Geschichte, the German noun, a form of verb geschehen, which means to happen, refers to history as an event. History is defined as an incident, an actual event or happening in time and space resulting from human action. We often hear the phrase, "history repeats itself". But does it really? It would be safe to say that history in itself cannot be exactly repeated but nuances, patterns and parallels that seem to be the same appear in a different context and time. A second definition of history is information. Information relating to an incident usually relates to indirect information about the past in the form of a document or an object related to an incident.
History, the English word, came from the Greek word histore. Used by the Greeks, it was used to mean inquiry or investigation. Used by Paul in Galatians 1:18 to describe his interview with Peter in Jerusalem lead to its third meaning as inquiry or research. It also meant to find data or information about the past.
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Archaeological digs and explorations prove man's curiosity for our history, our past. Christians especially have a special interest in history due to the fact that the very foundations of their faith are rooted in history. Christians have proclaimed through the ages that it is in Jesus Christ and for our salvation that God has entered human history in a very unique way. In John 1:14, it was clearly stated that Jesus became flesh and dwelt among us. The Old Testament and New Testament books of the Bible give us a narrative of God's grand design for a people to worship Him. It shows in different forms of literary genres God's plan for man and His redemptive plan for salvation in the person of Jesus Christ. History is crucial for understanding not only the life of Jesus Christ but also the entire biblical message. The Bible gives us the story of God's revelation in the life and history of the people of God and also the story of the redemptive love of God. History is more than an incident or a movement. History is the seamless fabric that binds each and every man's life to a purpose. It is absolute and objective and can only be known directly and fully by God. It is a history of the deeds of the Holy Spirit in and through men and women who have gone before in their faith.
"It is wholly remarkable that a Jew, who lived in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire and suffered a disgraceful death on a cross, should have inspired a movement that spread throughout the world and transformed countless lives."
There will be episodes in the course of our history that we shall see the action of the Holy Spirit. We shall find people who have not only used the faith for gain or for personal power but there were also those Christians who loved, studied and copied the Scriptures and thus left us a with a legacy. These early Christians bequeathed more than text of scripture to us; they left a legacy of illuminating records of their faithfulness in a God that they believed in the most diverse circumstances. In times, of persecution, some witnessed with their blood. They died for the cause of their faith. There are others who used their faith for power. There were times when it seemed that others have lost their faith in God. We are heirs to these diverse and even contradictory lives. We may find some of their actions revolting but others we can always find inspiring.
By understanding our past we are able to understand who we are and how we are today. The history of man cannot be separated from the history of his religious life. It is by studying church history that we sense the unity in the true body of Christ throughout the ages. through a continuous stream of events within the framework of space and time. History and Christianity are inseparable.
One of the primary values of church history is that it links past factual data of the Christian gospel with the future proclamation and application that helps modern day Christians create an understanding of our heritage. Church history shows the Spirit of God in action through the church. History provides the explanation of the present. We understand the present much better when we have knowledge of the past. It is, therefore, in the study of these stages of history that we will get a glimpse of the man who is remembered primarily for being the catalyst in translating the Word of God from Latin to English. This report is intended to link the different stages of church history to the particular point in time when John Wycliffe set the stage for the early stages of reformation.
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Stages of Church History
Early and Imperial church history, (5B.C.-A.D. 590) is the environment in which Christianity emerged. The foundation of the church in Christ's life, death and resurrection especially it's founding with the Jews is important to understanding the beginning of Christianity. The gradual growth of Christianity preceded the carrying of the gospel to the Gentiles by Paul and the emergence of Christianity as a sect distinct from Judaism. It is characterized by the leading of the apostles in this period. In the year 100-313, not only did they had to deal with external factors such as continued persecution of the Roman state but they also had to deal with the internal issues of heresy . In the years 313 to 590, the church had to face problems that arose out of its reconciliation with the state of Constantine and its union with the state at the time of Emperor Theodosius. Since Christians did not have the time to work out their dogma there followed a period of creedal controversy. It was during this period of institutional development that the office of the bishop was strengthened and the Roman Bishop grew in power. This era reveals the growth of the apostolic church into the Old Catholic Imperial church and the beginning of the Roman Catholic system.
Medieval church History which spans 590-1517 depicts a shift from Southern Europe to Northern and Western Europe. Emphasis will be given to the Medieval Church History period as such since it is in this era that we see the rise of the papacy which brought about the call for Reform. The fall of the Western Roman Empire ushered in a new era of independent kingdoms. In addition to the challenges presented by these migrations, the Western also had to take on the task of evangelizing the hordes of Teutonic tribes to Christianity and also to integrate Greco-Roman culture and Christianity with Teutonic institution. The church was faced with not only the challenge of converting those who accepted Arian Christianity but also the winning of the pagans and the challenge of the rival religion of Islam. Gradually, alliances between the pope and the Tetons took place. It was the Pontificate of Gregory that marked visibly the transition from ancient to medieval History. He became the symbol of the new medieval world in which culture was institutionalized within the church that was dominated by the Bishop of Rome. It was also during this period that the schism within the church occurred. The first great schism in Christianity broke the unity of the church. the Roman Catholic Church and the Greek /Orthodox Church went their separate ways.
Through the leadership of Gregory VII and Innocent III the medieval Roman Catholic Church reached the peak of its power. It successfully enforced its claims to supremacy over the state. The papacy exercised great temporal power between 1054 and 1305. Between Hildebrand and Innocent II, they were able to humble the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, force rulers of rising nations to do their will. It was during this peak that the papacy inspired the early crusades. Through the rise of universities and scholasticism the intellectual foundation of the papal power was strengthened. Through monastic reform, the pope was able to raise many zealous monks who were his obedient servants. By the close of the 13th century all structures were in place that would characterize the Roman Catholic Church. In the autumn of the middle ages, the popes replaced the emperors as leaders of Christendom.
The decline in the papacy happened primarily between 1309-1439. There were several factors that contributed to the decline. First, The failure of the clergy to live up to the expectation of the laity. There was a decline in clerical morals, the clerics paid more attention to their secular responsibilities more than to their spiritual responsibilities. Feudalism became a problem because of the dual allegiance to the pope and the feudal lord.
Secondly, the Babylonian Captivity and the Great Schism. The Babylonian captivity (1309-77) was a period were Clement V, chosen as the pope was under the influence of the French King, thus moved to France in 1305. The papal residence was maintained at Avignon until 1377 thus ending the Babylonian Captivity. The great Schism occurred when Clement VII moved the capital again to Avignon for the second time. These two events increased the clamor among the learned for reform within the Roman Catholic Church.
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Another reason for the decline of the papacy was the practice of papal taxation. The people of Europe were taxed to support two papal courts. The powerful rulers of national states and the strong middle class resented the drain of wealth form the national treasuries to the papal treasury which were made up of income coming from papal estates, tithes, annates, Peter's pence and so forth.
The rise of National states opposed the idea of universal sovereignty inherent in the concepts of the Holy Roman Empire and the Roman Catholic Church. The king and the middle class people formed an alliance that benefited each other. The king with his national army gave the middle class people the security they needed so they can carry on their business safely; the middle class in turn gave money so that the king could run the state effectively. This created a strong, centralized nation-state strong enough to defy the Pope.
The recurrence of mysticism played a very crucial turning point in the decline of the papacy. Mysticism is based on the belief that the mystical experience is a key aspect of religious life. The mystic's main objective is to have immediate apprehension of God in the extra rational way. The development of Christian mysticism was influenced by Gnosticism. From there, it inherited the tradition of ascetism and monasticism. It was during the period of the Babylonian captivity, when the pope was residence in Avignon that mystics more interested in an attempt to return to the ideal of the church as presented in the New Testament that such reformers as John Wycliffe and John Hus were able to capitalize on nationalistic antipapal sentiment. It was in this era of ecclesiasticism that John Wycliffe appeared.
John Wycliffe is remembered as "The Morning Star of the reformation", the first light and one of Oxford University's last great medieval Schoolmen. He was recognized as the greatest philosopher of the 14th century. It was assumed that the reformation started with Martin Luther but such was not the case. John Wycliffe was an English Statesman as well as a theologian. In 1374, on a commission from the English government, he was sent to Brugess to discuss with the representatives of Gregory XI a number of points in dispute between the king and the pope. Through this he established a political connection with John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, which later became one of his avid supporters.
John Wycliffe was probably born between 1320-1324. There is uncertainty about the exact date of his birth but it is very clear that he was native of Yorkshire. He was a master of scholastic philosophy and theology. In a time, when nominalism was gaining ground, Wycliffe was the realist. He was influenced by Augustinian views and through him, Plato. It was his attitude in the practical and political questions of Evangelical poverty and Church government which gave him influence. Wycliffe spent the major part of his career as student and teacher, chiefly within the confines of Oxford. He was involved in the debates among the school men, held various ecclesiastical appointments outside of the university which was his means of livelihood. Through this he was able to pursue his university studies. He presided over a rural parish in Leicestershire, England nearer to libraries and his scholars.
Wycliffe wanted to reform the Roman church by the elimination of immoral clergymen and stripping it of property which he felt was the basis of corruption in the Roman Catholic Church. John Wycliffe asserted that ecclesiastical leadership should be based on morality that God gave the use and possession of property, not ownership to church leaders as a trust to be used for God's glory. He also took on the view that if the ecclesiastics failed to fulfill their functions, then the civil authorities has sufficient reasons to take the property away from them and give it to someone who would serve God dutifully. He claimed that all dominion comes equally form God and should be rightfully exercised in obedience to God. He responded that the Word of God, the spiritual authority from which he acts shows no basis for the church to possess extreme material wealth.
Wycliffe also claimed that formal membership in an ecclesiastical body does not guarantee salvation. He taught that the church is the spiritual company of believers with Jesus Christ at its head. That salvation is between the individual and Jesus Christ and that the pope of the Roman Catholic Church is only the temporal head of the church. He asserted that the Bible instead of the church was the sole authority of the believers and that the church should model itself after the pattern of the New Testament churches.(Robert G Clouse 2002) He challenged a number of Roman Catholic doctrines with arguments that would lay the foundation for the Protestant reformation 100 years later. John spoke against the monastic system, the sale of indulgences for the forgiveness of sins, the doctrines of baptismal regeneration.
Through his teachings, John Wycliffe incurred the wrath of the powerful Bishop of London and the Archbishop of Canterbury. Their efforts in 1378 to stop him were thwarted when the Princess of Wales and the London crowd interceded in his favor In Oxford in the latter years of his life, Wycliffe's views became more and more radical. He started not only questioning but started attacking the doctrine of Transubstantiation of the Roman Catholic Church. The Roman Catholic Church's teaching is that in the Eucharist, the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus Christ. This doctrine is so basic to the Catholic Church that an attack on it is an attack on the Mass which is the center of Roman Catholic worship. He referred to the "Host" as "merely a sign". John Wycliffe claimed that Jesus Christ is the foundation of the church and not the doctrines set by the Roman Catholic Church.
This open denial of a doctrine that was so central to every Roman Catholic led to Wycliffe's loss of popularity. He lost the support of his friend, John of Gaunt and other notable supporters. As John Wycliffe's world crumbled, the church hierarchy saw in him a threat to the authority of the pope. Shortly after, the peasant's revolts occurred and Wycliffe was blamed for the occurrence because of his blatant support and partiality to the poor. Bishop Courtney assumed the position of Archbishop when the Archbishop was killed by the peasants. He didn't waste any time in putting pressure on Wycliffe. He instituted several mandates that forced Oxford university authorities to take actions against Wycliffe. The plan was to cutoff John Wycliffe from Oxford, Wycliffe base of studying, preaching and teaching. To cut him off form everything that he stood for. He lost liberty to preach and teach within the walls of the university.
Facing such a crisis, John Wycliffe turned to God. There comes a time in someone's life that a great loss, in Wycliffe's case, the loss of his teaching and learning privileges that God provides a great opportunity for someone to reassess one's life and discover new direction. It was turning point in his career and life.
In 1381, an Oxford council of doctors condemned his teachings on the Blessed Eucharist. In such circumstances, Wycliffe retired to Lutterworth. In obedience to what he felt was God's direction, Wycliffe set about the task of translating all the Holy Scriptures into the language of the people, English. Wycliffe felt that the church's authority has eroded due to man's ignorance and corruption. He also claimed that how can the clergy preach and teach the Word of God when they don't even know and understand their Latin. Towards the end of his life, Wycliffe organized the Order of the Poor Priests" or preachers. John Wycliffe started to send his band of "poor priests", who were usually laymen whose sole purpose was to take the Bible to the poor peasants in the countryside. This movement was called "Lollards" They traveled around in long reddish-brown gowns. As a result of their work, many became believers. The church condemned John Wycliffe and all his itinerant priests. They were hunted down, suppressed, persecuted, and imprisoned.
The greatest of all of Wycliffe's work was his efforts to translate the Bible into English. Wycliffe believed that all his people must be able to read or listen to the word of God in their native tongue so they could learn the truth of God. Thus, Wycliffe and his close associates started the monumental task of translating the entire Bible into English for the first time. They translated from Jerome's Vulgate, the authoritative Latin translation of the bible dating back to the 4th century. John Wycliffe voiced the opinion that with the translation of the Word of God into English, it can be abused, misused or misinterpreted. He felt though that nothing should stand in the way of giving the Word of God as the spirit directs to his people. It will take and require understanding by the reader but he believed it must be done.
The Bible was in the vernacular of Latin as translated by Jerome called the Vulgate. The Roman Catholic Church used the Latin Bible only but refused to have it translated in the language of the people. Wycliffe did not know Hebrew or Greek thus had to make his translation form Latin. All Scripture had to be written by hand for there were no printing press at the time. It was the poor preachers that took portions of the translated bible in their travels and read them to men and women who were willing to listen.
Three years after John Wycliffe came to Lutterworth, John Wycliffe died of a stroke in New Years Eve 1384. Although, unorthodox and even unorganized in their ways, the Lollards carried on imperfect the traditions of Wycliffe's teachings. It was in his spiritual inheritor John Hus of Bohemia that John Wycliffe paved the way for the reformation of the church.
In was however, in the 15th century, 31 years after John Wycliffe death in Constance, Germany that the leading religious and political leaders came to discuss at least in part the influence of John Wycliffe. Thus in 1415, 31 years after his death the council condemned all of John Wycliffe's teachings and ordered that his bones be dugout , burned and scatters, They ended up scattering his ashes into the river Swift.It was their though that by burning his bones, they can eradicate the memories of John Wycliffe.
There is much debate as to what role, Wycliffe played in the translation that now bears his name. No one doubts, however, that John Wycliffe was the leading movement which started the translation of the bible which led to the widespread version of an English bible. The English Bible was produced between 1380 and 1384 and was a very literal and word for word translation of the text used by the church throughout Europe at that time. Wycliffe believed that everyone shout be able to read God's law in his native English. He urged every man to be acquainted with God's law by reading the bible.
After Wycliffe's death a second version of his Bible was completed by John Purvey late in the 14th Century. This version was much easier to read which greatly increased its demand.
Wycliffe presented a life of meekness and humility in Christ. God had appointed Wycliffe to do His work. It is a work of evangelism rooted in the translation of the Bible to the common language. He not only translated the bible but he also created missionary endeavors. I would say that the movement of his itinerant priests is a form of missionary work. He laid the great work of the Reformation. The foundation he laid was deep and so brad that it didn't need any more reconstruction. The great movement which Wycliffe inaugurated liberated the conscience and the intellect and as such set nations free. This is the source of the stream of blessings. Today there are thousands and thousands of people that have been impacted by the translation that he so piously pursued. He had a missionary heart. He accepted the Scriptures with implicit faith as the inspired revelation of God's will. He taught that the bible is the perfect revelation of God's will and that the Holy Spirit gives us the divine revelation of God's will and purpose for each and every one of his children. There were none before him from whose work he could shape his system of reform. It came from within him. He was like John the Baptist, the predecessor to accomplish a special mission. Whereas John the Baptist heralded the arrival of Jesus the Messiah, John Wycliffe heralded a new era. He was by no means the perfect man , but he lived his life in complete fidelity to the Word of God. He stood boldly in the defense of truth. In all simplicity, Wycliffe thought to give the Word of God to his own time and people but in fact laid the foundation for the permanence and excellence of the English language.)(Condit n.d.)
The character of Wycliffe is a testimony to the educating, transforming power of the Holy Spirit. It is in the Bible that we are who we are. In Genesis 1:26, God said " let us create man in our image, in our image let us create man" We are created in God's image. An image of purity and love. It is through the study of the Bible we get to know the mind of God and the mind of Christ. We receive God's knowledge. We eat the words that we read and put it in our hearts. The study of the bible ennobles our every thought, our feelings and aspirations as no other study can. It gives us stability, purpose, patience, courage and fortitude. It is through the study of the Holy Scriptures that the mind of the student through the mind's eye comes in direct contact with the infinite mind. Psalm 119:130 reads" The entrance of Thy Word gives light; it gives understanding." Jesus, the God became flesh is that light. The Word of God refines our character and sanctifies our soul. This is the legacy of John Wycliffe.
Today, Scripture exists in over 2500 of the 6860 languages used in earth(Wycliffe Bible Society, 2010). According to the Wycliffe Bible Society there are about 4.7 billion people who have Bible in their first language, 542 million people have at least the New Testament and some portions of the Old Testament. Scripture exists in over 2500 of the 6860 languages used on Earth.
Wycliffe International, a global alliance of organizations in over 50 nations is one of the key international organizations involved with Scripture translation into languages where it has not been previously available. Although work has begun for many of the people groups who still do not have God's Word in their language and further work is still needed. Current estimates suggest around 340. Bible translation is only one facet of the overarching mission of God. Wycliffe International's desire is that all peoples have access to, understand and apply God's Word so God may be glorified in every language of the world.
Since Wycliffe's beginnings in 1942, Wycliffe personnel have been involved in the translation of 745 complete New Testaments and 27 complete Bibles, potentially impacting around 114 million people speaking 704 languagesWycliffe personnel have also worked with others in the production of Faith Comes By Hearing audio Scriptures in 211 languages, The JESUS Film in 225 languages, some or all of the Luke video in 237 languages and some or all of the Genesis video in 86 languages. Wycliffe personnel have also helped produce thousands of resources for literacy, education, health and other development-related goals. There at of last count, 45 Wycliffe organizations responsible for approximately 6500 affiliated staff working alongside many partner organizations, individuals from local communities and national organizations working in languages from 98 countries.Â .(Wycliffe bible Society, 2010)
In 1999, when Wycliffe and partners adopted Vision 2025, we reported our involvement in almost 1100 of the 1500 translation programs known to be in progress. Between 1999 and 2010 Wycliffe personnel have helped in the translation of more than 200 New Testaments and begun new work in more than 670 languages. Wycliffe staff are currently involved in 1525 active language programs representing 2.6 billion people. Additional work is being undertaken by other organizations in a further 500 languages.