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.


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.


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

The Doctrine of the Covenant and Testament of God (Cocceius)

Cocceius, Johannes. The Covenant and Testament of God. trans. Casey Carmichael. Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2016.

Although his teaching aroused some controversy, Johannes Cocceius (1603-1669) unified both rigorous scholastic methodology with a sensitivity to the biblical plotline. (Regarding his scholastic methodology, Cocceius outlines his Summa according to the following headers: §.  This allows him to keep the topic clear even when he pursues tangents.) In one sense Cocceius wouldn’t have thought he was teaching anything new, yet later writers were forced to deal with his takes on the Sabbath and the multiple abrogations of the Covenant of Works.  Positively stated, he offered a powerful presentation of the Pactum Salutis, the Covenant of Redemption.

Cocceius structures his covenant theology around five abrogations of the covenant of works.   Willem J. van Asselt has a helpful introduction on this point (van Asselt xxxi). These five abrogations are:

  1. The Fall
  2. Establishment of the Covenant of Grace
  3. Detachment and renunciation of the old man
  4. Death
  5. Resurrection from death

Like most writers on covenant theology, Cocceius begins with definitions: “God’s covenant is a divine declaration of the way of receiving his love” (Cocceius §5).  It is one-sided (monopleuristic) regarding the way we receive his love.  It is two-sided (dipleuristic) when man obligates himself.

Cocceius proves there was a law-covenant in the Garden because of the law or rectitude on man’s heart. If there is rectitude, then there is a corresponding standard (§8). Even without express Scriptural support, Cocceius provides the intellectual foundations to the Covenant of Works.

Cocceius’s defense of the covenant of works leads to an attack on the Socinians.  As the Socinians believe death was natural, they are led to believe that man was cursed the moment he was created, since without doing anything he had already received the judgment for breaking God’s law.  Of course, the Socinians don’t actually say that, but there it is. Like Barth, they come very close to seeing creation as a sort of Fall.

Against Rome and Bellarmine, “grace” can’t be rendered “making acceptable.”  If God’s covenant with man had some sort of gracious element, and if man had to endure the testing, then he hadn’t yet been “acceptable;” therefore, grace can’t be “making acceptable” (§31).

If we are going to speak of merit in the garden, it isn’t condign merit, but merit according to the pact.  Even if we never sinned, “we could not obligate God, because he receives nothing from us” (§41).

Cocceius and the Sabbath

Did Cocceius believe the Sabbath was abrogated after the Mosaic economy?  Not exactly. He says the Mosaic sabbath “advanced the natural equity that binds the mind and soul to have time for God and His worship” (§13).

Second Abrogation of the Covenant of Works

It is abrogated in the sense that God’s mercy takes away condemnation in the reception of the covenant of grace (§75). The cause of this act is the “eudokia you thelematos tou theou” (§84).

The Pactum Salutis

Cocceius addresses the problem of whether the will of the Father and Son is the same.  He affirms (§92). Rather, the single divine will is appropriated differently. This single passage removes any apparent difficulty in the Pactum Salutis.  The fear had always been that such an intratrinitarian agreement necessitated three wills.  Cocceius demonstrates that “appropriation” solves this problem.

Cocceius mightily rejects any eternal subordination of the Son to the Father.  To do so, he notes in which respect the Son is economically subordinate (§94). 

  • The Father is greater than the Son in relation to the Son’s humanity.
  • The Son’s role of mediator cannot imply any lesser status (§95).

Cocceius can even speak of Jesus’s condign merit, as his humiliation is proportionate to the rewards in his exaltation (§103). We establish the reality of Christ’s merit based on 1) the pactum salutis and 2) the rewards for his obedience (which also flows from the pact) (§107). Indeed, “he required merit by act, since he really furnished what he did for salvation.”

Section §108 deals with limited atonement. The argument is simple.  Christ did not act as Surety for all men. Moreover, an acceptable sacrifice actually expiates sin (§116). When Scripture speaks of “dying for the world,” it refers to the universal promise made to Abraham (§123).

When we speak of Christ’s being a Surety, we mean that He stood forth for his people with their sins laid upon Him. The Father had given Him a seed, and this inheritance “responds from another part to the guarantee.” He took upon Himself the payment for our debts (§134, §155).

Furthermore, Christ is a sponsio in that he offered himself to the Father on our behalf (§350).

Faith in Christ justifies us because:

  • He makes his promise and gift fixed on the grounds of the covenant (Heb. 3:1)
  • It is the consummation of the heavenly marriage.
  • It is the first effect of the Spirit of the life of Christ in us.

We call the sanction of the Covenant of Grace “the oath of God” (§198).

The Third Abrogation of the Covenant of Works

The cutting off of Christ was the cause of the abolition of the Old Covenant (which, to be sure, is not identical with the Abrahamic covenant, §344).

On the Sacraments

Sacraments are seals, not moral causes, pace Rome.  Seals are effects (§436).  Indeed, as the cup is the testament in his blood, Jesus the Testator seals that on us.

Do not remove the Cup

Rome says that the bread, being transubstantiated, already has blood in it since it is a living body.  But a living body is not offered to us, but a slain and sacrificial one.  It is a body that is broken (§496).   You cannot simultaneously say it is a living body and that blood has been shed (see also, §502ff).

Cocceius has another interesting rebuttal to the Mass.  When Paul says we have koinonia in the body of Christ, it can’t mean eating.  It is elsewhere contrasted with the koinonia of demons, yet no one suggests we eat demons (§520).  Moreover, the Israelites were said (v.18) to have koinonia in the altar, yet they did not orally receive the altar.

Fourth Abrogation

The fourth abrogation is the death of the body.

Fifth Abrogation

The fifth abrogation is the resurrection from the dead.


It would be a stretch to say this is one of the best scholastic texts.  That would be Francis Turretin.  I wouldn’t say this is the most useful scholastic text on covenant theology.  That would be Herman Witsius. Nonetheless, Cocceius engages the biblical text in ways that often surpass others.  While he is not always the clearest writer, his formatting the texts by section markers separates him from others and prevents the reader from getting lost..  While this is an advanced text, it is required reading to understand how the Reformed view the covenants.  One can no longer speak on Reformed covenant theology without seriously engaging Johannes Cocceius.

Review: Corpus Mysticum, de Lubac

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de Lubac, Henri.  Corpus Mysticum.

de Lubac outlines the origins and evolution of the “three-fold Body of Christ,” particularly as its known by the term “corpus mysticum,” the mystical body. It is tempting to read earlier phrases for the church—such as “the body of Christ”—back into the phrase “mystical body,” and define it that way. De Lubac warns against that move, since either the phrase “mystical body” (hereafter MB) is either rare in the Fathers or is not used in the later medieval sense. The threefold body is the Eucharist, the Church, and the historical body born of the Virgin Mary.

The problem with MB is its ambiguity. Pre-9th century writers used it as a helpful way to bring together many of the nuances in Eucharistic theology (de Lubac 79). However, intellectual moves would harden these nuances, place them in opposition with one another, and eventually see a body, or bodies of Christ, different from the one given to us in the Eucharist (162).

The Dialectic Breaks Down
Besides the relative scarcity of the term (MB) in the Fathers and early Middle Ages, it could still work as a Eucharistic term provided it was carefully defined. The problem arose when later theologians read current meanings back into the term. When that happened, the ambiguities in MB hardened into oppositions, and the oppositions broke the synthesis. De Lubac notes in the older sense of the word (mystery, mystical), the word conveys an action (49). The Eucharist brings unity to the church. This is contrasted with later developments: given the truth of Eucharistic realism (which no one would deny), the problem of “real presence” substituted itself for the real action accomplished in the Eucharist (164). No longer was the Eucharist seen as bringing unity to the church and uniting us to Christ, but it was seen as something for itself.

Why did Eucharist Realism bring about this problem? In one sense it did not. Rather, the nature of the terms were newly redefined, and this redefinition forced other equally valid definitions pertaining to the Eucharist into opposition with one another. As a result, theologians found themselves forced to choose between St Augustine and St Ambrose (and the rest of the Greek Church). The later medievals—just like today’s modernists—saw “real” as necessarily opposed to “mystery.” But for the ancients, mystery simply meant “conveyed an act” (49) and revealed the secrets of heaven (41). It did not mean “not-physical” or “not-real,” thus it did not see itself opposed to realism. However, men like Berengar and Ratramnus forced this opposition onto Augustinian texts. Their opponents, while rightly challenging their false doctrine, did not challenge the starting points of their presuppositions.

But what of the ancients that did speak of a “spiritual” body? Much like the word “mystical,” spiritual simply denoted supernatural or miraculous (141).

The End Result
The ambiguities hardened into oppositions, and the oppositions hardened into dialectics. Ancients saw the Eucharist as how the church was brought together into Christ. There could be no separation between the Eucharist, the Church, and the Historical Body for the ancients. But for the later medieval, per de Lubac’s gloss, it was hard to see how the separation would not have happened.

The book is a landmark book. It is a fresh discovery of older Patristic readings that were squeezed out by later Scholastic controversies. (A valuable project would be to investigate why de Lubac’s patristic project destroyed much of Vatican II liturgy afterwards, yet the Eastern Churches, using the same fathers, did not face that difficulty, at least not as acutely).

The book is not perfect, though. Like many of de Lubac’s books, the reader is usually unsure of de Lubac’s point. De Lubac rarely defines his thesis in clear terms, or if he does, it is only in passing. The book could have been one hundred pages shorter and much clearer had he removed a lot of extraneous material and sharpened his thesis. Secondly, and per the above point, it seems de Lubac’s method is to quote as many ancient texts as possible while avoiding integrating them into his argument. One feels like one is often reading a junior high term paper: the relevant sources are there, but it is difficult to see how they advance the argument. Other than that major problem, this book deserves a wide dissemination