A “Heretic” Remembered

An ignominious anniversary is upon us! Call me a history nerd (not to be confused with a history expert) but if you love the Bible, the story below about a bold heretic will inspire deep gratitude in your heart and mind.

Six Hundred years ago, on May 4, 1415, John Wycliffe (c. 1330 –1384) was declared a heretic and his writings were banned, though he had been dead for 31 years. Thirteen years later, in 1428, Pope Martin V was still so livid that he ordered Wycliffe’s corpse exhumed and burned. His ashes were cast into the River Swift running through Lutterworth, England.

What on earth had Wycliffe done to make the powerful so furious? Why was disgracing him 44 years after his death such a high papal priority?

John Wycliffe hailed from Yorkshire, England, and was educated close to home. He ended up at Oxford University as a Doctor of Divinity. More dangerously, he was a powerful preacher who looked to the Bible as his guiding light. He preached with strong moral courage and conviction and was known for purity in living. He was dangerous for several politically incorrect reasons:

  • He opposed the imperialized papacy of his day and denounced the monastic orders as “sects.”
  • He opposed secular entanglements and special status for the clergy. For Wycliffe, high clerical offices and sacramental ritual as secondary to individual holiness and devotion to the local community of faith.
  • He criticized the pomp and luxury of the churches, including the expensive artwork and the veneration of icons.
  • He believed that the Church had forsaken the word of God for human tradition. With help from colleagues, Wycliffe produced many English language copies of the Scriptures, translated from the Latin Vulgate (the only text available to him). Putting readable Bibles into the hands and hearts of the people was intolerable.

With dangerous opposition on the rise, Wycliffe suffered a stroke and died while saying Mass on Holy Innocent’s Day in 1384. His teachings continued to spread and followers multiplied. This explains the fury of the authorities against Wycliffe 44 years later. Possessing an English translation of Scripture without proper permission became a capital crime.

On July 6, 1415, only 70 days after the Council of Constance declared Wycliffe a heretic, a Wycliffe follower named Jan Hus was burned at the stake. Wycliffe’s Bible manuscripts were used as kindling for the fire.

About 100 years later on October 31, 1517 , Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses of Contention to the door of the Wittenberg Church provoking the Protestant Reformation. A few years later, Luther translated the Bible for common German readers.

Wycliffe is remembered today as the “The Morning Star of the Reformation.” I consider Wycliffe, William Tyndale, Martin Luther and others who made the Bible readable to common folk to be the greatest heroes of history. Without them, there would have been no Reformation. Without the Reformation, the Enlightenment would never have emerged. Human civilization would certainly be more primitive, corrupt and backward today without these brilliant and brave men of God.

Nothing transforms human history for the good like the Bible in the hands of regular people.

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