John Wycliffe is often called “the Morning Star of the Reformation.” The morning star refers to either the star Sirius or the planet Venus, and it shines the brightest in the dark moments just before dawn. This light foreshadows the rising of the greater light, the sun. Wycliffe is one of the first to begin shining the light of God’s Word in the dark corridors of the medieval church.
Wycliffe was an English clergyman who remained a puritan within the church. We know very little about his early life. As a seminary professor at Oxford, he was a gifted scholar and influential teacher. He also served as rector, or head of parish, in a Lincolnshire church. Because of his teaching duties at Oxford, he spent relatively little time teaching from the pulpit in his church.
As would be the case with later reformers, Wycliffe focused on doctrine, but the moral corruption of the church is what really drew his ire and opened his eyes to how bad things are. He was famous for attacking the luxurious and abusive lifestyles of church leaders. A particular point of contention was the question of divine right—who had the right to rule people? In this era, many believed that only the church should rule and that there was no place for the state, except under the authority of the church. So there was no separation of church and state. Wycliffe taught the radical idea that morally qualified secular rulers could also be used by God to govern and that in extreme cases, the state should be used to protect the church from wicked clergy.
Thus, church leaders hated Wycliffe, while the leaders of the state found him a rather convenient ally. Though the pope condemned Wycliffe’s teachings, and though the English church attempted to try him for heresy, the Duke of Lancaster interceded for Wycliffe and protected him from being tried and punished.
One side of Wycliffe’s influence is political, but his greater legacy is theological. Wycliffe espoused a radical idea—God’s Word is inerrant, sufficient, and authoritative. In other words, the Bible contains all that we need for salvation. We don’t need the pope, church tradition, or any human priest for salvation. Wycliffe’s theses didn’t become as famous as Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, but he had his own statements against the church: “There is one universal church, and outside of it there is no salvation. Its head is Christ. No pope may say that he is the head.” He saw the abuses and doctrinal error in the church and knew that the only way to bring the church back to center was to build on the Word of God.
Naturally, the church didn’t welcome Wycliffe’s teachings. In addition to his direct challenges to the pope, he also denied transubstantiation (the idea that the bread and wine in the supper become the literal body and blood of Jesus), that priests had the power to forgive and absolve sins, that purgatory existed, etc.
Though Wycliffe enjoyed the protection of powerful people initially, the pressure of the church continued to be brought to bear, and he and his followers experienced significant persecution at the hands of the Roman Catholic Church.
Wycliffe penned a number of influential works that would bear fruit in the lives of later reformers, especially Jan Hus and Martin Luther. Yet his most influential work was The Wycliffe Bible. Because he believed in the authority of Scripture over the church, he believed it was important for people to be able to read and understand the Bible for themselves. In 1378 he wrote On the Truth of Sacred Scripture a treatise that is the seed of what later became sola Scriptura. It was here that he articulated the importance of having the Bible in the language of the people.
Because the Bible in the people’s language was so important to Wycliffe, he devoted much of the late years of his life to translating Jerome’s Latin Vulgate into English. His friends helped him with the translation, and this translation was then copied by hand for distribution. Hundreds of painstakingly hand-written copies of the Word were distributed by Wycliffe’s followers. Wycliffe’s company of followers became known as Lollards. “Lollard” is a Dutch word that means “to mumble.” Wycliffe and company were called this because they read the Bible in English, not Latin. His followers extended his influence well beyond his personal influence and lifetime, and his voice became an important one in the English Reformation of the 1500’s.
On December 28, 1384, Wycliffe suffered a severe stroke while worshiping in church. He died two days later. On May 4, 1415, decades after his death, the Council of Constance retroactively condemned Wycliffe as a heretic. The Catholic Church ordered his works burned and that his body be dug up and burned. Thirteen years later, in 1428, they dug up what was left of him and burned his remains. They finally got their heretic.