Ninety miles north of London in late 1382, an aged man writes feverishly. In poor health, suffering from the repercussions of a stroke, every drag of the quill takes deliberate effort. He looks at the ancient Latin words and finds his place on the page with trembling hands. Choosing its equivalent in English, he arranges the words in a nearly forgotten melody. Extraordinary rebellion in the form of common language: the simple, true and earth-shattering words of Scripture. Though the Reformation wouldn’t officially begin until Martin Luther posted his 95 theses in 1517, John Wycliffe was rediscovering the wonder of the Word of God that had been forgotten by the Church.
Almost nothing is known about the early life of John Wycliffe. He appeared at Oxford University in the late 1340s, just before the Black Death. This plague killed one-third of the English population and shook Wycliffe for the remainder of his life. The tragedy caused a shortage in Church leadership, allowing Wycliffe to quickly progress from sub-deacon to priest while completing his studies. After graduating, Wycliffe was assigned to two parish churches for two years. Through this assignment, he developed a disdain for the practice of a single priest serving multiple congregations, due to the personal strain and pastoral impossibility of caring for people in different areas. Disillusioned, he returned to Oxford to continue his theological education and where he could lead a single church.
The second half of the 14th century was a challenging time for the Church. At the root of the chaos was the Avignon Papacy, the period from 1309 – 1376, when the Pope, firmly under the influence of the French monarchy, ruled from Avignon, France, rather than the historical seat in Rome. In response, the English Crown limited the influence of the papacy by attacking the authority of the Pope in political matters—specifically taxation. Wycliffe, now a doctor of theology, served as a diplomat and debater in the midst of the turmoil. Out of his growing scriptural conviction and disdain for tradition, he wrote On Divine Dominion, which details God’s rule over all of creation, and Total Theology, which examines the implications of God’s rule on politics, the Church and Scripture.
On Divine Dominion was supported by the Crown authorities, but Total Theology began to cause problems for Wycliffe. He compounded these issues with a third book, On Civil Dominion, which took the implications of the previous two works and applied them to the Church authorities. The three books collectively taught that: 1) the Crown should not own Church property, 2) priests should submit to secular justice, 3) the Pope held too much power, 4) the Church existed as a group of believers rather than the entire society, and 5) priests living in sin could not serve as priests.
Eventually, the Archbishop of Canterbury demanded that Wycliffe recant his dangerous writings. However, much to the chagrin of the Church leadership, Wycliffe was protected by his political allies, if only to humiliate their opponents. Emboldened by the spiritual and political conflict, Wycliffe developed even more radical ideas.
Wycliffe’s story reminds us that people will lose the steady beat of the gospel on their own, but the Holy Spirit works in the hearts of people who engage with the Scriptures.
Based on his examination of Scripture and supported by the writings of Augustine, Wycliffe believed only a remnant of the true Church remained. The Church leadership, he argued, bore no fruit of the faith they claimed. Wycliffe’s impassioned writing highlighted the importance of Scripture to revive the Church through the Reformation. He believed the Scriptures were a gift to instruct the true Church; therefore, the people—not the Church hierarchy—should read and interpret them. For people to return to the historic and simple teachings of Jesus Christ, Wycliffe claimed those words needed to be in English.
In the midst of a political nightmare, the Pope issued five edicts against the writings of the so-called “doctor of error” and threatened his excommunication. When it came to his formal trial, Wycliffe was publicly abandoned by all of his political allies, but a royal family member intervened on his behalf. Wycliffe escaped condemnation, but his political influence and usefulness ended. In 1381, Wycliffe was blamed for England’s first peasant revolt. His writings were declared heretical by Canterbury, and he was forced to retire to his parish church. Many of Wycliffe’s supporters recanted, but the melody of the gospel flowed from the mouths of a mumbling remnant throughout England.
The specifics surrounding most of Wycliffe’s followers are lost to history, but we do know they rejected the authority of the Pope in favor of the greater authority of Scripture, which influenced the Reformation of the 16th century. They demonstrate to us that responsibility for the gospel rests not only in pastors or seminary professors, but in the hands of every person who, through the Word of God, had the melody of the gospel of Jesus Christ bring their dead hearts to life. Wycliffe’s story reminds us that people will lose the steady beat of the gospel on their own, but the Holy Spirit works in the hearts of people who engage with the Scriptures.