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England And the Wycliffe Bible Part III

June 20, 2017

       We will never really know how many different Wycliffe Bibles were ultimately translated since they were burned publicly and as often as they were found.  What we do know is that Wycliffe started a process when he wrought his translation in 1382.  Today if you access the Wycliffe Bible from an online data source you will be fed the Forshall and Madden Wycliffe Bible.  Forshall and Madden were contemporaries of Westcott and Hort who in their shuffling of the 180 known manuscripts pieced together a Jerome based Middle English translation of the bible.  This sleight of hand has been sufficient to get gullible fundamentalists to declare the Wycliffe Bible to be a Jerome bible even though it makes no spiritual sense for God to have so used such a text since it would be contrary to scripture.  A Wycliffe Bible is like a leaf on the forest floor.  It might be an elm leaf, a maple, an oak or any number of varieties.  A 600-year-old Wycliffe Bible manuscript can run the gauntlet of flavors.  The editing of the Wycliffe bible was up to the public at large; no man put his name to it.  In silence and according to their conscience and with such light as they had, each editor or translator took the Latin manuscripts from their local source and altered the text as they saw fit.

       We need to stop here and take a little time to understand what a bible was in the 14th century.  The bible was rare.  When it existed it was almost always written in Latin.  It was a priceless heirloom and a work of art.  It usually existed as a religious object as opposed to a book to be studied.  Most estates or churches that had a bible really didn’t know or care whether it was a Jerome Latin text or a pre-Jerome Latin text.  Very few people ever looked to the text to understand anything, instead they read the glosses.  A gloss was a note that explained a verse or passage as the church wanted it understood.  Any bible was considered safe so long as it was properly glossed.  The great fear of mediaeval clerics wasn’t the people reading the bible in their own tongues, but the fear was them reading any bible in any language that did not have proper notes (glosses).  Approved bibles were bibles that were carefully glossed to keep the unlearned from coming to their own conclusions about what the bible said.

       Any bible which didn’t contain glosses was called bare text.  Any reading of the bible without reading the glosses was also called bare text.  Bare text was the bane of the Catholic Church.  A learned churchman of that time, Jean Gerson wrote extensively on matters of scripture.  He was the chancellor of the University of Paris in the late 14th century and early 15th.  He was considered one of the great champions of ecclesiastical reform and held great sway in the controversies of his day.  He advocated greater use of the scriptures by trained clergy but abhorred the thought of allowing the untrained to read unglossed scripture.  He wrote “Now this use of holy scripture by modern men as if holy scripture should be believed in its bare text without the help of any interpretation or explanation, is a kind of use which is attended by grave dangers and scandal…. Moreover, the errors of the Beghards and the Poor Men of Lyons and the like have sprung from this pestiferous root, and do daily increase:  because there are so many lay people who have a translation of the Bible into the vulgar tongue, to the great prejudice and of the catholic truth, and it is proposed in the scheme of reform that this should be abolished.”[1]

       Gerson’s great fear was the reading of bare text.  He lambasted the Beghards and Poor Men of Lyons (two Baptist groups preaching clandestinely throughout much of Europe) because they believed the Scriptures just as they were written.  He goes on to say “this should be abolished”.  Gerson was instrumental in the council of Pisa in 1409 which deposed the rival popes and elected Alexander V.  Alexander V is sometimes connected with the suppression of biblical translations in England[2].  Gerson’s condemnation of John Wycliffe and John Huss pointed more to their crime of believing the scriptures as they were written and less to bible translation.  He wrote about the writings of Wycliffe and Huss and conceded that their writings didn’t contradict the bible; rather they contradicted the notes in the bible.  He said of their writings; “which cannot be condemned merely by an appeal to the bare text of scripture, without reference to the expositions of the doctors.”[3]  Plainly said, Gerson found Huss’s and Wycliffe’s arguments sound when measured by the word of God, he found them heretical when compared to Catholic teaching.  The mediaeval church feared the spread of scripture which didn’t contain enough footnotes and marginal comments to disarm them.

       There existed an uneasy truce between properly glossed bibles and the Catholic hierarchy.  It was Roman Catholic Bishop Arundel who banned all translations made prior to his days.  Arundel did make exceptions for bibles that met his approval.  Accordingly, Queen Anne, originally from Prague but now wedded to Richard II the King of England[4], sent him a translation of the four gospels which contained glosses by the doctors, early church fathers.  Arundel approved that translation.  We need for a moment to understand just who Arundel was.  Arundel is the bad guy in Foxe’s Book of English Martyrs.  It is Arundel who had Wycliffe’s writings banned.  It is Arundel who imprisoned and killed those who carried Wycliffe’s work.  Yet when this same Arundel was shown a translation by John Purvey (a disciple of Wycliffe’s) he approved it since it contained proper glosses to put a Roman Catholic spin on every passage. 

       To be more exact, the glosses were also Purvey’s translation.  He had filled the margins with his own translations of the early church doctors, those which were deemed so important to the orthodox Catholic.  The inclusion of those glosses was enough to cause Arundel to not only condone the translation, but he also commended it.  Purvey himself wrote years later; “The bishop of Canterbury, Thomas Arundel, that now is, said in a sermon at Westminster, there as many hundred people, at the burying of queen Anne, of whose soul God have mercy: and in his commending of her, he said it was more joy of her than of any woman that ever he knew, for notwithstanding that she was an alien born, she had on English all of the four gospellers, with the doctors upon them.  And she had sent them unto him, and he said they were good and true, and commended her in that she was so great a lady, and an alien, and would so lowlily study in so virtuous books”[5].  So we see that the real issue at stake was not so much the people being able to read scripture for themselves, the issue was whether they should be allowed to read it without the whispers of Catholic doctrine in their ears. 

       Years later, in the 1800’s, Charles Chiniquy wrote of his unjust excommunication from the Roman Catholic Church at the hands of the crooked bishop of Chicago.  Chiniquy was reinstated to the church at the personal intervention of Napoleon III with the pope himself.  All that was required of Chiniquy to be received back into communion into the church was to write a submission to church authority.  Chiniquy made such a submission but only after stipulating that he would obey any teaching that conformed to the bible.  His submission was rejected.[6]  Chiniquy had much earlier discovered that the church fathers contradicted one another greatly.  Four hundred years after Arundel banned scripture that was not glossed, the Catholic Church was still rejecting any “bare text” reading of scripture.

       Sadly, our fundamental churches have fallen into this snare.  There are two types of King James Bible believers today.  There are the historical bible believers.  These are they who use a King James Bible because they see it as historically sound.  Then there are the doctrinal bible believers.  They are those who will submit to any doctrine the King James Bible says if the doctrine being taught agrees with the King James Bible, each verse being in its proper context, and if no other place in the bible (in its proper context) disproves that same doctrine.  My readers might be amazed if they could see how many men turn their heads from simple bible truths as written in the King James Bible, if the truth being presented seems contrary to the crowd they run with.  Their loyalty is not so much to the word of God; rather their loyalty is to the men whose praise they need to be accepted.  Their doctrine did not come from the word of God, it came by precept of man.  They carry the word of God as a prop.   

       There are two ways to find true north.  One way is an earthy way.  A compass made from elements on this earth will point to a spot on this earth that is very close to the North Pole.  The other way is by studying the heavens themselves and finding the North Star.  If I start at the equator and seek the north I can travel side by side with a man using a compass.  The closer we get to true north, the more he will pull away.  His reckoning is earthly.  Mine is heavenly.  Finally, we must part company unless I give up my heavenly bearing or he abandons his earthy bearing.  I have traveled on this earth with many a companion who carried the same bible that I carry and who professed the same God.  Yet as we drew closer to God his compass was fixed on the doctrines of men, mine was fixed on the pages of a King James Bible.  We parted company.

       It was CBS News reporter Charles Kuralt who is credited with observing that thanks to the modern Interstate Highway system a person could now drive from coast to coast without seeing anything.  Cults and repressive denominations have learned that people can be left free to read their bibles if they are steeped in other literature that explains away the bare text.  Modern fundamentalism seems to have proven that a person, armed with the Schofield notes, could read their bible from coast to coast and never really see anything new.    

 

 

 

[1] Margaret Deanesly, The Lollard Bible (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1920), 106

 

[2] Ibid,105

 

[3] Ibid, 106

 

[4] Queen Anne’s court had frequent contact with her original land of Bohemia (modern Czechoslovakia) where John Huss had lived and still had many disciples.  She was known to be friendly with such scholars.

 

[5] Ibid. 278, 279

 

[6] Charles Chiniquy, 50 Years in the Church of Rome, 1886, London, 335 (reprinted by Chick Publications, Ontario, CA.)

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