21 September 2017

Your Goose is Cooked!

What do you think of when you hear the term, ‘The Reformation’? I guess the minds of many evangelicals turn to the corrupt state of the medieval Catholic Church in early 16th Century and its need to be reformed. The name most readily associated with this process is that of Martin Luther, who famously posted his 95 theses of contention to the door of the Cathedral in Wittenberg. Through this act, many see him as the founder of the Reformation. Perhaps the secret of Luther’s prominence however, has more to do with the invention of the printing press than his spiritual insight. Do not misunderstand me, I am not trying to detract in any way from what Luther did, which was absolutely crucial in the history of the Christian church. Like all of us, Luther stood on the shoulders of those who had gone before. Others who recognised the need for reformation, who fought and died for it, but who did not have the means to get their message out to the wider audience necessary to bring about large-scale change.

One such giant was surely John Wycliffe, who lived almost 200 years before the Reformation, yet his beliefs and teachings closely match those of Luther, Calvin and other reformers. As a man ahead of his time, Wycliffe has been called by historians, “the Morning Star of the Reformation.” Born in 1330, it was he, along with his assistant Purvey and many other faithful scribes, who in 1382, translated the Bible from the Latin Vulgate into English, so that the common man could read God’s word for himself. However, it is to another of these pre-reformation giants to whom I wish to turn our attention, Jan Hus.

Jan Hus may have originally been called Jan of Hussenitz, after his home village, but since this was a bit of a mouthful he shortened it to Hus, which means Goose. Born about 1371, 75 miles south west of Prague, in what is now the Czech Republic, he received a master’s degree from Charles University in Prague in 1396, became a professor of theology in 1398, was ordained to the priesthood in 1400, was made rector of the University in 1402, and in 1404 received a bachelor’s degree in theology.

At that time, there was a crisis of authority in the Western Church. There was political, as well as religious division over who was the true pope of Rome. The Council of Constance was called to settle the matter, and they elected a new pope, thus healing the schism. Meanwhile, Hus had begun to denounce various church abuses in his sermons. Interestingly his disputes with authority did not concern basic theological issues but rather matters of church discipline and practice. At celebrations of the Lord’s Supper, the custom had arisen of distributing the consecrated bread to all Christians in good standing who desired to receive it, but restricting the wine to the celebrant alone. Hus denounced this restriction as contrary to Holy Scripture and to the ancient tradition of the Church. He also held that Church officials ought to exercise spiritual powers only, and not be earthly governors. This did not go down well.

Hus, actively promoted Wycliffe’s ideas: that people should be permitted to read the Bible in their own language, and they should oppose the tyranny of the Roman Church which threatened with execution anyone possessing a non-Latin Bible. In 1402, when Hus became the first rector of the Czech university, he was enjoying the favour of the royal court. This however was short lived, because by 1405 the Bishop of Prague was compelled to depose him, on account of his severe attacks upon the clergy, which he made as an active synodical preacher. The government took the side of Hus, and the power of his adherents increased from day to day, as he continued to preach in the Bethlehem chapel in Prague and became bolder and bolder in his accusations against the Church. As a result, the churches of Prague were put under the papal ban of 1409 against the doctrinal views of Wycliffe to try and stop this ‘free preaching’. This ban was to no avail and Hus continued his strong preaching.

In 1412 his archbishop excommunicated him, not for heresy, but for insubordination, but on December 4th 1414, the Pope entrusted a committee of three bishops with a preliminary investigation against Hus. In June of the following year, Jan Hus was tried, with the witnesses for the prosecution being heard, while Hus was refused an advocate for his defense. The one point on which Hus could be said to have a doctrinal difference with the Council was that he taught that the office of the Pope did not exist by divine command, but was established by the Church so that things might be done in an orderly fashion. The Council, having just narrowly succeeded in uniting Western Christendom under a single Pope, after years of chaos, was not about to have its work undone. It accordingly found him guilty of heresy, even though Hus was not condemned for any error of doctrine, but for having the temerity to attack the pomp, pride and avarice of the Pope, cardinals and prelates of the Church.

His condemnation took place on July 6th 1415, in the presence of the solemn assembly of the Council in the cathedral. The Bishop of Lodi delivered an oration on the duty of eradicating heresy. Then some theses of Hus and Wycliffe and a report of his trial were read. He protested loudly several times, and when his appeal to Christ, as the Supreme Judge was rejected as a condemnable heresy, he exclaimed, “O God and Lord, now the council condemns even thine own act and thine own law as heresy, since thou thyself didst lay thy cause before thy Father as the just judge, as an example for us, whenever we are sorely oppressed.” Then an Italian prelate pronounced the sentence of condemnation upon Hus and his writings. Again Hus protested loudly, saying that even at this hour he did not wish anything but to be convinced from Holy Scripture. He fell on his knees and with a low voice, asked God to forgive all his enemies. Then followed his degradation, after which Jan Hus was led away to the stake. At the place of execution he knelt down, spread out his hands, and prayed aloud.

The executioners undressed Hus and tied his hands behind his back with ropes, and his neck with a chain to a stake, around which wood and straw had been piled up so that it covered him to the neck. Even at the last moment, he was asked to save his life by a recantation, but Hus declined with the words, “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 to-day with gladness.” Immediately, the fire was kindled with John Wycliffe’s own hand written manuscripts.

Later when members of the Council of Constance bragged, “You’re goose is cooked” to the churches of Prague and others which followed Hus, their response was, “You’ve cooked your own goose,” which was a threat against the Council and papal authority.

The last words of Jan Hus were, “in 100 years, God will raise up a man whose calls for reform cannot be suppressed.” Almost exactly 100 years later, in 1517, Martin Luther posted his list of 95 issues of heretical theology and crimes of the Roman Catholic Church. The prophecy of Hus had come true!

The followers of Jan Hus and his fellow martyr Jerome of Prague became known as the Czech Brethren and later as the Moravians. The Moravian Church survives to this day, and has had a considerable influence on the Lutheran movement. When Luther suddenly became famous after the publication of his 95 theses, cartoons and graffiti began to appear implying that Luther was the spiritual heir of Jan Hus. When Luther encountered the Pope’s representative, Johannes Eck, in a crucial debate, Eck sidestepped the questions of indulgences and of justification by faith, and instead asked Luther whether the Church had been right to condemn Hus. When Luther said that Hus had been unjustly condemned, the whole question of the authority of popes and councils was brought into question and the world of Christendom was never the same again.