyclif believed that the Church could not be truly reformed until it was corrected according to the Word of God.
Wyclif believed that this reformation could only occur when the people possessed the knowledge of God’s Word. It was impossible for them to have acquaintance with the Word of God as long as the Scriptures remained imprisoned in a language few could understand. Therefore he set himself to the task of giving his people the Scriptures in their language.
In many ways the Reformation began on October 31, 1517 when Martin Luther posted his Ninety-five Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. However, Luther traced his spiritual lineage to John Hus and, by extension, to John Wyclif. One hundred years before Luther was born, John Wyclif advocated the doctrinal reform of the church by the Word of God. Truly he was the “Morning Star” of the Reformation.