Wycliffe, Bible Translater (c. 1330-1384)

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken April 11, 1999

I am sometimes asked which translation of the Bible I recommend. If you have visited a bookstore recently, you know there are dozens of versions to choose from. The old standard is still the King James Version (KJV), first printed in 1611 and used here at the Tenth Presbyterian Church until relatively recently.

These days we use the New International Version (NIV), which is more casual in its text and translation, but also much easier to understand. There are loads of other options: the Revised Standard Version (RSV), the New American Standard Bible (NASB), the New English Bible (NEB), the New Living Translation (NLT), and so forth.

I use different translations for different reasons. The New International Version (NIV) is not my favorite, but it has become the standard version for most evangelical churches. There are certain advantages to the church sharing a common Bible. The New King James Version (NKJV) is better to read because it retains many of the elegant rhythms of the old King James.

With my own children I use the New Living Translation (NLT), although sometimes I wonder how much easier it really is to understand. The New American Standard Bible (NASB) is sometimes good to consult to get a feel for the Greek or Hebrew original. But whichever translation I use – and this is the important thing – I am confident of its basic reliability. If you use any one of the standard English Bible translations, you are reading the authoritative Word of God.

There are some problems, however, with having so many translations available. One problem is memory work. If you are familiar with more than one translation, it can become hard to remember the exact wording of a verse. As a child, I did most of my memory work in the King James Version. Now I find that I need to keep a King James Concordance handy when I am looking for a verse I can’t find in the NIV. Also, some families have difficulty because they have learned the same verse in two or three different versions. Sadly, we have lost a common Bible, a Bible everyone knows by ear and by heart.

Christians did not have that problem back in the 14th century. Instead of having the luxury of a dozen translations to choose from, the Bible was completely unavailable in English.

The man who began to change all that was John Wycliffe (c. 1330-1384), the Bible translator. Wycliffe had always recognized the authority of the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. For his doctoral work at the University of Oxford, he took the unusual step of producing a short commentary on the whole Bible. Rather than spending his time studying what philosophers and theologians were saying about the Bible, he wanted to study the Bible itself, in its original languages.

Wycliffe’s study of the Bible eventually led him into direct conflict with the Roman Catholic church, which in those days took a dim view of studying the Bible. Wycliffe argued that the church was wrong to add its own doctrines to the those taught in Holy Scripture. He believed that the Bible, and the Bible alone, is the only standard in matters of Christian theology and practice. Thus he heeded the biblical proverb which says, “Every word of God is flawless… . Do not add to his words, or he will rebuke you and prove you a liar” (Prov. 30:5-6).

Wycliffe’s study of the Bible eventually led him into other areas of disagreement with the church in Rome. He denied that the Scripture gave any doctrinal authority to the pope. He doubted whether there was any biblical precedent for monasteries. He opposed the Catholic idea that Christ was physically present in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.

Wycliffe preached boldly on all these matters. He also taught the necessity of having personal faith in Jesus Christ, which means that he believed two major Reformation doctrines even before there was a Reformation: sola Scriptura (the Bible alone) and sola fide (by faith alone).

What Wycliffe chiefly is remembered for, however, is making the Bible available in English. It is hard to explain why the church resisted translating the Bible for so long. The Catholics did finally issue portions of the Bible in English in 1582. Yet they doubted whether it was really necessary to put the Bible into words people could understand. In their preface, they wrote: “Yet we must not imagine that in the primitive Church… the translated Bibles into the vulgar tongues, were in the hands of every husbandman, artificer, prentice, boys, girls, mistress, maid, man… . No, in those better times men were neither so ill, nor so curious of themselves, so to abuse the blessed book of Christ” [Reims Bible, in David Daniell, William Tyndale: A Biography (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), 95]. In other words, ordinary folks can’t be trusted to read the Bible for themselves.

Wycliffe knew better, of course, which is why he did much of his preaching in English. Inspired by his example, it was his followers who produced an English version of the Old Testament during the 1380’s. A number of copies of that manuscript were made, but it would take more than a century until the whole Bible was actually printed in English.

The reason for the delay is not hard to find: According to the Catholic Constitutions of Oxford (1408), no one was allowed to translate the Bible into English, upon pain of death. That order was not defied until William Tyndale finally published his English New Testament in 1526. Tyndale was burned at the stake, of course, but the work of Bible translation could not be stopped. Miles Coverdale produced an edition of the entire Bible in 1535, and a number of other translations were made before King James authorized the version published in 1611.

At the end of the twentieth century there are many Bibles available in English. Maybe too many. But there was a time when there were no versions at all. Anyone who reads the Bible in English owes John Wycliffe a debt of gratitude, for he was the first to give us the Word of God in a language we can understand.

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