The Reading Room
From Hus to Luther: The Challenge to Orthodoxy
In 1415, Jan Hus was burned alive for challenging the authority of the Catholic Church. In 1521, Martin Luther nearly met the same fate but lived to start a new church with new ways of thinking.
The two men were similar in many ways. They were both members of the clergy, trying to correct its errors rather than start a new institution. They were outraged by the idea that people could buy their dead relatives’ way into Heaven by purchasing indulgences. Worst of all, they directly challenged the Pope’s authority. Both were brought before a council and given an opportunity to recant; they said they would only if they were proven wrong. For both of them, the Bible was the final authority.
The two men showed the same kind of courage. In a letter to the king of Poland, Hus wrote: “But shall I keep silence? God forbid! Woe is me if I keep silence! It is better for me to die than not to resist the wickedness which would make me a partner in their crimes and in their hell.” At the Diet of Worms, Luther said, “What, then, should I be doing if I were now to retract these writings? Wretched man! I alone, of all men living, should be abandoning truths approved by the unanimous vote of friends and enemies, and should be opposing doctrines that the whole world glorifies in confessing!”
While in prison, Hus wrote: “The Council desired me to declare the falsity of all of my books and each article taken from them. I refused to do so, unless they should be proved false by Scripture. I mean that whatever false interpretation should be found in any article whatever, I abhor it, and commend it to the correction of the Lord Jesus Christ, Who knows my real intention and will not interpret in a wrong sense which I do not intend.”
This foreshadows Luther’s defense at the Diet of Worms: “If, then, I am not convinced by proof from Holy Scripture, or by cogent reasons, if I am not satisfied by the very text I have cited, and if my judgment is not in this way brought into subjection to God's word, I neither can nor will retract anything; for it cannot be either safe or honest for a Christian to speak against his conscience.”
Luther read Hus’s works and had some of them republished. There is even an unsupported legend that Hus predicted he would have a successor in a hundred years who could not be suppressed.
His followers fought on after his death in the Hussite Wars. The Holy Roman Empire defeated the Hussites, but the more peaceful Utraquist faction won the freedom to practice its rituals in Bohemia.
The Hussites’ success, unlike the Protestant reformers’ of the next century, was local and limited. Hus died, but Luther lived. Several factors contributed to the difference. Between Hus’s time and Luther’s, Gutenberg created the movable-type press, making the publication of books and pamphlets more economically feasible. Luther reached a wider audience in this way. Second, Luther had the support of Frederick the Wise, the Elector of Saxony, who had Luther brought to safety after the Diet of Worms.
A third reason is a change in the spirit of the times. The idea that people could acquire knowledge by observation and thinking, rather than by having authorities dictate the truth, was gaining a hold in Europe. Explorers had found continents previously unknown to Europe as well as sea routes to Asia, expanding the horizons of commerce. Leonardo da Vinci speculated about new technologies. Eyeglasses made it easier for nearsighted people to read. Copernicus would soon revolutionize astronomy.
Constantinople, long a center of scholarship, fell to the Ottoman Empire in 1453. Many Greeks left the city for Greece and Italy. This date is widely considered the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Renaissance. The Orthodox Church, based in Constantinople, had significant differences with Rome, and the Greek migration brought the disputing factions into closer contact.
Luther wasn’t alone. In Switzerland, Ulrich Zwingli took a position similar to Hus and Luther, and he achieved local reforms without the extreme dangers they faced. Zwingli and Luther, in turn, ferociously disagreed on fine points of doctrine that would bewilder most of us.
What matters to us today isn’t those doctrinal details but the growth of the principle that no person or organization is the final arbiter of truth. The freedom that we have today to worship or not as we choose was hard won, and we should remember Hus’s struggle and death as an important step toward it.