Letters of John Huss Written During His Exile and Imprisonment/Remarks on the works of John Huss

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The writings of John Huss, which have been handed down to us, may be classed under four principal heads:—His letters; his works and commentaries on the Scriptures; his sermons; and, lastly, his moral and theological treatises. His letters have been given in this volume. His particular works on the Scriptures are,—

1st, A History of the Life of Jesus Christ, according to the Four Gospels.

2dly, The History of our Lord’s Passion, as collected from the Four Gospels, and augmented by notes and commentaries from the most celebrated Doctors of the Church.

3dly, The Explanation of the First Seven Chapters of the First Epistle of St Paul to the Corinthians.

4thly, Commentaries on the Seven Canonical Epistles of the Apostles St James, St Peter, St John, and St Jude.

5thly, Explanations and Developments of the Psalms cix., cx., cxi., cxii., cxiii., cxiv., cxv., cxvi., cxvii., and cxviii.

All these writings reveal in their author a profound knowledge of the sacred books, and of the works of the Fathers, as well as a great zeal to diffuse the light of the Scriptures, and to draw from them salutary instruction. They indicate, besides, an independence of views which must have given umbrage to the clergy. It is thus that Huss, in arranging the Epistles of the Apostles, names first that of St James, who, he says, presided at the Council of Jerusalem. He assigns the first place to this Epistle, on account of the superior dignity which the Apostle bears in the eyes of Christians by reason of three different claims:— “First, In addressing himself particularly to converted Jews, who were superior to the pagans; afterwards, in consideration of his personal merit; for although Peter was the first of the apostles, nevertheless the first evangelical preaching is traced to St James;— and lastly, in consideration of the dignity of the place where he held his See, which was Jerusalem, where the first preaching of God’s word took place.”[1]

These works of John Huss on the Scriptures, so different in their nature, and so considerable in their extent, are, however, like most of the theological writings of the epoch, prolix and diffuse. The author subdivides his matter without end, fatigues with his repetitions, and, in his commentaries, presents, in general, subtile explanations and interpretations, sometimes trifling, and often forced, in order to discover in each word of the sacred books of the Old Testament, the type of our Saviour’s words in the New one.

The sermons and discourses of John Huss, collected in his works, amount to about forty, amongst which several were pronounced before his rupture with his ecclesiastical superiors, and his interdiction. In them might be already recognised that pure and ardent zeal for morality, and that horror for the vices of the clergy, which animated his bosom in every circumstance of his life—a manifestation at once noble and rash in an age when the clergy were as powerful as they were corrupt, and which accumulated on the head of John Huss such implacable resentment.

In some sermons, delivered at a later period, and when he was already exposed to the attacks of his enemies, he expresses himself openly against the abuses springing from the doctrines of the Roman Church. He energetically censures the pomp and ostentation displayed in the festivals in honour of the saints. He reproves the lying flatteries of funeral eulogiums, and the profit derived from them by the priest. He alludes to this verse—

De morbo medicus gaudet, de morte sacerdos;[2]

and adds: “What is the use of multiplying vigils in the house of a rich defunct, unless, indeed, for empty praise? Neither he who pays, nor he who is paid, care much about the psalms that are sung. What utility is there in this pompous cortege of the rich at the burial of a corpse? Why are so many priests sitting luxuriously on cushions round a coffin, whilst thou, O Christ! stoodst weeping over the tomb of Lazarus, and humbly invokedst thy Father? We do not weep, but make merry; we utter not pious groans, but vain clamours.“[3]

John Huss believed in purgatory, although he placed but little confidence in the efficacy of praying for the dead; and in the sermon already mentioned, he supports his opinion on this point by the silence of the Scriptures. “We find no mention made of it,” he remarks, “except in the Book of Maccabees, which is not placed by the Jews in the canon of the Old Testament; neither the prophets, nor Jesus Christ, nor the Apostles, nor the saints who have followed their footsteps, have explicitly taught that the dead should be prayed for; but they have publicly declared, that whoever lived without crime should be deemed holy. For my part, I think that the introduction of this custom originated in the avarice of the priests, who, though but little desirous of teaching men to live well after the examples of the prophets, of Christ and the Apostles, carefully exhort them to make rich offerings, in the hope of procuring celestial happiness, and a speedy deliverance from purgatory.”[4]

The first nine sermons collected in the works of John Huss[5] were preached by him in Prague at different periods, and are followed by twenty-eight discourses relative to Antichrist, in which he openly designates the Pope, and where he repeats most of the arguments of the treatise, On the Anatomy of the Members of Antichrist. The last two sermons of John Huss are those which he composed on arriving at Constance; the one on Faith, the other on Peace. They breathe the desire of a reconciliation, which his enemies repulsed, and he was not permitted to deliver them. The moral and theological treatises form the fourth part of John Huss’s works, and the most important of the whole, for they especially shew his doctrines, and were those which furnished his enemies and judges with arguments and arms against him.[6]

The principal of the treatises are:—The Treatise on the Church, publicly read in the city of Prague; The Refutation of the Bull of John XXIII., concerning Indulgences for the First Crusade;[7] Answer to Stephen Paletz; Answer to Stanislas Znöima; Refutation of the Writing of Eight Doctors of Prague; The Book of Antichrist; and the Treatise on the Abominations of Priests and Monks.

All the doctrines and peculiar opinions of John Huss are to be met with in his celebrated Treatise on the Church, and in his Answers to Paletz, to Stanislas de Znöima, and The Eight Doctors. It may be discovered, on perusing them, that on a great number of points, which, a century later, separated the Reformers from the Roman Catholic Church, Huss shared the opinion of the latter, or at least did not believe that it was allowable to oppose it; he attacked it, consequently, much more for its abuses than for its errors.

The horror which he felt at the sight of evil, and especially when it was committed by men who ought to set an example of every virtue to others, often carried him too far. Anger mingled its violence with his indignation, and, in some treatises, amongst others The Antichrist, and The Abominations of Priests and Monks, he forgets himself so far as to indulge in abuse, and employ insulting and offensive expressions. Nevertheless, it would be unjust to see, on that account, an excuse for those who condemned him; for these treatises were not known to them, and were only made public after his death. Besides, the expressions to be blamed in them belong less to John Huss than to the age in which he lived. They are to be met with in the writings of the most celebrated Doctors and orthodox priests; and it seems that, in hazarding a language which astonishes our more sensitive ears, John Huss had adopted for his authority the Prophet Ezekiel, from whom he often drew his inspirations.

Among the doctrines signalized as heretical in the works of Huss are those on Predestination and Election. A heresy was seen in the definition which Huss gives of the Catholic and the universal Church, “This Church,” says he, “is the assembly of all the elect, present, past, and future, including also the angels.[8] And lower down he adds:—“No particular tie, no human election, renders a person member of the universal Church, but divine predestination alone; this predestination is, according to St Augustin, election by the grace of the Divine will, or preparation to grace in the present life, and to glory in the future one.”[9]

To these different passages has been opposed the necessity of the sacraments for obtaining salvation; and it has thence been concluded, that, whoever admitted predestination, gratuitous safety of election and grace, or communion with the universal Church—could attribute no efficacy to the sacraments—to the communion of the external and visible Church.[10] Nevertheless, Huss nowhere disputes the virtue of the sacraments, but, on the contrary, recommends their frequent use. This doctrine of predestination and election has often divided the Catholic Church. It has been supported in every age by some of its most illustrious members, and has had for interpreters St Augustin and Gerson.[11] The boldest opinions of John Huss have, almost all of them found partizans among men whom Rome venerates as saints and learned doctors. But he separated from them upon two principal points: in his eyes, as in those of Wycliffe, the authority of the Church could only direct the faith and conduct, as long as the decisions of the Church agreed with the Scriptures; and the priest, whatever his external dignity might be, was not, in the sight of God, priest, bishop, or pope, and representative of Jesus Christ, but as far as he took for model and guide in his private life the example of our Saviour. These two capital points, on which repose all the doctrine of Wycliffe, are the real basis of all Christian dissent. Huss, as we stated in a previous work, acknowledged them without calculating their importance, without clearly understanding the abyss they opened between him and the Church of which he believed himself a member. His opinion on this subject strongly manifests itself in all the above-mentioned treatises. Even his adversaries are forced to admit that he derived it from the unshaken conviction that morality and religion are inseparable, and that they who have the mission of representing Jesus on earth could not desire or order otherwise than what God himself had willed and commanded.

On these two points, he goes beyond the limits of the Roman Church, and openly subjects himself to the reproach addressed to him by one of the Catholic writers, who judged him most impartially. “It is greatly to be lamented,” says the writer alluded to, “that such a man should have so frightful a destiny, and so bitter a death,—he, who glowed with so ardent a love for Christ and his doctrine,—who shone, by the integrity of his life, the sincerity of his heart, the ardour of his mind, his eloquence, and other precious gifts, to so high a degree, that he might have become an illustrious Reformer, if, after the example of some very eminent men, such as Gerson, d’Ailly, or Clémangis, he had devoted his talents to the work of reform in the Church itself, and not out of its bosom.”[12]

This reproach is best refuted by referring to John Huss’s life, and the history of his time. Both form the subject of the work, which this one completes, and to which the reader has been often referred.[13] It will be there seen that the reform of abuses could not be accomplished by those whose interests it was to perpetuate them, and that the corruption of the external and visible Church was then so profound, that to introduce a reform in it, it was necessary first to leave it altogether.



Of all John Huss’s treatises, that on The Church is the most complete and celebrated. We must insert here an analysis of it, which will terminate this work.

  1. Hist, et Monum. Johann. Huss, t. ii., p. 176.
  2. The physician delights in disease, the priest in death.
  3. Hist. et Monum. Johann. Huss. Sermo habitus Pragæ in Synodo ad Clerum, t. ii., p. 77.
  4. Ubi supra, p. 82.
  5. Hist. et Monum. Johann. Huss, t. ii.
  6. For the complete list of John Huss’s treatises, see Note B.
  7. For this celebrated writing, consult Reformers before the Reformation, vol. i., b. i.
  8. De Eccles.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Retrum Hussi doctrina fuerit hæresica. Dissert. Hist. Dogmat. Coppenberg.
  11. Gers. Oper. De Conosolat. Theolog., t. i. p. 137.
  12. Maxime quidem dolendum esse ingenue confitemur quod tristissimam sortem necemque acerbissimam vir ille perpessus est, qui magno exarsit Christi reique christianæ amore, vitæ integritate voluntate sincera, maximo animi ardore, præstantissima concionandi facultate aliisque virtutibus mire excelluit, ita ut reformator extitisset egregius si cum æqualibus viris præclarissimis, Gersonio, Petro ab Alliaco, Nicolao Clemangis ea qua potuit ac debuit ratione intra, non extra Ecclesiæ fines, reformandæ Ecclesiæ operam novasset. Dissert. hist. dogmat. Cappenberg.
  13. The Reformers before the Reformation.