April 6, 2016

John Wycliffe and Saint Gregory of Sinai

St. Gregory of Sinai

By Protopresbyter Fr. Thomas Vamvinis

History can inform us to interpret the present. Within it is treasured the experience of previous generations, as it is preserved in the texts of the past as well as by its modern scholars and analysts.

We will attempt, therefore, referring to history, to draw a parallel between the ecclesiastical actions of two people, one a "western" priest and professor at Oxford, who was one of the precursors of the Reformation in the area of England, and an "eastern" contemporary of his, a Holy Father, whose texts are in the Philokalia of the Sacred Neptics.

Going back to the fourteenth century, the people we will occupy ourselves with are John Wycliffe and Saint Gregory of Sinai. The point we will focus most of our attention on is the view of Wycliffe concerning the "general priesthood" and the teaching of Saint Gregory on the "spiritual priesthood".

In his time Wycliffe (1330-1384) was a famous philosopher and theologian. He was a clergyman and served many years as a professor of philology and theology at the University of Oxford. By his preaching and writings he supported the emancipation of England from papal authority.

Wycliffe reacted to the corruption of the papal clergy and monks and generally doubted the authenticity of religious life in England. He wanted the life of the Church to be characterized by evangelical simplicity. Already in the previous century (13th) things in the camp of the Papacy, besides tragically deviating from the evangelical path, had furthermore become excessively roughened. The appearance and actions of heretical groups led Pope Gregory IX to establish the Holy Inquisition, in which Pope Innocent IV (1243-1254) introduced torture, in proportion to the crimes of high treason.

Deprived of the living patristic tradition, Wycliffe was grounded only on the power of human words, considering Holy Scripture to be the unique foundation of the faith and the Church. He considered only what was exclusively stated in Holy Scripture to be divine. The decisions of synods and popes he regarded as irrelevant human works. He did not distinguish the decisions of the God-seeing Holy Fathers, as expressed in Local and Ecumenical Synods, from the decisions of the popes who were cut off from the one body of the Church. Trapped in the Papacy, he reacted against it with the weapons of reason and Holy Scripture, as he understood it.

Thus, he arrived at twisted views. Along with his justified rejection of papal primacy and the general breakdown of the state power of the Papacy, he came to reject the episcopal rank and adopted that of the "general priesthood". For Wycliffe there was no "special priesthood", but all the members of the Church had the gift of the priesthood. The priesthood was therefore given to all the members of the Church and not to certain successors of the Apostles (note the similarity with certain contemporary "endo-hellenic" views). He taught that ordination did not transmit priestly grace, but it simply appointed someone to perform the duties of the ministry and the presbytery. Though he did not reject all the sacraments, he did accept it with deviations from the Papacy, and even more so from Orthodox teachings.

According to Professor Stephanides, Wycliffe tossed away "the foundation of the Papacy, the hierarchy, the sacred rituals and canonical justice." This is why he was condemned by the Synod of London in 1382. He and his followers were expelled from the University of Oxford and two years later (1384) he died, while certain followers of his experienced the cruelty of the Holy Inquisition, ending their lives at the stake, such as John Hus, University professor, priest and preacher from Bohemia.

John Wycliffe

In the fourteenth century there also took place the primary illuminating activity of Saint Gregory of Sinai, the teacher of noetic prayer. Approximately a contemporary of Wycliffe, he reposed in 1347, he lived and flourished in the Orthodox East, and was integrated fully in the tradition of the Apostles and Fathers, was taught, with the care of his pious parents, "sacred letters", as it was received and interpreted by the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.

Saint Gregory did not feel the need to overthrow the "hierarchy, the sacred rituals and canonical justice," because in the Orthodox East, despite human passions, there was not an institutional falsification of the Apostolic faith, like that which organized the political system of the Papacy.

Saint Gregory fought against ignorance of the interior life. He showed the inadequacy of the practical life, when external actions are not accompanied by the purity of the nous and heart, and when faith is not connected with the knowledge of the truth. Knowledge of truth he considered only the sense of grace. The grace of God purifies the nous and heart of people with the frequent invocation of the name of Christ and the elimination of all thoughts.

His teachings were accepted as a refreshment of human existence, as a rekindling of the grace of Chrismation, as authentic Orthodoxy. It was not a figment of his mind, or the reasoning of a thinking professor, who was responding to some false texts, with the anger that makes logic into a deadly sword. It was born of his nous and heart, which were free from the shapes of the world, and not dependent on the passions, but he tasted it through the activity of his love for God.

Wycliffe spoke of a "general priesthood", rejecting the "special priesthood". Saint Gregory spoke of a "spiritual priesthood", without removing the "sacramental priesthood". At first this appears to be a similar view, but it actually shows the great ecclesiastical and cultural differences between the West and the East.

The "spiritual priesthood" of which Saint Gregory spoke operates as a "noetic altar of the soul". It is not simply given through Baptism and Chrismation, without practical and fervent obedience to the will of God. Within this divine service a "priest" is the "noetic energy of the soul". The "ritual" requires the ascetic synergy of a human being. Through the remembrance of the name of Christ the inner man clings to the person of Christ and not only knows and partakes of the "Lamb", but becomes "like the Lamb", thus there occurs with this noetic divine service the painting over of the image of God with the likeness of God.

Hence, the "spiritual priesthood" is not an institutional function, but is fundamental as a natural in grace life and operation of the ecclesiastical body, of men and women, and as a precondition, as we are taught by other Holy Fathers, of the "sacramental priesthood".

Wycliffe was convicted for his views and some of his followers were tortured and driven to the stake. Of course the Church that did such a crime cannot be considered the Church of Christ. The doctrinal errors of Wycliffe do not legitimize those murders.

Saint Gregory rekindled the inner life of the monastics and the members of the Church in general. Some of his followers were opposed by the Latin-minded Papists, but not the Orthodox. His teaching on the hesychastic life, as well as the 'spiritual priesthood", which is directly linked with the hesychastic life, became enshrined by being included in the Philokalia of the Sacred Neptics.

And most importantly: His life was not written by someone who in name only belonged to the "general or spiritual priesthood" and "bore" the hierarchical state of the Church. But it was written by Kallistos, Patriarch of Constantinople, who was a disciple of the Saint.

In conclusion, some Orthodox today speak of a "general priesthood", like that which was meant by Wycliffe, disregarding or decrying the life required by, through the institution of the Church, the teaching of Saint Gregory regarding "the sacred divine service of the nous".

Indeed, it seems there is an effort to transfer and establish within the Orthodox Church a foreign tradition.

Source: Ekklesiastiki Paremvasi, "Ιωάννης Γουΐκλιφ καί όσιος Γρηγόριος ο Σιναΐτης", July 2010. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.