*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***
It is the 31st of December 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org; I’m Dan van Voorhis.
You may know the name, John Wycliffe. The Wycliffe Bible translators are amongst the most prolific in the world when it comes to translating the Bible into new languages. If you are in a church that highlights its Reformation roots, you would have likely heard his name along with Jan Hus and William Tyndale as forerunners of Luther and the 16th century Reformation.
Today we will give Wycliffe a look as this is the anniversary of his death on the 31st of December in 1384.
[Side note: this would not have been “New Year’s Eve” for him as the celebration of this was banned by the church, and English Christians would recognize March 25th as the beginning of the New Year]
So, how did John Wycliffe- an Oxford professor, find himself in the middle of a theological firestorm such that he would be remembered for centuries?
In the 1370s, he was sent to the continent to argue on behalf of the English church against paying a tax to the Pope in Rome. This made him popular amongst many English nobility, and he would receive their protection. Wycliffe went further against the Pope- arguing against a Papal tax and the very foundation of the Roman Catholic Church. Wycliffe argued that the true church was invisible, and thus outward pomp might not mean anything. He argued, the church seems to have been so thoroughly corrupted that perhaps they should not be given the authority and respect they demand. This did not go well with the church, but some English nobility thought he might be on to something.
Ultimately, however, he did not put the authority in the Crown (instead of the Pope) but rather in Scripture. More on this in a second.
Wycliffe would argue against the doctrine on transubstantiation- the philosophical approach to understanding the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper that relies on Aristotelean philosophy and language. While this argument did not gain much traction with the English, other reformers- most notably Jan Huss in Bohemia would resonate with this argument.
He called for the abolition of the church hierarchy and argued that the Pope needed to imitate Christ if he wanted any legitimacy.
His followers would become known as “Lollards”- a term of derision meaning “mumbler.” The Lollards would be behind the first translation of the Bible into English- the Wycliffe Bible (so-called because Wycliffe inspired and oversaw the project more than he did the translating).
Putting final authority in Scripture is what ties him most to the Reformation. Still, I am most interested in how the first English Bible was translated (I think the argument here has legs for centuries). The first translation of the Bible into Middle English was a word-for-word translation of Jerome’s Latin Vulgate. It’s word. For. Word.
This was useful in arguments in favor of this Bible. The Lollards could argue that it is as orthodox as could be “no words have been harmed or left behind in the making of this translation.” But the word-for-word translations can stink. They can be aesthetically as well as theologically distasteful. (Try reading an interlinear Bible devotionally or read publicly from the NASB… they are useful, just not pretty).
The second Wycliffe Bible was translated in what we call today “dynamic equivalence”- that is, it pays attention to foreign syntax and idioms and attempts to make the text readable and more easily comprehended.
It’s not just that we have the text in the vernacular but a helpful, readable text in the vernacular. And in light of this line of thinking, the Wycliffe bible would be superseded by the Tyndale and Coverdale English Bibles which would more directly affect the English Bible you read today.
Perhaps we can sum up Wycliffe with this: beware of illegitimate authority, beware of overly philosophical “theologizing,” and submit to Christ alone via his Word.
Put this way, we not only see his connection to later reform movements but as one in the long tradition of dissenting theology, which no century can claim as distinctly its own.
John Wycliffe died on this day in 1384 from a stroke.
The Last Word for today comes from 1 Peter 4:
7 The end of everything has come. Therefore, be self-controlled and clearheaded so you can pray. 8 Above all, show sincere love to each other because love brings about the forgiveness of many sins. 9 Open your homes to each other without complaining. 10 And serve each other according to the gift each person has received, as good managers of God’s diverse gifts. 11 Whoever speaks should do so as those who speak God’s word. Whoever serves should do so from the strength that God furnishes. Do this so that in everything God may be honored through Jesus Christ. To him be honor and power forever and always. Amen.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 31st of December 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by a man whose favorite Cliffs include Wycliffe, Cliff Claven from Cheers, and the White Cliffs of Dover. He is Christopher Gillespie.
The show is written and read by a man rooting for those Cincy Bearcats tonight… let’s see if they can pull it off. I’m Dan van Voorhis.
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.