John Wyclif, Scriptural Logic, and the Parameters of Orthodoxy

Levy, Ian Christopher.  John Wyclif: Scriptural Logic, Real Presence, and the Parameters of Orthodoxy. Marquette University Press, 2003.

John Wyclif is best known for his Bible translation, but what is often overlooked is the strong metaphysical realism that undergirds his view of the Bible and will determine what conclusions he draws about the Eucharist.

Medieval Philosophical Background

In his response to the Neo-Pelagians Wyclif places himself in the conservative wing of the medieval church.  Most important is the distinction between potentia Dei absoluta and potentia Dei ordinata.  While it was never intended to speculate on what outrageous things God could or couldn’t do, it led in that direction.

The Metaphysics of John Wyclif

Wyclif was a strong realist.

Grosseteste: all knowledge found in the divine intellect (Levy 49-50).

Wyclif’s three-fold scheme:

1. Universal of causation (God). universale ante rem

2. Universal of communication (human nature; angelic, etc). They are communicated to a number of subjects. Universale in re

3. Universal of representation.  They represent real universals. Universale post rem.

Wyclif’s Theological Realism

God knows his creation primarily through universals and secondarily through individuals. God knows the creature’s essence even when it doesn’t yet have existence. We distinguish between the creature’s essence and the means by which it subsists through the divine exemplar (55).

Christ the Word is the principal of all creation.

Predication: all words of predication are grounded in the Word (57).  “All things are created in their effects from an eternal intellectual knowledge.”  To lose universals is to get lost in theories of signs (per Occam).  Levy doesn’t mention it, but that is the entire project of Derrida.

There is an immediate payoff in his eucharistic theology. No particle of the universe can be annihilated.  This means that the essence of bread can’t be destroyed as the Mass would require.

Medieval Eucharistic Theology

Ratramnus: relationship between truth and figure. Christ’s resurrected body is impassible and can’t be crunched on and decayed as in the Mass.

Berengar vs Lanfrac

The Confession of 1059.  Even though Berengar lost the debate, his “Confession” created more problems.  If the elements do not remain, then there is no subject to which the predicate (corpus meum) applies (139).

The elements undergo a conversion in dignity but not in substance.

Transubstantiation

The conversion is one of transition, not union.  A substance isn’t being added to another substance.

Thomas Aquinas

The Early Wyclif

Wyclif accepted transubstantial language early in his career. At the heart of his concern, though, was the intention of the Divine Author (217).  Doubts plagued him, though.  If the elements “disappear” or are annihilated, would this not call the integrity of God’s creation into question?

The annihilation of a substance requires the annihilation of its eternal form.  This part is tricky.  He isn’t saying that when a thing is temporally destroyed (a person’s dying; food eaten, etc) that its eternal form is also threatened.  What realist metaphysics demands is that the eternal Idea causes the form’s exemplar.  The eternal idea of x is found in the mind of God.  There is a correlation between its existence and the existence of the Idea.  Wyclif is saying that if the ectype of the bread ceases to exist, then the eternal idea of the bread no longer exists.  This needs some work.

Think of it this way.  Imagine that there is a string between the eternal exemplar in God’s mind (x) and its instantiation in the world (y).  Imagine that both are “attached” to their respective places (e.g., God’s mind and the world).  Wyclif’s argument seems to be that if you rip out y and throw it away, you rip out x as well, leaving holes in God’s mind.

Perhaps.  The argument is open to several rebuttals, namely that there might be an exemplar without its instantiation.

Wyclif’s Negative Argument

In the phrase “Hoc est corpus meum,” Wyclif argues that “Hoc” refers to a figural presence (though he does allow for some sort of bodily presence later on).  “If the pronoun demonstrates what is already Christ’s body, then nothing new is constituted; and if the pronoun connotes the body of Christ as that which is under the accidents without functioning as their subject, then that is just contrary to Scripture” (246).

Wyclif’s other main argument is that accidents can’t subsist without a subject.  If this holds, then it strikes at the heart of transubstantiation.

Conclusion

Levy does a fine job surveying the Latin sources.  Each page is about ⅔ English with ⅓ Latin text at the bottom.

John Wyclif: Myth & Reality

Evans, G. R. John Wyclif: Myth & Reality. 

G. R. Evans’ book is a welcome addition to the study of John Wyclif. Too often Wyclif studies have divided on partisan lines between Roman Catholics who see him as Antichrist and Protestant apologists who see him as the Forerunner of the Reformation. Evans’ work is valuable in that she demonstrates how both sides fail to take into account both of what Wyclif himself actually taught and Rome’s specific actions in response. As a result, one sees that Wyclif did not see himself necessarily “preaching the wonderful gospel of free grace” (though I maintain the seeds of it are there) nor did he want to separate from the Church of Rome.

Throughout the first one hundred pages of the book, the reader begins to suspect that the real subject of the book is not John Wyclif, but the daily life of an Oxford student in the 14th century. Evans is to be commended for thoroughly setting Wyclif’s historical context. One suspects, though, that move overshadows her thesis. However, Evans does do a good, if very short, job of describing the intellectual currents which form the context of Wyclif’s doctrine. 

As a biography, though, the book fails to narrate Wyclif’s own life beyond a passing glance. I suppose she assumes her readers know enough about Wyclif that she can avoid narrating his life. That’s fair enough, if she lets us know ahead of time. In the meanwhile, each chapter begins with an unidentified source talking about something that will figure later in the chapter, neither of which the reader knows.

The last chapter does a decent job “distilling” Wyclif’s theology. Wyclif’s main points of contention boiled around his doctrine of the Eucharist and his idea of “dominion by grace.” Earlier in the book, Evans ties Wyclif’s denial of transubstantiation with philosophical currents that were prevalent. For example, all sides accepted that God cannot cause the past not to be. As such, he cannot cause matter that now exists to not have existed. The question remains, which was not original to Wyclif, if the bread changes to Christ’s body, where is the bread (Evans 62)? On a more practical note, it seems that Wyclif’s objections to transubstantiation can be placed in the same line as those of Berengar.

Lordship—and an Augustinian Aside

Wyclif, following the vein of thought found in early Franciscans and (ironically) Pope John XXIII, held that the church does not “own” property, but is rather non-proprietary. Further, man’s possession of the property is contingent upon his moral rectitude. Since all property (and dominion) belongs to God, God can take it away for disobedience. As Oliver O’Donovan notes, God’s gift of lordship to Adam has to be a communication and sharing of God himself to man, since otherwise it would be an alienating act of lordship in which God ceases to be Lord. Therefore, this “lent” lordship is a communicating and use of things according to rational necessity (O’Donovan 89). For Wyclif, this gift of lordship cannot be given to just a small part of the church, but constitutes the very Trinitarian communion of the church. God’s Trinitarian self-giving is the archetypal cause of all divine and human communication of spiritual and physical goods. O’Donovan concludes: all the justified “co-exist” in Christ and share in his love and lordship. Wyclif’s second point, O’Donovan notes, is Augustine’s contention that true love is rightly ordered love (presupposing moral rectitude). Any use of physical and spiritual goods is found only in this rightly-ordered love (90).

O’Donovan’s entire essay is worth meditating upon, for he places Wyclif in an undeniably Augustinian context—a context his Papal detractors cannot ignore and must take into account. There are some problems with Wyclif’s account, though. If pressed too far it leads to Donatism. Secondly, if pressed too far it denigrates any role for the institutional church. Surprisingly to some, this was a role Wyclif sought to uphold (Evans 210).

Conclusion

Evans’ book is somewhat disjointed. It alternates between interesting and new insights and whatever else Evans wants to talk about. The book oscillates between the average life of a medieval academician and John Wyclif. Evans’ account suffers from undue speculation (“it seems,” or “it’s not impossible that”) that distracts the reader. Some of the chapters appear to end without warning.

With that said, Evans does a good job in showing how ordinary Wyclif really was. Wyclif’s view of the Bible was the same for any Oxfordian. While he advocated lay reading in their own language, there is some warrant that he was not uniquely responsible for the translation that bears his name. It is true that he rejected transubstantiation, but the actual doctrine wasn’t formally taught until a century or so before Wyclif, and likely taught in an unsatisfactorily manner given the repeated—and seemingly Catholic—objections to it. Wyclif wasn’t even anti-Papalist in approach, as he supported Urban against the Avignon Pope! Evans’ conclusion is that Wyclif’s view of Reform was simply not that of the later Reformation, whatever their outward similarities may have been (210). This means that any Roman Catholic attack on Wyclif must deal with the fact that Wyclif attacked an element of the Catholic Church that had been criticized by Catholics for many, many years. Further combine this was the fact that Wyclif had no intention and never saw himself as separating from the Church

Bonds of Imperfection (O’Donovan)

O’Donovans, Oliver and Joan Lockwood. Bonds of Imperfection: Christian Politics Past and Present.  Eerdmans, 2007.

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I’ve read this book more than any other book over the past eleven years.  Each essays is a Master’s course in social ethics.  With all the combined essays, you will know more about ethics than the average seminary graduate. This post is going to be very long, but given the contents, that is unavoidable.

The most important essay, and the one from which most others spring, is Oliver O’Donovan’s essay on Augustine’s City of God 19.4.  O’Donovan is in the very dangerous waters of whether the City of Man constitutes a true res publica.  And if it doesn’t, and if the Church does, does this mean that the Church is actually the only true political society?  If so, we aren’t that far from Yoder.  But I don’t think O’Donovan takes it in that direction.

Some background terms:  A thing’s end is its perfection.  The summum bonum is that object for which other objects are sought, but which is sought only for itself.  

  • each city has its own end.
  • Augustine is not saying that the two cities get along together by having a common use of means towards different ends.  The connective phrase ita etiam connects chapter 16 with the first line of chapter 17:  the comparison is between the earthly city and the earthly household

Consensus of Wills

But what of the obvious fact that the Two Cities do seem to “get along” from time to time?  For one, we note that members of the heavenly city use the earthly as a means to an end; whereas the earthly city sees itself as an end.  There is no tertium quid between the two cities, no neutral space. The agreement can only be on a surface level of means, and only that.

Ius and Iustitia

Augustine notes that “ius” flows from the source of iustitia (19.21).  There can be no iustitia common to the two cities because the earthly city does not deal or participate in the forgiveness of sins (Ep. 140.72; Spirit and the Letter 32.56).  Iustitia, nonetheless, is not at the forefront of Augustine’s concerns.  

If a state does display some virtues but it relates to some object other than God, then it is disorder (19.14-16).  This insight allows Augustine to say that there is some relative order and good in a state, but gives him the space to critique the State. (Interestingly, Augustine has no vision for political programs; sorry, Reconstructionists).  

O’Donovan then outlines a pyramid of ascending orders of peace in the universe (rerum omnium).  I will number them but I can’t reproduce the pyramidal scheme here. The numbers aren’t of greater importance to lesser, or vice-versa.  Rather, beginning with (1) it is a continual movement outward.

(10) ?

(9)  peace of the heavenly city

(8) peace of the city

(7) peace of the household (19.14-16)

(6) pax hominum (Peace of Rome? or basic Peace between men)

(5) peace with God

(4) Body-soul union

(3) rational soul

(2) irrational passions

(1) Body

The relation between peace and order is one of definition.  The peace of any household is the tranquility of order.

Household (Domus)

It is an ordered harmony of giving and receiving commands.  Unlike the City, though, the commands are not given from a desire to dominate, but from compassionate acceptance of responsibility. Augustine does not try to “transform” society.  It is impossible to read Book 19 or the whole City of God that way.  Rather, he “transvalues” society’s structures (O’Donovan 68).  

The Proprietary Subject and the Crisis of Liberal Rights

Key point:  The possession of rights is always proprietorship; all natural rights (for the West) originate in property rights (Joan Lockwood O’Donovan, 75).   This originated with Pope John XXIII (1329 AD).  He saw man as created with full lordship and ownership as possession (dominum).  His point was to discredit Fransiscan theologians who insisted on radical poverty.

This is the rights culture that would spring full-bloom in the modern world.  The problem it created was how to have community if the above take on rights is true.

Patristic Foundations of Non-Proprietary Community

The fathers thought men should share as an imitation of God’s sharing his goodness with us.Augustine’s AchievementAugustine distinguished between two objective rights:  (a) divine right, by which all things belong to the righteous, and (b) human right, in which is the jurisdiction of earthly kings (79, quoting Epistle 93).

  • Justice for Augustine is a rightly-ordered love seen in the body politic, which would mean men loving the highest and truest good, God, for God’s sake.
  • Therefore, the bonum commune is a sharing in a rightly-ordered love (City of God, BK 19.21).
  • Because this sharing is spiritual, it is common and inclusive.  Thus we have a republic in the truest sense of the word:  res publica, public things.
  • Conversely, a disordered love in the soul is the privatization of the good.
  • Therefore, a disordered love will see the destruction of community.

O’Donovan comments,It is the regulated interaction of private spheres of degenerate freedom, secured by the protection of property and enhanced by the provision of material benefits at the hands of unscrupulous tyrants (80).

Fransiscan Poverty: The Evangelical Theology of Non-Possession

  • Renouncing property right means that the viator is not a self-possessor, but rather is possessed by Christ and receives his powers (85).

Wyclif’s Ecclesiological Revolution

Irony: Wyclif’s reform program actually owed a great deal to Pope John XXIII’s reflections.

  • Non-proprietary posession belonged not only to Adam’s original state, but all the way forward to the episcopolate today: this should be seen in the church militant (88).
  • Divine lordship (dominum):  per Wyclif’s predecessor, Fitzralph, God is the primary possessor and enjoyer of creation.  Therefore, his giving of creation to Adam is a communication and sharing of himself, rather than a transfer of Lordship (89).
  • For the church, for Wyclif, this is God’s gift of himself as the love of Christ and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 13).
  • Therefore, all of the “justified,” who coexist with Christ’s love, share (communicant) in this lordship directly from Christ.
  • Therefore, just dominion involves rightly-ordered love towards these communicable goods, which in turn depends on true knowledge of them available in Christ.

Medieval Theories on Usury

medieval economics: A Christo-centric ethic of perfection that drew heavily upon the Stoic-Platonist tradition.  

  • drew upon the Patristic vision of polarity of opposing loves of spiritual and earthly riches, “viewed avarice as the root of all evil,” property right as morally tainted (Lockwood O’Donovan, 99).  
  • Not fully Aristotelian, though.  The Patristic vision viewed community primarily in terms of a common participation in invisible goods and a charitable sharing of divisible goods by its members.  

Canonical Development of the Usury Prohibition

The church recognized two intrinsic titles to interest (indemnity) on loans in the case of delayed repayment:  the title of damages sustained and that of profit foregone. Further, contracts are distinguished from loans.

  • The locatio: a rental contract on a piece of property
  • The societas: partnership where profit and risk were shared
  • The Census:  sale or purchase for life of a rent-charge (the return varied on the productivity)

The church in fact gave moral license to limited opportunities for investment and credit that favored the welfare of the poor but did not serve an expanding commercial economy (101-102).  However, as contracts became more complex over time, it was really hard to not engage in some form of usury.

The Earlier Medieval Treatments of Usury

God’s original will for human community:  

  • its members make common use of the goods of creation to relieve material want (104).  
  • air, sun, rain, sea, seasons (divinely created as koinonia, unable to be monopolized; cf. modern American government attacking those who store rainwater)
  • Gratian argues this did not mean private ownership and amassing wealth.  It’s hard to see how this squares with Proverbs injunction that a godly man leaves an inheritance.  And if the wealth is to be distributed by the church, it’s hard to see how the church can make any claim to poverty and non-possessorship.

The usurer sells time:  time originally belongs to God, and secondarily belongs to all creatures.  Thus, to sell time is to injure all. Further, time is a koinon, indivisibly shared by all creatures.  

Roman contract of loan (mutuum):  a fungible good is transferred from owner to borrower. Ownership is transferred because the borrower is not expected to repay the exact same item.  The borrower assumes the risk of loss and is bound to repay it. Thefore, Lockwood O’Donovan argues, “The medieval theologians and canonists could argue, in the first place, that the usurer charges the debtor for what the debtor already owns” (107).

The Thomistic Treatment of Usury

Commutative justice (ST 2a2ae. 78)

Usury sins against justice in the exchange, a violation against equality in the exchange

Thomas does presuppose property right

  • sterility of money theory
    • Money is a means of measuring equivalence in an exchange.  It can only establish equivalence if it is formally equal to the thing itself in exchange (
    • the usurer inflicts on the needy borrower a moral violence of making him repay more than he was lent.
    • Thomas also argues that human industry, not money is the cause of profit.
  • to charge separately for a thing

Problems with Barth’s Political Ethics

For Ramsey, God accepts Christ’s regnant new humanity.  For Barth, God rejects the old humanity.  This seems to mean that God also rejects extra-ecclesial orders as such.  When Barth comes to war as such, he does not interact with Just War reasoning but simply lists the evils of the Second World War.

Ramsey can point to “monuments of grace” in such a horror, even to legitimate uses of State force.  Barth can only suggest a delaying action (CD III/4, p. 456).  As a result, notes O’Donovan, Barth “ends up precisely in the place he intended to bypass, in a politics that can only be viewed soberly and not with evangelical faith or hope” (O’Donovan 264).

A Way Forward With Ramsey

Ramsey has what Barth needs: a way to bridge the gap between homo politicus which is redeemed in Christ and homo politicus that is in need of redemption. We are back with the distinction between esse and bene esse.  The latter terms also suggests something along the lines of goal or end. Ramsey is speaking of true political activity.

Is Barth an Apollinarian?

Ramsey offers a model in which political power is both used appropriately and judged:  the Incarnation, homo assumptus.  This means that Christ takes on the fallen order, including homo politicus.  There is no radical “Other” realm to which Christ has no access.  As O’Donovan notes, “Only so can the homo politicus that is redeemed be the same homo politicus that was in need of redemption” (266).

Barth will not grant this.  But in not granting it, he is partitioning off a section of man’s redemption.  To be fair, Barth resists this temptation in Christology but not in politics.

Who is Ramsey’s “Liberal?”

A liberal for Ramsey is one who splits politics and military doctrine.

Liberalism for O’Donovan: the inadequacy of every human attempt to render justice.  A magistrate’s power should be limited.    Therefore, power is suspect but necessary (270).

What does Ramsey mean by Just War and International Politics?  So, O’Donovan: “The international sphere was a constitutional vacuum, but by no means a moral or political vacuum” 271). Ramsey suspects there is a continuum that links violent with nonviolent resistance. Indeed, is not democracy justum bellum (Ramsey, War and the Christian Conscience, 126)?  Jesus never said to resist evil by ballot boxes.

De Regno Christ (Review, Bucer)

Bucer, Martin.

de-regno

This selection of Bucer’s *De Regno Christi* is useful, if incomplete. It omits most of his exposition of the 7th Commandment. I understand why, for space reasons. The drawback is that the reader is not engaged with Bucer’s groundbreaking work on divorce and remarriage. While such a view was originally aimed at Roman Catholicism, it would be very useful reading today as some in the “Young, Restless, and Reformed Camp” are advocating a similar Romanist view (John Piper, for one). Bucer’s discussion of the Kingdom of Christ is not as polished as later discsussions. His advocating of something similar to a theonomic socialism (yes, I said those two words!) should provide interesting discussions for social reform.

One cannot help but be stirred in reading Martin Bucer’s De Regno Christi.  He takes all the beauty of Plato’s Republic, strips it of its communism and communal marriage (which are probably the same thing) and reworks it around a rich Christian legal heritage.  One notes, however, that he give the magistrate a fairly large role in guiding religion to reform the society.  Is this Erastianism?  Maybe not, for Bucer is not saying (as far as I could read) that the magistrate should appoint ministers and determine doctrine.  He does, I think, give the magistrate free rein to reform the diaconate.  That might not be a bad idea, though.  Contrary to Baptist and congregationalist thought, deacons are not ruling elders in the church.  Further, on Bucer’s gloss, the role of the diaconate overlaps within the civil sphere, in which case it does become the magistrate’s prerogative.  Bucer doesn’t explicitly make that argument, but it does appear to be the general outline of his thought.

It helps to remember that Bucer wrote this treatise for King Edward VI, an early hero of Protestantism.   Following Wyclif’s “civil dominion” tract, Bucer’s proposal can be seen, if not as an Erastian state, then at least as a “churchly state.”  Admittedly, it’s hard not to be caught up in his narrative.  Even in his communistic and unbelieving moments, few can deny the power of Plato’s Republic.  Bucer takes all those beautiful elements and transforms them.  He gives us the vision of a truly Christian society, in which mercy and justice truly meet.

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]

Exposition

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).

Narrative

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.

Reprise

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.

Appendix

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

[1910].

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.

 

Notes on Wyclif from O’Donovan.

A running series of notes I’ve made on John Wyclif over the past decade, with help from Oliver O’Donovan.

From his talk “The Human Person, Economics, and Catholic Social Thought”

On the term “communication.”

His view of lordship does not depend on property.  Wyclif sees property as “lordship on unequal terms.”  

God exercises his Lordship by “communication,” lending (not giving away, since God cannot alienate himself), by giving fellowship (communication) to human beings. God shares creation as a whole with mankind as a whole.

What is man’s response to this communication?  For Wyclif, every righteous man is lord of the whole world, and in receiving anything we receive the whole world with it.  Communicating the good of creation with each other, we discover a radical equality in our creaturely relation to God’s communication.

Summed up in this formula:  This mine is ours.

From Irenaeus to Grotius (with Joan Lockwood O’Donovan)

Evangelical lordship is the “natural, nonproprietary use of necessary things universally open to human beings” (484).  Following Augustine, Wyclif will argue that a just lordship of earthly goods involves a rightly-ordered love towards them, which depends on a true knowledge of them available only in Christ (485; cf. Augustine City of God, BK 19).  


Does this mean that we can overthrow tyrants since they don’t have a Christological understanding of rightly ordered loves, and hence no just lordship?  Not so fast, Wyclif would say, it is true they do not have just lordship, but we as those having true dominion in Christ bear witness that they have a “defective use of these goods” (Wyclif, 494). Tyrants posses “an unformed power” (Wyclif 510) but not true lordship.  Rather, it is the believer who has the epistemological authority to judge the failures of church and state  (O’Donovan 483ff).  

Communication and Sharing

“God communicates them (spiritual gifts) to mankind with no alienation or impoverishment to himself the giver” (Divine Lordship, bk. 3 ch. 1. 70c).  

Outline from Bonds of Imperfection eds O’Donovan and O’Donovan (Eerdmans).

The Proprietary Subject and the Crisis of Liberal Rights

Key point:  The possession of rights is always proprietorship; all natural rights (for the West) originate in property rights (Joan Lockwood O’Donovan, 75).   This originated with Pope John XXIII (1329 AD).  He saw man as created with full lordship and ownership as possession (dominum).  His point was to discredit Fransiscan theologians who insisted on radical poverty.

This is the rights culture that would spring full-bloom in the modern world.  The problem it created was how to have community if the above take on rights is true.

Patristic Foundations of Non-Proprietary Community

The fathers thought men should share as an imitation of God’s sharing his goodness with us.

Augustine’s Achievement
 
Augustine distinguished between two objective rights:  (a) divine right, by which all things belong to the righteous, and (b) human right, in which is the jurisdiction of earthly kings (79, quoting Epistle 93).

 

  • Justice for Augustine is a rightly-ordered love seen in the body politic, which would mean men loving the highest and truest good, God, for God’s sake.
  • Therefore, the bonum commune is a sharing in a rightly-ordered love (City of God, BK 19.21).
  • Because this sharing is spiritual, it is common and inclusive.  Thus we have a republic in the truest sense of the word:  res publica, public things.
  • Conversely, a disordered love in the soul is the privatization of the good.
  • Therefore, a disordered love will see the destruction of community.
O’Donovan comments,
It is the regulated interaction of private spheres of degenerate freedom, secured by the protection of property and enhanced by the provision of material benefits at the hands of unscrupulous tyrants (80).
Fransiscan Poverty: The Evangelical Theology of Non-Possession
 
  • Renouncing property right means that the viator is not a self-possessor, but rather is possessed by Christ and receives his powers (85).
Wyclif’s Ecclesiological Revolution
 
 
 
Irony: Wyclif’s reform program actually owed a great deal to Pope John XXIII’s reflections.
  • Non-proprietary posession belonged not only to Adam’s original state, but all the way forward to the episcopolate today: this should be seen in the church militant (88).
  • Divine lordship (dominum):  per Wyclif’s predecessor, Fitzralph, God is the primary possessor and enjoyer of creation.  Therefore, his giving of creation to Adam is a communication and sharing of himself, rather than a transfer of Lordship (89).
  • For the church, for Wyclif, this is God’s gift of himself as the love of Christ and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 13).
  • Therefore, all of the “justified,” who coexist with Christ’s love, share (communicant) in this lordship directly from Christ.
  • Therefore, just dominion involves rightly-ordered love towards these communicable goods, which in turn depends on true knowledge of them available in Christ.