The 400th anniversary of the King James Version (KJV) provides an outstanding opportunity for the members of the PRC to marvel at the covenant faithfulness of Jehovah with respect to his gracious gift to them of the Bible in their mother tongue, in English. That it is a gift implies on the face of it that the members of the PRC have not labored, toiled, bled or died to receive it, but rather have done nothing to deserve this gift, as indeed the members of the PRC confess that they have done nothing to deserve this gift. That it is gracious means that God has bestowed it upon our churches according to the covenant favor and delight he has for us in Jesus Christ. God brought his written Word out of the bondage of the Church of Rome’s suppression of his Word not only in the Latin language of the Vulgate, but chiefly in Rome’s forbidding of the preaching of Scripture in the language of the common people; indeed, Rome’s forbidding of the preaching of it at all! In freeing his written Word, Jehovah in the first place restored the glory of Jesus Christ as the Word made flesh, and the absolutely free justification by faith alone that the elect have in his cross, to its supreme place in the church. Secondly, God freed his elect remnant in England, and later in the sixteenth-century Reformation in all Europe, from the ignorance and superstition of apostate Rome and made them to lie down beside the streams of living waters in the green pastures of his Word (Psalm 23: 2). Jehovah began this mighty work with the “morning star of the Reformation,” John Wycliffe.
How extremely dark for the truth of Jesus Christ and for the true church of Christ was the ecclesiastical situation in England before the years 1382-1395 AD! The potent and apostate Roman Catholic Church overshadowed all Europe with its church political tyranny of papal hierarchy which had its source in Rome’s spiritual tyranny—the most depraved tyranny that man can exercise over his fellow human beings—of the Semi-Pelagian doctrine of justification partly by the grace of God and partly by the will and working of man.
This Semi-Pelagian doctrine worked out in the corruption of Rome’s ecclesiastical practices. The Bible would have to go, because the Roman hierarchy could not afford the risk of the members seeing how corrupt the church really was by reading the Bible in their own language. Therefore, they withheld Scripture from the common people in their own tongue. They declared the Latin Vulgate to be the only permitted copy of the Bible, and then permitted it only to academics, theologians, and the higher clergy, who were individuals over whom the hierarchy had the most direct control. Most village priests did not even own a copy of the Bible, and were almost as frighteningly ignorant as the illiterate hordes of peasants over which they held complete control. Moreover, the prevailing version of the Vulgate at this late date of the Middle Ages was a far cry from the masterpiece crafted by Jerome from the best Hebrew and Greek manuscripts available to him and published in 405 AD. The Vulgate of this period was a corrupt revision made by a gaggle of Paris printers in the 1100s to turn a quick profit. Those who were caught attempting to free the Bible from the Latin into the language of the people could expect immediate and merciless imprisonment, torture, and execution.
This was not the worst. In 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council of the Romish Church issued the following decree, which decree not only forbids any Scripture translation into the vernacular but implies also a prohibition of exegetical preaching of Holy Writ to the common people: “The secret mysteries of the faith ought not to be explained to all men in all places…For such is the depth of divine Scripture that, not only the simple and illiterate, but even the prudent and learned are not fully sufficient to try to understand it.” Cloaking with a false show of humility their altogether devilish desire to slay their members spiritually through ignorance of God’s Word, the Romish Council of 1215 locked God’s Word into the hands of only the highest levels of learning and government in the church and banished edifying, Christ-centered preaching from the pulpits of England and all Europe. With the Bible out of the way, the church could plant and nourish the doctrines of devils in the hearts and minds of the common folk.
Rather than on the grace of God revealed in Jesus Christ as proclaimed in the gospel, the people were led to rely more and more on the Roman Church, and in particular on its seven sacraments, administered by the army of Romish clergy, as the only way to heaven. (For the Roman Church, by the way, “church” did not mean—and still today does not mean—the entire body of believers united in Jesus Christ as their head, but only the clergy of the Roman hierarchy, united in the Pope as their head.) The minds of the people were directed away from faith in Jesus Christ as the only way of salvation, and into idolatry. In the absence of preaching, images, holy pictures, and stained glass windows developed as the “books to the laity,” condemned by our Heidelberg Catechism. Dramatic plays and skits, most having some trite moral lesson, enacting biblical stories or apocryphal occurrences in the lives of saints canonized by the church were encouraged. For an exorbitant sum, which for a common English peasant was a couple of gold coins, thousands of years could be bought off of purgatory through the granting of an indulgence, a slip of paper declaring the forgiveness of a man’s sins by the Pope. The clergy championed relics as means to actually impart the grace of God through physical contact with the mere remains of some saint or holy person of the past. Awful, horrible excesses sprouted, such that some ignorant persons “scooped up and even ate dust which had gathered on the tombs of the saints…[and] took away phials of water which had been used to wash the tombs. Twelfth-century visitors to Bury St. Edmund’s Abbey [in England] had to be restrained from biting off pieces of gilt from the shrine of the martyr.” Some church officials denounced such abuses. They did not condemn the root evil of idolatry and proclaim that the Bible should be put in the common tongue and that the “lively preaching of [God’s] Word” should be heard everywhere in England.
In these days of awful darkness, God raised up a man known now as the “morning star of the Reformation” to begin the real work of bringing his Word to his English elect in their own tongue. This man was John Wycliffe.
Wycliffe, the Champion of Holy Scripture
Wycliffe was born in 1324 or 1330 (both are given as the authentic date) in a village of that name in Yorkshire, England. At age 15-16, when most young people are in their sophomore year of high school, the brilliant Wycliffe entered Oxford University, the most prestigious center of learning in England and in all Europe. But Oxford, although a great center of learning, was infested with swarms of corrupt and ignorant monks and travelling friars who lived in the cloisters and convents surrounding the campus. Through their ignorance and ungodliness, Wycliffe saw how desperately apostate and God-dishonoring the Semi-Pelagian Roman Church had become. If there would be reform, he believed it must come with the Bible being placed in the common tongue and being preached to the laity. “[John Wycliffe] had a very rugged perception of the free Bible as mighty under the hand of God to the pulling down of the strongholds of error and had a burden for their availability in the language of the people.”
In 1378, from his parish in the village of Lutterworth, Wycliffe authored a marvelous treatise entitled, in Latin, De Veritate Sacrae Scripturae, and in English ‘On the Truth of Holy Scripture,’ in which he described Scripture as “the law of Christ…the sole authority for the faith” and declared that “just as a true Christian will be one who finds his faith in the light of Scripture, so a true shepherd of Christians will be one who feeds his flock on the Word of God.”
Almost 200 years before the Reformation, Wycliffe declared “Sola Scriptura!” Scripture alone! Declaring one ‘Sola’, he declared them all: Faith alone through grace alone in Christ alone as revealed in Holy Scripture alone to the glory of God alone! John Wycliffe has been called a ‘pre-Reformer.’ In fact, he was a Reformer. The “morning star”! As a Reformer, Wycliffe:
…taught the truths of sovereign election and reprobation. Wycliffe opposed the doctrine of transubstantiation…[and] he taught a spiritual presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper, although he was not very clear on what this meant. He repudiated the practices of Rome such as indulgences, the merit of pilgrimages, penance, etc. He denied that the church had the power to forgive sins and insisted that forgiveness came only from Christ.
Wycliffe did not just teach these doctrines that we now know and love, especially that heart-beat doctrine of the church: divine predestination. He practiced them as well.