Uncle John Wyclif – Dangerous Mind

28 Aug


An iconoclast. A controversial thinker. Not a good pastor, but a man whose thoughts and leadership did more for the common saints of England than perhaps any church leader in British history.

He’s part of my family, and I like him. He’s John Wyclif. Like most family members, I mostly like him, but am troubled by a few things about his life. Maybe I like him because he reminds me a bit of myself, and my own troubling weaknesses. Sometimes I think I am a direct product of Uncle John’s spiritual gene pool.

First, some of the rough stuff. He was part and parcel of a religious machine that he at once  a) criticized openly, and  b) benefited from handsomely. In those days, you could get assigned the oversight of a church in England, and not even have to be there – you were simply expected to get substitutes to cover your bases. Uncle John was awarded a rectorship when he was 31, and another one at 44…but never lived in the towns of the churches until he had to for political reasons, when he was 52 – 21 years! For all this time, he was paid by the church as an absentee rector, but stayed in Oxford, where he thought, and wrote.

What I love about Uncle John W. is his mind. He addressed many issues that today, with our post-Reformation perspective, seem somewhat obvious. But they weren’t then. They were shocking, “heretical”, and considered dangerous. Some examples:

He believes all political rulers need to be godly, and that leaders who live blatantly sinful lives forfeit their right to govern. Not the “divine right” of kings, but the “divine responsibility” of kings. 

* He believes the Bible is free from error, free from contradiction, and is God’s entire revelation – that there is no need for added teachings by the church, and that all theological thinking needs to be measured against the text of scripture. 

wycliffe* He believes the Bible should be available to all people, not just the teachers. It therefore needs to be translated into common languages. 

* He believes that Jesus is present in the Lord’s Supper, but not in the way Thomas Aquinas described a century ago, saying Jesus is “transubtantiated” into the physical bread and wine. Uncle John W. thinks it is more mysterious than that.

* He believes that the office of the Roman papacy is man-made, not God-ordained. He also believes the pope should have no authority in secular government. Finally, he says an immoral pope – in fact the entire papacy – is “the antichrist” (and the popes were quite immoral those days!).

Interesting…the Roman church usually burned thinkers like Wyclif at the stake, right? How did he survive? The same way another one of our family members did – Martin Luther. Both of these men enjoyed enough political protection in their home countries to continue thinking and publishing. Sure, Uncle John’s ideas were repeatedly condemned by Rome, but no one was able to lay a hand on him…

Well, until after he died,  He passed away on New Years Eve in 1384, after experiencing two strokes. But, just because he’s dead doesn’t mean he can’t be punished. 44 years after he was buried, they exhumed his bones, and burned them. I guess that showed him.

FMB Mural The Trial Of WyclifThere are different kinds of people in our spiritual family. Some are great with people. Others are deep in prayer. There are those who are unusually active in service. And there is the occasional super-evangelist.

And then, there are people like Uncle John W. They see things. They get things. They uncover blind spots for others, which often isn’t received too well. They make logical connections from truth to truth which challenge the status quo. They aren’t particularly skilled at kneading his thoughts into the hearts of individual people – that’s what pastors do. But they get the important, game-changing thoughts out on the table, and those thoughts find their way to the right people who can, in turn, make a difference on the ground.

It seems I spend much of my time these days wrestling with what I think are important thoughts … then sharing them … then apologizing for the hurts they inflict on others. I mean no harm – in fact, I truly want my ideas to be redemptive. When people seem to be after my bones, Uncle John W. reminds me that I’m not alone … and, by the grace of God, it may well be worth it in the long run.


Posted by on August 28, 2013 in Uncategorized


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3 responses to “Uncle John Wyclif – Dangerous Mind

  1. swesleymcgranor

    November 17, 2013 at 8:50 pm

    I wanted to tell you that we Lollards have no actual ‘leader’. There is no hierarchy. Although their are functions and position in an institutional church, although due to the nature of those institutions being dismantled, we have no ‘church’. So the priesthood of all believers takes on a total anti-clerical stance. I remind you that Lollards are purely Protestant, and no Catholic can–nor will abide. The same goes for the Eastern/Oriental Orthodox. We could take the institutions back id God willed, and man strived, but i believe that the Western Protestant churches are condemned popularly, along with their perspective societies. God speaks to only the extreme and fringe few regarding this matter. We are not postmodern, and thus we stand with the Reformation and those historical Mainline and Evangelicals churches bearing its fruit. I also want to emphasize our brother John Ball, who was equally provocative as brother Wycliffe. We must also thus refuse the term Wycliffite, as it makes a mascot of our brother. As you might know the historical Lollards incorporated all of real/actual Protestantism before there were such institutions. I take an Anglican position foremost, then unto the rest of Protestantism. I am a free-willer, although we have and will differ on various theological points. However, we are unarguably Supersessionst and Dominionist.

    • Bill Hartley

      November 17, 2013 at 10:54 pm

      Thanks for the post…especially because I know next to nothing about Lollardy. Curious to know how leadership, and submission thereto, is handled in an anti-clerical environment. As the Catholics often say, to not have a Pope is to have everyone as their own Pope. Sooner or later, Heb. 13:17 and 1 Peter 5:1-4 still need to be incorporated into our church life.

      As for being “purely protestant” and “no Catholic”, I don’t think you’re being honest. It is a popular Enlightenment thinking modality consider ourselves untouched by influences of the past (especially those medieval ones…). But we’re not. We’re products. Just like I can’t stop from becoming my dad as I get older, I can’t get away from that fact that I’m part of the race, and part of the people-that-were-once-not-a-people.

      To reject post-modernity and cling to early-modernity is to cling to a world view – with all its foibles as well as blessings.

      Overall, though, it sounds like your mind is made up in so many ways. Probably not worth the banter. God bless you on the path I’m sure you will stay on.

  2. swesleymcgranor

    November 18, 2013 at 12:56 am

    Pardon, what i meant by dismantled is that there is a Western spiritual crises that concerns society–the vast majority. Postmodern not in academic terms, but in defining the social upheaval that gave us the transgression we live in today. As for Catholics; the Reformation is not a matter of choice. Thanks again. I was intrigued that there was another Lollard out there.


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