Thoughts on government

Daily Reading for October 30 • John Wyclif, Priest and Prophetic Witness, 1384

Like many scholars of today, Wyclif’s reputation for learning caused him to be called into government service. Popes had long claimed the right to tax clergy anywhere in the Western world. When, however, the papacy moved to France and came under the protection of the French Crown, the English began to feel that such taxes were taking their money to arm their enemies against them. In 1371, Parliament had just levied a large tax on the English clergy to help pay for the war against France when the pope levied another to finance a war to recover papal territories in Italy. Wyclif was invited to be a member of the second of two unsuccessful English delegations to Bruges to negotiate the matter with papal officials.

This involvement led Wyclif to begin to think about government. In the treatise on civil dominion in his Summa, he argued the thesis that no one in a state of sin has a right to exercise authority. God may allow someone to occupy such a position in a state of sin, but that person does so without any divine claim to the position. He drew a number of inferences from this, including the principle that Christians ought to have all things in common. Yet he applied his thesis very differently to civil and church governments. Even a bad king should be obeyed, as Christ obeyed Pilate, but “whenever an ecclesiastical community or person habitually abuses its wealth, kings, princes and temporal lords can take it away, however much it may be established by human tradition.”

By the time of publication in 1376, when Wyclif was in his mid-forties, he took the first step toward his later recognition as a heretic, that of siding with the Crown against church government at any level when the latter could be accused of using its wealth for itself rather than to help the poor. Why he chose to work out the implications of his thesis for church government alone and not for civil as well, no one knows. Needless to say, his opinions were more welcome to political than to religious leaders. As a result, Wyclif enjoyed the protection of John of Gaunt, son of the king and one of the most influential men at court. John invited him to London to preach a series of sermons against the worldliness of the bishops of London and Winchester. When the bishop of London summoned him to trail for these sermons, Wyclif was accompanied not only by four advocates but also by John and the marshal of England, and the trial ended in a riot.

From A History of Preaching by O. C. Edwards (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 2004).

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