The Lord Gave the Word – Commemorating the 400th Anniversary of the King James Version (3) John Wycliffe and the Beginning of the English Bible (2)

Wycliffe’s Translating

Wycliffe put the truth of “feed[ing] his flock on the Word of God”[2] into practice. First, he preached God’s Word faithfully for his congregation at Lutterworth, especially after his expulsion from Oxford in 1382. Secondly, he trained hundreds of men—only men—and sent them out from his parish in Lutterworth two-by-two to bring God’s Word throughout England. The authorities of the Roman Church in England scornfully referred to them as “Lollards”[3] and persecuted them grievously. Third, Wycliffe began the process of the translation of the Bible into English.

There is debate today as to whether Wycliffe himself actually translated the versions of Scripture known as the “Wycliffite Bibles.” We are not interested in the details of this debate, but will take the position that seems most credible, as it is presented by Stephen Prescott: “With his massive literary output and his scholarly circle of disciples at hand, we might envisage [Wycliffe] organizing, overseeing, correcting, and editing the work, and probably also undertaking parts of it himself, and the result was the ‘First [Wycliffe]’ version of 1380.”[4]

And if someone should complain that there is not sufficient evidence to sustain the position that Wycliffe himself translated at all, then we fall on the correct assessment of British scholar and professor Gordon Campbell: “The translation was certainly inspired by [Wycliffe], so, even if he was not directly involved in the translation, it is rightly known as the ‘Wycliffite Bible.’”[5]

The Wycliffe translations were of two versions. The first was made between 1380-82 by Nicholas Hereford, a student and friend of Wycliffe at Oxford and a fellow of Queen’s College, Cambridge. (A “fellow” was a student incorporated into the governing body of a college and thereby entitled to certain privileges.) Hereford translated literally, following the word order of the Latin so closely that the meaning of the text was often obscured and effectively rendered useless for use by laypersons in private reading. The second, superior version was made in 1395, eleven years after Wycliffe’s death, by his personal secretary John Purvey. Purvey made better use of English idiom; that is, he used English phrases in English word order to render a fluid and understandable text. He also provided a prologue and epilogue for each book of the Bible, as well as a General Prologue for the entire translation, and introduced marginal notes from the writings of church fathers such as Nicholas of Lyra and Augustine of Hippo, and from the writings of Dr. Robert Grosseteste, a professor first of Wycliffe and later of Purvey himself at Oxford,[6] whose teaching had helped to formulate their mature view of Holy Writ. The nearly 170 hand-written (manuscript) copies of the Wycliffe Bible that survive are mostly of the version by John Purvey.[7]

The Importance of the Wycliffe Bibles

The importance of the Wycliffe Bibles is two-fold.

First, the translations of Wycliffe and his colleagues were the first ever English translations of the complete Bible. In the early ecclesiastical history of England, before the Romish Church had tightened her suffocating grip on the realm, there were many translations of portions of Scripture into the very crude English of that period, especially of the Psalms and the four Gospels. Wycliffe, due in no small part to the instruction of Dr. Grosseteste, recognized that God’s Word is a unified whole, united in both the Old and New Testaments in Jesus Christ: in the Old Testament as Christ prophesied and looked-for as Israel’s hope and expectation; and in the New Testament as Christ incarnated, crucified, risen, ascended, and hoped-for in His final, triumphant coming for judgment. Therefore, Wycliffe saw to it that the entire Vulgate was translated into English.

Second, Wycliffe’s translation approached more to the method of translation known today as formal equivalence. That is, Wycliffe insisted upon a careful, word-for-word (Latin: verbum pro verbo) translation from the Latin into the English. For one Latin word, there was only the required number of English words. Words, not thoughts or “senses,” were translated. The translation of thoughts or “senses” of passages, instead of actual words, was the practice widely followed in the making of the earlier, fragmentary English translations of Scripture portions, which translations were often poetic settings or paraphrases of a passage. The translation of thoughts or “senses” is the shoddy method of dynamic equivalence, followed in the making of most, if not all, modern Bible versions. Wycliffe would have repudiated, indeed did repudiate, such nonsense. His carefully formulated doctrine of Scripture as God’s Word to his church demanded that he insist upon a careful, word-for-word, literal translation from the Latin to the English.[8] If the meaning should in some places be obscured, then let the travelling Lollard preacher sort it out for the people in his expository preaching on the text!

The Wycliffe translations were not perfect. Their single greatest weakness was that they were not based on the original languages of the Bible—Hebrew for the Old Testament and Greek for the New—but on the Latin of the Vulgate, and crude Latin at that. In as much as they were based on the Latin Vulgate, his translations also incorporated the errors of the Vulgate into English. However, in its weakness we may perhaps see its greatest strength: they emphasized the great need for translations based on the original languages. More than two centuries later God would raise up William Tyndale, John Rogers, Miles Coverdale, and the King James men to supply this need.

“Open to the Understanding of Simple Men”

Despite their defects, the Wycliffe Bibles undoubtedly provided that sincere milk of the Word and the meat and drink of righteousness after which the beleaguered and starved souls of God’s remnant in England hungered and thirsted with an all-consuming fervor. Now truly “open to the understanding of simple men”[9] was God’s holy Word: to the peasant in his thatched hut, to the cloth merchant in London, even to the heretofore mostly ignorant village priest, whose knowledge of the Scripture often extended no further than the fragments of the Latin Vulgate he could salvage from his hurried mumbling through the Mass. Wycliffe’s translation stood in high demand. The martyrologist John Foxe (1516-1587) tells us that the folk paid whatever was necessary with whatever was at hand to obtain even a small portion of God’s Word in their mother tongue; in order “to taste the sweetness of God’s Holy Word…some paid more, some less; some gave a load of hay for a few chapters of St. Paul or St. James.”[10] Moreover, after the prohibition of God’s Word into English by Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Arundel (1353-1414), when even having a copy of a Wycliffe Bible in one’s position was grounds for death, Lollard “cells” still fearlessly gathered in each others’ homes to read Scripture, to pray together around God’s Word, or listen to a sermon from a travelling Lollard preacher. Truly, “the word of the Lord was precious in those days” (I Samuel 3:1).

“That Wretched and Pestilent Fellow…John Wycliffe”

What was so precious to God’s people in England, namely, that they should have their God speaking to them in their own tongue, was odious in the nostrils of the papist church authorities, and they wickedly opposed his doctrine and the out-working of that doctrine in his work of bringing the Bible into the common tongue.

In 1380, when the first Wycliffe edition by Nicholas Hereford appeared, a canon (a member of the cathedral council) of the city of Leicester, Henry Knighton, complained that Wycliffe had made holy scripture “more open to the reading of laymen and women than it had previously been to the best instructed among the clergy; and thus the jewel of clerics is turned to the sport of the laity, and the pearl of the Gospel is scattered abroad and trodden underfoot by swine.”[11] Benson Bobrick, in his scholarly and comprehensive history of the English Bible: Wide As The Waters, notes in connection with this fuming of Knighton: “Such fears, of course, were not unfounded, as ignorant, confused, and twisted interpretations can be imposed on any text.”[12] This reinforces what we noted in our opening article to this series. Such “ignorant, confused, and twisted interpretations” are avoided through the church’s formulation of creeds, which clearly and antithetically define for the church of Jesus Christ what the Word of God is and summarize and interpret for the people what the Word of God teaches.

No doubt with the calumny of Knighton in mind, Wycliffe offered a spirited defense of his work in 1381, in a work entitled “The Wicket.” He wrote:

They say it is heresy to speak of the Holy Scriptures in English, and so they would condemn the Holy Ghost, who gave it in tongues to the apostles of Christ, to speak the word of God in all languages that were ordained of God under heaven, as it is written [in Acts 11]. And…Christ was so merciful as to send the Holy Ghost to heathen men [Acts 8], and make them partakers of the blessed Word, why, then, should it be taken away from this land, that are Christian men?”[13]

But it would be hard to find a man who hated Wycliffe and his Bible more than Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Arundel. Although his tenure as Archbishop of Canterbury occurred after Wycliffe’s death, this did not spare Arundel from having to deal with the full force of Wycliffe’s work as the Lollards grew in number and in efficiency. In 1408, Arundel convened a council of bishops at Oxford, and high on the agenda was how to deal with the Lollard problem. The “final solution” the council produced took the form of a “draconian set of laws,”[14] the so-called Constitutions of Oxford. Article VII of these Constitutions read in part: “We therefore command and ordain that henceforth no one translate on his own authority any text of Holy Scripture into English…and that no one read anything of this kind [that is, a translation of Holy Scripture into English—JL] made in the time of the said John Wycliffe…either publicly or privately, whole or in part.”[15] And in a 1412 letter to the pope listing no less than 267 purported heresies of John Wycliffe which Arundel considered “worthy of the fire,” he fumed insanely: “That wretched and pestilent fellow, son of the Serpent, herald and child of Antichrist, John Wycliffe, filled up the measure of his malice by devising the expedient of a new translation of Scripture into the mother tongue.[16] The translation of Holy Writ into the language of the people was, in Arundel’s estimation and Rome’s, John Wycliffe’s filling of his own cup of iniquity! Such was and is Rome’s hatred of the Scripture! And such was and is Rome’s hatred of the one, true God who reveals Himself in the Scriptures!

At last, Rome could contain herself no longer. The apostate whore of the Romish Church would not rest until she had done her worst to John Wycliffe, who had shed the light of the gospel on the people and exposed her dark and deep apostasy for all to see. God had protected his servant Wycliffe in life from harm at the hands of Rome. For although they had expelled him in 1382, the authorities of Oxford had done so reluctantly, and for the remaining two years of his life had continued to pull the necessary strings to see that no evil came upon him. But Rome was determined to get him. If not while he was living, then when he was dead. At the Council of Constance in 1428, the council which condemned the Bohemian reformer John Hus to burning at the stake, Rome also condemned the corpse of John Wycliffe to the same fate. In a grotesque ritual in the dead of the night, Wycliffe’s body was exhumed from its 44-year repose in St. Mary’s Churchyard at Lutterworth and burned. His ashes were then scattered on the River Swift.


However, God determined that Wycliffe’s ashes, forlornly borne on the currents of the Swift River (called the “Avon” in the poem below), became not the picture of his defeat but a metaphor for his triumph. As his ashes floated widely, so the English Bible whose translation he sponsored had spread through the realm. And his doctrine, founded upon the Word of God, spread beyond the borders of England and would preserve the flame of true faith in God and in Christ Jesus until the day in which God ordained full reformation should break upon Europe. Therefore, this prophecy arose: “The Avon to the Severn runs/ The Severn to the sea/ And Wycliffe’s dust shall spread abroad/ Wide as the waters be.”[17]