The New International Encyclopædia/Wiclif, John

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The New International Encyclopædia
Wiclif, John
Edition of 1905. See also John Wycliffe on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

WICLIF, John (c.1320-84). A noted English reformer, often styled the ‘Morning Star of the Reformation.’ He was born probably near Richmond, in Yorkshire. The known facts of his life are singularly few and meagre. He seems to have belonged to a well-to-do family of the lower nobility and to have been sent as a youth to the University of Oxford. He became a fellow and not long before 1360 master of Balliol College. He was made rector of the neighboring parish of Fillingham (1361-69), of Ludgarshall (1369-74), and of Lutterworth (1374-84). In 1365 he appears as King's chaplain, if this is the proper translation of peculiaris regis clericus, and from this date he enters into close relations with the Government, especially with the King's son John (of Gaunt). In 1375 he was made a member of a royal commission to confer with legates of the Pope at Bruges. Attention was first called to his views on theological questions in the year 1376, and he was summoned to give account of his teaching at Saint Paul's in London by Bishop Courtenay. In the next year a series of Papal bulls were procured, directing the ecclesiastical authorities to proceed against Wiclif, but he was supported by so strong a faction at the time that nothing could be accomplished. At a second hearing at Lambeth in 1378 he was protected by the Queen Mother and allowed to withdraw with only a gentle admonition. From this time until two years before his death in 1384, he continued to write and teach at Oxford, elaborating his views with more clearness and winning many supporters. His doctrines were carried to Prague and served there as the basis of the revolt under John Huss. They were formally condemned at the Council of Constance (1415) and repudiated by all parties down to the Reformation. In 1428 Pope Martin V. called upon Bishop Flemmyng, of London, to disinter the remains of Wiclif from the parish church at Lutterworth and scatter them abroad, and this was done.

The activities of Wiclif may be classified as political, theological, and evangelical, but these are all closely connected by a common principle of thought. The one creative idea which governed all his action, and which may be regarded as Wiclif's contribution to the Reformation, is the right of the individual to form his opinions on the basis of Scripture and reason, and then to carry out these opinions in association with other individuals as seems best to him and them. Although he describes himself as a realist and worked according to the formal methods of the mediæval realistic school of thought, his conclusions are largely tinged by the new nominalistic writing of William of Ockham and Marsiglio of Padua. The essence of this new thought was the comparative unimportance of traditions in Church or State, and the corresponding right of the members of the body politic or religious to govern themselves as they saw fit. Such ideas fell in naturally with the newly developed nationalistic feeling in all countries, and more especially in England. If it was true that Englishmen owed their first duty to England, then there must be some way of showing that such national loyalty was consistent with fidelity to the Christian faith. Wiclif's first public service was in furnishing to the Government just such a demonstration as this. In 1365 the Pope, then living in France, had renewed a long-neglected claim on England for the tribute promised by King John a hundred and fifty years before as a part of his bargain with Rome. Money given to the Papacy seemed to be money taken from England to serve her enemy, France, and the Government sought a valid excuse for refusing the demand. Wiclif's pamphlet, Determinatio quædam de Dominio, supplied the need. In it he showed that a nation had the same rights of self-preservation as an individual; that the Papacy, being a spiritual power, could not lawfully exercise sovereignty over a dependent country; and, finally, that King John had had no right to make any such bargain without the consent of the people of England. The same points are clearly seen in another pamphlet written eleven years later in reply to an inquiry from Parliament whether the nation would be justified in refusing to pay ‘Peter's pence’ during a time of domestic need. Wiclif takes here the broad ground that all such contributions were acts of charity, and hence not subject to demand; they might rightfully be withheld when the nation had need of the money to provide for the maintenance of religion at home. On both these occasions Wiclif was led on to express opinions on the nature and the present perversions of the Papal office which could not be overlooked. The bulls of Gregory XI. in 1377 were the direct outcome of this opposition. They placed Wiclif fairly in the position of a condemned heretic, but there was no power in England strong enough to enforce them against a man who had made himself the champion of national rights as against all foreign aggression. They fell fiat and unquestionably weakened the Papal cause in England. Though the attitude of the Government changed with the shifting of parties consequent upon the death of Edward III. and the accession of Richard II., Wiclif continued to enjoy the protection that had carried him so far and was allowed to end his days in peace.

The principles governing Wiclif in these political questions are laid down by him chiefly in his two great treatises, De Dominio Divino and De Civili Dominio, in which he tried to show the limits of human lordship and especially of the lordship of the Church over temporal things. In these, as in his other writings, the appeal is throughout to Scripture as the highest expression of the divine law, and in opposition to the man-made statutes of the Roman Church. From this supreme authority of Scripture Wiclif went on naturally to the importance of teaching it to every Christian, and so to the duty of giving it to the world in the common tongue. It seems now to be clear that before Wiclif's time there had been no systematic attempt to translate the whole Bible into English, and hence the vast importance of the version known as Wiclif's Bible, though it is not probable that he did more than a fragment of the work of translation himself. Aside from its value as a contribution to the growing standard of English prose, this English Bible was the chief agency in spreading the ideas that form the practical side of Wiclif's activity. He tried to meet the need of the times by sending out the Bible in the hands of young men, not ordained to the ministry nor bound by any vows, not even, so far as we know, equipped with any professional learning, though probably often youths who had listened to his teaching at Oxford. These ‘poor priests’ were to imitate as far as possible the conditions of the Apostles. They went forth on foot, in a russet gown, with scrip and staff, and, if we may believe the reports of friends and enemies alike, the people heard them gladly. They were instructed to preach nothing but the plain, straightforward word of God. The description of the ‘persone of a town’ in the prologue to the Canterbury Tales corresponds very closely to the ideal set forth in Wiclif's instructions to these preachers.

What the heresies of Wiclif were is best learned from the list of charges brought forward at the several trials. They may all be regarded as growing out of the one fundamental notion of a divine law — lex Christi — superior to all earthly laws and not intrusted to any human person or institution. It is obvious that in the last resort this divine law is only to be found in the individual conscience using all the means, intellectual, spiritual, and emotional, that it can command. This was Wiclif's real and sufficient offense. It appears in every detail of the charges. In speculative theology the test came, as it continued to do throughout the Reformation period, on the question of the sacramental observances, and especially of the Eucharist. Realist as he claimed to be, Wiclif could not accept the doctrine that in the consecration of the elements the accidents were separated from the substance they represented, and he therefore had to deny the doctrine of transubstantiation. True, he tried every device of the subtlest logic of the schools to prove that he believed in an actual presence of the body of Christ in the Host, but his definitions were vague enough to admit the widest differences of interpretation, and this would not do. His view of the Church was that it consisted of the body of the followers of Christ, and that therefore it could not be controlled by any person or group of persons, such as the Pope and the cardinals. Authority in the Church depended upon the purity with which those who claimed authority lived up to the law of Christ. If they violated that law, they forfeited all claim to obedience. It was the business of temporal authorities to see to it that this law be obeyed, and to recall the rulers of the Church to obedience if they failed. The control of the temporalities of the Church lay in the hand of the civil rulers, who ought to withdraw them if they were abused.

However subversive of existing institutions these principles of Wiclif might be, they would, perhaps, have been overlooked if he had not aroused the bitterest personal enmities by his unsparing application of them to the evils of society. Especially his denunciations of the mendicant Orders brought into the field against him a power that few could in the long run withstand. The episcopal Order felt itself threatened by the growing contempt for organized authority, and was only too ready to connect the social upheavals of the time (1381) with this religious agitation. The sympathy of the ruling classes was diverted from Wiclif in his last years, but it is clear that his teaching was held in reverence by many of the lower and middle classes. ‘Lollardry,’ as the following of Wiclif came to be called, was doubtless very widely spread and maintained itself for about a generation after Wiclif's death as a powerful religious and political factor in the English people. The most active work in collecting and editing Wiclif's writings has been done under the auspices of the Wiclif Society, which is still engaged in clearing up the evidence as to the reformer's life and work. Consult: Lechler, Johann von Wiclif und die Vorgeschichte der Reformation (Leipzig, 1873; Eng. trans., London, 1884); Burrows, Wiclif's Place in History (2d ed., London, 1884); Poole, Wycliffe and Movements for Reform (ib., 1889); Trevelyan, The Age of Wycliffe (ib., 1898); Sargeant, John Wyclif (New York, 1893). See Lollard.