Sunday, 29 November -0001 18:42

John Huss: Forerunner of the Reformation on the Continent

Written by Rev. L. Roth
John Wycliffe often referred to as the morning star of the Reformation. He is best known for his opposition to the papacy and all it stood for in England. He sent out men two by two to preach the word in the common every day language to educate the laity in the Word. These followers of Wycliffe became known as the Lollards. A second important aspect of this Reformer's work was his translation of the Bible into English language. The Wycliffe Bible was actually a translation from the Latin Vulgate used by Rome which placed the word of God into the hands of the people. Although the work of John Wycliffe as a Reformer had its influence during his own life time, the oppression of the Lollards in England by the Church of Rome stamped out much of the influence which Wycliffe's teaching had. Wycliffe had not spearheaded the formation of a new Protestant denomination, as for example Luther, Zwingli and Calvin. But very remarkably, under the guidance of the King of the Church Who rules and reigns over all things from heaven, this Reformer's influence was also experienced in continental Europe. By the marriage of King Richard II in 1382 to Anne of Bohemia, a province of Czechoslovakia, the writings of John Wycliffe entered mainland Europe. These writings greatly influenced one of the most important forerunners of the Reformation in continental Europe, namely, the man who we wish to direct our attention to: John Huss.

Early Life
John Huss was born in 1373 of peasant parents in the country of Bohemia. His father died when he was still a young lad and so his early education was under the guidance of his mother. Due to her poverty, she was helped financially by a wealthy noblemen whose heart God moved to pay all the expenses of the young student's schooling. By his middle teens, Huss was enrolled in the University of Prague and proved himself to be a brilliant pupil. By the age of twenty he had gained his Bachelor of Arts. The following year he gained his Bachelor of Theology and two years later he received his Master of Arts. By the time he was thirty-four years old, Huss had become rector of the University of Prague which was one of the leading centers of learning at that time. During these formative years he had read the philosophical writings of Wycliffe, but had not as yet studied his theological treatises. Consequently, he entered the Roman Catholic Church in which he quickly rose to positions of distinction. Soon he became the confessor of Queen Sophia, who was the wife of King Wenceslaus. Moreover, as he himself confesses, he was devoted to the grace and benefits which flowed from the Roman Catholic Church. But thankfully, by the grace of God, the understanding of Huss was enlightened by the Holy Spirit and his eyes were opened to see the dreadfulness of the heresies of Rome.

Huss' Awakening to the Truths of Scripture
At the turn of the century, at the very beginning of the 1400's, the Lord began to work in John Huss' life. As a faithful student of the Word of God his mind became troubled about many things. Through the uncovering work of the Holy Spirit, Huss was humbled on account of his sins, those known only to himself and the Lord. At the same time, his eyes were being opened to see the debauchery which was being practiced in the Roman Catholic Church. This resulted in a moral critique of the contemporary church and upbraiding the prelates for their luxury and license in the ways of sin. The king, the nobles and the citizens indulged without restraint in greediness, pride, drunkenness and all kinds of immoral behaviour. In the midst of this profligacy Huss became the city's conscience. Especially after he was given the chaplaincy of Bethlehem Chapel of Prague, Huss began to emerge as the Reformer from the darkness which Rome had sown throughout the empire.

Huss the Pastor: About 1403
The sermons of Huss as preacher of the Gospel of Christ became an epoch making event in the important city of Prague. He launched his bolts of criticism against the prelates, noblemen, and ordinary clergy alike. These messages seemed to have benefited the preacher as well as his hearers. In his study of the Scriptures, this preacher of righteousness became more and more convinced of the sin and errors which confronted him in the city in which he had made his home.

Very remarkably, the chapel of which Huss became the preacher already was used to having services conducted in the vernacular, that is, in the common, everyday language spoken at that time. This church had been built by a wealthy citizen around 1392 with the express purpose of bringing the Word of God in the everyday speech of the common people. Huss apparently became its second pastor. The founder of this church also advocated that the preaching of the Word must take place every Sunday and on festival days of well, but then in the language of the Czechs. The Roman Catholic Church was still proclaiming their messages in Latin, since they regarded the laity as too ignorant to be allowed to read the Word of God.

Having been freed from the bondage of Roman liturgy by the work of the Holy Spirit, and having free rein to preach the Gospel and perform his pastoral duties, Huss grew rapidly in knowledge of the Scriptures and became imbued by its spirit and teaching. As the preacher grew in the life of faith, the Holy Spirit was pleased to bless the Word of God to many of the hearers. The number of devout believers grew almost daily. As one reads the material of this time, one gets the impression that the Lord was working mightily, as upon the day of Pentecost, although on a smaller scale.

During these early years in Bethlehem Chapel, Huss was becoming acquainted with Wycliffe's theological works which had found their way to Prague. He greatly esteemed the piety of their author and began to admire the schema of reform which Wycliffe had promulgated. Although Huss was less radical than Wycliffe had been in England, the popular theme which was promoted by later Protestants, namely depicting the Church of Rome as the anti-Christ against the true Church of God, began under the guidance of Huss.

Opposition to Huss' Views
Very quickly, God's servant became known as the chief supporter and defender of the views of Wycliffe. In 1403 the authorities of Prague University condemned 24 Articles stating Wycliffe's views. These Articles had been condemned by a Council of London already in 1382. In the same year, a Roman clergyman by the name of Sbinko was promoted be the "see" of Prague. This archbishop opposed Huss strongly and denounced both Wycliffe's and his writings. When the writings of the Reformers were gathered, he personally set fire to about 200 beautifully bound volumes in the streets of Prague, while the Roman clergy apparently sang the Te Deum. Huss was asked whether he was prepared to obey the commands of Pope Innocent III or not, at which he replied: Yes, so far as they agree with the doctrine of Christ, but when I see the contrary, I will not obey them, even though they burn my body. This position taken by Huss was clearly a reiteration of what Wycliffe had said some twenty to thirty years earlier. It was the English Reformer's teaching that if the Pope or clergy or any other men "contraried" Christ, then they were the enemies of Christ and must be resisted.

Soon after Wycliffe's writings had been denounced as being heretical, Huss and all those who refused to deliver up the English Reformer's writings were excommunicated from the church, probably by Pope John XXIII. The papacy was in such a shambles that there were three reigning popes during this period. The Italians had set up Pope John XXIII, the Spaniards claimed that Benedict XIII had the right to the pontificate's chair, while the French put forward the claim that Gregory XII was the legitimate successor of Peter, and hence the true vice-regent of God.

There was no way that Huss was going to acknowledge any of these men as vicars of Christ, especially since they adhered to the heresies of the Roman Catholic Church. Moreover, due to the rivalry among popes, they began to take up temporal arms, purchasing swords and hiring soldiers to strengthen their physical power. This of course cost money and so these "church leaders" started to sell such things as dispensations and pardons to supply the needed gold to equip their army. The ecclesiastical leaders, as well as many of the bishops would attack a neighbouring ecclesiastical territory or the castle of a nobleman to strengthen their own position.

Such was the deplorable state of affairs when John Huss was being charged with being a heretic. Needless to say, nothing remained of practical piety in the Roman Catholic Church except for a few superstitious rites. Truth, justice and order were banished from mankind; brute force was the arbitrator in all things while opposing popes were hurling anathemas at one another.

Huss the Reformer
Although there was much confusion with respect to the papacy, nevertheless it was necessary for Huss to leave the city of Prague due to the danger to which he was personally exposed. The whole city of Prague was placed under an interdict (prohibiting ecclesiastical observances) as long as it sheltered the Reformer and his followers.

Huss had to go into hiding, but at this time he did extensive writing, his most important treatise being upon the Church. The Church, Huss said, was the company of the predestined, of the dead and of the living and those yet to be, who are recognizable in some measure by their walk of life. The term "catholic" he asserted, speaks of its universal character. The unity of the Church lies in its unity of predestination and of blessedness, a unity of faith, charity and grace. The Church can exist without the Roman pontiff and cardinals. Concerning the error of Rome in its interpretation with respect to Peter's confession as we find it in Matthew 16, Huss reaffirmed that this passage refers solely to the confession of Peter, that the Lord Jesus Christ was truly the Son of God. Peter never was the head of the holy Catholic Church. The only true and perfect head of the Church is Christ.

Another area which Huss addressed was the celebration of the Lord's Supper. He believed that the cup was to be given to the laity because Christ had said to His disciples at its institution; "Drink ye all of it." The Roman Catholic Church had restricted the cup to the priests alone, lest the "clumsy" laity should spill any the of the "blood of God." Huss maintained the validity and efficacy of the sacraments, even if they were administered by unworthy priests. As long as the sacraments were administered in accordance to the directives given by God, they were valid, although the pastoral usefulness of such a priest is greatly impaired if his behavior is unbecoming.

Turning to the right of the pope to issue indulgences, the Reformer denied that any human being had the power or the right to forgive sins. Referring to the ten lepers who were healed by Christ, Huss remarked that the ten lepers were healed before they even came to the priest, which was indicative of Christ's power and not of man's. Confession from the heart alone, Huss said, is sufficient for the soul's salvation. The absolution of Jesus Christ precedes that of the priest and therefore the power of the keys is limited and conditional. The priest does not grant pardon, but merely declares the pardon of God to the penitent on the basis of God's own Word.

By denying the infallibility of the pope and the visible Church and by setting aside the sacerdotal power of the priesthood to open and shut the kingdom of heaven, Huss broke with teachings which had been accepted for centuries during the Middle Ages. These ideas, however, were not original with the Bohemian Reformer. He had learned them from Wycliffe's writings and he was greatly indebted to this English Reformer. On one occasion he wrote of his indebtedness to a friend when he said: "under the power of Jesus Christ, Bohemia has received so much good from the blessed land of England."

Quite an important writing of Huss was his tract called "The Six Errors." It outlined the major errors of which the Roman Catholic Church and its representatives. The first error had to do with transubstantiation. Huss loathed the priests who boasted that they were making the body of the Lord Jesus in the mass, and thus were the creators of their Creator. The second error had to do with the confession which was demanded of members of the church. They were forced to confess: "I believe in the pope and the saints." In opposition to this radical heresy Huss pointed out that all men are to believe in God only. The third error was one which we have already mentioned, namely, the pretensions of the priests to be able to remit the guilt and the punishment due to sin.

The fourth, closely aligned to the third, was the implicit obedience demanded by ecclesiastical superiors to all their commands. Man, Huss said, must first and foremost be obedient unto God. For example, Peter and John refuted the Jewish leaders when they tried to muzzle the apostles concerning the name of Jesus Christ. In Acts 4:18-20 we read: "And they, "referring to the Jewish council, "called them, and commanded them not to speak at all or to teach in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered and said unto them, Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard. " Obedience must be made to God before man.

Fifthly, there was the error of not distinguishing between a valid and invalid excommunication. Huss spoke against the power of excommunication held by the ecclesiastical bishops who excommunicated members of the church at their own discretion and whim. And finally, the sixth error had to do with simony. This entailed the purchasing of church offices for money. By this the pope and the bishops were enriching themselves while allowing unlearned and unspiritual men to fill the offices of the church.

These errors were written in the form of a tract and placed on the doors of Bethlehem Chapel and were widely distributed. The uncovering of the heretical views of Rome made a deep impression on many of the people throughout Bohemia. Remarkably, it was at this time that Pope John XXIII had produced a bull excommunicating the King of Hungary for giving his support to Pope Gregory XII. Pope John said that anyone who preached against Gregory or who would join in the taking of arms against the royal family of Hungary would be given absolution of their sins and immediate entrance into paradise should they die in this war. How blasphemous such a pronouncement was!

In addition to writing profusely against the Roman Catholic Church when he went into hiding, Huss' personal feelings and thoughts concerning the need and the success of reform were written in letters addressed to friends in Prague. These letters reveal a man who was filled with calm courage which springs forth out of quiet trust in God. Here we read words which Huss would repeat again and again before his death. They had to do with his own name, which in the Bohemian language means "goose." He said: "If the goose which is but a timid bird, and cannot fly very high, has been able to burst its bonds, there will come afterward and eagle, which will soar higher into the air and will draw all other birds." John Huss did not have high thoughts of his attempts at reforming the church, but he was confident that other men would be raised up so that the truth of God's Word would once again prevail.

Huss' Condemned at the Council of Constance 1415
We come to the last stage of this Reformer's life. Huss was summoned by Pope John XXIII to appear at the Council of Constance in September of 1414 to be tried for the "heretical" views which he had been promulgating. This Council was actually initiated by Sigismund, the new emperor of the Hapsburg empire. It had a threefold task: 1) to bring schism to an end within the Roman Catholic Church because there were three church leaders who claimed the right to be the true pope; 2) to bring an end to all heresy, meaning the Protestant movement under Huss and like minded Reformers; 3) to reform the church itself, meaning to bring more structure to the papal system.

I am not going into any detail concerning the problem of seeking to bring an end to the schism in the established church except to say that all three popes for various reasons were forced to resign and an electoral college of cardinals elected a new pope, Cardinal Odo Clonna, who went by the name of Pope Martin. Within the scope of our discussion we are more interested in how the reformers were dealt with by this Council. The Council of Constance met for more than three years.

On November 3, 1414 Huss arrived at the Council, having been promised safe passage by emperor Sigismund. We may be inclined to think that this induced the Reformer to attend the Council but, Huss' trust was in One Who was more powerful than all the kings of the earth. This is what he wrote to one of his friends: "I confide altogether in the all powerful God, my Saviour; He will accord me His Holy Spirit to fortify me in His truth, so that I may face with courage temptations, prison, and if necessary a cruel death." It was not very long before Huss was taken into custody. The Council affirmed its supremacy in matters of faith and insisted that emperor Sigismund's promise of safe passage to a heretic was invalid.

On November 28th Huss was cast into a prison cell which was adjacent to where raw sewage flowed into the Rhine. As a result of the dampness and the poor hygienic odors, Huss became very ill with fever and was in danger of dying. Pope John XXIII sent his personal physician and Huss' life was preserved. The Reformer, however, was deprived of all his books, including his Bible. Finally, after being moved to three different prisons, John Huss' trial commenced on June 5, 1415, more than half a year after his arraignment.

Some of Huss' works were displayed as evidence and he was asked whether he was the writer of them. All kinds of accusations, many of them having no grounds, were hurled at him. When he began to speak in his own defense, he was shouted down by the many clergy who were present. As a result, he could not even be heard. One terrible accusation was that he proclaimed himself to be the fourth person of the Holy Trinity. "Let that person be named who has made this accusation," the Reformer asked. No reply was given.

On June 24th Huss' books and writings, which were written in Czechoslovakian, were burned in his presence, being regarded as heretical. On July 1st he was visited by a number of archbishops who tried to get him to recant his position. A written declaration written by Huss showed that their hope was in vain. A second delegation was sent on July 5th, but Huss apparently closed this private discussion with the words that he would rather be burnt a thousand times, than abjure, for then he would offend those whom he had taught. The next day would be his last day upon earth.

The following shows how the Roman Catholic Church abused the Scriptures. When Huss was brought to the large cathedral to be sentenced, a short sermon was preached by one of the bishops on Romans 6:6 4 which states that the body of sin may be destroyed. From their viewpoint, the extermination of heretics was represented as a work pleasing to God. Thirty Articles were then read, which were pronounced him heretical, seditious and offensive to pious ears. H

Huss begged to be allowed to speak, but was not given the opportunity to speak even one word. The Council then proceeded to strip the Reformer of his vestments and degraded him from the sacerdotal orders. While taking away his office as a priest, they committed his soul to the devil. In this way the Catholic Church wished to relinquish him to secular authority so that it might follow the old motto that the Church does not shed blood.

As Huss was being hurried to the place of execution a crown of blasphemy was placed upon his head bearing the words, "this is an arch heretic, "with a picture of two devils tearing his soul. Repeatedly, Huss uttered the words of the martyr Stephen: "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." "I am willing, he said, to patiently, and publicly endure this dreadful, shameful and cruel death for the sake of Thy Gospel and the preaching of Thy Word."

At midday the prisoner's hands were tied behind his back and his neck bound to the stake by a chain. Wood and straw were heaped around the Reformer's body and for the last time the offer of life was given, if he would only recant. However, Huss refused by speaking these words: "I shall die with joy today in the faith of the gospel which I have preached." When it was suggested that a confessor be brought, Huss was reported to have said: "there is no need of one. I have no mortal sin." The Reformer was not claiming to be sinless; but by the grace of God there would not be any sins to condemn him because of the work of His Saviour. The stake was lighted and John Huss is said to have died praying and singing. As a last measure that nothing be left of the Reformer, his outer clothing and his shoes were burned in the same flames; then the ashes of the martyr were gathered up and thrown into the Rhine, similar to Wycliffe, whose remains were dug up from his grave, burned, and then cast into an English stream. And so the earthly life of the continental Reformer, John Huss, came to an end.

The Aftermath and Huss' Contribution to the Reformation
In Bohemia, Huss' death was regarded as outright murder. Before long, the Bohemian nobles rebelled and demanded religious toleration. These Hussites, as they became known, went to Prague and when their demand for religious toleration and the release of imprisoned friends was not met, they threw thirteen members of the city council out of upper windows of the council room to their death. Emperor Sigismund tried to put down this rebellion and was able to do so with great difficulty after experiencing great losses to his army. Complete peace was only restored fifteen years later.

Although John Huss, the Reformer of Bohemia, died a martyr's death, the cause of Christ for which he stood, did not. His followers, who at first were called Hussites and then Taborites because they named the mountain upon which they had their headquarters, Mt. Tabor, later became known as the Bohemian or Moravian brethren which centuries later were esteemed for their deep piety and simple trust in God. More notable is the fact that Huss sowed the seeds for the Reformation in continental Europe. Luther is said to have been greatly encouraged in his struggles with the Roman Catholic Church by the experiences of Huss and the positions which he took against the established church. If Huss can be considered the "goose" of the Reformation, then Luther was the "eagle," for through the latter Reformer's labours which would take place close to 125 years later, a firm break with Rome was initiated.

As a result of Wycliffe's and Huss' work, the fifteenth century Reformers were able to carry on the work of reform to such an extent that we may still adhere to and hold up the banner: sola scriptura, sola gratia, and sola fida. May the benefits entrusted us in our rich heritage, but especially in the Word of God itself, be blessed to our never-dying souls.

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