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14. Attempting Reformation: Jan Hus

The Church. Where can it be found?

The Great Papal Schism (1378–1417) caused many to question where the true church could be found. Papal corruption was too much for many Catholic clergy to put up with anymore. The Italian scholar and poet Petrarch worked in the Papal court in Avignon and was disgusted by what he saw. He described the Avignon papacy as “a living hell” and the new Babylon. “Send back Nero I pray!” For Catholics like Petrarch the Church had become a place “to which Judas will be admitted if he brings with him his thirty pieces of blood money while Christ the pauper will be turned away from the gate… Though truth has always been hated, it is now a capital crime” (Petrarch: 106, 27).

Jan Hus

Hus was born in Bohemia in 1372 and was educated at Prague University where he later taught as Professor of Theology, becoming rector of the university in 1402. Hus was influenced by the writings of the Englishman John Wycliffe (1320-84) (Schwanda, 617).

Preaching Reform

In 1402 he began a ten-year pastorate at Chapel of the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem in Prague, preaching regularly in Czech and calling for reform of the church. The Papal Schism was on going during this time (1378–1417). In 1409 in response to this preaching Pope Alexander V declared that preaching was only permitted in Cathedrals or other designated churches, thereby outlawing Hus’ preaching. In 1410 all copies of Wycliffe books had to be surrendered for examination to the church. Hus did not obey these decrees because he felt they were un-Scriptural, and this set him up for conflict with the church authorities.

The Issue of Indulgences

In 1411 Pope John XXIII proclaimed a crusade against King Ladislaus of Naples, the protector of rival Pope Gregory XII. This crusade was preached in Prague as well as other cities. Pope John XXIII also authorized the sale of indulgences to raise money for the war, and priests selling indulgences urged people to crowd the churches and give their offerings. Hus rejected the selling of Indulgences as a perversion of the Gospel and denied the right of pope or priest to make war against Christians and instead the church was called to pray for her enemies.

In 1411 Hus was excommunicated and in June 1412, Hus held a debate at Prague University over issues of indulgences. In 1412, three young men heckled a public selling of indulgences in the old town square at the Tyn church, Prague. They were arrested and taken to the town hall. Hus appealed on their behalves and promises were made that nothing serious would happen to them. However, after Hus left the three youths were beheaded. Hus presided over their funerals. The whole city of Prague was put under a papal punishment; no church services or burials were allowed. Soon after this came into force Hus left Prague.

What is the Church?

Having left Prague, Hus began to work on a book entitled The Church. Hus defined the church as the totality of the predestinate, past, present, and future, the body of Christ, of which Christ alone is head. The Roman pontiff and the cardinals, His argued, are not the Church. The Church can exist without cardinals and a pope, and in fact for hundreds of years there were no cardinals (Schaff 6:368). Drawing upon Pauline and Augustinian principles, Hus understood the church to be a body of those predestined in heaven and earth who believe by faith in Jesus Christ, not a corporation governed by the pope or councils (Schwanda, 617). It was for his doctrine of the church more than anything else that Hus was branded a heretic.

While Christ alone is the head of the church, there are rulers of particular churches. Hus agreed that a righteous pope or bishop can be followed in so far as he follows Christ and the Apostolic teaching, but he is not the head of the universal church. Unlike Wycliffe, he did not argue for the abolishing of the papal office, but argued the church could function fine without it, since it was not a divine institution. Hus argued that it is permissible for a Christian to disobey a pope or any Christian leader, if they have acquired their ecclesiastical office through simony or if they teach something contrary to Scripture. Hus argued that the power to forgive sins belongs to no mortal man anymore than it belonged to the priest to whom Christ sent the lepers. The lepers were cleansed before they reached the priest.

Arrest & Trial

The Council of Constance (1414-18) was called to finally end the Papal schism by the excommunicating all other rival popes and electing a new pope, Martin V in 1417. It also decided to settle to issues raised by Hus. Hus agreed to attend the Council of Constance since Emperor Sigismund promised safe passage and the opportunity to defend his position. Upon arriving, however, Hus was thrown into prison. At trial the council repeatedly sought for Hus’ recantation, which he refused.

After seven months of dismal imprisonment and deepening disappointment, on Saturday, July 6th, 1415, Huss was conducted to the cathedral. It was 6 A. M., and he was kept waiting outside the doors until the celebration of mass was completed. He was then admitted to the sacred edifice, but not to make a defence, as he had come to Constance hoping to do. He was to listen to sentence pronounced upon him as an ecclesiastical outcast and criminal. He was placed in the middle of the church on a high stool, set there specially for him. The bishop of Lodi preached from Rom. 6:6, “that the body of sin may be destroyed.” (Schaff 6: 369). Patrick Foxe, bishop of Cork, Ireland, was appointed to pronounce the sentence, then ascended the pulpit: “the holy council, having God only before its eye, condemns John Huss to have been and to be a true, real and open heretic, the disciple not of Christ but of John Wycliffe, one who in the University of Prague and before the clergy and people declared Wycliffe to be a Catholic and an evangelical doctor.” The council ordered Hus degraded from the priestly order, and relinquished him to the secular authority for execution (Schaff 6:381).

Hus was burnt at the stake and to remove, if possible, all chance of preserving relics from the scene, Huss’ clothes and shoes were thrown into the flames. The ashes were gathered up and cast into the Rhine (Schaff 6: 382–38).

The Legacy of Hus

The followers of Hus were called the Hussites. During the Hussite Wars (1420–34) they were able to implement much of Hus’s ideas and teaching in Bohemia, despite bitter opposition from Catholic Europe. Although international divisions gradually weakened the cause, it left a lasting legacy in the Bohemian Brethren [later the Moravians] (ODCC, 811). The inscription on the Hus monument in Prague’s Old Town square bears these words from his Exposition of the Faith: “Therefore, O faithful Christian, search for truth, hear truth, learn truth, love truth, speak the truth, hold the truth, defend the truth till death.”


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