John Wycliffe.

Tracts and treatises of John de Wycliffe : with selections and translations from his manuscripts, and Latin works online

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extending over a thousand years, and WyclifFe ridicules such grants by
reminding those who value them, that " after the day of doom there will
be no purgatory, and no man knoweth how soon that doom may come."
But the Reformer pushes his argument on this subject to a length which
his opponents must have felt to be not a little inconvenient. " It seemeth
that the pope and his are all out of charity, if there dwell any soul in
purgatory. For he may mth full heart, and without any other cost deliver
them out of purgatory." To confess the want of inclination in this par-
ticular, WyclifFe argues, must be to confess a gross want of charity ;
and to confess the want of power must be to confess the hypocrisy which
makes pretension to such power. Allusion is made to the manner in
which these indulgences were dispensed in favour of the recent crusade
in Flanders, conducted by Spencer, bishop of Norwich, when it was seen
that their use was " not to make peace, biit dissensions and wars." The
whole system of indulgences, and pardons, is denounced as " a subtle
merchandise of Antichrist's clerks, to magnify their counterfeit power,
and to get worldly goods, and to cause men not to dread sin." " " Mar-
vellous it is that any sinful fool dare grant anything on the merit of
saints, for all that ever any saint did may not bring a soul to heaven with-
out the grace and might of Christ's passion." In that passion, it is main-
tained "all merits that are needful" will be found, and the judgment of
God hereafter will not be found to have been influenced by the caprice
or the biddings of man. WyclifFe concludes this instructive chapter by
praying that God would of his endless mercy " destroy the pride, covetous-
ness, hypocrisy, and heresy of this feigned pardoning, and make men busy
to keep his commandments, and to set fully their trust in Jesus Christ."

From prelates at home, WyclifFe proceeds to touch on the pretensions
of the great prelate abroad — this he does in the following terms : " Also
prelates make many new points of belief, and say it is not enough to believe
in Jesus Christ, and to be christened, as Christ saith in the Gospel of
Mark, unless a man also believe that the bishop of Rome is head of holy
church. And certainly the apostles of Jesus Christ never constrained
any man to believe thus concerning himself. And yet they were certain
of their salvation in heaven. How then should any sinful wretch, who
knows not whether he shall be damned or saved, constrain men to believe
that he is head of holy church ? Certainly, in such case, they must
sometimes constrain men to believe that a devil of hell is head of holy
church, when the bishop of Rome shall be a man damned for his sins."

In this bold manner did the genius of our Reformer separate between
the institutional and the moral, the political and the spiritual, in the

° See pages 2, 3. •

c 2


religion of Christ, inculcating that no reverence should be evinced towards
mere office, if not allied with the spirit proper to it — the irreligious man
who assumes a rehgious office, becoming only so much the more giiilty,
and the more despicable in so doing. It is not difficult to see that this
one principle included the germ of all subsequent revolution in religious
usage and opinion. Heavily does the Reformer complain of the arro-
gance which required that the people should not presume to judge in
' respect to the Hfe or doctrine of the clergy, while Paul from the third
heavens, and Jesus Christ, God and man, challenged such scrutiny from
friends and foes. But the intention of this doctrine is said to be, that
men " may not reprove such persons for any sin whatsoever which they
may do ;" and that good men may not presume to preach the Gospel
except as bad men shall give them permission, Avhich, according to
the right of private judgment, as held in fact, though not in terms, by
WyclifFe, was to place the authority of Satan before the authority of

Nor was it enough that this description of clergymen should claim
exemption from all popidar censure, — ^they affected the same independence
of the highest authorities, and in respect to civil matters no less than
the religious. " Prelates most destroy obedience to the law of God, for
they say that they are not to be subject to secular lords, to pay them
ta.xes, or to heljj the commons ; and are not to be amended l:»y their sub-
jects (people) of their open sins, but only by the pope who is their sove-
reign, and he by no man on earth, because he is the greatest of all."
But the men who avow this doctrine are reminded that Christ paid
tribute to a heathen emperor, and to his religion or church, when it
was demanded of him, though " he had no secular lordship, nor plenty
of tithes, and much more therefore should these rich priests" be made
to comply with such demands.

In the twenty-second chapter the Reformer resumes his strictures on
the pretensions of the sovereign pontiff. It is said openly, he observes,
" that there is nothing lawful among Christian men without leave of
the bishop of Rome, though he be Antichrist, full of simony and heresy.
For commonly, of all priests he is the most contrary to Christ, both in
life and teaching ; and he maintaineth more sin, by privileges, excom-
munications, and long pleas ; and he is most proud against Christ's meek-
ness, and most covetous of worldly goods and lordships." He is de-
scribed as the head and representative of all the corruptions by which
the ecclesiastical system was disfigured ; and to subject the church to
such a sovereignty, it is added, must be assuredly to subject her to the
power of Antichrist.

In the two subsequent chapters Wycliffe rebukes those martial pre-
lates whose passions tended to destroy the inen, body and soul, wliom they


should have saved ; and renews his lamentations that simony should be
allowed so greatly to deprave both priest and people, and to trans-
ier the wealth of the country to the coiFers of its enemies. In the
twenty-sixth chapter be writes, " Prelates say, that Holy Writ is not
sufficient to rule holy chui-ch, and that the teachers thereof are not pro-
fitable to the people." But to this, it is replied, that " it is the pride of
Luciferj and even greater pride than his, to say that the teachers of
man's traditions, made of sinful fools, are more profitable and needful to .
Christian people than the preachers of the Gospel." If Christ has not made
his law complete, it is argued that this must be either because he covdd
not or would not. But to say either of these things, would it not be
" to put a foul heresy on Christ ?" This nevertheless is done — done
" secretly to maintain their own covetousness and pride." In the two
following chapters, it is lamented that notwithstanding the clearness of
such arguments, men are found " leaving Holy Writ and reason, for
feigned dreams and miracles — ^aud sinful man's traditions full of error :"
while prelates convert secular lords into destroyers of men's souls, by
converting them into the persecutors of men who preach the Gospel.

In the thirtieth chapter Wycliffe remarks, " Worldly prelates say,
that since the people should worship Gregory, and Peter and Paul and
other true apostles of Christ, and as they themselves come into the place
of apostles,' then the people should worship them after the same manner.
But they take no account how those apostles came to their state by
choosing and ordaining of God, and by holy life and true service Avhich
they did to' Christian people, in true teaching of the holy Gospel, both
in word and deed." Adverting to the reasonable claims of the clergy on
their people, the Reformer observes, " It is good that Christian priests
should have worldly goods for their necessary livelihood, and clothing, as
Paul teacheth, and reason." But the inordinate wealth of the clergy is
said to have filled them \vith pride, to have rendered them the victims
of lust, and to have raised a Bible made up of man's traditions, into the
place of the true Bible.

In the remaining portion of this work, Wycliffe insists that it is just
and scriptural thus to rebuke a vicious clergy. " Christ and his apostles
reproved Pharisees, and Herod, and heretics, in their absence and before
the people, as the Gospels and Epistles witness, and this was for our
example, to be followed with charity and discretion." Were it not so, a
depraved priesthood might be left to " wax rotten in their liists, rob the
people, and destroy Christendom :" and however agreeable such exemp-
tion may be to such men, it does not comport with the sense of public
duty in some other men that they should be left in the enjoyment of it.

Masses, pardons, and pilgrimages, all are described as " novelties," the
effect of which is, " to make people believe that if a priest say a certain


mass for a soul, it shall anon be out of purgatory, though God in his
righteousness ordain that soul to abide there forty year or more, and
though the priest himself be accursed for simony and pride, for, as they
falsely pretend, the mass may not be impaired by the priest's sin.
— Prelates blaspheme against God, the Father of heaven, by taking to
themselves the power Avhich belongs only and especially to God — that is,
the power of absolving sins, and the full remission of them. For they
take on them principally to absolve, and make the people to believe so,
when they have only absolved as vicars, or messengers, to witness for
the people that God absolveth . on contrition, or else neither angel, nor
man, nor God himself absolveth — unless the sinner is contrite, that is,
fully have sorrow for his sin."

The treatise concludes thus — " In these three and forty errors and
heresies, men may see how evil prelates destroy Christendom — for of
them and no other is this speech — and how they are the cause of wars,
and of evil life in the people, and of their damnation. God of his might
and mercy amend these errors, and others, if it be his will !"

V. The next piece in the collection under review is intitled. Specu-
lum DE Antichristo. Its title in English is, How Ajitichrist and his clerkes
feren treiie priests from preaching of Ohrist^s Gospel by four deceits. It
begins with the words, First they say that j^reaching of the Gospel maketh
dissensions and enmity."-

In answer to this first " deceit," it is said, that " Christ came not to
make peace for sinful men, by leaving them to live in their fleshly lusts,
and worldly joy, at their liking." Christ means his people to be in peace
only as they are holy.

The second " deceit" is, " that many men will be damned notwithstand-
ing the hearing of the Gospel, and the more damned because they hear
God's word, and do not thereafter." The reasoning cited on this point is
of the true Antinomian complexion, neutralising precept by speculations
about necessity. But it is contended that men should continue to pray
and preach, even to enemies, assured that as they so do " feAver will be
lost, and more will be saved." Even concerning the reprobate it is
observed, that " sometimes they have compunction, and leave their sins
for a long while, and that to them is better than all this world. And

" MS. C.C.C. Cambridge. Trin. Coll. Dub. Class C. Tab. ili. No. 12. Our only evidence in
respect to the date of this piece, is from its general contents. It greatly magnifies the office of
preaching, charges the friars with doing their utmost to deceive the people, and to "stop poor
priests" from endeavouring to bring them out of their ignorance and irreligion ; and it is altogether
marked by the opinions, feeling, and language observable in such of the Reformer's works as are
known to be the production of his later years. We know of no work strictly of this complexion,
that can be shown to have been written by Wycliffe in the early period of his history ; but every-
thing known to be from his pen during the last five or seven years of his life carries this impress.


God giveth to each man free will to choose good or evil, and God is
ready to give them grace if they will receive it. And in this life they
do many good deeds of kind, " and because of them they shall have much
reward in this world, and at the last a less pain in hell. And it is a
great vengeance from God when he withdraweth preaching from a com-
munity, accounting them not worthy to hear his word ; and wherever a
gathering of people is, there is commonly some good done, and for those
who will receive the word principally men preach it." But if none will
hear, it is admitted that from such a people, after apostoHc example, the
preacher should tiu'n away. The reader will not fail to mark the moral
discrimination which is blended with this treatment of a subtle theolo-
gical question. It has been too much the practice of divines to estimate
the moral and immoral in the unregenerate by the same rule.

The third "deceit" is, " that good men shall be saved though there
be no preaching, for God saith they may not perish ; while some wicked
men shall never come to bHss for any preaching on earth. Here true
men say that as God hath ordained good men to come to bliss, so he
hath ordained them to come to bHss by preaching, and by keeping his
word. So as they must needs come to bHss, they must needs hear and
keep God's commandments, and to this end serveth preaching with
them. And some wicked men shall now be convinced by God's grace
and hearing of his word; and who knoweth the measure of God's mercy,
or to whom the hearing of God's word shaU be thus profitable ? Each
man should hope to come to heaven, and should enforce himself to hear
and to fulfil the word of God. For since each man hath a free wiH, and
chooseth good or evil, no man shall be saved except he that readily
heareth and steadily- keepeth the commandments of God, and no man
shall be damned except he that wihuHy and endlessly breaketh God's
commands." It is very difficult to ascertain the real opinions of the
Reformer on topics of this nature as set forth in the Latin of his more
scholastic pieces. The preceding observations furnish one of the most
expliQit expositions of his views that I have met vnth.

The fourth " deceit" is, when it is said, " that men should cease from
preaching, and give themselves to holy prayers and contemplations,
because that helpeth Christian men more, and is better." But in
answer, " true men say boldly that true preaching is better than prayer
by the mouth, or though it should come from the heart and from pure
devotion, and that it edifieth more the people. Therefore Christ espe-
cially commanded his apostles and disciples to preach the Gospel, and
not to shut themselves up in cloisters or chiu-ches to pray as some men.
Hence Isaiah cried, ' Woe is me that I was still ;' and Paul says, ' Woe

« Nature — they discharge many natural duties without being religious


is me if I preach not the Gospel.' Devout prayer in men of good hfe
is good in certain time ; but it is against charity for priests to pray
evermore, and at no time to preach, since Christ chargeth priests to
preach the Gospel, more than to say mass and matins." These enlight-
ened views concerning the paramount importance of preaching, exhibit
the mind of WycliiFe as some two centuiies in advance of his age ; but
he cites Gregory and Jerome in support of these opinions, and as cen-
suring customs which deprived society of the benefit of good examples,
and led tu much sin in the way of omission.

VI. We next come to the treatise intitled. Of Clerks Possessioners.
Its object is to expose the irrehgion which, in the view of the Reformer,
had resulted from the inordinate wealth, and the secular jurisdiction of
the clergy. It consists of forty chapters."

In the commencement, St. Augustine, St. Gregory, and St. Bernard,
are introduced as censuring the secular lordship of the clergy, declaring
it to be opposed to the design and precepts of the Gospel. Clerks who
live " a lustful and worldly Hfe," are said to declare, that " the hfe and
example of Christ are not a sufficient rule," and in so doing proclaim
them as " strong heretics," Such men are " traitors to God, to lords
and to the common people." To God they show themselves traitors by
deserting his law ; to lords by cvirsing them unless they are prepared to
maintain what is called holy cluu'ch ; and to the people by deceiving
them, " teaching them openly, that they shall have God's blessing, and
bHss in heaven, if they pay truly their tithes and offerings to them."
These persons are described as preferring " the smiles of sinful man, to
the smiles of Christ, God and man ;" as coming in " under colour of
saints," and as living a life contrary to that of their professed patrons ;
and this fact is said to account for^ the attempts made by pretended
devotees to falsify the hves of their founders.

Some men of this class are said to attempt a justification of their
assuming a secular lordship by appealing to the example of Christ ;
" But Christ saith in the Gospel of St. John, that his kingdom is not
of this world. And by worldly lordship he had not once where to
rest his head. Therefore it is heresy to put this secular lordship on
Christ." Worldly jmisdiction, it is argued, must bring with it worldly
and distracting duties, Avhich Christ and his disciples knew not — such as

» MS. C.C.C. Cambridge. Trin. Coll. Dub. Class C. Tab. iii. No. 12. This treatise speaks of
priests as " living poorly and justly, and going about teaching freely God's law," (chap, xvi.) and
abounds in complaint that men should be persecuted for so doing. Its condemnation of all kinds of
endowment, excepting the form of titlies and ofi'erings, and its doctrine even concerning such reve-
nues in the case of ecclesiastics who " trespass by long custom," leave no room to doubt as to the
late date of this remarkable production.


must unfit men " for studying and teaching Holy Writ," and be un-
friendly to " devotion, and prayer, and meditation, and heavenly sweet-
ness." Such occupations, indeed, cannot fail to ensnare men to " simony,
covetousness, gluttony, and idolatry ;" disposing persons professing dead-
ness to the world to a life the most worldly ; converting men who should
be preachers of the Gospel into preachers of fables ; and teaching them
to fight against the truth, and not for the truth.

It will be seen from these remarks, that under the title of clerks pos-
sessioners, Wycliffe included not only the beneficed and higher clergy,
but also the opulent religious orders. But while monks and canons
profess to take their model from the community of goods in the church
at Jerusalem, they are described as destitute of the well-regulated tem-
perance, and the Christian piety, in which that visage originated.
Much complaint is made that the private rules ol' religious sects are
made to be of more binding authority than the most manifest precepts
of Christ ; and that the delinquents who thus place the authority of
man before the authority of God, should so commonly betray the
nature of the training they receive in their secular offices by becoming
persecutors " of good men following the example of Holy Writ, and
living poorly and justly, and going about teaching freely God's law."
Some fraternities among the religious orders are said to possess " many
books," and some copies of Holy Writ, which have come to them by
gift or testament ; " but they hide them from secvdar clerks," and suffer
their noble books to rot in their libraries, and neither will profit them-
selves by studying in them, nor leave them to other clerks that would ;
so that seculars and clerks may scarcely have a book of value."

The men who thus subordinate learning, as well as religion, to their
love of pomp and indulgence, are reminded that they cannot fail to
know from their own laws, as well as from Holy Scripture, that what-
ever they possess as more than necessary to decent " livehhood," is not
their own, but " poor men's goods ;" and they are admonished, accord-
ingly, to cease their visitings of the great, and to become visitors of
the poor, the fatherless, and the widow. The claim of the clergy to be
exempt from the loss of their goods by any judgment from the civil
power, even " though they should be trespassers by long custom," is
treated as arrogant and unjust, otherwise " God's law is false, which
giveth power to kings and seciilar lords to punish generally, out -taking
no man."

In the remaining chapters of this treatise the Reformer exposes the foUy
of supposing that the existing race of clergymen woiild be found equal
to the duties of " two lordships," the secular and the spiritual, while

' By secular clerks, the regular clergy are meant, as distinguished frorti the religious orders


Christ and his apostles were so careful to avoid such a weight and
mixture of obligation. He laments, also, the many instances in which
the laws of God are "put aback," and the laws of men advanced
to their place ; and all this that priests may be sustained in pleading
exemption from the authority of the civil power, and from the usual
burdens of the state, and persecuting aU good men, who, by living a
holy life and preaching truly the Gospel, reprove them for their sins.
He concludes the piece, as was his custom, by a prayer. " God
Almighty, stir up priests, lords, and commons, to know the hypocrisy,
and treason, of Antichrist's worldly clerks, and to know and maintain
the rightful ordinance of Christ, and the profit and freedom of the Gospel.

VII. The work intitled De XXXIII. Erroribus Curatorum, has for its
EngUsh title. How the Offi/ie of Curates is ordained of God ; and begins
thus — For the. office of curates is ordained of God, and feiv do it well, and
many fall evil."' In the Cambridge Collection this piece follows that " On
Clerks Possessioners." The term curate in this tract is used to denote
the regular parochial clergy. This piece, accordingly, relates to the
faults of the inferior clergy, as the three preceding pieces related to the
favdts of their superiors. As may be expected, the same errors come
again luider review, and much of the same kind of reasoning is employed
to expose and correct them. It will be sufficient, in consequence, to
cite a few passages. The following extract includes the whole of the
first chapter : —

" For the office of curates is ordained of God, and few do it well, and
many full evil. Therefore, tell we some of their defaults, to amend
them with God's help.

" First, they are more busy about worldly goods, than about virtues,
and the keeping of men's souls. For he who can best get the riches of
this WQj'ld together, and hold great household and worldly array, he is
holden a worthy man of holy church, though he know not the least
point of the Gospel. And such a one is up in fidl favour of the bishop
and of his officers. But the curate who giveth himself to study Holy
"Writ, and teach his j)arishioners to save their souls, and who hveth in
meekness, penance,* and busy travail about ghostly things, and seeketh
nought of worldly worship and riches, is holden a fool, and a disturber

" MS. C.C.C. Cambridge. Trin. Coll. Dub. Class C. Tab. iii. No. 12. pp. 103—116. The reference
in the twenty-sixth chapter of this work to the objections made against the reading of the Scriptures
by the laity in the mother tongue, fixes the date of the tract as written by the Reformer not more
than two or three years before his death. The passage will be found in the text. The greater part
of this work has been printed in the work intitled, The British Reformers, i. 123—141, published by
the Religious Tract Society.

' The word " penance" is used by Wycliffe in the sense of contrition, penitence, or humility.


of holy church, and is despised and persecuted of high priests, and pre-
lates, and their officers, and hated of other curates in the country.
And this maketh many curates to be neghgent in their ghostly cures, and
to give themselves to occupation and business about worldly goods. But
these negligent curates think full little how dearly Christ bought man's
soul with his precious blood and death, and how hard a reckoning he
will make for those souls at doomsday. Certainly, it seemeth that they
are out of the faith of Christian men. For they make themselves not

Online LibraryJohn WycliffeTracts and treatises of John de Wycliffe : with selections and translations from his manuscripts, and Latin works → online text (page 13 of 45)