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.
Conti, Alessandro. “John Wyclif.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta, Spring 2017, Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, 2017, plato.stanford.edu/entries/wyclif/.
Lahey, Stephen Edmund. John Wyclif. Oxford University Press, 2009. EBSCOhost, https://search-ebscohost-com.ezproxy2.apus.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip&db=nlebk&AN=257682&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
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, http://ezproxy.apus.edu/login?qurl=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.proquest.com%2Fscholarly-journals%2Fjohn-wyclif-eucharistic-words-institution-context%2Fdocview%2F2546959151%2Fse-2%3Faccountid%3D8289, doi:https://doi.org/10.1017/S0009640721000731.
Michael, Emily. "John Wyclif on Body and Mind." Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 64, no. 3, 2003, pp. 343. ProQuest, http://ezproxy.apus.edu/login?qurl=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.proquest.com%2Fscholarly-journals%2Fjohn-wyclif-on-body-mind%2Fdocview%2F203367805%2Fse-2%3Faccountid%3D8289.
The Wycliffite Bible: Origin, History and Interpretation, BRILL, 2016. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/apus/detail.action?docID=4773531.