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Tuesday, August 22, 2017
Date Posted:

John Huss

Huss Commences His Battle With Rome

Taken from Wylie’s History of Protestantism, and edited by Dr Clive Gillis
Dr Clive Gillis

In 1404 two theologians, James and Conrad of Canterbury, influenced by Wicliffe, travelled from England to Prague.

These Oxford graduates arranged public disputations to challenge the pope‘s primacy. With their hosts leave, they completed a mural in a corridor where they resided. On the one wall they portrayed the humble entrance of Christ into Jerusalem, "meek, and riding upon an ass". On the other they displayed the more than royal magnificence of a Pontifical cavalcade. There was seen the Pope, adorned with triple crown, attired in robes bespangled with gold, and all lustrous with precious stones. He rode proudly on a richly caparisoned horse, with trumpeters proclaiming his approach, and a brilliant crowd of cardinals and bishops following in his rear. In an age when printing was unknown, and preaching nearly as much so, this was a sermon, and a truly eloquent and graphic one. The fervour so aroused soon threatened their safety and they had to leave. (This was to become a powerful pre-Reformation form of expression eventually used by Luther.)

Huss shocked

John Huss saw this mural and was aroused to study more carefully than ever the writings of Wicliffe which fired his preaching at Bethlehem chapel. The Bohemian preacher was shocked. He had appealed to the Bible, but he had not the absolute and unreserved submission of the English pastor. To overturn the hierarchy, and replace it with the simple ministry of the Word; to sweep away all the teachings of tradition, and put in their room the doctrines of the New Testament, was a revolution for which Huss was not yet prepared. It may be doubted whether, even when he came to stand at the stake, Huss's views had attained the breadth and clearness of those of Wicliffe.

But witnessing lying miracles at Wilsnack on the Elbe intensified his fervour against superstition. Cures attendant upon exposing Christ's blood were attracting pilgrims from Poland, Hungary, and even Scandinavia. The Archbishop of Prague appointed a commission including Huss, to investigate. The cures were found bogus and the pilgrimages were banned.

The Pope furious

Furious that the contagion of Wicliffe was spreading, Pope Alexander V commanded the Archbishop of Prague, with the secular authorities, to proceed against all who preached in private chapels or read the writings or taught the opinions of Wicliffe. Over 200 volumes piled up on the street of Prague were publicly burned amid the tolling bells. Their costliness showed that their owners were men of high position, attesting how widely the English reformer was becoming known in Europe. Huss, undaunted, now attacked indulgences as well as the abuses of the hierarchy. A second mandate arrived from Rome. The Pope summoned him to answer for his doctrine in person. The king, the queen, the university, and many Bohemian nobles recognising the trap asked that Huss be represented by legal counsel. The Pope condemned Huss in his absence and interdicted Prague.

To the superstitious medieval mind interdict was the terrible shutting off of heaven. Closed church-doors, extinguished altar lights, corpses waiting burial by the way-side and sackcloth draping the public images which sanctified and made safe the streets soon turned the populace against Huss. He fled to Husinec where the territorial Lord protected him. Gradually things quietened, at least superficially, in Prague and he was able to return to preach at Bethlehem Chapel. Foxe the martyrologist noted the people were being undeceived concerning Rome as many "complained of the court of Rome and the bishop's consistory, who plucked from the sheep of Christ the wool and milk, and did not feed them either with the Word of God or good examples."

Jerome of Faulfish

A powerful opposing party now arose at the University. Two former friends, the priests Paletz (Palec) and Michal de Causis now became Huss's bitter foes. But others, now used to uplifting preaching in the vernacular at Bethlehem chapel, supported him. Further the queen and many nobles were on his side. But Huss had no fellow-worker. So at this time it pleased God to give him Jerome of Faulfish. Jerome was a Bohemian knight, who had returned some time before from Oxford, where he had also imbibed the opinions of Wicliffe studying particularly his theological writings. Their lives became inextricably linked. Huss was the more powerful character, Jerome was the more eloquent orator but retained towards Huss the relation of a disciple. Their affection for each other ripened day by day, and continued unbroken till death came to set its seal upon it, and unite them in the bonds of an eternal friendship.

Warring Popes

This drama was by now no longer confined to Bohemia. Events were lifting up Huss and Jerome to a stage where they would have to act their part in the presence of all Christendom. Let us cast our eyes around and survey the state of Europe. There were at that time three Popes reigning in Christendom. The Italians had elected Balthazar Cossa, who, as John XXIII, had set up his chair at Bologna. The French had chosen Angelo Corario, who lived at Rimini, under the title of Gregory XII; and the Spaniards had elected Peter de Lune (Benedict XIII.), who resided in Arragon. Each claimed to be the legitimate successor of Peter, and the true vicegerent of God, and each strove to make good his claim by the bitterness and rage with which he hurled his maledictions against his rival. Christendom was divided, each nation naturally supporting the Pope of its choice. The schism suggested some questions which it was not easy to solve. "If we must obey", said Huss and his followers, "to whom is our obedience to be paid? Balthazar Cossa, called John XXIII, is at Bologna; Angelo Corario, named Gregory XII., is at Rimini; Peter de Lune, who calls himself Benedict XIII., is in Arragon. If all three are infallible, why does not their testimony agree? and if only one of them is the Most Holy Father, why is it that we cannot distinguish him from the rest?"

Nor was much help to be got towards a solution by putting the question to the men themselves. If they asked John XXIII he told them that Gregory XII. was "a heretic, a demon, the Antichrist". Gregory XII obligingly bore the same testimony respecting John XXIII, and both Gregory and John united in sounding, in similar fashion, the praises of Benedict XIII, whom they stigmatised as "an impostor and schismatic" while Benedict paid back with prodigal interest the compliments of his two opponents. If these men were to be believed, instead of three Popes there were three Antichrists in Christendom. And if they were not to be believed, where was the infallibility, and what had become of the apostolic succession?

Distractions and calamities

The chronicles of the time stress the distractions calamities and woes that grew out of this schism. Europe was plunged into anarchy; every petty State was a theatre of war and rapine. The rival Popes sought to crush one another, not with the spiritual bolts only, but with temporal arms also. They went into the market to purchase swords and hire soldiers, and as this could not be done without money, they opened a scandalous traffic in spiritual things to supply themselves with the needful gold. Pardons, dispensations, and places in Paradise they put up to sale, in order to realize the means of equipping their armies for the field. The bishops and inferior clergy, quick to profit by the example set them by the Popes, enriched themselves by simony. At times they made war on their own account, attacking at the head of armed bands the territory of a rival ecclesiastic, or the castle of a temporal baron. A bishop newly elected to Hildesheim, having requested to be shown the library of his predecessors, was led into an arsenal, in which all kinds of arms were piled up. "Those" said his conductors, "are the books which they made use of to defend the Church; imitate their example". How different were the words of St. Ambrose! "My arms", said he as the Goths approached his city, "are my tears; with other weapons I dare not fight".

Eyes opened

This was a deplorable picture. Of the practice of true piety nothing remained save a few superstitious rites. Truth, justice, and order banished from among men, force was the arbiter in all things, and nothing was heard but the clash of arms and the sighings of oppressed nations, while above the strife rose the furious voices of the rival Popes frantically hurling anathemas at one another. Although truly a melancholy spectacle, it was perhaps necessary that the evil should grow to this head. Peradventure at last the eyes of men might now be opened that they might see that it was indeed a "bitter thing" that they had forsaken the "easy yoke" of the Gospel, and submitted to a power that set no limits to its usurpations, and which, clothing itself with the prerogatives of God, was waging a war of extermination against all the rights of man.

Taken from Wylie's History of Protestantism, and edited by Dr Clive Gillis

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