WYCLIF stands out in the Middle Ages both for his emphasis on the primacy of “Goddis Lawe” and his itemized denunciation of the ecclesiastical hierarchy. The latter he held responsible, together with the later mendicant orders, for the prostitution of Gospel and sacraments and the full-scale exploitation of the faithful. His stress on the vernacular Bible, the responsibility of all Christians to know God’s Word, and the charge laid on all the clergy for its preaching are typified below. The first sermon is translated by Dr. Marie Edel from Wyc.Sew.Ar. I, 261-62, 264-66. Succeeding ones are from Wyc.Wr.Brs. 225-27, 218-20, 220-23. Cf. Wyc.Sew.Ar. II, 17-19, 339-41, 342-45.
This gospel sums up briefly the idea aforesaid and tells how men shall watch, and especially bishops. First Christ bids three things to those that are in orders: first, he bids that we shall see, and then, that we shall watch, and thirdly, that we shall pray, to continue the first two. The first is needful for prelates; for just as the sense of sight of all the senses shows a man to be most watchful, so sight of God’s law makes a man most watchful unto God. For this law is faith, that man should be most studious in. Christ bids that man should see, not vanities of the world, nor the unstable law of man, for both these sights harm men, but the law of Christ that is the book of life, and God’s word, Jesus Christ. And so here we are bidden to aim our first sense at God. Of the second sense David says (Ps. 85:8; D. 84:9) that he will hear what God speaks in him, for he is certain of faith that God speaks peace to his people. And so if bulls1 command war, to kill man for an unknown reason, either it is not God’s command, or the people are the devil’s people. Of the third sense Paul says (II Cor. 2:15) that he and his fellows are a sweet savor of Christ unto God, for they follow Christ in living. Of the fourth sense the Psalm (34:8; D. 33:9) says: Taste ye and understand that the Lord is sweet, and other, worldly things are bitter; for although they seem sweet at first, the end of them is bitter as wormwood. Of the fifth sense Christ says (Matt. 11:29-30): Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me these two lessons, that I am mild and meek of heart; for my yoke is sweet and soft, and my burden is light enough, since it draws men upward, and puts not down to hell. And so we should watch well, and rest these five senses in God; for though a man have all faith that God’s law teaches wheresoever, unless he watch in charity, all sight of this man is nothing. And, therefore, the second word bids that we shall watch wholly unto God. And since we cannot continue in this unless God continue his grace, therefore, the third word commands that we should pray for this grace. . . .
The reason that Christ gives why we should watch thus is told before by Matthew (24:42), that we never know when the Lord will 252 come. For ye never know, says Christ (Mark 13:33-34), when is the time to watch; as a man that went on a pilgrimage left his house, and gave authority to his servants for every work in his house, and bade his porter watch well. This man that went on a pilgrimage is Jesus Christ, both God and man, and he left the goods of his Church in men’s hands after him. And so all the goods of this world he has put into men’s hands, but especially into prelates’ hands; whom he bids to keep his Church, and especially souls, that they should keep and teach them by God’s law. Since Christ’s Church is men that shall afterward be saved in heaven, and these men have here all this world, and much more these great prelates, these should keep all God’s works, and in every way watch in charity. For they should be fishers to God, and open and shut the door of heaven by the keys that God has given, solely for profit to the Church. Thus it seems to many that no man should take prelacy or cure of souls except in great dread lest they prove incapable before God and such men as should be damned, and the sheep should be saved. For in that case, their desire for prelacy does them much harm of soul, especially if they take such cure for gain or worldly worship; for God gives work enough to men, and especially to his priests, to whom he gives power and understanding to govern his Church according to his law; whereto men should take more care, since this is hard and great enough. Thus, Peter and the other apostles took care of Christ’s Church, and not by choosing of man and jurisdiction such as it now used.
But it is a fearful thing that priests now keep filth and vanity, and to this is their intent, and to this end they shape laws. For the law that Christ has given, and the choice that he has chosen, would be enough to govern his Church without laws now made. The office of preaching the Gospel, with a few other sacraments, would be service light and sufficient for such priests to keep; and this Peter and Paul did and the other apostles every one. They strove not for man’s choice, nor for jurisdiction, for the Church was not yet endowed to take these worldly goods, but to take reward from Christ for good keeping of his Church. And not only have such priests keeping of Christ’s Church, but kings and princes of this world, as Isidore bears witness. So each man to whom God gives power and understanding to know his will should, in proportion to his power and understanding, profit Christ’s Church; for God will require this strictly of all such 253 men on the Day of Judgment. For God has given these men such power to serve God thus on earth, and to profit their Mother Holy Church, whom they should help. And this bond is strict enough even if men made no other bond, for this binds each man to profit his Mother. What need is there to make new bonds which do more harm than good and which man can neither cut nor loose, unless God order them specially?
And to this end Christ bids men watch, and especially for this reason (Mark 13:35-37): for they know not when the lord of this house shall come, at the time of man’s death nor at the time of his Last Judgment. Then he shall speak concerning this responsibility most sharply of all. For this responsibility he charges most, since he loves his Church more than any person in it, and he bade all to worship this Mother, both in the old law and in the new. Because God shall come privily to these two judgments at a time unknown to men, therefore he is said to come in the night. A night is divided into four hours, evening and midnight, cockcrow and morning; and all these hours are unknown. For if we go from our life to our death in the four hours, or from time to the Last Judgment in the four hours . . ., we know never how near or far is the coming of this Lord. And at all times, if we will be saved, we must wake from sin, so that we may not be found at that time in dead sleep. For the trump shall wake us, either to bliss or to pain. And this Lord shall condemn all that he shall then find sleeping; for each man that shall be saved shall be clean at the Day of Judgment. Thus Christ speaks generally, to print this love in all men’s hearts. What I say to you I say to all. — watch ye (Mark 13:37).
This gospel tells how Christ preached. Jesus went out in power of the Spirit into Galilee (Luke 4:14). True men hold as belief, that the Holy Ghost led Jesus whithersoever he went, and in what deeds soever he did. And fame went out through all the land of him; and Christ taught in their synagogues, and was magnified of them all. And Christ came to Nazareth, where he was nourished; and he entered, according to his custom on Saturday, into a synagogue (vss. 14:16). And hereof Christian men take custom to preach on Sunday; for it comes to us for sabbath instead of Saturday, as Luke saith here. And so should priests follow Christ’s example, preaching on the sabbath, that is Sunday.
And Christ rose up to read; and the book of Isaiah the prophet was given him to read. As Christ turned the book, he found the place where it is written, The Spirit of the Lord is upon me; wherefore he anointed me to preach, he sent me to poor men. And so the Holy Ghost bade me preach to prisoners forgiveness, and to blind men sight; to lead broken men into remission, to preach the year that the Lord accepteth (vss. 16:19). This preaching now is all disused and turned to pride and covetousness. For however men may please the people, and win them worship with money, that they preach, and put back the profit of the people’s souls. This book was ordained of God to be read in this place; for all things that befell to Christ were ordained to come thus. And so men say that Christ had the office of all ministers in the church.
And Christ praised Isaiah much, and these things read by Christ have better order than we can tell. For the Holy Ghost was on Christ, both in his body and in his soul, since Christ was both God and man, and by his manhood led of God. And therefore this Spirit anointed Christ with God’s grace as fully as any man might be anointed. And thus Christ must needs preach to meek men that would take it. 255 For this is the best deed that man doth here to his brethren. And so Christ preached to prisoners the forgiving of their sins; and to men blind in knowledge, sight to know the will of God, and to lead broken men in forgiveness of their travail. And Christ preached the year of our Lord that was acceptable to himself. For he made the year of jubilee; and the day of giving of mercy and bliss was preached of Christ. And so all these words sound mercy and comfort of Christ, to men that are in prison here, for old sins that they have done.
And when Christ had folded this book he gave it to the minister, and he sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were looking to him. And Christ began to say to them, this day is this writing fulfilled in your eyes (vss. 20:21), on me; for Isaiah said these words as a man that prophesied of Christ. And all men gave him witness, and all wondered at the words of grace that came forth of his mouth (vs. 21). Of this deed of Christ men take that it is lawful for to write and afterward to read a sermon, for thus did Christ our Lord and Master; for if men may thus turn the people, what should hinder them to have this manner? Surely travail of the preacher, or the name of having of good understanding should not be the end of preaching, but profit to the souls of the people. And however this end cometh best, is most pleasing to God. And curious preaching of Latin is full far from this end, for many preach themselves, and fail to preach Jesus Christ; and so sermons do less good than they did in meek times.
In this epistle Paul teaches by many reasons how his gospel is to be praised of true men, for the fruit of bliss that cometh thereof; and the word evengele, or gospel, means good tidings of bliss. And 256 thus not only the four gospels, but the epistles of Paul and of the other apostles are called gospel here and in many other places. And thus men are out of belief that deny that these are gospels. And therefore saith Paul, Here I make known to you the gospel that I have preached to you; the which ye have received, in which gospel ye stand yet, and by which, if God well, ye shall be saved (vss. 1-2).
And thus may true man see how this gospel is to be praised for many reasons, by the fruit that springeth to men by this gospel. First, by authority of God who spake this. For precious liquor and precious vessel, should be praised of them that take it. This liquor is wisdom of God. And this liquor should be thought of more dear worth than oil of toms; for it healeth men’s souls more than such oil healeth men’s bodies. And right taking of this knowledge is another reason to praise it. And since it raiseth up man’s soul, and maketh it thus stand in belief, Paul tells us the third reason why men should praise this gospel.
The fourth reason that Paul giveth of the praising of this gospel is, that it is a nigh mean to save men in bliss of heaven. And Paul boasteth not here of this gospel for his person, but by reason of his God, of whom this gospel sprung by grace. And this should move true men to take this gospel and leave fables. And Paul telleth hereafter of this gospel how men should last therein. For else his travail thereabout were idle and without fruit. For the praising of God’s word, and holding thereof in man’s mind, should be to produce belief in men, and thereby bring forth good works. And Paul saith, Unless this follow, they have believed here in vain (I Cor. 15:2). As clerks say, that travail is vain of which cometh not the good end, that men should shape to come thereof by the grace and ordinance of God.
And thus saith Paul, For what reason should I have preached thus to you, and ye should have holden this lore, but for coming of this end? And if this end come not, ye have believed here in vain. I betook first to you lore that I have taken of God, that Christ was dead for our sins (vss. 2-3), after the witness of holy writ; and better witness may none be, for then must God witness it. Christ died not for his own sin, as thieves die for their sin; but Christ, our brother, that might not sin, died for sin that others have done. And both righteousness of God and grace, and saving of men, moved Christ to die thus. And not only sin of men, for then Christ had died for nought and 257 idly without cause. I told you more of belief, how that Christ was after buried, and how he rose on the third day, by the witness of holy writ (vs. 4). And that this belief was written in the book of life, and men’s souls, and also dead bodies.
Paul calls it many scriptures; and Paul tells of six degrees, by which Christ was seen to live after that he was dead. And this faith should be believed in. Paul telleth that Peter saw him, and after him all the apostles; and after when Christ went up to heaven, more than five hundred of men saw him together (vss. 5-6). For they were warned before hereof, and therefore more came to see this. And some of them lived to the time of Paul, and some of them were dead before. And after was Christ seen of James, and afterward of all the apostles. And at last of all was Christ seen by Paul (vss. 6-8). And thus Paul, as a child that was born out of time, destroyed the sin of the synagogue; as some children when they are born are the death of the mother. So thus Paul destroyed the synagogue when he came to Christ’s church.
Paul saith meekly of himself, that he is the least of apostles; that he is not worthy of himself for to be called an apostle, for he pursued God’s church (vs. 9). Here we should understand that Paul saith truth as he should, since none should tell falsehood for any cause. Paul saith that he is least of apostles in his own counting; for Paul was wonderfully meek; and he tells how he came by grace after others. And the cause of this unworthiness is, that he pursued God’s church. And therefore saith Paul after, By grace of God I am that I am (vs. 10). And thus he is not worthy even to be called a Christian man. But nevertheless the grace of God was not idle in St. Paul. For it moved him to profit to the church, which he had harmed before. And thus men may praise God in the gifts that he hath given them. But think we how Paul travailed for to get worship to God, and let us follow him, inasmuch as Paul thus followed Christ.
Paul telleth of the excellency of the grace of the new law over the grace of the old law, to come lightlier to heaven. And Paul begins thus, We have such trust by Christ as the best mean to God, that we are not sufficient to think aught of ourselves, but our sufficiency is wholly of God (vss. 4-5). For since man’s thinking seems most to be in his power among his works, and yet his thought must come of God, surely more each other work of man. It is known that no creature may do aright, but if God do it first, and help his creature to do it. And since we have a better procurator, in time of grace, to pray to God, than men had in the old law, no wonder if this time be better. And thus should we put off pride, and wholly trust in Jesus Christ. For he that may not think of himself, may do nought of himself; but all our sufficiency is of God, by the means of Jesus Christ. And since Christ is both God and man, he is both Judge and Procurator. And these words are belief, since each power is of God. And so each sufficiency of man must necessarily be given of God. And if thou grudge here again, and say that man doth evil works, and God doth all that a man doth, and so God doth many evils; true men grant concerning God, that each creature of the world, whether it be good or evil, is made of God, Lord of all; but sin which is no creature, but default of man or angel, is not made of our God, since to do it is to fail towards God. But if sin were a creature that might be of itself, then sin must needs be made of God, and man might make that it were sin.
This mediator, Christ, made apostles and their vicars fit servants of the new law (vs. 6). And this advancement is great, for it is holden a great grace to be a pope or other prelate; but it is a thousand fold more grace to be a minister as Christ hath ordained, for the gain is more, and the service more holy. For since the New Testament is the last law of God, and bringeth men next to heaven; these ministers bring men by grace that God himself giveth, and worketh thus with 259 these ministers. And this is a fit and a high service that priests should have; but if they keep not well this office, none are fouler traitors than they. And great diversity is betwixt them, and priests of the old law; for priests of the old law did figure of the grace that now is done by Christ. And therefore saith Paul here, that priests of the new law work now, not by letter, but by the Spirit (vs. 6) that God giveth. And this word men understand thus, that priests in the new law have pleasant service and light, and are not killers of beasts, as were the priests of the old law; but the grace that they figured, is now made of God by his priests. And therefore saith Paul, that priests work now, not by letter, but by Spirit.
And here antichrist’s tyrants speak against the new law, and say that literal knowledge of it should never be taken, but spiritual knowledge. And they feign this spiritual knowledge after the wicked will that they have. And thus these four sects are about to destroy literal knowledge of God’s law, which should be the first and the most, by which the church should be ruled. And against this knowledge antichrist argues many ways that holy writ is false. And so they say there is another meaning than this literal meaning that thou hast given. And this is a doubtful meaning which I will choose to give. And thus authority of holy writ fails by antichrist. But Paul saith to this intent, that if in the time of grace the letter of the old law is taken, and held that it should ever last, as it lasted for that time, it slayeth men in a spiritual manner; for it hindereth men of the belief that they are now bearer to bliss than they were in the old law, by the coming of Christ in the time of grace. But leave we these heresies, and believe we that many things were commanded the fathers of the old law, as types of things to come in time of grace. And these figures shall we understand spiritually, for else literal understanding will slay man’s soul by unbelief.
But spiritual understanding quickens man’s soul by right belief. And if thou wilt know the ground to judge of these understandings, begin at Christian man’s belief, and believe that Christ hath now lived here, as it was figured in the old law, and look not for it as yet to come. And so each word of the new law that speaketh of the virtue of Christ, and to charity of his church, should be taken according to the letter. And therefore, as Augustine tells, heretics are condemned who denied the literal meaning for understanding God’s 260 law. And thus saith Paul after, that if the serving of death written by letters in stones was in glory of Moses, so that the children of Israel might not look into his face, for the glory of his shining, that was soon after done away, how much more the spiritual service (vss. 7-8) of Christian priests shall be in this time in glory; since this glory is more, and increases into bliss. And if men would understand the reason that Paul maketh here, it were needful to know how the face of Moses shined, when he came down out of Sinai, and gave the law written in stones, and so the people durst not look into Moses’ face that was shining with light. And thus their spiritual eyes were hid when they looked to this Moses; but he hid his shining face, and the people spake then to him. And since Christ in the new law printed it in his apostles’ hearts, much more their spiritual service should be in glory than was Moses. For printing in their souls was better than printing in the stones; and the shining of grace of Christ passed bodily shining in Moses’ face. And this service in Moses’ law is called serving of death. For many had death of soul, and death of body always followed this serving. But serving in the new law quickens some till they come to bliss. And thus this writing in letters was not equal to writing in men’s souls.
Paul afterwards makes mention of another knowledge; that if the service of condemning of many was to the glory of Moses, much more the service of righteousness to Christ’s children should be for glory (vs. 9). As though it were said, Since this hid figure that brought men but far from bliss, was of so much glory and worship to men that had but little belief, much more the law of Christ, and the service that his priests do, should be in more worship and joy, since it is near to the state of bliss.
1 Official papal letters.