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

Wyclif scholars debate the nature of Wyclif’s emphasis on the plain meaning of the text. Minnis believes that Wyclif produced a lack of balance between personal piety and the authority of tradition.1 Hurley finds Wyclif to promote such a class-revolt that the intellectual nature of the establishment is undermined in favor of individual interpretation.2 Ghosh is troubled by the implications of a text whose meaning can be determined apart from some construct of authority.3 These three opinions stress three extremeties that scholars hold about Wyclif. Minnis represents the extremity of piety being the determinite factor in Wyclif’s hermeneutic. Hurley represents the fear that Wyclif espoused some sort of reformer-like sola Scriptura that discounts tradition. Ghosh, on much the same score, worries that Wyclif forsook the authority of tradition; but Ghosh’s difficulty stems more from his picture of Wyclif as ideologue than Wyclif’s devaluing of tradition.

In connection with Wyclif’s views on human commentary and the “waxen nose” of meaning, it should be remembered that Lollardy desired not to reject the tradition of biblical glosses or commentating as such, but rather to do away with the sort of glossing that obscures the text or the kind of commenting that leaves it difficult for the reader to understand the connection between text and meaning.4

To answer the charge that Wyclif isolated the text’s meaning from tradition Oberman, Wilks, and others point out that Wyclif never disparages the authorities.5 Wyclif even supports Gratian’s Decretum as legitimate canon law.6 Wyclif held that interpretation was to be ratified on the bases of Scripture, creed, and the holy doctors.7 Oberman’s opinion bears some clarification because it fits into his schema of Tradition I, II, and III.8 His research along the frontier of Renaissance and Reformation identifies Wyclif’s views on Scripture as Tradition I over against an ascendant Tradition II.9

Beryl Smalley was troubled that Wyclif rationalized to a certainty of meaning by means of his hermeneutic on the basis of his realism. By Smalley’s accounting, Wyclif held a more primitive Augustinian realism. In fact, this realism may have been the residue of the pagan Plotinian realism from which Augustine made a break. The main residual feature of the pagan philosophy is its negative view of time in which time is only the poor imitation of eternity.10 Smalley expanded on her notion of Wyclif as a very old-fashioned realist by relating his view of Scripture to his realism. The dilemma for Wyclif was that he, according to Smalley, was an ardent anti-fideist. Smalley believed that Wyclif eschews authoritarian faith in favor of reason. His anti-fideism was a reaction to the terminism which devoured more of what was considered reasonable in religion, until almost all of religious truth had to be taken by faith. Wyclif rebelled against such an idea, believing that truth must conform to reason. The Bible, while it held the position of being a direct emanation of God, was something of a mirror in which truths could be reflected not necessarily discovered. Smalley based her account of Wyclif’s alleged anti-fideism on the fact that he denied the Roman Church the right to dictate what was canonical and what was the canonically correct interpretation. The acceptance of the Roman Church’s authority in these matters had to be taken on faith. Wyclif believed that the Scriptures merely reflected truth that was already self-evident to the properly trained intellect. Smalley comes to this conclusion by her understanding of statements made by Wyclif in Tractatus de Trinitate:

Scripture must be believed because it mirrors eternal truths, accessible, so it seems, to man’s reason, if rightly directed.[ . . .] How do we know the size of the mirror? Does not authority have to determine its frame by declaring which books are canonical? At some point in time certain books were accepted and others rejected from the canon. Wyclif does not see our problems, because he starts from eternal truths, and then finds them reflected in his mirror. There is no difficulty in finding them, if one first, as a metaphysician, knows what to look for. Why should the size of the mirror matter? Wyclif would have accused the objector of terminism for putting such a question. Scripture for him was not properly speaking its outward signs, words written in ink on quires of parchment, a human artefact which could be taken apart at will; it was rather God’s eternal Word, ‘the Book of Life in which all is written.’11

While much of Smalley’s argument coincides with the details of Wyclif’s De veritate, it seems to be too close a reading. Smalley seems to be lost in the detail of Wyclif’s metaphysics. Perhaps, for Wyclif, the Bible is more like the metaphysical answer key in the back of teacher’s textbook editions. While it may be theoretically true that man can reason himself back to God and His truth, that day of innocence and purity has long ago past away. So, even as the answer key exists because of the feebleness of teacher’s intellect, Scripture exists to aid our feeble intellects. Like the answer key, it is taken by faith to be correct. As for questions of canonicity, perhaps Smalley’s paradigm is a little too Anglo-Catholic. Wyclif, it seems, believed that faith in the truth of Scripture is what was necessary for charity to endure, not the church. Minnis argues that the exposition of Aristotle gave rise to theologians placing value in the sensus litteralis. Just as Aristotle would underscore the unity of a person; so too, it would stress the unity of a text. A spiritual meaning of a text cannot be understood apart from its literal sense.12 Minnis uses Alexander of Hales (c.1186-1245) as primary example. Interestingly, the affective domain of the agent is not dismissed:

Alexander begins by asking if the Bible can be classified among the books of the human arts and sciences (in this context the terms ars and scientia mean the same thing). It would appear that the Bible is not an “artifical” or “scientific” work, because human sciences work through the comprehension of truth by human reason, whereas Scripture works through the inculcation of a pious disposition, secundum affectum pietatis, in men. Alexander resolves this difficulty by distinguishing between two kinds of science: human science, which involves rationalization, and divine science, which has sacred tradition as its basis and which is the science described by Augustine as those things which pertain to salvation.13

Alexander, and later Robert Kilwardby, demonstrated that the inculcation of pious affections is a secondary mode (sapienta) which relies on the more literal first mode (scientia).14

As to the severity of Wyclif’s views, Leff remarks that Wyclif’s statments on the Bible were “comparativley restrained” with respect to his views expressed in De Civili Dominio and De Ecclesia.15 For Leff, there seems nothing remarkable about his views on Scripture. He also notes that this “was the first of a rapid succession of treatises which, between 1378 and 1380, defined his major theological positions.”16 Leff does not view Wyclif as a philosophical extremist:

In maintaining the reality of universals, Wyclif was arguing not for their independence as self-subsisting entities but as the constituents of individual substances in belonging to the totality of the universe. At issue was its intelligibility and the nature of truth; for only if universal terms like man and animal corresponded to something real in the universe, as opposed to being merely mental or logical and grammatical constructions – the position of his opponents – could they be true.17

This statement bears great implications for the truth in Scripture. Words are signs pointing to real things, not merely sounds which evoke different responses based upon historical situatedness. Thus, while our historical situatedness may color our understanding, it is still a very real thing that is being communicated – contra postmodernity. These views of eternal archetypes, upon which the universe is constructed, play into Wyclif’s understanding of the Bible. The Word of God and the Book of Life constitute this archetypical world.

Leff takes Wyclif’s five senses of Scripture and summarizes them this way, relating them to five prerequisites for understanding Scripture: an understanding of “the existence of universals; the metaphysical nature of time; the ever-presentiality of all things in God and among men; intelligible being of all things in God; and perpetual material essences.”18 He then, describes Wyclif’s understanding of the Bible being “revealed metaphysical truth.”19

Wyclif’s juxtapostion of the metaphysical truth of Scripture as standing in judgement over the Church is what was so controversial about Wyclif’s ideas. It must be remembered that he wrote these ideas on the eve of the Great Schism between Avignon and Rome (1378). Leff does not believe, however, that Wyclif ever had an understanding of sola sciptura as he still appealed to the sensus catholicus with the Fathers. But, perhaps, Leff does not understand sola scriptura.20


1. Alistair Minnis, “‘Authorial Intention’ and the ‘Literal Sense’ in the Exegetical Theories of Richard Fitzralph and John Wyclif,” in Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy (1975), 13–14.

2. Michael Hurley, “‘Scripture Sola’: Wyclif and His Critics,” Traditio 16 (1960): 345–50.

3. Kantik Ghosh, The Wycliffite Heresy: Authority and the Interpretation of Texts, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 17.

4. Ian Christopher Levy, “The Fight for the Sacred Sense in Late Medieval England,” Anglican Theological Review, Winter 2003, n.p., FindArticles [database online],; accessed 22 November 2007.

5. Levy, “The Fight for the Sacred Sense in Late Medieval England,” n.p

6. Wyclif, On the Truth of Sacred Scripture, 271–359.

7. Ibid., 145–46.

8. Heiko A. Oberman, “Quo Vadis, Petre? Tradition from Irenaeus to Humani Generis,” in The Dawn of the Reformation: Essays in Late Medieval and Early Reformation Thought,  Heiko A. Oberman (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992), 269–96.

9. Ibid., 282.

10. Beryl Smalley, “The Bible and Eternity: John Wyclif’s Dilemma,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 27 (1964): 73–75.

11. Ibid., 83.

12. Minnis, “Literary Theory in Discussion of Formae Tractandi by Medieval Theologians,” New Literary History 11, no. 1 (Autumn 1979): 133. 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.

13. Ibid., 134.

14. Ibid.

15. Gordon Leff, “The Place of Metaphysics in Wyclif’s Theology,” in From Ockham to Wyclif, ed. Anne Hudson and Michael Wilks (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987), 218.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid., 220.

18. Ibid., 224.

19. Ibid., 225.

20. Ibid., 227.


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