The Fiery Man Behind the First English Bible
JOHN WYCLIFFE left quite an impression on the church: 43 years after his death, officials dug up his body, burned his remains, and threw the ashes into a river!
It was an unlikely end for a tiny man who had been born in the hinterlands, on a sheep farm 200 miles from London. But by about age 30, Wycliffe was on the faculty of Oxford, where he developed into a brilliant and proud theologian. There his attacks on the church paved the way for the Reformation 150 years later.
When the church demanded financial support from England, a nation struggling to raise money to resist a possible French attack, Wycliffe advised Parliament not to comply. He argued that the church was already too wealthy and that Christ called his disciples to poverty, not wealth.
Wycliffe rejected as unbiblical the doctrine of transubstantiation, which says that during Mass the bread and wine become in substance the body and blood of Jesus.
Wycliffe even criticized the pope. When Urban VI and Clement VII were each claiming to be pope and excommunicating each other, Urban called for war. Wycliffe replied, “How dare he make the token of Christ on the cross (which is the token of peace, mercy, and charity) a banner to lead us to slay Christian men, for the love of two false priests!”
The pope, Wycliffe said, was not the voice of God on earth. The Bible was. The pope, he added, may not even be among those chosen for heaven.
His respect for the authority of Scripture drove Wycliffe to promote an English translation of the Bible. The church bitterly opposed it: “By this translation, the Scriptures have become vulgar, and they are more available to lay, and even to women who can read, than they were to learned scholars, who have a high intelligence. So the pearl of the gospel is scattered and trodden underfoot by swine.”
Wycliffe replied, “Englishmen learn Christ’s law best in English. Moses heard God’s law in his own tongue, so did Christ’s apostles.”
In spite of five papal bulls (edicts) ordering Wycliffe’s arrest, his friends protected him, and he was never in his lifetime convicted as a heretic.
By Stephen Miller
[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #43 in 1994]
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