WITH the passing of the centuries the world slowly emerged into the Light.
The fifth century saw Christianity growing too rapidly. Like a tree it was cut down to its roots to escape a ruinous luxuriance. Power and riches transformed Christianity from a heart Principle into a sensual Rite leaving the soul in darkness and the life in bondage. Principle and Rite drew apart from the fourth century onwards, rite far outstripping principle and erecting gorgeous temples serviced by a powerful hierarchy multiplying ceremonies, canons and constitutions. Nations bowed before it, and kings advanced its propagation.
Meanwhile Principle seemingly withdrew. Not so, however. Its progress was slow but real. Superstitious hordes were dangerous allies. They followed in prosperity, but deserted in persecution. Principle secured the purity of lives in which longsuffering and martyrdom augmented the spiritual glory of this just cause. Rite fell through success whilst Principle marched on through oppression to triumph.
Merton and Bradwardine
In the fourteenth century, in the British Isles, a greater light than any preceding it is about to appear. In the North Riding of Yorkshire John de Wicliffe was born (either at Wycliffe or Ipreswell today's Hipswell). Of his boyhood nothing is recorded. He moved early into the Church with a spirit which later often drew him to the homes and sick-beds of his parish of Lutterworth. Numerous schools were associated with cathedral towns and young Wicliffe probably trained in his own neighbourhood. He then went on to Merton College Oxford (see illustration) as scholar and eventually fellow.
When Wicliffe entered Merton there were 30,000 students at Oxford as some halls were little more than upper schools. Merton was already a distinguished seat of learning with William Occam and Duns Scotus as alumni and celebrated Bradwardine about to retire from a chair just as Wicliffe arrived. Bradwardine, a mathematician and astronomer, had been drawn to the Word of God and especially the doctrines of free grace. Unlike his contemporaries entangled in scholasticism he humbly accepted God's scriptural revelation. He opposed blossoming Pelagianism which substituted externals for heart religion and which taught freewill as opposed to the sovereign grace of God. Bradwardine's evangelical views, diffused by his scholars, prepared the way for Wicliffe and others who were to come after him.
Wicliffe thirsted for knowledge "with his might". The subtlest disputants in the schools of Oxford could not overcome his mastery of scholastic philosophy. He was "famously reputed" says Foxe "for a great clerk, a deep schoolman, and no less expert in all kinds of philosophy". Walden, his bitter enemy, writing to Pope Martin V was "wonderfully astonished" at the "vehemency and force of his reasonings" and the "places of authority" with which they were fortified. He was also proficient in canon and civil laws which later stood him in good stead. He was versed in the British Constitution which prepared him for the coming battles with usurping Pontiffs opposing the rights of the crown of England. "He had an eye for the most different things," says Lechler, speaking of Wicliffe, "and took a lively interest in the most multifarious questions."
But Wicliffe's foundation lay in the illumination of his mind and the renewal of his heart through the instrumentality of the Bible. That made him the greatest of all the Reformers appearing before the era of Luther. Without this he would never have been known as the first to bear the axe into the wilderness of Papal abuses, and to strike at the roots of that great tree of which others had been content to lop off a few of the branches.
Instead of being remembered as a disputing scholastic, the honour of raising that Great Protest which nations should bear onwards till full Reformation, became his. That men eventually said, "Fallen is every idol, razed is every stronghold of darkness and tyranny, and now is come salvation, and the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign for ever," is in no small part due to Wicliffe.
Biblicists and Sententiarii
D'Aubigne informs us how Wicliffe came to Truth. As one of the scholars of evangelical Bradwardine he heard daily discourse upon the sovereignty of grace and the freeness of salvation. New light infused the mind of the young scholastic. He turned to a diviner page than that of Plato. But for Bradwardine, Wicliffe might have entered the priesthood unaware of the Bible. Theology was then only studied after a fashion as man centred propositions. First grade Bachelors of Theology held readings in the Bible but those of the middle and highest grades founded their prelections upon the Sentences of Peter Lombard. Puffed up with their mystical lore, they regarded it beneath their dignity to expound so elementary a book as the Holy Scriptures. Bible readers were contemptuously named Biblicists in contrast with the honourable Sententiarii, or Men of the Sentences.
"There was no mention", says Foxe, describing the early days of Wicliffe, "nor almost any word spoken of Scripture. Men occupied their time in studying Aquinas and Scotus, and the Master of Sentences instead of the apostles. Scarcely any other thing was seen in the temples or churches, or taught or spoken of in sermons, or finally intended or gone about in their whole life, but only heaping up of certain shadowed ceremonies upon ceremonies; neither was there any end of their heaping. The people were taught to worship no other thing but that which they did see, and they did see almost nothing which they did not worship".
The Black Death
The year 1348 saw these grovelling superstitions interrupted by the outbreak of a fearful pestilence, one of the most destructive in history. Appearing first in Asia it traversed the globe like the pale horse of the Apocalypse, bringing terror and death. It struck Italy with terrible severity. Florence became a charnel-house. Boccaccio painted its horrors, and poet Petrarch bewailed its desolations.
Passing the Alps the plague entered Northern Europe to reach England on 1st August. "Beginning at Dorchester," says Fox, "every day twenty, some days forty, some fifty, and more, dead corpses, were brought and laid together in one deep pit." On the 1st day of November it reached London, "where," says the same chronicler, "the vehement rage thereof was so hot, and did increase so much, that from the 1st day of February till about the beginning of May, in a church-yard then newly made by Smithfield (Charterhouse), about two hundred dead corpses every day were buried, besides those which in other church-yards of the city were laid also". In London no fewer than 100,000 perished. The ravages of the plague spread over all England, and a full half of the nation was struck down. From men the pestilence passed to the lower animals. Putrid carcasses covered the fields; the labours of the husbandman were suspended; the soil ceased to be ploughed, and the harvest to be reaped; the courts of law were closed, and Parliament did not meet; everywhere reigned terror, mourning, and death.
But the tempest that scathed the earth opened the way for the shower which was to fertilize it. The plague influenced that great movement which, beginning with Wicliffe, was continued in a line of confessors and martyrs, till it issued in the Reformation of Luther and Calvin. Wicliffe was in his twenty-fifth year, and could not but be deeply impressed by the awful events passing around him. "This visitation of the Almighty" says D'Aubigne, "sounded like the trumpet of the judgment-day in the heart of Wicliffe". Bradwardine brought him to the Bible once, now the plague brought him to it a second time. He now came seeking enrichment and understanding to assail the dominant superstitions. He now came to the Bible as a lost sinner, not seeking polemic but how he might be saved. Nearer every day came the messenger of the Almighty. The shadow that messenger cast before him was hourly deepening; and we can hear the young student, who doubtless in that hour felt the barrenness and insufficiency of the philosophy of the schools, lifting up with increasing vehemency the cry, "Who shall deliver me from the wrath to come?"
Wicliffe underwent distress and torment similar in character to the agony of soul which Luther and Calvin would later undergo, though perhaps not so great in degree. His sins, doubtless, were made a heavy burden to him - so heavy that he could not lift up his head. Standing on the brink of the pit, he says, he felt how awful it was to go down into the eternal night, "and inhabit everlasting burnings". The joy of escape from a doom so terrible made him feel how small a matter is the life of the body, and how little to be regarded are the torments which the tyrants of earth have it in their power to inflict, compared with the wrath of the Ever-living God. It is in these fires that the reformers have been hardened. It is in this school that they have learned to defy death and to sing at the stake. In this armour was Wicliffe clad before he was sent forth into the battle.