The year 2017 marks a significant milestone in the history of the Christian Church. For it was five hundred years ago – on 31st October 1517 – that Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk, nailed his 95 theses on the Wittenburg church door. This sparked the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.
The greatest revival on the Christian calendar since Pentecost, the Reformation was another outpouring of the Holy Spirit as God directed the reformers in Western Europe to return to Biblical Christianity as taught in the Word of God. This momentous period in church history saw a revival of the biblically-starved masses as they were awakened to the truths that could be found only in the Holy Scriptures.
In the 16th Century Reformation, many men of courage and zeal stood up against the religious abuses of the Roman Catholic Church (RCC). Among these reformers were Martin Luther, John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli. But long before these heroes of faith came on the Reformation scene, a strong foundation had been laid through the vision, labour and sacrifices of great forerunners like John Wycliffe and John Huss.
As Bible-Presbyterians, we look back with gratitude upon our Reformed faith which has its beginning in our reformation forebears who stood fearless and unwavering even in the face of impending death. In the build-up to our commemoration of the Reformation, we embark on a series of articles that focus mainly on the Martyrs of the Reformation:
o John Wycliffe
John Wycliffe was a brilliant theologian of the 14th century, and a forerunner of the Protestant Reformation. More than a century before Martin Luther shook Western Europe with his 95 theses, Wycliffe blazed the trail for the 1517 Reformation by challenging the many heresies and practices of the medieval Roman Church. In later years, Luther acknowledged the debt he owed to Wycliffe for returning the church to her historic Christian faith.
Hailed as “the Morning Star of the Reformation”, Wycliffe was responsible for bringing light to the lay people of medieval England who were under the bondage of the RCC. His most important contribution, however, was his translation of the Vulgate (Latin Bible) into English, the vernacular language of the people.
• Early life and education
John Wycliffe was born in Yorkshire, England in 1324 during a period of spiritual darkness as well as political and social unrest. The church was rich, powerful and corrupt. Oppression was rife as the people were kept in spiritual darkness and bondage.
Wycliffe studied at Oxford University where he obtained his Doctor of Divinity in 1372. He taught philosophy at Oxford where he became known as a brilliant scholastic theologian and debater. He also served intermittently as a priest in rural parishes.
• Bible translation
When Wycliffe was 22, he was deeply affected by the deadly bubonic plague – called “the Black Death” – which spread from Asia to England, causing the death of 100,000 people in London alone. According to historian Merle d’Aubigné, “this visitation of the Almighty sounded like the trumpet of judgment day in the heart of Wycliffe and drove him to the Scriptures” (The Perilous Times – October 2003 – A publication of the Vancouver B-P Church). Thus convicted, Wycliffe began to study the Scriptures fervently. He soon realised that the RCC’s traditions and teachings were contrary to the Word of God.
The year 1378 marked a turning point in Wycliffe’s reformation career – he began to actively refute the practices of the RCC, one of which was the doctrine of transubstantiation which taught that the substance of the bread and wine used in the Eucharist is changed into the body and blood of Christ. He condemned the doctrine of purgatory, the sale of indulgences, and stressed the need for a personal relationship with God through Christ the Mediator.
Wycliffe had a heart for the poor and common folk and desired to make the Bible available to them in the English language. He believed and taught that the lay people had the right to read and interpret the Bible themselves. With this conviction and passion, Wycliffe translated the Latin Vulgate into English in the year 1382.
Besides his preaching, writing and translation ministry, Wycliffe also trained and sent out itinerant preachers or “poor priests” known as “the Lollards” to spread the Gospel. Risking their lives, these evangelists used Wycliffe’s translation to teach God’s Word to the masses. However, many of them were “arrested and burnt, with Wycliffe Bibles hung round their necks” (Pandan News Weekly – 4 October 2015).
The RCC’s efforts to silence these faithful preachers failed. The Lollards’ zealous evangelistic efforts initiated a spiritual reformation all over the land. In this way, Wycliffe’s views spread into Bohemia, influencing John Huss, another forerunner of the Reformation.
Though Wycliffe was on the “death list” of the Roman church, he spent his last years peaceably in the parish of Lutterworth. He suffered a stroke in 1382, which partly paralysed him. As a result he was unable to attend a papal summon to Rome to answer for his “heretical teachings”. God had graciously preserved His servant from suffering for his courageous stand for the Truth. Before a further decision could be made to bring him before the papal seat, Wycliffe died from a second stroke in 1384. But the vindictive Roman authorities did not spare him. In 1415, the Council of Constance burned John Huss at the stake, and condemned John Wycliffe on 260 different counts. In 1428, to wipe out all memory of “the heretic”, they dug up and burned Wycliffe’s remains and threw his ashes into the River Swift. Though John Wycliffe was not physically martyred for his faith, the desecration of his grave is clear evidence that the RCC considered him a heretic who deserved a “martyr’s damnation”.
We thank God for raising John Wycliffe, a valiant and zealous forerunner of the Reformation. His English Bible spearheaded the Reformation Movement which brought many out of the darkness of pagan Rome to the glorious light of God’s Word.
Wycliffe’s enemies sought to destroy him and the Bible he translated. But their efforts served only to accelerate the Reformation instead of stamping it out. How true the words of the hymn by Haldor Lillenas: “The Bible stands like a mountain tow’ring – Far above the works of men; Its truth by none ever was refuted, And destroy it they never can.” Amen.