When we think of the Protestant Reformation, that supposedly turns 500 on the 31st of October 2017, we often envisage the bold Augustinian monk, Martin Luther, furiously nailing his papers to the door of the church in Wittenberg in protest of the corruption of the Roman Catholic church. However, it should not be forgotten that there were men before Luther who had qualms with the Roman church of their day and fought for its reformation. One of the most important of these was the Bohemian teacher and preacher Jan Hus (sometimes Anglicised as John Huss). Hus is often a forgotten man, overshadowed by the events that happened a century after his time, but the power of his legacy in the so-called Reformation proper, and of the importance of his ideas in the church today, cannot remain so neglected. In fact, in 1519, just 2 years after famously nailing his 95 theses to door in Wittenburg, Luther debated Johann Eck in the Leipzig Disputation and affirmed, to general uproar of onlookers: “Yes, I am a Hussite”.
Hus was born in the small farming town of Husinec (literally “Goose Town”) in southern Bohemia, modern day Czech Republic, in c.1370. From such obscure and humble beginnings, Hus sought the priesthood of the Roman Catholic church of the day not for the service of God, his heart for the people, but, he said, for fame and a relatively easy life. Nevertheless, he was academically capable, with a particular aptitude for hard work and study, and so was one of very few students accepted into the University of Prague from his area when he applied, in 1390. He’d earned his Master’s degree by 1396 and, four years later, was ordained by the church, in 1400. In this time, Hus had distinguished himself in his mastery of humanities, language, and theology and so, in 1402, was made the rector of the university. In this role, part of his responsibility was to be the preacher at the Bethlehem Chapel in Prague; to speak to the people in their own language.
During his time at the University of Prague, Hus was greatly influenced by the writings of English theologian John Wycliffe. Specifically, Wycliffe advocated for some very unpopular ideas at the time. He was intent of providing the English people with a Bible in their own language and so translated the New Testament into the English vernacular, with some associates translating the Old Testament. This came to be known as the Wycliffe Bible. His zeal for providing the people with a Bible in their language came from his belief that the Church should be a place for Biblical teaching, focusing on the message of Scripture, and to rely less on the theological system of the medieval Roman Catholic church. Wycliffe also presented theological arguments against the authority and validity of the Papacy and the system of Roman Catholic church leadership. These arguments almost certainly were prompted by the so-called Papal Schism, whereby three men claimed to be Pope simultaneously – one in Rome, one in Avignon, and one in Pisa. This divide in the church prompted Wycliffe to examine the basis for the Papacy and its validity – an idea Hus would later come to develop. Wycliffe’s writings were banned by the church in 1403, just a year into Hus’ rectorship, and was subsequently declared a heretic in 1415. However, despite this, Hus translated Wycliffe’s work Trialogus into Czech and distributed it to the people of Prague.
By 1406, Hus had gained some notoriety for his teaching and preaching, and was widely known. At this time, Gregory XII became Pope in Rome, and sent a warning against Hus and his teachings. Accordingly, the University of Prague demanded all Wycliffe’s writings be surrendered for correction and Hus obeyed, saying that he condemned any errors in the writings. However, in 1409 the Pisan Pope Alexander V condemns Hus as a heretic, and this is followed by Hus’ excommunication by the Archbishop of Prague. In light of this, Hus’ continued teaching and preaching in the Bethlehem Chapel becomes ever stronger after his condemnation and receives even more attention than before.
After Alexander V dies in 1410, John XXIII ascends to the Papacy and in 1411 launches a Crusade against Naples. In an effort to fund this war, the priests began to sell indulgences to the people. In essence, they asked money from the people in exchange for a ‘guarantee’ of no punishment for sins in purgatory, after death, and to go directly to Heaven. This extortion of the common people for what, in Hus’ eyes, was an unnecessary war, emboldened him to start his diatribe against the established church. He rallies against the sale of indulgences and the church’s corruption. In 1412, a dispute took place where Hus delivered a message that taught that the Pope had no right to take up arms in the name of the Church and must, instead, be committed to pray for his enemies and bless those who curse him. Further, Hus argued that man obtains forgiveness for his sin and wrong-doing by true repentance, and not bartering using money. In response, his energised followers burnt the Papal decrees, saying that Hus should be followed, not the established church, since it had become corrupt and fraudulent. Three of these protesters were behead and became the first martyrs of the Hussite church.
Hus continued his teachings on church reform and refusing to give up his writings at the order of the Papal decrees, stating that they must first be proven un-Scriptural. The attacks on Hus by the Pope and Archbishops caused rioting in parts of Bohemia, with the King and government siding with Hus. As a result, a church censure was imposed upon Prague and Hus, hoping to protect the people in the city, exiled himself to the surrounding countryside. There, he met with many of the common peasants of Bohemia, preaching and teaching as he travelled. During this time, Hus’ realised the vast chasm that existed between the educated people of the university and the peasants in the rural villages and their priests. Therefore, he began a number of Czech books, focusing on the basics of the Christian faith and how to teach them, mainly for the instruction of priests whose knowledge of Latin was poor. Hus published De Ecclesia in 1413, based heavily on Wycliffe’s work of the same title. Hus’ most controversial doctrines in his work were that
- Every believer is a part of the Church
- The Bible is the sole authority in the Church
- Jesus Christ is the head of His Church
Hus taught that wherever the word of the Pope conflicted with the words of Christ in the Scriptures, that the believers must submit to Christ, for only He is the true King and Ruler. One of the other notable distinctives of Hus’ work, was that Hus argued for the lay people to receive the wine at the eucharist. In the medieval church, the cup of wine was reserved only for the priests as the wine was seen to be more holy, in some sense, than the bread and the clergy more holy than the lay people. Hus disagreed with this, and argued that the clergy were not entitled to sacraments withheld from the people; that there was no basis to distribute to them only one of the elements.
In 1414, Hus was summoned to the Council of Constance, to stand trial and end the dissension in the church. Hus agreed to go, having been promised a safe conduct by the head of the Holy Roman Empire, Sigismund of Hungary. Initially, Hus was at liberty in Constance under the protection of Sigismund, but continued to preach and celebrate the Mass, in violation to the restrictions placed on him by the church. A few short weeks into his stay in Constance, he was arrested by Sigismund’s men, and thrown in a monastery dungeon. He was imprisoned for 8 months before being brought out to trial. However, Hus was given no opportunity to articulate and defend his position and was merely asked questions about whether he would recant what he professed to believe. Hus refused. In July 1415, he was brought before the council and his priestly garments were stripped from him, one by one, as he refused to recant each of his teachings. A prelate at the council pronounced condemnation against Hus and his writings. Hus protested, saying that he only wished to be convinced from Scripture. He fell upon his knees and asked God to forgive all his enemies. He was forced to wear a hat, with the inscription “Arch Heretic” and was burned at the stake on 8th of July, 1415.
This act was viewed as one of the greatest crimes of the church in Bohemia, and inspired uprisings from the Czech people, who saw Hus as a symbolic figure against the tyranny of the Roman Catholic church, provoking Pope Martin V to order the death of any followers of Hus or Wycliffe and thereby starting the Hussite Wars.
Jan Hus should be remembered for his faith in the face of death. When seeking the Scripture as his authority of his beliefs, Hus sought the truth of God and recognised the corruption of a man-made institution. In speaking out he lost his own life, but in the last moments of his life, he famously made a pun on his own name (which literally translates to ‘goose’) that
They will roast a goose now, but after a hundred years they will hear a swan sing, and him they will endure
Martin Luther, in 1517, believed himself to a fulfilment of these words from Hus and decided to wrap his own reformation and beliefs up with that of Jan Hus, labelling himself a Hussite.
The tragedy is, in the current day, that many people pay only lip service, if anything at all, to the doctrines that Hus fought, and ultimately died for. The idea that Christ, alone, is the head of His Church, and that the Bible is its sole authority is rarely carried through. Practically, the Church of modern times is marked by the opinions of its ministers and the ‘new’ ideas of how to make the Church something that will appeal to world. If Christ is the head of the Church, then the Church should gather to hear Him speak – and He speaks through His Word. The Church should be marked by an endeavour to bring the Word of Christ to His people, and to the submission to the Word. The life and death of Jan Hus shows us not only the corruption the Church faces by departing from Christ’s authority in His Church, but how precious the doctrine should be to us, as God’s people.