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§ 42. Wyclif and the Scriptures.

Wyclif’s chief service for his people, next to the legacy of his own personality, was his assertion of the supreme authority of the Bible for clergy and laymen alike and his gift to them of the Bible in their own tongue. His statements, setting forth the Scriptures as the clear and sufficient manual of salvation and insisting that the literal sense gives their plain meaning, were as positive and unmistakable as any made by Luther. In his treatise on the value and authority of the Scriptures, with 1000 printed pages,603603    De veritate Scripturae, ed. by Buddensieg, with Introd., 3 vols., Leip., 1904. The editor, I. p. xci, gives the date as 1387, 1388. Wyclif starts out by quoting Augustine at length, I. 6-16. The treatise contains extensive digressions, as on the two natures of Christ, I. 179 sqq., the salutation of Mary, I. 282 sqq., lying, II. 1-99, Mohammedanism, II. 248-266, the functions of prelates and priests, III. 1-104, etc. more is said about the Bible as the Church’s appointed guide-book than was said by all the mediaeval theologians together. And none of the Schoolmen, from Anselm and Abaelard to Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus, exalted it to such a position of preëminence as did he. With one accord they limited its authority by coördinating with its contents tradition, that is, the teachings of the Church. This man, with unexcelled precision and cogency, affirmed its final jurisdiction, as the law of God, above all authorities, papal, decretist or patristic. What Wyclif asserts in this special treatise, he said over again in almost every one of his works, English and Latin. If possible, he grew more emphatic as his last years went on, and his Opus evangelicum, probably his very last writing, abounds in the most positive statements language is capable of.

To give the briefest outline of the Truth of Scripture will be to state in advance the positions of the Protestant Reformers in regard to the Bible as the rule of faith and morals. To Wyclif the Scriptures are the authority for every Catholic tenet. They are the Law of Christ, the Law of God, the Word of God, the Book of Life—liber vitae. They are the immaculate law of the Lord, most true, most complete and most wholesome.604604    lex domini immaculata ... verissima, completissima et saluberrima, I. 156. All things necessary to belief for salvation are found in them. They are the Catholic faith, the Christian faith,—fides christiana,—the primal rule of human perfection, the primal foundation of the Christian proclamation.

This book is the whole truth which every Christian should study.605605    Illum librum debet omnis christianus adiscere cum sit omnis veritas, I. 109, 138. It is the measure and standard of all logic. Logic, as in Oxford, changes very frequently, yea, every twenty years, but the Scriptures are yea, yea and nay, nay. They never change. They stand to eternity.606606   I. 54. Aliae logicae saepissime variantur ... logica scripturae in eternum stat. All logic, all law, all philosophy and all ethic are in them. As for the philosophy of the pagan world, whatever it offers that is in accord with the Scriptures is true. The religious philosophy which the Christian learns from Aristotle he learns because it was taught by the authors of Scripture.607607    I. 22, 29, 188. Christianus philosophiam non discit quia Aristotelis sed quia autorum scripturae sac. et per consequens tamquam suam scientiam quo in libris theologiae rectius est edocta. The Greek thinker made mistakes, as when he asserted that creation is eternal. In several places Wyclif confesses that he himself had at one time been led astray by logic and the desire to win fame, but was thankful to God that he had been converted to the full acceptance of the Scriptures as they are and to find in them all logic.

All through this treatise, and in other works, Wyclif contends against those who pronounced the sacred writings irrational or blasphemous or abounding in errors and plain falsehoods. Such detractors he labelled modern or recent doctors—moderni novelli doctores. Charges such as these would seem well-nigh incredible, if Wyclif did not repeat them over and over again. They remind us of the words of the priest who told Tyndale, 150 years later, "It were better to be without God’s laws than to be without the pope’s." What could be more shocking,—horribilius,—exclaimed Wyclif, than to assert that God’s words are false.608608    I. 151, 200, 394, 408; Lat. serm., 179; De eccles., 173, 318, etc.

The supreme authority of the Scriptures appears from their contents, the beneficent aim they have in view, and from the witness borne to them by Christ. God speaks in all the books. They are one great Word of God. Every syllable of the two Testaments is true, and the authors were nothing more than scribes or heralds.609609    Tota scrip. est unum magnum Verbum Dei., I. 269. Autores nisi scribae vel precones ad scrib. Dei legem. I. 392. Also I. 86, 156, 198, 220 sqq., III. 106 sqq., 143. If any error seem to be found in them, the error is due to human ignorance and perverseness. Nothing is to be believed that is not founded upon this book, and to its teachings nothing is to be added.610610    Falsitas in proposito est in false intelligente et non in Scrip. sac., p. 193. Nulli alii in quoquam credere nisi de quanto se fundaverit ex script. I. 383. De civ. dom., p. 394.

Wyclif devotes much time to the principles of biblical exposition and brushes away the false principles of the Fath-ers and Schoolmen by pronouncing the "literal verbal sense" the true one. On occasion, in his sermons, he himself used the other senses, but his sound judgment led him again and again to lay emphasis upon the etymological meaning of words as final. The tropological, anagogical and allegorical meanings, if drawn at all, must be based upon the literal meaning. Wyclif confessed his former mistake of striving to distinguish them with strict precision. There is, in fact, only one sense of Scripture, the one God himself has placed in it as the book of life for the wayfaring man.611611    De ver., 114, 119, 123. Sensus literalis script. est utrobique verus, p. 73. Solum ille est sensus script. quem deus et beati legunt in libro vitae qui est uni talis et alteri viatoribus, semper verus, etc., p. 126. Heresy is the contradiction of Scripture. As for himself, Wyclif said, he was ready to follow its teachings, even unto martyrdom, if necessary.612612    Oportet conclusiones carnis et seculi me deserere et sequi Christum in pauperie si debeam coronari, I. 357. Also II. 129-131. In view of the above statement, it is seen how utterly against the truth Kropatschek’s statement is, Man wird den Begriff Vorreformatoren getrost in die historische Rumpelkammer werfen können, we may without further thought cast the idea of Reformers before the Reformation into the historical rag bag. The remark he makes after stating how little the expression sola scriptura meant in the mouths of mediaeval reformers. See Walter In Litzg., 1905, p. 447. For hundreds of years no eminent teacher had emphasized the right of the laity to the Word of God. It was regarded as a book for the clergy, and the interpretation of its meaning was assumed to rest largely with the decretists and the pope. The Council of Toulouse, 1229, had forbidden the use of the Bible to laymen. The condemned sects of the 12th and 13th centuries, especially the Waldenses, had adopted another rule, but their assailants, such as Alanus ab Insulis, had shown how dangerous their principle was. Wyclif stood forth as the champion of an open Bible. It was a book to be studied by all Christians, for "it is the whole truth." Because it was given to the Church, its teachings are free to every one, even as is Christ himself.613613    Illum librum debet omnis Chriatianus adiscere cum sit omnis veritas. De ver., I. 109. Fideles cujuscunque generis, fuerint clerici vel laici, viri vel feminae, inveniunt in ea virtutem operandi, etc., pp. 117, 136. Op. evang., II. 36.

To withhold the Scriptures from the laity is a fundamental sin. To make them known in the mother-tongue is the first duty of the priest. For this reason priests ought always to be familiar with the language of the people. Wyclif held up the friars for declaring it heresy to translate God’s law into English and make it known to laymen. He argued against their position by referring to the gift of tongues at Pentecost and to Jerome’s translation, to the practice of Christ and the Apostles who taught peoples in their native languages and to the existence in his own day of a French translation made in spite of all hindrances. Why, he exclaims, "should not Englishmen do the same, for as the lords of England have the Bible in French, it would not be against reason if they had the same material in English." Through an English Bible Englishmen would be enabled best "to follow Christ and come to heaven."614614   Matthew, Sel. Works, p. 429 sq. What could be more positive than the following words?

Christen men and women, olde and young, shulden study fast in the New Testament, and no simple man of wit shulde be aferde unmeasurably to study in the text of holy Writ. Pride and covetise of clerks is cause of their blyndness and heresie and priveth them fro verie understonding of holy Writ. The New Testament is of ful autorite and open to understonding of simple men, as to the pynts that ben most needful to salvation.

Wyclif was the first to give the Bible to his people in their own tongue. He knew no Hebrew and probably no Greek. His version, which was made from the Latin Vulgate, was the outgrowth of his burning desire to make his English countrymen more religious and more Christian. The paraphrastic translation of books which proceeded from the pen of Richard Rolle and perhaps a verse of the New Testament of Kentish origin and apparently made for a nunnery,615615    The text pub. Cambr., 1902 and 1905, by Anna C. Paues: A Fourteenth Engl. Bible Vs. must be considered as in no wise in conflict with the claim of priority made for the English Reformer. In his task he had the aid of Nicolas Hereford, who translated the Old Testament and the Apocryphal books as far as Baruch 3:20. A revision was made of Wyclif’s Bible soon after his death, by Purvey. In his prologue, Purvey makes express mention of the "English Bible late translated," and affirms that the Latin copies had more need of being corrected than it. One hundred and seventy copies of these two English bibles are extant, and it seems strange that, until the edition issued by Forshall and Madden in 1850, they remained unprinted.616616    The Holy Bible, containing the Old and New Testaments with the Apocryphal Books, in the earliest English Versions made from the Vulgate by John Wycliffe and his Followers. 4 vols., Oxford, 1850. The work cost 22 years of labor. It contains Purvey’s Prologue and an exhaustive Preface by the editors. Purvey’s New Test. had been printed by John Lewis, London, 1781, and reprinted by Henry Baber, Lond., 1810, and in the Bagster English Hexapla, Lond., 1841. Adam Clarke had published Wyclif’s version of the Canticles in his Commentary, 3rd vol., 1823, and Lea Wilson, Wyclif’s New Test., Lond., 1848. The reason for their not being struck off on the presses of Caxton and other early English printers, who issued the Golden Legend, with its fantastic and often grewsome religious tales, was that Wyclif had been pronounced a heretic and his version of the Scriptures placed under the ban by the religious authorities in England.

A manuscript preserved in the Bodleian, Forshall and Madden affirm to be without question the original copy of Hereford himself. These editors place the dates of the versions in 1382 and 1388. Purvey was a Lollard, who boarded under Wyclif’s roof and, according to the contemporary chronicler, Knighton, drank plentifully of his instructions. He was imprisoned, but in 1400 recanted, and was promoted to the vicarage of Hythe. This preferment he resigned three years later. He was imprisoned a second time by Archbishop Chichele, 1421, was alive in 1427, and perhaps died in prison.

To follow the description given by Knighton in his Chronicle, the gift of the English Bible was regarded by Wyclif’s contemporaries as both a novel act and an act of desecration. The irreverence and profanation of offering such a translation was likened to the casting of pearls before swine. The passage in Knighton, who wrote 20 years after Wyclif’s death, runs thus: —

The Gospel, which Christ bequeathed to the clergy and doctors of the Church,—as they in turn give it to lay and weaker persons,—this Master John Wyclif translated out of the Latin into the Anglican tongue, not the Angelic tongue, so that by him it is become common,—vulgare,—and more open to the lay folk and to women, knowing how to read, than it used to be to clerics of a fair amount of learning and of good minds. Thus, the Gospel pearl is cast forth and trodden under foot of swine, and what was dear to both clergy and laity is now made a subject of common jest to both, and the jewel of the clergy is turned into the sport of the laity, so that what was before to the clergy and doctors of the Church a divine gift, has been turned into a mock Gospel [or common thing].617617    Commune aeternum. It is hard to give the exact rendering of these words. Knighton goes on to refer to William of St. Amour, who said of some that they changed the pure Gospel into another Gospel, the evangelium aeternum or evangelium Spiritus sancti. Knighton, Chronicle, II. 151 sq.

The plain meaning of this statement seems to be that Wyclif translated at least some of the Scriptures, that the translation was a novelty, and that the English was not a proper language for the embodiment of the sacred Word. It was a cleric’s book, and profane temerity, by putting it within the reach of the laity, had vulgarized it.

The work speedily received reprobation at the hands of the Church authorities. A bill presented in the English parliament, 1891, to condemn English versions, was rejected through the influence of the duke of Lancaster, but an Oxford synod, of 1408, passed the ominous act, that upon pain of greater excommunication, no man, by his own authority, should translate into English or any other tongue, until such translation were approved by the bishop, or, if necessary, by the provincial council. It distinctly mentions the translation "set forth in the time of John Wyclif." Writing to John XXIII., 1412, Archbishop Arundel took occasion to denounce "that pestilent wretch of damnable memory, yea, the forerunner and disciple of anti-christ who, as the complement of his wickedness, invented a new translation of the Scriptures into his mother-tongue."618618    Novae ad suae malitiae complementum Scripturarum in linguam maternam translationis practica adinventa. Wilkins, III. 350.

In 1414, the reading of the English Scriptures was forbidden upon pain of forfeiture "of land, cattle, life and goods from their heirs forever." Such denunciations of a common English version were what Wyclif’s own criticisms might have led us to expect, and quite in consonance with the decree of the Synod of Toulouse, 1229, and Arundel’s reprobation has been frequently matched by prelatical condemnation of vernacular translations of the Bible and their circulation down to the papal fulminations of the 19th century against Bible societies, as by Pius VII., 1816, who declared them "fiendish institutions for the undermining of the foundation of religion." The position, taken by Catholic apologists, that the Catholic hierarchy has never set itself against the circulation of the Scriptures in the vernacular, but only against unauthorized translations, would be adapted to modify Protestantism’s notion of the matter, if there were some evidence of only a limited attempt to encourage Bible study among the laity of the Catholic Church with the pages of Scripture open before them. If we go to the Catholic countries of Southern Europe and to South America, where her away has been unobstructed, the very opposite is true.

In the clearest language, Wyclif charged the priestly authorities of his time with withholding the Word of God from the laity, and denying it to them in the language the people could understand. And the fact remains that, from his day until the reign of Elizabeth, Catholic England did not produce any translations of the Bible, and the English Reformers were of the opinion that the Catholic hierarchy was irrevocably set against English versions. Tyndale had to flee from England to translate his New Testament, and all the copies of the first edition that could be collected were burnt on English soil. And though it is alleged that Tyndale’s New Testament was burnt because it was an "unauthorized" translation, it still remains true that the hierarchy made no attempt to give the Bible to England until long after the Protestant Reformation had begun and Protestantism was well established.

The copies of Wyclif’s and Purvey’s versions seem to have been circulated in considerable numbers in England, and were in the possession of low and high. The Lollards cherished them. A splendid copy was given to the Carthusians of London by Henry VI., and another copy was in the possession of Henry VII. Sir Thomas More states distinctly that there was found in the possession of John Hunne, who was afterwards burnt, a Bible "written after Wyclif’s copy and by him translated into our tongue."619619    More’s Works, p. 240, quoted by Gairdner, I. 112. While for a century and a half these volumes helped to keep alive the spirit of Wyclif in England, it is impossible to say how far Wyclif’s version influenced the Protestant Reformers. In fact, it is unknown whether they used it at all. Some of its words, such as mote and beam and strait gate, which are found in the version of the 16th century, seem to indicate, to say the least, that these terms had become common property through the medium of Wyclif’s version.620620    See Forshall and Madden, p. xxxii, and Eadie, pp. 90-94. The priceless heirloom which English-speaking peoples possess in the English version and in an open Bible free to all who will read, learned and unlearned, lay and cleric, will continue to be associated with the Reformer of the 14th century. As has been said by one of the ablest of recent Wyclif students, Buddensieg, the call to honor the Scriptures as the Word of God and to study and diligently obey them, runs through Wyclif’s writings like a scarlet thread.621621    Buddensieg, Introd. to De ver., pp. xxxii, xxxviii. Without knowing it, he departed diametrically from Augustine when he declared that the Scriptures do not depend for their authority upon the judgment of the Church, but upon Christ.

In looking over the career and opinions of John Wyclif, it becomes evident that in almost every doctrinal particular did this man anticipate the Reformers. The more his utterances are studied, the stronger becomes this conviction. He exalted preaching; he insisted upon the circulation of the Scriptures among the laity; he demanded purity and fidelity of the clergy; he denied infallibility to the papal utterances, and went so far as to declare that the papacy is not essential to the being of the Church. He defined the Church as the congregation of the elect; he showed the unscriptural and unreasonable character of the doctrine of transubstantiation; he pronounced priestly absolution a declarative act. He dissented from the common notion about pilgrimages; he justified marriage on biblical grounds as honorable among all men; he appealed for liberty for the monk to renounce his vow, and to betake himself to some useful work.

The doctrine of justification by faith Wyclif did not state. However, he constantly uses such expressions as, that to believe in Christ is life. The doctrine of merit is denied, and Christ’s mediation is made all-sufficient. He approached close to the Reformers when he pronounced "faith the supreme theology,"—fides est summa theologia,—and that only by the study of the Scriptures is it possible to become a Christian.622622    See De ver. scr., I. 209, 212, 214, 260, II. 234. He made a distinction between the material and formal principles when he spoke of the words of Christ as something materiale, and the inner meaning as something formale. Buddensieg, p. xlv, says Wyclif had a dawning presentiment of justifying faith. According to Poole, he stated the doctrine in other terms in his treatment of lordship. Rashdall, Dict. Natl. Biog., LXIII. 221, says that, apart from the doctrine of justification by faith, there is little in the teachings of the 16th cent. which Wyclif did not anticipate.

Behind all Wyclif’s other teaching is his devotion to Christ and his appeal to men to follow Him and obey His law. It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that the name of Christ appears on every page of his writings. To him, Christ was the supreme philosopher, yea, the content of all philosophy.623623    Summus philos., immo summa philosophia est Christus, deus noster, quem sequendo et discendo sumus philosophi. De ver. scr., I. 32.

In reaching his views Wyclif was, so far as we know, as independent as any teacher can well be. There is no indication that he drew from any of the medieval sects, as has been charged, nor from Marsiglius and Ockam. He distinctly states that his peculiar views were drawn not from Ockam but from the Scriptures.624624    De ver. scr., I. 346 sqq. See Loserth, Kirchenpolitik, pp. 2, 112 sq. Buddensieg, De ver. scr., p. viii, says, Was er war wissen wir, nicht wie er es geworden. We know what he was, but not how he came to be what he was. See, for a Rom. Cath. judgment, Hergenröther-Kirsch, II. 878, who finds concentrated in Wyclif the false philosophy of the Waldenses and the Apocalypties, of Marsiglius and Ockam.

The Continental Reformers did not give to Wyclif the honor they gave to Huss. Had they known more about him, they might have said more.625625    Melanchthon, in a letter to Myconius, declared that Wyclif was wholly ignorant of the doctrine of justification, and at another time he said he had foolishly mixed up the Gospel and politics. Had Luther had access to the splendid shelf of volumes issued by the Wyclif Society, he might have said of the English Reformer what he said of Wessel’s Works when they were put into his hands. The reason why no organized reformation followed Wyclif’s labors is best given when we say, the time was not yet ripe. And, after all the parallelisms are stated between his opinions and the doctrines of the Reformers, it will remain true that, evangelical as he was in speech and patriotic as he was in spirit, the Englishman never ceased to be a Schoolman. Luther was fully a man of the new age.

Note. – The Authorship of the First English Bible. Recently the priority of Wyclif’s translation has been denied by Abbot Gasquet in two elaborate essays, The Old English Bible, pp. 87–155. He also pronounces it to be very doubtful if Wyclif ever translated any part of the Bible. All that can be attempted here is a brief statement of the case. In addition to Knighton’s testimony, which seems to be as plain as language could put it, we have the testimony of John Huss in his Reply to the Carmelite Stokes, 1411, that Wyclif translated the whole Bible into English. No one contends that Wyclif did as much as this, and Huss was no doubt speaking in general terms, having in mind the originator of the work and the man’s name connected with it. The doubt cast upon the first proposition, the priority of Wyclif’s version, is due to Sir Thomas More’s statement in his Dialogue, 1530, Works, p. 233. In controverting the positions of Tyndale and the Reformers, he said, "The whole Bible was before Wyclif’s days, by virtuous and well-learned men, translated into English and by good and godly people, with devotion and soberness, well and reverently read." He also says that he saw such copies. In considering this statement it seems very possible that More made a mistake (1) because the statement is contrary to Knighton’s words, taken in their natural sense and Huss’ testimony. (2) Because Wyclif’s own statements exclude the existence of any English version before his own. (3) Because the Lollards associated their Bible with Wyclif’s name. (4) Because before the era of the Reformation no English writer refers to any translating except in connection with Wyclif’s name and time. Sir Thomas More was engaged in controversy and attempting to justify the position that the Catholic hierarchy had not been opposed to translations of the Scriptures nor to their circulation among proper classes of the laity. But Abbot Gasquet, after proposing a number of conjectural doubts and setting aside the natural sense of Knighton’s and Arundel’s statements, denies altogether the Wycliffite authorship of the Bible ascribed to him and edited by Forshall and Madden, and performs the feat of declaring this Bible one of the old translations mentioned by More. It must be stated here, a statement that will be recalled later, that Abbot Gasquet is the representative in England of the school of Janssen, which has endeavored to show that the Catholic Church was in an orderly process of development before Luther arose, and that Luther and the Reformers checked that development and also wilfully misrepresented the condition of the Church of their day. Dr. Gasquet, with fewer plausible facts and less literature at command than Janssen, seeks to present the English Church’s condition in the later Middle Ages as a healthy one. And this he does (1) by referring to the existence of an English mediaeval literature, still in MSS., which he pronounces vast in its bulk; (2) by absolutely ignoring the statements of Wyclif; (3) by setting aside the testimonies of the English Reformers; (4) by disparaging the Lollards as a wholly humble and illiterate folk. Against all these witnesses he sets up the single witness, Sir Thomas More.

The second proposition advocated by Dr. Gasquet that it is doubtful, and perhaps very improbable, that Wyclif did nothing in the way of translating the Bible, is based chiefly upon the fact that Wyclif does not refer to such a translation anywhere in his writings. If we take the abbot’s own high priest among authorities, Sir Thomas More, the doubt is found to be unjustifiable, if not criminal. More, speaking of John Hunne, who was burnt, said that he possessed a copy of the Bible which was "after a Wycliffite copy." Eadie, I. 6O sqq.; Westcott, Hist. of the Eng. Bible. Gairdner who discusses the subject fairly in his Lollardy, I. 101–117, Capes, pp. 125–128, F. D. Matthew, in Eng. Hist. Rev., 1895, and Bigg, Wayside Sketches, p. 127 sq., take substantially the position taken by the author. Gasquet was preceded by Lingard, Hist. of Eng., IV. 196, who laid stress upon More’s testimony to offset and disparage the honor given from time immemorial to Wyclif in connection with the English Bible.

How can a controversialist be deemed fair who, in a discussion of this kind, does not even once refer to Wyclif’s well-known views about the value of a popular knowledge of the Scriptures, and his urgency that they be given to all the people through plain preaching and in translation? Dr. Gasquet’s attitude to "the strange personality of Wyclif" may be gotten from these words, Old Eng. Bible, p. 88: "Whatever we may hold as Catholics as to his unsound theological opinions, about which there can be no doubt, or, as peace-loving citizens, about his wild revolutionary social theories, on which, if possible, there can be less," etc.

The following are two specimens of Wyclif’s versions:—

MATT. VIII. 23–27. And Jhesu steyinge vp in to a litel ship, his disciplis sueden him. And loo! a grete steryng was made in the see, so that the litil ship was hilid with wawis; but he slepte. And his disciplis camen nigh to hym, and raysiden hym, sayinge, Lord, saue vs: we perishen. And Jhesus seith to hem, What ben yhee of litil feith agast? Thanne he rysynge comaundide to the wyndis and the see, and a grete pesiblenesse is maad. Forsothe men wondreden, sayinge: What manere man is he this, for the wyndis and the see obeishen to hym.

ROM. VIII. 5–8. For thei that ben aftir the fleisch saueren tho thingis that ben of the fleisch, but thei that ben aftir the spirit felen tho thingis that ben of the spirit. For the prudence of fleisch: is deeth, but the prudence of spirit: is liif and pees. For the wisdom of fleische is enemye to God, for it is not suget to the lawe of God: for nether it may. And thei that ben in fleisch: moun not please to God.


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