Wyclif's Literal Sense in De Veritate Sacrae Scripturae

Much of the discussion in the past surrounding Wyclif’s understanding of Scripture has only touched on some of the subsequent questions it has raised, and no one has really attempted a description of how his system of hermeneutics works. Ghosh’s description seems to be the best on record in describing Wyclif’s hermeneutic feature by feature, but it waxes long on its difficulties and not enough on a reasonable summarization. Even the translator of De veritate, Ian Christopher Levy, gives only the most cursory explanation concerning Wyclif’s hermeneutic in his introduction to this work. In making the attempt here to provide a compact synopsis, it is hoped that soon more works will be available to discuss this vital part of Wyclif’s scholarship.

Wyclif, in his De veritate sacrae scripturae, taught that the Bible is the standard by which theology and even the church are judged. His hermeneutic relied heavily upon authorial intent as expressed in his commonly used phrase, de virtute sermonis. Wyclif was not unaware of the problems concerning associating the locus of meaning with the author, especially in a text that claimed a divine author working through a human agent. The difficulties with authorial intent are enough without direct access to the author, let alone this unique sort of blend of the human and divine. In De veritate, Wyclif works out a hermeneutical method of determining authorial intent with respect to the Bible, and he does so in a way that belies some knowledge of these aforementioned difficulties. One can identify at least five significant characteristics of Wyclif’s hermeneutic.

First, Wyclif developed rules for determining when the univocal sense or the equivocal sense constituted de virtute sermonis. At the very beginning of his De veritate, Wyclif makes this very clear statement: “I have often said that Scripture is true in all of its parts according to the intended literal sense (de virtute sermonis). This is why professors of Holy Scripture ought to imitate its manner of speaking, adhering to its eloquence and logic, more so than any foreign pagan writing.”1 What Wyclif means by this and what this statement implies becomes the subject of his discourse for the entire treatise. The difficulty that Wyclif tries to resolve is the relationship of the literal sense, which is generally thought to be univocal, to the frequent use of the equivocal sense which manifests itself in a variety of ways within the biblical text. He appeals to the intended sense which he roughly accords with the literal sense. This seems to be a bit of a contradiction, but it must be understood in light of what he says about the way in which he determines the intended sense. Much of his method has to do with a constant opening up of the context and letting Scripture interpret itself. If the immediate context provides no salient clues as to its spiritual meaning, then another text’s clearer spiritual truth must be brought to bear upon the passage. Wyclif makes the assumption that Scripture’s purpose is spiritual. Thus, when its meaning is not overtly spiritual, it must carry the spiritual meaning in a less than literal way, and the meaning of this less than literal way may be found in other texts. This spiritual meaning than fills out the meaning that, in the literal sense, might be untrue or preposterous:

In regard to the exposition of the senses of Scripture, the Church and the holy doctors readily grant that according to the intended literal sense (de virtute sermonis) Christ is a “lamb, sheep, calf, bull, serpent, lion, worm,” though he is such according to the mystical sense, which belongs to the fullness of the literal sense.2

By no means should Wyclif’s stress on what is often translated as literal sense be understood to be bare literalism, but it must also be recognized that Wyclif’s understanding of literal goes beyond the immediate context. In this way, what may not be considered literal could be conceived as literal once the context is opened up to include more of the biblical text. For Wyclif, then, the sensus plenus, is not foisted upon the sensus litteralis; but it is bound up by the de virtute sermonis which is dictated by the limits of the corpus scripturae.

Furthermore, Wyclif believes that this is the natural progression of understanding the text. The interpreter first understands the basic straightforward meaning before pursuing the more equivocal meaning:

For just as a child first learns the alphabet, second to spell, third to read, and fourth to understand, he retains in each of these levels his own sense, distinctly oriented toward what he had first learned. but later, given the confusion, he casts off the first sense. Similarly, the theologian, having received grammatical instruction, then learns the grammar of Scripture secondly, adapting to that sense, having left behind the first. And thirdly, having set aside the sensible signs, he devotes his attention to the sense of the author, until at the fourth stage, he might gaze upon the unveiled Book of Life.3

Second, Wyclif prescribed boundaries for multivalence, limiting it to de virtute sermonis. It must be admitted, however, that he was generous with equivocal meanings that were read as allegory and analogy on top of the literal sense. Wyclif attempted to allow for equivocation without losing the certainty of the truth contained within Scripture. He gives evidence that at one time, in order to preserve the certainty of truth, he adhered to only the ad literam and had no use for the equivocal. He found this to be an implausible position and developed a way in which equivocation might be allowed and the meaning of the text kept certain:

In the days when I spoke as a child, I was anxiously perplexed in my efforts to understand and defend these Scriptures according to the strictly literal sense (de virtute sermonis), since it was clear to me that they did not derive their truth from the animal hides. Yet at last the Lord revealed the sense to me by his grace, through which I could then understand the aforesaid equivocation of Scripture. Therefore, I understand that Holy Scripture speaks in one instance according to the literal sense (ad literam), singularly pertaining to Scripture in the aforementioned first manner, and then again plurally in regard to the aforementioned second and third manner of Scripture.4

In Levy’s translation, It is not entirely certain what the first, second, and third manner are. There are many such triplets, quadruplets, quintuplets, etc. utilized in De veritate, but none in Levy’s translation seem to correlate directly. What may be adduced from the context is that Wyclif moves from accepting only bare literalism to valuing a more mystical or spiritual understanding. Yet, Wyclif contends that Scripture confines its meaning to that of the author. Wyclif appeals to authority when he states that “for this reason the doctors often counsel that a sense which is contrary to the intended sense of the author should be dismissed.”5

Wyclif’s reasons for adhering closely to the intended sense of the author even while allowing, very generously, for equivocal interpretation may be found in his over-arching paradigm for Scripture. It forms the touchstone for his De veritate and his understanding of Scripture. Wyclif’s model of Scripture consists of “five levels of Holy Scripture.” The first level is the Book of Life mentioned in Revelation 20 and 21. He identifies the second level with the truths inscribed in the Book of Life. The third level systematizes the truths of the second “which are to be believed according to their proper genus.” The fourth level consists of truths found within in the soul of man. The fifth level consists of the particulars of Holy Scripture written in manuscripts or spoken aloud by using sounds or signs.6 In such a system, Wyclif’s view of the written Word of God is that it may only be understood as the Word of God in an equivocal sense, for the Word of God encompasses all truth and exists transcendently.7 Contrary to negating the importance of the written Word, Wyclif only seems to be accounting for the distinction between the temporal, fallen, and shadowy nature of this world in the classic Platonic-Augustinian sense. The written Word, then, is the best that can be had in this life.8 Wyclif retains the medieval exegetical concept of the quadringa or four-fold sense of Scripture wherein the literal, allegorical, tropological and anagogical senses are valid.9

Third, Wyclif followed the tradition of the catholic understanding of the text. The church Fathers and the holy doctors must not be ignored on an exegetical matter, but they were not without error. This is the very essence of Oberman’s understanding of Wyclif’s use of Tradition I and rejection of Tradition II. Contrary to the opinions of Minnis, Hurley, and Ghosh; Wyclif discounts only meanings added to or contrary to the text of Scripture by the Fathers. Throughout De veritate Wyclif makes frequent appeals to the auctoritas, he upholds the validity of canon law, he warns against interpreting in a way that contrary to the catholic sense.10 But, Wyclif admits that only Scripture may be considered unquestionably true, that even Augustine could err,11 and that current papal decrees often go unnecessarily beyond the bounds of Scripture:

But alas! The queen of the sciences has been mingled with spurious doctrines, because an exceedingly large part of canon law itself has been mixed up with pagan traditions, though not according to that portion which natural law relates so thoroughly, but rather according to the portion which human traditions and ambitions have taught. Though canon law ought to remain purely evangelical, at the time of the Church’s Donation it was turned into a law even more vile than the laws of the pagans. And all of this leads one to conclude that clerics should be ruled under civil dominion.12

This Tradition I stance of Wyclif evidences itself in the constant sort of rebuke exemplified above. Wyclif holds to a view of the authority of Scripture in which the church, by its fathers and holy doctors, helps to explicate the sense of Scripture, but is never able to escape its judgment. The church remains subservient to the text even if it is only within the church that the text is explicated properly. Wyclif decries the doctrine of Boniface VIII as issued in the Unam sanctum (1302) because it places him above Scripture. Wyclif laments that “he [the Pope] is able to render Holy Scripture heretical and make catholic what is the opposite of the Christian faith.”13 Against this hierarchy of authority, Wyclif places Scripture, the law given to the church, in which “a people are obliged to understand, defend and preserve it, since according to it all are bound to serve the Lord in hope of eternal reward.”14 It is in this sense that Scripture is deemed by Wyclif to be evangelical law and earned him the sobriquet, Evangelical Doctor.

Fourth, Wyclif believed that there must be congruence between text and the life of the interpreter. Charity always invoked understanding and understanding reciprocated. For Wyclif, the interpreter must possess a piety equal to that which the Scripture promotes in order to understand what the Scripture says. Although Smalley contended that Wyclif is anti-fideistic, it seems that the admission of this connection between faith and piety or between faith and charity mitigates against this. But, Smalley did admit the connection.15 Toward the middle of De veritate, Wyclif argues that with regard to seeing the truth in Scripture despite the wranglings of the sophists and their misuse of Aristotle’s logic,

any Christian will come to the conclusion that the proof derived from the authority of Holy Scripture, which is proof from faith, is the most fitting possibility of all. It is evident from the faith of Scripture, which one must believe, that a person can acquire nothing superior, nor more certain, or more efficacious.16

Later, within the same paragraph, he makes the connection to affections or charity: “As I said above, it is absolutely essential that every person be a theologian, having first set his own affections in proper order. For then the Truth will deign to descend and instruct him in [sic] manner free from all deception.”17 In Wyclif’s description of this person, who is the theologian by becoming Scripture’s disciple, he says that the character of this disciple rests upon three requirements: the “humble acceptance of the authority of Scripture, conformation to its own reason, and adherence to the witness of the holy doctors.”18 On this last point, Wyclif again confirms the third point made above in this paper. Reaching back earlier in the book, Wyclif affirms his agreement with the Augustinian connection between faith and charity:

That many evils arise when people either disbelieve Scripture or maintain some perverted understanding of it. This is what prompts a person to be offended by Scripture, what leads him into contradiction and worst of all, what persuades him to abandon the very faith which he ought to receive from Scripture. Augustine says, “Faith will falter if the authority of Divine Scripture wavers. Moreover, when faith falters love itself languishes. For if anyone were to fall away from faith, he will necessarily fall away from love.”19

Wyclif, then, demonstrates that he is not very far removed from the standard Augustinian tradition, and views the reception of truth to be consonant with a love for truth.

Fifth, Wyclif viewed Scripture as a mirror of metaphysical truth. In a sense, it would seem that Scripture could be validated apart from faith in its statements, but Wyclif never goes this far in his alleged anti-fideism. Instead, he seems to promote the view that Scripture is the best judge of Scripture. Tresko raises the possibility that Wyclif’s understanding of Scripture would be out of step with those of a more conservative orthodoxy. Noting that Wyclif did not place the supreme locus of Scripture within the hide-bound text communicated in artificial signs, Tresko assumes that Wyclif’s foray into speculation about the ontology of Scripture might “be unrecognizable and perhaps even monstrous to those who now like to honour his name.”20 It does not take much of an imagination to think that Tresko links those “who now like to honour his name” to the fundamentalism which he mentions, as having been attached, rather erroneously, to Wyclif’s views by Robson.21 To be sure, many may be uncomfortable with Wyclif’s speculation about the ontology of Scripture; but none would deny the fact that it was the way, and perhaps the only way, that Wyclif could attach as closely as possible the truth of God to the written book we call the Bible within the framework of the Platonic-Augustinian tradition.

In the Platonic tradition, nothing in the visible realm identically corresponds to the transcendent realm of truth and the universals. At best, this world is only a shadow or a reflection of the truth of the transcendent realm. The cosmos exists as a tiered universe, in which nothing moves easily between tiers. Within this context, Wyclif’s explanation of the written Scriptures gives the written Word the highest possible place within this transient created order. Interestingly enough, while quoting the Wisdom of Solomon (7:26), Wyclif makes this remark: “The truth is present there more permanently, because it is eternal and indelible, a book so majestic because it is ‘the radiance of the eternal light, the flawless mirror.’”22 Earlier in the paragraph Wyclif gives his reasons for viewing the written word in such a manner. By Wyclif’s reckoning, if the Truth of God were contained only in the written manuscripts or subsequent copies, “then all Holy Scripture could be damaged by a leather-worker, authorized by a scribe, torn apart by a dog, and corrected by a buffoon.”23 The written Word was Holy Scripture in the equivocal sense just as a picture of a man is identified with the man because in bears his resemblance.24 This did not undercut the written Word’s veracity or faithfulness but, as Robson observes, preserved the written Word as the very emanation of God based upon Truth that existed before its writing in time and space.25

These five characteristics lend some description to Wyclif’s hermeneutic. It cannot be emphasized enough, however, that his hermeneutical method did not preserve him from straining the text. His rather vague idea about the locus of truth allowed him to explicate the truth of one passage of Scripture with another passage Scripture without any significantly explicit connection. Sometimes the truth is not even connected to a concrete portion of Scripture. In this way, Wyclif is able to interpret allegory upon allegory as in Judges 9:8-15:

When a doctor digs more deeply into Scripture, which appears so barren, and presses beyond some small aspect of the signified sense, he will find hidden with it the mystical sense concerning the state of the universal Church. In this way the trees are understood to be the baser members of the human race who, on account of their own bestial servitude, subject as they are to their own passions, crave secular power over their fellow man.26

With this example Wyclif appears unable to extricate himself from his own historical situation. Indeed, Wyclif almost seems to give creedence to his own version of a reader-response hermeneutic.


1. Wyclif, On the Truth of Sacred Scripture, 41.


2. Ibid., 43.


3. Ibid., 65.


4. Ibid., 101.


5. Ibid., 93.


6. Ibid., 97.


7. Ibid., 99.


8. Ibid., 99–100.


9. Ibid., 104.


10. Ibid., 156.


11. Ibid., 61–62.


12. Ibid., 304.


13. Ibid., 114.


14. Ibid., 115–16.


15. Smalley, “The Bible and Eternity,” 75.


16. Wyclif, On the Truth of Sacred Scripture, 200.


17. Ibid.


18. Ibid., 145.


19. Wyclif, On the Truth of Sacred Scripture, 116Wyclif here cites Augustine, De doctrina christiana, I.37.41.


20. Tresko, “John Wyclif’s Metaphisics of Scriptural Integrity,” 153.


21. Ibid., 155.


22. Wyclif, On the Truth of Sacred Scripture, 100.


23. Ibid., 99.


24. Ibid.


25. Robson, Wyclif and the Oxford Schools, 146, 163.


26. Wyclif, On the Truth of Sacred Scripture, 77.


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