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Recent work in Philosophy and Theology

With several notable exceptions, Wyclif’s thought has usually been studied to define, interpret, or distinguish it from the work of his contemporaries or heretical followers. While this remains a frequent goal, studies over about the past half-decade indicate that scholars are attending to his philosophy apart from his heretical or proto-heretical doctrines on (for instance) dominion or the eucharist. Many of these studies might be used this way, of course, but that’s not usually their explicit goal. A second notable fact of this work is that anglophone scholars are again being joined by continental researchers in analyzing his work. Interest in Wyclif and his followers has been by and large concentrated in England and the U.S. ever since German research into Wyclif (and Wycliffite) language and thought died out in the early twentieth century, around the time that the Wyclif Society stopped publishing its editions. This is no longer so.

The work below is generally in chronological order. If I have missed any work, or if there is more to say about these, please add a comment or send along a note (via the link in the footer).


Levy, A Companion to John Wyclif

There are two new general discussions of his life and work, though both are much more than merely introductory. The first is A Companion to John Wyclif, edited by Ian Levy and published in 2006. This volume is far too large to summarize here; instead of doing so, here is adobe9icon.png its table of contents. As a helpful reference Levy includes a list of Wyclif’s Latin works taken from Williell Thompson’s catalogue.

The second is Stephen Lahey’s new comprehensive philosophical study John Wyclif, published in the fall of 2008 and (thankfully) offered by Oxford in paperback at a reasonable price. Lahey’s volume proceeds generally along a biographical timeline of his work, but is more precisely a discussion of his philosophy rather than his life. On this book see this earlier post.

[Other recommended introductions to his philosophy include the essays in Catto and Evans’s volume The History of the University of Oxford, vol. 2: “Late Medieval Oxford,” Alessandro Conti’s essay published by the Stanford History of Philosophy, and the volumes published by Anthony Kenny. The biographical studies described in an earlier post will also be a help.]

Next to these, there have been many focused analyses of his thought in about the last half-decade.

In 2004, Gianmaria Zamagni published an essay entitled “Per scalam sapientiae: L’ermeneutica metafisica di John Wyclif” in Dianoia: Annali di Storia della Filosofia, a journal which has published several articles on Wyclif. According to her abstract, “this contribution aims to explain some complexities of John Wyclif’s hermeneutics tracing it back into its metaphysical background. The first step is the full comprehension of the theologian’s interpretation of the ‘philological’ problem of biblical codices: they were, in the fourteenth century, under sharp scholastic attack. In light of the fivefold typology of real universals, the five meanings of Scripture can be understood, and the problematic ontological statute of the ‘codices’ themselves has its significance in a ladder leading to the Scripture intended as ‘Liber vite,’ the Book of Life.”

in 2005 Laurent Cesalli published “Le ‘pan propositionnalisme’ de Jean Wyclif” in Vivarium, a second continental journal which has published several articles on Wyclif. This article, along with essays by Conti and Spade, listed next, appears in an issue of Vivarium dedicated to medieval realism; other essays in the volume, aside from these three, specifically concern Scotus, and Holcot. According to the Cesalli’s abstract, “This paper shows how Wyclif is able at the same time (i) to claim that whatever is is a proposition (‘pan-propositionalism’) and (ii) to develop a nontrivial theory of propositional truth and falsity. The study has two parts: 1) Starting from Wyclif’s fivefold propositional typology—including a propositio realis (real proposition) and a sic esse sicut propositio significat (a fact)—we will analyse (a) the three different kinds of real predication, (b) the distinction between primary and secondary signification of propositions (the latter being an instantiation of the former) and (c) the status of logical truth as opposed to (but depending on) metaphysical truth. Furthermore, the notion of ens logicum (as intermediate between statements and facts) will be compared to Walter Burley’s propositio in re of which it appears to be a close analogon. 2) The second part deals with two semantic and metaphysical implications of the ‘pan-propositionalism’: (a) the extended notion of being (ampliatio entis) called upon to explain the truth of so-called non-standard propositions (e.g. past, future, modal) and (b) the relation between contents of the divine mind as ‘arch-truth-makers’ and eternal as well as contingent truths.”



Alessandro Conti’s contribution to this issue is “Johannes Sharpe’s Ontology and Semantics: Oxford Realism Revisited.” According to the abstract, “The German Johannes Sharpe is the most important and original author of the so called “Oxford Realists”: his semantic and metaphysical theories are the end product of the two main medieval philosophical traditions, realism and nominalism, for he contributed to the new form of realism inaugurated by Wyclif, but was receptive to many nominalist criticisms. Starting from the main thesis of Wyclif’s metaphysics, that the universal and individual are really identical but formally distinct, Oxford Realists introduced a new type of predication, based on a partial identity between the entities for which the subject and predicate stood, called predication by essence, and then redefined the traditional post-Aristotelian categories of essential and accidental predication in terms of this partial identity. Sharpe substantially shares the metaphysical view and principles of the other Oxford Realists, but he elaborates a completely different semantics, since he accepts the nominalist principle of the autonomy of thought in relation to the world, and Ockham’s explanation for the universality of concepts. Unfortunately, this semantic approach partially undermines his defence of realism, since it deprives Sharpe of any compelling semantic and epistemological reasons to posit universalia in re. Therefore, Sharpe’s main ontological theses certainly are sensible and reasonable, but, paradoxically, within his philosophical system they cannot in any way be considered as absolutely consistent.”

Finally, Paul Spade’s contribution is “The Problem of Universals and Wyclif’s Alleged ‘Ultrarealism.’” According to the author’s abstract, “This paper attempts a preliminary assessment of that judgment and argues that, pending further study, we have no reason to accept it. It is certainly true that Wyclif is extremely vocal and insistent about his realism, but it is not obvious that the actual content of his view is especially extreme. The paper distinguishes two common medieval notions of a universal, the Aristotelian/ Porphyrian one in terms of predication and the Boethian one in terms of being metaphysically common to many. On neither approach does Wyclif ‘s theory of universals postulate new and non-standard entities besides those recognized by more usual versions of realism. Again pending further study, neither do Wyclif’s views appear to assign philosophically extreme or novel roles to the entities he does recognize as universal. On the contrary, by at least one measure, his theory of universals is less extreme than Walter Burley’s, as Wyclif himself observes. For Wyclif, the universal is numerically identical with its singulars, but numerical identity is governed by something weaker than the indiscernibility of identicals.”

Ian Levy published “Grace and Freedom in the Soteriology of John Wyclif” in Traditio in 2005. According to Levy, “The popular portrayal of John Wyclif (d. 1384) is that of the inflexible reformer whose views of the Church were driven by a strict determinism which divided humanity into two eternally fixed categories of the predestined and the damned. In point of fact, however, Wyclif’s understanding of salvation is quite nuanced and well worth careful study.” The purpose of Levy’s essay, in which he considers earlier work by Lechler, Robson, and Kenny, “is to offer a full appraisal of Wyclif’s soteriology in its many facets. This means that we will first discuss the related questions of divine will and human freedom, and their impact upon his soteriology. Then we will examine his views on sin, grace, merit, justification, faith, and predestination, all within the larger medieval context. What we should find is that Wyclif’s soteriology makes a good deal of room for human free will, albeit in cooperation with divine grace. Furthermore, we will see that Wyclif most often presents a God who is at once just and merciful, extending grace and the possibility of salvation to all” (279-80).

Also in 2005 Levy also published “John Wyclif: Christian Patience in a Time of War.” According to Levy, “Wyclif was well acquainted with the medieval traditions of just war and crusading articulated by theologians and canon lawyers. Yet he had become disillusioned with a Christian society that exploited these traditions to pursue destructive policies of repression and conquest, thereby forsaking the eternal Law of Christ. For Wyclif, the Law of Christ calls upon Christians to conform themselves to the poor and humble Christ of the Gospels. While he never rejected the possibility of a just war in principle, he believed that it was all but impossible in practice. Even where a nation might have a just claim, the better path is always the way of Christ, suffering evil patiently rather than inflicting sufferings upon one’s neighbor.”

In 2007, Levy published two more articles. The first is “John Wyclif and the Primitive Papacy.” According to Levy’s abstract for this article, “John Wyclif envisioned an ideal church that could be created in his own day, based on the model of the earliest apostolic community depicted in the New Testament. The church of the late fourteenth century would come to resemble the ecclesia primitiva, a poor communion of fellow workers marked by charity and humility. Within this holy fellowship there would be a place for the papacy, but it would no longer resemble the monarchy it had ascended to in the later Middle Ages. Instead, the pope would relate to his fellow bishops as St. Peter had to the other apostles. His fellow Christians would recognize this man as their true pope, for he would be the person most closely resembling the apostolic martyrs and thus prove a genuine disciple of Christ. Wyclif actually bears comparison to two other fourteenth-century critics: Marsilius of Padua and William of Ockham. Like Ockham, Wyclif believed that the papacy was established by Christ, although not as it exists in its present form. Yet, unlike Ockham, but similar to Marsilius, he did not concede to the papacy the plenitude of power. In order to gain a more complete understanding of Wyclif’s views one must study his place within the exegetical tradition of such important biblical passages as Matthew 16.18-19 and Galatians 2.11-14.”

Levy’s second article in 2007 was “John Wyclif on Papal Election, Correction, and Deposition.” Levy here discusses Wyclif’s “view of the mechanics of papal election, correction, and deposition,” rather than topics such as civil dominion and kingship (141). He wants to examine these three topics together because “they all speak to those criteria which are essential for constituting a genuine pope as opposed to a mere pretender” (141). According to Levy, Wyclif “derided a corrupt electoral process only to put forward an almost mystical procedure in its place. He appealed to the centuries-old position of the canonists that an heretical or simoniacal pope could be tried and deposed, but he so broadened the definition of heresy and simony as to make all but the most saintly popes liable to removal. . . . One important subtext that will emerge . . . is that Wyclif consistently championed the role of the theologian, as opposed to the canon lawyer, in determining questions of papal aptitude. Because Holy Scripture formed, for Wyclif, the sole foundation of Christian society, it would fall to the magister sacrae paginae to render authoritative decisions on ecclesiastical governance” (141-42). In the process of the paper, Levy discusses the backgrounds behind these issues to place Wyclif’s views in context.

Kantik Ghosh published “Logic and Lollardy” in 2007, in Medium Aevum. Ghosh examines “Wyclif’s meta-discursive engagement with scholastic episteme, especially the status of the arts in education. As opposed to earlier theories of the relation of the liberal arts to philosophy, which argued that the arts were “remedial,” the means by which “the ‘reasonable’ human soul is led to recognize itself and its origins, from which it has been separated” by the fall (255, 253). In the De statu innocencie, by contrast, Wyclif aligns “the idea theorica of the artes with a state of prelapsarian gracefulness and happiness, from which the methods and disciplines of contemporary academia are an inevitable decline” (257). Ghosh notes that “two consequences follow. First, the artes, in so far as they designate academic disciplines, are not longer thought of either as remedial of the fallen human condition, or as propaedeutic to an apprehension of divine truth. . . . Second, Wyclif introduces the discourse of ‘happiness’ in relation to scientia . . . to turn on its head the ‘Averroistic’ identification of happiness with the philosophical life and its associated methodologies” (257). Logic is crucial to understanding the impact of this critique on vernacular Lollardy since it lies at the core of his definition of “scriptural logic.” “This was one aspect of his thought,” Ghosh argues, “taken up most enthusiastically by his followers” (258); he examines how in the tract De oblacione iugis sacrificii.

The same year Laurent Cesalli published “Intentionality and Truth-Making: Augustine’s Influence on Burley and Wyclif’s Propositional Semantics,” also in Vivarium. According to the abstract, “Walter Burley (1275-c.1344) and John Wyclif (1328-1384) follow two clearly stated doctrinal options: on the one hand, they are realists and, on the other, they defend a correspondence theory of truth that involves specific correlates for true propositions, in short: truth-makers. Both characteristics are interdependent: such a conception of truth requires a certain kind of ontology. This study shows that a) in their explanation of what it means for a proposition to be true, Burley and Wyclif both develop what we could call a theory of intentionality in order to explain the relation that must obtain between the human mind and the truth-makers, and b) that their explanations reach back to Augustine, more precisely to his theory of ocular vision as exposed in the De trinitate IX as well as to his conception of ideas found in the Quaestio de ideis.”

Also in 2007–clearly a productive year for Wyclif studies–Luigi Campi published “‘Iusti sunt omnia’: Note a margine del ‘De statu innocencie’ di John Wyclif” in Dianoia. According to Campi, “The aim of my paper is to analyse Wyclif’s De statu innocencie (c. 1375-1376). Here Wyclif paints the features of man in the Edenic state, connecting them to some remarkable themes concerning nature, dominion, grace and free will. Lacking nothing, man originally had a perfect constitution and a natural dominion on all creatures, planned to serve God’s glory. This state is used as a standard of measure of the fallen man’s condition. My primary concern shall be to show how this treatise can be considered as an important laboratory where Wyclif tests the concepts he was working on.”

Finally, in 2007 Takashi Shogimen published Ockham and Political Discourse in the Late Middle Ages, a book which does not focus on Wyclif specifically but does focus on the context of philosophical study at Oxford. Shogimen also contributed an essay on “Wyclif’s Ecclesiology and Political Thought” to Levy’s volume, mentioned above. According to Shogimen “[r]ecent scholarship has shown [Ockham’s] profound impact on logic, metaphysics, epistemology and the philosophy of language in the late Middle Ages and beyond. Following a dispute between the papacy and his Order, Ockham abandoned his academic career and devoted himself to anti-papal polemics. Twentieth-century scholars have produced divergent and often contradictory interpretations of Ockham as a political thinker: a destructive critic of the medieval Church, a medieval Catholic traditionalist, the Franciscan ideologue, and a constitutional liberal. This book offers a fresh reappraisal of Ockham’s political thought by approaching his anti-papal writings as a series of polemical responses. His aggressive and persistent attack on the papacy emerges in this study as an attempt to rescue the ethical foundations of the Christian society from the political influences of heretical popes.”

In 2008, Elemér Boreczky pubished John Wyclif’s Discourse on Dominion in Community. According to the book’s notes, “This book reconstructs Wyclif’s discourse on the theological and political consequences of his radically new insight into the integrity of man and nature as regards the good, free and beautiful life, communicated to his contemporary scholastic and lay audience. His theological, legal and political vision of restoring original justice through the spiritual reality and sanctity of persona humana in every man, as well as in the community, by the law of love and the use and enjoyment of dominion in community, is conveyed through abundant quotes from his works.”


Lahey, Philosophy and Politics

The same year, Luigi Campi published “Un unico partito possible? Teodicea e determinismo nel pensiero di John Wiclif.” Doctor Virtualis 8 (Dec. 2008). This is published on-line, where the abstract and full article are available.

And also in 2008, Joke Spruyt published “The Unity of Semantics and Ontology: Wyclif’s Treatment of the fallacia accidentis” in Vivarium. According to Spruyt, “This paper deals with John Wyclif ‘s account of the fallacia accidentis. To a certain extent Wyclif ‘s explanations fit in with Aristotle’s understanding of language. Aristotle recognises that we can talk about substances in many different ways; we can introduce them by using ‘substantial’ names, but also by using names derived from the substances’ accidental features. The substances are the ultimate foundation of all these expressions. This idea in itself is not opposed to a conceptualist account of language. John Buridan uses Aristotle’s principle of categorisation to show how language works, but for him the activity of categorising things is to be explained in terms of our mental activities only. Wyclif, on the other hand, reads much into the requirement that all our linguistic distinctions should have their basis in extramental reality: our conceptualisations not only pertain to individual substances, but also parallel their distinct ontic layers.”

Along with his “philosophical biography” of Wyclif, discussed in an earlier post, Stephen Lahey published Philosophy and Politics in the Thought of John Wyclif in 2008 as well, also now offered by Oxford UP in paperback. Lahey focuses especially on Wyclif’s theories of dominion (which is what got him into trouble with the authorities at least as much as his sacramental theology) and the ways in which they impacted his arguments over politics.

Patrick Hornbeck’s article “Theologies of Sexuality in English ‘Lollardy’” appeared earlier this year (2009) in the Journal of Ecclesiastical History; this article has been noted on a post discussing recent work about Lollardy and Gender.

Richard Gaskin published “John Wyclif and the Theory of Complexly Signifiables” in Vivarium this past spring (of 2009). According to Gaskin, “John Wyclif claims that there are relations of essential identity and formal distinctness connecting universals, complexly signifiables, and individuals. In some respects Wyclif’s position on complexly signifiables coincides with what I call the advanced res theory, the view that complexly signifiables are really identical with but formally distinct from worldly individuals. But there is no question in Wyclif’s treatment of a reduction of complexly signifiables to individuals. I argue that Wyclif populates his most fundamental ontological level with propositionally structured entities both individual and universal, and that this approach is superior to that of its nominalist rivals. But Wyclif shares with other versions of the advanced res theory an implausible theory of identity, and this affects the coherence of the claimed real identity between individuals and complexly signifiables.”]

Finally, Emily Michael has published an essay entitled “John Wyclif’s Atomism” in a collection of essays entitled Atomism in Late Medieval Philosophy and Theology.

A volume of essays on Medieval Commentaries on Aristotle’s Categories (Ed. Lloyd Newton, Brill, 2008) does not include work on Wyclif, but does include work on many contemporaries, including an essay on John Buridan by Alexander Hall, and two essays by Alessandro Conti, one on Robert Alyngton and another on universals.

Full references to all of the studies mentioned here can be found on the Bibliography of Secondary Sources.

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