The Work of John Wycliffe (Doctrinal Bible Church in Huntsville, Alabama)

History of the English Bible (Doctrinal Bible Church in Huntsville, Alabama)  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented   •  1:11:55
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The History of the English Bible: The Work of John Wycliffe-Lesson # 1


Doctrinal Bible Church

Pastor-Teacher Bill Wenstrom

Wednesday April 12, 2023

The History of the English Bible: The Work of John Wycliffe

Lesson # 1

The history of the English Bible involves bloodshed, religion and politics as well as intrigue.

There is no literary work in history which has had as much influence on the English language as the translation of the Bible.

Many men have shed their blood in order that other English speaking men and women might have a translation of the Bible.

The history of the English Bible is intrinsically tied to Protestantism since the latter is of the conviction that the Bible in its original languages is the Christian’s ultimate authority and not any ecclesiastical body such as the Pope or college of cardinals in the Roman Catholic church.

Also, Protestantism is of the conviction that the Bible teaches that every Christian is a royal priest which gives them the privilege and responsibility of knowing God and His will and this requires that each believer has a translation of the Bible in his or her own language whatever it may be.

Therefore, Protestants have translated the Bible into English and other languages more than any other religious group of any religion.

They believe that Christians should be people of the Book since it is essential to our faith.

The Word of God must be taught and obeyed.

The Christian can only know God and His will through understanding and obeying the Bible.

Christians cannot worship or glorify God without the Bible.

It could be justifiably said that the translation of the English Bible began the day when Martin Luther, who was an Augustinian monk, challenged the Catholic church hierarchy of his day by posting 95 complaints on the door of the Wittenberg Church in Germany or in other words, it began when Protestantism was born.

This is clearly indicated by the fact that Protestantism teaches that the Bible is the church’s ultimate authority and not tradition or personalities or even one’s own personal experience.

Also, Protestantism teaches that the priesthood of every believer gives them the privilege and the responsibility to know God and His will as it is revealed in the Scriptures and so consequently, every Christian needs to have access to the Scriptures in his or her own language.

Therefore, it should not be surprising that Protestants more than any other religious group which calls itself Christian have translated the Scriptures and promote the idea that every Christian should have the Word of God in their own language.

Dr. Dan Wallace writes “The Bible is indispensable to our faith. Not just theoretically, but practically. Not just through preaching and teaching, but through one’s own individual reading and study. Since the Bible is God’s revelation of himself to us, we cannot know him without knowing it. Without the Scriptures, the God you worship is the god of your imagination.”

We begin our study of the history of the English Bible with a man named John Wycliffe and before his arrival on the pages of history, only small portions of the Bible were translated into English which traces its roots back to approximately 600 A.D.

The Psalms and a portion of the Gospels had been translated within a hundred years of the advent of the English language.

The translation of the Gospel of John was completed in 735 A.D. by Venerable Bede and then 165 years later, King Alfred the Great translated a portion of the Pentateuch.

During this period others translated the Gospels or the Psalms but not much more than this.

So it appears that there was no translation of the Bible into English for over 300 years and the reason for this was the Norman Invasion in 1066 and so consequently for the next three centuries English was very rarely used for any written documents.

Those who were Noblemen would write in French during this period which was the language of the upper class and elite.

Official church documents were composed in Latin and the English language was used only by peasants.

Then a shining light appeared on the scene in fourteenth century England which was in great turmoil since in 1348 the Black Death or the Bubonic Plague struck England resulting in one of out four people dying from the disease.

The Papacy was experiencing a great crisis as well and the Popes were exiled to Avignon, France for nearly three quarters of the century.

Furthermore the church of England was in trouble since the best positions in government were often give to the clergy which caused resentment among the nobles who desired these positions for themselves.

During these dark days, one would be rebuffed severely for asking a priest about determining God’s will for your life.

The priest would not answer and he only read the Bible in Latin and specifically only those portions for the liturgy of the Mass and in fact, priests never read the whole Bible.

But it was during these dark days that the “morningstar of the Reformation” appeared on the scene and his name was John Wycliffe who was born sometime between 1325 and 1330.

He was educated at Oxford where he earned his doctorate in theology in his 40’s in 1372 and in fact, he was the preeminent theologian of his day even though he was a Roman Catholic priest.

He spoke against the excesses of the church hierarchy, declaring that they did not have any special rights even though he in fact belonged to their class and he based his views on Scripture alone.

Wycliffe confronted the unbiblical practices of the Roman Catholic church because he rejected the doctrine of transubstantiation which contends that the bread and wine of Communion literally become the flesh and blood of Christ and he even rejected all church hierarchy including papal authority and infallibility.

Wycliffe was of the conviction that the Bible rather than the Pope was the Christian’s ultimate authority but as a result of his efforts he was fired from his position at Oxford in 1382.

During his lifetime, five papal edicts were issued for his arrest but he found protection in England since she was distancing herself from Rome and he died of natural causes in 1384 and was buried in the Luttenworth church which he pastored.

Wycliffe had the conviction that each Christian is accountable to God and if this was the case, each Christian needed to have the Bible translated into their own language.

He wrote “Those Heretics who pretend that the laity need not know God’s law but that the knowledge which priests have had imparted to them by word of mouth is sufficient, do not deserve to be listened to. For Holy Scriptures is the faith of the Church, and the more widely its true meaning becomes known the better it will be. Therefore since the laity should know the faith, it should be taught in whatever language is most easily comprehended… [After all,] Christ and His apostles taught the people in the language best known to them.

This man was the driving force behind the translation of the New Testament into English which was accomplished in 1382 but it appears he did very little of the translation but possessed great influence over the project.

The Old Testament was done by others exclusively.

Those who followed Wycliffe and shared his passion were known as “Lollards” who were poor Oxford scholars who proclaimed the Word of God but they had a great impact on the common people of England because of their devotion to Christ.

Within decades after Wycliffe’s death, they were burned at the stake with some even having their Bibles hanging from their necks to be burned with them.

The text that Wycliffe and his associates translated from was not the original Greek and Hebrew but rather the Latin Vulgate which was the official Bible in western Europe from the late fourth century on and the production of a great scholar named Jerome.

Pope Damasus ordered him to produce a translation of the Bible into Latin since Greek had begun to die out in western Europe after Constantine moved the capital of the Roman Empire to the east.

Latin became the language of the people of the western portion of the Empire.

With the arrival of the Middle Ages, Greek was completely unknown in western Europe and in fact, it would not be studied in any university until 1458 at the University of Paris.

The entire clergy in the west learned Latin for a thousand years and never Greek and Hebrew.

In regards to longevity, the Latin Vulgate is the most influential translation of the Bible in history and even more influential than the King James Bible.

Wallace writes “And as good as the Latin Vulgate was, there were severe shortcomings in its translation. For one thing, Latin does not have the definite article. That is a gift that the Greeks gave to Europe. But the article occurs in the Greek NT almost 20,000 times—understanding its use is vital for hundreds of passages. And yet, Wycliffe knew none of this, since he only used the Latin text as his base.”

There were two editions of the Wycliffe Bible, one in 1382 and in 1395 and the second edition was through his assistant, John Purvey.

Their English translation was very literal even to the point of retaining the Latin word order when it made no sense in English.

This illustrates that a “word for word” translation is not an accurate translation because the meaning of the original is not communicated clearly in this kind of approach to translation.

Though it had shortcomings, the Wycliffe translation was a significant step since it was the first complete Bible in English.

Specifically it was the first complete Bible in any modern European language.

Furthermore, it indirectly began to dismantle the power structures of the political and religious machinery of the Roman Catholic church in the sense that lay people no longer needed to rely on the priests to access God.

They now could know God’s will and even hold accountable their religious leaders.

It is therefore no surprise that by 1408, reading the Bible was outlawed.

If you owned a copy, you risked your life and liberty.

Amazingly in 1415 the Pope decreed that Wycliffe’s bones should be dug up, burned and the ashes scattered on the River Swift.

Such was the influence of Wycliffe and his translation.

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