Luther famously had his Ninety-Five Theses. While not having quite as many, Wycliffe had his own theses (that is, arguments) against the church. One thesis declares, “There is one universal church, and outside of it there is no salvation. Its head is Christ. No pope may say that he is the head.” For this and other ideas, Pope Gregory XI condemned Wycliffe. But Wycliffe had friends in high places, and his condemnation had little effect. The mother of the boy king Richard II favored Wycliffe, as did John of Gaunt, the young king’s uncle, who wielded significant influence. These supporters swayed Parliament against the pope and for Wycliffe. At Oxford, the students and faculty rallied to his support.
He had been dead and buried for a few decades, but the church wanted to make a point. His remains were exhumed and burned, a fitting end for the “heretic” John Wycliffe. Wycliffe once explained what the letters in the title CARDINAL really mean: “Captain of the Apostates of the Realm of the Devil, Impudent and Nefarious Ally of Lucifer.” And with that, Wycliffe was only getting started.
Wycliffe rejected the doctrine of transubstantiation, which states that the elements of the bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper become the actual body and blood of Christ. He was against priestly absolution, he spoke out against indulgences, and he denied the doctrine of purgatory. He rejected papal authority. Instead, he asserted that Christ is the head of the church. And he had a profound belief in the inerrancy and absolute authority of Scripture. He fully believed that the church of his day had lost its way. Scripture alone provided the only way back. Now we see why the medieval Roman Church wanted to make a statement against Wycliffe.
John Wycliffe has often been called “the Morning Star of the Reformation.” Jan Hus, another pre-Reformation reformer, felt obliged to express his supreme debt to Wycliffe. And though he lived long after Wycliffe’s death, Martin Luther, too, felt an obligation to recognize the pioneering reforms of John Wycliffe. Luther stood on the shoulders of Hus, who stood on the shoulders of Wycliffe. Hus, Luther, and the other Reformers were indebted to him. So are we. Wycliffe was indeed “the Morning Star of the Reformation.”
The term morning star has been used alternately to refer to either the star Sirius or the planet Venus. It appears brightest in the predawn, the time when darkness still dominates, but also the time of promise—the time of the promise of the dawn and the rising sun. So John Wycliffe is situated historically between the darkness and the morning light.
John Wycliffe was born around 1330 and died on December 30, 1384. His century was one of growing disillusionment with the medieval Roman church. There was disillusionment with the church hierarchy and also with the church’s piety (or lack thereof). These were times of unrest. The long reign of the night, of the darkness, had taken its toll, especially on the laity. They bore the brunt of a wayward church. And perhaps none was more acutely aware of this than John Wycliffe.
Oxford University became Wycliffe’s home in 1346, during his teen years. As soon as Wycliffe arrived at Oxford, he witnessed all the pomp and circumstance of convocation, which included a Mass in honor of the royal family and the scholars at Oxford. Wycliffe then settled into the academic routines of attending lectures and disputations. Wycliffe would sit under and be profoundly influenced by the theologian Thomas Bradwardine and the philosopher William of Ockham. He studied broadly, learning science and mathematics; law and history; and, of course, philosophy. At Oxford, Wycliffe soon moved from the rank of student to that of scholar, later becoming master at Balliol College. Wycliffe’s first writings would be in the field of philosophy.
Biblical studies, and later theology, however, captured his attention and piqued his interest the most. Wycliffe qualified as a doctor of theology, allowing him to lecture on the subject.