Wyclif and the Current Hermeneutics Debate

Recent Wyclif scholarship has taken note of the significance of Wyclif regarding an understanding of a text and its implied authority. This proves to be the case particularly when the text involved carries transcendent significance. Ghosh’s thesis is that Wyclif’s work in the field of biblical interpretation blurred the line of demarcation (“elided”) between the world of the speculative theological specialists and the non-specialist vernacular Englishmen during the genesis of a new middle class.1 From the Carolingian educational revival to the time of Wyclif, theological discussion had gradually become governed by a religious technocracy. Wyclif’s life’s work began to dismantle the middle wall of partition that divided the world of the Latinate from that of the vernacular. Furthermore, Ghosh presents Wyclif as a sort of ideologue who ruptures the interested interpretive discourse that plays with meaning depending on personal ambitions and competing theological schools in the context of the politics of the religious environment. In a sense, for Ghosh, Wyclif deconstructs a closed field of deconstructive play by opening the field of play to the vernacular, forcing the Latinate technocracy to debate the meaning of the biblical text with a vernacular laity. While not broaching the mechanics of Wyclif’s hermeneutic Margaret Aston provides the case study for this debate in Wyclif’s understanding of the Eucharist:

One received the presence of Christ on the alter as one received the consecrated host, as something given by the clergy. The mystery of the sacrament was veiled. The terminology used by schoolmen in discussing this theology formed part of the veil, as expression of the world beyond the laymen’s ken. Words such as transsubstanciacio, accidens, substancia, subjectare, quidditas, belonged to quite another sphere of discussion and explication from that of popular preaching. They were alien to vernacular religious instruction up the [sic] third quarter of the fourteenth century. Unneeded by laity, they had no English equivalents. [. . .] Belief of heart called for no quiddities, but for worship and devotion. The sacrament of the altar received by communicants at Easter was ‘Christ’s own body in likeness of bread’. Their participation was an act of faith, not comprehension.2

Aston remarks that Wyclif preached his views on transubstantiation in the vernacular.3 Wyclif’s difficulty with transubstantiation was that these terms belonged to the vocabulary of the Schools and not to the laity. They were ideas that were superimposed upon the text of Scripture, and they were not present in the liturgy of the ancient church. The church and Schools had obfuscated the meaning of the eucharist behind the barrier of Latin in terms that were fraught with ambiguity, couched in uncertainty. To introduce such a doctrine in the vernacular would reveal that dubious mystery of the novel doctrine. In fact, it would be one of the first doctrinal battles in which both sides felt compelled to state their case and explain their meaning in the vernacular, although some churchmen would blush that the intimate language of sacred science was thus vulgarized.3

It remains to be seen if Ghosh’s understanding of Wyclif’s hermeneutic will last the test of time. No other scholar of Wyclif has written anything correlating Wyclif’s hermeutic to Heidegger, Husserl, Gadamer, Derrida or Ricoeur. There is certainly some room to do this, but most have have taken on the task of describing the literary theory of the late Middle Ages rather than its hermeneutics. Rita Copeland is one such scholar who is seeking to understand the relationship of rhetoric and hermeneutic within the Middle Ages. Wyclif studies and the study of late medieval exegesis seem ripe for a work that connects these areas of study with postmodern hermeneutics. The reason why this may not have happened yet, probably lies in the obvious fact that postmodern proclivities were very foreign to the minds of late medieval exegetes. However, the small matter of an exegete’s personal lack of awareness of postmodern sensitivities has not stopped postmodernity for claiming an ancient as their own eleswhere.

Conclusion

Wyclif understood the problems of a strict literal reading, but he equivocated on the notion of authorial intent. While evidence exists within Wyclif’s De veritate of an attempt to proscribe boundaries for fanciful interpretation, he seemed unable to place boundaries on this nefarious sort of interpretation anymore than Augustine. This should not be considered abnormal, but his attempt alone is significant. In the twilight of the Middle Ages, Wyclif’s work gives evidence that there was an uneasiness with the popular hermeneutic. The existence of Wyclif’s sophists bears evidence of another hermeneutic ready to take the place of classic Augustinianism, but Wyclif sensed that these views were not friendly to orthodoxy. His response was to reiterate and hopefully clarify the established view in much the same way that he had championed Augustinian realism. The two were linked in Wyclif’s mind, but Wyclif never fully appreciated the danger of polyvalence as his own exegesis attests.


1. Ghosh, The Wycliffite Heresy, 1–2.

2. Margaret Aston, “Wyclif and the Vernacular,” in From Ockham to Wyclif, ed. Anne Hudson and Michael Wilks (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987), 303.

3. Ibid., 292.

4. Ibid., 299–300.

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