The Morning Star of the Reformation
John Wycliffe has been called “The Morning Star of the Reformation.” The morning star is not actually a star, but the planet Venus, which appears before the sun rises and while darkness still dominates the horizon. The morning star is unmistakably visible.
Darkness dominated the horizon in the fourteenth century, the century of Wycliffe, who was born in 1330 and died in 1384, almost exactly one hundred years before Luther was born. By his teenage years, Wycliffe was at Oxford. Thomas Bradwardine (known as “Doctor Profundus”) taught theology and William of Ockham (famous for “Ockham’s Razor”) taught philosophy. Before long, Wycliffe took his own place among the faculty. Appointed the Master of Balliol College, Wycliffe lectured and wrote in the field of philosophy. But the tug of biblical studies pulled on him. He applied himself rigorously to the study of theology and Scripture. As he did, he realized how much the church had veered off in so many wrong directions.
Setting the Stage
In the 1370s, he produced three significant works as countermeasures to the church’s corruption. The first one, On Divine Dominion (1373–1374), took aim at papal authority. Wycliffe was at a loss to find biblical warrant for the papacy. In fact, he argued that the papacy conflicts with and obscures the church’s true authority, Scripture. The second major work was On Civil Dominion (1375–1376). Here Wycliffe targeted the Roman Catholic Church’s assertion of authority over the English crown and English nobility. He saw no reason for England to be obliged to support a corrupt church. In his third major work, On the Truth of Sacred Scripture (1378), he further developed the doctrine of the authority of Scripture.
These three works were crucial to setting the stage for the Reformation. Two faculty members visiting at Oxford returned with Wycliffe’s writings to their home city of Prague, which in turn influenced Jan Hus. He would consequently go on to be a second “Morning Star” of the Reformation. Martin Luther’s early writings reveal the fingerprints of John Wycliffe. Yet, as important as these works are, they pale in comparison to his most important contribution, the Wycliffe Bible.
Reformation Began with Translation
In On the Truth of Sacred Scripture, Wycliffe called for the Bible to be translated into English. According to Roman Catholic law, translating the Bible into a vulgar, common language was a heresy punishable by death. It is almost impossible to imagine why a church would want to keep God’s word from people, unless that church wanted to hold power over the people. Wycliffe was more convinced of the power of the word of God than the power wielded by the papal office. Consequently, he and a group of colleagues committed themselves to making the word of God available.
Not only did the Bible need to be translated; it also had to be copied and distributed. This was before the printing press (invented in 1440), so copies had to be made painstakingly by hand. Despite the challenges, hundreds of the Bibles were produced and distributed to Wycliffe’s troop of pastors, who preached across England as the word of God made its way to the people. Wycliffe’s followers came to be called Lollards. They were enclaves of reform not only in England, but across Europe.
These efforts in translating, copying, and proclaiming the Bible in English were driven by a singular motive, expressed by Wycliffe this way: “It helps Christian men to study the Gospel in that tongue which they know best.” In his final years, Wycliffe endured falling out of favor with the church and nobility in England. Of course, he had long ago fallen out of favor with the pope. Yet, Wycliffe declared, “I am ready to defend my convictions even unto death.” He remained convinced of the authority and centrality of Scripture and devoted to his life’s calling to help Christians study the Bible. Having suffered two strokes, John Wycliffe died on December 30, 1384.
“Heretic” and Hero
In 1415, the Council of Constance, which condemned Jan Hus to death, declared Wycliffe a heretic. His bones were exhumed and burned and the ashes were put into the River Swift.
But the reforming efforts of Wycliffe could not be quenched by the flames or stopped by a council’s declarations. This Morning Star shone brightly against the horizon, signaling the soon coming of daylight.