The fall and rising again of Jerome of Prague
Taken from Wylie’s History of Protestantism, and edited by Dr Clive Gillis
Dr Clive Gillis
BEFORE advancing to the history of Jerome, let us glance back on the two great men, representatives of their epoch, who have passed before us, and note the relations in which they stand to each other. These relations are such that the two always come up together. The century that divides them is annihilated. Everywhere in the history - in the hall of the University of Prague, in the pulpit of the Bethlehem Chapel, in the council chamber of Constance - these two figures, Wicliffe and Huss, are seen standing side by side. Wicliffe is the master, and Huss the scholar. The latter receives his opinions from the former - not, however, without investigation and proof - and he incorporates them with himself, so to speak, at the cost of a severe mental struggle. "Both men", says Lechler, "place the Word of God at the foundation of their system, and acknowledge the Holy Scriptures as the supreme judge and authority. Still they differ in many respects".
Wicliffe went further
Wicliffe reached his principle gradually, and with laborious effort, whilst Huss accepted it, and had simply to hold it fast, and to establish it .The opinions of Wicliffe based upon the sole authority of Scripture were sharply defined while Huss was less clear and willing to receive the Scriptures as the Holy Ghost had given wisdom to the Fathers to explain them. Both Wicliffe and Huss held that the true Church lies in nothing else than the totality of the elect. Huss's conception of the Church " lay more on the surface, and the relations between God and his people were with him those of a disciple to his teacher, or a servant to his master." As regards the function of Christ as the one Mediator between God and man, Huss was at one with Wicliffe. The English Reformer carried out his doctrine, with the strength and joy of a full conviction, to its logical issue, in the entire repudiation of the veneration and intercession of the saints. But Huss retained some dependence on the intercession and good offices of the glorified. Wicliffe was clear on the doctrine of the Sacraments but Huss believed in transubstantiation to the end. On the question of the Pope's authority he more nearly approximated Wicliffe's views. Huss clearly denied the divine right of the Bishop of Rome to the primacy of the Church but Wicliffe went further.
We have pursued our narrative uninterruptedly to the close of Huss's life but we must now retrace our steps a little way, and narrate the fate of his disciple and fellow-labourer, Jerome. These two had received the same baptism of faith, and were to drink of the same cup of martyrdom. When Jerome heard of the arrest of Huss, he flew to Constance in the hope of being able to succour his beloved master. When he saw that without doing anything for Huss he had brought his own life into peril, he attempted to flee. He was already far on his way back to Prague when he was arrested, and brought to Constance, which he entered in a cart, loaded with chains and guarded by soldiers, as if he had been a malefactor.
On May 23rd, 1415 Jerome appeared before the Council. The Fathers were thrown into tumult and uproar as on the occasion of Huss's first appearance. At night he was conducted to the dungeon of a tower in the cemetery of St. Paul. His chains, riveted to a lofty beam, did not permit of his sitting down; and his arms, crossed behind on his neck and tied with fetters, bent his head downward and occasioned him great suffering. He fell ill, and his enemies, fearing that death would snatch him from them, relaxed somewhat the rigor of his treatment; nevertheless in that dreadful prison he remained an entire year. Meanwhile a letter was received from the barons of Bohemia, which convinced the Council that it had deceived itself when it fancied it had done with Huss when it threw his ashes into the Rhine. Should the Fathers therefore plant a second stake? Perhaps it were better to induce him to recant. Jerome was offered retractation or death by fire. Ill in body and depressed in mind from his confinement of four months in a noisome dungeon, cut off from his friends, the most of whom had left Constance Jerome yielded.
But his retractation (September 23rd, 1415) was a very qualified one. He submitted himself to the Council, and subscribed to the justice of its condemnation of the articles of Wicliffe and Huss, saving and excepting the "holy truths" which they had taught; and he promised to live and die in the Catholic faith, and never to preach anything contrary to it. It is as surprising that such an abjuration should have been accepted by the Council, as it is that it should have been emitted by Jerome. Doubtless the little clause in the middle of it reconciled it to his conscience. But one trembles to think of the brink on which Jerome at this moment stood. Having come so far after that master whom he has seen pass through the fire to the sky, is he able to follow him no farther? Huss and Jerome have been lovely in their lives; are they to be divided in their deaths? No! Jerome has fallen in a moment of weakness, but his Master will lift him up again. And when he is risen the stake will not be able to stop his following where Huss has gone before.
The abjuration of Jerome, renouncing the errors but adhering to the truths which Wicliffe and Huss had taught did not satisfy the majority of the Council. There were men in it who were resolved that he should not thus escape. His master had paid the penalty of his errors with his life, and it was equally determined to spill the blood of the disciple. New accusations were preferred against him, amounting to the formidable number of a hundred and seven. It would be extraordinary, indeed, if in so long a list the Council should be unable to prove a sufficient number to bring Jerome to the stake. The indictment now framed against him had reference mainly to the real presence, indulgences, the worship of images and relics, and the authority of the priests. A charge of disbelief in the Trinity was thrown in, perhaps to give all air of greater gravity to the inculpation; but Jerome purged himself of that accusation by reciting the Athanasian Creed. As regarded transubstantiation, as the Fathers had no cause to find fault with the opinions of Huss neither did they with Jerome. Both were believers in the real presence. "It is bread before consecration", said Jerome, "it is the body of Christ after". One would think that this dogma would be the first part of Romanism to be renounced. Experience shows that it is commonly the last; that there is in it a strange power to blind, or fascinate, or enthral the mind. Even Luther, a century later, was not able fully to emancipate himself from it; and how many others, some of them in almost the first rank of Reformers, do we find speaking of the Eucharist with a mysticism and awe which show that neither was their emancipation complete! It is one of the greatest marvels in the whole history of Protestantism that Wicliffe, in the fourteenth century, should have so completely rid himself of this enchantment, and from the very midnight of superstition passed all at once into the clear light of reason and Scripture on this point.
Meanwhile Jerome had reflected in his prison on what he had done. We have no record of his thoughts, but doubtless the image of Huss, so constant and so courageous in the fire, rose before him. He contrasted, too, the peace of mind which he enjoyed before his retractation, compared with the doubts that now darkened his soul and shut out the light of God's loving-kindness. He could not conceal from himself the yet deeper abjurations that were before him, before he should finish with the Council and reconcile himself to the Church. On all this he pondered deeply. He saw that it was a gulf that had no bottom, into which he was about to throw himself. There the darkness would shut him in, and he should no more enjoy the society of that master whom he had so greatly revered on earth, nor behold the face of that other Master in heaven, who was the object of his yet higher reverence and love. And for what was he foregoing all these blessed hopes? Only to escape a quarter of an hour's torment at the stake! "I am cast out of Thy sight" said he, in the words of one in a former age, whom danger drove for a time from the path of duty, "but I will look again toward Thy holy temple". And as he looked, God looked on him. The love of his Saviour anew filled his soul - that love which is better than life - and with that love returned strength and courage. "No", we hear him say, "although I should stand a hundred ages at the stake, I will not deny my Saviour. Now I am ready to face the Council; it can kill the body, but it has no more that it can do". Thus Jerome rose stronger from his fall.
To be continued....
Taken from Wylie's History of Protestantism, and edited by Dr Clive Gillis