Tag Archives: Middle ages

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.


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)


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.)


“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)

Review: St. Francis of Assisi (G. K. Chesterton)

Rating: ★★★

Who: St. Francis of Assisi, Italian friar who lived in voluntary poverty, and founded several religious orders. He felt deeply connected with nature and tried to bring peace to the Crusades. He was also credited with several miracles in his lifetime and is now venerated as a “saint” in the Catholic church.

The author, G. K. Chesterton, was an English writer and journalist. He wrote biography, literary criticism, novels, poetry, and lay theology, and has been aptly named “the Prince of Paradox.”

When: St. Francis lived from around 1181 to 1226. Chesterton published this biography in 1923.

Where: Francis was raised in Assisi, Italy, but also travelled widely in the Mediterranean, meeting with the Sultan in Egypt, and visiting Palestine.

Overview: Chesterton gives us a somewhat fanciful introduction to the life of St. Francis. He deals with issues surrounding the life of St. Francis but does not delve into problems of historiography or attempt to untangle the plethora of legends about Francis. Rather, he focuses on St. Francis’ sublime life of worship and the meaning behind his great influence, seen through a few key decisions and events. This short book is suitable as an introduction to the life of St. Francis and is not written solely for Catholics.

Meat: Chesterton’s historical and biographical books read more like essays than stories. After finishing this book, it might be hard to reconstruct an orderly account of St. Francis’ life and influences; instead, Chesterton dissects key events of Francis’ life in his rambling, lavish style, often stepping off the beaten track to offer perspective on the meaning of these events. For example, Chesterton does not give us a medical analysis of the stigmata—rather, he tries to show that Francis’ ironic desire for martyrdom is a major key to understanding his work, and the stigmata were one scene in that panorama.

Chesterton presents St. Francis as a figure out of time, more contemporary than the most progressive moderns. He envisages Francis’ monastic life as joyous, effusive, worldly, and charitable. He brings out all that is childlike and sublime in Francis’ worship. He praises Francis’ “marriage to poverty” out of a middle-class Italian life, though he points out that some of Francis’ followers may have missed the sublimity of his monastic poverty.

Francis’ intentions to preach to the Saracens (=Muslims) and make peace from the Crusades makes him, for this reviewer, a beam of light in an otherwise dark and turbid age in which religious identity and nationalism walked hand in hand.

Bones: The only disappointment of this book is the many interesting stories that it leaves out. Tales surround the life of St. Francis, as one of the most interesting and influential saints of Catholic tradition. Perhaps Chesterton was trying not to write a fabulous hagiography, distanced from real life by its many unverifiable legends; he places the biography in the context of true history, and tries to maintain that context fully.

Quotes: “To this great mystic, his religion was not a thing like a theory but a thing like a love affair.” (ch. I)

“A man will not roll in the snow for a stream of tendency by which all things fulfill the law of their being. He will not go without food in the name of something, not ourselves, that makes for righteousness. He will do things like this, or pretty nearly like this, under quite a different impulse. He will do these things when he is in love.” (ch. I)

“He was penniless, he was parentless, he was to all appearance without a trade or a plan or a hope in the world; and as he went under the frosty trees, he burst suddenly into song.” (ch. IV)