John Wycliffe (1330-1384), is considered the morning star of the Reformation and was used by God to begin a great transformation in the established church. He was an English dissident who opposed the authoritarian state of the Catholic Church, a reformer, and a Protestant more than a century before Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door in Wittenberg, Germany as a protest against abuses within the church.
John Wycliffe was God’s man. His writings reveal his strong opposition to the doctrines of the established church. He wrote: “Holy Scripture is the highest authority for every believer, the standard of faith and the foundation for reform in religious, political, and social life … in itself it is perfectly sufficient for salvation, without the addition of customs or traditions.” These customs included the selling of indulgences, great pilgrimages to Holy sites, and confessions to priests.
In 1302, the Catholic Church proclaimed papal supremacy through a written directive called, the Bull, Unam Sanctam:
"The Bull lays down dogmatic propositions on the unity of the Church, the necessity of belonging to it for eternal salvation, the position of the pope as supreme head of the Church, and the duty thence arising of submission to the pope in order to belong to the Church and thus to attain salvation. The pope further emphasizes the higher position of the spiritual in comparison with the secular order.” (New Advent: Catholic Encyclopedia)
This was the environment to which John Wycliffe was born in a small village about two hundred miles outside London in Yorkshire, England. The doctrines he opposed set the stage for the Reformation bringing freedom to worship Christ outside of the papal system, to read the Scripture for oneself, and to have a relationship with God without the benefit of a priest.
Very little is known of Wycliffe’s early life. He left his home for Oxford University in 1346 to study for his PhD. His doctorate, the result of sixteen years of intense preparation, was delayed until 1372, due to fears of the Plague and the demands of study.
While at Oxford, he first questioned the doctrine of Eucharist, our Holy Communion, by challenging the belief in transubstantiation (the communion bread becoming Jesus’ actual flesh). He stated, “The bread while becoming by virtue of Christ's words the body of Christ does not cease to be bread.” Since debate was part of his theological study, his dissent did not come to the attention of Rome and the Pope until much later.
In addition to strongly held doctrines, like transubstantiation, Wycliffe also disagreed with the Church’s practice of indulgences -- payment to the Church for remission of sin for you or someone else. Wycliffe said, "It is plain to me that our prelates [church dignitaries] in granting indulgences do commonly blaspheme the wisdom of God."
He also took issue with the Catholic use of the confessional. "Private confession … was not ordered by Christ and was not used by the apostles."
He believed in justification by faith alone, just as the Bible teaches, saying, “Trust wholly in Christ; rely altogether on his sufferings; beware of seeking to be justified in any other way than by his righteousness."
Wycliffe thought the Church was too wealthy, and that Christ’s disciples were called to poverty.
He rejected the view that man sinned because God tempted him and caused him to act. He knew God would not tempt anyone to sin. James 1:13 states: “Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one.”
Wycliffe believed every man had the right to read God’s Word for themselves without interpretation by the church. The Catholic Church was reluctant to preach or translate the Bible. Wycliffe responded by stating, "Englishmen learn Christ's law best in English. Moses heard God's law in his own tongue; so did Christ's apostles.” Wycliffe was the first man to begin translating the Bible into English, but was unable to finish the translation before his death. John Purvey, a friend, completed the translation of the Wycliffe Bible we have today. We can thank John Wycliffe for being able to read and study the Scriptures in our own language!
Wycliffe's scholarly attacks on the views of the papacy and the Catholic Church eventually brought him to the attention of Rome. Five edicts by Pope Gregory were issued against him and he was brought to London to answer charges of heresy against the Church. At his hearing, Wycliffe said, “I am ready to defend my convictions even unto death… I have followed the Sacred Scriptures and the holy doctors." He went on to say that the pope and the Church were second in authority to Holy Scripture. He was put under house arrest at his parish in 1378, but continued to write and speak against the teachings of the Church.
Wycliffe was saying Mass in his parish church on Holy Innocents Day, December 28, 1384, when he suffered a stroke. He died on the eve of the New Year at 54 years old. His followers, dedicated to spreading Wycliffe’s message, were forced underground by their beliefs. But his writings spread, setting the stage for the blood of martyrs that followed to continue to fertilize the ground of the Protestant Reformation.
More than forty years after Wycliffe’s death, church officials condemned him as a heretic, dug up his body, burned his remains, and threw them into the Swift River. But they could not stop his influence: A historian noted "Thus the brook hath conveyed his ashes into Avon; Avon into Severn; Severn into the narrow seas; and they into the main ocean. And thus the ashes of Wycliffe are the emblem of his doctrine which now is dispersed the world over."
Wycliffe, who remained a Catholic priest, saying Mass until the day he died, was the catalyst God used to spread His truth at the dawn of the Reformation.