Letters of John Huss Written During His Exile and Imprisonment/Analysis of the treatise on the Church


John Huss defines the universal Church to be the assembly of all the predestined, past, present, and to come, including the angels. “The Church,” writes he, “is the most excellent thing created by God. We ought not therefore to believe in the Church, because it is not God; but we should believe that there is a holy universal Church, of which Jesus Christ is the sole Chief. The entire Church and all its parts ought to honour God; but it ought not to wish that divine worship should be rendered her.”[1]

“Reprobates,” says Huss, “are not members of the Church. It may occur that one is in the Church, without being of the Church. Such may be the case with the popes, bishops, priests, and clergy, although they style themselves the Church in particular, because it is possible that they are reprobate: we may also belong to the Church, without being exteriorly in the Church, like those who commence to be converted to the faith.”

Huss next examines the celebrated passage of St Matthew: Thou art Peter, and on this rock will I build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it; and I will give thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven, &c. (Matthew xvi., 18, 19). He considers in it four things: The Church, its faith, its foundation, and its power. He examines, first of all, whether the Roman Church is the universal one, as is affirmed by the canon law, where the Pope is called the chief, and the cardinals, the body of the Church. He denies this to be the case, for the reason that the Pope and the cardinals do not compose the whole assembly of the elect. Thou art Peter, and on this rock will I build my Church, signifies, according to Huss, “Thou art the confessor of the true Rock, which is Christ; and it is on this rock that I will raise my Church by faith and by grace; but this Church does not consist in men, constituted in power and dignities, whether secular or ecclesiastical, because several popes have fallen into error and crime.”

Huss does not, however, contest great privileges to the Roman Church, because St Peter founded it; and he does not oppose the Pope and the cardinals holding the principal rank in the Church, provided they follow the example of Jesus Christ, and that, stripping themselves of pomp and ambition, they serve with humility the common mother of all believers.

Yet the Roman Church can hardly be termed a universal one, because, in reality, it is a particular Church; the first and most ancient being that of Jerusalem, and the second that of Antioch, of which the faithful were the first called Christians.[2]

As to faith, Huss distinguishes several kinds. “The true faith,” says he, “is faith formed by charity.[3] This, when persevered in, is the foundation of all the other Christian virtues; it ought necessarily to be founded on truth, which enlightens the understanding, and on authority, which strengthens the soul. This authority can be only that of God speaking by his word. If the Christian is convinced that a truth has been dictated by the Holy Ghost in the Scriptures, he ought, without hesitation, to declare his opinion, and expose his life for it. The obli is not the same with regard to the words of the saints, and popes’ bulls: one is not held to believe them, but only so far as they agree with the Holy Scriptures. We may, besides, believe in them as in opinions, because the Pope and his court might err, through ignorance of the truth. It is, then, one thing to believe in God, because he cannot err or be deceived, and another to believe in the Pope, who is liable to error; it is one thing to believe the Holy Scriptures, and another to believe in a bull, because the latter is of human invention. It can never be permitted not to follow the Scriptures, or to oppose them; but it is sometimes allowable not to believe in a bull, and even to oppose it, as, for instance, when it has originated in avarice, when it raises to dignity unworthy persons, or oppresses the innocent; in a word, when it is contrary to the instructions and commandments of God.[4] As regards the foundation of the Church, there is but one, which is Jesus Christ. If the Apostles, therefore, are called the foundations of the Church, it is in a figurative manner, as being subjected to Jesus Christ, because it is he who has built the Church, and St Peter is only its basis and foundation; in the same manner is the Apostles his colleagues. It must be admitted, that Jesus Christ, who is the corner-stone of the Church, established Peter in humility, poverty, and faith, and that it was by these virtues he elevated the Church which he governed. But to pretend, from these words, On this rock will I raise my Church, that Jesus Christ intended to found the entire Church in the person of Peter, is to believe what is contrary to faith and reason. St Peter never boasted of being the head of the whole Church, because he never governed the whole of it; yet there may be allowed to him, with some of the Fathers, a priority of order over the other Apostles, on account of the excellence of his virtues; and, in this sense, the words of the blessed St Denis are true: St Peter was the Chief of the Apostles,[5] which does not mean the Chief of the Universal Church. The Bishop of Rome may be looked upon as the vicar of St Peter, and the first in the church which he governs, if he imitate the virtues of this Apostle; but if he follow an opposite path, he is only the forerunner of Antichrist.” Huss supports his opinion by citing several of the Fathers, and amongst others, St Bernard, St Jerome, St Gregory, and St Chrysostom. “It is not the post which he holds that makes the priest,” says the last named saint, “but the priest which makes the post; it is not the place which sanctifies man, but man that sanctifies the place.”

Lastly, As relates to the power of priests, it is purely spiritual; it consists in instructing, in condemning the culpable by spiritual punishment, in absolving the penitent, and announcing to them the remission of their sins; it dwells actually in Jesus Christ, and has been given, in the person of Peter, to all the Church militant.

“Priests are only the ministers of the Church, and are not able to bind or loose, remit or retain sins, if God has not previously done so; and the people greatly err, if they believe that the priests first bind or unbind, and that God only does so after them; as if God executed the sentence of priests, whereas, priests ought to execute the judgment of God, only in accord with Jesus Christ.[6]

“There are two kinds of power: one legitimate, and which should be obeyed; the other pretended and usurped, which ought to be resisted. Such is the power of Simoniacs, who, through interest, take advantage of the keys in order to condemn the innocent and absolve the guilty; who buy and sell holy orders, bishopricks, canonries, and livings; who make a traffic of the sacraments; who live in avarice and voluptuousness, and sully the authority of the priesthood.” Huss maintains that the power of binding or loosing was equally given to all the Apostles, and contests the right of the popes to bear the title of universal bishop and most holy.” “They have no right,” he says, “to decorate themselves with it and he cites, as proofs, the example of the Apostles, the canons, the councils, as well as the scandalous lives of several popes, in whom there was no holiness. “As to the cardinals, of whom it is said that they form the body of the Church, it would be necessary, in order to acknowledge it, to know by revelation that they are predestined to salvation, and that they live as becomes the successors and vicars of the Apostles; but do they shew themselves as such? Those men who accumulate livings, gain favours by presents after the example of Giezi; who go early in the morning, dressed in splendid clothing, to visit the Pope, mounted on horses richly caparisoned, not on account of the distance or difficulty of the roads, but to display their magnificence to the eyes of the world, in opposition to the example of Christ and his Apostles, who visited on foot, and in humble clothing, the towns and villages, preaching the Gospel, and announcing the kingdom of God.[7]

“The Church,” says John Huss, "may be governed without the Pope and cardinals, as was the case during three hundred years. It was Constantine who established, in the third century, the universal domination of the Roman Pontiff. Before the donation, the Bishop of Rome was like the other bishops;[8] and for that reason, the Roman pontiffs who succeeded Sylvester, fearing to lose this pre-eminence, besought the Emperors to confirm it.“ John Huss afterwards quotes Gratian’s decree, confirmed by Lewis-le-Debonnaire, and adds—“St Peter never required that Lewis-le-Debonnaire should bestow on him the temporal domain of Rome; he was in possession of the kingdom of heaven, and consequently greater than Lewis. Would to God that Peter had replied to him, I accept not your concession. When I was Bishop of Rome, I did not envy Nero the domination of Rome, and I had no need of it. I believe it to have been injurious to my successors; it turned them from the preaching of the Gospel, from prayer, and observing the commandments of God, and filled them with pride.”

“It is the law of God, and not the arbitrary will of the Pope and cardinals, that ought to regulate ecclesiastical judgment.” The adversaries of Huss considered this proposition of his as a crime. He defends it against them, and makes it a point of honour to acknowledge only the Scriptures as authority, although he respects the holy doctors, when their decisions are in harmony with the Divine word. He rejects the application to Christians of certain passages of Deuteronomy, in which God orders the Israelites to have their disputes judged in the place he had chosen, and sentences with death whoever should not submit himself to the Pontiff and to the judge.[9] "It is here a question,” says John Huss, “of civil affairs rather than of religious ones, and the spirit of the Gospel, which, only employing persuasion, differs greatly from the ancient law, which was one of rigour. If these distinctions were not established, it would follow that Jesus was justly condemned, because the high priests Annas and Caiaphas presided in the places designed by God himself.”

Huss likewise rejects the accusation of wishing to excite the people, and induce them to disobedience towards their superiors, viz., the pope, bishops, priests, and all the clergy. He distinguishes three kinds of obedience: 1st, Spiritual obedience, which is that which all Christians, without exception, are expected at all times to render to the law of Jesus Christ. 2dly, Secular obedience, which is that which is due to civil laws, admitting them to be conformable to the law of God. 3dly, Ecclesiastical obedience, which is that paid to the laws invented by the priests of the Church without any express authority of the Scriptures. “This latter,” he says, “is only obligatory as far as the things prescribed or forbidden are in conformity with what is ordered or prohibited by the Word of God;” and he draws this inference, “that he who knows of a certainty that the commandments of the Pope are contrary to what is counselled and commanded by Jesus Christ, or tends to the ruin of the Church, ought boldly to resist them, for fear of sanctioning a crime by his consent.” He invokes, in support of this opinion the authority of the canon law, as well as the Fathers, from whom he quotes many passages, extracted especially from Nicholas Lyra and Saint Augustin.[10] In the last chapters, Huss inveighs energetically against the abuse of excommunication, suspensions, and interdicts.

“One ought not to be excommunicated,” continues Huss, “but on account of a mortal sin which separates from the grace of God. The major excommunication is pronounced against a public sinner, and it is that which was pronounced against myself; but blessed be God, who has not given to this excommunication the power of taking away justice and virtue from a just man, and of making him become a sinner. . . . I am more afraid of the greatest of all excommunications, viz. that by which the Sovereign Pontiff, in presence of angels and men, will eternally excommunicate the wicked from all participation in eternal beatitude. . . . It is on that One, that he who judges should reflect, through fear of excommunicating unjustly; for whoever shall excommunicate a man from temporal interest or pride, or in order to revenge himself of some injury, and against his conscience, excommunicates himself.[11]

“As to suspension, it is God who pronounces it against every bad priest who lives scandalously and criminally. It follows from hence, that there are but few preachers whom God does not at present suspend from the ministry of his Word, because there are few who do not reject the knowledge of the Scriptures, and contradict, by their lives, the duties which they teach unto others.”

Huss concludes from this, that he was forced to preach against the vices of the clergy. “Wo unto me,” he exclaims, “if I had remained silent; for, according to the canon law,[12] not to oppose an error is to approve of it; and to neglect denouncing the perverse when it is in our power to do so, is to shew ourselves their accomplices.[13]

Afterwards passing to the subject of interdicts, a punishment which ecclesiastical dignitaries may inflict on a country or town, simply for the fault of one individual and forbidding divine service to be celebrated in the place, without distinguishing the innocent from the guilty, John Huss adds: “One of the manifest proofs that these censures, which are called fulminations, are derived from Antichrist, is, that they are cast against those who preach the Gospel, and expose the corruption of the clergy. Interdicts began after the year one thousand, and by the rage of Satan, when the clergy had become fat on the misfortunes of the world, and had grown in voluptuousness, pride, and impatience of submitting to any restraint.”

Huss calls to mind the worldly motives which led the pontiffs, Adrian IV., Alexander III., Innocent III., Boniface VIII., Innocent IV., and Clement IV., to interdict towns and countries, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and concludes by quoting, against this custom, an admirable letter of St Augustin to a young bishop, who, on account of the ill-conduct of a holy father, had excommunicated his whole family. This is the letter:—“Instruct me, I pray you, by strict reason or Scripture, in what case, should you know of any, the child should be excommunicated for the sin of the father, the wife for that of the husband, the servant for the master, and even the children that may be born in the house thus excommunicated, since, as long as it remains so, it is impossible to procure for the children, even when in danger of death, the grace of regeneration produced by Baptism. The chastisement which God inflicted on several of the impious who had despised his law, and in which he included all belonging to them, was an external punishment, which fell only on the body, in order to fill the living with dread; but the excommunication resulting from the power given us by these words:‘That which you shall have bound on earth, shall be bound in heaven,’ falls even upon the soul; and it is said of souls: ‘The soul of the father belongs to me, as likewise the soul of the son; and that which has sinned shall die.’ Perhaps you have heard of some bishops of great repute, who anathemised sinners with the whole of their families; but if they were asked to explain their conduct, it is likely they would be embarrassed to assign a good reason for it; and as I should not myself have known how to answer a similar inquiry, I have never, on that account, dared to act in this manner, however great might have been the crimes committed against the Church. Nevertheless, if God has revealed to you that this may be done with justice, I shall not despise your youth, and your little experience of the weight of episcopacy. Behold me, then, an old man, and for many years a bishop, ready to learn from a young man, my colleague a year since only, how I should justify myself before God and men, if I inflicted a spiritual punishment on innocent souls for the sins of others.”[14]

John Huss, after supporting his argument by the imposing authority of St Augustin, energetically addresses the doctors, his adversaries, and asks them if they believe in their conscience that it is an unimportant thing, keeping the middle path between good and evil, to deprive the innocent of the sacraments, and of sepulture—to prohibit divine service, and give rise, in consequence, to so much scandal, calumny, and hatred. “O doctors!” he exclaims, “to what church belongs this language? Is it that of an apostolical church? Say whether it be the language of an apostle, or of a saint. Assuredly it is not that of Jesus Christ, of the Chief of the Holy Church, in whose word is contained every truth useful to the Church.”[15]

Huss terminates his celebrated treatise by alluding to the condemnation of the forty-five articles of Wycliffe, by the doctors, without their being able to demonstrate that any of these articles were heretical, erroneous, or scandalous. He expresses his astonishment at his adversaries abstaining from opposing too openly, at Prague, Wycliffe's proposition, which authorizes lay lords to strip of their wealth ecclesiastics of depraved morals. “They are silent,” says he, “like the priests and Pharisees, and fear prevents them from condemning this article; but what they dreaded has occurred, and will again come to pass. They shall lose their temporal wealth; God grant they may preserve their souls!

  1. Tota ecclesia et quælibet ejus pars debet Deum colere et nec ipsa nec ejus pars suit coli pro deo.—De Eccles. J. Huss, Hist. et Monum., t. i., p. 244.
  2. De Eccles., p. 258. Compare this opinion with that of Gerson on the same subject. Gers. Opera, v. 11.—De modis uniendi ac reform. Eccles. en Concil. See also the Reformers before the Reformation, Introduction, sect. v.
  3. Unde quicumque habuerit fidem charitate firmatam in communis sufficit cum virtute perseverantiæ, ad salutem.
  4. The doctrine of the Gallic Church is still more restrictive. It only acknowledges bulls when they are not contrary to the laws of the kingdom.
  5. Et dictum beati Dionysii est verum, quod Petrus fuit capitaneus inter apostolos. De Eccles., cap. ix.
  6. De Eccles., cap. x. Compare this opinion of John Huss with that of Wycliffe and Gerson on the same matter, Reformers before the Reformation.
  7. De Eccles., cap. xv.
  8. This illegality of the donation of Constantine was not then discovered.
  9. Deut. xvii.
  10. Consult on this subject, and compare with this passage, Letter V. of the First Series, pages 24–29.
  11. De Eccles., cap. xxii.
  12. Distinct. 83
  13. Error cui non resistitur approbatur.
  14. De Eccles., cap. xxiii.
  15. O doctores, cujus ecclesiæ est ille stylus? Numquam apostolicæ? Dicite cujus apostoli est stylus ille, vel cujus sancti post apostolos? Numquam est Christi stylus, illius capitis Ecclesiæ sanctæ, in cujus stylo omnis veritas utilis Ecclesiæ est contenta. Cap. xxiii.