This article on John Hus, also looks at relics, indulgences, and the Hussites.

Source: The Monthly Record, 1992. 8 pages.

John Hus His Continuing Importance

Recently we have been challenged and stimulated by learning more about the churches of central and eastern Europe, churches that have been preserved and strengthened by God through four decades of Communist oppression.

It is equally challenging to look back at the "forgotten history" of the church in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Transylvania. Most of us have been made aware of the Reformation in Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Scotland, but not so many realise that a Protestant reformation swept through Poland in the sixteenth century, only to be destroyed by the Counter Reformation.

One reason why these eastern European reformations appear so far away and unknown is because they didn't throw up many of the "hero figures" that historians latch on to. The most enduring name associated with the Polish reformation is the heretic Socinius!

This, however, is not the case in the history of the Czech reformation. One man towers above his contemporaries, and stands on the stage of world history as an equal of Luther, Calvin and Knox β€” John Hus. Hus has been called the greatest son of the Czech reformation and naturally many people have tried to present him as a champion of their cause.

Different Interpretationsβ€’πŸ”—

Frantisek Palacky (1798-1876), the father of modern Czech history, presents Hus as a nineteenth-century nationalist and liberal. Palacky believed that all history is a constant but creative tension between opposites, especially in Bohemia. "The chief content and basic feature of the whole history of Bohemia-Moravia is ... the continual association and conflict of Slavdom ... with Germandom." To Palacky these were two very different sets of values, and Hus was a hero of the Czech nation (and its values) against German domination. He was a champion of the individual conscience against external authority, in this case the Roman Church.

Marxist historians have similarly held Hus in high regard. He is said to have championed the cause of the ordinary people and articulated the grievances of the growing numbers of towns-people. His preaching gave them a class consciousness and his death precipitated a revolutionary movement, the only real form of social progress.

But John Hus was far more than a catalyst for social change or a Czech nationalist; and he was certainly not a liberal humanist. This is how he often described himself in his letters, "Master John Hus, in hope a servant of the Lord Jesus Christ"; or, "servant of God, an unprofitable priest".

We cannot begin to understand this man until we understand his love for God and his vision for the Church. Matthew Spinka in his Advocates of Reform describes Hus as an advocate of spiritual reform. It is because of this that the life and ministry of John Hus is of interest to Christians today.


Although the year of Hus' birth is not known for certain (it was 1372 or 1373), its timing is very important. This was the golden age of the Kingdom of Bohemia. Its King Charles IV, 1346-78, was strong and enlightened. He led the kingdom out of turmoil and disorder and made its capital Prague one of the leading cities in Europe. Charles was also the Holy Roman Emperor and that made Prague the capital of the Empire.

To match its new found grandeur, Charles founded a University in Prague in 1348, the only one in central Europe at that time, and it drew students and scholars form Germany, Poland, Hungary and even as far afield as France and England. These links with England were strengthened in 1381 when Charles' daughter Anne married Richard II; and it was contacts like this that helped bring into Bohemia the radical writings of the Oxford theologian, John Wyclif.

There would have been interest in Wyclif's ideas anyway, because there was already a reform movement flourishing in Bohemia, sponsored by Charles himself. During the 1350s Charles invited Conrad Waldhauser to preach in Prague. He was an Austrian, an Augustinian Canon, and his preaching was typical of the calls for moral reform made during the late middle ages. Waldhauser's preaching denounced the immorality of the clergy, and the luxury of the nobility, but it triggered an even more radical reform movement among the Czech clergy.

The Reform Movementβ†β€’πŸ”—

The most influential of the reformist clergy was John Milic of Kromeriz (1325-1374). He was blistering in his denunciations of the church, and his response was to withdraw into godly communities. Like other late medieval reformers he emphasised inner piety and frequent communion in the Mass, and he believed that the end of the world was very near.

What made his views so controversial was his belief that King Charles IV was the final Antichrist. Once when preaching before Charles he even told him so! Charles displayed just how enlightened he was and didn't take personal offence. In fact both Charles and his son Wenceslas (who succeeded him in 1378) continued to support the cause of reform.

This was the environment into which John Hus came in 1390, aged 18, to study at the University of Prague. He came from peasant stock, from the village of Hussinec in South Bohemia, but he very quickly took to city and university life. He graduated with a Bachelor's degree in Arts in 1393, took a Master's degree in 1396, and started studying Theology while at the same time teaching at the University. In 1400 he was ordained to the priesthood.

At this time Hus was merely one of many in the University who were concerned about the obvious corruption of the church. He was by no means the most radical and he accepted many Roman doctrines without criticism. In 1393 he even spent his last few coins buying an indulgence. He was not even the most brilliant of the reform party β€” Jerome of Prague was widely regarded as his intellectual superior β€” but, in the providence of God, it was Hus who was driven out of humble seclusion and brought into public prominence as a preacher and as a controversialist.

Hus the Preacherβ†β€’πŸ”—

In 1402 Hus was appointed rector and preacher in the Bethlehem chapel. Preaching in the vernacular had been a prominent feature of the Czech reform movement, and in 1391 the followers of Milic provided this centre for preaching and endowed a preacher. The charter stated:

There exist in the city of Prague many places devoted to divine services, but these are for the greatest part used exclusively for sacred ministrations, so that there is not a single place primarily designed for the preaching of the word of God... This is unworthy.

Hus was the first rector to devote himself fully to this work, preaching twice every Lord's day and saint's day, and daily during Lent and Advent. During his twelve years there, he preached 3,000 sermons in the chapel. His preaching was textual. It was very pastoral and personally applied. When he was forced away from the Chapel, he preached to his people in his letters. A letter written from Constance to his flock one month before his death gives us a flavour of his preaching.

I beseech the Lords that they deal mercifully with the poor and rule them justly. I beseech the burghers that they carry on their commerce justly. I beseech the craftsmen that they do their work faithfully and other pupils that they obey and follow their masters in the good and that they study diligently for the sake of God's praise and of their own and other people's salvation.

Evangelical Flavourβ†β€’πŸ”—

Despite occasional nationalistic overtones and a strong moralistic tone that is found in much medieval preaching, the underlying theology of his preaching was evangelical. While he used the scholastic definition of saving faith as "faith formed by love", to him this was simply the teaching of James that faith without works is not real faith.

In a lecture on 2 Peter 1, he refers to the faith which "saves apart from works". He never used Luther's language of forensic justification, but his focus is always on the grace of God. In his Exposition of the Apostles' Creed, he states that "believing in God" involves "adhering to Him and being incorporated in Him".

This emphasis upon the grace of God and upon the merits of Christ places a gulf between Hus and the mysticism and legalism that typified late medieval preaching. As a preacher, Hus was popular and powerful but above all evangelical.

Hus was also a controversialist. We will note three areas in which he became embroiled in controversy.

Over Relicsβ†β€’πŸ”—

His was a very superstitious age. It seems that people would believe anything. Even if they didn't believe that all relics were genuine, they were still prepared to pay to use them to avoid the fires of purgatory. Relics were big business; and every so often business scandals would break out.

One of these scandals centred on the town of Wilsnac in Brandenburg, where there were alleged appearances of Christ's blood and to which pilgrims flocked in the hope of a miracle. Zajik Zbynek, the young Archbishop of Prague was concerned to reform the church and was embarrassed by such blatant exploitation of people's incredulity. He was also concerned at the flood of revenues from Bohemia into Germany, so he commissioned Hus to investigate and report.

Hus reported that this was indeed a fraud manufactured by the local priest who was raising money to repair the local church, but he went further than most people expected and produced a theological response to the whole phenomenon. First of all he said that such an appearance of our Lord's blood was impossible. His reasoning was that as the body of Christ had been glorified at the ascension there could be none of his material blood here on earth, except in the consecrated host.

More damning to the whole medieval machine of salvation was his condemnation of the desire for physical tokens of faith. The whole thing was undesirable and a danger to people's salvation. True faith is always in things unseen and he quoted the words of our Lord to Thomas, "Blessed are they who believe without having seen". The mindset that relied on relics and miracles and visible wonders was thus a denial of true saving faith.

Over Wyclifβ†β€’πŸ”—

The writings of the English philosopher and theologian John Wyclif appear to have had more impact in Bohemia than they did in his native England. The Czech reform party devoured his writings but the more conservative Germans in the University opposed his views and in 1403 declared his views heretical. (In 1383 the Black friars Synod in London had already declared 42 articles of Wyclif's teaching to be heretical.)

Although there were more zealous Wyclifites among the Czech members of the University, it was Hus who came to the fore as a defender of Wyclif in the University debates of 1404 and especially in 1412.

That later year he made it clear that he did not agree with everything that Wyclif taught: "Whatever truth was propounded by Wyclif, that I accept, not because it is Wyclif's, but because it is Christ's truth." He refused to defend Wyclif's attack on transubstantiation or on Papal power. In fact he would defend only six of Wyclif's articles which, he claimed, could be taken in a "proper" sense. These dealt mainly with who was competent to preach, administer church ordinances, appoint or remove clergy.

Hus recognised Wyclif as an evangelical doctor and commented that he wished his soul to be where Wyclif's was. This led to him being charged with Wyclifism, a charge which followed him all the way to his trial at the Council of Constance and to the stake.

Hus more than answered the charges made against him, but the real charge brought against him was that he, like Wyclif before him, based his belief and his teaching upon a source of authority other than the Church. Not upon any man or men, but upon Christ's truth. This issue of authority was brought into focus by the debate over indulgences.

Over Indulgencesβ†β€’πŸ”—

In September 1411 Papal finances were yet again under strain. John XXIII had been driven from Rome by Ladislas, King of Naples, who supported his rival Gregory XII. John needed money to launch a campaign to retake Rome. That was why he issued two Bulls, one offering remission of sins to anyone who would support his campaign against Ladislas, and the other appointing commissioners to sell indulgences.

On 22nd May 1412 the commissioner for Prague, Wenceslas Tiem, arrived and set up shop in several of the great churches. He came with the support of Wenceslas and the new Archbishop (Albic), both of whom were going to benefit financially.

That left Hus isolated and his position quite precarious. Advised to tone down his opposition to indulgences, he denounced their sale none the less in a university debate in June 1412. He criticised the sale on three grounds: God alone could remit sins; it was not the work of the Church to be financing or prosecuting war; and the manner in which the indulgences were being sold.

Hus knew that, in theory, indulgences did not claim to remove the guilt of sin, only its temporal punishment. But he also knew that that was a subtlety often lost on many people. It clouded the free grace of God. It added a requirement in excess of grace. It sold the Holy Spirit.

Hus could not keep silent when souls were being darkened. He had alienated the theological faculty of the University, now dominated by his former allies. He had alienated the king and the Archbishop. Now the Papal Legate was demanding that he be silenced.

Hus was too good a theologian for his opponents to trap him in a debate over indulgences, so old charges of Wyclifism were raised and he was accused of heresy. On 18th October he was excommunicated and left Prague rather than see the whole city placed under an interdict because of his presence.

Hus, however, did not leave the matter there. He appealed to the Pope and this started the legal proceedings which culminated in his condemnation at Constance. More significantly, on 18th October 1412 he appealed to Christ "the most just Judge, Who knows, protects, and judges, declares and rewards without fail the just cause of every man".

He stood where Luther was to stand a century later, opposing the shameless traffic in Indulgences, and he was forced to explain how he β€” one man β€” could dare to oppose what the Pope and the church had approved.

When warned to submit to the "apostolic mandates" he replied, "Lords, understand me. I said that I heartily aspire to fulfil them in everything; but I call the apostolic mandates the teaching of Christ's apostles". Hus did not deny the power of the Church or Pope, but reminded them that their authority came from a higher source. He stunned the world by appealing directly to that source.

This striking appeal is the legacy that Hus left to the Czech reformation, which really only began in earnest after his martyrdom in 1415. Many of the features of the Hussite revolution would have surprised Hus himself, but they grew out of the ferment of ideas that was made possible by a return to the supreme authority of the Word of God.

Word and Sacramentβ†β€’πŸ”—

The area in which this ferment was most intense was that of Eucharistic doctrine. Even before Hus' death, Jacoubek of Stribro started to administer bread and wine in the sacrament. He did not do this without Hus' approval. Hus wrote from Constance, "Do not oppose the sacrament of the cup of the Lord". The religious movement that grew from these times was known as the Utraquist Church: it administered the Communion in both kinds.

Others went further, denying transubstantiation and arguing for a real presence along with real bread like that of Lutheran doctrine, while the radicals held that the sacrament was merely a memorial meal. New liturgies were developed, simpler forms adopted, rituals abandoned. But the central importance of the sacrament was held by all β€” indeed even emphasised when it was given to baptised infants. This utraquist sacrament has been called the "most cherished of Hussite rites". Their banners bore the chalice. It harks back to the call of the early reformers for frequent communion, and it was associated with a revival of popular piety.

Yet it wasn't mere sentimentalism or arid sacramentalism; there was a strong emphasis on reading and preaching the Word.

R. R. Betts asserts: It can be said that the three most remarkable characteristics of popular Hussitism were the cult of the Bible, the popularity of the pulpit and the practice of family worship.

The clergy were recalled to their role as preachers. Many others took it upon themselves to provide Bible teaching for their households and employees. So much so that Pope Pius II recognised that Bohemian washerwomen were better versed in scripture than many of his bishops.

Spread and Developmentβ†β€’πŸ”—

This was how popular Hussitism spread in Bohemia after 1415, and this is the heritage that was threatened by the death of Wenceslas in 1419. Wenceslas was an erratic supporter of reform, but at least he was weak. His heir and brother, Sigismund, was a zealous Catholic who wanted to be the Holy Roman Emperor, but realised that no king of a heretic kingdom could ever become Emperor. So he was determined to restore Bohemia to the Catholic fold, and led crusading armies assembled from all over Europe to achieve this by force.

The Bohemians would not submit and they registered their defiance in The Four Articles of Prague (1420) which insisted upon the following: free preaching of the Word; the sacrament administered in both kinds; clerical poverty; and that mortal sins should be punished by "those whose office it is".

This begins one of the most amazing episodes of Czech history. Under the leadership of John Zizka the more radical Hussites assembled at Tabor. (Procopius the Great took over the leadership after Zizak's death in 1424.) From there the Taborites went out marching through the night and over frozen lakes to appear from nowhere and inflict crushing defeat on vastly superior forces.

It was a puritanical machine, like Cromwell's new model army. They thought of themselves as the "Warriors of God". Their string of victories has been the inspiration for many popular legends, but the truth is just as amazing. In 1431 Pope Martin V personally led a force of 90,000 infantry and 40,000 horsemen as a final effort to crush the Hussites. He was met by a force half that size, near a place called Domaslice, coming singing the Hussite chorale:

All ye warriors of God, who fight
In defence of His law Him beseech for succor and might
To Him most trustily draw;
For with Him ye shall ever conquerors be.

The battle was never joined because when the Papal army heard these familiar refrains they turned and fled.

Final Agreementβ†β€’πŸ”—

Eventually, it was internal disunity that brought the Bohemians to an agreement with the Roman Church. Moderate Utraquists (allied with moderate Catholics) defeated the radical Taborites at the Battle of Lipany in 1434 and two years later the Hussite state was recognised by the council of Basel. The agreement conceded the terms of The Four Articles of Prague.

It has been said that Lipany marks the end of true Hussitism. In one way it marks the achievement of what Hus sought. In another it marks the end of that radical ferment that occurs when men declare their consciences captive to the Word of God. Radical, biblical reform ceased to be the driving force of the nation. After Lipany there was something very anglican about the Hussite Church and State. It was a national church in which compromise and accommodation were emphasised rather than principle.

The truest heirs of the Hussite legacy were the pacifist, pietistic and separatist groups of the Unitas Fratrum, which crystallised into a formal structure in 1457. In their own quiet way they perpetuated the best traditions of the Hussite movement; simple worship, biblical preaching, deep personal piety, missionary zeal. Although like the main Utraquist Church they were driven out of Bohemia and Moravia by the counter reformation after 1621, they gave rise to such groups as the Moravian Brethren, and have provided an important historical inspiration for Czech evangelicalism in more modern times.

Hus' Challenge Todayβ†β€’πŸ”—

What is his legacy to us today? What does he have to say to us? It would be easy to pretend that he was a twentieth-century evangelical or sixteenth-century reformer and pick out the bits of his preaching and writing that we agree with, while ignoring the more embarrassing and unfamiliar bits that we don't agree with. And there are many such bits.

One modern Czech historian has referred to the events of Hussite times as "an unfinished reformation" or "a reform in process". Hus held on to much of the paraphernalia of medieval religion: veneration of saints and the Virgin Mary; the place of the Pope; the doctrine of purgatory; the distinction between venal and mortal sins; transubstantiation and the Mass.

Picking out the bits of the man that we like is an unacceptable way of looking into history. It is unhistorical and dishonest; but it is also very disappointing, for it hides the real John Hus and his challenge. To understand the man requires an understanding of his times and the thought world of his times.


Put at its simplest, Hus believed in universals. He believed that behind everything we can see, touch or sense there is a universal, ultimate, intangible truth β€” such a universal truth that can only be known by faith. Universals are the reality behind things. We can understand the things that we can sense only when we connect them to universals.

In 1409 the annual debate in the University of Prague opened with a discussion of the question, "Whether it is necessary to posit universals apart from things if the harmony of the world is to be sensible". Hus believed that it was necessary!

These views β€” known as philosophical realism β€” had been the metaphysic of Plato, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas and Wyclif, but they were attacked in the high Middle ages β€” first, unwittingly, by Duns Scotus, who claimed that such talk about inflexible universals limited the absolute freedom of God, then by William of Occam, who went a stage further and denied that there was any universal truth. His followers proclaimed that "truth exists in sentences" or in isolated individual facts. His philosophy β€” known as nominalism β€” emphasised law and science; its driving force was pragmatism, not faith and reason. It focused on the order of existing things, examining and defending the status quo.

This "new" philosophy had a profound effect on how men looked at the Church. The true Church, they said, is simply what you can see; it is a human organism and not some vague ideal. Doctrine is what the church teaches. What is, is right. It was against this that Hus reacted in various ways.

Presenting the Gospelβ†β€’πŸ”—

Hus did not call sinners to put their trust in the church, relics, penance, sacraments; not in things they could see, but in "invisible verities". Remember his attack on relics. He made it clear in a pamphlet, De Credere, that faith is in God alone, and Spinka comments:

By this kind of faith one does not believe in the Church, or the saints, or the virgin Mary but in God and Christ alone.

Speaking of the Churchβ†β€’πŸ”—

His conclusions are even more radical when he applied his views to the Church. The prevailing view was that the church was the visible universal organisation. That is still the formal Roman definition of the Church. Michael of Nemecky Brod accused Hus: "he errs concerning the church, and above all, in that he does not concede that the church signifies the pope, cardinals, archbishops and clergy subject to them and that he says this meaning is extorted by scholars and is by no means tenable".

To Hus this was the visible church, and was a mixture of pure and impure; but the true church "is the aggregation of all the holy elect, those living on this earth and those sleeping and triumphant". The church is not defined by men and manmade laws; it is based on the eternal and unchanging plan of God.

This simple statement made Hus very dangerous to the existing structure. It was however the dynamic force that drove his zeal for reform. It gave him the moral imperative for reform. The corruption of the church wasn't just irregular, illegal and deceptive, it was a violation of the very laws of God which hold the universe together.

This overarching universal of divine purpose convinced Hus of the value of his work as a preacher and of the certainty that true reform would prevail. He was surrounded by a world of corruption; but what was real was an extension of the universal. In the midst of the corruption there was the dove of God, pure and blameless. This true church would indeed be displayed as such.

That is why he threw himself with such passion and zeal into his preaching and pastoring. He was building on a solid foundation, he was building on God's universal plan, God's universal truth.

That is why he was stinging in his rebukes of clerical indifference. In 1410 he wrote to the pastor of Prachatice (Zavis of Zapy), a man who had been pastor of that parish since 1381 but had never lived there,

Where, I pray, is the gospel of Christ fulfilled in you? A good shepherd 'goes before the sheep and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice'. How, I pray, do you go before your sheep and they follow you or hear your voice, when for many years they have rarely seen you? The day will come in which you will give account of your sheep and of the many benefices you hold.

In his work On Simony he exclaimed, "O merciful Lord! How little care is taken about souls which thou hast redeemed with thy blood and thy cruel death! They have, alas, greater care to fill their purses than to restore unto thee a soul from damnation. Accordingly, Saint Bernard wrote to Pope Eugenius, 'If a she-ass stumbles, there is someone to lift her; but a soul perishes and there is none to care about her'."

He described his own concern in the last letter he wrote on Bohemian soil as he left on his ill-fated journey to Constance. Writing to his congregation in Prague he told them,

You know that for a long time I have faithfully laboured among you, preaching the word of God without heresy and errors, as you are aware; and that your salvation was, is now and shall remain my desire until my death.

The Enduring Messageβ†β€’πŸ”—

This passion is what speaks most directly and challengingly to us today. If we see past the philosophical language, the scholastic arguments, the contemporary details, this is the heart of John Hus: that God's glorious, absolute, universal truth might be lived out in the lives of his elect. Christ is that universal truth. He makes universal truth visible, and his philosophy of ministry is one of following him unflinchingly. No one else is worth following, but, for Christ, Hus was prepared to give even his life.

Accordingly,Β he says, let us follow him, obey him, and place our faith, hope, love and all good works upon him, look upon him as our mirror, and strive after him with all our might.

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