Friday, October 31, 2014

The Bohemian Morning Star

Today is Reformation Day, a day to remember and be thankful for the Protestant Reformation and the men like Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and Tyndale who worked to restore the church to faithfulness to scripture as her ultimate authority. To commemorate, I’m posting a biographical sketch of Jan Hus, who was not technically one of the Reformers, but rather a forerunner to the refomation.

Martin Luther was, of course, the first Reformer. In the providence of God, the Reformation was sparked when he nailed his 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg. But there were a few men who lived before the historical event we call the Reformation whose teachings were in line with those of the Reformers of the 16th century. One of these pre-reformers was John Wycliffe, the man some call the morning star of the Reformation.

If Wycliffe was a Reformation morning star, then Jan Hus was too, because he followed right along in Wycliffe’s footsteps. While Hus was studying at the University of Prague, he began to read and translate works of John Wycliffe brought back by students returning to Bohemia from Oxford. As he read and studied, he embraced Wycliffe’s teachings.

Hus became a priest and the rector of the University of Prague. He also preached at Bethlehem Chapel, a church in Prague built for the specific purpose of preaching in the language of the people.

Jan Hus preaching at the Bethlehem Chapel in Prague by Alphonse Mucha

Hus’s Beliefs

What did Jan Hus teach when he preached?

  • He taught that the Word of God is our highest authority. All of his preaching was based directly on scripture, and when he was accused of heresy, he asked to be shown from the scripture where he was wrong. 
  • He taught that Christ alone is the head of the Church. In Hus’s time, there were three men who claimed to be pope, and the Church was divided over which so-called pope was the true one. Hus said that it didn’t really matter because the church’s only pontiff was the Lord Jesus Christ. 
  • He taught that God alone can forgive sins through the merits of Christ. Hus said, "Let the pope, or a bishop or a priest say, 'I forgive thy sins; I absolve thee of thy penalty. I free thee from the pangs of hell.' It is all vain. It helps thee nothing. … God alone can forgive sins through Christ."
Do you see the seeds of the Reformation in these doctrines?

Hus’s Excommunication, Trial, and Execution

As you can imagine, Hus and his followers—and by now, there were many—were not popular with the powers-that-be in the Church. Pope Alexander ordered that all of Wycliffe’s writings be burned and that Hus stop preaching. Hus didn't follow the Pope's orders, so in 1411, he was excommunicated.

Eventually, after being imprisoned and tried before a church council in Constance, Hus was declared to be a heretic and sentenced to death. He was given opportunities to recant and escape execution, but each time he refused. In his final declaration, he wrote:
I, Jan Hus, in hope a priest of Jesus Christ, fearing to offend God, and fearing to fall into perjury, do hereby profess my unwillingness to abjure all or any of the articles produced against me by false witnesses. For God is my witness that I neither preached, affirmed, nor defended them, though they say that I did. Moreover, concerning the articles that they have extracted from my books, I say that I detest any false interpretation which any of them bears. But inasmuch as I fear to offend against the truth, or to gainsay the opinion of the doctors of the Church, I cannot abjure any one of them. And if it were possible that my voice could now reach the whole world, as at the Day of Judgment every lie and every sin that I have committed will be made manifest, then would I gladly abjure before all the world every falsehood and error which I either had thought of saying or actually said! 
I say I write this of my own free will and choice. 
Written with my own hand, on the first day of July.
Preparing for the execution of Jan Hus
On July 6, 1415, Hus was burned at the stake. The accounts of his death recorded by the best historians say his last words were “I shall die with joy today in the faith of the gospel which I have preached.” Then as he burned, he sang, “Christ, thou Son of the living God, have mercy on me.”

There’s one well-known tale about Hus’s death that's probably not authentic. Before he was martyred, Jan Hus supposedly said, "You, this day, burn a goose, but a hundred years hence a swan will arise, whom you will not be able to roast or boil." It’s a play on words, since Hus meant goose in Hus’s language. The swan that would rise, the story goes, is Martin Luther, for it was a little more 100 years later that Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses. It’s a compelling story, but the sources for it are unreliable.

I’d rather remember Hus for his true last words expressing faith in the gospel and trust in Christ anyway. Do you know better words to die by?

Hus's Influence

The Hussite movement continued after Hus’s death, eventually becoming the Moravian church, a church known for its missionary work, particularly in the remote regions of the Americas. I first heard of the Moravian church from friends who attended one in an isolated Alaskan village—and there are Moravian churches in many more Alaskan villages, too.

After the Reformation, Martin Luther acknowledged that his teachings were Hus’s teachings, too. “We are all Hussites,” he said, “without knowing it.” Jan Hus was a martyr for some of the truths that the Reformers would later proclaim, too. He was one of the morning stars who sparked the sunrise of the Reformation.

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