Oh, that English Bible?

IMG_0570You probably have in your hand an English Bible, and yet you may not be aware that that Bible has a very exciting as well as sad history.  It came at the loss of many lives and at the price of much privileges, high positions, and social ranks. It came because men wanted the freedom to think and to worship God at the dictates of their conscience.

The exciting aspect of the history of the English Bible began with a Catholic theologian, born in Hipswell, England, an anti-Mendicant, who, seeing the many abuses of  his “mother church,” sought to oppose those abuses in every way he could. His name was John Wycliffe (ca. 1324-1384).

In his dream of a society where every man could have the liberty to think for himself and the freedom to read the Bible in his own tongue, John Wycliffe was not alone. Marsilius of Padua and John of Jandun (ca. 1324) were among this company. Church historians call them the early reformers. Marsilius of Padua and John of Jandun were democratic thinkers who believed that the power over life, from the cradle to the grave, should not be allowed in the hands of that man called the “Roman Pontiff,” that promoter of indulgences, that extortionist who craved for nothing but the alms offered by the relatives of the dead, who did not even have any notion what’s happening to the souls beyond the grave!

William of Occam (ca. 1300-1349) too was among them; this man believed the pope is not infallible and that he too should be subject to the authority of a council of men. Occam, like the other two before him, believed that the Bible is the only source of infallible authority over both the spiritual and physical aspects of a man’s life.

Wycliffe was a part of the Catholic Church in England. Yet, in opposing his pope, he declared that the Bible knows only two sets of positions, the eldership and the deaconship, and that the papacy, its archbishopric, its papist councils, its monastic system are all unknown in the Catholic Bible. Being a theologian, he defended the English king’s refusal to transport money from England to papal coffers (the papacy at that time was situated in Avignon, in France, and was under the domination of the King of France, a period in Roman Catholic history known as “Babylonian Captivity of the Papacy”). After the papacy was returned to Rome, with the election of two popes, one Italian and another French, Wycliffe had the privilege as a member of the embassy to visit the papal headquarters, and saw the corruption prevalent in the Roman priesthood, confirming that what he saw among the Catholic priests in the English soil was the norm rather than the exception. On his return to England, his tirades against the papacy saw no bounds. The pen was his power, and the energy of his tongue never diminished in his crusade to open the Catholic eyes to the errors of the Catholic pope.  He called the pope the anti-Christ, and argued that no Catholic priest or theologian could ever defend the papal system as scriptural even by using the Catholic Scripture.

Wycliffe was the first English reformer. History readers and history writers honor him by calling him “the morning star of the Reformation.” Yet, it must be admitted that no reform movement could succeed without some political powers helping you, protecting you, or taking up the cudgels for you. Wycliffe proved that (Martin Luther proved that later when he too started to reform his mother church in Germany). The pope at that time who was the object of Wycliffe’s religious tirades, Gregory XI, could do nothing but gnash his teeth in anger or bite his tongue in his wrath. Gregory’s 19-point long-winding anathema against the English reformer went unheeded by the Catholics of England. The English royalty, most notably John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, youngest son of King Edward III,  admired Wycliffe and the English courts could do nothing but protect the Englishman the English royalty so admired.

In his bold opposition to the pope of Rome, Wycliffe thought he could further clip the pope’s wings by making the Catholic Bible say what it truly says, minus the theologies and the dogmas that the priests mendicants and non-mendicants learned from their superiors. He began forming groups of preachers, called the Lollards, whose goal was to bring the message of the Poor Man of Galilee, not to the high class society of England consisting of  the priests and the rich men, but to the poor people of England, people with unassuming traits, whom he thought could be trusted with the riches of heaven. He wanted the ordinary man holding the plow to know more Bible than the soutaned man on the pulpit!

His deep search of the Scriptures made him reject the doctrine of transubstantiation, bringing upon him the disfavor of the chancellor of Oxford University. But he became even bolder in his denunciations of Catholic errors. He renounced the worship and adoration of relics and images, be it of Mary or Joseph or Jesus. He denounced the hiding of the truth of the gospel, and the overuse of words that meant nothing, in a language that by his time was as dead as a dead mouse and was never understood by anyone, not even by the morose monks who memorized it: Oremus vobiscum… saecula saeculorum.” He opposed the festivals in honor of  the “saints.” He criticized private masses and the ‘extreme unction.” To him the indulgences and the interdicts are blasphemous, and that purgatory was just an invention of a pope who was ignorant of the Scriptures. Monasticism? To him it was a monstrous development that was contrary to the spirit of true Christianity.  One colorful statement attributed to Wycliffe came to us, that says: “Even if a hundred popes, even if all the friars, were turned into cardinals, their statements would not matter.  Those opinions of theirs ought not to be acceded to in matters of faith except in so far as they based themselves upon Scripture” (F. W. Mattox, The Eternal Kingdom, p. 225).

His noble cause caused him his position at the university, and a synod gathered by the papal cohorts in 1382 condemned his works. The king’s courts however protected him from being arrested and lynched and he retired to Lutterworth in 1374, where he died  ten years later.

His 1380 translation was the first complete English Bible, translated literally from the Latin Vulgate. A more polished translation was done in 1395, eleven years after he died, by his followers Nicholas Hereford and John Purvey.

The Catholic Church was an angry lion that never slept. In 1401, the acts of reading the English Bible and the writings of Wycliffe the heretic became a capital offense in England, of course under a new, but much rigid environment. In 1428, thirty-one years after he died, Wycliffe’s bones were dug up from his tomb. It was one stupid act of a church that hated him so much, who hated even his bones, hated his memory. The pope who ordered that must be out of his mind! But anyway, they got their own revenge upon the man’s bones. They burned it, and had the ashes thrown for keeps into the River Severn.

The persecuting acts of the Roman church drove Wycliffe’s followers into hiding. But such only repeated the events of Acts chapter 8. Persecution could hinder, but never snuff out the fire of enthusiasm for the divine that characterize those who know the truth and love it. Those who were chased from their homes, who became sojourners in some wastelands of the world, who were in hiding, preached the Word.

John Wycliffe was truly the morning star. The light of his life, the scriptural principles he lived and died for, became the flame that would no longer be extinguished. In the years that followed, many shared the sentiments of John Wycliffe, and his influence soon reached the European continent.  More and more men with zeal and love for the Word joined the band of those who called for reforming the evil that was Catholicism. John Huss of Bohemia, the so-called “John the Baptist of the Reformation,” died at stake at the instigation of the Catholic Council of Constance. Jerome of Prague too was martyred. And the other one was Girolamo Savonarola, a Dominican priest who brought reform in the heart of Italy, in the very headquarters of the Catholic Church. He was hanged by the order of Alexander VI in 1498.

“Heaven and earth shall pass away but my word shall not,” so says the Lord. We in these modern times are a privileged lot. So privileged in fact that we seldom think of it, or we have not stopped a while and reflect on it. The preaching of the Truth had cost the life of the Son of God. That English Bible you’re holding now had been the cause of the shedding of much blood, the extinguishing of so many lives, the fall of so many from high positions.

But then, if this much would cost us to be privileged, after our faith and obedience to the Son of God, to enter heaven’s door, why worry at all.  Only the strong and the persevering make it there. Count yourself then. And be glad.

Note: I have had some emails from people asking me how to go about studying Greek. One of those who attend my Sunday Bible class, a graduate from De La Salle University, who has left Catholicism, became a Baptist and has now cast his lot with us, urges me to give him even an hour to learn Greek. The other is a preacher in Metro Manila who keeps visiting my blog, wanting something new always. I am thankful that many have now realized the need. What would be my advice?

Procure a copy of the following books: (1) Alfred Marshall’s Interlinear Greek-English New Testament. (2) The New Linguistic and Exegetical Key to the Greek New Testament, by Cleon Rogers Jr. and Cleon Rogers III. (3)  New Testament Greek for Beginners, by J. Gresham Machen. (4) Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich and Danker’s A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature.

To facilitate more information as you read and learn, download copies of my PowerPoint lessons on Greek Grammar. Click this link>>>

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