Wyclif’s Theology for the Laity

Ian Christopher Levy on Stephen E. Lahey’s Wyclif: Trialogus

Stephen E. Lahey (trans.), Wyclif: Trialogus, Cambridge University Press, 2012, 368pp., $99
Stephen E. Lahey (trans. & ed.), Wyclif: Trialogus, Cambridge University Press, 2013, 368pp., $99

The Late Middle Ages witnessed a narrowing of the divide that had traditionally separated the clerical and lay estates throughout much of the medieval period. By the fourteenth century an increasingly literate and intellectually sophisticated laity found that they could attain spiritual fulfillment apart from clerical direction, evident in the formation of such communities as the Beguines and the Brethren of the Common Life. Some lay people were even producing their own books, which exhibited a theological erudition surpassing anything one could expect of the local parish priest. Dante’s Divine Comedy may be the supreme example; one also thinks of Marguerite Porete’s Mirror of Simple Souls. Others were nonetheless interested in theological arguments and were capable of following them. Chaucer’s audience might therefore be familiar with that “greet disputisoun” (great disputation) in the schools concerning divine foreknowledge and human free will, as recounted by the Nun’s Priest, and catch the reference to the Oxford master Thomas Bradwardine.

The theological and philosophical debates of the schools were spilling over the university walls, at times to the consternation of the clerical hierarchy for whom this portended societal chaos. Making sound theology accessible to non-academics—both clerical and lay—was nonetheless consistent with the Church’s larger pastoral agenda. Numerous manuals of moral theology were composed for meagerly educated parish priests to aid them in their duties, especially in the confessional where they could offer personal guidance to their charges. Vernacular sermons and devotional works, such as those composed by fifteenth-century theologian and chancellor of the University of Paris, Jean Gerson, helped lay people (including Gerson’s own sisters) grow in the Christian life.

The Oxford theologian John Wyclif was also keen to communicate his sometimes controversial teachings to the wider public, and the Trialogus might belong to this larger effort. Originally composed in Latin, Stephen Lahey has now translated it into English. Earlier in his career, from about 1360-70, Wyclif produced fairly manageable logical and metaphysical treatises as well as some compact works on the Trinity and the Incarnation. After 1375, however, his writings began to balloon in size with varying degrees of lucidity and focus. No doubt, some of his classic works on Dominion, Holy Scripture, and the Eucharist from this period are deserving of careful attention, cementing as they did his status as a leading late medieval theorist and reformer. Yet the patient reader might have to wade through pages of repetitious or extraneous material in search of precious gems buried beneath a heap of anti-papal and anti-fraternal invective. The Trialogus, which belongs to the last years of Wyclif’s life, was one of the few exceptions to this rule. The very accessibility of the Trialogus in terms of its structure and content raises the question of audience: For whom did Wyclif compose this Latin trialogue and for what purpose?

Written c. 1382/83, and thus after his forced retirement from Oxford, Wyclif likely attempted to reach lay people outside the university walls. Academia wearied him: the persistent quest of masters for lucrative benefices, the high-handedness of canon lawyers, the charges and counter-charges of heresy. Yet the fact that the Trialogus was composed in Latin, rather than the vernacular, meant that its immediate audience (clerical or lay) still rested among the elite of fourteenth-century English society. Wyclif does not tell us whom he had in mind, but Lahey wonders whether he was writing for civil servants and the lower gentry. He reckons it more probable, however, that Wyclif intended the Trialogus as a compendium of theology drawn up for the so-called “poor preachers,” many of whom would have had at least some university education and thus could to benefit from a concise treatment of soteriology, sacraments, and moral theology, in addition to appreciating its anti-mendicant portions. This seems like a perfectly reasonable guess, for there is no good reason to doubt that the “poor preachers” or “simple priests” (sacerdotes simplices) were directly inspired by Wyclif to carry his reform agenda into the countryside.

One should note that to call these men “simple” was no judgment upon their intellectual capacities; they were ordained priests without benefices. Lacking the right connections to gain preferment, they remained poor for want of the steady income enjoyed by prelates (praelati). These “simple priests” were also denied the licenses to preach that were granted to benefice holders as well as to the friars. Hence the Trialogus may belong to a larger endeavor committed to breaking through the constraints of authorized religious communication. The general readership of the Trialogus only increased in the years following Wyclif’s death. It certainly gained currency in Bohemia among the Hussites as one might expect. But that indefatigable foe of Wycliffism, the Carmelite friar Thomas Netter, also referenced this work consistently in his own Doctrinale Fidei Catholicae in an attempt to refute Wyclif’s errors point by point. For Netter the Trialogus formed a neat summary of all that was dangerous about John Wyclif.

Lahey based his translation upon the Latin edition produced by Gotthard Lechler in 1869 for Oxford’s Clarendon Press. Lechler, for his part, relied upon four manuscripts belonging to the Austrian National Library in Vienna, all dated to the first half of the fifteenth century. Lahey also consulted a Florence manuscript [Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana Plut.XIX.33] written in an English, rather than Continental, hand. Wyclif’s Latin prose is notoriously difficult owing to rambling sentences that often lack the precision cultivated by the late medieval schoolmen. Putting such Latin into readable English presents the translator with a real challenge. Lahey made the decision to forego “a more colloquial style” in favor of “the original Latinate style.” This may have been the wiser choice inasmuch as it keeps the reader close to the text and thereby reduces the risk of misconstrual; flattening out the inherent clunkiness would often mean re-writing passages from scratch.

Roughly structured in four books like Peter Lombard’s Sentences (c. 1155), the Trialogus is less a textbook than a guidebook pursuing its own pastoral agenda. The work is framed as a conversation between Phronesis, Alithia, and Pseustis, that is to say, between Wisdom, Truth, and Falsehood: the first the master, the second his disciple, and the third a sophistical opponent. Wyclif’s adoption of the conversational style was likely intended to make the work more accessible to a broader audience. The method itself has a solid medieval pedigree; the likes of St Anselm, Peter Abelard, and William of Ockham employed it. While the material that the three interlocutors cover is wide-ranging, an abiding focus upon the foundational aspects of Christian piety unifies it.

All the hallmarks of Wyclif’s thought are found here: metaphysical realism, scriptural authority, rejection of transubstantiation, and antagonism towards the mendicant orders. Yet the space devoted to virtues and vices, which sets the stage for the seven sacraments, signals that this is a work primarily interested in promoting the Law of Christ (lex Christi), namely a simple and direct devotion based upon humility and charity. Here is a sacred rule of life that any layperson could adopt, thereby obviating the need to enter one of the Church’s authorized religious orders in search of perfection.

One will note the neat progression at the end of Book Three from the Incarnation of the Word, to the exaltation of Holy Scripture in whose pages one meets the poor and humble Christ, to the opening of Book Four where the believer enters into communion with the Word made flesh in the sacrament of the Eucharist. That the friars then come in for intense criticism at the end of the fourth book is no mere afterthought, precisely because they are regarded as enemies of this most blessed sacrament through their idolatrous corruption of the consecrated host and their denigration of Christ’s most perfect gospel law through the codification of their own rules.

Although Wyclif was rarely given to felicitous prose, every now and again one catches a glimpse of the genuine affective piety that he harbored deep within his heart. Nowhere is this more evident than when Wyclif speaks of Christ in his humility; indeed, this is where Wyclif’s affinity for Franciscanism is most evident. In Book Three, chapter twenty-five, Wyclif addresses the necessity of the Incarnation and consistently emphasizes the self-emptying act of the Second Person of the Trinity (cf. Philippians 2:7). The obedience unto death of the Divine Word that reversed the disobedience of the first man is an ancient Christian refrain, but Wyclif seems awed by this staggering sacrifice: “Who, I ask, could be sufficiently humble to outweigh Adam’s pride?”

The fact that the Trialogus concludes with a discussion of the final judgment and the state of the blessed only serves to emphasize the pastoral tenor of the whole work that leads the Christian wayfarer down the paths of virtue, strengthened by the sacraments, and into the Heavenly Jerusalem. Such a pastoral emphasis lends further credence to the possibility that this work was designed as a sort of preacher’s handbook. Here was the basic theological data that the “true priest” needed to guide him in the explanation of Christ’s Law to the English people while simultaneously fortifying him against the crafty glosses of his mendicant foes.

Medieval and early modern readers gravitated to the Trialogus for the same reason contemporary readers might: one can come away from reading it with a sense of having grasped the essential features of Wyclif’s thought. For anyone interested in exploring more deeply the intellectual underpinnings of religious sentiment in late medieval society, complete with all of its devotion and acrimony, John Wyclif’s Trialogus will repay careful study.