Wyclif: Dominion by Grace

This was an old seminary paper I wrote.  I was young and idealistic.  I stand by most of what I wrote, though I wish I had spent more time with John Wyclif (and I wish RTS Jackson was an institution that took scholarship seriously and sought to develop it).

Scholarship has advanced a good bit on Wyclif since I wrote this (though many of his most important writings are still in Latin).   My main problem in this essay is that I tried to read Wyclif through the lens of post-theonomy debates, rather than letting him set his own views.

What are one’s ethical duties between church and state? How does one’s citizenship affect his witness against the world? Augustine wrote his monumental tome City of God in response to the Fall of Rome. It was the result of a lifetime of scriptural wisdom in reflection on the current ethical and political crisis. Western culture, however, never had a consistent interpretation and application of Augustine’s vision. Did the worldview of The City of God necessarily lead to “triumphalism” or did it encourage Christians to political inactivism? [Modern Day Reflection:  This is mostly true, and scholars are divided on Augustine on this point, but this really wasn’t Wyclif’s main point]

Even then, the answer seemed none too clear. While one could consistently choose either triumphalism or monasticism, ethical problems would soon follow. The ethical duties seemed clear when Augustine wrote The City of God. Barbarians sacked the cultural center of the world and fingers were pointed at the Christians. “The world seemed to at its foundations, and the pagans knew the answer! In their eyes, the catastrophe was the recompsense for abandoning the old guardian divinities and the traditional religion; the new Christian God of the empire had obviously proved impotent, and had failed” (von Campenhausen, p.241). Although Augustine convincingly refuted his critics, and a consistent political theology was established, Christendom was troubled with new tensions between politics and theology.

Medieval thought saw society as an indissoluble unit under the suzerainty of God’s visible and manifest authority. According to the ruling ecclesiastical interpretation of the later Middle Ages, the church was not only the continuation and extension of Christ’s authority upon earth, but the bearer of His authority and kingship over all things in the universe. According to the familiar words of Boniface’s Bull “Unam Sanctam,” 1302:

We learn from the words of the Gospel that in this Church and in her power are two swords, the spiritual and the temporal…Both are in the power of the Church,’ the spiritual sword and the material. But the latter is to be used for the Church, the former by her; the former by the priest, the latter by kings and captains but at the will and by the permission of the priest…The one sword, then, should be under the other, and temporal authority subject to spiritual…Thus, concerning the Church and her power, is the prophecy of Jeremiah fulfilled, ‘See, I have this day set thee over the nations and over the kingdoms,’ etc. (Jer. 1:19). If, therefore, the earthly power err, it shall be judged by the spiritual power; and if a lesser power err, it shall be judged by a greater. But if the supreme power err, it can only be judged by God, not by man; for the testimony of the apostle is ‘The spiritual man judgeth all things, yet he himself is judged of no man’ (I Cor. 2:15)” (Bettenson, p. 159ff).

 Some of Christendom’s doctrines were an offense to plain interpretations of the Bible and to a rational mind. John Wycliffe’s teaching called into question the doctrine of transubstantiation. But worldviews do not exist in a vacuum. If Christendom’s doctrines fall, does not that suggest a defect in the social order itself? Whether he was conscious of it or not, John Wycliffe brought to the forefront what Augustine had raised: the relation of church to state. Wycliffe’s work would focus around several issues in which appeal to a king is possible. Should Wycliffe (and his followers) appeal to the State to solve ecclesiastical turmoil, particularly the Eucharist? [That is true regarding Christendom, and yes, Wyclif did address those points, but he did so in the theme of “Evangelical Lordship,” without which his argument doesn’t make any sense]


John Wycliffe was born in the early 1320s in Wyclif, Yorkshire, in England. He emerged from relative obscurity after 1366 in response to Urban V’s demand for payment of tribute promised previously by King John. John Wycliffe began his career supporting the Crown’ right to tax the church, including entering sanctuaries to ferret out crown debtors. Wycliffe’s metaphysic stood in the realist tradition and was a response to the nominalism of William of Occam. This most likely led to his denial of transubstantiation. 

William of Occam (1285-1347) was a proponent of the via moderna school of nominalism. Nominalism denied universals in favor of particulars (McGrath, 35). Occam also held to the voluntarist position, asserting the primacy of the will over the intellect. Thomas Bradwardine, the Archbishop of Canterbury (d. 1349) set the intellectual and theological groundwork for John Wycliffe. Urban V (1362-1370) was the pope for the beginning of Wycliffe’s ministry. He was the sixth of the Avingon popes. [Bradwardine himself was unique.  Something of a voluntarist yet not an Occamist and yet still, a precursor to Wyclif]

There were other incidents that affected the relationship between church and state. The Donation of Constantine was a document forged in the 8th century in defense of papal interests. As Jaroslav Pelikan notes, “The Donation did not prove that what the emperor had was originally the property of the Pope; it did prove that the temporal possessions did not eo ipso corrupt the holiness of the church, and that the Pope should share his wealth with the church” (Pelikan, p. 91).


There were people in England who were deeply concerned with the corruption of the church. Many scholars were declaring that the seat of corruption lay in Rome. There was an externalism in religion. Man could live the most dissolute life yet participate regularly in the sacraments, and this man was considered a good Christian. As long as one did not break the rules, what one believed, and what one’s moral character was made no difference. England was emerging from the Middle Ages as a distinctive nation. Wycliffe labored in England in the midst of religious and political turmoil, not to mention the “Black Plague.”

The University system became a medieval novelty wherein the power of the church was again compromised. One of the persistent problems of medieval life was the relationship of church and state. It was seen that it was the claim of the Roman see that the Church was beyond the reach of secular law and subject only to its own authority. The medieval university, from which Wycliffe came, made a similar claim, positing autonomy from both church and state.

John Wycliffe was born around 1330. He began his education at Oxford while still young. Between 1356 and 1360 Wycliffe was elected Master of Balliol. Minor details of scholarship would occupy him in the next decade. He received a commission in service to the crown in the 1370s. It was in this time period that he wrote his works on Divine and Civil Dominion. He landed himself into some minor political troubles in the late 1370s, including an in-house arrest. He remained quiet until 1381.

While any number of incidents in Wycliffe’s life or in the lives of those who ministered with him highlight the tension between the church and the larger world, Wycliffe’s attack on the medieval doctrine of transubstantiation is an example of crack’s in the papacy’s armor. Wycliffe set forth 12 theses demonstrating the inadequacy of the medieval doctrine. The result from the church was understandable. Historian Phillip Schaff writes,

For the first time since the promulgation of the doctrine of transubstantiation by the Fourth Lateran council was it seriously called into question by a theological expert. It was a case of Athanasius standing alone. The mendicants waxed violent…Without mentioning Wyclif by name the judges condemned as pestiferous the assertions that the bread and wine remain after consecration, and that Christ’s body is present only figuratively or tropically in the Eucharist” (Schaff, p. 320).

Wycliffe was unimpressed with the rebuttals and went on preaching and teaching similar doctrines. The head of the university summoned a council to condemn Wycliffe and threatened any who supported him. Wycliffe held other views on church matters that were no less controversial. He believed, for one, that good government is seen when a king rules in accordance with God’s commands. This requires, controversially, the renunciation of political dominion by the church. Moral philosopher Oliver O’Donovan notes on Wycliffe’s political theology,

Inasmuch as the de facto ecclesiastical authorities, enjoying both civil wealth and jurisdiction, live in manifest contravention of God’s will, it belongs to the righteous king, ruling by grace, to promulgate and enforce God’s law by depriving corrupt and avaricious clergy of their property and forcing the whole estate to live on freely donated tithes and offerings” (O’Donovan, 484).

Such was the ideal, but the sword cuts both ways. This would be a sign of true justice in the hands of a righteous king. It would be something quite different in the hands of a tyrant or a Roman puppet.

Soon after this episode an event happened that on first glance seemed to support the rights and interests of the common man over the wealthy church. It would seem at the outset Wycliffe would be sympathetic to the movement. The peasants of the land revolted due to the strain of living placed on them. Wycliffe, however, appeared uninterested in the struggle, except that church lands should be given to the wealthy. While Wycliffe did not support the rebels, he was blamed for their actions. The charges cannot be substantiated, given Wycliffe’s earlier strong royalism.

One tempest seemed to follow another. Wycliffe’s enemy Courtenay, the Archbishop of Canterbury, called an assembly of ecclesiastical nobles. He was backed by Pope Gregory XI. Gregory called for the condemnation and investigation of Wycliffe’s teachings and threatened the University if they did not comply (Kelly, p. 226). Wycliffe’s challenge to transubstantiation and his silence in the Peasant’s Revolt provided ammunition for his enemies. On 21 May an earthquake occurred and Courtenay interpreted it as a sign that God was purging the land of false doctrines. Of the 24 propositions attributed to Wycliffe without mentioning his name, ten were declared heretical and fourteen erroneous. What exactly did Wycliffe teach?

What was in the Eucharist was ‘the body of Christ in the nature of the bread, since what is there is the nature of the bread and not the nature of the body of Christ, as it is in heaven…’ As long as Wycliffe did not insist on any specific theory of the presence, but spoke of it being ‘in some manner or other (quodammodo).’ He did insist that the words of consecration, though figurative, were unique, not merely one blessing among others. Thus the body and the blood were in the Sacrament ‘truly and really, but figuratively’ or ‘spiritually and really’ or ‘in a sign but not without being there really and truly’” (Pelikan, p. 58).

There had been recent debate on whether metaphysics or biblicism gave the first impetus to this opinion, the issue that led to his final breach with the status quo.

To fully prosecute Wycliffe, Courtenay needed the help of the State. He needed the King’s approval. Here a disjunct appears with the reality of Wycliffe’s views on the State’s authority over a corrupt church and Wycliffe himself being persecuted by a corrupt church via the arm of the State. Should Wycliffe remain consistent with his principles even when they are being wrongly applied?

Wycliffe’s quarrel with the Papacy centered on the nature of obedience to higher powers and the morality of those to whom the Christian/citizen is to obey. Wycliffe challenged the Pope’s authority on the grounds that the Pope represented Christ, and Christ was poor; therefore the Pope ought to be poor. Secondly, when church and the Bible conflict, we must obey the Bible. Thirdly, when conscience and human authority conflict, one ought to follow conscience.

Wycliffe predicated his attack on the Papacy from his doctrine of the church. The Pope’s power of excommunication and threat faded in the light of God determining who is in the church. Wycliffe modified Augustine’s ecclesiology. The church was the congregation of the predestined by God and not an institution governed by the Pope (p. 32). The church and its members are called to be witnesses to the supernatural Lord, God incarnate, and to His redemption, power, victory and life. The church is a convocation, a group called together by a higher power—God. When Wycliffe wrote of his English Bible that “This Bible is for the government of the people, by the people, and for the people,” his statement attracted no attention insofar as his emphasis on the centrality of Biblical law was concerned. That law should be God’s law was held by all; Wycliffe’s departure from accepted opinion was that the people themselves should not only read and know that law but also should in some sense govern as well as be governed by it. The infrastructure for a Christian re-orientation of society was already established-the just rule of a King under God. Ideally this was the case. In practice, as Wycliffe’s life demonstrates, this was not necessarily the case. Still, the question remained, “Can a King, even one who is not a Christian, protect the church from a corrupt hierarchy of the Church?”

Wycliffe spent the last two years of his life in the parish ministry unhindered by ecclesiastical or political squabbles. In 1382 he suffered his first stroke and was partly paralyzed. It was for this reason he was unable to answer a citation to Rome. He died soon after on December 31, 1384. Having never been excommunicated he was buried in consecrated ground but his bones were dug up in 1482 by order of the Council of Constance, burnt, and thrown into the river.


How should man live with the knowledge of the Bible’s claims on one hand, and respect for the social order on the other hand? It seemed too simple to simply build the Kingdom of God on earth. That had been fraught with problems in the Middle Ages. Nevertheless, “Christendom” did further the Church and protect the those who sought to worship God. Constantine established the “Christian magistrate,” so it would seem. New preachers on the scene–John Wycliffe and others–suggested the renewing of the office of the magistrate even further: if the magistrate would heed the claims of Christ he could do much to renew the church. But this raises problems: true, if the magistrate is a devout Christian he could thoroughly pursue justice in the land. But if he were Christian in name only, then he could use his office as a club to bludgeon the church. In other words, such a move—a Christian renewal of the state for the sake of the church—while having beneficent effects in the short run, could nominalise Christianity in the realm. Wycliffe’s challenging of the church later to be backed by the state set a dangerous precedent, but one that had to be taken seriously.


The issue that John Wycliffe faced goes beyond Augustine to Constantine. What are the ramifications of a “Christian state?” Dangers appear in either direction. While persecution did in some cases allow the church to flourish, is persecution necessarily the norm? Does not persecution eradicate some communities? Indeed, if a godly ruler passed just laws, would not this further the temporal prosperity of a nation while simultaneously allowing the church to preach the gospel unhindered? On the other hand, would a Christian ruler nominalise Chrisitanity and make it acceptable while robbing it of its prophetic force? Was not the Medieval Church in large measure an example of this?

But many in the early church were witnessing to the Lordship of Christ. They went to their deaths for saying that Christ, not Caesar is Lord. And to draw an ethical implication from this: those who held power became subject to the rule of Christ. The martyr church had as its goal the renewal and reorientation of the Empire under now Christ. As O’Donovan said, Christendom meant not “the church seizing alien power, but alien power becoming attentive to the Church” (Oliver O’Donovan, p. 195)

Bettenson, Henry. Documents of the Christian Church, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1943.

Fountain, David. John Wycliffe: The Dawn of the Reformation. Southampton, UK: Mayflower Christian Books, 1984.

Kelly, J.N.D. The Oxford Dictionary of the Popes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

McGrath, Alister. Christian Theology: An Introduction. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Books, 1994.

O’Donovan, Oliver. Desire of Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

O’Donovan, Oliver and Joan. From Irenaeus to Grotius: A Sourcebook in Christian Political Thought. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999.

Pelikan, Jaroslav. The Christian Tradition: The Reformation of the Church and Dogma vol 4. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.

Schaff, Phillip. History of the Christian Church vol 6. . Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980


Szarmach, Paul. ed. “John Wyclif,” Medieval England: An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland Publishing, 1998, 821-822.

von Campenhausen, Hans. The Fathers of the Church. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1998.



2 thoughts on “Wyclif: Dominion by Grace

  1. Pingback: De Regno Christ (Review, Bucer) – Outlaw Huguenot

  2. Pingback: O’Donovans: From Irenaeus to Grotius | 2 Kingdomz 4 Life

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s