I. His Life.
John Wyclif, the most prominent of the Reformers before the Reformation, was born at Ipreswell (the modern Hipswell; 44 miles N.W. of York) Yorkshire, England, perhaps between 1320 and 1330; he died at Lutterworth (12 miles south of Leicester) Dec. 31, 1384. His eminence rests not only upon his works, which still have influence, but upon his ecclesiastical activities. Although the Reformers of the sixteenth century knew and valued his life and works, his fame has grown largely in modern times, which have brought his productions into more complete knowledge, these in former times having suffered eclipse and long rested unknown. There are still many a riddle concerning his life and activities, and many events occurring during his academic period are still obscure; but enough is known to secure his position among the men who foreshadowed the Reformation, together with the reasons for this preeminence.
1. His Family and Youth.
Wyclif seems to be the best form of the name. The family from which he came was of early Saxon origin, long settled in Yorkshire; it became extinct in the first half of the nineteenth century, remaining true to the Church of Rome until the end. In his day the family was a large one, and covered a considerable territory, and its principal seat was Wycliffe-on-Tees, of which lpreswell was an outlying hamlet. His year of birth is not noted in contemporary sources, and the data afforded by his writings are so general that no secure conclusions can be based upon them... His childhood and youth fall in a period when England was winning increasing regard abroad, and when the ecclesiastical-political position of the land was marked by a leadership in influence which did not seem likely to diminish. Wyclif probably received his early training in the neighborhood of his home.
2. University Career.
No reports are left to determine when he first went to Oxford, with which he was so closely connected till the end of his life. While it is certain that young boys were enrolled at the universities of the Middle Ages, such cases were exceptions. The normal curriculum of the universities of the period is well known, and consequently the university course of Wyclif is also approximately known. The time when he was at Oxford was about 1345, and then a series of shining names was adding glory to the fame of the university—such as those of Roger Bacon, Robert Grosseteste, Thomas Bradwardine, William of Occum, and Richard Fitzralph. To the writings of Occam, Wyclif owed much; his interest in natural science and mathematics was considerable, but he applied himself most diligently to the study of theology and of ecclesiastical law, and also early won recognition in philosophy. Even his opponents acknowledged the keenness of his dialectic. His writings prove him to have been well grounded in Roman law and in that of his own country, as well as in native history—in this last branch he set great store by the Polychronicon of Ranulf Higden. In the university there was no lack of sharp friction both political and scientific. As in other universities of the period, the students were enrolled in "nations"; in Oxford there were two of these—the northern or "Boreales" and southern or "Australes," each of which had its procurator chosen by the corps or nation. Wyclif belonged to the former of these, in which the prevailing tendency was anticuiral [to seek a reduction in Papal power], while the other was curial in its preferences. Not less sharp was the separation over Nominalism and Realism. Wyclif was a Realist. In the midst of these controversies the university studies of Wyclif were pursued. A family whose seat was in the neighborhood of Wyclif's home—Bernard Castle—had founded in Oxford the college named after itself—Balliol. To this Wyclif belonged, first as scholar, then as master, and had finally attained to the headship not later than 1360.
When he received from the college the presentation in 1361 of the parish of Fylingham in Lincolnshire, he had to give up the leadership of the college, though he received the courtesy of permission to live at Oxford; original testimony indicates that he had rooms in the buildings of Queen's College. His university advancement followed the usual course. While as baccalaureate he busied himself with natural science and mathematics, as master he had the right to read in philosophy, and in this he soon gained repute. But of marked significance was his zeal in Bible study, which he pursued after becoming bachelor in theology. His fidelity, truth, and diligence led Simon Islip, archbishop of Canterbury, to place him at the head of Canterbury Hall in December, 1365, in which twelve young men were preparing for the priesthood. [Note: Rashdall holds that the Wyclif of Canterbury Hall was not the Reformer]. Islip had designed the foundation especially for secular clergy; but when he died in April of 1366, his successor Simon Langham, a man of monastic training, turned the leadership of the college over to a monk. Though Wyclif appealed to Rome, the issue was unfavorable to him. This case would hardly have been thought of again had not contemporaries of Wyclif, such as William Woodford, erroneously seen in it the genesis of his later energetic assaults upon Rome and monasticism. Between 1366 and 1372 he became a doctor of theology; as such he had the right to lecture upon systematic divinity, which right he zealously exercised. But it is an error to trace to these lectures the origin of his Summa, which was due to other stimuli. In 1368 he gave up his living at Fylingham and took over the rectory of Ludgershall in Buckinghamshire, not far from Oxford, and this was a position which enabled him to retain his connection with the university. Six years later (1374) he received the crown living of Lutterworth in Leicestershire, which he retained till his death. He had already resigned a prebend in Westbury because it was contrary to his convictions to hold command of more positions than those in which he could personally exercise the cure of souls.
4. Bases of his Reformatory Activities.
At Oxford he developed a comprehensive activity as academic teacher; there he penned his first reformatory writings and also preached with success. But it was not in these fields that Wyclif gained his position in history; this came from his activities in ecclesiastical politics, in which he engaged about the middle of the seventies, when also his reformatory operations began. In 1374 he was among the English delegates at a peace congress at Bruges. It has been the general opinion that he was given this honorable position in consequence of his spirited and naturally patriotic behavior with which in the year 1366 he sought the interests of his country as against the demands of the papacy. It seems as though he had already a distinguished place as a patriot and reformer; and it suggests the answer to the question how be came to his reformatory ideas. There have been many erroneous ideas as to this, particularly with reference to Wyclif's relation to earlier reform movements in the Church. Little can be said in favor of a connection with the Waldenses, whose activities hardly reached England. [Even if it were certain that older evangelical parties did not exist in England before the time of Wyclif, he might easily have been influenced by continental evangelicals who abounded, whose views were combated by men the works of whom were known to the English reformers. But it seems incredible that continental parties, who were sorely persecuted in the various countries across the channel from England should not have found their way to a land where the inquisition was not at work. Besides, it is highly probable that the older type of doctrine and practice represented by the Iro-Scottish Christians of the pre-Roman time persisted till the time of Wyclif and reappeared in Lollardisrn. A.H.N.] Rather the root of the Wyclifite reformatory movement must be traced to his Bible study and especially to the ecclesiastical-political lawmaking of his times and of those immediately preceding him. He was well acquainted with the tendencies of the ecclesiastical politics to which England owed the honorable position which she possessed in the fourteenth century. He had given study to the proceedings of Edward I. (1272-1306), England's most popular king, and had not only attributed to them the basis of parliamentary opposition to papal usurpations, but had found a model therein for methods of procedure in matters connected with the questions of worldly possessions and the Church. Many sentences in his book on the Church recall the institution of the commission of 1274, the activity of which prepared so much pain and sorrow for the English clergy. He considered that the example of Edward I. should be held in mind by the government of his time; but that with keener implements and to higher purposes the aim should be a reformation of the entire ecclesiastical establishment. And similar was his position with reference to the enactments induced by the ecclesiastical politics of Edward III. (1327-76), with which he was well acquainted, which appear fully reflected in his political tracts. His own tendencies were in complete accord with the laws of Edward I. and his grandson of the same name.
5. Beginning of Political Career.
The Reformer's entrance upon the stage of ecclesiastical politics is usually related to the question of feudal tribute to which England had been rendered liable by John Lackland (1200-16), which had remained unpaid for thirty-three years until Urban V menacingly demanded it 1365. It is related that the whole country was aroused in one patriotic mass on account of this demand of the pope, and that parliament the next year declared that neither King John nor any other had the right without its agreement to subject England to any foreign power. Should the pope attempt to enforce his claim by arms, he would be met with united resistance. It is further said that Urban recognized the mistake he had made and dropped his claim. However sure the pope's demand, of such a patriotic uprising, there was no talk, The tone of the pope was, in fact, not so threatening, and it was not his intention to act in such a fashion as to draw England into the maelstrom of politics of western and southern Europe. It was to be expected that sharp words would be heard in England, and this because of the close relations of the papacy with the hereditary foe of England, the French kingdom. It is asserted also that on this occasion Wyclif was prominent, that he served as theological counsel to the government and composed a polemical tract dealing with the tribute, and defended an unnamed monk over against the conduct of the government and parliament. This would place the entrance of Wyclif into politics about 1365-66. But the tract upon which this conclusion is based, which is known only from an incomplete and incorrect reprint by Lewis, takes its occasion from circumstances which arose a century later. Wyclif's earlier activities in this direction were exercised in the narrower circle at Oxford, and his more important participation began with the peace congress at Bruges. There in 1374 negotiations were carried on between France and England respecting peace, while at the same time commissioners from England dealt with papal delegates respecting the doing away with ecclesiastical annoyances. Wyclif was among those who served in these affairs in consequence of a decree dated July 26, 1374. If it be claimed that his appointment in this case was due to his earlier stand against the demands of the papacy, the claim overlooks the fact that the choice of a harsh opponent of the Avignon system would rather have broken up than have furthered the peace negotiations, and, once more, that he was designated purely as a theologian, and so considered himself, since a noted Scripture scholar was required alongside of those learned in civil and canon law. There was no necessity here for a man of renown, still less of a pure advocate of state interests. Illustrative of this is the fact that a predecessor in a like case was John Owtred, a monk, who yet formulated the statement that St. Peter had united in his hands spiritual and temporal power—just the opposite of what Wyclif taught. In the days of the mission to Bruges this monk still belonged in the circle of friends of Wyclif. It will therefore be seen that the construction hitherto placed on Wyclif's part in this mission was altogether too exalted, since he took by no means a leading part.
6. Growth of Anti-Curial Tendencies.
As yet the Reformer could be regarded by papal partizans as trustworthy, for his opposition to the ruling conduct of the Church might have escaped notice. Testimony to this comes from a later but well informed source that found it difficult to recognize him as a heretic. The controversies in which men engaged at Oxford were rather philosophical than purely theological or ecclesiastical-political, and the method of discussion was academic and scholastic. Walden shows the kind of men with whom Wyclif dealt, though very few writings are preserved which exhibit the method. There may be mentioned the tilt with the Carmelite monk John Kyningham over theological questions, or ecclesiastical political ones. Wyclif's contest with John Owtred and William Wynham (or Wyrinham) were formerly unknown, as were the earlier ones with his opponent William Wadeford. When it is recalled that it was once the task of Owtred to defend the political interests of England against the demands of Avignon, one would more likely see him in agreement with Wyclif than in opposition. But unanimity of sentiment between them was by no means complete. Owtred believed that anyone who believed that a temporal power might deprive a priest, even an unrighteous one, of his government revenues, sinned; Wyclif regarded that priest a sinner who incited the pope to excommunicate laymen when these had deprived wicked clergy of these revenues, and enunciated the dictum that a man in a condition of sin had no claim upon government. Light upon another opponent of Wyclif has appeared only in recent investigations. This was the monk William Wynham of St. Albans, where the anti-Wyclifite trend was considerable. Wyclif complained bitterly of this Benedictine and professor of theology at Oxford as the one who dragged into the street the controversies which had hitherto been confined to the academic arena. But public notice of this was bound to come in any event, since the controversies were related in their fundamentals to the opposition which found expression in parliament against the Curia. Wyclif himself narrates how under the deep impression made upon him by his Biblical studies he came to the conclusion that there was a great contrast between what the Church was and what it ought to be, and saw the necessity for reforming it. His reform ideas stress particularly the perniciousness of the temporal rule of the clergy and its incompatibility with the teaching of Christ and the apostles, and they make note of the tendencies which were evident in the measures of the "Good Parliament" (1376-77). A long bill was introduced, with 140 headings, in which were stated the grievances caused by the aggressions of the Curia; all reservations and commissions were to be done away, the exportation of money was forbidden, and the foreign collectors were to be removed.
7. Public Declaration of his Ideas.
It was in this period that Wyclif came significantly to the fore. He was found among those to whom the thought of the secularization of the ecclesiastical properties in England was welcome. He had as patron no less a man than John, duke of Lancaster. He was no longer satisfied with his chair as the means of propagating his ideas, and soon after his return from Bruges he began to express them in tracts and larger works—his great work, the Summa theologioe, was written in support of them. In the very first book, concerned with the government of God and the ten commandments, he assailed the temporal rule of the clergy—in temporal things the king is above the pope, and the collection of annates and indulgences is simony. But his entrance into the politics of the day was made in his great work De civili domino. Here were precipitated those ideas by which the good parliament was governed—which involved the renunciation by the Church of temporal dominion. From his formulation the items of the "long bill" appear to have been derived. In this book there were found the strongest outcries against the entire Avignon system with its commissions, its exactions, its squandering of charities by unfit priests, and the like. To change all this is the business of the State. If the clergy misuses ecclesiastical property, it must be taken away; if the king does not do this, he is remiss in his duty. The work contains eighteen strongly stated theses, the point of which was apposition to the governing methods of the rule of the Church and the straightening out of its temporal possessions. Wyclif had set these ideas forth before his students at Oxford in the autumn and winter of 1376, after he had become involved in controversy with such men as William Wadeford, William Wynham, and others. While he would at first have preferred to have these matters restricted in discussion to the classroom, he soon wanted them proclaimed from the very roofs and would have temporal and spiritual lords take note of them. While the last made earnest assault upon him and sought to have him put under ecclesiastical censure, he recommended himself to the former by his mighty attacks upon the worldly possessions of the clergy. This period began a stage of unusual literary fruitfulness which ended only with his death.
8. Conflict with the Church Open.
Wyclif was possessed with the great desire to see each of his ideas actualized. The fundamental was that the Church should be poor, as it was in the days of the apostles. He had not yet broken with the mendicant friars, and from these the duke of Lancaster chose Wyclif's defenders. While the Reformer offered reassurances, in the explanations which he necessarily gave later, that it was not his purpose to incite temporal lords to confiscation of the property of the Church, the real tendencies of the proposition remained unconcealed. This was evident as the result of the same doctrines in Bohemia—that land which was richest in ecclesiastical foundations—where in a very brief time the entire church estate was taken over and a most remarkable revolution brought about in the relations of temporal holdings. Since such views existed as the Curia charged upon him and its condemnation implies, they must have been strongly emphasized. It was altogether concordant with the plans of Lancaster to have a personality like that of Wyclif on his side. Especially in London the Reformer's views won support; numerous partizans of the nobility attached themselves to him, and the lower orders gladly heard his sermons. He preached in various churches of the city, and all London rang with his praises. But he found adversaries. The first to oppose his theses were monks of those orders which held possessions, to whom his theories were dangerous. The University of Oxford and the episcopate later came under blame from the Curia, which charged them with so neglecting their duty that the breaking of the evil fiend into the English sheepfold could be noticed in Rome before it was in England. And yet the bishops were not inactive, as though they would prefer to deal with the case at home. Wyclif was summoned before William Courtenay, bishop of London, on Feb. 19, 1377, in order, as one source ironically says, "to explain the wonderful things which had streamed forth from his mouth." What the exact charges were is not known, as the matter did not get so far as a definite examination. Lancaster, the earl marshal Henry Percy, and a number of other friends accompanied Wyclif, and four begging friars were his advocates, who were whole-hearted in a matter which affected the question of the ideal of poverty. A great crowd gathered at the church, and at the entrance of the party animosities began to show, especially in a wrathy exchange of words between the imperious bishop and the Reformer's protectors. Lancaster declared that he would humble the pride of the English clergy and their partizans, even if they had sprung from noble parents (Bishop Courtenay was of high birth [his father was earl of Devonshire—doubtless hinting at the intent to secularize the possessions of the Church. The assembly broke up and the lords departed with their protege.
9. Papal Condemnation.
The greater part of the English clergy regarded this encounter with great irritation, and attacks upon Wyclif now began with vehemence, which found their echo in the second and third books of his work dealing with civil government. These books carry a sharp polemic, which can hardly be a cause of wonder when it is recaIIed that his opponents charged Wyclif with blasphemy and scandal, pride and heresy. It is concluded from his performances that he had openly advised the secularization of English church property, and the dominant parties shared with him the conviction that the monks could better be held in check if they were relieved from the care of secular affairs. The bitterness occasioned by this advice will be the better understood when it is remembered that at that time the papacy was engaged in its war with the Florentines and was in great straits. The demand of the Minorites that the Church should live in poverty as it did in the days of the apostles was not pleasing in such a crisis. It was under these conditions that Gregory XI., who in January, 1377, had gone from Avignon to Rome, sent on May 22 five copies of his bull against Wyclif, despatching one to the archbishop of Canterbury, and the others to the bishop of London, Edward III., the chancellor, and the university; among the enclosures were eighteen theses of his, which were denounced as erroneous and dangerous to Church and State. The position may well be taken that the reformatory activities of Wyclif began here, since all the great works, especially his Summa theologioe, stand in a more or less close connection with the condemnation of his eighteen theses, while the entire literary energies of his later years rest upon this foundation. The aim of his opponents to make him out a revolutionary in politics, failed. Indeed the situation in England resulted rather in damage to them; for on June 21, 1377, Edward III, died, and his inglorious end was a sad contrast to the brilliant days of Cécy and Maupertuis. His successor was Richard II., who was under the influence of Lancaster, the protector of the Reformer. So it resulted that. the bull against Wyclif, although dated May 22, 1377, did not become public till Dec. 18. Moreover parliament, which met in October, came into sharp conflict with the Curia. Among the propositions which Wyclif, at the direction of the government, worked out for parliament was one which speaks out with distinctness against the exhaustion of England by the Curia.
10. Sharpening of the Conflict.
When the censure of his theses became known in England, Wyclif sought to gain the favor of the public. He first laid his theses before parliament, and then made them public in a tract, accompanying them, however, with explanations, limitations, and here and there with interpretations. After the session of parliament was over, in accordance with papal directions he was called upon to make answer, and in March, 1378, he appeared at the episcopal palace at Lambeth to defend himself. The preliminaries were not yet finished when a noisy mob gathered with the purpose of delivering him; the queen mother also took up his cause. The bishops, who were of two minds, satisfied themselves with forbidding the Reformer to speak further on the subjects in controversy. At Oxford the vice-chancellor, following papal directions, had confined the Reformer for some time in Black Hall, from which Wyclif was released at the threats of his friends; not long after the vice-chancellor was himself confined in the same place because of this indignity to Wyclif. After this incident, Wyclif claimed that lengthy imprisonment related to excommunication, should be under the auspices of the state, not the clergy. Thus he wrote his De incarcerandis fedelibus, in which he demanded that it should be legal for the excommunicated to appeal to the king and his council against the excommunication; in this writing he laid open the entire case and in such a way that it came within the ken of the laity. He wrote his thirty-three conclusions, this time not merely in Latin but also in English. The masses of the people, a part of the nobility, and his former protector, the duke of Lancaster, rallied to his side. Before any further steps could be taken at Rome in the affair, Gregory XI. died (1378). But Wyclif was already engaged upon one of his most important works, that dealing with the truth of Holy Scripture. Indeed, the sharper the strife became, the more did Wyclif have recourse to Scripture as the basis of all Christian doctrinal opinion, and expressly proved this to be the only norm for Christian faith. To drag this basis from beneath him was the thankless task of his opponents; it was in order to refute them that he wrote the book in which he showed that Holy Scripture contains all truth and, being from God, is the only authority. He did not fail in this book to refer to the conditions under which the condemnation of his eighteen theses was brought about; and the same may be said of his books dealing with the Church, the office of king, and the power of the pope—all completed within the short space of two years (1378-79). Since all the world, he taught, understands by "the Church" the pope and the cardinals (whom one must obey in order to obtain salvation), it is necessary to make clear the distinction between what the Church is and what the common man supposes it to be. The Church is the totality of those who are predestined to blessedness. It includes the Church triumphant in heaven, those who are in purgatory, and the Church militant or men on earth. No one who is eternally Iost has part in it. There is but one universal Church, and outside of it there is no salvation. Its head is Christ. No pope may say that he is the head, for he can not say that he is elect or even a member of the Church.
11. Statement Regarding Royal Power.
It would be a great mistake to assume that Wyclif's doctrine of the Church—which made so great an impression upon Huss, who adopted it literally and fully, was occasioned by the great schism (1378-1429). In its principles that doctrine was already embodied in his De civili dominio. How closely the contents of the book dealing with the Church are connected with the decision respecting the eighteen theses appears in every chapter. The attacks upon Gregory XI. grow ever more unsparing and in places are extreme. His stand with respect to the ideal of poverty became continually firmer, as well as his position with regard to the temporal rule of the clergy. Closely related to this attitude was his book De officio regis, the content of which was foreshadowed in his thirty-three conclusions: One should be instructed with reference to the obligations which lie in regard to the kingdom in order that he may know how the two powers, the royal and the ecclesiastical, may support each other in harmony in the body corporate of the Church. The royal power, Wyclif taught, is consecrated through the testimony of Holy Scripture and the Fathers. Christ and the apostles rendered tribute to the emperor. The king is the servant of God. Sinful indeed is he who opposes the power of the king, since this is derived immediately from God. For this reason Paul appealed to Caesar, and subjects, above all the clergy who hold under the king, should pay him dutiful tribute. To this end temporal power offers protection, justice, and in its earliest times gave account for its employment. The honors which attach to temporal power hark back to the king; those which belong to precedence in the priestly office, to the priest. In what does the royal office consist? The king must apply his power with wisdom, his laws are to be in unison with those of God. From God laws derive their authority, including those which royalty has over against the clergy. If one of the clergy neglects his office, he is a traitor to the king who calls him to answer for it. It follows from this that the king has an "evangelical" control. Every one in the service of the Church must have regard to the laws of the State. In confirmation of this fundamental principle the archbishops in England make sworn submission to the king and in view of that receive their temporalities. This is a relation based upon the law. The king is, moreover, to protect his poor vassals against every damage which might happen to their possessions; in case the clergy through their misuse of the temporalities in this respect cause injury, the king must afford protection. When the king turns over temporalities to the clergy, he places them under his jurisdiction, from which later pronouncements of the popes can not release them, If the clergy relies on papal pronouncements, it must be subjected to obedience to the king.
It appears thus that this book, like those that preceded and followed, had to do with the reform of the Church in head and members, in which the temporal arm was to have an influential part. Especially interesting is the teaching which Wyclif addressed to the king on the protection of his theologians, i.e., the theological faculty, whose duty it is to advise king and people in theological concerns. By this was not meant theology in its modern sense, but rather knowledge of the Bible. Since the laws of the land are to be in agreement with Scripture, knowledge of theology is necessary to the strengthening of the kingdom; it is a consequence of this that the king has theologians in his entourage to stand at his side as he exercises power. The position of these is that of the prophets under the old covenant. It is their duty to explain Scripture according to the rule of reason and in conformity with the witness of the saints; also to proclaim the law of the king and to protect his welfare and that of his kingdom.
12. Attitude toward the Papacy Constant.
In all the books and tracts of Wyclif's last six years one may discover an immense and almost unreviewable mass of attacks upon the papacy and the entire hierarchy of his times. Each successive year they focus more and more, and at the last pope and Antichrist seem to him practically equivalent conceptions. Yet there are to be found in his writings pages which are moderate in tone in dealing with pope and papacy; in fact, Lechler's opinion that in Wyclif's relations with the papacy three steps of development are to be discovered finds confirmation both among German and English scholars. The first step, which carried him to the outbreak of the schism, involves a moderate recognition of the papal primacy; the second, which carried him to 1381, is marked by an estrangement from the papacy; and the third shows him in sharp contest. However, Wyclif reached no valuation of the papacy before the outbreak of the schism different from his later appraisal. If in his last years in his keen tracts he identified the papacy with antichristianity, the dispensability of this papacy was strong in his mind before the schism. If it be remarked that it was this very man who labored to bring about the recognition of Urban VI. (1378-1389), this fact appears to contradict his former attitude and to demand an explanation. In fact, Wyclif's influence was never greater than at the moment when pope and anti-pope sent their ambassadors to England in order to gain recognition for themselves. In the presence of the ambassadors he delivered an opinion before parliament that showed, in an important ecclesiastical political question, viz., the matter of the right of asylum in Westminster abbey, a position that was to the liking of the State. How Wyclif came to be active in the interest of Urban is seen in passages in his latest writings, in which he expressed himself in regard to the papacy in a favorable sense. On the other hand he says explicitly that it is not necessary to go either to Rome or to Avignon in order to seek a decision from the pope. Every place is sufficient for the penitent, since the triune God is everywhere. Our pope is Christ. Here Wyclif has broken with the papacy, though only with it as it exists. If one thoroughly examines the situation, it seems clear that he was an opponent of that papacy which had developed since the donation of Constantine. He taught that the Church can continue to exist even though it have no visible leader; but as on earth there is no order unless there be a higher unity, there can be no damage when the Church possesses a leader of the right kind. But what qualities must such a leader possess? How does he appear with his pretensions to temporal power? In a word—to make firm the distinction between what the pope should be, in case one is necessary, and the pope as he appeared in Wyclif's day was the purpose of his book on the power of the pope. The Church militant, Wyclif taught, needs a head; but such a head is not the one whom the cardinals choose but 'one whom God gives the Church. Such a one is of the elect. The elector [cardinal] can then only make some one a pope if the choice relates to one who is elect [of God]. But that is not always the case. It may be that the elector is himself not, predestinated and chooses one who is in the same case—a veritable Antichrist. One must regard as a true pope one who in teaching and life most nearly follows Christ and Peter, whose rule is not of this world. These are the teachings and fundamentals of Wyclif before the outbreak of the schism; but their expression became sharper in the later period. The point is that he distinguished the true from the false papacy. Since all signs indicated that Urban VI. was a reforming and consequently a "true" pope, the enthusiasm which Wyclif manifested for him is easily understood as it comes to expression in his work on the Church. These views concerning the Church and church government are those which are brought forward also in the last books of his Summa, "De simonia, de apostasia, de blashemia." To be sure, the battle which had been begun over the theses was lost to sight in the significance attaching to the more vehement one that he waged against the monastic orders when he saw the hopes quenched which had gathered around the "reform pope," and when he was withdrawn from the scene as an ecclesiastical politician and occupied himself exclusively with the question of the reform of the Church.
13. Attack on Monasticism.
His teachings concerning the danger attaching to the secularizing of the Church must have put Wyclif into line with the mendicant orders, since in 1377 Minorites were his defenders. If he took the mendicants at that time to be an order worthy of honor, whose zeal for poverty he praised to the skies, there appear in the last chapters of his De civili dominio traces of a rift. Upon his making the statement that "the case of the orders which hold property is that of them all," the mendicant orders turned against him; and from that time Wyclif began against them a fight which grew sharper all the time even till his death. This battle against the imperialized papacy and its supporters the "sects," as he denominated the orders, finds a large space not only in such of his large later works as the Trialogus, Dialogus, Opus evangelicum, and in his sermons, but also in a series of sharp tracts and polemical productions in Latin and English (of which those issued in his later years have been collected as "Polemical Writings"). In these he teaches that the Church needs no new sects; sufficient for it now is the religion of Christ which sufficed in the first three centuries of its existence. The monastic orders are bodies which have not the least support in the Bible, which rejoice in vices, cause harm to Church and State, and must be abolished together with their haughty possessions. Such teaching, particularly as it was brought forward in sermons, had one immediate effect—in London and other cities there was produced a serious rising of the people. The monks were deprived of their alms and were bidden in accordance with these doctrines to apply themselves to manual labor. These teachings had more important results upon the orders and their possessions in Bohemia, where the instructions of the "Evangelical master" were followed out to the letter in such a way that the noble foundations and practically the whole of the property of the Church were sacrificed. But the result was not as Wyclif would have had it in England—the property fell not to the State but to the barons of the land. The scope of the conflict in England widened; finally it involved no longer the mendicant monks alone, but took in the entire hierarchy as it was then constituted, the unflagging zeal of Wyclif carrying it along. An element of the contest appears also in Wyclif's doctrine of the Lord's Supper.
14. Relation to the English Bible.
To his proposition that the Bible ought to be the common possession of all Christians was due the fact that it now was made available for common use in the language of the people. Indeed the national honor seemed to require this, since there were members of the nobility who possessed the Bible in French. Wyclif set himself to the task. While it is not possible exactly to define the part which he had in the translation—which was on the basis of the Vulgate—there can be no doubt that the inception was due to his initiative, and that the successful carrying out of the project was due to his leadership. From him comes the translation of the New Testament, which was smoother, clearer, and more readable than the rendering of the Old Testament, which was done by his friend Nicholas of Hereford. The whole was revised by Wyclif's younger contemporary John Purvey in 1388. Thus the mass of the people came into possession of the Bible; but the cry of his opponents may be heard: "The jewel of the clergy has become the toy of the laity." As a matter of fact, not merely those who bore a proud name, but members of the middle class possessed it, and in spite of the zeal with which the hierarchy sought after heretical books and aimed to destroy it utterly, and in reality did, in course of time, do away with very numerous copies, there still exist about 150 manuscripts, complete or partial, which contain the translation in its revised form. From this one may easily infer how widely diffused it was in the fifteenth century. For this reason the Wyclifites in England were often designated by their opponents as "Bible men." Just as Luther's version had great influence upon the German language, so Wyclif's, by reason of its clarity, beauty, and strength, worked mightily upon the English tongue.
15. Activity as a Preacher.
Another task to which Wyclif gave himself was preaching and the care of souls, himself toiling as preacher to the people and as their teacher. Inasmuch as it was his desire to do away with the existing hierarchy on the ground that it had no warrant in Scripture, he put in the place of its members the "poor priests" who lived in poverty, were bound by no vows and had received no formal consecration, and preached the Gospel to the people. These priests as itinerant preachers spread abroad among the people the teachings of Wyclif. Two by two they went barefoot, clad in long dark-red robes and carrying a staff in the hand, this latter having symbolic reference to their pastoral calling, and passed from place to place preaching the sovereignty of God. The bull of Gregory XI. impressed upon them the name of Lollards, intended as an shameful epithet, but it became later a name of honor. Even in his time the "Lollards" had reached wide circles in England and preached "God's law, without which no one could be justified."
16. Anti-Wyclif Synod.
In the summer of 1381 Wyclif formulated his doctrine of the Lord's Supper in twelve short sentences, and made it a duty to advocate it everywhere. Then the English hierarchy proceeded against him. The chancellor of the University of Oxford had certain of the declarations pronounced heretical. In the auditorium this fact was announced to him, whereupon he declared that neither the chancellor nor any other could change his convictions. He then appealed—not to the pope nor to the ecclesiastical authorities of the land, but to the king. He published his great confession upon the subject and also a second writing in English intended for the common people. His performances grew in keenness, his following ever became greater. His pronouncements were no longer hedged in by the bounds of the classroom, they spread to the masses. "Every second man that you meet," writes a contemporary, "is a Lollard." In the midst of this commotion, which moved onward in victorious fashion, fell the great peasant uprising (1381), called forth by the misery of the suffering masses under epidemics, failure of harvests, and mistakes of government. Although Wyclif disapproved of the revolt, it was laid to his charge. And yet his friend and protector Lancaster was, among the revolutionaries, the most hated of all, and where Wyclif's influence was the greatest the uprising found the least semblance of support. While in general the aim of the revolt was against the spiritual nobility, this came about because they were of the nobles, not because they were of the Church. So prosecution was directed against Wyclif. His old enemy, Courtenay, now archbishop of Canterbury, called (1382) an ecclesiastical assembly of notables at London. During the consultations an earthquake occurred (May 21); the participants were terrified and wished to break up the assembly, but Courtenay declared the earthquake a favorable sign which meant the purification of the earth from erroneous doctrine. Of the twenty-four propositions, attributed to Wyclif without mentioning his name, ten were declared heretical and fourteen erroneous. The former had reference to the transformation in the sacrament, the latter to matters of church order and institutions. It was forbidden from that time to hold these opinions or to advance them in sermons or in academic discussions. All persons disregarding this order were to be subject to prosecution. To accomplish this latter end the help of the State was necessary; the upper house, frightened by the uprising, was won over, but the commons rejected the bill. The king, however, had a decree issued which permitted the arrest of those in error. The citadel of the reformatory movement was Oxford, where were Wyclif's most active helpers; these were laid under the ban and summoned to recant, and one of them, Nicholas of Hereford, went to Rome to appeal. In similar fashion the poor priests were hindered in their work. Finally the chief blow fell upon himself. On Nov. 18, 1382, a synod was opened at Oxford, before which he was summoned; he appeared, though apparently broken in body in consequence of a stroke of paralysis, but nevertheless strong in conviction and unbent in will. That he recanted is a baseless slander. He still commanded the favor of the court and of parliament, to which he addressed a memorial. He was neither excommunicated then, nor deprived of his Living.
17. Last Days.
He returned to Lutterworth, and thence sent out tracts—exceedingly pungent—against the monks and Urban VI. since the latter, contrary to the hopes of Wyclif, had not turned out to be a reforming or "true" pope, but had exerted his activities in mischievous conflicts. The crusade in Flanders called forth the Reformer's biting scorn, while his sermons became yet fuller voiced and dealt with the imperfections of the Church. The literary achievements of his last days, such as the Trialogus, stand at the peak of the knowledge of his day. His last work, the Opus evangelicum, the last part of which he named in characteristic fashion "Of Antichrist," remained uncompleted. While he was hearing mass in the parish church on Holy Innocents' Day, Dec. 28, 1384, he was again stricken with a stroke and died on the last day of the year. His remains found no quiet in the grave, for in his lifetime the great Hussite movement arose and set afire the entire West of Europe. The Council of Constance took cognizance of Wyclif as well as of Huss and declared the former (on May 4, 1415) a stiff-necked heretic and under the ban of the Church. It was decreed that his books be burned and his remains be exhumed. This last did not happen till twelve years afterward, when at the command of Martin V., they were dug up, burned, and the ashes cast into the Swift which flows through Lutterworth.
Significant though the work of this man was in the last decade of his life, none of his contemporaries left a complete picture of his person, his life, and his activities. It is most difficult to be certain of his external appearance. While pictures representing him have been found, they are from a later period. Those of the fourteenth century are strongly typical, and yet it can not be said with certainty that they belong to a definite individual. One must therefore be content with certain scattered expressions found in the history of the trial by William Thorpe (1407). It appears that Wyclif was spare of body, indeed of wasted appearance, and not strong physically. He was of unblemished walk in life, says Thorpe, and was regarded affectionately by people of rank, who often consorted with him, took down his saying, and clung to him. "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." If one rejects this testimony as that of a partizan, one may yet site as evidence Henry Knighton, who says of him that in philosophy there was no one of his opponents who was his equal, and in Bohemia, according to John Pribram, "every one cleaves to the declarations of John Wyclif as though he were the fifth Gospel"; while with a certain excessive warmth Huss wished that his soul might be wherever that of Wyclif was found.
One may not say that Wyclif was a comfortable opponent to meet. On this account Thomas Netter of Walden highly esteemed the old Carmelite monk John Kynyngham in that he "so bravely offered himself to the biting speech of the heretic and to words that stung as being without the religion of Christ." But this example of Netter is not well chosen, since the tone of Wyclif toward Kynyngham is that of a junior toward an elder whom one respects, and in similar fashion he handled also other opponents. But when he turned upon them his roughest side, as for example in his sermons or in his polemical writings and tracts, it is not to be denied that he met the attacks with a tone that could not be styled friendly...
The basis of the reform of the Church advocated by Wyclif rested upon the fact that he designated the Bible as the one authority for believers, and so teachings, traditions, bulls, symbols, and censures go by the board so far as they do not rest on Scripture. He carefully distinguished Church and State, and relegated the former to control purely in the spiritual realm; upon that principle are abolished the rights of inflicting penalties and granting immunities, temporal offices and positions, temporal power and possessions, as held by the Church. Inasmuch as he would go back to the apostolic Church for church polity, the fall of the hierarchy and abolition of monasticism were involved. In worship the chief element was the preaching of the Gospel...
From The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge... Vol. 12. New York: Funk and Wagnalls Company, 1912.
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