I don’t really want to present a dry history lesson today, knowing that most 21st Century readers consider history (even church history) to be boring and irrelevant. One of my dearest friends recently told me that she cares more about fixing the mess in the present-day church than about going back over the past.
Although I wholeheartedly agree with her that, indeed, the church in our own time desperately needs repair, I have been learning that studying the great Reformers can teach us much about restoring our own church to Biblical faith. So please, read this article (and all my articles on church history) with an expectation of rekindling the passion for Biblical truth that ignited the Reformation.
Almost 200 years before Martin Luther turned the Christian word upside-down by triggering the Protestant Reformation, a scholar and rector serving at Oxford University planted seeds of reformation that would later influence Luther’s thinking. John Wycliffe (1330 – 1384) never broke from the Roman Catholic Church, but he certainly called some of its practices into question.
Stephen Nichols has written The Morning Star of the Reformation to briefly highlight Wycliffe’s life and contributions to the Christian Church, and I encourage you to read his easily digested article on the Ligonier website. Nichols outlines Wycliffe’s life much more clearly than I could. I want to use this article as a springboard for commenting on Wycliffe instead of repeating what’s already been written, but I’d like you to have at least a rough idea of Wycliffe’s biography.
Like Luther, John Wycliffe found the wealth and power of the Roman Catholic Church troubling, though Wycliffe specifically believed that Rome claimed revenue that properly belonged to England. Over time, he came to believe that Scripture calls its leaders to simplicity and service, not opulence. As a result, he questioned the legitimacy of the papacy. Good way to get in trouble, right?
From that point, as Stephen Nichols tells us in his article, Wycliffe’s study of Scripture led him to question other Catholic practices, most notably Indulgences and Transubstantiation. I’ll write in detail about the Transubstantiation controversy next week, but today I want to make the point that Wycliffe’s study of God’s Word led him to stand against Roman Catholic practices and teachings that sprang from traditions of men.
Eventually, Pope Gregory XI condemned Wycliffe.He put Wycliffe under house arrest, which the Lord sovereignly used to enable Wycliffe to write the first English translation of the Bible. Week after next, we’ll talk a bit about that effort and its importance.
Even though Wycliffe died from a stroke instead of being executed for heretical activity, in 1428 (44 years after his death) the papacy ordered his bones to be dug up and burned. Ironically, they failed to destroy his legacy, which inspired church historians to refer to him as “the morning star of the Reformation.”
Like the Reformers who came after him, John Wycliffe examined the Church and found her wandering away from Biblical truth. Like my dear friend whom I mentioned at the beginning of being this article, he observed a Church that had corrupted itself. He responded to this corruption by going back to Scripture, and attempting to make Scripture available to people outside the clergy. He set an example that Christians in our own time definitely need to follow.