Opus arduum valde: A Wycliffite Commentary on the Book of Revelation

The Opus arduum valde is a Latin commentary on the Book of Revelation, written in England by an unknown scholarly author in the years 1389–1390. The book originated from the early Wycliffite movement and reflects its experience of persecution in apocalyptic terms. In England it soon fell into oblivion, but was adopted by radical exponents of the fifteenth-century Bohemian Hussites.

In the sixteenth century Luther obtained a copy of theOpus arduum valde which he had printed in Wittenberg with his own preface in 1528. This remarkable document of religious dissent in late medieval Europe, highly regarded in Lollard and Hussite studies, is now for the first time made available in a critical edition.

This carefully assembled work brings to scholars and researchers a remarkably influential commentary on the Book of Revelation that predates the Reformation by centuries, and which nonetheless sounds very ‘Reformed’.

The editors introduce the work in a careful and meticulous way, discussing the title, the author, the situation in which it was written, the sources used, the central themes included in the volume, the theological profile of the work, and of course the many attempts to identify the works author.   Though it may not have come from Wycliffe’s pen, it is certainly Wycliffite.

Next a description of the various manuscripts of the book along with its transmission history.  And, interestingly, the edition associated with the name of Martin Luther is treated.

That’s an overview of the first 86 pages of the volume.  The bulk of the work, naturally, is the commentary itself.  It is in Latin, and no translation of the text is provided.  Your Latin will need to be adequate in order for you to enjoy the contents of the work (though the introduction and other materials are in English).

The commentary stretches from page 87 through page 643, so it is self evidently a massive work.  The text of Revelation (in Latin) is offered in bold print.  Text references are provided in parentheses.  And the text is commented on line by line and phrase by phrase.  Half the page is comprised of the text of the commentary and the other half of the page is occupied by textual notes and explanatory notes where necessary (in English), along with bibliographic entries.

The commentary itself is pre-critical, and yet it is driven by critical interests; i.e., the who and what of those things and events described.  The pope features regularly as the figure behind the beast and the Church of Rome as the harlotrous woman.  This, no doubt, being one of the reasons Luther liked the commentary as much as he did.

Luther’s preface attributed the Opus arduum valde to Nicholas Hereford (or at least that was what Luther suggested).  He may have been right, but of course there’s no way of knowing.  At any rate, Luther’s brief preface is worth including, as it opens to readers his own understanding of the text of this impressive work:

GRACE and peace to you in Christ.   First of all, I beg you, the reader of this commentary, whoever you are, not to believe that we have published something fabricated by ourselves. I testify (if my word is worth anything) that this volume was sent to me by way of most estimable men, from the farthest borders of Germany, namely, from the regions of Sarmatia and Livonia, in poor condition, with the letters and syllables in particular testifying to its age, so that I could not deny that it had been copied about seventy years before our time. And it can be readily discerned from the volume itself that the author of this commentary lived at that time when that unequalled monstrosity of the most recent “schism” (as they call it) still persisted, which was appeased and ended at last at the false Council of Constance through the blood of John Hus and Jerome of Prague, as if by a kind of sacrifice. For the histories testify that during that schism, for forty successive years, three papacies existed in one and the same body of the church (that is to say, of the “derivative church”). By this, as by a most certain portent of discord, God doubtless wanted to give a sign that the end of the Antichrist would come very soon. Since no one at that time understood this, it pleased God, along with such an extraordinary and remarkable sign, to add a clear and evident word as well: that is to say, the author of this book and many other men like him, of outstanding holiness and learning. For He is not in the habit of forsaking or rejecting the church and His people without sending several Elijahs and Elishas, or other prophets, to them, though even then the godless do not understand or pay attention to what God threatens or promises (which is the very blindness of Pharaoh [cf. Exod. 7:4, etc.])—as both what happened at the Council of Constance and its outcome made sufficiently manifest.

Therefore, you should understand, worthy reader, that we have composed this preface to make known to the world that we were not the first to interpret the papacy as the kingdom of the Antichrist, since so many years before us, so many and such great men (whose number is great and their memory eternal as well) tried so clearly and openly to do the same, and did so with such great spirit and courage that they were driven out to the farthest ends of the earth by the fury of the papistic tyranny and endured the cruelest forms of torture. Nonetheless, they persevered bravely and faithfully in the confession of the truth, so that, although in this age we are far more learned and free than they, we should nevertheless be ashamed, because they were bolder and braver than we, with such great spirit and courage, even though they were held back in such great ignorance and captivity. For though this author (in my judgment) would have been eminent in his own age among those who ardently sought after erudition and holiness of life, nevertheless, held back by the vices of the time and by the kingdom of darkness, he could neither say these things so purely nor perceive them so fully as we say and perceive them in our own age. In spite of this, he correctly and truly declares that the pope is the Antichrist (as he is), and he does this with an unwavering faith and conscience and with the most trustworthy arguments. That is to say, he is a witness foreordained by God so many years before us for the confirmation of our doctrine, which now those miserable dregs (the last exhalation of the Antichrist, as it were) want to destroy in their counsel, which is lofty and long-winded, but useless and vain. For those bodies of the saints are rising again for us along with the resurrected Gospel of Christ and give us great confidence that those so-called bishops, the latest enemies of Christ (even if in utter desperation they rely on their Herods and Pilates), will accomplish nothing with their pompous and frightful threats. With these they have begun, in desperation, to salve their unbelief and evil conscience as with a final and futile medicine. Christ, who through His Word struck that body of abomination and then through the sword of Caesar wounded the head, will neither cease nor desist until He utterly crushes and destroys the dead and vainly swollen members as well. Only let us pray that He who has begun His work may bring it to completion for His glory and our salvation [cf. Phil 1:6]. Amen. Let whoever loves Christ say, “Amen.” Amen.*

*Rady Roldán-Figueroa, “Preface to [Nicholas Hereford?], Commentary on the Apocalypse, Published One Hundred Years Ago [ca. 1400](1528),” in Luther’s Works, ed. Christopher Boyd Brown, trans. Duane Ernest Peters, vol. 59 (Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2012), 205–207.

This work is impressive.  It should be widely consulted.  The editors and publisher are to be thanked for bringing this incredibly valuable work to a wider public.