Two hundred years before the Protestant Reformation there was a reformer who foreshadowed what was coming. Although the world’s circumstances were then not developed to permit the Reformation, many of Wycliffe’s criticisms of Catholicism and his translation of the Bible would prefigure the coming Reformation.
Wycliffe lived through the Black Death, when 25 million people died in Europe. That catastrophe delayed his completion of a doctorate at Oxford until 1372. He became a dissident, and although sanctioned and opposed by the Pope (five edicts from Pope Gregory XI condemned him for 18 errors and called him “the master of errors”), but he believed and taught that the Pope and the church were second in authority to scripture. He conceived of an invisible church of the elect who were recognized by heaven, rather than an organization on earth that controlled salvation. Many of his ideas would later be advanced by the Reformation Fathers.
His arguments with Rome were first political (1366-1378), and later theological (1378-1384). During his last six years of life he provided a continuing written campaign against the Pope and the entire church hierarchy of the time. By the end he came to equate the Pope to the Antichrist.
Among his issues, he disputed transubstantiation: “The bread while becoming by virtue of Christ’s words the body of Christ does not cease to be bread.” He condemned indulgences: “It is plain to me that our prelates in granting indulgences do commonly blaspheme the wisdom of God.” He repudiated confession to the priests: “Private confession … was not ordered by Christ and was not used by the apostles.” He viewed faith as saving: “Trust wholly in Christ; rely altogether on his sufferings; beware of seeking to be justified in any other way than by his righteousness.”
He believed every Christian ought to be able to read scripture. At a time when only Latin Bibles existed in England, he began translating it into the common English language. He was assisted in this by John Purvey, and, when Wycliffe died before it was completed Purvey finished the translation. Rome condemned this as an act of rebellion: “By this translation, the Scriptures have become vulgar, and they are more available to lay, and even to women who can read, than they were to learned scholars, who have a high intelligence. So the pearl of the gospel is scattered and trodden underfoot by swine.” Wycliffe responded with this explanation: “Englishmen learn Christ’s law best in English. Moses heard God’s law in his own tongue; so did Christ’s apostles.”
Wycliffe believed church officials ought not to live in wealth, but instead sacrifice to serve. Church wealth should be directed to help the poor. He encouraged English leaders of both church and state to stop sending wealth to Rome, and instead use it to help those locally in need.
Wycliffe died before authorities convicted him of heresy. After his death the Council of Constance declared him a heretic, ordered his remains to be removed from consecrated ground, burned, and his ashes thrown into the river Swift. Pope Martin V confirmed the edict and it was carried out. However, Wycliffe’s influence could not be suppressed, and as one writer observed, “Thus the brook hath conveyed his ashes into Avon; Avon into Severn; Severn into the narrow seas; and they into the main ocean. And thus the ashes of Wycliffe are the emblem of his doctrine which now is dispersed the world over.”