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New Horizons

Jan Hus and the Church

Jerry and Marilyn Farnik

In a day and age when people easily dismiss the church as unnecessary, Jan Hus stands in stark contrast. Hus was a staunch defender of Christ’s church, both in proclaiming her importance and in protecting her from enemies within and without. On July 6, 1415, Hus was burned at the stake for his convictions. This year we celebrate the 600th anniversary of his death.

Jan Hus was born in Husinec, Bohemia, between 1364 and 1376, to a poor farming family. After gaining the titles of Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts in Theology, he was ordained to the priesthood in 1401. The following year, he became the dean of the philosophical faculty of the University of Prague and was appointed preacher at Bethlehem Chapel in Prague, where sermons were delivered in the Czech language.

Early in the fifteenth century, the teachings of John Wycliffe were brought to Bohemia from England by university students. Hus publicly praised Wycliffe’s work and translated his Trialogus into Czech. As interest grew throughout Bohemia, a dispute arose at the university over Wycliffe’s teachings, and in 1408 a papal mandate enabled the archbishop of Prague to disallow them. All of Wycliffe’s manuscripts were publicly burned in 1410, and Hus was put under the ban.

With the support of King Wenceslaus of Bohemia, however, Hus continued to preach boldly in Bethlehem Chapel, even though the churches of Prague were under interdict. The sale of indulgences, authorized by Pope John XXIII (later declared an antipope) in 1412 to finance his opposition to King Ladislaus of Naples, especially concerned Hus. He opposed the use of the sword in the name of Christ, as well as any ordinance that implied that people could gain forgiveness and eternal life apart from faith in Christ.

In his most well-known treatise, The Church, Hus focused primarily on the medieval institution’s faulty understanding of the nature of the church. At the time, the driving force of the Roman church was its hierarchy, which weighed in heavily on both secular and ecclesiastical matters. Thomas Fudge points out that the Roman prelates and cardinals had authorization to judge, but they could not be judged by any lower court or authority.[1] Leading theologians in the church regarded the pope as the head of the holy Roman Church and the College of Cardinals as its body. Hus challenged this by defining the one holy, universal church as all those predestined by God to eternal life, whose head is Christ alone.[2]

Hus was also insistent that no one should be considered head of the church except Christ alone, and that anyone who would call himself the vicar of Christ should follow in his footsteps.[3] He was vehement in his criticism of prelates and clergy who did not live in conformity with God’s Word, calling them enemies of Christ. He writes:

If, therefore, a prelate is proud, lives in luxury, follows after greed, is impatient, does not feed the sheep, but oppresses and scatters them, is he not antichrist?

To truly be Christ’s vicar, one must be humble, seeking not honor or worldly gain, able to shepherd the church by God’s Word and godly example, meek, patient, chaste, hard-working, and devoted to eternal rather than temporal things. This description did not fit many of those highest in the church hierarchy of Hus’s day.

In criticizing the leadership of the church, Hus looked primarily to the Scriptures for support, but also frequently cited church fathers, such as John Chrysostom, Augustine, Ambrose, Jerome, Gregory the Great, and Bernard. With them, he urged a return to the law of Christ, where alone the righteousness of God could be found. All human rules and institutions, he said, should be evaluated in light of the Scriptures. Hus did not propose anarchy, but strongly emphasized freedom from the burden of human rules and institutions that were not in accord with the Scriptures. Following this reasoning, Hus continued in the ministry of the Word, despite having been excommunicated from the church.[4]

In all matters, Hus recognized the superiority of God’s Word and did not acknowledge any other authority as being equal to or higher than the Scriptures. In particular, Hus called into question the authority of prelates who themselves disobeyed God and required believers to do the same.[5] He insisted that only those in ecclesiastical authority who gave commands in accordance with Christ’s law should be obeyed.

In 1415, Hus was summoned to appear before the church council in Constance, Germany. He was promised safe passage to this council by the Holy Roman emperor Sigismund, and he expected an audience before the council to defend his views. One of Hus’s accusers, a former friend and fellow countryman named Stepan Palecz, convinced the church court that Hus’s doctrine of the church threatened the medieval institution as most Christians knew it and the church’s unity. Hus’s faith was tested severely in Constance, when prior assurances from authorities were ignored and he was put on trial. Facing condemnation, Hus clung to the imperishable Word of God in standing for the truth. Hus declared at the stake, “God is my witness that I have never taught that of which I have been accused by false witnesses. In the truth of the gospel which I have written, taught, and preached I will die today with gladness.”

One hundred years before Martin Luther began his efforts toward reform, Hus addressed many foundational issues regarding the authority and jurisdiction of the church and the sufficiency of God’s Word. As a divinity student in Erfurt, Luther came across Hus’s sermons and later wrote: “I was struck with amazement as I read on, and was filled with astonishment difficult to describe, as I sought out for what reason so great a man—a doctor, so worthy of veneration, and so powerful in expounding the Scriptures—had been burned to death.”[6] Luther was the first to publish the letters of Hus in 1536.

Hus’s death caused an uproar in Bohemia. Many protested, and several of his closest followers also paid the ultimate price for holding firmly to the truth of God’s Word. Jerome of Prague was burned at the stake a year after Hus’s execution.

By the end of the sixteenth century, 85 percent of the Bohemian population had become Protestant.[7] But after their defeat at White Mountain in 1620, all Calvinists and other non-Lutherans were ordered by the Holy Roman emperor to convert to Roman Catholicism or leave his realm within three days. During the following year, all Lutherans had to do the same. Forty-seven Bohemian leaders of the insurrection were put on trial, and twenty-seven of them were beheaded in the heart of Prague on the Old Town Square. Protestantism was suppressed during the following three hundred years, but religious refugees from Bohemia eventually started a remarkable movement in neighboring Saxony. Hundreds were sent out as tentmaking missionaries to all parts of the world from the estate of Count Zinzendorf in Herrnhut.

Today many Czechs, both believers and unbelievers, still hold Jan Hus in high regard and consider him a national hero. Although few have actually read his works, he is respected for defending his beliefs at great personal cost and fighting corruption without compromise. During the Communist era, some historians referred to Hus as the first Socialist revolutionary, praising him as progressive in his stance against the church. Hus was, however, wholly devoted to the church, willing to die if necessary in his attempt to bring attention to her need for reform. His severe criticism, especially of those most responsible to God for the direction of the church, was in no way mean-spirited, but rather an expression of concern for their souls and all those under their influence.

Endnotes

[1] Thomas A. Fudge, The Trial of Jan Hus: Medieval Heresy and Criminal Procedure (Oxford University Press, 2013), 323.

[2] John Huss, The Church (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1915), 67.

[3] Ibid., 96.

[4] Ibid., 149.

[5] Ibid., 131.

[6] John Huss, The Letters of Jan Huss (William Whyte, 1847), 9.

[7] “Protestantism in Bohemia and Moravia,” at www.museeprotestant.org.

The authors are OP affiliated missionaries working in the Czech Republic. New Horizons, October 2015.

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