Plato and Aristotle
Together, the ancient Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle dominate Western thought. It has been said that all European philosophy consists merely of footnotes to Plato. Aristotle, Plato's most famous student, occupied a particularly important place in the life of the medieval church. Following the example of Thomas Aquinas, many scholars referred to him simply as 'The Philosopher'.
Aristotle provided not merely a worldview, but a whole grammar of logic that profoundly defined how people thought and the questions they asked. Like all medieval Christendom, Wycliffe's understanding of reality was shaped by a careful synthesis of these pagan Greek philosophers with the Bible.
A 4th century Bishop of a city in modern Algeria, Augustine is recognised as the most influential theologian of the classical age. In his day, Christianity was facing a challenge from a British monk, Pelagius, who said that with a bit of effort, human beings could follow Jesus' example, and live without sin. Augustine set out from the Bible the whole system familiar to modern Christians: original sin, human helplessness, a sovereign God, election and divine grace.
His “Confessions” - a poetical autobiography in the form of a prayer - continues to be read by Christians today, in every denomination around the world.
While Wycliffe did not always agree with Thomas Aquinas, it is undeniable that the Italian theologian, friar, and philosopher had a deep impact on him. Wycliffe could hardly have avoided Aquinas – no other thinker of the medieval church had such a massive legacy, and Aquinas quickly became the benchmark of orthodox theology.
Aquinas' major book - Summa Theologica - is famously unfinished. Late in life, Aquinas had a mystical experience of God's presence and declared afterwards that all his writings were “like straw to me”. He wrote no more. Christians of many different denominations continue to respect, study and appreciate Aquinas.
Oxford University could boast a long pedigree of some of the greatest minds of the Middle Ages, such as William of Ockham and John Duns Scotus. Wycliffe was impacted by many, but perhaps none so much as Thomas Bradwardine.
Bradwardine was not only a theologian. He combined a mathematical mindset with a great curiosity about the world and became one of the pioneers in the development of modern science. He spoke against the theology of his day, advocating a robust return to Augustine's ideas of predestination, grace and original sin. He died during the Black Death, shortly after being appointed Archbishop of Canterbury. Wycliffe followed Bradwardine's lead and regarded him as a most incisive mentor.
Marsilius of Padua
It is difficult to know how much Wycliffe studied the work of the scholar Marsilius of Padua. His enemies, however, were quick to make the connection. A rector of the Sorbonne University in Paris, Marsilius had been declared a heretic by the Pope after writing an inflammatory book called “Defender of the Peace”.
A pioneer of political democracy in the state, Marsilius argued from the Bible that democracy should also apply in the church. Priests and bishops should be elected by the whole body of Christians. These leaders should follow the path of Jesus, choosing to serve rather than be served; to give rather than receive. Whatever the connection, Wycliffe's ideas on Dominion overlap closely with Marsilius'.
Not all Wycliffe's students were English. International scholars carried his ideas – and sometimes his books – out across Europe. Jan Hus, Dean of Theology at the University in Prague, was fascinated by Wycliffe and found in his writings the answers to some questions he had been struggling with. He began to teach Wycliffe's philosophy in the classroom, and then to preach his theology in the church.
Hus was a charismatic preacher and inspirational reformer, challenging corruption and advocating a new understanding of what it meant to be the Church. Many followed him and he became a national hero. When the Council of Constance burned him for heresy in 1415, Bohemia erupted in full-throated religious revolution.
Few people occupy such a massive place in the history of the Christian Church as Martin Luther. A German monk who appeared to single-handedly start the Protestant Reformation, Luther became a legend in his own lifetime.
The image of Luther nailing his famous 95 Theses to the main door of the church in Wittenberg has become an icon for the whole Reformation. For Luther, however, it was just one more step on his journey of spiritual discovery and theological liberation.
Luther was not directly influenced by Wycliffe, yet Wycliffe foreshadowed many of the themes and principles that would emerge in the Protestant Reformation. He was a sign of things to come.
Sir John Oldcastle
The Lollard movement inspired by John Wycliffe found followers from all walks of life. Many were from the lower classes, but some were noblemen. Sir John Oldcastle braved the anger of the church by speaking up in Parliament for tolerance towards the Lollards.
Soon Oldcastle found himself in the Tower of London, sentenced to death as a heretic. Refusing to go quietly, he escaped and attempted to raise an army of Lollards. He hoped to bring down the King and install a new government to rule England on Wycliffe's principles. The rebellion was an utter failure. Oldcastle was killed and the Lollards were now seen not only as heretics, but traitors also.
Wycliffe's curate in Lutterworth, John Purvey remained one of Wycliffe's closest friends and supporters. Many scholars believe that a large proportion of the Wycliffe Bible was the result of the work of Purvey, rather than of Wycliffe himself.
After Wycliffe's death, John Purvey became one of the leaders of the Lollard movement. This grouping did not form any organisation or network, but continued to teach and follow Wycliffe's ideas. Focussed on a spiritual connection with God, these men and women gathered around the Bible, and read it to each other. Like Wycliffe himself, the Lollards were denounced as heretics, and Purvey spent more than ten years in prison.
The English Reformation during the reign of Henry VIII took place 150 years after Wycliffe. Much of the drama of the story is found in Henry's personal life, and his famous six wives. One of the most influential moments, however, came first: William Tyndale published the New Testament in English.
Like Wycliffe, Tyndale believed that nothing was more important than reading the Word of God. Unlike Wycliffe, Tyndale had the advantage of the printing press. 16,000 copies were despatched across England within ten years. Henry may have shaped the Reformation for his own purposes, but it was the English Bible that fuelled it, as it had fuelled the Lollard movement more than a century earlier.