This article first appeared in the November 1, 1941 issue of the Standard Bearer and was written by Rev. George M. Ophoff, who also professor in the PRC Seminary.
John Huss and the Reformation
John Huss was one of God’s faithful witnesses—a man who, on account of his protest against the wickedness in the church and his exaltation of the Bible as the one infallible authority and the sole criterion of life and doctrine, died a martyr’s death.
It is said that the Reformation had two forerunners and that one of these was John Huss. The statement is true in the sense that through his witnessing he contributed to the sum and total of those agitation that resulted in the Reformation. If the truth of this contention is to appear, regard must be had first to the state of the church at the time in which Huss lived, second to his career as priest, and thirdly to the abuses in the church which he denounced.
The state of the church.
It had ceased to be true that the free gift of grace is obtainable only through Christ Jesus, the sole mediator of God and man. Superstition, fear, and alarmed imagination had devised numerous other means,—saints and mediators who had gone to their reward and whose duty it was said to be to make intercession in heaven for men on earth. And the earth was filled with pious works—such as sacrifices, observances, and ceremonies of divers kinds—on the grounds of which salvation had to be obtained. Such was the religion of this period.
“The sufferings and merits of Christ were looked upon as an idle tale, or as the fictions of Homer. There was no thought of faith by which we become partakers of the Savior’s righteousness and of the heritage of eternal life. Christ was looked upon as a severe judge, prepared to condemn all who should not have resource to the intercession of the saints, or to the papal indulgences. Other intercessors appeared in his place: first the virgin Mary, like the Diana of paganism, and then the saints, whose numbers were continually augmented by the popes. These mediators granted their intercession only to such applicants as had deserved well of the orders founded by them. For this it was necessary to do, not what God had commanded m His Word, but a number of works invented by monks and priests, and which brought money to the treasury.” These works were the chanting of prayers and the making of pilgrimages (for which there were as many resorts as there were mountains, forests, and valleys) and giving money to the convents and priests.
Such were the penitential works that had to be done in order to obtain salvation. This penance—the doing of these works—was regarded as punishment to which one had to submit in order to be forgiven. It was thought by this worship, man rendered himself deserving of grace and life. These penitential works continued to be multiplied in the church down to the thirteenth century. “Men were required to fast, to go barefoot, to wear no linen, etc.; to quit their homes and their native land for distant countries, or to renounce the world and to embrace a monastic life.” In the eleventh century there were added to these practices voluntary whippings. Nobles and peasants, old and young, even children of five years of age, went in pairs, by hundreds, thousands, and tens of thousands, through towns and villages, visiting churches even in the depth of winter. Armed with whips, they flogged each other mercilessly.
Such was the burden that men had to bear in order to be saved, and for the deliverance of which they were sighing. It was therefore to ease this burden yet without losing their usurped power over the people, that the priests invented that system of barter that was given the name of Indulgences. An Indulgence was (and still is) a written remission of the temporal (usually purgatorial) punishment due to God for sins whose eternal punishment had been remitted on the ground of the sacrifice of Christ; it was a remission granted to the penitents from the treasury of the superabundant merits of our Lord Jesus Christ, of Mary most holy, and of the saints. As this temporal punishment consisted especially in penance, that is, in the doing of the works specified above, the Indulgence freed the recipient from the obligation of performing these works. It soon became customary to grant an indulgence—a written remission of sins—could thus such as the giving of lands or of a sum of money. An Indulgence—a written remission of sins—could thus be bought. As the Indulgence also freed from the fire of purgatory, the priests, to encourage the sale of the written remissions, would depict in horrible colors the torments inflicted by this fire on all who became its prey.
Somewhat later there was invented the renowned and scandalous traffic of Indulgences. It remitted from the punishment of the sin of incest for five groats. There was a stated price for murder, infanticide, adultery, perjury, burglary, etc. In 1300 Pope Boniface VIII promised to all who made a pilgrimage to Rome a plenary Indulgence. From all parts of Europe people flocked in crowds. In one month two hundred thousand pilgrims visited Rome, bringing rich offerings. The coffers of the pope were replenished.
It can be expected that such corruption of the doctrine of the church should result in the decline of morality. The doctrine and sale of indulgences were powerful stimulants to sin among an ignorant people. Though the indulgence, according to the church, could benefit only those who truly repented, all that was seen in them is that they licensed men to sin with impunity. The priests were the first to show the ill effect of this corrupting influence. In many places the people were at ease because the priest kept a mattress, that the married woman might be safe from his seductions. The houses of the clergy were often dens of corruption. Priests, in company with disreputable characters, frequented taverns, played at dice and climaxed their drunken revelries with quarrels and blasphemy. Both the lower and the higher clergy was sunk in ignorance. They had no need of studying the sacred scriptures. It was not a question of explaining the scriptures but of granting indulgences. The foundation truths of the Bible were entirely disappearing and with them the life that forms the essence of true religion. In the defense of the tenets of Rome, the appeal was made not to the scriptures but to the pronouncements of the councils and of the Pope and to the teachings of the doctors.
Yet there was the true church. And this church was not the Pope and the corrupt clergy, but the faithful servants of Jesus Christ, the true protestants of the truth. Their joint witness was the light shining in the darkness. They were found everywhere, in the humblest convent, and in the remotest parish.
Such a witness was John Huss. Huss was born on the sixth of July, 1369. He thus appeared upon the stage of history one hundred and fourteen years before Martin Luther. His birthplace was Hussinet, a Bohemian village, lying toward the border of Bavaria. Descended from a poor family, he was early acquainted with labor and privation. He studied philosophy and theology at the university of Prague. He received his master’s degree in the year 1386, and began himself to lecture at the university. In 1401 he was ordained to the priesthood, still maintaining a teaching connection with the university. The following year he was appointed preacher at the Bethlehem chapel, to hold forth the Word of God on every Sunday and festival day in the Bohemian tongue. As his sermons were aglow with the fervor of love from which they sprang and were backed by an exemplary life, they made a powerful impression. People gladly heard him, and soon he was surrounded by a community of warm and devoted friends. A new Christian life started forth among the people. In his sermons he dwelt with growing earnestness upon the subject of holy living and with unfailing severity attacked the prevailing vices of his time. So long as he rebuked corruption among the laity, he had the support of the archbishop, Zbynek; but on account of his criticism of the clergy, this favor gradually turned into opposition.
In the meantime Huss had read many of Wycliffe’s writings. What attracted him to these writings was the “realism” that they set forth, the spirit of reform that animated from them, and the inclination to adhere to the Scriptures as the only source of doctrine, and the striving after a renewal of the Christian life in the sense of apostolic Christianity that they revealed. Let us hear the words of Huss himself on this matter: “I am drawn to him (Wycliffe)—he says—by the reputation he enjoys with the good, not the bad priests of the university of Oxford, and generally with the people, though not with the bad, covetous, pomp-loving, dissipated prelates and priests. I am attracted by his writings, in which he expends every effort to conduct all men back to the law of Christ, and especially the clergy, inviting them to let go the pomp and dominion of the world and live with the apostles according to the life of Christ. I am attracted by the love which he had for the law of Christ, maintaining its truth and holding that not one jot or title of it could fail.” Theologically Huss is held to be a disciple of Wycliffe. True it is, that in common with Wycliffe, he taught, and correctly so, that the true church consists of the elect only, of whom the true head is not the pope but Christ, and of which the sole law is the will of Christ as revealed in the New Testament Scriptures. He divides the entire body of the clergy into two classes: the clerus Christi and the clerus antichristi. “We must regard—says he—the clerical body as made up of two sects: the clergy of Christ and those of antichrist.
The Christian clergy lean on Christ as their leader, and on his laws. The clergy of antichrist lean for the most part or wholly so on human laws and the laws of antichrist; and yet pretend to be the clergy of Christ and of the church, so as to seduce the people by a mere cunning hypocrisy. And two sects which are so directly opposed, must necessarily be governed by two opposite heads with their corresponding laws. The priests of Christ preach against the vices of a corrupt clergy. How can there be anything more senseless than a clergy giving themselves up to the dross of the world, and making mockery of the life and the teaching of Christ? For so exceedingly corrupt are the clergy already, that they hate those who frequently preach, and frequently mention the Lord Jesus Christ; and, if a man ventures to quote Christ for himself, they say with scorn and bitterness, Art thou Christ? And, after the manner of the Pharisees, they trouble and excommunicate those who acknowledge Christ.”
It can be expected that these sentiments, set forth in his De Ecclesia (on the church) and freely aired in his sermons, aroused against him the bitter hatred of the worldly clergy. He was accused of being in essential agreement with Wycliffe, which, of course, was true. This was a serious indictment, as the writings of Wycliffe were held in disrepute by the secular clergy in Germany and Bohemia. Already in 1402, thus the year following Huss’s ordination to the priesthood, the Wycliffite views were condemned by the majority of the university of Prague. And in 1409 Pope Alexander V issued a bull against what he held to be the Wycliffe heresies and preaching in private chapels. Huss now openly defended several doctrines of Wycliffe and on this account was excommunicated by his archbishop Zbynek. But even already now he was resolved to defend the truth to the death. Says he, “In order that I may not make myself guilty, then, by my silence, forsaking the truth for a piece of bread, or through fear of man, I avow it to be my purpose to defend the truth which God has enabled me to know, and especially the truth of the Holy Scriptures, even to death; since I know that the truth stands and is forever mighty, and abides eternally; and with her there is no respect of persons. And, if the fear of death should terrify me, still I hope in my God and in the assistance of the Holy Spirit, that the Lord Himself will give me firmness. And if I have found favor in His sight, He will crown me with martyrdom. But what more glorious triumph is there than this? Inciting his faithful to this victory our Lord says, Fear not them that kill the body.”
New causes of dissent arose. In 1412 Pope John XXIII issued a bull of crusade and indulgence against King Ladislaus of Naples. The bull proclaimed a crusade of destruction against this king and his party and a full forgiveness of sins to all who took part in the crusade. The bull offered a like indulgence to those also who would give as much money as they would have expended by actually engaging in the crusade for the space of one month.
Huss opposed. He contended that the secular sword belongs not to the priests, but to the worldly profession of arms. The pope must contend spiritually, not with the secular sword, but with prayer to almighty God. He insists that it is not permitted to the pope and the clergy to contend for secular things. The laity therefore must not comply with the requisitions of the bull. As to the indulgence, he argues that everyone who receives it will actually enjoy it just as far as he is fitted to do so by his relation to God.
The pope’s bull was burned by the people. Huss was once more excommunicated and Prague was placed under the papal interdict. Time drew near for holding the council of Constance. It could be expected that the disturbance in Bohemia was certain to demand its consideration. Huss was asked to attend with the assurance of a safe conduct from the emperor, Sigismund. Huss needed no such invitation. An opportunity to defend himself from the charge of heresy, to give account of his faith in the presence of the representatives of all western Christendom and to testify against the corruption of the church, was what he desired. The emperor did not keep his promise of a safe conduct. Shortly after his arrival in Constance Huss was imprisoned. Many were now the bitter charges brought against him by his enemies in Bohemia, formerly his friends. He was accused of denying the doctrine of transubstantiation, of holding Wycliffe’s doctrine, of promoting insurrection among the people, of creating a schism between the spiritual and the secular power. Huss was given three hearings before the council. The propositions, taken from his De Ecclesia, and which his opponents found especially heretical are the following:
“Dignity, choice of man, visible signs, make no one a member of the church but predestination alone. Thus a reprobate is no member of the church.
“If he who is called the vicar of Christ copies after his life, he is his vicar; but if he takes the opposite course, he is a messenger of Antichrist, stands in contradiction with Peter and Christ, and is a vicar of Judas Iscariot.
“The ground tone of life is either love or selfishness. If the former, a man does everything to God’s glory; if the latter, he does everything in alienation of God.
“The church needs no visible head (meaning the pope). Christ guides His church better without such monsters of supreme heads, by means of His true disciples scattered through all the world. “The hierarchy rules not by immutable and divine right. The true church is the community of the elect only.”
Especially the proposition that no reprobate was a true pope, bishop, king, was an error, the maintenance of which was considered madness. It was regarded insurrectionary, leading to the overthrow of every civil constitution; because no one knows whether he belongs to the number of elect or reprobate, and because we all offend in many parts of our duty. Several other charges connected with the Hussite movement in Bohemia—charges, many of which were false—were laid before Huss. No means was left untried to procure his condemnation. When all the charges had been brought forward, he was addressed by the council as follows, “Thou hast heard that two ways are proposed to thee,—first that thou shouldest publicly renounce those doctrines which have now been publicly condemned, and submit thyself to the judgment of the council; which, if thou doest, thou wilt experience the mercy of the council. But if thou dost persist in defending thy opinions, the council will no doubt understand how to deal with thee according to law.” To this Huss replied, “Reverend fathers! I have already often said that I came here voluntarily, not for the purpose of defending anything obstinately, but of cheerfully submitting to be taught better if in anything I have erred. I beg therefore that opportunity may be allowed me to explain my opinions further. And if I do not adduce good and true reasons for them, then I will gladly, as you require, submit to be instructed by you”. Several attempts were now made to induce Huss to recant, but to no avail. He was resolved not to recant till convinced of his errors from the Scriptures. After what he had heard expressed at the council, he had nothing else in prospect but the stake, and nothing to wait for but the decision of his lot. He wrote to his people in Prague to whom he had preached the Word of God, “I write this letter in prison and in chains, expecting on the morrow to receive my sentence of death, full of hope in God, that I shall not swerve from the truth, nor abjure errors imputed to me by false witnesses. What a gracious God has wrought in me, and how he stands by me in wonderful trials, all this you will first understand when we shall again meet together, with our Lord God, through his grace in eternal joy.”
On the 6th of July, Huss again appeared before the assembled council. He was officially charged with being a follower of Wycliffe and of having disseminated Wycliffite doctrines. Various errors were ascribed to him, and he was pronounced an obstinate, incorrigible heretic. Hearing, he said, “I never was obstinate; but as I have always demanded, up to this hour, so now I ask only to be informed of what is better from holy scriptures; and I confess that so earnestly do I strive after truth, that if with a word I could destroy the errors of all heretics, there is no peril I would not willingly incur for that end.” Now followed his degradation from the priestly order. The cup of the eucharist was taken from his hands with these words: “We take from thee, condemned Judas, the cup of salvation.” Huss said, “I trust in God, my Father, the almighty, and my Lord Jesus Christ, for whose name I bear this, that he will not take from me the cup of salvation; and I have a firm hope that I shall yet drink of it today in his kingdom.” He thereupon was turned over to the executioners of justice to be burned. The ashes of his burned body were cast into the Rhine, in order that nothing of them might remain to pollute the earth.
From the above materials, it is plain that Huss and Luther were kindred spirits. As translated into action, the doctrine of both would spell the overthrow of the Roman hierarchy. Both insisted that the sole source of doctrine is the scriptures, that in any and all disputes about truth and. morals the question is not what sayeth the pontiff of Rome or the councils or the doctors in the church, but what sayeth the Scriptures. The striving of both was to lead God’s people back to the Scriptures and to give the Scriptures back to God’s people. Both said that the pope cannot forgive sin but can only preach forgiveness to the penitent. Both opposed and attacked what every regenerated and spirit filled man opposed and attacked. The movement of Huss in Bohemia and that of Luther in Germany was, as to kind one and the same. This being true, Huss, in what measure it is impossible to say, prepared the way for Luther.