Wicliffe’s Theological And Church System
Taken from Wylie’s History of Protestantism, and edited by Dr Clive Gillis
Dr Clive Gillis
Standing before the Bible, Wicliffe forgot all the teaching of man.
For centuries the human mind had invented Systems, the doctors glosses, the Councils edicts and the Popes bulls. The structure looked imposing indeed. Wicliffe dug down through everything to the free grace of God in the matter of man's salvation; in fact, he ascribed it entirely to grace. "Here we must know" says he, "the story of the old law... As a right looking on that adder of brass saved the people from the venom of serpents, so a right looking by full belief on Christ saveth His people. Christ died not for His own sins as thieves do for theirs, but as our Brother, who Himself might not sin, He died for the sins that others had done".
Wicliffe gave a plain exposition of Scripture restoring to view those hidden truths which are for the healing of souls. He left the formulation of doctrines to his successors. It was for those who should come after him to formulate the doctrines. Like plucked flowers some 300 of his sermons, or "postils" remain. They accurately demonstrate the depth and comprehensiveness of the Reformer's views. Reformers of the sixteenth century lacking materials did him no little injustice. Melanchthon in a letter to Myconius, declared him to be ignorant of the "righteousness of faith". This judgment although untrue is excusable in the circumstances in which it was formed. It is now clear that Wicliffe both knew and taught the doctrine of God's grace, and of man's free justification through faith in the righteousness of Christ.
Only two orders of clergy
Wicliffe also unearthed the apostolic foundations of the Church. The Church was made up of the whole body of the faithful. He discarded the idea that the clergy alone are the Church; the laity, he held, are equally an essential part of it; nor ought there to be, he held, among its ministers, gradation of rank or official pre-eminence. "From the faith of the Scriptures", says he in his Trialogus, "it seems to me to be sufficient that there should be presbyters and deacons holding that state and office which Christ has imposed on them, since it appears certain that these degrees and orders have their origin in the pride of Caesar ... I boldly assert one thing, namely, that in the primitive Church, or in the time of Paul, two orders of the clergy were sufficient - that is, a priest and a deacon. In like manner I affirm that in the time of Paul, the presbyter and bishop were names of the same office. This appears from the third chapter of the first Epistle to Timothy, and in the first chapter of the Epistle to Titus".
Regarding the clergy he says, "When men speak of Holy Church, anon, they understand prelates and priests, with monks, and canons, and friars, and all men who have tonsures, though they live accursedly, and never so contrary to the law of God. But they call not the seculars men of Holy Church, though they live never so truly, according to God's law, and die in perfect charity ... Christian men, taught in God's law, call Holy Church the congregation of just men, for whom Jesus Christ shed His blood, and not mere stones and timber and earthly dross, which the clerks of Antichrist magnify more than the righteousness of God, and the souls of men".
Before Wicliffe could form these opinions he had to forget the age in which he lived, and place himself in the midst of apostolic times. He had to emancipate himself from the prestige which a venerable antiquity gave to the institutions around him, and seek his model and principles in the Word of God. It was an act of stupendous obedience done in faith, but by that act he became the pioneer of the Reformation, and the father of all those, in any age or country, who confess that, in their efforts after the Reformation.
Of his personal piety there can be no doubt. There remain, it is true, scarce any memorials, written or traditional, of his private life; but his public history is an enduring monument of his personal Christianity. Such a life nothing could have sustained save a deep conviction of the truth, a firm trust in God, a love to the Saviour, and an ardent desire for the salvation of men. His private character, we know, was singularly pure; none of the vices of the age had touched him; as a pastor he was loving and faithful, and as a patriot he was enlightened, incorruptible, and courageous. His friends fell away, but the Reformer never hesitated, never wavered. His views continued to grow, and his magnanimity and zeal grew with them. Had he sought fame, or wealth, or promotion, he could not but have seen that he had taken the wrong road: privation and continual sacrifice only could he expect in the path he had chosen.
His sermons afford us a glimpse into his study at Lutterworth. These are remarkable being expressed in vigorous rudimentary English, with no mystic haze in their thinking, disencumbered from the phraseology of the schools, simple and clear as the opening day, and fragrant as the breath of morning. They burst suddenly upon us like a ray of pure light from the very heart of the darkness. "If we look from Wicliffe" , says Lechler ( A continental historian popularised in England by the 1904 RTS edited translation of his John Wycliffe and his English Precursors) , "backwards, in order to compare him with the men before him, and arrive at a scale of measurement for his own power, the fact is brought before us that Wicliffe concentratedly represented that movement towards reform of the foregoing centuries, which the degeneracy of the Church, arising from its secular possessions and simonies, rendered necessary.
That which, in Gregory VII's time, Arnold of Brescia, and the community of the Waldenses, Francis of Assisi, and the begging orders of the Minorites strove after, what the holy Bernard of Clairvaux longed for, the return of the Church to apostolic order, that filled Wicliffe's soul specially at the beginning of his public career ... In the collective history of the Church of Christ Wicliffe makes an epoch, in so far as he is the first reforming personality. Before him arose, it is true, here and there many schemes and active endeavours, which led also to dissensions and collisions, and ultimately to the formation of separate communities; but Wicliffe is the first important personality who devoted himself to the work of Church reform with the whole bent of his mind, with all the thinking power of a superior intellect, and the full force of will and joyful self-devotion of a man in Christ Jesus.
He worked at this his life long, out of an earnest, conscientious impulse, and in the confident trust that the work is not in vain in the Lord (1 Corinthians 15:58). He did not conceal from himself that the endeavours of evangelical men would in the first place be combated, persecuted, and repressed. Notwithstanding this, he consoled himself with the thought that it would yet come in the end to a renewing of the Church according to the apostolic pattern ... How far Wicliffe's thoughts have been, first of all, rightly understood, faithfully preserved, and practically valued, till at last all that was true and well proved in them deepened and strengthened, and were finally established in the Reformation of the sixteenth century, must be proved by the history of the following generations".
Wicliffe, had he lived two centuries later, would very probably have been to England what Luther was to Germany, and Knox to Scotland. His appearance in the fourteenth century enabled him to discharge an office that in some respects was higher, and to fill a position that is altogether unique in the religious history of Christendom. With Wicliffe the world changes from stagnancy to progress. Wicliffe introduces the era of moral revivals. He was the Forerunner of all the Reformers, and the Father of all the Reformations of Christendom.
Rome's Own Estimation of Wicliffe‘s place in the Annals of Protestantism.
The appearance of John Wyclif in England was a matter of far greater moment (than the appearance of all the other fellow anti - Roman protesters fast arising at this time) ... (since) the errors (of these other protesters) were all concentrated in his (Wyclif‘s) sect, which prepared the transition to a new heretical system of a universal character, namely, Protestantism...
Wyclif came to regard him (the pope), not as the Vicar of Christ, but as Anti-Christ. He taught that honour paid to the Pope was idolatry of a character all the more hideous and blasphemous, in as much as divine honour was given to a member of Lucifer ... Wyclif further teaches that ... the Church ought to ... return to the simplicity of Apostolic times .The Bible alone, without tradition, is the sole source of faith ... Indulgences, confession, extreme unction and orders are all rejected by Wyclif who even attacks the very centre of Christian worship, the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar. (Ludwig Pastor, "Beloved son" of Leo XIII History of the Popes Vol 1 p 159 -160 Herder 1923 Edition.)