Review: John Hus and the Czech Reform

Rating: ★★★★

Author: Matthew Spinka (1890-1972) was a professor of church history and the foremost modern scholar of John Hus. In addition to publishing the best translation of Hus’ letters—published within a week of Spinka’s death—he wrote more than 20 books, including Christianity Confronts Communism (1936), Nicolas Berdyayev: Captive of Freedom (1950), Advocates of Reform: From Wyclif to Erasmus (1953), The Church in Soviet Russia (1956) and John Hus: A Biography (1968). Spinka was a minister in the United Church of Christ.

Overview:

The unique focus of this monograph is the “Wyclifism” of Hus, i.e. his originality in dealing with the thoughts and writings of the English reformer. This little book includes a lot of biographical and historical information along with a good look at the originality of Hus’ thought. Spinka’s main contention is expressed thus: “Hus never accepted the teaching of Wycliffe without scrupulous discrimination, and remained to the end among the moderate adherents of the English Reformer.” (italics mine, p. 12)

Meat:

Hus implicitly presaged the Protestant Reformation by several key elements in his theology. Ullmann, like others, calls Hus “a Reformer before the Reformation” (pg. 3, loc. 39). “There were elements implicit in Hus’s teaching which the Reformation made explicit.” (p. 75) “Luther testified that the reading of the works of Hus has had a considerable influence on his conversion.” (p. 3) Hus’ “insistence on the use of reason foreshadowed the Age of Reason, and made for Protestant individualism, which was essentially destructive of ecclesiastical authority.” (p. 77) However, “nothing would be more misleading than to affirm that Luther received his ideas from Hus, who in turn derived them from Wycliffe. (emphasis mine, p. 76) All three men were original and independent thinkers, and all three of them held ideas that modern readers would find unpalatable.

Spinka also points out that Stanislav and Stephen Palec, who had accepted Wycliffe wholesale, under pressure denied him wholesale. This shows that they lacked clarity of conscience and intellectual backbone.

Hus himself was part of a native reform movement—”the Czech reform”. “It may be affirmed . . . at the outset that Hus was the product of the native reform movement.” (p. 5) “The chief characteristic of the Czech reform was its emphasis upon preaching in the vernacular, and moral reform of the clergy and the people—not theological speculation or anti-ecclesiastical revolt.” (p. 6) Again, “his essential characteristics are not of the Wyclifite, but of the native reform movement.” (p. 75)

Hus compiled and disseminated Wycliffe’s works, but he didn’t agree with everything Wycliffe wrote.  Since Wycliffe’s writings were only published in the 1800s, Wycliffe was known through Hus’ work for hundreds of years. According to Spinka, Hus had gathered “probably most” of Wycliffe’s writings, which was a huge task.

  • “Many medieval theological writers were essentially compilers of currently acknowledged authorities, nor did they always take the trouble to indicate [their sources] . . .” (p. 13)
  • As one key example, in 1921, they discovered that The Imitation of Christ (by Thomas à Kempis) was largely based on an earlier work by Gerard Groote!
  • This kind of publishing was never considered unethical or bad scholarship. Wycliffe and Hus both followed this practice.

Hus’ trial at Constance “revolved around the specific attitude of Hus toward the teaching of Wycliffe” (p. 53), but it caricatured Hus as a “Wyclifite.” Spinka writes, “the Council persisted in making him a Wyclifite in spite of himself.” (p. 58)

  • Hus “categorically repudiated” Wycliffe’s denial of transubstantiation. (p. 56)
  • Wycliffe held that priests must live in “apostolic poverty.” Hus was not so radical about this. (p. 63)
  • Wycliffe promoted sola scriptura but Hus affirmed papal authority (in general) and sought to submit to papal rule and tradition. (p. 67-68)

Taking all this together, Spinka has made an interesting contribution to understanding Hus, and he has certainly convinced this reviewer that the chronologically appealing “Wycliffe → Hus → Luther” triad is less than perfect.

Bones: Spinka, as a lifelong Hus scholar, obviously has a pro-Hus inclination. In reading the introduction, I couldn’t help but feel that Spinka is drawn to Hus’ theology and life. (Who isn’t?) But he does qualify this by bringing in some elements of Hus’ thought that most Protestant Hus scholars wouldn’t agree with. Two examples are: 1. Hus clearly wasn’t devoted to sola scriptura; and 2. Hus clearly affirmed transubstantiation! (As a minister of the United Church of Christ, Spinka himself most likely affirmed sola scriptura and denied transubstantiation.)

Quotes:

“Hus . . . stressed conscience, rather than intellect. It was his moral courage, enabling him to stand alone against the judgment of the supreme tribunal of the Church, which marked him as great.” (p. 78)

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