The Wycliffite Heresy: Authority and the Interpretation of Texts

By Kantik Ghosh | Go to book overview

1
John Wyclif and the truth
of sacred scripture

De Veritate Sacrae Scripturae1 constitutes Wyclif's most extended theoretical engagement with the nature of biblical meaning and the interpretative problems posed by biblical language. A part of his so-called Summa Theologiae, 2 it forms one of the corner-stones of his increasingly radical conceptualisation of a Church guided by an ideal lex Christi abstracted from scripture. 3 It was written around 1377–78, 4 after the first, and cataclysmic, volume of De Civili Dominio, 5 his revisionist tract on the nature of dominium and its dependence on grace. 6De Civili Dominio I resulted in Wyclif's being summoned to St Paul's in 1377 to answer charges of heresy; moreover, eighteen propositions from his book were condemned by Pope Gregory XI in a series of bulls dated 22 May 1377. William Woodford OFM wrote his Determinatio de Civili Dominio, and Nicholas Radcliffe OSB his Dialogi in refutation of Wyclif's views; a host of other monks and seculars joined in the fray. 7 Thus beleaguered, Wyclif spent most of 1377–78 answering his critics.

De Veritate, though primarily a theoretical treatise on hermeneutics, is therefore also in the nature of a polemical tract, always aware of, and often addressing directly, the contemporary disputes. As the work progresses, its tone acquires a heightened stridency, from a more or less focussed study of scriptural signification in the first fifteen chapters, to an increasingly polemical engagement with issues of heresy, ideal priesthood, papal authority and dominion in the later sections. The present chapter will concentrate on Wyclif's hermeneutic principles and arguments, though it will not lose sight of the centrality of his polemics to his theories of right reading.

Indeed, a fundamental aspect of Wyclif's hermeneutics is intimately related to contemporary political and ecclesiological conflict. Because

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