John Wycliffe Research Paper

3 March 2017

The Morning Star of Inspiration John Wycliffe was a 14th-century English philosopher, theologian, and religious reformer, whose egalitarian ideas and beliefs laid the foundation for the Protestant Reformation. As Peter W. Williams notes in the World Book Advanced, Wycliffe was born sometime between 1320 and 1330 A. D. in Yorkshire, England, and was educated at Balliol College, University of Oxford (Williams). According to Alessandro Conti in his entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, John Wycliffe was trained in the “scholasticism of the medieval Roman Catholic Church,” and became disillusioned with ecclesiastical abuses (Conti).

He challenged the Church’s spiritual authority and sponsored the translation of the Christian Scriptures into English. Although the church condemned him as a heretic, John Wycliffe, the so-called “Morning Star of the Reformation”, was influential not only during his lifetime in areas from politics to religion, but also after his death when his ideas and teachings inspired the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation (Lambert 43).

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Wycliffe was famous for his involvement in ecclesiastical politics throughout his lifetime.

He received a doctorate in theology in 1372 and taught philosophy at Oxford, while nominally serving as a priest in a succession of parishes (Williams). As LaTourette states in his book A History of Christianity, Wycliffe gained prominence in 1374 during a prolonged dispute between Edward III, King of England, and the papacy over the payment of a certain papal tribute. Both the King and Parliament were reluctant to pay the papal levies. Wycliffe wrote several pamphlets refuting the Pope’s claims and upholding the right of Parliament to limit church power (663-664).

Furthermore, LaTourette states that King Edward appointed Wycliffe to a commission that conferred with papal representatives at Bruges, Belgium regarding the differences between the Crown and the papacy in 1375. The conference failed, but Wycliffe won the support of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and fourth son of King Edward III, who was the leader of an antipapal faction in Parliament and an ally to him throughout his life (664). Around the same time that Wycliffe was spreading these ideas, Patterson J. Smyth notes that the “Great Schism” occurred in 1378 (78).

This was a critical turning point for Wycliffe and acted as a milestone in his career. Two, and eventually three, Popes had contested each other for claim to the papal thrown, resulting in the double election of two Popes — Urban VI and Clement VII (80). As LaTourette makes apparent, it was during this chaotic time that Wycliffe began to argue that the true Church is made up only by those elected by God. Additionally, Wycliffe claimed that since it is God who determines membership, “no visible church or its officers can control entrance or can exclude from membership” in the Church (663).

Although Wycliffe is famous for his activities in ecclesiastical politics, we remember him today for his egalitarian religious ideas and beliefs, which created pushes for reform. In its purest form, his philosophy represented a complete break with the Church. Wycliffe believed in a direct relationship between humanity and God and that by a close adherence to the Scriptures Christians had the ability to govern themselves without the aid of Popes and other religious officials. This idea was supported by the accusation that many of the beliefs and practices of the established Church were unscriptural.

Wycliffe held that to resolve the problem the Christian clergy should strive to imitate evangelical poverty, that is, the poverty which Christ and his disciples displayed (Conti). Many of Wycliffe’s ideas were very unpopular with both the Church and the Crown. For example, according to Wilson J. Norman in his work “Religion and Philosophy: Overview,” in 1376 Wycliffe enunciated the doctrine of “dominion as founded in grace”, an idea in contrast to the widely accepted belief of the “divine right of kings” (Norman).

Wycliffe believed that all authority and power was convened directly by the grace of God. In addition, LaTourette notes that Wycliffe said any leader who was found to be faithless could legitimately loose his office as well as his privileges (663). In his essays On Divine Dominion and On Civil Dominion, Wycliffe wrote the following: “Men hold whatever they had received from God as stewards, and if found faithless, could justly be deprived of it;” and “If through transgression a man forfeited his divine privileges, then of necessity his temporal possessions were also lost. Wycliffe also maintained that sinful preachers and bishops could be outside of God’s law, and believed that “There was a chance that Popes might err” and that popes were not a necessary element for the administration of the Church (LaTourette 663). Malcolm D. Lambert, writer of Medieval Heresy: Popular Movements from the Gregorian Reform to the Reformation, states that John Wycliffe claimed, “a worldly Pope was to be proclaimed a heretic” and should be removed from office (7).

Wycliffe did not state explicitly that he considered the English church to be sinful and worldly, but his implication was clear, and on May 22, 1377, Pope Gregory XI issued several bills accusing Wycliffe of heresy (Williams). In autumn of the same year, however, Parliament requested Wycliffe’s opinion on the legality of forbidding the English church to ship its riches abroad at the Pope’s command (Smyth). Wycliffe upheld the lawfulness of such a prohibition, and in early 1378, he was again called before Bishop Courtenay and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Simon of Sudbury, to state a claim for him.

However, Wycliffe was dismissed with only a formal caution because of his strong influence at court. While Wycliffe had just escaped a possible problem with the Church, he defied papal tradition yet again that same year by undertaking an English translation of the Vulgate or Latin Bible, which he completed in 1388 (Smyth). According to Encyclopedia Britannica, Wycliffe renounced the doctrine of transubstantiation in 1379, a bold declaration that caused great furor (John Wycliffe). Standing his ground, Wycliffe began to send out disciples to expound his egalitarian religious views.

However, due to the success of his preachers, Wycliffe was suspected of fomenting social unrest. In May 1382, an ecclesiastical court condemned Wycliffe as a heretic and brought about his expulsion from Oxford (Conti). Following these events, Wycliffe retired to his Parish of Lutterworth, where he remained until his death. After Wycliffe died on December 31, 1384, his teachings were spread far and wide (John Wycliffe). For example, as Shannon McSheffrey notes in her book, Gender and Heresy: Women and Men In Lollard Communities, Wycliffe’s Bible was widely distributed by his followers, the Lollards (10).

The Lollards derived their name from the medieval word meaning “to mumble” and consisted of members of the gentry, who protected the distributors of Wycliffe’s beliefs and enabled them to spread their messages (12). LaTourette notes that during his life, Wycliffe called these traveling preachers “poor priests,” “poor priests that preach,” “unlearned and simple men,” “faithful and poor priests,” “true priests,” or simply, “itinerant preachers” (665). These itinerant preachers were encouraged to expound Wycliffe’s ideas whenever and wherever they could gain an audience.

For example, in 1395, they nailed a stinging attack on the Church to the door of Westminster Hall in which they “demand[ed] the Reformation of the Holy Church of England, which has been blind and leprous for many years, and a great burden to the people here in England” (McSheffrey 32). However, as you would expect, reformation was not a word that the Medieval Church wanted to hear. Ultimately, John Wycliffe’s writings, beliefs, and his translation of the Bible inspired later reformers of the Protestant Reformation, and prepared many of the key leaders of the movement who would come nearly a century after his death.

For example, Wycliffe’s writings and doctrines influenced John Hus and Martin Luther. In addition, Wycliffe’s writings strongly influenced the later Bohemian religious reformer John Hus in his revolt against the Church. Hus was one of Wycliffe’s followers and actively promoted the idea that all people should be permitted to read the Bible in their own language and should oppose the tyranny of the Roman Church. As Lambert notes, Martin Luther also acknowledged his great debt to Wycliffe (Lambert).

The presumption that the reformation began with Luther is in fact incorrect. Rather, John Wycliffe acted as a spark for the Reformation to begin, after which John Hus lit a small torch, and finally Luther took the flame to ignite a full-scale war of ideas known as the Protestant reformation. There is no doubt that b John Wycliffe left quite an impression on the Church. Forty-three years after his death, the Pope had still not forgotten John Wycliffe, and in May 1415 the Council of Constance reviewed Wycliffe’s heresies and ordered that his body “disinterred and burned”.

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