John Wycliffe – Donatism Never Dies?

By late-Middle Ages, the institutional Catholic Church had seen its share of schismatic groups and internal disputes.  However, new debates typically centered on the reincarnations of long-tried issues.  New circumstances brought renewed expressions or nuances, yet the essential questions often remained the same.  Prominent among such recurring topics, the need for clerical holiness and purity was again brought to bear by the English proto-reformer John Wycliffe.

The essential question, whether or not absolute purity and holiness were requisite of clergy, and if the acts of impure clergy were invalid, has been an issue for the Church since the cessation of Roman persecutions in the fourth century.  The Donatists held the affirmative, that absolute holiness was required of ministers, and that their acts’ validity rested upon such personal integrity.  The Church later condemned this position as heretical, explaining that the sacramental works of the priest (i.e. Baptism and Eucharist) were dependent upon Christ’s action and presence, rather than the minister’s personal state.  However, rarely has an official proclamation laid a contested issue to rest quickly.

John Wycliffe lived from 1320 to 1384, was born in Yorkshire, and waged his academic career in philosophy at Oxford.  The general intellectual climate was nominalist (that linguistic constructions are relative, and God is not limited by our terminology-hampered logic), and the papacy remained powerful.  In contrast to such a zeitgeist, Wycliffe adhered to a strict realist philosophy, wherein he believed that universals surely existed beyond mere constructs of the mind.  Moreover, in a neo-donatist spirit, he criticized the institutional Church as a poor and corrupted reflection of its original mission, pointing to the Avignon Papacy and centuries of political entanglements.  Wycliffe argued that the Church’s integrity had been utterly compromised by such actions, and that its sacramental authority was in jeopardy (or lost) if a return to grace was not accomplished.  While inspired by contemporary events, his formula can be easily linked to the donatists who went before.

Together with his argument for radical egalitarianism, cooperation with the translations movement, and a denial of transubstantiation, Wycliffe may be easily understood as a proto-reformer.  He pointed to the ills of his age and attempted to formulate a radical remedy.  However, as is often the case, old ideas often find themselves at home in new controversies.  Dormant for centuries, donatism found its place in public debate restored with John Wycliffe and his Lollard successors.

Works Cited

Bragg, Melvyn, host. “Wyclif and the Lollards.” In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg (MP3 podcast). BBC. Accessed October 12, 2014.

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