Late Medieval Historical Theology

Wyclif’s Career within Late Medieval Scholasticism

Some of the details of Wyclif’s matriculation and career at Oxford are somewhat sketchy because the first evidence that may be adduced about his academic career places him as a probationary fellow at Merton college in Oxford. This evidence dates back to 1356. Of course, Robson notes that Workman places Wyclif at Balliol.1 The Merton connection indicates that the terminus ad quem for Wyclif’s graduation as Bachelor of Arts must be 1356. Four years later he would become magister (Master) of Balliol.2 Some eight years were necessary for Wyclif to attain the degree of doctor (magister theologiae) after graduating Bachelor of Theology. This second Bachelor (admissio ad lecturam libri Sententiarum) was taken subsequent to his Master of Arts and included the reading of Lombard’s Sentences. For those wishing to understand the educational system at Oxford and contemporary with Wyclif, G. R. Evans provides a great amount of detail describing the rigor and curriculum that awaited a student at Oxford in the mid-fourteenth century.3

Shortly after taking his doctoral degree, Wyclif found himself in the service of John of Gaunt (c.1371-72). During this time his interest in philosophical matters waned as his career absorbed his resources in the pursuit of the needs of the state. Wyclif studied and wrote extensively on political theory. Ironically, the majority of Wyclif’s scholastic, philosophical, and theological works were written while he was a Master of Arts, teaching on the Arts faculty (1350’s-1360’s). Some theological works were written as a Master of Theology, c. 1360-71,4 but a flurry of writing activity occurred in the four years preceding his death (c. 1379-84). Wyclif was the last of the schoolmen and the first of the reformers, and this “New Way” (via moderna) affected the scholastic debates of the Late Middle Ages. The via moderna possessed two tendencies: (1) a radical bifurcation between theology and metaphysics or between divine and human knowledge, and (2) a doubt concerning the possibility or even desirability of the great synthesis between those two areas of inquiry. The artist Raphael captures the spirit of this great synthesis in his School of Athens painted on a wall in the Room of the Segnatura within St. Peter’s. Apparently, the hope of this synthesis – the synthesis that Marsden (certainly no medievalist) recalls as the question of how to relate Christian truths to pagan learning5 – was kaputt. Ironically, the great Augustinian tradition, a revision of Christian neoplatonism, had been laid low by one who sought to prove its truth – Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas opened the door for the demise of the Augustinian metaphysical model. In short, Aquinas’ great synthesis indirectly brought the charge of “confounding God and man in a single metaphysical system, for excessive determinism, and for depreciating unduly the play of divine and human will.”6 In response, philosophers and theologians of the “New Way” posited “the transcendence of God, the primacy of his will, and the radical contingency of divine and human acts.”7 In such an environment that pitted Scotus against Ockham, Robson thought it necessary to point out that the front of this battle was larger than the argument between realist and nominalist. In fact, Robson points out that on many matters, such as the voluntarist debate, some realists and some nominalists found themselves on the same side of the argument. Robson underscores this observation with this comment: “As pure philosophers, Ockham and Wyclif have more in common than is often allowed.”8

Three scholastics spanned the spectrum from “strongly realist to openly nominalist.”9 Henry of Ghent, a realist, supported voluntarism while holding to the Augustinian synthesis. Duns Scotus, the “Subtle Doctor,” argued for the schism between faith and reason after the manner of the via moderna while at the same time arguing for a univocity of being which posits to both man and God the common universal of being. Scotus is considered the first great schoolman for the via moderna. The guiding light of the via moderna, the third schoolman to be cited by Robson was none other than the “Venerable Inceptor,” William of Ockham. Ockham’s innovation was the location of the real, the form, or the universal. These were not extramental or even necessarily divinely mental in loci, but were located with the singular. The singulars were real for Ockham, but he denied any hierarchy of universal reality. Ockham, in true fideistic manner, affirmed the impossibility of a Christian’s coming to a full understanding of God without revelation. Further Ockham argued for the primary importance of God’s omnipotence and the shaving away of its seemingly necessary contingencies (Ockham’s Razor). “Here was an Augustinianism shorn of determinist overtones, emphasizing God’s supreme liberty of will, and denying the possibility of fathoming his purpose.”10 While Ockham’s disciples became avowed skeptics, Ockham remained an ever-fervent fideist.

Wyclif reacted against the via moderna, but even Wyclif and Ockham had some points of agreement. Thomas Bradwardine and Walter Burley (or Burleigh) would be some of the first to take Ockham and his radical ideas to task. Much like the Protestant Reformation, the debate between Ockhamists and realists centered around the Augustinian tradition. Wyclif garnered his armament against nominalism from the writings of Robert Grosseteste (c. 1175-1253), whom he frequently referred to as “Lincolniensis.” Grosseteste was a bit retrospective even in his own day. He disavowed the logic of the dialecticians in favor of straight biblicism. For Grosseteste theology must be tied to exegesis of the biblical text not rational dialectics. Rather unscholastic though he was, Grosseteste held a realism that evidenced an abiding coherence with the old Augustinian neoplatonism. The crux of Grosseteste’s realism lay in his theory of light. In short, his theory uses the analogy of God as light, and that this “light” is what gives created beings their intelligent consciousness. They are more or less intelligent depending to what degree they participate in this light. Franciscans of Wyclif’s era had warmed to Lincolnienis’ ideas and that, although Wyclif was a secular, he could benefit from their encouragement.11

There seemed to be parity and a confluence of ideas between the different schools of philosophical thought. Intellectually, these were tumultuous days with scholars who were enemies on one issue and confederates on another. At Oxford, during Wyclif’s years there, the landscape was marked by both the hardy predestinarianism of Bradwardine and the radical grace of Boldon. Various extremities of nominalism were refuted by members of the Oxford schools; while, at the same time, they did not completely deny every tenet put forth by nominalism. Wyclif could draw upon Oxford dons, Thomas Bradwardine and Richard FitzRalph for his own confrontations. By 1370 Wyclif could be considered a leader in the via antiqua inveighing against the via moderna, but these attacks should not be mistaken as an indication of total disagreement with every teaching propounded by the Ockhamists. Such were these swirling times of philosophical and theological controversy.

At the beginning of the second half of the fourteenth century, university scholars began the practice of publishing commentaries on the Bible. In the late fourteenth century, John Wyclif’s contribution to the practice of publishing biblical exegetical works marked a significant point in history. Most notable were Wyclif’s commentaries on the Gospels and Pauline epistles which were written from 1371-84.

Despite the orthodoxy of his treatment of scripture, the storm raised by his theological and political opinions (in combination with his thoroughgoing biblicism) suggested the possibility that the Bible might be subjected to heretical interpretation, particularly if orthodox university theologians did not give it sufficient attention. But the biblical outpouring that followed was not occasioned initially by opposition to Wyclif; rather, it is more accurate to see Wyclif as part of the first wave of that reawakened interest.12

The era just previous to Wyclif had been one of novel ideas. Wyclif’s own era seemed destined to sort out the antitheses that challenged old Augustinian orthodoxy’s cherished beliefs. He represented the old guard responding to the new ideas, even if he gave evidence that he himself had succumbed to the temptations of the new ideas. This is the context in which Wyclif’s ideas are born, argued, and eventually condemned.


1. J. A. Robson, Wyclif and the Oxford Schools: The Relation of the ‘Summa de Ente’ to Schlastic Debates at Oxford in the Later Fourteenth Century, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought, New Series (Cambridge: The Cambridge University Press, 1966), 10, fn.2 For this reference to Wyclif at Balliol see Herbert B. Workman, John Wyclif: A Study of the English Medieval Church (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1926), 77. Evans follows Robson on this: G. R. Evans, John Wyclif: Myth & Reality (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2005), 42.

2. Robson, Wyclif and the Oxford Schools, 13–15.

3. Evans, John Wyclif: Myth & Reality, 14–66.

4. Robson, Wyclif and the Oxford Schools, 17.

5. George M. Marsden, The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 34.

6. Robson, Wyclif and the Oxford Schools, 19.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid., 20.

10. Ibid., 24.

11. Ibid., 26–28.

12. William J. Courtenay, “The Bible in the Fourteenth Century: Some Observations,” Church History 54, no. 2 (June 1985): 185–86.

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