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Wednesday, August 16, 2017
Date Posted:

Wicliffe and the English Bible

Taken from Wylie’s History of Protestantism, and edited by Dr Clive Gillis
Dr Clive Gillis

After Gregory XI returned to Rome in 1378 the papal schism began.

Whilst Popes in Rome and Avignon distracted Christendom denouncing each other as Antichrist, Wicliffe back in Lutterworth quietly commenced the second part of his great career publishing a tract On the Truth and Meaning of Scripture. This maintained "the supreme authority of Scripture... the right of private judgment and that Christ's law sufficeth by itself to rule Christ's Church". It is now he first hints of his purpose to translate the Bible into the English vernacular - a work which was to be the crown of his labours. But he fell sick. Whilst surrounding monks contemplated his early death the Reformer vowed, "I shall not die, but live and declare the evil deeds of the friars". The astonished monks rushed in confusion from his chamber. His sickness then left him, and he rose from his bed to commence the work of giving the Bible to the people of England in their own tongue. True, there were already copies of the Word of God in England, but they were in a language ordinary people did not understand. The revelation of God to man was so hidden from the people it was as if God had never spoken.

Early English Bibles

In the seventh century Caedmon, an Anglo-Saxon monk first gave English people a taste of what the Bible contained. Caedmon had simply woven certain dramatic scriptures into a poem. Alfric and Alfred the Great produced paraphrases rather than translations. Bede in the eighth century is credited with translating the Gospel of John from the Latin Vulgate into Anglo Saxon. Seized with a fatal illness he toiled day after day as his strength ebbed. Both his life and his work were to end together. On his last day one chapter remained to be translated. He summoned his amanuensis to his bed-side. "Quickly take your pen and write". The amanuensis read verse by verse from the Vulgate, which Bede rendered into Anglo-Saxon. Then suddenly delay. Officials arrived seeking the dying man`s assent to certain matters. Afterwards the scribe remarked "Dear master, there is yet one verse" . Bede replied "Be quick". The work completed the amanuensis exclaimed "It is finished". Dying Bede replied, "Thou hast truly said it is finished" and gently raising his hands added "Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost" and expired.

The whole Bible

Wicliffe's idea was to give the whole Bible, in the vernacular , to the people of England so that every man in the realm might read of God in his mother tongue. No one in England had thought of such a thing before. He had not many years in which to do his great work. Only a portion of a decade of broken health remained. But his intellectual rigor was unimpaired; his experience and graces were at their ripest. Day by day he laboured at his self-appointed task. As verse after verse was rendered into the English tongue, the Reformer had the consolation of thinking that another ray had been shot into the darkness which brooded over his native land. The message of Heaven was entering the speech of England. The dawn of the Reformation had fairly broken. The whole New Testament was translated by himself but Dr. Nicholas de Hereford of Oxford, is thought to have been the translator of the Old Testament which was later partly revised by Wicliffe. The Wicliffe Bible is remarkably truthful and spirited elements of antique Saxon bring striking drama to some passages.

The Father of English prose

Wicliffe's version of the Bible powerfully contributed to form the English tongue, in the way of perfecting its structure and enlarging its vocabulary. A simplicity, beauty, pathos, precision and a force unknown to it until then revealed. Wicliffe is the Father of English Prose. No man in his day wrote so much as Wicliffe. Writing for the common people, he studied to be simple and clear. He was in earnest, and the enthusiasm of his soul supplied him with direct and forcible terms. Lechler said, "If we compare Wicliffe's Bible, not with his own English writings, but with the other English literature before and after him, a still more important consideration suggests itself. Wicliffe's translation marks in its own way quite as great an epoch in the development of the English language, as Luther's translation does in the history of the German language ... As Luther's Bible later opened the period of the new high German, Wicliffe's Bible stands at the top of the medieval English.... It is true, Geoffrey Chaucer, the Father of English Poetry, and not Wicliffe, is generally considered as the pioneer of medieval English literature but Wicliffe and his school have become through his Bible the founders of the medieval English, in which at last lie the fundamental features of the new English since the sixteenth century...."

Publishing without a printing press

The translation complete the difficult task of publishing without a printing press began. A common way was to place a copy of a new book in the hall of some convent or in the library of some college, where all might come and read. If the book pleased some might order personal copies. But the interest taken in Wicliffe‘s work enlisted a hundred expert hands to multiply copies. Some ordered complete copies, others portions. The same copy would serve several families. Shortly Wicliffe's English Bible had obtained a wide circulation, and brought a new life into many an English home. As the English people read the Word of Life in their mother-tongue great light broke upon them as monkish confusion and worldly scepticism dispersed. They rejoiced with an exceeding great joy. They now saw the open path to the Divine Mercy-seat; and putting aside the many mediators whom Rome had commissioned to conduct them to it, but who in reality had hidden it from them, they entered boldly by the one Mediator, and stood in the presence of Him who sitteth upon the Throne.

Monks raise a great cry

The hierarchy were struck with consternation. They now saw that even should the Reformer's voice fall silent, a preacher they could not bind to a stake and burn would continue . With silent foot the Word of God was already traversing the length and breadth of England. When the head of princely abbot and lordly prelate reposed on his pillow, this preacher, who "did not know sleep with his eye day nor night" was executing his mission, entering the homes and winning the hearts of the people. The monks raised a great cry. Wicliffe had attacked the Church. He wished to destroy religion itself. This raised the question of the right of the people to read the Bible. The Romaunt version, the vernacular of the south of Europe in the Middle Ages, had been in existence for two centuries and forbidden by the Church. But here had been no need of law prohibiting the use of the Bible by the people and until Rome could react the Scripture had free course.

But moral interdict was instantly promulgated against the reading of the Bible by the people. Henry de Knighton, Canon of Leicester declared "Christ delivered His Gospel to the clergy and doctors of the Church, that they might administer to the laity and to weaker persons, according to the state of the times and the wants of men. But this Master John Wicliffe translated it out of Latin into English, and thus laid it more open to the laity, and to women who could read, than it had formerly been to the most learned of the clergy, even to those of them who had the best understanding. And in this way the Gospel pearl is cast abroad, and trodden under foot of swine, and that which was before precious to both clergy and laity is rendered, as it were, common jest to both".

Wicliffe stands alone

A great clamour was now orchestrated against the Reformer by the priests and their followers, unhappily still the bulk of the nation. Wicliffe was a heretic, a sacrilegious man; he had committed a crime unknown to former ages; he had broken into the temple and stolen the sacred vessels; he had fired the House of God. Such were the terms in which the man was spoken of, who had given to his country the greatest boon England ever received. And Wicliffe had to fight the battle alone. Now no peer or great man stood by his side. It would seem as if there must come, in the career of all great reformers - and Wicliffe stands in the first rank - a moment when, forsaken of all, and painfully sensible of their isolation, they must display the perfection of their faith by leaning only on One, even God. This Wicliffe did as a great contrary storm arose against him. But though he had lived a thousand years continually preaching, he could not have hoped for the good which he now saw in course of being accomplished by the silent action of the English Bible.

Taken from Wylie's History of Protestantism, and edited by Dr Clive Gillis

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