Author: Victor Budgen is the author of two books: On Fire for God: The Story of John Hus and Charismatics and the Word of God.
Victor Budgen’s On Fire for God: The Story of John Hus (1983) is an important biography of one of the key figures of the early Reformation.
John Hus was a Czech preacher and reformer who is known today especially for his dramatic martyrdom on July 6, 1415, at the Council of Constance under the Roman Catholic church. During his lifetime, however, he was also regarded as a prolific scholar and teacher, an important exponent of the teachings of John Wycliffe, and a starting point for Czech nationalism.
The World of Hus
Budgen’s biography takes great effort to explain the social and religious context in which Hus lived and died. He contextualizes Hus as one man in a theological movement that is inspired by key theological tenets of Wycliffe and the English Reformation, but also independent of that movement, with its own grounding in Scripture and an experience of God’s grace. Similar arguments are also presented in Matthew Spinka’s John Hus and the Czech Reform; though Wycliffe was a major influence on Hus, Hus disagreed with Wycliffe on important points. This is important to understand because, at the Council of Constance, charges of “Wyclifism” were brought against Hus. Though he was unwilling to recant, it was through loyalty to God, not to Wycliffe.
Budgen’s description of Hus and Jerome of Prague collecting Wycliffe’s books may resonate with readers, and is worth reading in full:
The works of Wyclif still continued to appeal strongly to many of the Bohemians. Although the bringing over of books was often a risky business, there were those who volunteered for the task. Jerome of Prague himself transcribed and brought over material, as he himself admitted. Two other Bohemian students were surreptitiously gathering texts in England in 1406 and 1407. We have a glimpse of them paying a pious visit to Wyclif’s tomb in Leicestershire en route (and taking a fragment of the tomb), probably visiting Sir John Oldcastle, a prominent Lollard of high rank, and then going on to do their main copying in Lollard hide-outs in country villages in Northamptonshire and Gloucestershire. Since Oxford was a place closely watched, they only stopped there briefly in order to correct their texts. There was an eager readership waiting for this highly explosive theological material, for this time a lot of theological works were brought back. Hus was among the keenest of the readers. By the end of his life he himself had accumulated copies of nearly all of Wyclif’s writings. This was no mean feat. It denoted a genuine enthusiasm for the works of the English reformer. (pp. 101-102)
Here I will give quotations on three convictions that Hus and his movement shared with John Wycliffe.
1. Vernacular Preaching
At Bethlehem he preached in Czech not only because it was stipulated in the foundation, but because it was his conviction. As the years went by he was to express himself increasingly in his native language both from the pulpit and with the pen. This was not a total innovation but there were not many precursors. The large numbers of works in Czech produced at the close of his ministry are the logical outcome of all this. (p. 96)
Bethlehem Chapel in Prague, now restored as a museum, plays an important role in the beginning of Hus’ story. Not only was preaching traditionally done in Latin; but there were also large numbers of German speakers in the university setting in which Hus found himself. In a classic case of religious (bilingual) diglossia, Czech was regarded as merely a spoken language, lacking in structure. Hus not only preached in Czech, but he also worked to reform Czech orthography, which would make spelling more nativised and literacy more accessible.
2. The Priesthood of Believers
Every holy man is a priest, but not every priest is a holy man. (p. 95)
The priesthood of believers is a straightforward New Testament doctrine, but it is revolutionary in hierarchy-oriented societies. Because Hus believed in the priesthood of believers, he believed that he could take issue with the theological whims of the cardinals, or the Pope—or even, in his case, the three popes!
3. Authority of Scripture
Here is the nub of the issue. Hus knew and experienced the Scripture as a living Word breathed out and conveyed by the Holy Spirit. His opponents were strangers to the experience so vital for saving faith. (p. 170)
Like Wycliffe before him and Luther after him, Hus affirmed the absolute centrality of Scripture. Though we may disagree with these early reformers on certain issues of biblical interpretation, it is the authority and transformative power of the Bible that they could not deny.
Where he is inconsistent or less than fully scriptural, we must not lose sight of his pioneering role. These were ‘forgotten remedies’ which he was, with others, restoring to the light of day. (p. 86)
Budgen covers these issues in great detail, comparing and contrasting Wycliffe and Hus. He also spends a large portion of the book clarifying the precise circumstances of Hus’ death, using sound historical research. This is much needed work since there are so many spurious accounts regarding Hus’ death.
“Supporting myself with this most holy and most helpful example of the Redeemer, I appeal to God from the grave oppression, the unjust sentence, and the pretended excommunication of the pontiff, the scribes, the Pharisees, and the judges seated in the seat of Moses. To him I commit my cause, following in the footsteps of the Saviour Jesus Christ.” (p. 163, ch. 14 endnote 17)
“I will confess the evangelical truth as long as God permits, for I trust in that Witness whom no multitude of witnesses can divert from the truth, nor any Roman curia can terrify, nor any gift can suborn, nor any power can conquer.” (p. 170, ch. 15 endnote 15)
“Even a peasant can understand that he who has never fed sheep is not to be called a shepherd.” (p. 92)
Proclaiming a crusade against Ladislas, Pope John [XXIII] issued two bulls in the September and December of 1411 excommunicating Ladislas in blood-curdling terms and imporing men ‘by the blood shed by the Saviour’ either to take up the sword against Ladislas or to provide money for someone else to fight. This was termed ‘taking up the cross’ in papal terminology. The bull promised remission of sins for which the guilty parties were contrite and which they had confessed. (pp. 145-146)
“Finally, I did not appear at the papal court lest I lose my life for nothing. For every place was full of my enemies, both Czech and German, seeking my death.” (p. 133, ch. 12 endnote 3)
“I am ever ready … to render full account of my faith which I hold in my heart and confess by word and in writing, even if fire were lighted during the hearing.” (p. 143, ch. 12 endnote 24)
“Lords, understand me. I said that I heartily aspire to fulfil the apostolic mandates and to obey them in everything; but I call apostolic mandates the teaching of Christ’s apostles. In as far as the mandates of the Roman pontiff are in harmony with the apostolic mandates and teach . . . to that degree I am most willing to obey them. But should I find any of them opposed, those will I not obey, even if the fire to burn my body were placed before my eyes.” (p. 154, ch. 13 endnote 15)
“However, as concerning fleeing from the truth, I trust the Lord that he will grant me to die in that truth.” (p. 165, ch. 14 endnote 24)
“One must not sin in order to avoid death . . . He who speaks the truth will have his head broken. He who fears death loses the joy of life. [Yet] Truth conquers all things.” (p. 172, ch. 15 endnote 25)
‘Look, Master John! We are laymen and know not how to advise you; therefore see if you feel yourself guilty in anything of that which is charged against you. Do not fear to be instructed therein and to recant. But if, indeed, you do not feel guilty of those things that are charged against you, follow the dictates of your conscience. Under no circumstances do anything against your conscience or lie in the sight of God: but rather be steadfast until death in what you know to be the truth.’ (p. 261, ch. 23, citation 15)