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