Friday, August 31, 2007
Church History 1 Post 6
The last assignment was to pick a particular person who was instrumental to change within the culture or structure of the church. I chose to read and write about John Wycliffe. Enjoy!
A Prelude to Reform
The church found itself in dire straits during the 14th and 15th century. The Papal schism of 1378 brought many forms of reform for the Catholic Church. Some of these reforming parties were moderate and others were more extreme. Perhaps one of the more extreme members of those seeking reform, this individual sought to reform “not only the life, but also the doctrine of the church.” This essay will address John Wycliffe’s influence on the church of his day and the far reaching influence of his doctrines for the church to come. It will also briefly address how one can apply the lessons gained from Wycliffe towards ministry today.
John Wycliffe lived during the apparent collapse of Papal power which occurred in 1378. It was this event coupled with Wycliffe’s understanding of lordship and dominion that predominately shaped his views and opinions. Educated and professor at Oxford, Wycliffe was known for his unwavering logic. After serving as a member of the royal commission, Wycliffe was appointed to a parish in Lutterworth where he began to preach and question the authority and doctrines of the church. As Wycliffe first began to press church authority of his day he was supported by the English court system which tended to agree with his arguments “…on the nature and limits of lordship or dominion. According to him, all legitimate dominion comes from God. But such dominion is characterized by the example of Christ, who came to serve, not to be served. Any lordship used for the profit of the ruler rather than for that of the governed is not true dominion, but usurpation. The same is true of any dominion, no matter how legitimate, which seeks to expand its power beyond the limits of its authority. Therefore, any supposed ecclesiastical authority that collects taxes for its own benefit, or seeks to extend its power beyond the sphere of spiritual matters is illegitimate.” The court system frequently struggled with jurisdictional issues on taxes that were collected by the church. Unfortunately for Wycliffe, his famed logic also led him to denounce the governing political bodies of his day which led to his loss of support and subsequent retreat to Oxford.
Accompanying his teachings on lordship he also taught that the visible hierarchy of the pope was not representative of the church. “The scandal of the Great Schism encouraged this, and he began teaching that the true church of Christ is not the pope and his visible hierarchy, but rather the invisible body of those who are predestined to salvation – a point he drew from Saint Augustine of Hippo.” He claimed that the legitimate papacy ended with Urban VI, “therefore the church had to return to scriptures as the only source of its authority.” This in turn led to his belief that grace is not bestowed through the church by way of the sacraments. Instead, “all members of the elect have immediate access to Christ through the Bible.” Ultimately, Wycliffe believed that the practicing of the sacraments was useful for worship but they did not hold the same weight that the papacy attributed them. Essentially, he was saying that salvation could be found outside of the Catholic Church. Wycliffe’s belief about scripture being final the authority led him to the notion that the scriptures should be put back in the hands of the true church, the people. In turn, he translated the Latin Vulgate into English. This project was completed the year of his death in 1384.
While in Lutterworth, Wycliffe began having a profound influence on laity. “Even when Wycliffe was alive some of his disciples set out to preach his doctrines. It is not clear that this was done at his instigation, nor even that all who eventually received the name of “Lollards” were in fact Wycliffites.” The term “Lollard” refers to another reformation group who adopted Wycliffe’s views; namely, the denial of transubstantiation, prayers for the dead, the need for confession by priests, clerical celibacy, and the sacramentalism of the church. It is the work of these groups and individuals such as John Husk that are a testament to the influence of John Wycliffe. Wycliffe was first condemned by the archbishop of Canterbury in 1382 and later condemned and officially labeled a heretic at the Council of Constance in 1415. Because he was not available to be burned alive, the council saw fit to dig up his remains and ceremoniously burn them.
For anyone even slightly versed in the issues of the subsequent reformation of Martin Luther, it is quite easy to see the correlation between these two men. Wycliffe stands as a forerunner to the official protestant reformation. Because of this, particularly because some would say we are on the cusp of a similar reformation, it would be helpful to glean the positive and negative actions of Wycliffe to further understand the ministry of the church today. First, perhaps the most influential thing that he did was to encourage the laity to study the scriptures. Although the Bible has been available to the masses for quite some time, biblical literacy is at an all time low. This is the case in even the most evangelical churches. One might even say that the local protestant evangelical pastor acts in a manner similar to the pope. He is able to decree the do’s and don’ts of the church without repercussion. Second, Wycliffe may have been a bit too rash in pointing out those whom he thought to be reprobate. This too is a major concern for the church today. All too often the church becomes concerned with determining who is in and who is out that it shirks the duty and responsibility of making disciples by condemning rather than evangelizing. It is not clear whether this was true with Wycliffe, but ministers today should be aware of this. Lastly, to Wycliffe’s credit he was not afraid to stand against popular authority. The church would do well to learn from this. Frequently the church is found guilty of appropriating to the current ruling or political system. This certainly can be seen today.
Driven by logic and shaped by political church turmoil, John Wycliffe was an ardent preacher of the doctrines that he believed to be true. His influence is easily seen as one begins to read about figures such as John Husk and the outcome of the protestant reformation. Though his remains were burned as a heretic, his doctrines continue to burn brightly in the hearts of many even today.
 Justo L. Gonzales, The Story of Christianity (HarperCollins Publishers, New York, NY 1984) pg. 442
 Gonzales, 346-7
 Gonzales, 347
 Dale T. Irvin, Scott W. Sunquist, History of the World Christian Movement (Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York, 2001) pg. 488
 HWCM, 488
 Gonzalez, 348
After the truth comes then action must follow and to be a friend to the world is to be an enemy against god. but Christ died and rose again so that we could have life abundantly. May god bless You and Yours.