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  • Philosophy and Politics in the Thought of John Wyclif
  • Ben Lowe
Philosophy and Politics in the Thought of John Wyclif. By Stephen E. Lahey. [Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought (Fourth Series).] (New York: Cambridge University Press. 2003. Pp. x, 241. $60.00.)

In this highly technical work, which justifies its frequent repetition of ideas, Lahey has attempted to demonstrate that Wyclif's works on civil and ecclesiastical dominion are connected and founded in his realist epistemology. Traditionally, scholars have tended to follow K. B. McFarlane's influential 1952 work [End Page 533] (John Wycliffe and the Beginnings of English Nonconformity) and accepted that Wyclif's theology was conditioned by his politics and that it was not very consistent or original.

This book provides a compelling case against that interpretation. Through meticulously close readings of De Civili Dominio, De Dominio Divino, Tractatus de Universalibus, and De Officio Regis, among others, the author makes his case, point by point. He begins with an overview of previous historiography, nicely summarizing the bulk of scholarship up to this moment. This is followed by a helpful discussion of Wyclif's influences, including Augustine (who first argued systematically against clerical property), Aquinas (who distinguished between nurturing dominium and servitude), and Giles of Rome (who first suggested that dominium as political power was only possible through divine grace, which was first articulated in England by Wyclif's contemporary, Richard Fitzralph). Lahey believes that this role of God-given Grace suffuses all of Wyclif's theories on dominium, and that the idea is founded in his realism. The "universal" ideal of God's possession is manifested as a less-perfect "particular" when given or "lent" to a human agent, although it is never fully relinquished by the divine. This act of grace is contingent, however, on proper use of the delegated dominium, either as proprietas (ownership) or iurisdictio (jurisdiction). Any abuses simply demonstrate an absence of grace, and God's giving/lending thenceforth sets the standard for all earthly delegation of dominium.

Wyclif held that dominium—which entails possession—is necessary in the world but inferior to the prelapsarian state when property was to be shared by humans. In a fallen world, however, the secular power, according to Scripture, receives this Grace as "instantiations of God's unmediated dominium" (p. 113). On the other hand, the clergy, who are to follow the examples of the apostles and the early Christians, who owned nothing, possess only evangelical dominium, which is over the souls and the care (including almsgiving) of the faithful. Because private property is inferior to the communal ideal, the clergy are forbidden ownership. Still, Wyclif asserted, they attempt to exercise such dominium by insisting on their plenitudo potestatis which includes the unholy employment of excommunication. Thus, the king must reform the corrupt church, which Wyclif saw as the primary duty of the temporal power. With the clergy's jurisdiction being only spiritual in nature, the king utilizes bishops as his stewards to bring cases of heresy to him for punishment. And he must also confiscate any wealth or property from those who abuse it, which would mean any ecclesiastical holdings.

Lahey does an expert job in connecting all of this to an overall theological stance that Wyclife draws mainly from his reading of Scripture and Augustinian-minded scholars. His conclusions, however, tend to be a bit tenuous in the last chapter when he contends that Wyclif's stands on human and divine dominiumwerelargely responsible for Lollard political ideas. On their insistence that clergy give up private ownership, this seems clear, but on their beliefs regarding papal power and godly law, the roots may be a bit more variegated, as was the movement itself. These are merely suggestions for additional inquiry, however, rather [End Page 534] than criticisms. Overall, this is a superb account of Wyclif's major ideas, both theological and political, and it should influence the field of early English nonconformity for years to come.

Ben Lowe
Florida Atlantic University


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