Peggy A. Knapp

title.none: Wyclif, On the Truth of Holy Scripture (Peggy A. Knapp)

identifier.other: baj9928.0209.031 02.09.31

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Peggy A. Knapp, Carnegie Mellon University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Wyclif, John. Levy, Ian Christopher, trans. and intro. John Wyclif: On the Truth of Holy Scripture. TEAMS Commentary Series. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2001. Pp. x, 368. $13.00. ISBN: 1-58044-031-2.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.09.31

Wyclif, John. Levy, Ian Christopher, trans. and intro. John Wyclif: On the Truth of Holy Scripture. TEAMS Commentary Series. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2001. Pp. x, 368. $13.00. ISBN: 1-58044-031-2.

Reviewed by:

Peggy A. Knapp
Carnegie Mellon University

Ian Christopher Levy has done the world of medieval studies a great service in translating, abridging, and annotating De veritate sacrae scripturae (1377-78) for the TEAMS project. Until now this important treatise was available in Rudolf Buddenseig's three-volume, almost 1,000-page Latin edition done for the Wyclif Society in 1905, and not widely available in spite of a reprint in 1966. Lately so much attention has been focused on Lollardy (and on Eamon Duffy's objection to that attention in The Stripping of the Altars) that there is a special need to see Wyclif's ideas as he himself put them. (He would not, of course, have objected to a translation.) There is good reason why the many who characterize Wyclif's views do not directly quote his treatises: the author's output is immense (300 Latin works have been attributed to him and a great many English works either to him or to his direct inspiration) and his style is prolix and difficult.

My admiration for this volume is based, first, on the decision to translate On the Truth of Holy Scripture. It is an important work because it touches on many, if not most, of the positions for which Wyclif became so influential an historical figure and because it displays his thorough scholarly style and command of the tools of theological argument in his era. Wyclif can here be seen looking less like John Foxe and more like a debater in particular fourteenth-century contentions. The likeness to the English sermons and tracts in matters of clerical responsibility is also clear. In other words, On the Truth of Holy Scripture presents a complex look at the historical Wyclif. Secondly, I am grateful for the clarity and straightforwardness Levy has achieved with his abridgement and translation. Wyclif's central tenet in the piece is that the Bible is true in all its parts, that all fit together to produce a coherent guide to faith. Levy's presentation of this treatise makes it possible to see the coherence of Wyclif's thought, trimming some of the multiple allusions to authorities (but indicating elisions) in order to make the logic of the argument more apparent.

Levy's introduction sets out the major divisions, four of them (based on Buddensieg's), and discusses them briefly, but perceptively. His comments on literalness are particularly important and necessary. In my opinion, the strength of Wyclif's case for the "literal level" of scripture depends precisely on what he means by de virtute sermonis (the force of the word), virtus sermonis (the rules of proper supposition, argued by his opponents' Aristotelian frame of mind), and usus communis (common usage). His solution to the problems of the supposed contradictions and illogicalities of scripture is to credit any one of the four senses as literal if it expressed authorial (divine) intention. Levy's introduction prepares Wyclif's reader for that argument, which receives several kinds of statement at many points in the argument. On other matters too -- Wyclif's respect for previous theologians and biblical commentators, especially Augustine, Jerome, Ambrose and Gregory, and his avoidance of a strictly sola scriptura view of faith and morals -- the introduction prepares us for what we are to read.

The treatise itself is so rich in insights into particular controversies -- it is always tempting to read Wyclif as if he is arguing for/with the English Reformation -- that it calls up the discursive formation in which learned men dealt with minor premises and four-level objections in formal fashion, all the time knowing the stakes were not academic. For the most part, the Truth of Holy Scripture proceeds on a strictly rational plane, but from time to time there are harsh terms for his adversaries (sophists, p. 56; heretics, p. 111) and even disclosure of a fear that he would be murdered at his hearing before the Archbishop (p. 197). The historical conditions for writing theology, both the styles available and possibilities of punishment for "error," are clear throughout. Another thing that strikes me about the treatise is its unwavering support of Augustinian positions. Parts One and Two seem almost a gloss on De doctrina Christiana, and Part Three on De Mendacio. In One and Two the argument does not stress the distinction between literal and figurative language, as Augustine does, but calls all senses literal that fit the special logic of scripture (scripture itself teaches the faithful how to read it, p. 48). This is another way of arriving at the Augustinian test for reading specific passages in the light of the message of caritas.

One finishes Wyclif's work with the impression that he felt himself to be in perfect sync with the most venerable Catholic traditions. At the same time, the treatise often touches on the errors introduced into church policies by the Donation of Constantine, the arrogance of the doctrine of papal infallibility, the dominion over property which may be exercised by laymen, and other themes known from the English works. That it is "absolutely essential that every person be a theologian" (p. 200) is the conclusion to several lines of thought, and preaching is said to be more efficacious a clerical duty than the sacrament. No matter how Wyclif places his claims to traditional theology, such forthrightness concerning clerical practice reveal the other side of his historical position.

In sum, this is an important book, and Levy presents it in as clear a way as it is possible to present so complex and enigmatic a thinker. I would like to have seen fuller bibliographic entries for the medieval sources referred to in the notes, but otherwise, this volume will be excellent for teaching Wyclif and his era. Everyone interested in late medieval England should read it.