‘Dicit ei Iesus ego sum via et veritas et vita nemo venit ad Patrem nisi per me.’

John Wycliffe read these words in the Latin Vulgate Bible in the 1300s. He had read them many times, over many years. He knew their truth – intellectually, emotionally, experientially. And he wanted others to know and experience their truth as he had.

Image of a page from John’s Gospel in a Wycliffe Bible John’s Gospel in a Wycliffe Bible

Do you know what these words mean? Most people living in England in the 1330s didn’t. They understood English, not Latin – and it is largely thanks to John Wycliffe that we can understand them in English today.

The verse is John 14:6, which says: ‘Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through me.”’

John Wycliffe was the first translator of the English Bible. Throughout his life he became convinced of the need to translate the Bible into English. This conviction had deepened through his years of devotion to following Jesus. His years of studying the truths of the Bible. His years as one of the leading theologians in one of the leading universities in the world. The years when he challenged where the teaching of the Church had departed from the teaching of the Bible. The years he was accused of heresy. The years he was put on trial. The years when he was rejected and banished from his beloved Oxford. The years when it looked like he had failed to bring about the change he knew the Church needed.

Through all these experiences, God – gradually but clearly – led John to an ever-deepening understanding that the Bible was central to people knowing Jesus. But he knew that there was a huge barrier to people knowing Jesus through the Bible: it was only available in Latin, and most people did not understand Latin. 

‘Christ and his apostles taught the people in the language best known to them,’ John wrote, his developing thoughts spilling onto the paper. ‘The laity ought to understand the faith and, as doctrines of our faith are in the Scriptures, believers should have the Scriptures in a language which they fully understand.’

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‘Believers should have the Scriptures in a language which they fully understand’

John Wycliffe
‘Holy Scripture is the pre-eminent authority for every Christian’

John Wycliffe was born around 1324, 700 years ago, in northern Yorkshire. Little is known about his childhood, but it seems he was educated by the local village priest. In some ways John’s life came full circle as, in the last years of his life – when he did his most important work – John was the priest in the market town of Lutterworth in Leicestershire.

Image of St Mary’s Church, Lutterworth St Mary’s Church, Lutterworth

Between Yorkshire and Lutterworth, John spent all his life in a place he loved: Oxford. It is likely he arrived there as a student around 1340. While at Oxford John lived through the Black Death, the pandemic that spread across Europe and arrived in England in 1348. It is estimated that up to 40% of the population died. The pain and fear of those years – and the demonstration of just how fragile life was – deeply affected John.

Through his four decades at Oxford – as a student, priest and lecturer – John excelled as a theologian and philosopher. One of his contemporaries said of John that ‘he was second to none in the training of the schools.’

But during those years John’s study of the Latin Bible was changing and shaping him. Centuries before the Sola Scriptura cry of the Reformation, John was coming to the conclusion – radical at the time – that the Bible was the guide to the truth about God. ‘Holy Scripture,’ he wrote, ‘is the pre-eminent authority for every Christian, and the rule of faith and of all human perfection.’

‘I have followed the sacred Scriptures’ 

John developed five rules for his study of the Bible: ‘Obtain a reliable text, understand the logic of Scripture, compare the parts of Scripture with one another, maintain an attitude of humble seeking, and receive the instruction of the Spirit.’

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‘All Christian life is to be measured by Scripture’

John Wycliffe

Studying the Bible this way, year-on-year, led John to the clear conclusion that, as he wrote:

‘Faith in our Lord Jesus Christ is sufficient for salvation… The gospel alone is sufficient to rule the lives of Christians everywhere. Any additional rules… add nothing to the perfection already found in the gospel of Jesus Christ.’

But the Church at the time had added many ‘additional rules’ – what John called ‘human traditions and statutes’ – to the gospel of Jesus.

Image of a Wycliffe Bible open at 2 Corinthians A Wycliffe Bible open at 2 Corinthians

John grew fearless in challenging the ‘additional rules’ of the Church. He confronted the unbiblical practices and teachings of the Church. For example, the selling of indulgences to gain favour in the afterlife and that the teaching of the Pope was above the teaching of the Bible. All of this got John into a lot of trouble with the church authorities. He was put on trial three times in his lifetime and Pope Gregory XI issued five ‘bulls’ (accusations) against him for heresy.

John boldly responded to the bulls by saying:

‘I am ready to defend my convictions even unto death. In these my conclusions I have followed the sacred Scriptures and the holy doctors, and if my conclusions can be proved to be opposed to the faith, willingly will I retract them.’

But each time God protected John and, during his lifetime, he was never imprisoned or excommunicated. But after a change in leadership at Oxford University, he was forced to leave in 1381 – which led to the fruit of his final years in Lutterworth.

‘Englishmen learn Christ’s law best in English’

The last three years of John’s life in Lutterworth were extraordinary years as he led the team that translated the full Bible from the Latin Vulgate into Middle English. ‘Englishmen learn Christ’s law best in English. Moses heard God’s law in his own tongue; so did Christ’s apostles,’ John wrote in defending his translation work.

Image of John Wycliffe

John was attacked viciously, and the work of translation was called heresy. He was called ‘a child of the devil’ and Henry Knighton, a chronicler of Wycliffe’s times, wrote: ‘Wycliffe, by translating the Bible, made it the property of the masses, and even to women who were able to read… So that what used to be the highest gift of the clergy and the learned members of the church has become common to the laity.’

But John knew, from his study of the Bible, that translation was the opposite of heresy. ‘You call me a heretic because I have translated the Bible into the common tongue of the people,’ he responded. ‘Do you know whom you blaspheme? Did not the Holy Ghost give the word of God at first in the mother-tongue of the nations to whom it was addressed?’

John lived to see the translation of the Bible into English. Many handwritten copies were made (this was before the invention of the printing press), and Wycliffe’s followers distributed them, travelling around teaching people about Jesus using the Bible in English.

After his death in 1384, John’s followers suffered increased persecution as the Church tried to undo the spreading impact of the Bible in English. In 1415 Wycliffe was declared a heretic, and then in 1428 his bones were exhumed and burnt along with his books.

The Morning Star

John’s ashes were thrown into the River Swift which flows through Lutterworth. But, as the writer Fuller observed: the Swift ‘conveyed his ashes into Avon; Avon into Severn; Severn into the narrow seas; and they into the main ocean. And thus the ashes of Wycliffe are the emblem of his doctrine which now is dispersed the world over.’


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