John Wyclif Biography


(History of the World: The Middle Ages)

Article abstract: Wyclif’s ideas became the rallying point for demands for religious reform in England and influenced the Hussite movement in Bohemia, preparing the way for the Reformation. Wyclif’s emphasis on the authority of Scripture and the priesthood of the believer inspired the first translation of the entire Bible into English.

Early Life

Little is known about the early years of John Wyclif. His family was of the lesser aristocracy; they held the manor and living of Wiclif in Richmond, in the lands of John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster. Wyclif entered Oxford, perhaps about 1345. There is little evidence and much conjecture concerning his career at the university. Three different colleges claim Wyclif as a student: Queen’s, Merton, and Balliol. It is known that he took his first degree in the arts, and sometime between 1356, when he might have become a probationary fellow at Merton, and 1360, he became a regent master in the arts at Balliol.

Wyclif resigned his Mastership at Balliol in 1361 and was instituted to the collegiate living of Fillingham in Lincolnshire. It is almost incontestable that he had advanced to the priesthood by then. In 1363, he was granted a license from the Bishop of Lincoln to absent himself from Fillingham to return to Oxford; his new course of study was in theology. It appears that Wyclif took a bachelor of divinity degree about 1369. In 1368 he had been granted another license from his bishop for nonresidency at Fillingham, and then in the same year exchanged that living for the parish of Ludgershall, which was closer to Oxford.

Wyclif obtained his master of theology degree by December, 1373. Shortly thereafter, probably with John of Gaunt’s sponsorship, he entered the king’s service. While in royal service Wyclif was appointed to the English deputation which met at Bruges with papal representatives to negotiate the outstanding differences between England and Rome. On April 7, 1374, King Edward III presented him with the rectory of Lutterworth in Leicestershire, which he was to hold until his death.

Life’s Work

During his Oxford years Wyclif had established himself as a significant voice in the philosophical debates of his time. Central to these debates was the ongoing opposition between realism and nominalism; in this context, “realism” denotes a belief in the reality of essences independent of the temporally existing objects of perception. Wyclif was an unabashed realist at a time when nominalism was growing increasingly dominant, but had he restricted himself to this issue, narrowly defined, he would not have occasioned controversy outside university circles. As he developed the theological implications of his metaphysics, however, Wyclif entered the public arena with a vengeance, for his was a time in which theological and political issues were inextricably intertwined.

Wyclif came to maturity during the so-called Babylonian captivity of the Church, the period from 1309 to 1378 when the Papacy was based in Avignon instead of Rome and successive popes were controlled by the French throne. (Wyclif lived to see the beginning of the Great Schism, the period from 1378 to 1417 during which there were rival popes, one at Avignon and one at Rome.) Throughout the fourteenth century, the prestige of the Papacy was low, corruption was widespread, and calls for clerical reform were commonplace. Wyclif’s developing views, however, went far beyond most of these criticisms, for they rested on a radical redefinition of the Church itself.

In keeping with his metaphysical distinction between unchanging universals and temporal particulars, Wyclif distinguished the true Church from the visible Church. The true Church comprises those and only those who, before the beginning of time, were elected by God. Since it is God’s choice alone which determines membership, the priesthood of the visible Church cannot claim to initiate individuals into or exclude them from the true Church.

Wyclif thus shifted authority from the Church hierarchy to the Bible, which he regarded as the sole rule of faith and practice—a shift with historic consequences, to be fully realized in the Reformation. Wyclif held that everyone of those elected by God was a priest. He noted that the New Testament did not distinguish between priests and bishops, and that they, as church officials, should be honored only because of their character. He implored them to set a good example for their flock through their personal lives. Sincerity in worship, he argued, was of more value than form or ritual; indeed, elaboration and formalization of worship services might hinder true worship. He urged that the Bible be translated into the English vernacular so that the priests could better include scriptural passages in their sermons. He argued that the Scriptures were the supreme authority and that priests and bishops should be familiar with them; he urged priests to stress the exposition of biblical passages rather than the recounting of fables, miracles, and saints’ lives. He also insisted that even unlettered and simple men could understand the Scriptures and should study them.

Clearly, Wyclif’s patron, John of Gaunt, an antipapist, was alert to the political implications of Wyclif’s views, as spelled out in 1376 in public readings of his treatise De civili dominio. In this work Wyclif argued that all temporal ecclesiastical ownership is God’s...

(The entire section is 2245 words.)