In the context of Reformation Sunday and the birthday celebrations of the Reformed Faith, all of which are well conceived and justified, one man appears to quietly slip through a crack in the memory of the Church. His name is John Wycliffe.
Our tradition reminds us of the ministry of Martin Luther and of 95 theses nailed to the door of the Cathedral Church in Wittenburg, Germany on October 31, 1517 -- a banner occasion for the Reformed Church. It also brings to mind the several issues of confrontation with Rome that were the hallmark of Luther's career. We recall them with gratitude.
Yet it was John Wycliffe whom history has dubbed: "The Morning Star of the Reformation". Born almost 200 years before Luther, in the obscurity of a tiny village in North Yorkshire, England, Wycliffe completed his early childhood education in a one-room school and made his way to the University of Oxford. There he studied first as a student of philosophy and theology, and then became a full professor in the same field. He was of stoic demeanor, not given to frivolity, a serious minded man whose primary interest was always the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture. He consistently argued that the Word of God was the primary authoritative source of Christianity and that it would remain so for all time.
Despite the consternation that he caused in the Roman Church, from his earliest days as an Oxford Don, he postulated several of the key arguments later embraced by Martin Luther. He wrote a number of tracts and books to make his ideas known, and especially denounced the notion of a purchased salvation by means of paid-for indulgences. In addition he warmly embraced the Biblical doctrines of "Justification by Faith" as a single act of Sovereign Grace; and Sanctification as the process which means the Holy Spirit directs in the life of the believer. Both almost unheard of in their day. Supremely he saw Christ as Sovereign Lord and God, the Savior of Mankind, and trusted in His substitutionary death.
In his zeal for truth, Wycliffe set to work on his magnum opus , the translation of the New Testament into the English Language. This had the dual benefit of delivering the Word of God to the common people of Britain, while removing the Church from the role of sole interpreter of truth. Wycliffe's action was fiercely opposed by Rome and vigorous efforts were made to destroy his work and unseat him from his position at Oxford. Indeed, some copies of the New Testament were destroyed, but because there were so many of them, zealously copied by believers, many survived.
John Wycliffe, a gentle giant, valiant for the faith once delivered to the saints, died of a stroke in 1384. It was thirty years later that the Roman Church, still incensed and still smarting because of Wycliffe's great influence and his role in pioneering the reformation of the church, had his bones dug up and publicly burned.
But give John Wycliffe his due! He was long gone and safe home. He had already received his "well done, good and faithful servant," from his Lord.
Wilfred A. Bellamy, Ph.D.