John Wyclif (d. 1384) was among the leading schoolmen of fourteenth-century Europe. He was an outspoken controversialist and critic of the church, and, in his last days at Oxford, the author of the greatest heresy that England had known. This volume offers translations of a representative selection of his Latin writings on theology, the church and the Christian life. It offers a comprehensive view of the life of this charismatic but irascible medieval theologian, and of the development of the most prominent dissenting mind in pre-Reformation England. This collection will be of interest to undergraduate and graduate students of medieval history, historical theology and religious heresy, as well as scholars in the field.
For the student at any university in late medieval Europe, logic and metaphysics were the necessary preliminaries to any serious engagement with theological questions. Wyclif’s distinctive and controversial theological system relied upon an equally distinctive and impressively intricate philosophical system. His three logical treatises and his Summa de Ente (a modern title) are only now beginning to receive the attention they deserve from scholars, but only one of them (On Universals) is available in English translation. I have here selected texts that deal with a range of issues that were to become crucial to Wyclif’s later thought. All are clearly informed by his developing philosophical realism, and represent his desire to gesture away from the material particulars of the world, towards the universal entities that Wyclif felt were the proper objects of philosophical knowledge.
Wyclif devoted many years of his life to the intensive study of scripture, beginning formally with exegetical lectures that survive as a sequence of postils (probably written between 1371 and 1376), now collectively known as Postils on the Whole of the Bible, a unique and extensive commentary that won Wyclif considerable respect as an exegete. In these, we witness his meticulous defence of the authority of scripture, and of the literal veracity of all of its parts. This is developed further in On the Truth of Holy Scripture (1377–78), Wyclif’s definitive guide to the interpretation of the Bible. It is in the first book of this latter treatise that he argues that scripture is metaphysically the Book of Life of which we read in St John’s Apocalypse. This book and the truths inscribed within it, he suggests here, are scripture in the truest sense, unlike the material codices that are so often taken to be the scriptural text by contemporary scholars. This conception of the scripture served Wyclif well in his famous claim that no part of scripture could literally be false. It enabled him to challenge the linguistic sophistry which he felt inevitably arose when the nature of the scriptural text was narrowly equated with inscriptions on manuscript pages.
Wyclif’s views on sacramental theology are difficult to summarise collectively, but much of what he said on the topic was generally concerned with removing a particular sacrament from its ceremonial or accidental trappings, rather than questioning its necessity. The only sacrament about which he expressed some doubt is confirmation, but, even here, it would seem to be its administration at the hands of bishops that is the true target of the doubts he expresses. His beliefs about the process of sacramental change in the eucharist represent a more radical and controversial departure from orthodox teaching, but, once again, the need of this sacrament is never questioned. Because of the complexity of Wyclif’s ideas about the eucharist, and of the metaphysical principles that inform it, as well as the volume of writing dedicated to this topic, it will be covered separately in Chapter 4.
The doctrine of transubstantiation was presented formally in Canon 1 of the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, which was presided over by Innocent III. Transubstantiation, as explained explicitly in the canon, involved the replacement or transformation of one substance (the bread or the wine) by another (the body or the blood of Christ). This formal record of ‘orthodox’ eucharistic doctrine was the implicit target of much of Wyclif’s criticism of contemporary conceptions of material change in the host. It entailed necessarily for him that the substances of the bread and the wine had to have been annihilated, and that their accidents had therefore to exist without subjects. Many theologians had published versions of this theory, including Thomas Aquinas, but Wyclif’s metaphysical system could admit neither the possibility of annihilation nor the possibility of accidents existing without substantive subjects. He outlined his position in a late philosophical treatise, On the Externally Productive Power of God (1371/2), but its controversial potential ostensibly went unnoticed.
Wyclif’s views on the church and the papacy were recorded systematically in two roughly contemporary treatises, On the Church (1378/9) and On the Power of the Pope (late 1379). His conception of the church, like his understanding of the nature of scripture, was underpinned quite conspicuously by his philosophical realism, which privileged the eternal over the finite and ephemeral. In the first chapter of On the Church, in response to his initial desire to describe the quiddity of the church, he therefore claims simply that the church is ‘the congregation of all of those predestined to salvation’. This definition, he suggests, underlies many of the diverse conceptions of the church that are found in scripture. It is this church, he goes on to suggest, that we should properly identify as the bride of Christ. The head of the church, we are told, is uniquely Christ himself, and its members are his limbs. Nobody can know for certain that he or she is among the predestinate, or even the foreknown (that is, those predestined to damnation), which meant that for Wyclif, nobody could be sure that he or she was truly a member of the church, except by ‘special revelation’.
Wyclif’s political theory was defined by a basic concept, a theory of lordship (dominio) that began in God’s perfect governance of the created world and ended in his creatures’ just lordship over each other. This relationship between the divine and the human is introduced in On Divine Lordship, Wyclif’s first extended treatment of this topic, and he provides an extended analysis of lordship in the created world in its massive sequel, On Civil Lordship. He suggests there that civil lordship (such as that enjoyed by a monarch) presupposes natural lordship, which could exist only in a lord who was in receipt of God’s grace. The gift of grace, of course, was something of which its recipient could hardly be aware, but the likelihood of grace being bestowed upon a corrupt or unrighteous individual seemed less than negligible, which meant for Wyclif that neither popes nor ecclesiastics could wield authority with any certitude. Wyclif believed that the sinful nature of papal endowments effectively rendered the papacy ineligible to receive God’s grace, an idea that became prominent in his later writings.
This chapter contains translations of a selection of shorter documents that were edited by Rudolf Buddensieg for the Wyclif Society in Polemical Works (vols 1 and 2, 1883). On the Noonday Devil is generally held to be the earliest of these, and is normally dated within a short period of the death of Edward III’s eldest son, the Black Prince, on 8 June 1376, which is mentioned in this text. The king himself died only a little over a year later. The other two texts, On the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirt and On the Loosing of Satan, whose polemic ranges far beyond the very limited scope of On the Noonday Devil, are generally held to have been written towards the end of Wyclif’s life.