The Renaissance Heresies of Wycliffe and Hus

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  • 0:05 Background
  • 1:41 Challenges to Church Authority
  • 2:41 Challenges to Church…
  • 3:57 Challenges to Church Tradition
  • 6:17 Others Carry On
  • 8:50 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will focus on the Renaissance teachings of John Wycliffe and Jan Hus. It will highlight their challenges to church authority, membership and traditions.


Wycliffe challenged church authority in his writings.
John Wycliffe Image

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.

Challenges to Church Authority

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.

Wycliffe benefited from his friendship with John of Gaunt.
John of Gaunt

Challenges to Church Membership

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.

Challenges to Church Tradition

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.

Pope Gregory XI declared that Wycliffe had heretical ideas.
Pope Gregory XI

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