Artist's depiction of John Calvin in his study

Artist’s depiction of John Calvin in his study

John Calvin (1509-1564) came to saving faith in Jesus Christ in his early twenties, not many years after the Protestant Reformation spread to his homeland of France. When persecution broke out against French Protestants early in 1535, Calvin sought refuge in the Protestant city of Basel, Switzerland. He desired to pursue the quiet career of a contemplative scholar. To that end, during the summer of 1536 he sought to travel to Strasbourgh to continue his studies there.

But God providentially led Calvin instead to Geneva where he was recruited by a zealous Reformer named William Farel to stay and help advance the Protestant Reformation then taking place in that city. Calvin threw himself into that endeavor and some good initial progress was made. But opposition arose to those Reformation efforts, and in 1538 Calvin was ordered to leave Geneva by the city government.

After spending three happy, peaceful years in Strasbourgh, however, Calvin’s supportive acquaintances back in Geneva gained greater influence in their city and urged him to return to resume his reforming ministry there. Upon doing so in 1541, Calvin prepared a series of Ecclesiastical Ordinances that were approved by the city government with some modifications. Those ordinances placed the governance of the church in Geneva mostly in the hands of the Consistory, which was made up of the church’s five pastors and twelve lay elders. The Consistory, led by Calvin, sought to maintain high moral standards for the citizens of the city, who were also the members of the church. Punishable offenses included such transgressions as absences from public worship, blasphemy, adultery, drunkenness and gambling.

Artist's depiction of John Calvin refusing the Libertines communion

Artist’s depiction of John Calvin refusing the Libertines communion

Not surprisingly, not a few in Geneva resented and opposed Calvin and the Consistory’s strict standards. This was true of some of the influential families in Geneva’s high society who called themselves Libertines. For the better part of fifteen years after Calvin returned to Geneva, the church Consistory and the city government repeatedly clashed. On a number of occasions Calvin’s position of leadership became quite precarious. But he continued to hold his ground against the Libertines by refusing them the right to participate in the church’s communion services.

In the meanwhile, throughout Calvin’s second residence in Geneva, some 6,000 Protestant refugees, most of them from his native France, settled in the city, thus strengthening his base of support. Finally in 1555 the Libertines had to flee the city after overplaying their hand by fomenting an armed riot against French immigrants. After that, for the final nine years of his life, Calvin’s leadership and the church regulations he and the Consistory had established were no longer challenged.

John Calvin

John Calvin

In 1559 one of Calvin’s longtime desires was realized in the opening of the Genevan Academy. The school was under the direction of Theodore Beza, Calvin’s eventual successor as Geneva’s theological leader. Students at the academy included not only youth from Geneva but also students from various parts of Europe who later returned to their native lands, taking Calvinistic principles with them. Among those who spent some time training in Geneva was John Knox, the fiery Scottish Reformer. Knox called Geneva “the most perfect school of Christ since the apostles.”

Throughout Calvin’s years in Geneva, his work output was enormous. He presented daily sermons and lectures, from which he produced a series of commentaries (the first of their kind) on most of the books of Scripture. Calvin’s Commentaries, comprising twenty-two substantial volumes, are still widely and profitably used to the present day. Calvin also generated a steady stream of theological treatises and maintained a massive correspondence. Four secretaries at a time were kept busy assisting him with his workload. In addition, he labored in Geneva’s Consistory court, counseled many individuals and entertained endless visitors.

Reformation Wall in Geneva. From left - William Farel, John Calvin, Theodore Beza and John Knox

Reformation Wall in Geneva. From left – William Farel, John Calvin, Theodore Beza and John Knox

Calvin accomplished all this despite being plagued by a number of health problems. In the closing years of his life he suffered from chronic indigestion, headaches, gallstones, hemorrhoids, gout, fever and asthma. Despite those ailments, he pushed himself relentlessly, sleeping only four hours a night. Likely his poor health and early death at age fifty-four were due in part to his excessive labors and insufficient rest.

John Calvin stands with Martin Luther as the two most influential leaders of the Protestant Reformation. Both the Reformed (Calvinistic) and Lutheran branches of Protestantism have spread throughout the world. The influence of Calvin and Luther continues to this day, not only in Reformed and Lutheran circles but in other denominations as well.

#          #          #

Sources used: The Story of Christianity, The Early Church to the Present Day, Justo L. Gonzalez (Prince/Hendrickson, 2005), Vol. 2, pp. 61-69; Church History in Plain Language, Bruce L. Shelley (Word, 1982), pp. 274-281; Great Leaders of the Christian Church, John D. Woodbridge, Ed., “John Calvin,” James I. Packer (Moody, 1988), pp. 206-215.

Copyright 2017 by Vance E. Christie

John Calvin

John Calvin

John Calvin is commonly acknowledged as the Reformation’s supreme Bible teacher and the primary systematizer of Reformation theology. He also provides an outstanding example of embracing God’s call on one’s life, even when it involves personal sacrifice to do so, and as a result to be greatly used of the Lord.

Calvin was born on July 10, 1509, in Noyon, France. By age twenty-one he had earned the B.A. and M.A. degrees at the University of Paris. At his father’s wishes, he then studied law at the universities of Orleans and Bourges, earning the B.A. and licentiate in law at the former university. Following his father’s death in 1531, Calvin returned to Paris to study the classics, desiring to pursue the quiet career of a contemplative scholar.

In his early years of study he was “stubbornly tied to the superstitions of the papacy.” But over time he was exposed to early Reformation teachings that had reached France. This led to what he called his “unexpected conversion,” when he came to personally embrace such Protestant tenets as the ultimate authority of Scripture and justification through faith in Christ alone.

Early in 1535, after Protestants in France began to face persecution, Calvin sought refuge in the Protestant city of Basel, Switzerland. There he wrote the first edition of his highly influential work Institutes of the Christian Religion. Over the next twenty-five years Calvin issued several subsequent editions of that volume, expanding it each time. The final edition consisted of eighty chapters. Church historian Bruce Shelley calls Calvin’s Institutes “the clearest, most logical, and most readable exposition of Protestant doctrine that the Reformation age produced.” The work has been translated into numerous languages and continues to be read and studied with benefit to this day.

William Farel

William Farel

During the summer of 1536, at age twenty-seven, Calvin determined to move to Strasbourgh to continue his studies there. While taking a roundabout route in order to skirt a local war, he was providentially brought to Geneva. In recent years a fiery reformer named William Farel had been leading the Protestant cause there. Hearing that the scholarly young author of the Institutes was in town for the night, Farel went to convince him to stay on in Geneva to help out with the Reformation there. When Calvin demurred, Farel pronounced a divine curse on his intended life of quiet studies if he would not stay to help them with the Lord’s work there! Stunned and convicted, Calvin agreed to remain.

The city council offered Calvin a position as “Professor of Sacred Scriptures,” and he earnestly took up his new responsibilities. He prepared a confession of faith to be accepted by anyone who wished to be a citizen, promoted daily gatherings for psalm singing and expository preaching, and called for an autonomous church court for censuring or, if necessary, excommunicating (usually by exclusion from the Lord’s Supper) delinquent members.

Not surprisingly, influential families in Geneva’s high society (who ominously called themselves Libertines) opposed Calvin’s strict standards. In 1538 the city magistrates refused to accept Calvin’s contention that church leaders should be granted the authority to excommunicate unrepentant church members. Calvin was ordered to leave Geneva, and Farel chose to go with him, thus showing his support for his highly-capable young colleague.

Idelette Calvin, John Calvin's wife

Idelette Calvin, John Calvin’s wife

Calvin was able at last to make his way to Strasbourg. There he spent what may have been the three happiest years of his life. Martin Bucer, the highly respected and influential leader of the Reformation in Strasbourg, asked Calvin to pastor the French congregation that had formed there. Calvin produced a French liturgy and translated several Psalms and hymns into French for singing by the French exiles.

In 1540 Calvin married Idelette de Bure, a widow with two children. They were happily married, though only for nine years, as Idellete died of illness in 1549. Calvin called her “the best friend of my life.”

By 1541 Calvin’s supporters had again regained power in Geneva. They urged him to return to once again lead the Reformation there. Doubtless with a significant degree of trepidation he agreed to do so. [To be continued in a future Perspective.]

#          #          #

Sources used: The Story of Christianity, The Early Church to the Present Day, Justo L. Gonzalez (Prince/Hendrickson, 2005), Vol. 2, pp. 61-69; Church History in Plain Language, Bruce L. Shelley (Word, 1982), pp. 274-281; Great Leaders of the Christian Church, John D. Woodbridge, Ed., “John Calvin,” James I. Packer (Moody, 1988), pp. 206-215.

Copyright 2017 by Vance E. Christie

Martin LutherOctober, 2017, marks the 500th anniversary of the igniting of what became known as the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther is generally considered the father of the Reformation. Luther’s nailing his “95 Theses” to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany, on October 31, 1517, is commonly cited as the event that sparked reformation fires. While there had been other reformers and reformation efforts before Luther, he certainly was the leading human instrument in the much fuller reformation movement that God brought about in Luther’s era.

Martin Luther was born on November 10, 1483, in Eisleben, Saxony (part of modern east Germany). He studied at the University of Erfurt, earning the Bachelor of Arts degree in 1502 and the Master of Arts degree in 1505. He then began to study law in keeping with his father’s wishes. But when caught in a severe thunderstorm on July 2, 1505, Luther feared for his life and cried out, “St. Anne, I will become a monk!”

Thus bound by an oath to his father’s patron saint, Luther joined the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt where he practiced strictest discipline in devoting himself to study, prayer and the use of the sacraments. In rigorously employing the sacrament of penance he constantly and closely scrutinized himself for transgressions, sorrowed over his sins, confessed them to a priest and fulfilled whatever recompense was imposed on him. He sought to discipline and even punish himself with prolonged periods of prayer and fasting as well as through sleepless nights and physical self-flagellations.

Luther’s wise superior, Johannes von Staupitz, recognizing the young monk’s tremendous intellectual abilities, encouraged him away from excessive introspection and into the fuller pursuit of his studies. Luther learned Greek and Hebrew and eventually committed most of the New Testament and large portions of the Old Testament to memory. He was ordained a priest in 1507, taught at the universities of Wittenberg and Erfurt 1508-1511, and received his doctoral degree in 1512. That latter year he returned to the University of Wittenberg as a professor. There he carried out his lectures on the Bible, teaching through the Psalms (1513-1515), Romans (1515-1516), Galatians (1516-1517) and Hebrews (1517-1518). Those books of Scripture were foundational in shaping his theological understanding.

Luther experienced his Christian conversion around 1515, through his contemplation of Romans 1:17, which declares of the Gospel: “For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.” Luther came to understand the Gospel (good news) is that God reckons the perfect righteousness of Christ to sinners who receive it by faith. Faith in Christ and His atoning sacrifice on the cross alone leads to being justified (declared righteous) in the sight of God. This, Luther realized, clashed sharply with the Catholic Church’s elaborate system of sacraments, rituals and other good works by which people hoped to earn their salvation.

In 1517 Luther began publicly preaching against abuses in the sale of indulgences, which had been a favored source of papal income for centuries. People were told that by purchasing indulgences they were exempted from acts of penance over their sins. Indulgences could be purchased for the forgiveness of one’s own sins or for people in purgatory. A Dominican priest named John Tetzel was then preaching throughout much of Germany, to raise funds for the Pope to complete the construction of St. Peter’s basilica in Rome. “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings,” Tetzel claimed, “the soul from purgatory springs.”

Artist's depiction of Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the Wittenberg church door

Artist’s depiction of Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the Wittenberg church door

On October 31 of that year, Luther nailed his 95 Theses, also entitled Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences, to the Wittenberg church door. That was a traditional way in those days of inviting the academic community to discuss an issue. Others realized the great importance of Luther’s 95 Theses and, without his permission, translated them from Latin (the language commonly used by scholars) into German, then published them.

Luther was soon denounced by the Dominicans and a Vatican theologian as a teacher of dangerous doctrines and guilty of heresy. In July, 1519, Luther was involved in an eighteen-day debate with prominent Catholic theologian John Eck at Leipzig. During the course of that debate Luther publicly declared that the Bible alone, not popes or councils, was invariably true and reliable. “A council may sometimes err,” he stated. “Neither the Church nor the Pope can establish articles of faith. These must come from Scripture.” Eck recommended to Rome that Luther be condemned as a heretic.

Artist's depiction of Martin Luther burning the papal bull that condemned his teachings

Artist’s depiction of Martin Luther burning the papal bull that condemned his teachings

Nearly a year later, in June, 1520, Pope Leo X issued a bull (named after the seal – bulla – on the official document) in which forty-one of Luther’s beliefs were condemned as heretical, false and repugnant to Catholic truth. Luther was called to recant of his teachings under threat of excommunication. He received his copy of the papal bull on October 10. At the end his sixty-day grace period, Luther led a throng of students and other supporters outside Wittenberg where he burned copies of the Canon Law, the works of some medieval theologians and a copy of the bull that condemned him.

During the last five months of that same year, 1520, Luther also produced three of his most influential treatises: (1) His Address to the German Nobility appealed to secular princes to call a council to implement reforms that were needed in the Church. He thought such a necessary, corrective council would otherwise never be convened and appropriately carried out due to the corrupt clergy and the vested interests of the princes of the church.

The 95 Theses Wittenberg church door today

The 95 Theses Wittenberg church door today

(2) Luther’s The Babylonian Captivity of the Church examined the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church and concluded that only baptism and the Lord’s Supper were true, biblical sacraments. Luther rejected the Catholic teaching of transubstantiation (that the bread and cup became the actual body and blood of Christ during communion) as well as the doctrine of eucharistic sacrifice (that in communion the priest offered Christ as a propitiation to the Father on the altar). That treatise also promoted the concept of the priesthood of all believers – that all true believers can approach God through Christ and present spiritual sacrifices to Him, rather than relegating such access and service only to Catholic priests.

(3) Luther’s On the Freedom of the Christian Man taught that the inner spiritual freedom that comes through faith in Christ results in outward good deeds on the part of all true believers. True Christians lovingly serve the Lord and their fellow human beings, not to try to earn anything from God, but to seek to please Him in all things. Man needs the law to learn of his moral helplessness and to be led to repentance. But the Gospel is the free promise of grace in Christ and is received through faith in Him rather than by one’s own good works.

In January of the following year, 1521, Luther was excommunicated by the Pope as a heretic. Two months later he was summoned to appear before the emperor Charles V at the imperial diet (assembly) meeting at Worms. Luther was promised a safe conduct, guaranteeing that he could travel safely to and from Worms. He well recalled the similar imperial safe conduct promised to John Hus that was not ultimately honored at Constance, resulting in Hus’s arrest, imprisonment and burning at the stake as a supposed heretic. Despite the possibility of that same fate befalling him, Luther set out for the imperial diet at Worms.

[To be continued in my next Perspective]

Martin Luther quote

#          #          #

Sources consulted: Church History in Plain Language, Bruce L. Shelley (Word, 1982), pp. 255-264; Great Leaders of the Christian Church, John D. Woodbridge, Ed., “Martin Luther,” W. Robert Godfrey (Moody, 1988), pp. 187-196.

Copyright 2017 by Vance E. Christie

John Hus(This Perspective is the second in a short series of mini-biographies on several key leaders in what became known as the Protestant Reformation. This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, a tremendously significant period in history when God graciously brought about the restoration of sound biblical beliefs and practices to Christ’s universal Church.)

 John Hus, like John Wycliffe, ministered and died more than a century before the Protestant Reformation officially got underway. Wycliffe and Hus were the two most prominent and influential individuals in paving the way for the Reformation that followed their lifetimes. Hus (also commonly spelled Huss) helped lay the foundation for the Reformation through his courageous proclamation of the truth, even when doing so cost him his life.

John Hus was born around 1372 of poor parents in Bohemia (part of modern Czech Republic). He was educated at the University of Prague, where he earned the Bachelor of Arts degree (1393), the Master of Arts (1396) and the Bachelor of Divinity (another master-level degree, 1404). He was ordained in 1400 and two years later was appointed as rector and preacher at Bethlehem Chapel in Prague. That chapel had been founded a decade earlier as a center for reform preaching. So Hus was placed in a key position within the reform movement taking place in Bohemia at that time.

John Hus monument in Old Town Square in Prague

John Hus monument in Old Town Square in Prague

Since the marriage of England’s King Richard II and Anne of Bohemia in 1382, there had been close ties between their two countries. John Wycliffe’s earlier philosophical writings and his later, more-radical theological works made their way from England to the University of Prague, where they were discussed and debated. Hus, like most Bohemian reformers, rejected Wycliffe’s attacks on transubstantiation, but he readily agreed with his strong disapproval of clerical corruption. Hus especially opposed simony – the buying or selling of ecclesiastical privileges, such as pardons from sin or benefices (appointments to salaried positions within the church). Hus also accepted Wycliffe’s teaching on the Church that opened the door (1) to rejecting the authority of sinful church leaders and (2) to appealing to the authority of Scripture over that of the institutional church.

In 1409 Hus was selected to be the rector of the University of Prague. But the Archbishop of Prague, who opposed some of Hus’s views and wished to silence him, obtained from the pope a ban on preaching in chapels, including the Bethlehem Chapel. Hus refused to obey, so was excommunicated by the archbishop in 1410. When the archbishop burned 200 volumes of Wycliffe’s works that same year, Hus and others defended Wycliffe’s orthodoxy.

Two years later Pope John XXII launched a crusade against the king of Naples and offered full remission of sins to all who supported him. Hus attacked the pope’s selling of indulgences. As a result, Hus was excommunicated by Rome, and the city of Prague was placed under an interdict so long as Hus remained there. No religious services, including baptisms and funerals, could take place while he was still in the city. Under those circumstances, Hus felt compelled to leave Prague. He moved to southern Bohemia, where he wrote two of his most important works on The Church and Simony.

In 1414 the Council of Constance met in Germany to seek to heal some of the long-standing divisions within the Roman Catholic Church. Emperor Sigismund of Germany invited Hus to participate and promised him safe conduct to and from the council, even if some tried to bring a case against him. With considerable hesitation Hus decided to attend, but he was arrested and imprisoned in Constance. The council put him on trial and convicted him of heresy, though many of the charges brought against him were untrue. (This was the same council that condemned Wycliffe, posthumously, of having been a heretic.)

Hus was repeatedly invited to recant of his supposed heresies and thus avoid execution by burning at the stake. He steadfastly responded that he was willing to yield himself to the teaching of the church when instructed by Scripture in what way his teaching was wrong.

During his eight-month imprisonment in Constance, Hus prayed: “O most holy Christ, draw me, weak as I am, after Thyself. For if Thou dost not draw us, we cannot follow Thee. Strengthen my spirit, that it may be willing. If the flesh is weak, let Thy grace precede us; come between and follow, for without Thee we cannot go for Thy sake to cruel death. Give me a fearless heart, a right faith, a firm hope, a perfect love, that for Thy sake I may lay down my life with patience and joy. Amen.”

Artist's depiction of John Hus's burning at the stake

Artist’s depiction of John Hus’s burning at the stake

On the day of his execution – July 6, 1415 – Hus was taken to the cathedral at Constance, where he was dressed in, then stripped of, his priestly garments. His head was shaved, and a paper crown decorated with images of demons was placed upon it. While being led to the stake, Hus passed through a churchyard and saw copies of his books being burned. He laughed and told the bystanders not to believe the lies being circulated about him.

At the place of execution, as they tied him to the stake, Hus prayed aloud: ‘Lord Jesus, it is for Thee that I patiently endure this cruel death. I pray Thee to have mercy on my enemies.” When given one final opportunity to recant, Hus responded: “God is my witness that the evidence against me is false. I have never thought nor preached except with the one intention of winning men, if possible, from their sins. In the truth of the Gospel I have written, taught, and preached. Today I will gladly die.” He was heard quoting from the Psalms until the flames, rising up around him, extinguished his earthly life. Afterwards his executioners gathered his ashes and threw them into the nearby lake.

Nearly all Bohemians were indignant and repudiated the Council of Constance for this travesty in condemning and executing Hus. Several different groups, including members of the nobility, bourgeoisie and lower class, came together in their continued demands for reform in the church. On several occasions during the next fifteen or so years, Bohemian forces successfully repelled a number of crusades that the pope brought against the Hussites. Many Bohemians left the Catholic Church and eventually formed the Unitas Fratrum (“Union of Brethren”). For a time their numbers grew rapidly in Bohemia and nearby Moravia. During the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, remnant groups of the Unitas Fratrum established ties with both Lutherans and Calvinists.


John Hus quotation (birthdate likely inaccurate)

#          #          #

Sources consulted: The Story of Christianity, The Early Church to the Present Day, Justo L. Gonzalez (Prince/Hendrickson, 2005), Vol. 1, pp.348-53; Church History in Plain Language, Bruce L. Shelley (Word, 1982), pp.248-51; Great Leaders of the Christian Church, John D. Woodbridge, Ed., “John Wyclif,” A. N. S. Lane (Moody, 1988), pp.183-86.

Copyright 2017 by Vance E. Christie

John Wycliffe(This Perspective is a bit longer and denser than my normal postings. But I trust you’ll find it worthwhile to plow through the entire post.)

This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Conferences are being held, sermon series are being preached, a number of books have been published and innumerable blogs are being written to mark this tremendously significant occasion in history—the restoration of sound biblical beliefs and practices to Christ’s universal Church.

In the coming weeks I intend, Lord willing, to share a series of mini-biographies on several of the key leaders of the Reformation. Reading these brief accounts of their lives brings the benefits of (1) gaining a basic understanding of this vital period in Church History, (2) coming to have a deepened appreciation of the priceless Christian heritage that God provided for us in sovereignly bringing about the Reformation, and (3) being encouraged and challenged to make sure that our own Christian beliefs and practices are biblically sound and spiritually vibrant.

John Wycliffe window in Wycliffe Hall, Oxford University

John Wycliffe window in Wycliffe Hall, Oxford University

This first article features John Wycliffe (also commonly spelled Wyclif), who is sometimes called the Morning Star of the Reformation. He lived and died more than a century before the Protestant Reformation took place, but his influential teachings played a significant role in laying the groundwork for some of the reformations that occurred later.

It’s first necessary to briefly (in just two paragraphs! Smile) describe the religious and political setting of the era in which Wycliffe lived. For centuries the Roman Catholic Church and its popes had held unrivaled religious and political power throughout central and western Europe. But in the 1300s seismic shifts took place that began to change that. In the first place, the rise of nation-states and strong monarchies weakened the Church’s and the Pope’s claim to political authority and significantly diminished material revenues given to the Church. In order to supplement flagging revenues, the Church and Pope came up with a variety of questionable and objectionable measures such as instituting new taxes, charging significant fees for church service opportunities, and selling indulgences for the supposed remission of sins.

Secondly, France and England were continually at war throughout the fourteenth century, and other developing countries ended up picking sides in the ongoing conflicts, thus creating further disunity in Europe and the Church. Thirdly, from 1305 to 1377, in what is known as the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, six successive popes, all of French origin, chose to reside in the town of Avignon, near the border of France, rather than in Rome. For both religious and political reasons, many opposed and resented that change of location. Fourthly, the Great Schism of the Papacy took place from 1377 to 1407, in which period two separate successions of Popes, each with its own College of Cardinals, existed in Rome and Avignon, further splintering the Church.

Wycliffe Hall, Oxford University

Wycliffe Hall, Oxford University

John Wycliffe was born in Yorkshire, England, around 1330. Virtually nothing is known about his childhood. He was educated at Oxford University, earning the Master of Arts degree (1361), the Bachelor of Divinity (another master-level degree, about 1369) and the Doctor of Divinity (1372). In addition to studying and teaching at the university throughout those years, he was appointed as the rector of a Lincolnshire church and funded part of his education through that income. As was often done in that era, Wycliffe was actually an absentee rector through much of his career, needing only to provide a substitute to fulfill his pastoral responsibilities. Wycliffe became Oxford’s leading philosopher and theologian.

One of the burning issues of that era was the question of lordship or dominion. All agreed that the right to rule was granted by God. But some thought that only those appointed by the Church had the divine right to exercise such authority, while others believed that secular rulers who had not committed grievous sin were also qualified to govern. Wycliffe supported the latter position and further taught that any leaders, sacred or secular, who persisted in sin should be removed from office. He even went so far as to teach that secular authorities had the responsibility to remove unrepentant churchmen from office, as well as the right to seize the property of corrupt church officials.

Wycliffe's Lutterworth Church

Wycliffe’s Lutterworth Church

These teachings, which were not motivated by political aspirations on Wycliffe’s part, brought him into favor with England’s secular rulers but into disfavor with not a few Church leaders. As a result, in 1377 the Pope condemned Wycliffe’s teachings, and the English Bishops tried to put Wycliffe on trial. But John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster and one of the most powerful people in England, intervened on Wycliffe’s behalf, and he was not brought to trial.

In the years that followed, the early years of the Great Papal Schism, Wycliffe continued to develop and teach other ideas that would have spelled his doom at any earlier time in the Middle Ages. He taught not only that the Bible is free from error or contradiction, but also that it contains the whole of God’s revelation and all that is necessary for salvation. There is no need for further teaching to be supplied by church tradition, the Pope or any other source. And all other authorities (including church tradition, canon law, councils and even popes) must be attested by the Scriptures.

The Wycliffe Bible

The Wycliffe Bible

Wycliffe also taught that the Bible is to be available to all Christians – laypersons and clergy alike. The latter conviction led some of Wycliffe’s followers, likely under his supervision, to translate the Bible into the common language of the English people. That translation, commonly called the Wycliffe Bible, was made from the Latin Vulgate rather than from the original Hebrew and Greek sources.

Concerning the papacy, Wycliffe taught that it was an office instituted by man, not by God. The Pope’s authority is confined to the church rather than extending to secular government. Furthermore, the Pope’s authority depends on his having the moral character of the Apostle Peter in leading a poor and humble life spent in the service of the Church and providing a clear example of Christian goodness. Such teaching implied the rejection of nearly all the recent popes in Wycliffe’s time. At first Wycliffe taught a Pope who does not follow Jesus Christ is the Antichrist. He later declared that the institution of the papacy itself is Antichrist.

Wycliffe challenged a wide range of medieval beliefs and practices: pardons, indulgences, absolutions, pilgrimages, the worship of images, the adoration of the saints and the distinction between venial and mortal sins. He gained the greatest opposition by rejecting the doctrine of transubstantiation, the belief that in Christian Communion the bread and wine (or juice) become the actual body and blood of Christ. Wycliffe believed, rather, that the bread and wine are symbols of Christ’s body and blood, that Christ is present in the communion elements sacramentally but not materially.

John Wycliffe's remains being exhumed, burned and poured in the River Swift

John Wycliffe’s remains being exhumed, burned and poured in the River Swift

Because of such beliefs, Wycliffe was no longer allowed to teach at Oxford beginning in 1382. That same year William Courtenay, the new Archbishop of Canterbury and a longtime opponent of Wycliffe, convened a church council in which a number of Wycliffe’s teachings were condemned as heresy. Wycliffe withdrew to Lutterworth in Leicestershire, where he had been the absentee rector since 1374. There he devoted himself to writing and lived out the final years of his life in peace. After suffering a stroke in December, 1384, he died that New Year’s Eve.

John Wycliffe's preachers, the Lollards

John Wycliffe’s preachers, the Lollards

Wycliffe received a Christian funeral and was buried in consecrated ground of the Church. But in 1414 the Council of Constance condemned him as a heretic. Consequently, his remains were disinterred and burned, and his ashes were thrown into the River Swift.

During his lifetime some of Wycliffe’s disciples went out into country villages and byways to minister to neglected souls there. They carried with them portions of the Wycliffe Bible and helped spread his teachings. They were derogatorily dubbed Lollards, which means “mumblers.” After Wycliffe’s death they were persecuted and became an underground, lower-class movement. But their ongoing influence helped pave the way for and bring about the English Reformation in the 1500s.

#          #          #

Sources consulted: The Story of Christianity, The Early Church to the Present Day, Justo L. Gonzalez (Prince/Hendrickson, 2005), Vol. 1, pp. 324-48; Church History in Plain Language, Bruce L. Shelley (Word, 1982), pp. 233-48; Great Leaders of the Christian Church, John D. Woodbridge, Ed., “John Wyclif,” A. N. S. Lane (Moody, 1988), pp. 173-77.

Copyright 2017 by Vance E. Christie