Late Medieval Historical Theology

Meaning: Wyclif's Explication of Ad Literam and de Virtute Sermonis

At the beginning of the twentieth century and on through roughly the middle of that same century Wyclif scholars seemed eager to describe Wyclif’s hermeneutic as literal. Ad literam became the read phrase, when de virtute sermonis is what Wyclif usually stressed. The former speaks of a literal rendering, the latter of the intent of the passage. Perhaps it was a result of the positivist tenor of that era, but what were Wyclif’s views concerning Scripture? Robson seems almost infamous for his alleged mistake of attaching the name ‘fundamentalist’ to Wyclif. In comparing Wyclif to Fitzralph, Robson makes some fairly pointed claims that several Wyclif scholars have since denied:

It is worth comparing the intellectual crisis which FitzRalph experienced with those through which Wyclif and Bradwardine passed. In the case of Wyclif, of course, there was really no crisis; he was, unlike RitzRalph, a literal fundamentalist and his fundamentalism was the direct and inescapable consequence of his ultrarealism. Every word of Scripture was, and always had been eternally true, in that it was an extension of the divine idea.1

In reaction to this statement, Kenny, Tresko, and, no doubt, others opine quite the opposite view. By their reactions it is difficult to say whether the different opinion is based upon their knowledge of Wyclif or their understanding of the meaning of fundamentalist. Kenny objects to the classifying Wyclif as a fundamentalist because he does not cling “to every jot and tittle of the sacred text. The scripture of which [Wyclif] speaks with such veneration is something more complicated than a Bible on a bookshelf.”2 Tresko, in similar fashion, rejects the labeling of Wyclif as fundamentalist because he equates that label with “simple literalism.”3 The problem seems to involve the definition of fundamentalist, for it is true that Wyclif did not cling to “every jot and tittle” and he did not espouse a “simple literalism.” It is outside the scope of this paper to investigate the meaning of fundamentalist. It will suffice to say that, in accord with Levy’s assessment, any student of Wyclif will find that he eludes cursory explanation.4

The theologians of the high middle ages developed a fairly complex and salutatory means of analyzing Scripture according to its mode which seems to correspond to its genre. This was known as the multiplex modus with names like modus praeceptivus for the Pentateuch, modus historicus, exemplificativus for historical books, modus exhortativis for wisdom literature, and so forth.5

Evans explains the way which Wyclif understood that if a contradiction in the literal or univocal sense was evidenced that the equivocal sense should be employed. A careful reading of De veritate reveals this habit. Evans also notes that, with these problems of the literal sense already handled in late medieval exegesis, the Reformers of the sixteenth century had little difficulty explaining how they thought the Bible ought to be interpreted.6

Wyclif provided for an understanding of Scripture’s usage and intention in the words it employs.7 Wyclif also addresses accurate recordings of falshoods (Deus non est?) and figurative uses (figurative et per similitudienum). He also notes that by paying attention to the virtus sermonis, the meaning of the text can be understood. Evans describes Wyclif’s three kinds of figurative speech: (1) the allegory – when an historical event actually symbolizes a future reality, (2) the parable – when a fictional story is told to illustrate something, and (3) fictitious speech – when something is not literally true, but it may signify truth as the four trees of Judges 9:8-17 (they should be understood mystically to represent Shechem, and so forth).8



1. Robson, Wyclif and the Oxford Schools, 96.


2. Anthony Kenny, Wyclif, Past Masters (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 60.


3. Michael Tresko, “John Wyclif’s Metaphysics of Scriptural Integrity in the De Veritate Sacrae Scripturae,” Dionysius 13 (December 1989): 155.


4. John Wyclif, John Wyclif: On the Truth of Sacred Scripture, Ian Christopher Levy (Kalamazoo, Mich.: Medieval Institute Publications, 2001), 1.


5. A. J. Minnis, “Literary Theory in Discussion of Formae Tractandi by Medieval Theologians,” New Literary History 11, no. 1 (Autumn 1979): 134–35. See also: A. J. Minnis “Discussion of ‘Authorial Role’ and ‘Literary Form’ in Late-Medieval Scriptural Exegesis,” Beiträge zur Geschichte der deutschen Sprach und Literatur, 99 (1977), 37-65.


6. G. R. Evans, “Wyclif on Literal and Metaphorical,” in From Ockham to Wyclif, ed. Anne Hudson and Michael Wilks (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987), 260–61.


Ibid., 263.

8. Wyclif, On the Truth of Sacred Scripture, i. 66.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s