Back To CourseWestern Civilization I: Help and Review
17 chapters | 308 lessons
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Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.
Right off Route 528 in Orlando, FL, sits the headquarters of the Wycliffe Bible Translators, an organization of over 6,000 members whose mission statement reads 'Our vision is to see the Bible accessible to all people in the language they best understand.' To date, this organization has played a part in completing over 700 translations of the Bible. In doing this, it has continued the works of John Wycliffe, a man living in very turbulent times who challenged the notion that the Bible should be left in the hands of the church. Through him, men like Jan Hus would pick up this mantle and bring the Bible to common man.
John Wycliffe was an Englishman born sometime around the year 1320. History hasn't recorded much about his early life, but we know he was educated by, and later taught at, Oxford University. Around 1374, Wycliffe branched out from the scholarly world to enter the realm of politics, becoming a representative for King Edward III at a papal conference. During this time, it is believed that he developed a close friendship with John of Gaunt, the son of King Edward III. This friendship would serve as a protection for Wycliffe as he began challenging some foundational church practices and beliefs. These radical opinions focused on three areas: church authority, church membership and church tradition.
Let's take a look at Wycliffe's ideas on church authority. In the late 14th century, Wycliffe shocked the world by declaring the pope, like any man, was capable of sin. In his essays entitled 'On Divine Dominion' and 'On Civil Dominion,' he took it a step further by stating a worldly or sinful pope was to be proclaimed a heretic and should be removed from office. Making matters even more serious, he also taught that a monarch had the right to stop financially supporting any clergyman he deemed to be unworthy. As you can guess, this didn't sit so well with the church, and in the late 1370s, Wycliffe's ideas were declared heretical by Pope Gregory XI. Fortunately for him, Wycliffe had supporters in very high places - John of Gaunt for one - as well as many monarchs who really liked the idea of not having to pay the church their money.
Never one to sit quietly on the sidelines, Wycliffe would not be silenced. His next target was church membership. Through his personal study of the Bible, Wycliffe believed that God, not any earthly official, has the right to allow or deny church membership. Through his study, he believed that the Church of God was not a visible organization here on earth, but was made up of God's elect, or in simpler terms, those God had chosen. He believed no man, no pope, had the right to declare someone else holy. This job is for God and God alone. Wycliffe took this teaching, known as predestination, or the belief that God has predetermined who will be part of the true church, directly from the Bible. The New Testament states 'And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.' Again, he wasn't winning any points with the church, but nothing infuriated them more than our next topic: his attacks against their traditions. These attacks are what Wycliffe is most remembered for.
Up until this point, church tradition held that only church officials were worthy to read and expound upon the Bible. They taught that common man was not capable of such study, and therefore, the path to God must be through the church. Wycliffe boldly challenged this again by proclaiming the words of the New Testament, which state 'For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus;' or in other words, Jesus, not the church, is the only way to God.
Wycliffe did not stop there. He decided the best way to get people to understand what the Bible said was to give them an English translation that they could understand. Up to this point, the Holy Book was only available in the ancient Hebrew, Latin and Greek, making it difficult if not impossible for the common man to read. Wycliffe began translating the scriptures into common English. By the 1390s, his translation was being distributed to the wealthy, the common and the very poor. Having the Bible readily available to the public meant disaster to the church. In losing control of the scriptures, the church's income and power were at stake. For instance, the selling of indulgences, or the financial payments for freedom against the punishments of sin, would be declared a complete scam. People would begin to challenge the church's authority.
Of course, the church was not willing to go down without a fight, and when Wycliffe dared challenge their doctrine of transubstantiation, or the belief that the bread and wine of communion actually become the body of Christ, they had had enough. Although his life was spared, Wycliffe was declared a heretic and expelled from Oxford. He returned to his small church in Lutterworth, England, where he remained until his death. Ironically, the official church continued their grudge against him, and in 1428, years after Wycliffe's death, they ordered his bones to be dug up and burned. This move solidified their belief that he was a heretic but, I am guessing, had very little impact on Wycliffe himself.
Like many movements that include the common folk, Wycliffe's work continued. By 1387, traveling preachers who held the beliefs of Wycliffe, called Lollards, roamed throughout England, taking with them the teachings of Wycliffe. These Lollards, named from the Dutch word 'mumbler,' included members of the common class as well as the wealthy. Together they encouraged all people to read the Bible in their local language, stressing a personal faith between God and man instead of a distant relationship through church authority. Of course, like Wycliffe, their greatest act was continuing to support the reading of the Bible in the local languages of the people. Unfortunately, the Lollards may have pushed their luck when they produced a stinging attack against the Church of England, calling it a blind and a leprous burden to the people. As you can imagine, this didn't go over so well, and in the late 1300s many of the Lollards were imprisoned and their Bibles banned.
However, in a small Bohemian village, someone else was stirring. Jan Hus, the son of poor parents, enrolled in the University of Prague in the 1390s. There he came under the influence of the writings of Wycliffe. Hus was especially impressed with Wycliffe's teachings against the power of the church. This was also the time of the Great Schism when two rival popes were fighting for church authority. This, along with Wycliffe's teaching, spurred on Hus' belief that the church was way too powerful. He took Wycliffe's beliefs to another level, arguing that the church should have no authority in secular matters and that government had the right to rise up against the church. Like Wycliffe, he also believed the Bible had supremacy over the church and that Christ, not the pope, is the head of the true church.
As you can imagine, Hus was not a favorite of church officials. Unlike Wycliffe, who had friends in high places, Hus did not. He was soon imprisoned for his beliefs, eventually condemned a heretic and burned at the stake in 1415. After his death, his followers, known as the Hussites, sparked a national rebellion that fought for the right to freely preach the words of the Bible. Through this group and many others, the teaching of Wycliffe and Hus still exists today in an organization that bears Wycliffe's name.
John Wycliffe was a revolutionary who used the words of the Bible to challenge church authority, church membership and church traditions. Although he was only one man, his teachings sparked a fresh look at scriptures. This spark continued through his followers, the Lollards, then was fanned by Jan Hus. These teachings didn't die with these men but turned into a raging fire with the future teachings of men like Martin Luther in the coming Reformation.
Over 600 years later, Wycliffe's desire to see the Bible given to the masses is alive and well, fully functioning through the Wycliffe Bible Translators headquartered in Orlando, FL. Sort of makes you stop and wonder if maybe, just maybe, he was onto something!
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Back To CourseWestern Civilization I: Help and Review
17 chapters | 308 lessons