Sunday, June 28, 2020

John Wycliffe: Founding Father of Resistance Theory

To study Western culture and history is to witness the evolution of the concept of liberty as it shifted from the hands of a few elite into the public domain.  Of all the contributing influences that helped to steer the idea of liberty from the few to the many, Christianity is, without question, the predominant fuel that sustained the fires of change over the centuries.  This progression was not without its difficulties, since Christianity was also wielded as a weapon of mass distraction by the nobility ranks of Medieval Europe who meant to twist the message of Christ to bend the knee of all subjects to their will.  One predominant example of this subjugation was the way in which Paul’s admonition to the Romans was afforded significant (or even histrionic) significance in what the Medieval world would call the Divine Right of Kings.

Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.  Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation...For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.  Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.[1]

One would be hard pressed to find a set of verses in all Christian scripture that have caused more anxiety and debate than these few words from Paul.  For centuries they came to dominate much of the public discourse on the question of how a “good Christian” should submit to authority, and when “righteous rebellion” to God’s chosen leaders was warranted.  In modern times, historians have attempted to explain when and how the earliest advocates for what is sometimes called “resistance theory” (the justification needed to oppose God’s chosen leaders on earth) burst onto the scene.  Some scholars have posited that Protestant reformers of the 16th century deserve credit for the creation of resistance theory.[2]  And while it is true that the generation of the Reformation merits recognition for their contributions to the development of resistance theory, the seeds of opposition, which quickly grew in the rich soil of earlier centuries, is where the birth of opposition to authority, and the beginnings of popular liberty, had their inception.  Arguably the most vocal, persuasive, and intelligent voice of this opposition was that of John Wycliffe, a 14th century theologian and Oxford professor, whose teachings became well known throughout much of Europe.  As a spokesman of opposition, Wycliffe served to be more than a mere foreshadowing of later Protestant expressions of resistance to authority, but instead became the founding father of resistance theory itself, creating the very road map by which subsequent generations would also construct their justification for dissent to God’s supposed leaders on earth.   
To better appreciate the magnitude of Wycliffe’s contributions to resistance theory one must first understand the tremendous authority enjoyed by kings and popes of the Medieval world.  Divine Right Kingship was not some passing fad that simply faded with time but rather was the bedrock for organizing the whole of society.  As one historian of Divine Right Kingship put it:

That the ideal State is the kingdom of God upon earth, and that no other can be an object of veneration to a Christian, is the notion that lies at the heart of Medieval Europe…the Pope, as most plainly the depositary of Divine Authority, afterwards the Emperor, as called to his office by God’s election and appointment, claims to be the true and supreme head of the Christian commonwealth, by Divine Right of the Lord of the world.[3]    

God’s division of responsibility between Pope and King meant that matters both spiritual and temporal had been given their divine sanction.  For the common Christian, this meant that both religious and governmental superiors exercised substantial influence on a laity now made fully dependent upon their will and pleasure.[4]
It does not come as a surprise to discover that this system of government was not without its flaws.  On an almost regular basis, kings attempted to subvert the authority of popes, while popes “were driven to minimize the prerogatives of the Emperor and to recognize in his less instead of more authority.”[5]  These blemishes did not go unnoticed by those with eyes to see.  Giles of Rome, an influential 13th century friar and philosopher, took note of the natural conflict that arose between popes and kings in the many inevitable battles for supremacy that were common in the Middle Ages when he wrote, “For we can clearly show from the order of the universe that the Church is placed above the nations and kingdoms.”  Giles then references the ever-present Romans 13 to demonstrate the church’s superiority to kings: “it is clear from what the Apostle says at Romans 13, who, when he had first said there is no power except of God, immediately afterwards added, ‘and the powers that be are ordained of God.’”[6]  Another 13th century theologian and philosopher, William of Ockham (famous for his methodological principle known as Occam’s Razor), suggested that it was the right and the duty of both popes and parishioners to know where their authority (or submission to authority) ended:

Subjects also should know what and how much power the pope has over them, because, as Gregory says, “subjects should be urged not to be more subject than is useful.”  But they cannot be on guard against excessive subjection unless they know what and how much power their superior has over them.  Further, to neglect the right of the community counts as a vice: for if to neglect a common possession is a natural vise, then it is certain that to neglect common rights is a vice, since a natural vice must be regarded as a vice.  But what is not known is neglected.  The pope’s subjects must therefore know the common rights of subjects.  But they cannot know this unless they know how much power the pope has, and how much he does not have, over them.[7]  

What these, and many other, references clearly demonstrate is that an active, vocal voice of opposition was expressing legitimate concerns on matters of authority.  These early seeds of resistance theory found fertile ground, but still needed the watering and nourishing that was soon to come. 
                The world into which John Wycliffe emerged is often misunderstood and underappreciated by scholars.  As Wycliffe Biographer Stephen Lahey put it, “What looked like a degenerate, inbred version of high medieval theology to scholars as recently as the mid-twentieth century now seems a century rich in innovation, particularly the theological arguments that raged before the Reformation.”[8]  Wycliffe is of particular significance because he took the already existing concerns regarding authority of his day, and turned them into a movement bent on opposition to that authority (the birth of resistance theory).  Wycliffe’s studies of the Christian scriptures, along with his assessment of the church in his day, convinced him that the “powerful and wealthy Church over which the bishops and Pope presided” was a flawed institution, undeserving of allegiance but rather a mere “institution that should be tested rigorously against the record of God’s purposes in the scriptures.”[9]
Wycliffe’s attack on the Church was not merely a critique of its institutions or practices but was a direct assault at the authority figures who dominated its ranks.  In Wycliffe’s mind, these bishops, priests, monks and even popes performed all their works “merely for outward show; and because of the hidden malice within their hearts, they not only hurt themselves to a considerable extent, bit also other people.”[10]  Wycliffe pulled no punches, labeling church leaders as “heretics” who “sacrifice into idols…even more than the sacrifices of the priests of Baal” whose form of worship “give their attention to ritual, flattery, detraction and falsehood, rejecting scripture and neglecting to rebuke sin.”[11]
Wycliffe’s critique of authority was not reserved exclusively for the church.  In his letter to King Richard, II, Wycliffe asserted the rights of all Christians to follow the dictates of their conscience on matters of religion, even if it meant leaving the Church “without hinderance or bodily pain” because “The rule of Christ…is most perfect, to be kept for state of living in this world; and each rule, of what kin, private sect, or singular religion, made of sinful men, is less perfect, than the rule of Christ, of his endless wisdom, and his endless charity, to mankind; therefore, it is lawful to each man or person of this singular religion and profession, to leave it cleave fast to the rule of Jesus Christ, as more perfect.”[12]  It is worthy to note that instead of supporting the Apostle Paul’s command to “let every soul be subject unto the higher powers,” Wycliffe suggests that it is a Christian’s first duty to shake off “sinful” and “less perfect” men and institutions in favor of allegiance to Jesus Christ’s “more perfect” way.  Or as Wycliffe himself put it:

Also friars say, that if a man be once professed to their religion, he may never leave it, and be saved; though he be never so unable thereto, for all the time of his life; and they will need him to live in such a state ever more, to which God makes him ever unable; and so need him to be damned. Alas! out on such heresy, that man’s ordinance is holden to be stronger than is the ordinance of God. For if a man enter into the new religion against man’s ordinance, he may lawfully forsake it; but if he enter against God’s ordinance, when God makes him unable thereto, he shall not be suffered by Antichrist’s power to leave it.[13] 

In Wycliffe’s mind, a Christian’s first devotion was to his own conscience, linked to God, therein creating a new soul, saved by God’s grace and fully capable of making his own way in life, free from the weapons of mass distraction that were the church, its practices and its priests. 
Wycliffe’s message resonated deeply and spread quickly.  His followers, known as Lollards, became every bit as convinced as Wycliffe himself, effectively becoming missionaries for the new gospel of liberation.  The message became increasingly popular and eventually “brought a new and dangerous edges to this sort of charismatic religious culture” that was sweeping across England.[14]  The message carried by Lollards presented a clear opposition to the authority of the Church, which quickly sought to suppress the heresy.  The result was the trial and execution of Lollard sympathizers who left valuable accounts of their fierce opposition to the church and its leadership.[15] 
Contrary to what many notable historians have suggested, the Lollard movement and message did not die off with the death of Wycliffe or the many executions for heresy.  Dr. Fiona Somerset’s excellent work on the matter of Lollard influence post-Wycliffe demonstrates that the movement continued far into the decades leading up to the Protestant Reformation.  She writes:

The corpus of extant manuscripts produced somewhere between roughly 1375 and 1530 and containing materials translated, composed, or adapted by Lollard writers is very large.  After an initial phase of rapid and apparently highly coordinated production, Lollard writings continued to be copied, recopied, adapted, and further developed in a wide range of manuscript contexts, and for a variety of readers, across the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries…No religious movement persecuted as a heresy anywhere else in the history of Christianity has left behind a textual recording of anything like this in order of magnitude.[16] 

In addition, the fact that England already seemed to embrace a spirit of reform before the Reformation indicates that the fires of popular dissent were already spreading before Luther or Calvin ever came on the scene.  As one historian has noted, “The ingredients of early Protestantism proved already numerous in the reign of Henry VIII, yet among them Lutheranism may scarcely be regarded as predominant and Calvinism as yet remained almost negligible…we may now confidently ascribe a role of some importance on the popular level to the still vital force of Lollardy.”[17] 
The life and works of John Wycliffe are too often limited by modern historians.  He may receive praise for his work in translating the Bible into Middle English or given kudos for being a foreshadowing of Luther and other Reformers, but rarely is he given credit for his greatest accomplishment: father of resistance theory.  Wycliffe and his fellow Lollards were not some opening act for the later Protestant Reformer’s main stage show, nor did they simply plant seeds that Calvin and others would later grow and harvest.  Wycliffe and the Lollards literally built the foundations, walls, and roof of the resistance theory house.  Calvin and his followers certainly deserve recognition for adding drapes and interior decorating, but they did not construct the house that so many wish to deed to the Reformers.  Through his bold and vocal opposition to the authority figures of his day, John Wycliffe provided the very first template for resistance theory, which gave succeeding generations all the guidance needed to help place the idea of liberty into the hands of the people instead of the hands of the elite. 


[1] Romans 13:1-2.  The Holy Bible: The King James Version (World Wide Bible Assoc.: 2019).

[2] Mark David Hall and Sarah Morgan Smith.  “Whose Rebellion?: Reformed Resistance Theory in   America” (Parts I and II). Faculty Publications - Department of History, Politics, and International Studies. 85.  Hall and Smith argue that the Reformed Calvinist tradition is where the nucleus of resistance theory is to be found, and that the teachings of Calvinism granted Christianity with all the authority they would need to justify opposition to their rulers.  Hall and Smith take this argument all the way to the American Revolution, suggesting that some of America’s earliest founders were both influenced by Calvinist teachings and found in the Reformed tradition all the needed ammunition to oppose King George, III.

[3] J.N. Figgis, The Divine Right of Kings (Cambridge, 1914).  Pp. 40.

[4] Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580 (Yale University Press, 2005).  Pp. 53-55.

[5] J.N. Figgis, The Divine Right of Kings, 44.

[6] Giles of Rome, On Ecclesiastical Power: A Medieval Theory of World Government.  Trans. By R.W. Dyson (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004).  Pp.19. 

[7] William of Ockham, A Short Discourse on Tyrannical Government.  Ed. Arthur Stephen McGrade, trans. John Kilcullen (Cambridge University Press, 1992).  Pp. 9.

[8] Stephen E. Lahey, John Wycliffe (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009). Pp. 42.

[9] Diarmaid MacCullough, The Reformation (New York: Penguin Books, 2005). Pp. 35.

[10] John Wycliffe, Tracts and Treatises of John de Wycliffe, Book III.  Trans. Rev. Robert Vaughan (London: Blackburn and Pardon Hatton Garden, 1845).  Online Library of Liberty.  Pp. 202.

[11] Ibid, 202-203.

[12] Ibid, 259-260.

[13] Ibid, 222.

[14] Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars, 376.

[15] John A. Arnold, “Voicing Dissent: Heresy Trials in Later Medieval England.”  Past & Present, Volume 245, Issue 1, November 2019, Pages 3–37,  Arnold’s work “examines the evidence from the entire range of surviving Lollard trials, and argues that we can see consciously ‘dissenting’ speech alongside the standard theological positions associated with (and perhaps imposed upon) Lollardy.”

[16] Fiona Somerset, Feeling Like Saints: Lollard Writings After Wyclif (Cornell University Press, 2014).  Pp. 2.

[17] Dickens, A.G., ed. Lollards and Protestants in the Diocese of York (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 1982).  Pp. 8.


Tom Van Dyke said...

It does not come as a surprise to discover that this system of government was not without its flaws. On an almost regular basis, kings attempted to subvert the authority of popes, while popes “were driven to minimize the prerogatives of the Emperor and to recognize in his less instead of more authority.”

Of course, Henry VIII removed this tension by taking over the Church himself! Now the Church has zero influence in most of the West as the western world sinks deeper into amorality, libertinism and irreligion if not anti-religion. Wycliffe's victory was Pyrrhic.

In the seeds of the Reformation was the end of Christendom.

Tom Van Dyke said...

The Church represented the only counterweight to political power. Now politics is the be-all and end-all of society. I too thought the unholy alliance of church and state was a "Catholic" thing but it was not.

Robert Reilly, author of the new book America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding (Ignatius 2020):

“To read what Robert Bellarmine and Francisco Suarez say is a shocker to most people because they are under the illusion that the divine right of kings was a Catholic teaching or that it grew out of the Catholic Church. Of course, the case is that it is simply the opposite of that. It grew out of the Reformation and the abdication of the church to the prince or the king who then became the head of the national church. So, he was both priest and ruler whereas that was resisted by the Catholic Church even though it was affected by this as you know,” he explains.

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