Wyclif’s legendary status as “the Morning Star of the Reformation” fails to survive Gillian Evans’ vigorous professorial investigation. Her portrait of Wyclif in John Wyclif: Myth and Reality reveals a complex and conflicted man — an irascible academic as well as a contrite cleric. His academic setting at Oxford forms the dominant background for Evans’ portrait of both the ecclesiastic and the educator. As a parish priest, Wyclif was more educated than most. In 1379 (some years after he had departed the parish ministry) he authored a book on “The Pastoral Office” in which he defined the duties of the godly pastor: to feed his sheep with God’s Word, to purge his flock of contagious spiritual disease, and to defend his flock against ravaging wolves. Evans concludes that Wyclif found pastoral ministry less than satisfying, so he returned to Oxford to pursue a Doctor of Theology degree. He was a staunch critic of absentee pastors holding a plurality of parishes and/or benefices that drew them away from their pastoral duties. Evans’ focus is so much on the educator (and, later, the public servant of the royal court) that the ecclesiastic suffers adequate coverage. This may, in part, be due to an absence of adequate documentation, the result of the ultimate condemnation and burning of Wyclif’s books in 1410. However, if a pastor, rather than an academic, were to write the biography, Wyclif’s portrait probably would include a more detailed examination of his pastoral practices for comparison with his pastoral philosophy. In De Veritate Sacrae Scripturae (“About the Truthfulness of Sacred Scriptures”) he declares that no human writing is superior to the Bible, all Christians have a right to read it, and the Scriptures are the best foundation for secular and ecclesiastical life. As far as the Wycliffite translations of the Bible into English are concerned, Evans finds no evidence of any contribution directly from the hand of Wyclif. Evans paints a dark and disappointing picture of a failed hero. On occasion Evans’ own political sensitiveness manifests itself. She appears to use this biography as the springboard for expressing her own political bitterness and/or agenda with regard to the war in Iraq. In spite of the author’s pessimistic approach and assessment, her volume is still worth reading. Every future biographer of Wyclif needs to begin with Evans’ book. It is as much an exposé of early Oxford as it is of Wyclif. The reader will find Evans’ enthusiastic study of the Middle Ages infectious.
Click on picture for link.