Late Medieval Historical Theology, Philosophy

An Assessment of Wyclif: from Foxe to Evans

Stacey indicates that Wyclif’s appeal to Scripture was due, for the greater part, to the problems of schism and corruption within the Roman Catholic Church of his day. Where was the Christian to turn in the face of a church gone amuck? He was left with only his recourse to Scripture.1 The common folk, unaccustomed to seeing the corpus Christianum so divided, searched frantically for something more sure than the institution that had lately metamorphesized into a multi-headed beast with each head seeking to devour the other. Hence, a market for the vernacular Scriptures was created.

Translations of the Bible into the English language before Wyclif were at best partial and at worst highly stylized glosses, including rhyming verse and paraphrase.2 Wyclif’s time was a time “when the qualifications for institution to a benefice were the ability to recite a few Latin formulae by heart and to read and sing the Mass in Latin, and when the ordinary Christian in England knew no more of ‘Goddis lawe’ than some jingle he had picked up from a passing friar or some garbled illustration from a sermon.”3 One needs only to look at a few examples of the first Wycliffite Bible and its revision to recognize how poor the first translation was. John Purvey was most likely the translator of the second version from the Vulgate in 1396. It read somewhat easier, but its faithfulness to the text was questionable.4

The popular opinion of Wyclif was formed in John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments, but he possessed only scant information.5 What he published was a hagiography based upon only the sparest of information. Today, it is widely recognized that even though Wyclif earned the sobriquet, “Evangelical Doctor,” he did not own the Protestant view of what it meant to be evangelical. But this does not place him out of sympathy with the Reformers. It means only that his historical and theological context was a bit removed from theirs. A man cannot raise and attempt to answer all the questions of metaphysics and theology in a single lifetime.

Additionally, in the modern era Wyclif’s reputation would suffer under the charge of being an “ultrarealist.” If that means that he believes that universals have an existence outside of the human mind, so be it. But, if that is the case, one would be hard pressed to label what was the old metaphysic as being ‘ultra’ anything. Wyclif merely defended the old Augustinian metaphysic that the universals existed within God or, at least, in close association with God.

Some have taken Dziewicki to task for trying to make Wyclif out to be a more significant scholar than Ockham who preceded him. Indeed, one of these critics of Dziewicki has opted instead to argue that Wyclif represents the end of a long time of intellectual paucity at Oxford which began with the end of Ockham’s career.6 One can hardly fault the now defunct Wyclif Society for attempting a reclamation of their patron saint and cause célèbre. Even Robson admits that Wyclif’s reputation suffered unusually for being a secular.7 However, the contributors to the magisterial History of the University of Oxford admit no such hiatus of intellectual vitality.8

In the recent past, Anthony Kenny, the former Master of Balliol (the position occupied by Wyclif 1360-61) tried to give an honest and reverent appraisal of his predecessor’s career through many articles and a short popular level work entitled, Wyclif. Workman’s now-dated two-volume biography may still be considered one of the most valuable and complete works recounting Wyclif’s life, but it is somewhat dated having been written before the full recovery of Wyclif’s Postilla in 1953. Ghosh, whose analysis will be discussed later, presents Wyclif as a benevolent ideologue who revolutionized the English body politic. Finally, Wyclif’s most recent biography recognizes the enigma and varied opinion concerning Wyclif in John Wyclif, Myth & Reality. In this work G. R. Evans captures the problems surrounding Wyclif scholarship. But in the end, her assessment leaves Wyclif in the dubious position of attaining a degree of notoriety from a less-than-stellar academic career that ends in the doctrinal controversy over transubstantiation that has more to do with Wyclif’s newly found crankiness than his scholastic prowess.

1. John Stacey, John Wyclif and Reform (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1964), 73.

2. Ibid., 74.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid., 76–77.

5. Robson, Wyclif and the Oxford Schools, 1.

6. Ibid., 1–31.

7. Ibid., 4.

8. J. I. Catto, “Wyclif and Wycliffism at Oxford 1356–1430,” in History of the University of Oxford, vol. 2, gen. ed. T. H. Aston (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984), 175–261.

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