Archives: Wycliffe Causes Controversy Over Eucharist

Although Wycliffe questioned many practices of the church of his day, his most controversial position was on transubstantiation. This was the belief that, upon the words of the priestly consecration in the Mass, the eucharistic elements of the bread and wine became the substance of the body and blood of Jesus Christ while keeping the appearance of bread and wine. Typical of Wycliffe’s comments on the Eucharist were the following:

“The nature of the bread is not destroyed by what is done by the priest, it is only elevated so as to become a substance more honored. The bread while becoming by virtue of Christ’s words the body of Christ does not cease to be bread. When it has become sacramentally the body of Christ, it remains bread substantially.”
“Nobody on earth is able to see Christ in the consecrated Host with the bodily eye, but by faith.”
“This same opinion is confirmed by blessed Augustine’s statement (in Decretum): ‘What is seen is the bread and the cup which the eyes renounce; but what faith demands is that the bread is the body of Christ and the cup is his blood. These are called sacramental elements for this reason that in them one thing is seen and another is understood. What is seen has bodily appearance, what is understood has a spiritual fruit.’”
“The consecrated Host we priests make and bless is not the body of the Lord but an effectual sign of it. It is not to be understood that the body of Christ comes down from heaven to the Host consecrated in every church.”
“Some expressions in Scripture must be understood plainly and without figure, but there are others that must be understood in a figurative sense. Just as Christ calls John the Baptist Elias, and St. Paul says that Christ was a rock, and Moses in Genesis 41 that the seven good kine are seven years, and the seven good ears are seven years. You will meet with such modes of expression constantly in Scripture and in these expressions, without a doubt, the production is made figuratively.”
“Therefore, let every man wisely, with much prayer and great study, and also with charity read the words of God in the Holy Scriptures … Christ saith, ‘I am the true vine.’ Wherefore do you not worship the vine for God, as you do the bread? Wherein was Christ a true vine? Or, wherein was the bread Christ’s body? It was in figurative speech, which is hidden to the understanding of the sinners. And thus, as Christ became not a material nor an earthly vine, nor a material vine the body of Christ, so neither is material bread changed from its substance to the flesh and blood of Christ.”
“If bread consecrated and unconsecrated be mixed together, the heretic cannot tell the difference between the natural bread and his supposed quality without a substance, any more than any of us can distinguish in such case between the bread that has been consecrated and that which has not. Mice, however, have an innate knowledge of the fact. They know that the substance of the bread is retained as at first. But our unbelievers have not even such knowledge. They never know what bread or what wine has been consecrated, except as they see it consecrated. But what, I ask, can be supposed to have moved the Lord Jesus Christ thus to confound and destroy all natural discernment in the senses and minds of the worshipers?”
“In the Mass creed, it is said, ‘I believe in one God only, Jesus Christ, by whom all things be made’ … And you then, who are an earthly man, by what reason may you say that you make your Maker? You say every day that you make of bread the body of the Lord, flesh and blood of Jesus Christ, God and man; … If you make the body of the Lord in these words, ‘Hoc est corpus meum,’ you yourself must be the person of Christ or else there is a false God … If you cannot make the work that God made in Genesis, how shall you make Him that made the works? And you have no words of authority.”
“Just as when the cup is seen we break forth into profound worship, so also when the consecrated Host is seen we so the same, not on account of the fact that that very cup has been consecrated by the priest, but because of the excellent sacrament hidden in the vessel. Thus when we see the Host we ought to believe not that it is itself the body of Christ, but that the body of Christ is sacramentally concealed in it.”

On Preaching

Preaching, according to Wycliffe, was the best way to spread “God’s law”—the Scriptures—among more people. He himself was a noted preacher. And he commissioned a trusted cadre of educated “poor preachers” to read the Scriptures and to speak the truth in the language of the people.
“The highest service to which man may attain on earth is to preach the law of God. This duty falls peculiarly to priests, in order that they may produce children of God, and this is the end for which God had wedded the Church. And for this cause Jesus Christ left other works, and occupied himself mostly in preaching, and thus did the Apostles, and on this account God loved them. “But now priests are found in taverns and hunting; and playing at their tables, instead of learning God’s law and preaching.”
“Prayer is good, but not so good as preaching; and accordingly, in preaching and also in praying, in the administering of the Sacraments, and the learning of God’s law, and the rendering of a good example by purity of life, in these should stand the life of a good priest.”
“Some men who preach tell the tales that they find in the saints’ lives without teaching Holy Writ. And such things often please more the people. But we believe there is a better way—to avoid such that please and, instead, to trust in God and to tell surely His law and specially His Gospel. And, since these words are God’s words, they should be taken as believed, and God’s words will given men new life more than the other words that are for pleasure.”
“O marvelous power of the Divine Seed which overpowers strong men in arms, softens hard hearts, and renews and changes into divine men, those men who had been brutalized by sins, and departed infinitely far from God. Obviously such miraculous power could never be worked by the word of a priest, if the Spirit of Life and the Eternal Word did not, above all things else, work with it.”

On Absolution

“There is no greater heresy for a man than to believe that he is absolved from sin if he gives money, or because a priest lays his hand on his head and says: ‘I absolve you;’ for you must be sorrowful in your heart, else God does not absolve you.”

On Indulgences

“It is plain to me that our prelates in granting indulgences do commonly blaspheme the wisdom of God, pretending in their avarice and folly that they understand what they really know not. They chatter on the subject of grace as if it were a thing to be bought and sold like an ass or an ox; by so doing they learn to make a merchandise of selling pardons, the devil having availed himself of an error in the schools to introduce after this manner heresies in morals.”
“I confess that the indulgences of the Pope, if they are what they are pretended to be, are a manifest blasphemy, inasmuch as he claims a power to save men almost without limit, and not only to mitigate the penalties of those who have sinned by granting them the aid of absolutions and indulgences, that they should never come to purgatory, but to give command to the holy angels that, when the soul is separated from the body, they may carry it without delay to its everlasting rest.”
“Covet not your neighbor’s goods, despise him not, slander him not, scorn him not, belie him not, backbite him not, … But many think if they give a penny to a pardoner, they shall be forgiven the breaking of all the commandments of God, and therefore they take no heed how they keep them. But I say to you for certain, though you have priests and friars to sing for you, and though you each day hear many Masses, and found chantries and colleges, and go on pilgrimages all your life, and give all your goods to pardoners; all this shall not bring your soul to heaven.”
“Will, then, a man shrink from acts of licentiousness and fraud, if he believes that soon after, by the aid of a little money bestowed on friars, an active absolution from the crime he has committed may be obtained?”

On Confessionals

“It is not confession to man but to God, who is the true Priest of souls, that is the great need of sinful man. Private confession and the whole system of medieval confession was not ordered by Christ and was not used by the Apostles, for of the three thousand who were turned to Christ’s Law on the Day of Pentecost, not one of them was confessed to a priest … It is God who is the forgiver.”
“Trust wholly in Christ; rely altogether on His sufferings; beware of seeking to be justified in any other way than by His righteousness. Faith in our Lord Jesus Christ is sufficient for salvation. There must be atonement made for sin, according to the righteousness of God. The Person to make this statement must be God and man.”

On Faith

“Trust wholly in Christ; rely altogether on His sufferings; beware of seeking to be justified in any other way than by His righteousness. Faith in our Lord Jesus Christ is sufficient for salvation. There must be atonement made for sin, according to the righteousness of God. The Person to make this statement must be God and man.”
By John Wycliffe

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #3 in 1983]

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