Died At Age: 56
Born Country: England
Born in: Hipswell, United Kingdom
Famous as: Philosopher, Theologian
father: Roger Wycliffe
mother: Catherine Wycliffe
Died on: December 31, 1384
education: Balliol College, The Queen's College, Oxford, Merton College
Who was John Wycliffe?
John Wycliffe was a 14th-century scholastic philosopher, theologian, biblical translator, reformer, priest, and educator from England. A prominent critic of the privileged status of the clergy and its members’ affinity for pomp and luxury, he was a leading dissident within the Roman Catholic priesthood and is regarded as a crucial predecessor to Protestantism. He also served as a seminary professor at the University of Oxford. An ardent advocate of translating the Bible into the vernacular, he finished translating the Christian holy book from the Vulgate into Middle English in 1382. The translation, which was co-authored by several of his associates, has since come to be known as the Wycliffe’s Bible. Wycliffe developed a following, the Lollards, who, following his example, preached predestination, iconoclasm, and the notion of caesaropapism, while critiquing the veneration of saints, the sacraments, requiem masses, transubstantiation, monasticism, and the very notion of the papacy. This movement was often considered as a predecessor of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century and beyond. As a result, Wycliffe was depicted as the evening star of scholasticism and as the morning star of the English Reformation.
Childhood & Early Life
Born in the 1320s (some sources claim in 1328) in the village of Hipswell near Richmond in the North Riding of Yorkshire, England, John was the son of Roger and Catherine Wycliffe.
After obtaining his early education somewhere near his home, he joined Merton College, Oxford University. His connection with the institution would last the entirety of his life.
He was deeply inspired by ‘On the Cause of God against the Pelagians’, a book by Thomas Bradwardine, the archbishop of Canterbury. The Black Death, which came to the English shores in 1348, also influenced him.
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Career & Later Life
In 1356, John Wycliffe obtained his arts degree at Merton College as a junior fellow. Later that year, he published a small treatise titled ‘The Last Age of the Church’.
The arrival of the Black Death had convinced him that the world would end along with the 14th century. While most of the other members of the clergy considered Black Death as God's judgement on the sinful people, Wycliffe viewed it as the punishment for the unworthy clergy.
In 1361, he was made the Master of Balliol College. Later that year, the college gave him to the parish of Fillingham in Lincolnshire. Because of this, he had to resign from his position at Balliol, but he was allowed to keep his residence in Oxford. In 1362, he was offered a prebend at Aust in Westbury-on-Trym, which he accepted.
His exemplary record convinced Simon Islip, Archbishop of Canterbury, to make him the head of Canterbury Hall in 1365. In December, he was placed as warden by Islip. However, following Islip’s death, his successor, Simon Langham, a man of monastic training, appointed a monk as the head of the college.
In 1367, Wycliffe submitted an appeal to Rome. Four years later, his appeal was denied. The incident was a common example of the constant feud between monks and secular clergy at Oxford at the time.
In 1368, he made his departure from Fillingham and took charge of the rectory of Ludgershall, Buckinghamshire. As it was located not far from Oxford, it helped him maintain his connection with the institution.
In 1369, he earned a bachelor's degree in theology. In 1372, he received his doctorate. Wycliffe was granted the crown living of St Mary's Church, Lutterworth, in Leicestershire in 1374, which he was allowed to keep until his death.
In 1374, Wycliffe was part of the delegation that travelled to Bruges on behalf of the English Government to speak with the representatives of Gregory XI about several matters of dispute between the king and pope. Following his return, he started putting out his ideas in tracts and longer works.
He severely criticised the temporal rule of the clergy, the collection of annates, indulgences, and simony in a book about the government of God and the Ten Commandments.
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He believed the scriptures to be the only definitive guide to the truth of God and advocated for all Christians to depend on the Bible and not on the teachings of the pope and clerics. He regarded the papacy and its supporters as an imperialistic order.
His first political work was 'De civili dominio' (1377), in which he argues for the royal divestment of all church property. In 1377, he received his first condemnation from Gregory XI because of his views on lordship and church wealth. Wycliffe believed that the church had become sinful and advocated for the clergy to live in complete poverty.
According to scholar Rudolph Buddensieg, Wycliffe’s work is comprised of two distinct parts. The first, composed between 1366 and 1378, revolves around a political struggle with Rome. The second, written from 1378 to 1384, focuses on the more religious struggles. In all his writings, one continuous theme is his criticism of the papacy, its institutions, and the Roman Catholic doctrine.
The most pivotal moment of his career came in 1378 when both the pope and the antipope dispatched their ambassadors to England in order to gain support for themselves.
In front of the Parliament, in the presence of both ambassadors, he voiced an opinion on the subject of the right of asylum in Westminster Abbey that was similar to the stance of the state. His argument was that the criminals who had found asylum in churches might legally be brought out of their sanctuary.
One of the most prolific English philosophers of the second half of the 14th century, Wycliffe set up his philosophical doctrine on the foundation that God exists in all things and events. He was a spiritual disciple of Augustine of Hippo (354-430) and always positioned the “Creator” over the created reality. Another aspect of his philosophy was the importance he gave to the concept of the divine Lordship. He wrote about this in ‘De dominio Divino’ (1373).
Disputes With the Church
Throughout his life, Wycliffe had several conflicts with the church. In 1377, he was ordered to appear in front of William Courtenay, Bishop of London. In May that year, the pope dispatched five copies of a bull against Wycliffe. On November 17, 1382, a synod was arranged against him at Oxford, but nothing came out of it.
John Wycliffe realised the need for the translation of the Bible into English quite early in his career and began working on it at some point. In 1382, his translation from the Vulgate into Middle English was completed. The fact that the project was his initiative is undeniable, as he was credited for it. However, the level of his contribution is a matter of scholarly debate.
It is likely that the smoother and more comprehensive New Testament was Wycliffe’s work whereas, the Old Testament was translated by Nicholas of Hereford and his associates. His rendition of the Bible made appearances between 1382 and 1395. In 1388, the entire translation underwent a revision by John Purvey.
Death & Legacy
John Wycliffe had a stroke on Holy Innocents' Day, December 28, 1384, while celebrating mass in the parish church. He passed away on 31 December 1384.
On May 4, 1415, about 30 years after his death, the Council of Constance dubbed him a heretic, and all his writings were outlawed and later burned. His remains were disinterred in 1428, cremated, and scatted into the River Swift.
The Church of England and the Anglican Church of Canada venerate him on 31 December. The liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church (USA) honours him on 30 October.