(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

John Wyclif c. 1330-1384

(Also spelled Wycliffe and Wicliff) English theologian and philosopher.

An eminent Oxford theologian and Scholastic philosopher, Wyclif was a radical critic of the fourteenth-century church. For his direct challenges to ecclesiastical orthodoxy he earned condemnation as a heretic during his lifetime and later recognition as a precursor of the Protestant Reformation. Believing that members of the clergy at all levels, from monks and friars to the Pope, had succumbed to corruption in their acquisition of worldly wealth and temporal power, Wyclif issued a series of politico-theological works in the final decade of his life denouncing church authority. In addition to arguing for the dominance of secular powers over papal dominion, Wyclif promoted the theretofore unthinkable assertion that ordinary members of the laity could commune directly with God through their reading of Holy Scripture and did not require the intercession of the church. His efforts are thought to have been instrumental in the creation of the first English vernacular translation of the Latin Bible, while his unorthodox teachings on such subjects as transubstantiation, clerical poverty, and predestination were carried on by his religious adherents, the Lollards. Illuminated by Wyclif's desire for ecclesiastical reform, the Lollards formed a significant segment of fifteenth-century English society, their spiritual views prefiguring many of the later ecclesiastical reforms associated with the Protestant movements of the following century. In addition to Wyclif's highly controversial theological tracts, his philosophical writings reflect his strong Realist perspective on the subject of universal concepts—a counterbalance to the dominant epistemological nominalism of late fourteenth-century Oxford.

Biographical Information

Wyclif was born in the North Riding district of Yorkshire sometime during the decade prior to 1330. Having likely received his primary education in Yorkshire, he later attended Oxford University. Although the exact date of his first entrance into its colleges is unknown, he appears to have lived there from at least 1354. By 1360, Wyclif was named master of Balliol College at Oxford but relinquished this post the following year in order to head the parish at Fillingham in Lincolnshire. Appointed warden of Canterbury Hall in 1365, he obtained permission to maintain his ecclesiastical position and temporarily reside at Oxford in order to continue his study of theology and natural philosophy. A shift in rectories from Fillingham to the parish of Ludgershall (close to Oxford) allowed him to complete his baccalaureate study in divinity by 1369 and earn a degree as doctor of theology in 1372. Two years later, King Edward III appointed Wyclif to a new post at Lutterworth, where he would remain for the rest of his life. The year 1374 also marked Wyclif's dramatic entrance into the realm of ecclesiastical politics. As part of a royal delegation sent to Bruges, Belgium, in order to resolve outstanding disagreements between England, France, and the papacy, Wyclif interceded on behalf of the secular powers in questions regarding the appointment of church posts and the levying of ecclesiastical taxes. During these debates, Wyclif showed himself an outspoken advocate of reform and a strong supporter of national independence from church authority. By about 1377, Wyclif had reached the pinnacle of his political influence as advisor to the English parliament and the King. His popularity in England was forcefully demonstrated in May of that year as Pope Gregory XI's call for his arrest remained unheeded. The death of Edward III in the summer of 1377, prompting the ascension of the boy-king Richard II and the effective regency of Richard's uncle, John of Gaunt, was initially injurious to Wyclif's political fortunes. Forced to appear before an episcopal court, Wyclif was temporarily confined to Oxford and had to endure a forty-four-day sentence of excommunication. During this turbulent period of the late 1370s, Wyclif composed what have since been recognized as the most forceful declarations of his political ideas, including such tracts as De civili dominio (c. 1376-77), De ecclesia (c. 1378), and De officio regis (c. 1379). This phase of Wyclif's career also reflects his deepening confrontation with the church in print, especially in regard to the subject of ecclesiastical poverty. Incensed by clerical acquisition and displays of wealth, Wyclif preached and wrote in condemnation of the accumulation of riches by the servants of God. In 1378, the death of Gregory XI and the disputed election of Urban VI to the papacy began the period of the Great Schism, in which another pope (Clement VII) was clandestinely elected and installed at Avignon, France. While Wyclif remained critical of papal authority throughout his life, he generally aligned with the reformist practices of Urban VI during the dispute. By the summer of 1380, Wyclif briefly distanced himself from the political turmoil of the previous decade to begin overseeing work on a proposed translation of the Latin Vulgate Bible into English. While Wyclif did not undertake the actual translation of the text, his instigation was instrumental to the project, which was completed in 1388, several years after his death. Having retired to Lutterworth in 1381, Wyclif experienced another period of political tension that year, prompted by his association with the labor rebellion in England known as the Peasants' Revolt. Wyclif's personal responsibility for the uprising is now considered implausible, although he did publicly sympathize with the demands of England's destitute working classes. Nevertheless, Wyclif was held responsible for inciting the masses and condemned as a heretic in a synod convened against him. In May 1382, Wyclif's works were banned by the ecclesiastical congregation. Having suffered a stroke in the intervening months, he appeared before a similar body in November of the same year but was not strongly reproached or excommunicated at that time. Temporarily vindicated, Wyclif continued writing at Lutterworth until his death in 1384.

Major Works

The vast majority of Wyclif's most significant theological writings were composed in the period between 1374 and 1384, the pivotal phase of his literary and public career. In a work entitled Determinatio quaedam Magistri Johannis Wyclif de dominio contra unum monachum (c.1374), Wyclif laid out his arguments against the feudal domination of the English monarchy by the Pope in the form of seven speeches before Parliament. He developed these ideas further in the more formal treatises on ecclesiastical politics that were to follow, including De dominio divino libri tres (c. 1374) and De civili dominio. Overall, Wyclif's early political theology hinges upon the concept of dominium, which concerns the proper circumstances under which an entity may be said to possess authority over lesser subjects. In Wyclif's view, the absence of sin is a vital prerequisite of a legitimate dominium, since this authority is originally granted from God. As civil dominium is by necessity tainted with sin and imperfection, ecclesiastical entities—that is, the church—should be far removed from civil power, according to Wyclif's argument. With De vertitate sacrae scripturae (c. 1377-78) Wyclif presented a further exposition of his belief in God as the foundation of all truth and the sufficiency of individual study of scripture without the absolute necessity of interpretation by the clergy. In his writings after 1377, Wyclif began to adopt a much more strident tone, and many of his works include a strong measure of polemic. His De potestate papae (c. 1379) is usually described as a complete rejection of fourteenth-century church hierarchy. In it, Wyclif consistently labels the Pope as the Antichrist and levels a sustained critique at ecclesiastical corruption. De apostasia (c. 1379) and De blasphemia (c. 1381) are likewise trenchantly polemical works and include attacks on the worldly vices of friars and monks. Somewhat more restrained, De officio regis encapsulates Wyclif's thought on the supremacy of royal power in civil affairs, arguing on behalf of secular rather than religious authority in all disputes between church and state. One of Wyclif's most controversial works, De eucharistia tractatus maior (c. 1379) centers on the theologian's systematic challenge of church orthodoxy in regard to the Eucharist and includes his thorough rejection of the doctrine of transubstantiation. Among Wyclif's other predominately theological works, De ecclesia includes a lengthy discussion of the doctrine of predestination in which he maintains that human freedom is fully circumscribed by the force of God's eternal will. Turning to Wyclif's philosophical writings, his status as a Realist philosopher is perhaps best articulated in De universalibus (c. 1369), which asserts the real existence of universal concepts and defends this position against the opposing nominalist view typically associated with the philosopher William of Ockham. Like De universalibus, the remaining twelve philosophical treatises of Wyclif's Summa de ente (c.1374) are principally epistemological in nature. Half of them generally focus on the nature of human knowledge as apprehended solely by means of logic, while the latter six consider the attributes of God, thus entering the realm of theology. Wyclif's Trialogus (c. 1380), typical of his late writings, codifies his prior religious critique and condemnation of nominalist doctrine. Wyclif's remaining works include a collection of sermons, the Sermones quadraginta (c. 1361-74), that differ from the balance of Wyclif's writing in both style and tone. Strictly avoiding the formal, Scholastic methods of logical argumentation characteristic of those texts, the sermons instead focus on the simple aim of lay instruction through the presentation and universal application of biblical principles.

Critical Reception

Critics have generally remarked that nearly all of Wyclif's major writings and activities were undertaken during the last ten years of his life. Upon such works as De civili dominio, De vertitate sacrae scripturae, and the collected writings of his Summa theologiae (c. 1384) rests Wyclif's reputation as an outspoken critic and reformer, as well as his legacy as a contentious and influential theologian and philosopher. In 1415, more than three decades after Wyclif's death, his doctrines were formally condemned by the church at the Council of Constance. Meanwhile, the Bohemian Jan Hus, one of Wyclif's strongest adherents in continental Europe, was executed as a heretic by the Council. Thirteen years later, Wyclif's body was disinterred and burned in posthumous punishment for his heretical teachings. Likewise, the religious sect inspired by Wyclif, the Lollards, faced considerable persecution in the fifteenth century. From the Reformation period to the nineteenth century, Wyclif's reputation as a reformer was redeemed by commentators, who additionally solidified his importance as an early translator of the Bible. During this period, however, his theological and philosophical writings were only infrequently reprinted. Increasing scholarly interest in these texts during the mid-nineteenth century coincided with the appearance of new Latin editions and several translations. Still, controversy over his theological stance was sustained into the twentieth century, with critics generally viewing Wyclif as either an ardent Catholic reformer or a radical forerunner of Protestantism. Only by the end of the twentieth century have scholars begun to focus more exclusively on his philosophical writings, appraising his Realist conception of universals, his commentary on the nature of language, and the place of metaphysics and epistemology in his thought. Whether or not Wyclif can be said to have developed a philosophy equal to that of his early nominalist rival William of Ockham, however, remains an unsettled question. In contemporary assessments, Wyclif remains a controversial figure. While he is no longer denigrated as a heretic, his status as the prototypical medieval church reformer has undergone something of a reevaluation. At the same time, his enormous influence on the ecclesiastical politics of the late-fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, his contribution to the deepest theological questions of his day, and the impetus he provided to the translation of scripture into the English vernacular are now rarely questioned.