Thursday, October 27, 2022

Phil 303: John Wycliff: Cornerstones of Heresy

John Wycliff: Cornerstones of Heresy

Ages come and ages go.  With the hindsight of history, figures can be squarely placed in various epochs.  However, there are figures who act as seams between the fabric of eras who instigate and facilitate transition between one age and the next.  John Wycliff was such a figure and was named the “evening star of scholasticism and the morning star of the Reformation” (Michael, 343).  Wycliff was considered the “greatest secular philosophical theologian in Oxford of his day” because of his controversial ideas which had a profound impact on many people over the next one hundred years (Lahey, 7).  In a sense, Wycliff was a strong advocate of removing power from the Church and giving it to the people.  Those who had power tried to stop him, while those without power supported him.  Two of his ideas, which acted as catalysts for transferal of power, were heretical cornerstones for the coming Reformation.  First was his philosophical thoughts on logic and how one ought to approach God, which led him to produce a vernacular Bible making it more accessible to the people.  And second, his beliefs on metaphysics, which led to his highly controversial views on transubstantiation.  Both ideas, in principle, remain relevant today.  What ties the two ideas together is the notion of removing intermediaries between the worshiper and God.

John Wycliff was born in either Hipswell or Wycliff-on-Tees in Yorkshire England, sometime in the 1320s (Lahey, 3-4).  Roughly 20 years later, he began his studies in Oxford, during which he would have witnessed “the Black Death in 1349” (5).  Through the next 20 years, he completed his bachelor’s and master’s degrees and then went on to work as a priest in various parishes (5-6).  By 1363 he began theological training, while continuing his parish duties; and he completed his theology and doctorate degrees by 1372 (6).  Much of his work and schooling became the impetus for his writings and agitation against the Church.  The last decade of his life is marked with work on the translation of the Bible, political work and conflict with the Church.  Two of the cornerstones of that conflict are his work on a vernacular Bible and his controversial views on the sacrament.  He died, after a series of strokes, on December 31, 1384 (29).

The first cornerstone was Wycliff’s elucidation of a logical system which was tightly related to metaphysics.  Conti, a medieval philsophy professor and researcher at the University of Salerno, succinctly notes Wycliff “firmly believed that language was an ordered collection of signs, each referring to one of the constitutive elements of reality.”  These signs were further clarified with the tripart division of universals.  First are ideal universals or “the ideas of God;” second are formal universals or “common natures shared by individual things;” and third, intentional universals or “mental signs” (Conti).  In a sense, intentional universals refer to formal universals which refer to ideal universals or the ideas of God.  Lahey, a professor who has written extensively on Wycliff, summarizes a letter Wycliff wrote, regarding the importance of focusing on universals and scripture: “if we have access to something so universal, so perfectly connected to the divine mind, as a written record of truth, we must surely use it if we are to love God in all that we do” (142).   Therefore, to learn of these universals and to understand the ideas of God, one must look to the supreme philosopher, Christ, and one learns from Christ through scripture, which “is the source of every valid system of logic and the eternal source of truth in creation” (138).  Furthermore, Wycliff maintained “that the many terms and propositions” in the Bible would retain “their logical veracity as long as they are read as originally intended by their Divine Author” (The Wycliffite Bible, 31).  To this end, Wycliff sought to translate scripture to make it the most clear and meaningful to the reader (44).

If the clergy and the members of the Church had access to the complete law of Christ and if it were clear in meaning to them, then they would have the complete “Law of Love” and consequently would fully grasp and live by the “perfect law of charity” (43).  Indeed, they would have access to ideal universals (ideas of God) and as a result, would live the laws of God because they understand the mind of God.  This concept of attaining direct access to God’s laws through scripture would have an immediate effect on society as it would be evident to all (lay people and clergy), that the leaders of the Church ought to more strictly follow the admonition of Christ and become mendicant.  For this reason, among others, Wycliff was the target of persecution.  If the people fully grasped Christ’s teachings, they would demand clergy relinquish their wealth, therefore, the “friars and bishops [shuddered] at the notion that the gospel might be known in English” (45).  Up to this point in history, they acted as gatekeepers of God’s law to the people, and consequently propagated inaccuracies in meaning of scriptures “at an alarming rate” (30).  To slow the rate or cease this trend, Wycliff essentially labored to hold clergy accountable to the Laws of Love and to strip the powers from the gatekeepers and facilitate direct access to God’s words to the people.

The second cornerstone would appear towards the end of his life, when Wycliff would advance another controversial idea based on his ideas of metaphysics.  In his day, the prevailing view of the Lord’s Supper was that after the blessing of the actual bread and wine, they were transformed into Christ's body and blood respectively, and what remained were simply “outward appearances, or accidents, beneath which [existed] the body of Christ” (Levy, 22).  Wycliff objected to this view based on his ideas of essence and being.  He argued that essence and being were one and the same.  Conti summarizes the view as, “essence without being would imply that an individual could be something of a given type without being real in any way, and being without essence would imply that there could be the existence of a thing without the thing itself.”  To connect this to the idea of transubstantiation, Wycliff would argue that bread and wine are exactly and precisely bread and wine; and to believe these essences could be transformed into the body and blood of Christ would amount to the “annihilation of a particular thing [resulting] in the destruction of its entire genus” (Levy, 23).  To further emphasize this point, Wycliff argued that God had established the law and processes of the universe (i.e. God creating the essence of something), and for God to sidestep “the processes that he himself put in place” would be gratuitous and turn God into a “deceiver” and make the “cosmos unintelligible” (24).  Wycliff makes a solid argument against transubstantiation, when advancing the idea that God cannot sidestep the physics he has established.  But one cannot help but wonder why the supporters of the idea of transubstantiation, in order to refute Wycliff, did not compare Christ’s miracle of converting water to wine to the concept of transubstantiation.  If Christ could convert the essence of water into wine, they why would it be impossible for God to convert sacramental tokens into flesh and blood?

Woven in the heretical cornerstones of scripture accessible to the common people and a non-literal transubstantiation, is Wycliff’s overarching aim at seeing the world as it really is, without an intermediary, or at least an intermediary with less influence (i.e., a less influential Church).  If the Church had the power to define meaning of scripture while the people did not have access to it and if the Church leaders and members were indulging in idolatry by staunchly defending transubstantiation, then their very souls were being led astray (Levy, 24).  Therefore, Wycliff wanted to explain things as they really are, to reclaim power over his own eternal fate rather than leave it to the whims of fallible leaders.  When his philosophical concepts are viewed in this light, one may grasp sound principles of what it means to philosophize.  Seeking and attaining access to primary sources and questioning the physics of the sacraments are sound ideas which led the individual to comprehending the world as it really is.

In sum, Wycliff advocated the transferal of religious power to the people.  His heretical ideas, which promoted an understanding of the world as it really is, act as cornerstones for the coming Reformation.  His theories on logic and how one ought to approach God, led him to produce a vernacular Bible making it more accessible to the people.  And his viewpoints on metaphysics led to his highly contentious views on transubstantiation.  Both general ideas, in principle, remain applicable today.  What ties the two ideas together is the notion of removing veils which stand between the worshiper and the divine. 

Works Cited

Conti, Alessandro. “John Wyclif.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta, Spring 2017, Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, 2017,

Lahey, Stephen Edmund. John Wyclif. Oxford University Press, 2009. EBSCOhost,

Levy, Ian C. "John Wyclif and the Eucharistic Words of Institution: Context and Aftermath." Church History, vol. 90, no. 1, 2021, pp. 21-44. ProQuest,, doi:

Michael, Emily. "John Wyclif on Body and Mind." Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 64, no. 3, 2003, pp. 343. ProQuest,

The Wycliffite Bible: Origin, History and Interpretation, BRILL, 2016. ProQuest Ebook Central,

Saturday, October 1, 2022

Phil 303 Alcuin: Reason in Service of Revelation

Alcuin: Reason in Service of Revelation

At the time of Charlemagne, the Roman Empire was fragmented between East and West, with the power residing in the East in Constantinople.  The balance eventually shifted with Charlemagne assuming power.  When he was coronated as the Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III, there was a “transferral of the imperium Romanum from the Greeks [in the East] to the West” (Lamers).   Leading to his coronation, Charlemagne consolidated power and ensured “the acceptance of orthodox doctrine as well as a uniform liturgy throughout the empire” (“Charlemagne”).  As part of instituting a uniform liturgy, he recruited clergy and scholars throughout Europe.  One of the key individuals was Alcuin.

Born around 735, Alcuin of York had the mental acumen to be noticed at a young age and was appointed as “master of the cathedral school” in 766 (Ruud).  As schoolmaster, Alcuin worked on establishing a significant library and would travel to continental Europe to acquire or copy manuscripts.  Through these and other types of travels, fate would bring Charlemagne and Alcuin together; and in 781, Alcuin accepted Charlemagne’s invitation to live in Aachen and assume responsibilities of schoolmaster (Burns).

Alcuin was more of a “teacher rather than a thinker” and therefore was not an “originator of knowledge” (Burns).  However, three of Alcuin’s key philosophical beliefs were centered around, subjecting philosophy and liberal arts to revelation, the applied use of logic to strike down heresies to unite diverse and competing cultures, and lastly, structuring and reforming a system for a liberal education.  Foremost in his mind was ensuring all studies and application of education only served revelation.  Keeping this priority in mind, Alcuin applied rhetoric and logic to convince various archbishops and students to abandon unorthodox ideas such as Adoptionism (Alberi).  While the importance of arguing against Adoptionism may not be a critical task to modern students, the framework of learning and promoting a classical liberal education remains significant today.  This third key philosophical belief focused on the structure of a classical liberal education and was part of a larger effort in a first attempt at a European renaissance.  However, the Carolingian renaissance did not endure.  What endured and still remains viable today was Alcuin’s efforts in the promotion of education and the use of logic.  Perhaps what does not remain as practical today is the philosophical concept of revelation taking priority over reason.

At Charlemagne’s behest, Alcuin continued his work of training the clergy and “accurately translating ancient literature” as well as creating programs of learning at the school in Aachen (Brooks).  As he established curriculum for liberal arts, Alcuin never forgot to keep the priority of God and revelation first.  While it may seem that Charlemagne was endeavoring to create a ‘new Athens,’ in actuality, the prevailing perspective was Aachen already “possessed in Christ’s teaching the key to wisdom superior to ‘all the wisdom of academic exercise’” (Alberi, 36).  For Alcuin specifically, he “preferred to advocate reform of politics and scholarship according to the standards of the Bible and the Fathers” (41).  The real power of a liberal arts education was in its application to strike down heresies which ensured Charlemagne’s kingdom remained unified and aligned with the Pope.  By aligning with the Pope, Charlemagne ensured a successful consolidation power in the western empire.

Always mindful of the power of logic and rhetoric, Alcuin was vigilant in ensuring liberal arts supported the word of God.  As long as reason was advised by “the Bible and the Fathers” then the use of logic and rhetoric to tear down heresies was appropriate (Alberi, 37).  One example of using logic to tear down a heresy was Alcuin fighting the idea of Adoptionism. Adoptionism was the revival of “Nestorian ideas about the dual substance of Christ (i.e., Christ was ‘adopted’ as the son of God) [and] was declared anathema by the papacy” (Carlson).  It was of great import for this heresy to be eradicated as it threatened Charlemagne’s “military and political control” in the regions where this idea was being propagated (Alberi, 39).  Alcuin leveraged his rhetorical skills and “composed a number of treatises against the Spanish Adoptionists, including a small book” (Carlson).  In these writings, he defined terms and constructed syllogisms and successfully proved the “logical impossibility” of Adoptionism (Carlson).  One supporter of Adoptionism was still not convinced of his errors and was subsequently summoned to Aachen to argue with Alcuin before Charlemagne and the bishops.  Alcuin’s excellent skills were too much for this advocate and he subsequently was forced to make a “public ‘confession’” (Carlson). 

Alcuin’s motto in life was “disce ut doceas (learn in order to teach)” (Burns).  To this end, Alcuin and his peers tirelessly worked to attend to, safeguard and expand the libraries in York and Aachen.  He often traveled Europe acquiring or copying books.  This work laid the foundation for the real Renaissance.  As Burns notes, Alcuin was pivotal in “the revival of learning which distinguished the age in which he lived, and which made possible the great intellectual renaissance of three centuries later.”  Because of Alcuin’s efforts, western civilization’s Renaissance possessed libraries from which it would bloom.  And because of the Renaissance, modern society’s higher institutions of learning enjoy continued success in educating today’s students.

The institutionalization of the study of liberal arts endures today, thanks to the work of Alcuin.  One modern-day Master of Theological Studies described the “classical modes of learning,” which were divided into two groups: trivium and quadrivium (Brooks).  The trivium was comprised of grammar, logic and rhetoric; and the quadrivium was comprised of arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy.  These seven areas of study formed a liberal arts curriculum and were the basis for further studies in theology and medicine, as examples.  Alcuin “popularized the liberal arts and paved the way for the later creation of the universities by the Church in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries” (Brooks).  Because of Alcuin’s promotion of libraries and a curriculum, society today enjoys the benefits of higher learning.

Are Alcuin’s philosophical ideas regarding revelation trumping reason, the application of logic to strike down heresies, and the promotion of education still practical today?  Because of his efforts in promoting education, many today enjoy a strong foundation from which to apply reasoning and critical thinking, therefore his idea of promoting education remains viable.  Critical thinking and logic go hand in hand.  In the age of misinformation, one must have all the reasoning skills at one’s disposal to not be led astray by extremism.  While capable of sound reasoning, humans often are sluggish in decision making.  In his book The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt noted a research study which demonstrated humans have the capacity for sound reasoning, but when not held accountable (i.e., “know in advance that they’ll have to explain themselves”), they devolve into “errors, laziness, and reliance on gut feelings” (Haidt).  In a related way, humans ought to be mindful of how much faith they place in revelation.  Is it practical to subjugate our reasoning to revelation?  One science fiction author bluntly cautioned when he wrote, “One of my most valued friends believes in astrology; I would never offend her by telling her what I think. The capacity of humans to believe in what seems to me highly improbable—from table tapping to the superiority of their children—has never been plumbed. Faith strikes me as intellectual laziness” (Heinlein, 249).  Today, Alcuin may not find himself in familiar territory, as appeals to unproven varying opinions, including revelation, are widely not seen as viable.

In sum, Alcuin’s key philosophical beliefs were centered around, subjecting the study of philosophy and liberal arts to revelation, the applied use of logic to strike down heresies, and structuring and reforming classical education.  Alcuin applied the use of rhetoric and logic in the service of revelation to defeat heretical ideas.  He also ensured a strong framework for classical education endured, and today, modern society enjoys the fruits of his labors.  While the viability of revelation over logic may not exist today, his other ideas around the practical use of logic and education endure in a society which appreciates their value. 

Works Cited

Alberi, Mary. “Alcuin and the ‘New Athens.’ (Intellectual Life in Charlemagne’s Court).” History Today, vol. 39, no. 9, 1989, pp. 35–41.

Brooks, Tyler. “If You like Philosophy, Thank This Guy.” Catholic Answers, 22 Dec. 2021,

Burns, James. "Alcuin." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. 17 Sept. 2022 <>.

Carlson, Laura M. “Carlson—the Rhetoric of Heresy: Alcuin, Adoptionism, and the Art of Language.”, 2015,

"Charlemagne." Gale Biographies: Popular People, edited by Gale Cengage Learning, 1st edition, 2020. Credo Reference, Accessed 17 Sep. 2022.

Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2012.

Heinlein Robert A. Stranger in a Strange Land. Ace Books 1961.

Lamers, Han. Greece Reinvented : Transformations of Byzantine Hellenism in Renaissance Italy, BRILL, 2015. ProQuest Ebook Central,

Ruud, Jay. "Alcuin of York." Encyclopedia of Medieval Literature, Jay Ruud, Facts On File, 2nd edition, 2014. Credo Reference, Accessed 17 Sep. 2022.