While Martin Luther is credited with starting the Reformation, the truth is that he had predecessors. About a century and a half before Luther posted his 95 theses there was a man named John Wyclif. Wyclif rose to become a master at Oxford, Balliol College. He was considered the “ablest theologian of its faculty”.[i] The description of Wyclif in the citation below starts with this philosophical outlook. “Philosophically he was a realist, in contrast to the prevailing nominalism of his age. He was deeply influenced by Augustine and through Augustine by Platonic conceptions.”[ii] I bring that up to show how intrinsically involved philosophy is with theology, i.e., despite Paul’s warning against the dangers of philosophy, by the time of the reformers, philosophy is part and parcel of Christianity. To understand how the simple Christianity of original Christianity evolved into the power-hungry, death wielding at times monstrosity that it had become by the Middle Ages absolutely requires some understanding of philosophy.
While nowhere near the notoriety that Martin Luther achieved, Wyclif was known for his opposition to the power and maneuverings of the Roman Catholic Church. Specifically, he saw the dramatic difference between the wealth and splendor of the church, and the problems maintaining that wealth and splendor caused on the average Christian in the parishes around Europe. Pope Gregory the 11th issued five the papal bulls in 1377 in ordering the arrest an examination of Wyclif for his teaching and publishing of treaties against what he called abuses of the Catholic Church. Nevertheless he had some support among the aristocrats, and was able to start some movement towards Reformation.
“The Scriptures, he taught, are the only law of the church,” [iii] He taught that the common man might believe that the church is centered around the Pope and the Cardinals, but in truth it is centered around Christ as head of his body, the elect in Christ. He argued that the church may have an earthly leader, thus allowing for a Pope. But his argument was that leader would survive in the simple conditions of early Christianity as opposed to the unimaginable wealth and power exhibited by the church in his day and time. I read one place where the Catholic Church owned one third of the land in England at that time. Wyclif presented a dramatically different view of what the church should be in directing people’s attention to the Scriptures and early Christianity.
Wyclif saw that his mission was to bring the English language Scriptures to the people and spread the gospel. Wyclif worked with others to bring about a translation of the Scripture in English to the people. He also sent out what were termed his “poor priests” to distribute the word and spread it. This movement was called the Lollard movement.
Wyclif also preached against the the Churches’ practice of indulgences. As an Augustinian he believed human works were powerless to earn merit before God. In other words, indulgences had no basis. The selling of indulgences is a popular theme in the reformation and one near to Luther’s heart later on.[iv]
Wyclif was considered an intellectual giant, and as such was able to continue in his pastorate until his death despite heavy opposition. His priests whom he had sent out were not as lucky, and many were arrested. The Lollard movement stopped openly with his death, but continued covertly until the Reformation.
Isn’t it interesting that whenever people want change in the church they compare what exists today with original Christianity? That’s what Wyclif did. Praise the Lord for him.
[i] A History Of The Christian Church, Williston Walker, Scribner, New York, 1959, P. 268
[iii] Ibid p. 269
[iv] THE STORY OF CHRISTIANITY, David Bentley Hart, Quercus, London, 2007, p. 186