13. Attempting Reformation: John Wycliffe


The State of the Church circa 1415

One hundred years before the Reformation the western church was in dire need of reform. There were several major political and theological problems plaguing the Western Church.

The East-West Schism that began in 1054 continued despite failed attempts at re-union. A major stumbling block in East-West relations was the increase in claims of Papal power. In 1302 Pope Boniface VIII declared in a decree called Unum Sanctum (i.e ‘the one holy’) that human salvation depended on obedience to the Roman Pope. Boniface’s drawn-out feuds with King Philip IV of France was an embarrassing fiasco (lo schiaffo di anagni) that created a growing sense of disillusionment among European Catholics. So much so that Dante Alighieri placed the pope in the Eighth Circle of Hell in his Divine Comedy (Circle 8, Inferno 19).

The Papacy’s feuding with France eventually resulting in the “Babylonian Captivity” of the Papacy in Avignon. The election of Clement V, a Frenchman, as Pope in 1305 resulted in the relocation of the papal court to Avignon, France. A total of seven popes reigned at Avignon; all were French (until 1376 when pope Gregory XI returned to Rome). France’s control over the Papacy was widely resented.

Worse was the follow with a Papal Schism (1378-1417) which saw as many as three men at the same time all claiming to be pope and each declaring the others as heretics and anti-popes. This schism was triggered in 1378 when Pope Urban VI was elected by the College of Cardinals, who then retracted their decision as coerced and duly elect another pope, Clement VII, who sets up his papal court again in Avignon. Two separate papal lines continued each with their own successors. The Council of Pisa (1409) excommunicated popes Gregory XII and Benedict XIII as heretics and then elected a new pope, Alexander V. However, neither excommunicated pope resigned, resulting in three popes! The Council of Constance (1414-18) finally ended the schism by the excommunicating all other rival popes and electing a new pope, Martin V in 1417.

Alongside the disgrace of Papal schisms and political compromises there was the militarization of the Papacy, exemplified by Pope Urban VI whose Papal army waged wars against various Italian states. Moral corruption of the church leadership had reached scandalous proportions. It can come as little surprise that in this climate there was a serious theological corruption of the Gospel. Relics increasingly were viewed as objects of devotion and coupled with the increase in the sale of Indulgences. Ignorance of Scripture was rampant and numerous un-Scriptural church laws were forced on people, e.g. clerical celibacy, excluding the laity from the Eucharistic Cup and Marian devotion.

Calls for Reform

Many Christians in the church could see that the church was in urgent need of reform and change. The moral and theological corruption of the church seemed to rule unchecked. There were three main responses to the corruption of the church: Pietism which taught a reform of self, an inner renewal of the Christian. Institutional Reform where the cardinals and bishops attempted to take power back from the Pope and create institutional and structural reforms in councils. And Doctrinal Reform which called for the teaching and doctrine of the church to be reformed according to Scripture.

John Wycliffe 1330–84

John Wycliffe emerged in England as in influential advocate for reform. Among his influences was the Irish theologian Richard FitzRalph (1295-1360). “Wycliffe is regarded as the father of Lollardy [i.e. the reforming movement] and FitzRalph as its godfather.” (Gorman, 1:78). FitzRalph was made Chancellor of Oxford in 1332 and his writings covered such areas as the Supremacy of Scripture in theology, Dominion and Grace, and the use of vernacular in theology.

Wycliffe at Oxford University

At Oxford Wycliffe read FitzRalph and was also strongly influenced by Augustine. He moved away from the prevailing scholastic theology at Oxford and spent more time studying Scripture and the early church fathers. Wycliffe argued that the Church is distinguished in its eternal, ideal reality from the visible, ‘material’ Church.

Wycliffe’s call for Reform of the Church

Wycliffe came to reject Papal Supremacy as unbiblical and maintained that the Bible was the sole criterion of doctrine, “to which no ecclesiastical authority might lawfully add, and that the authority of the Pope was ill-founded in Scripture” (ODCC, 1782).) He maintained that secular and ecclesiastical authority depended on grace and that therefore the clergy, if not in a state of grace, could lawfully be deprived of their endowments by the civil power (ODCC: 1782).

Whereas many Catholics could resonate with Wycliffe’s rejection of Papal authority his rejection of Transubstantiation was not well received. Wycliffe attacked the doctrine of transubstantiation as philosophically unsound and as encouraging a superstitious attitude (ODCC: 1782). Oxford University condemned Wycliffe’s Eucharistic teaching in 1381.

Wycliffe was involved (at least indirectly) with the first major English translation of the Bible. He apparently played no direct part in the translation of the Bible undertaken by his disciples (c. 1380–92), though he undoubtedly inspired the project (ODCC, 1782). The base text used for the Wycliffe Bible was the Latin Vulgate. For Wycliffe the preaching of the Bible was of more importance than the Sacraments and the Mass.

Death and Legacy

Wycliffe died in 1384, a non-conformist to the end. His last writings attacked the Papacy as from the Anti-Christ and argued for sole supremacy of Scripture in all theology and life. The Council of Constance declared the deceased Wycliffe a heretic on 4 May 1415. The Council decreed that Wycliffe's works should be burned and his remains removed from consecrated ground. This order, confirmed by Pope Martin V, was carried out in 1428 when Wycliffe's corpse was exhumed and burned with the ashes cast into the River Swift.

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