In 1215 the Roman Catholic Church officially adopted the doctrine of Transubstantiation, thus making the Eucharist (known by Protestants as Communion or the Lord’s Supper) the centerpiece of the Mass. This doctrine posited that the bread and wine became the literal body and blood of Christ, so that partakers of the Eucharist actively received Christ in His physical form each time they participated in the Mass. This practice went unchallenged for well over a century until John Wycliffe happened to study the Scriptures.
Wycliffe had already been dissatisfied with Rome for its ostentation as well its interference with secular authority, so his opposition to Transubstantiation did not come out a vacuum. As an Oxford scholar and rector he had access to Scripture, which he studied regularly. In that study, he realized that Christ had risen bodily. That bodily resurrection consequently meant that Christ had also ascended bodily. Therefore, reasoned Wycliffe, His body could not be physically present in the Eucharist.
Wycliffe began challenging the doctrine of Transubstantiation in the 1370s, famously writing a tract which has since been known as Wycliffe’s Wicket. He struggled with the idea that Christ’s body could be “unmade” and then “remade” by priests, thus causing Christ’s repeated act of propitiation. As Wycliffe saw it, Transubstantiation essentially denies the bodily resurrection and ascension of the Lord. He wrote:
Then how say the hypocrites that take on them to make our Lord’s body? Make they the glorified body? Either make they again the spiritual body which is risen from death to life? or make they the fleshly body as it was before He suffered death? And if they say also that they make the spiritual body of Christ, it may not be so, for what Christ said and did, He did as He was at supper before He suffered His passion…. And if they say that they make Christ’s body as it was before He had suffered His passion, then must they needs grant that Christ is to die yet.
Wycliffe’s questioning of Transubstantiation naturally didn’t sit well with Rome, as we’ll see in a couple weeks. But it should help 21st Century Protestants start thinking about the serious problems with Roman Catholic teaching that eventually made the Protestant Reformation necessary. Although Wycliffe also took issue with teachings on Purgatory and Indulgences (positions that would later encourage Martin Luther), his hill to die on was decidedly Transubstantiation.
I know I haven’t written a very organized presentation today. Again, “real life” rearranged my schedule, but I was determined to write something on the topic! I want you to have a basic understanding of how the Lord worked through the great Reformers to restore Biblical Christianity to the world. As we see their passion for pure doctrine, I pray that they’ll inspire us toward that same passion.