G.R. Evans’ John Wyclif: Myth & Reality

“Wyclif,” writes G.R. Evans at the end of the Preface to her John Wyclif: Myth & Reality, “may not be lovable, but he deserves sympathy and a kind of respect.  What kind, and for what, the reader may judge from the following pages” (p.11).  Based on the pages that follow her Preface, I would say that the respect Evans appears to think Wyclif deserves is minimal at best.  Two-hundred-and-forty-five pages later, Evans concludes her biography with this:  “History gains rather than loses when it becomes possible to treat a hero as a complex and fallible human being, with all the dimensions which enrich as much as they challenge the earlier, simpler pictures of the man who was hero and villain” (p.256).  True enough.  Balance is important.  It’s unfortunate that this book didn’t seem to have much.

Let me stop before I’m guilty of being as unfair to Evans as she occasionally appears to be to Wyclif.  The book is very well written, even if it is fairly tedious at times.  The problem seems to be the scant biographical evidence that actually exists on Wyclif, at least the kind of interesting and anecdotal personal information that has become the staple of the genre in modern times.  This is, in fact, a historical and intellectual biography of the enigmatic figure that has been called (Evans believes naively) “The Morning Star of the Reformation.”

And, to be fair yet again, Evans does make her case very well that what biographical work has been done on Wyclif (and there has not been very much at all) has tended to be hagiographical.  That’s common enough.  Such romanticizing and glossing is common in John Foxe, for instance, as well as in the writings of those who wish to present the Reformation, and, in the case of Wyclif, its precursors as a monolithic movement of like-minded saints driven by pure conviction and principle.

Evans demonstrates that this is, indeed, naïve when it comes to Wyclif.  Wyclif was an enigmatic figure:  an Oxford intellectual who appears to have smarted about being passed over for career advancement in the heady intellectual, ecclesiastical, and civil crosscurrents that intersected in and around 14th century Oxford.  Evans also demonstrates clearly enough that Wyclif was prone to brooding, bitterness, and anger.

I cannot help but believe, though, that Evans overplays her hand.  Time and again we are told that Wyclif is bitter, that Wyclif is angry, that Wyclif seemed unable to pull himself out of a pit or resentment.  When Wyclif returns to a favorite theme of his – that true religion is, as James said, caring for the orphan and widow – Evans opines that there’s no real evidence of any concrete philanthropic tendencies in Wyclif and that his appeal to this definition of true religion was more a polemic against the friars and religious orders he detested as being predatory and parasitic on the laity than an actual conviction that this was, in fact, the true nature of religion.  In fact, Evans suggested that most of Wyclif’s positive assertions were probably, in fact, responses to his enemies and not so much positive convictions.

We are told that Wyclif’s views of Scripture really weren’t so revolutionary.  There were plenty of others who wanted the Word to be made available to the people.  Regardless, Evans assures us, it’s unlikely that Wyclif actually did any translation work himself anyway.  We are told that he was a snobbish preacher, insulting the congregations he should be nurturing.  We are told that he drove most or all of his friends away, that he was inconsistent in what he thought should be and in what he actually did.  We are told that, in most respects, he was a typical medieval scholastic.  We are told, in essence, that Wyclif was essentially a man of his times…which does seem odd indeed.

In short, I believe that Evans goes too far even while making an overall helpful contribution to Wyclif studies.  Her appeal for biographical balance seems to lean towards the negative in ways that are disheartening.  We do not need to naively gloss our heroes.  And it’s probably true that Wyclif’s role as a pre-Reformer has been glossed in this way.  But without Evans’ consistent meanderings that probably what Wyclif was actually writing and arguing was driven more by anger than conviction, we would probably see from the same raw data that Evans presents that Wyclif’s views were, in a very real sense, precursors to what would become the fully bloomed doctrines of the Reformation two hundred years later.

It seems to me an uncharitable way to do biography.  But, you will learn a great (excruciating?) deal about the workings of Oxford as well as of Wyclif’s own views.  You will get some fascinating insights into the tumultuous religious, political, and intellectual landscape of Wyclif’s day.

Was Wyclif “The Morning Star of the Reformation”?  It’s a bit hard to say after reading Evans’ biography.  He was an imperfect man, prone to fits of temper, but he did articulate Reformation tenets in a pre-Reformation era in ways that were compelling and admirable.

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