Classics and Religious Studies


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Published in A Companion to John Wyclif, Late Medieval Theologian, ed. Ian Christopher Levy (Brill, 2006), pp. 127–198. Copyright © 2006 Koninklijke Brill NV. Used by permission.


Anyone familiar with amateur photography can imagine standing in a darkroom, watching the slow resolution of a picture as it sits in its chemical bath. First the main outlines of the image emerge from a blank background, and only gradually do the details follow. Frequently the content of the picture is only recognizable when all the details are clear, when what appear as large, oddly shaped objects resolve into distinct, recognizable ones. Such is the case with understanding of Wyclif’s earlier, theological works. Without a familiarity with the details of fourteenth-century Oxford theology, its main players and positions, and their complex understandings of the relation of logic to theology, the writings of one particular theologian are likely to confusing at best, recognizable only by broad outlines that mayor may not have anything to do with the actual positions he takes. While some treatises of his Summa de ente, such as De universalibus or De composicione hominis might arguably be generally comprehensible apart from the mid-fourteenth century dialogue, others, notably De Trinitate, are not.

A study of Wyclif’s theology must consider a wide range of subjects, including issues of philosophical theology like his discussion of the necessity of created action and the freedom of human willing, his conception of how Being as such relates to the divine being and created being, and the nature of divine knowledge and willing. It would have to address Wyclif’s complex understanding of how divine law relates to justice in creation with regards to the law of Moses, and more widely how the law of Christ applies in human dominium relations. Wyclif’s ecclesiology and its ties to his understanding of the pastoral offices and the sacraments would need to be incorporated into the study, as orthopraxy figures very importantly in Wyclif’s theological vision. Finally, Wyclif’s conception of the ontology of Scripture and how its truths must be understood and realized in the world would figure significantly in a study of his theology. If such a study is more imaginable now than it was a century ago, when the Wyclif Society edited most of his Latin works, this is because scholars have been studying many of the topics listed with the care they require. This chapter will, I hope, contribute to that project by introducing two subjects essential to any Christian theology, namely, the nature of the Trinity and of the Incarnation.

Three treatises of the Summa de ente deserve our attention: De Trinitate, De composicione hominis, and De Incarnacione, all composed between 1370 and 1372. Scholars have noted these treatises’ likely function as Sentences commentaries, required of all candidates for the degree of a Doctorate in Theology. Such commentaries were generally also the place for taking up one’s lance against rival philosophical and theological positions. So it will be important to see how Wyclif’s positions on how the three divine persons relate in one nature, and how two natures relate in the person of the Incarnate Word function as likely responses to the Sentences commentaries of earlier Oxford luminaries such as Adam Wodeham and Robert Holcot. Wyclif envisioned his theology as a return to the orthodoxy of earlier figures such as Anselm, Augustine, and Robert Grosseteste, as is clear to anyone who has read him. These theologians endorsed a philosophical position more consonant with realism than with the conceptualism prized by many thinkers in early fourteenth-century Oxford. Wyclif expressly intended to show how ontological realism explicates the complex realities of the divine being and its assumption of a human nature in these treatises, and so our interest is in understanding both how realism functions in his philosophical theology of divine persons, and how his thought relates to that of his likely opponents.

In both the metaphysics of the Trinity and of the Incarnation, a universal functions as a nature. In the Trinity, the divine nature is the universal, for which there are three particulars, namely the three persons, each of whom is divine through their instantiation of Divinity. In the Incarnation, the creature Jesus Christ is the result of hypostatic union of the Word, God the Son, with the nature Humanity, a universal by community, in the physical body of the man Jesus. In Christ, the part that normally is played by the created soul in a human being is played by Humanity, although this does not mean that Christ lacked a soul of any kind. In both the Trinity and the Incarnation, it will turn out that Wyclif’s conception that the aggregate being arising out of the union of two distinct beings is itself something bearing ontological weight plays a part.

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