John Wycliffe, The Morning Star
By the Revd Canon Chuck Collins
One historian called him “England’s first true Protestant,” and John Foxe said that John Wycliffe was the “mornynge starre” of the English Reformation. Wycliffe (1330-1384) lived long before William Tyndale, Henry VIII, Thomas Cranmer, and the Church of England and there is a lot of debate as to whether the Reformation in England was a continuation of the doctrinal themes of Wycliffe and his followers, the Lollards, or if the greater influence was the writings of Martin Luther and the continental reformers.
He was the leading theologian and philosopher in Europe’s outstanding Oxford University where, “besides having a vision for a vernacular Bible, Wycliffe criticised the office of the papacy and the temporal power exercised by prelates, he objected to prayers for the dead, the cult of the saints, priestly absolution of sin through mandatory confession and indulgences, misguided devotion to images, relics, pilgrimages, shrines, and the scholastic doctrine of transubstantiation” (Whiting).
The first full translation of the Bible in English dates to 1382, the work of Wycliffe and his followers. But by the time of the English Reformation, “Lollardy, was, from the hierarchy’s perspective, like a persistent infestation of fleas: a nuisance that stubbornly defied extermination, but not a mortal danger” (Ryrie). Whatever was left of the 14th century protest was consumed in the fires of the16th century Protestant movement.
On May 22, 1377, 140 years before Martin Luther posted the Ninety-five Theses, Pope Gregory XI issued five bulls (proclamations with ecclesiastical authority) condemning John Wycliffe. Responding to the Pope’s irritation, Wycliffe appeared before the Archbishop of Canterbury. He began his Protestatio with:
“As they ought to be, the papal bulls will be superseded by the Holy Scriptures. The veneration of men for the laws of the papacy, as well as for the opinions of modern doctors … will be restrained within due limits. What concern have the faithful with writings of this sort, unless they are honestly deduced from the fountain of Scripture? By pursuing such a course, it is not only in our power to reduce the mandates of prelates and Popes to their just place, but the errors of these new religious orders also might be corrected and the worship of Christ well purified and elevated.”
John Wycliffe and the Lollards paved the way for the Bible translation into English, for Tyndale and Coverdale’s translation from the best Greek and Hebrew manuscripts available in their day, and to Henry VIII ordering an English version of the Bible be placed in every church in England. The 16th century English Reformation started long before the 16th century. Wycliffe knew what others would soon discover, that the Bible isn’t a book waiting on the kitchen counter for an interpreter (pope or priest), but an inspired word that, when read and preached, is accompanied by God’s power to transform lives, churches, and whole societies.
The Revd Canon Chuck Collins is the Director of the Center for Reformation Anglicanism. www.anglicanism.info.