Hisl greatness lies in being among the first Catholic churchmen who discerned the falseness of Romanist doctrine. He was also ready to stand for and proclaim the truth.
His ancestors were Norman barons, and they had received a share of English lands from the Norman conquest (1066). Wycliffe was born circa the end of 1320.
In 1335 he was sent to Oxford university where in 1361 he was made Master of Biallol College.
In general his ancestry was an advantage to him because he found a convenient and useful education and could advance to higher influence politically and religiously.
The Reformation which came later was not a reform within the church; it was pre-eminently a doctrinal reform, which seedbed is found in Wycliffe.
Other men may have whispered about the errors, but Wycliffe was prepared to cry aloud.
When in 1365 he was made Warden of Canterbury Hall he suffered quite a setback because he was expelled the following year by the Archbishop. The expulsion was made on political grounds, namely, that Canterbufy Hall had been founded by bishop Islip of Canterbury. Therefore only monks could be permitted to fill that position.
Wycliffe was only a secular priest. As a direct consequence of this he was constrained to leave Oxford.
Subsequently he involved himself in the politics of the day. He joined the political party led by John of Gaunt, the third son of the king.
Pope Urban V renewed an old demand that tribute be paid by the realm of England to the Roman Catholic church.
In 1366 this papal claim was laid by king Edward before parliament. Parliament made the following declaration: that no Italian priest should title or toil in our domain, and the king John’s previous agreement to pay one thousand marks a year was illegal. It was contrary to the coronation oath, having been made without the consent of the country’s nobles.
Opposition to this tribute had been voiced by Wycliffe long before, and may have been a contributory factor of his removal from Canterbury Hall.
Wycliffe always used his time profitably, especially be exposing and condemning the sins and the vices of the friars and the monks.
In 1374 the papal claims for tribute from England were revived. In response a commission was sent to Bruges to discuss the matter with the papal ambassador.
Wycliffe was one of the men chosen as a commissioner.
Meanwhile he continued to study papal claims, enough to realize that the pope was the adversary of Christ, even the antichrist prophesied in Scripture.
In 1375 he became rector of Lutterworth. He wrote many articles and pamphlets against the practices and doctrines of Romanism.
His adherents readily accepted these works. They flocked to him for training.
Eventually he started sending them out to spread the gospel of Christ throughout the land.
They were nicknamed the Poor Preachers, or the Lollards.
The monks, fearing competition, accused Wycliffe of heresy. He appeared for trail before bishop Courtney in 1377.
But in was only in 1378 that Wycliffe became a truly committed Reformer.
Opposition against Wycliffe had been steadily mounting, especially from ecclesiastical quarters. Bishop Courtenay, a year before Wycliffe presented a segment of his theology at Oxford, had spoken thus concerning the Reformer: he referred to him and his men “as itinerant, unauthorized preachers who teach erroneous, yea, heretical assertions publicly, not only in churches but also in public squares and other profane places, and who do this under the guise of great holiness, but without having obtained any episcopal or papal authorization.”
In 1381 Wycliffe began to determine matters concerning what was known then as “the sacrament of the altar.” To raise doubt or even outright denial of established dogma during that time required the highest courage. Anything said against transubstantiation was innovation; the truth had been hidden for such a long time that a dissenting voice must necessarily be held to be heretical.
But Wycliffe, in twelve theses declared the Church’s doctrine both unscriptural and misleading. These propositions he made publica and challenged those who disagreed with him to a debate.
In these propositions he declared that:
1. The consecreated host which we see on the altar is neither Christ nor any part of Him but the efficacious sign of him.
2. No pilgrim upon earth is able to see Christ in the consecreated host with the bodily eye, but by faith.
3. He denied transubstantiation, the priestly ability to change the substance of bread and wine into the body and blood of our Lord. Transubstantiation “cannot be shown to have any foundation in the Word of God.”
4. Since Christ called the elements “bread” and “my body,” he considered, therefore, that the bread was Christ’s body both figuratively and spiritually.
In 1215, at the fourth Lateran Council under Innocent III, the dogma of transubstantiation had been promulgated. It was also for the first time since that the dogma was seriously called in question, not by an ignorant nobody, but but a theological expert.
It proved to be similar to Athanasius contra mundum. The monks grew violent and hotheaded.
The reaction was predicable. No one took up the challage to debate him but all regarded him as a heretic.
Upon his presentation of biblical truth the Oxford authorities instituted a trial. Wycliffe and his teaching was condemned although his name was not mentioned. But Wycliffe met their prohibition to preach with a still more positive avowal of his views in his Confessions, which closes with the noble words, “I believe that in the end the truth will conquer.”
Wycliffe’s main legacy was the translation of the Bible into English and a body of preachers who continued to disseminate Bible doctrine.
Wycliffe’s major work was the translation of the Scriptures into the English language. This was definitely his most important achievement, and that for which he is most remembered.
The Venerable Bede translated John’s Gospel into Saxon, but it did not survice. Alfred the Great translated the Ten Commandments. Early in the reign of Edward III two English versions of the Psalms were made by William Schorham and Richard Roll, but few knew about them. All that was available was Jerome’s Latin Vulgate.
This was bad enough but the laity was not allowed to read it. In the early 13th century it was decreed: “We forbid the laity to possess any of the books of the Old and New Testaments, except perhaps the Psalter or Breviary for the Offices of the Hours of the Blessed Virgin, which some, out of devotion, wish to have; but having any of these books translated into the vulgar tongue we strictly forbid.”
Wycliffe’s attitude towards this decree was the same as that which he had towards all the other monstrous impositions of Romanism: he despised it and ignored it.
He finished translating the New Testament from the Latin into English in 1382.
Opinions vary with regard to the part he played in the production of the English Bible. It is certain, however, that the man who loved the Word so dearly, and was an expert in Latin and theology, would be primarily responsible for this great work. It is considered that he was responsible for the whole of the New Testament, but that Dr. Nicholas de Hereford and John Purvey, Wycliffe’s assistant at Lutterworth translated the Old, which was supervised and partly revised by Wycliffe. His translation was very literal, being a believer in its divine inspiration.
What follows is the opening of Wycliffe’s Bible: “In the firste made God of nougt heuene and erthe. The erthe forsothe was veyn with ynne and void, and derknessis weren vpon the face of the see; and the Spiryt of God was born vpon the watrys. And God seide, Be maad ligt; and maad is ligt.”
A revision of the whole Bible was completed in 1388, that is, four years after his death. He left his Bible in the vernacular unfinished, but it was completed by others.
Indeed God brought the light to many hearts through Wycliffe’s labour of love.
Lollardy became very much part of the English landscape. It continued throughout the fifteenth century with mixed fortunes.
They objected and protested against transubstantiation, clerical celibacy, auricular confession, idols, and other abuses.
An act, De Heretico Comburendo, was passed against the Lollards, which gave the secular authorities to execute heretics.
Henry IV was therefore the first English king who gave permission to burn Christians at the stake.
The first martyr under this baneful law was William Sautre, a godly rector in London, a Lollard (1401). He was burned at Smithfield.
Nevertheless Lollardy continued although in a more secret way.
The battle that Wycliffe fought was essentially against medeival Roman Catholic Gnosticism, the proliferation of pagan doctrines and philosophies that accrued within her, mixed with Christian truth.
Wycliffe was a biblical theologian: he taught the supreme and infallible authority of the Holy Scripture; salvation by divine grace through faith in the Lord Jesus; the church consists of the elect and the holy; spiritual worship is alone acceptable to God; the body of Christ is spiritually received in the Lord’s Supper.
He protested against rites and ceremonies which were elevated to the same dignity with the two New Testament ordinances; against the worship of saints and statues; against absolution of sin by the payment of money; against the usurped authority of the pope.
In 1416 the Council of Constance condemned Wycliffe as a dangerous heretic.
Wycliffe died in 1384 and buried in Lutterworth. In 1428 the Romish clercy dug up his bones, burned them and threw the ashes into the river.
His influence continued to grow up to the Reformation and beyond.