In our desire to “honour the fathers” and flowing out of a desire to understand some of the reformation better I had ordered some DVDs. The first was John Wycliffe who is known as the Morning Star of the Reformation. He preached many radical doctrines about 150 years before Luther nailed his theses.
I highly recommend this DVD, not because it is a fantastic quality production like the Luther movie, it isn’t, but because it is very encouraging even with the cheesy acting — what comes through very clearly is God’s glory being displayed in life very much dedicated to Him. Wycliffe is an inspiration in his dedication to “sola scriptura”, his love for the scriptures, his desire to see the ignorant taught the truth of God’s word and the poor uplifted and freed from usurious landlords (true religion as James 1:27 puts it), his completely uncompromising stubbornness in holding to the truth, his demands for moral purity in the church, his dangerous assault on the church for its opulent wealth and corruption, his amazing challenge to the doctrine of transubstantiation… One is struck by how he was providentially spared several times (by interventions of John of Gaunt and the Queen) and preserved to conceive of and then complete his great work of translating the bible into the vernacular. Additionally to that his contribution to the Bohemia is also wonderfully highlighted — the students who ardently translated his every word to take back with them to Prague where it sparked such a fire in the heart of Jan Hus.
One of the things that stands out in this history, and comes out in the life of Jan Hus and Martin Luther too is that all of the them had this seemingly naive view that if they could just explain their position from the scriptures then everyone would agree with them. Wycliffe and Hus were not desiring to split with the Roman church, but were desiring to correct and reform from within, as such the though if they were erring then someone could simply point it out from the scriptures and they would certainly recant, and they expected the same from their accusers. Neither got a chance to really dialogue their views, nor was there any great desire to even countenance their views, reasons of politics and expedience trumped any desire for doctrinal purity.
A couple of other things which are interesting is his take on prosperity — he wanted radical poverty for the church. I think he would have knocked a few heads in our day — at least those with opulent churches and fat salaried staff. The other thing was the he would have stood closer to Calvin than to Luther on the sacrament of communion. One gets the impression they would have all loved each other and disagreed (loudly) like brothers, not like enemies. The other was the place the Oxford England had as the centre of learning and study in Europe at the time — another of God’s providences to the bring the people to the scriptures if they scriptures won’t be taken to them. Another funny thing is that many decades later, by decree of the Council of Constance (the one that condemned Hus), his bones were exhumed and burned and thrown into the stream called Swift, where: “This brook conveyed them into Avon, the Avon into the Severn, the Severn into the narrow seas, they into the main ocean; and thus the ashes of Wicliffe were the emblem of his doctrine, which is now dispersed all the world over.” (see the biography by David J. Deane)
From Wycliffe’s translation: “For God louede so the world, that he ȝaf his oon bigetun sone, that ech man that bileueth in him perische not, but haue euerlastynge lijf.” Wonderful stuff! You can read the whole chunks of the bible like this — it takes a bit of time, but if you do it you will notice that is sounds most familiar and not strange to our ears even though it looks quite different. It took about a year to copy his bible out by hand. Another indication of the amazing effectiveness of Gutenberg’s printing press in the later magisterial reformation.
John of Gaunt was the third son of Edward III who started the Hundred Year War with France and the grandson of Edward I (Longshanks, The Hammer of the Scots). John of Gaunt (or Ghent really) was also a patron of Geoffrey Chaucer who was a contemporary of Wycliffe, he was the Duke of Lancaster and his house fought the Yorkists in the War of the Roses.