John Wyclif: Myth and Reality

By G. R. Evans
Downers Grove, IL : InterVarsity (2005). 320 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. William Barrick
18.2 (Fall 2007) : 248-249

Wyclif’s legendary status as “the Morning Star of the Reformation” fails to survive Gillian Evans’ vigorous professorial investigation (113, 244, 249). Evans holds the professorship of medieval theology and intellectual history at the University of Cambridge. She is author of The Language and Logic of the Bible: The Earlier Middle Ages (Cambridge University Press, 1984), Law and Theology in the Middle Ages (Routledge, 2001), and Faith in the Medieval World (InterVarsity, 2002). In addition, she edited both The Medieval Theologians: An Introduction to Theology in the Medieval Period (Blackwell, 2001) and The First Christian Theologians: An Introduction to Theology in the Early Church (Blackwell, 2004), contributing a number of the essays herself. Writing extensively on the Middle Ages and on a wide range of patristic and medieval authors (including Augustine, Anselm, Bernard of Clairvaux, Peter Lombard, Alan of Lille, and Gregory the Great), Evans is eminently qualified for a rigorous examination of Wyclif’s writings within his medieval academic environment at Oxford University.

Evans’ portrait of Wyclif reveals a complex and conflicted man—an irascible academic as well as a contrite cleric (14). His academic setting at Oxford forms the dominant background for Evans’ portrait of both the ecclesiastic and the educator (16-128). According to the author, the Oxford with which Wyclif was contemporary bore no signs of the lethargy that John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs attributed to it (24). On the contrary, Oxford throbbed with academic rivalry and thrived on a combative and competitive style of teaching (76). Such pedagogical methodology “made Wyclif and his opponents habitually adversarial in their problem-solving” (84). Wyclif alleged that spies attending his lectures maliciously recorded his most shocking remarks to use against him (85). These adversarial habits in the academy often spilled over into the pulpit (123).

As a parish priest, Wyclif was more educated than most. In 1379 (some years after he had left the parish ministry), he authored a book on “The Pastoral Office” in which he defined the duties of the godly pastor: to feed his sheep with God’s Word, to purge his flock of contagious spiritual disease, and to defend his flock against ravaging wolves (93-94). Evans concludes that Wyclif found pastoral ministry less than satisfying, so he returned to Oxford to pursue a doctor of theology degree (94). He was a staunch critic of absentee pastors who held a plurality of parishes and/or benefices that drew them away from their pastoral duties (94-95). In this reviewer’s opinion, Evans’ focus is so much on the educator (and, later, the public servant of the royal court, 129-93) that the ecclesiastic lacks adequate coverage. This may, in part, be due to an absence of adequate documentation, the result of the ultimate condemnation and burning of Wyclif’s books in 1410 (204). However, if a pastor, rather than an academic, were to write the biography, Wyclif’s portrait probably would include a mo re detailed examination o f his pastoral practices for comparison with his pastoral philosophy.

Throughout his teaching career, Wyclif exhibited a bent for theology. His writings on logic deal with theological topics: “the Trinity, transubstantiation, divine foreknowledge, futurity and eternity, necessary futurity, time as fourth dimension” (100). In De Veritate Sacrae Scripturae (“About the Truthfulness of Sacred Scriptures”) he declares that no human writing is superior to the Bible, all Christians have a right to read it, and the Scriptures are the best foundation for secular and ecclesiastical life (121). As far as the Wycliffite translations of the Bible into English are concerned, Evans finds no evidence of any contribution directly from the hand of Wyclif (230). Although he advocated preaching and teaching in English, embarrassingly little remains to demonstrate that he did any of it himself (243).

Evans portrays Wyclif as an angry man in his old age (129, 197 ), exploding in diatribes against perceived enemies (204). In her opinion, some of that anger arose from his frustration over never attaining to a position of power and becoming “a pawn in other people’s political games” (135). In 1374 Wyclif served as a member of a diplomatic commission to meet a papal delegation in Belgium (144). All the clerics except Wyclif immediately received appointments as bishops (144). He became bitter (145) and sensitive at being slighted (167). At his passing “there is no saintly deathbed scene, no reconciliation; there are no edifying words of wisdom to report. We have to turn from him as he fell, angry and despairing” (214). Evans paints a dark and disappointing picture of a failed hero.

On occasion Evans’ own political sensitivity manifests itself. One passage comes during her discussion of a violation of the rule of sanctuary when Sir Robert Hauley was pursued inside Westminster Abbey by the Constable of the Tower and slain in 1378. Wyclif argued the king’s right to violate the rule of sanctuary (179-80). Evans’ own political opinion flares as she compares Wyclif’s arguments with those of President Bush and Prime Minister Blair “when they took the USA and Britain into war in Iraq in 2003" (180). She appears to use this biography as the springboard for expressing her own political bitterness and/or agenda (cp. 183-84, “Alarm bells ring when politicians are seen to attempt to suborn the academics and undermine their independence by making the funding of their research dependent on their arriving at conclusions acceptable to the Government of the day”).

In spite of the author’s pessimistic approach and assessment, her volume is still worth reading. Every future biographer of Wyclif needs to begin with Evans’ book. It is as much an exposé of early Oxford as it is of Wyclif. The reader will find Evans’ enthusiastic study of the Middle Ages infectious.