John Wycliffe’s Pacifist Theology

I’m sick of writing about the Christian right in this country and America – their hatred of the poor, their Zionism and their insanely dangerous millennialism, in which they look forward to the last, apocalyptic war between good and evil, personified as a conflict between the Christian West and Israel on the side of good, and Communism and Islam as the armies of Satan. Here’s a bit of more inspiring theology, at least for those on the Left, from one of the seminal influences on the Reformation.

John Wycliffe has been described as ‘the Morning Star of the Reformation’. He was a late 14th-century English vicar from Yorkshire, who proposed radical reforms to combat what he saw as the corruption of the Church in his day. He was against pluralities, in which clergy held many benefices, often in widely separated parts of the country, noting that this did nothing for the Christian cure of souls. It was set up, however, partly as a way of giving the lower clergy a reasonable income because of the poverty of parts of the church at that time. He argued that the Bible should be the only source of Christian truth, and that salvation was by faith alone, not works. He demanded an end to clerical celibacy, which he said acted ‘to the great prejudice of women’ and promoted homosexuality amongst the clergy. So, not a fan of gay priests then. He also went further in his criticism of the moral right of rulers to govern us when they themselves were guilty of sin. No-one had this right, and those rulers sinning had to step down or be removed. This has been widely criticised since, as it would have made government just about impossible. But it is a severe corrective to the moral double standards of the upper classes, who saw themselves as having an absolute right to rule, often committing heinous sins and crimes themselves, while claiming their right as Christian rulers to punish and uphold moral standards to those lower down the social ladder. This attitude continued into the 17th century, when the monarchists of the British Civil War defended the monarchy on the grounds that the king, as God’s representative on Earth, was above the law, but had the duty to expound it, and so could not be tried for its breach.

He also translated the Bible into English, radical act forbidden by law in England, though perfectly acceptable elsewhere on the continent, such as France. He was not a member of the Lollards, the early radical Protestant movement that grew up around his doctrines, though he was a powerful influence on them. It was the Lollards who produced the song attacking contemporary serfdom, ‘When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?’ In the 16th century, this was taken up and inspired the German peasants in their revolt against feudal overlordship: ‘Als Adam grub und Evan spann, wer war dann der Edelmann?’ Which is an exact translation.

I got the latest Oxbow books Bargain Catalogue through the post a few weeks ago. Among the books on medieval history and culture were two of Wycliffe’s. One was on the inspiration of scripture, the other was on his pacifist theology.

The book is John Wycliffe on War and Peace by Rory Cox. The blurb for the book in the Bargain Catalogue runs:

From the writings of St. Augustine of Hippo to the fifth century, Christian justifications of war had revolved around three key criteria: just cause, proper authority and correct intention. Using Wyclif’s extensive Latin corpus, the author shows how he dismantled these three pillars of medieval “just war” doctrine, demonstrating that he created a coherent doctrine of pacifism and non-resistance which was at that time unparalleled.

200 pages, Boydell and Brewer Ltd, 2014, 97080861933259, Hardback, was £50, bargain price £12.95.

I’m not a pacifist myself, as I believe that sometimes true evil can only be combated through violence. But I’m sick of the co-option of morality to justify the terrible greed and inhuman violence of colonialism and imperialism, especially in the latest attacks on the Middle East.

I realise that many of the readers of this blog have very different attitudes to my own on religion. I’m not trying to insult anyone else’s religious views here, particularly not Roman Catholics or the atheists, who read this blog. I am simply mentioning it as many Christians of radically different denominations and confessions have over the centuries come to pacifism in disgust at the horrors of war as organised violence. I fully recognise and endorse the contemporary Roman Catholic peace movement, which I’ve blogged about before.

I’ve posted it up the news of this book, as I thought it would interest and inspire the Christian readers of this blog, who share my opinions on war. And would also act as corrective to the militant bilge coming out of the American and British religious right and their aggressive, omnicidal militarism.


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6 Responses to “John Wycliffe’s Pacifist Theology”

  1. Michelle Says:

    Interesting that those who supposedly use bible scripture as a handbook and push for an apocalypse (unveiling) ignore the fact that Jesus’ return is first to judge his own followers and that the beginning of the Revelation sets the scene by describing the state of His worldwide congregation – revealing what is really going on amongst so-called Christians.

    How convenient to then interpret all the ‘evil’ symbology as being outside the so-called Christian faith…

    • Beastrabban Says:

      Very much so, Michelle. I think other people have pointed this out as well. And Christ says in Luke’s Gospel that those who don’t do anything for the poor will be cast out as ‘goats’. A friend of mine also directed me to look at St. Paul’s comments about the necessity for higher moral standards amongst the teachers of the church, who will be judged according to higher standards than ordinary lay Christians.

      So much for all the religious right, and the grotty pastors, who defended Roy Moore, despite his blatant paedophilia. Moore was condemned by 63 progressive pastors, but the Evangelicals supported him. Because he stands for the same things they do, and hates the poor and other marginalised groups, just like they do.

      Disgusting hypocrisy.

  2. Michelle Says:

    Its a very sad blindness Beastie and in regards to the Apostle Paul some take his words as prophetic e.g. 2 Thessalonians 2:1-10 where he describes the lawlessness as working within and with a dark occult vigor.

    Still hard to believe that Christ’s simple message of empathy, forgiveness, mercy, honesty and peace has for centuries been so convoluted by a lust for power, corruption and bloodshed!

    • Beastrabban Says:

      Very, very true. And I could write a long, long piece about this. I’ve got a book lying around here, which describes the Early Christian church as a ‘revolution’. True, they didn’t end slavery, and they didn’t stand for the abolition of private property. But they were very clear about the equal status of all believers, whether bond or free, no matter how rich you were.

      I shall have to blog about this sometime. Thanks for reminding me.

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