- De Ecclesia by Jan Hus



Jan Hus was born in the small Bohemian town of Husinec, thus his name. His date of birth is uncertain. He became an arts student in Prague and by 1400 was ordained a priest. He rose to the deanery of the arts faculty. During this time Hus became known for his sermons in favour of religious reform.

In Hus's time there was a papal schism with one Pope in Avignon, another in Rome and a third in Pisa. It was resolved at the Council of Constance (1414-18) when two popes abdicated, the third was excommunicated and a new pope was elected in Rome. 

Papal power claimed the ability to sell indulgences, absolve sins and deprive Christians of the sacraments. Abuse of these powers by the clergy is the aim of Hus's criticism in De Ecclesia.

Hus based many of his church reform ideas of those of John Wycliffe (1330-1384), a forerunner of the Protestant Reformation. Wycliffe developed politico-ecclesiastical theories calling for the Church to surrender its possessions to the king and his ideas were propagated by the Lollards, a heretical group. Wycliffe held a 'realist' philosophy believing that universals have objective reality. (Nominalists believed that abstract concepts are simply names, not realities.) In theology Wycliffe and the Lollards emphasised faith over reason and scripture over ecclesiastical tradition.

In 1374 Wycliffe represented the English king at a meeting in Bruges where papal taxes and church appointments were discussed and he took a patriotic stand. His writings included treatises on divine and civil 'dominion', a code word for authority directly from God. He also promoted the translation of the Bible into English. All these activities had the effect of loosening the papal grip on England which was brought to a head by Henry VIII, a century later.

Hus did not agree with all of Wycliffe's theology, in particular the rejection of transubstantiation, but he supported much of it and used it in support of moral, ecclesiastical, and theological reform.

In 1403 the German faculty in Prague condemned 45 articles of Wyclffe's writings. However the Czechs disagreed with this and in 1409 persuaded the Bohemian king to support them against the German faculty who were forced to leave. Hus was made rector and thus headed the reform movement. This had as its base the Wycliff vision of sovereign territorial churches under a secular leader, not the Pope.

The same year Pope Alexander V responded with a Bull condemning Wycliffe's theology and the political infringement on ecclesiastical authority in Bohemia. Hus continued defending Wycliff's theology, was excommunicated by his archbishop then by Rome. However his status only grew in Prague and he soon became the icon of anti-papal reform and the pro-Wycliffe movement. He also began to oppose the preaching of papal indulgences, though his king approved them because he was promised a split of the profits.

The Council of Constance was convened in 1414 to end the papal schism, reform the Church and address the Wycliffe heresy. Hus decided to attend with an offer of a passage of safe conduct from the Holy Roman Emperor. Hus disregarded this safety measure and was imprisoned on arrival. In 1415 the Council declared him a heretic and the secular authorities burned him at the stake. Hus became one of the first prominent martyrs of the reform and a century later Luther declared himself a Hussite.


In the first 7 chapters of De Ecclesia Hus defines the Church, but against the accepted definition of the time which describe it as an institution headed by the bishop of Rome and composed of the clergy. A major part of the Church are the predestinate (“the election of the divine will through grace”) who prefigure the Reformation concept of salvation by grace alone. Hus divides the Church into militant, dormient and triumphant. The Church militant is composed of the predesdinate who are fighting against the world, the flesh and the devil. The Church dormient are the predestinate in purgatory. The Church triumphant are those who have reached heaven.

If the Church is made up of all predestined believers, not only the clergy, then the power and authority of the ecclesiastics needed rethinking, according to Hus. He reinterprets the biblical passage which Rome uses to designate Peter as first pop: “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church,”(Matthew 16:18). Hus believed that the pope is not the rock of the Church, but rather Christ:

For truly the foundation with which the church is grounded in Christ is the faith which Peter confessed.”

One feature of clerical power that Hus scrutinised closely was the sacrament of confession. He rejected Rome's understanding of Matthew 16:17-19: “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Hus suggests that this was not the power to forgive sin. He insists that only God can forgive sinners. 

The leadership of the Church is also called into question by Hus. The established Church accepts the pope as whoever is elected by the cardinals, despite their character. Hus thinks that it is virtuous character, not election, that qualifies a true pope. He criticises, for example the election of a heretic like the Arian, Liberius, as pope.

De Ecclesia is a direct challenge to the Church as an institution. It questions the power of the clergy and clarifies the role of the Church in administering the sacraments. To effect this he used scripture, references to the Church fathers, Augustine, Gregory, Ambrose, Jerome and Lombard, and concepts from Wycliffe's theology. 



During the papal schism John XXIII was at war with Gregory XII and decided to finance his crusade in 1411 by selling indulgences. Hus delivered the address Quaestio magistri Johannis Hus de indulgentiis (1412) criticising it as corruption and declaring that bishops and popes do not have the right to wage war. Hus's condemnation of indulgence selling was related to his belief in predestination since he argued that believers could not expect to change their fate by buying a piece of paper. However, the Bohemian king, Wenceslas, denied him support becuase he had been promised part of the indulgence profits and Hus was accused of heresy. A Hussite movement started declaring the Church corrupt. Three of Hus's followers were beheaded for calling indulgence selling a fraud.
A century later, in 1517, Martin Luther rose to fame by conducting an academic debate on indulgences in the university of Wittenberg. It was the start of the Protestant Reformation.

Scripture as Authority

Hus relied on scripture to argue his criticism of the Church on papal infallibility, the pope's place as head of the Church and the sale of indulgences. He advocated the Bible as the only true reference on which doctrinal faith be based. This involved challenging the power of the pope:

“Christ alone is the head of the church”…and where the “word of the pope comes up against the word of Christ” we must “submit to the scriptures.”

In De Ecclesia Hus quotes the Bible 419 times. His view of scriptural authority was not very different from the teaching of the Church of the day. However, where he dissented was that, in case of conflict between faith and practice, scripture was the supreme authority, not Church authorities. This called into question Church magisterium and papal infallibility.


Hus's concept of predestination was based on Wycliffe and Augustinian theology. Wycliffe spread the notion of the true Church against that of the institution. He argued that it was made up of the "congregation of the predestined". This meant that its members were not elected by others but by divine predestination. This idea undercut the authority of the clergy, including the pope, since they had to submit to God's word. It was this discrediting of papal authority that led Hus to the stake.


The sacraments were a core part of Church life in the 14th century. In consecrating the bread and wine in the sacrament of the Eucharist, Church doctrine taught that it was transforming the substance of the elements into the actual body and blood of Christ(transubstantiation). The church offered spiritual regeneration through baptism. Forgiveness of sins was administered through confession to a priest who had the power to absolve sins. In Hus’s view the Church was misrepresenting the meaning of the sacraments and abusing its power in administering them.

Wycliffe preached that there was no transubstatation but 'remanence' because in the Eucharist the bread and wine retained their substance. He also held that Scripture was the only source of doctrine. However, Hus still believed in transubstantiation, although several members of his reform party did not.

His criticism on sacramental administration took on a personal turn when the religious authorities issued an interdict denying the sacraments to the whole populace of Prague because Hus lived there, forcing him to leave the city. He questioned the lawfulness of this intervention:

 “Who even doubts that to hear confession and consult unto salvation and to preach the Word of God are works of mercy? Similarly to present the sacrament of the eucharist to the devout people and to baptize are works of mercy. What therefore, is the reason for withdrawing these things from the people of God without any demerit on their part?


Hus's intention was that the scriptures be available to the congregation in the vernacular and he accused the ecclesiastical authorities of trying to keep them away from lay people.

Inspired by Wycliffe who had translated the Bible from the Latin vulgate into English in 1382, Hus assembled scholars and in 1416 the first Czech Bible appeared. This was a direct challenge to ecclesiastical power because anyone who was literate could now read and interpret it as well as read it to others in the vernacular and discuss its meaning.

Although Hus prepared his sermons in the Bethlehem chapel in Latin he delivered them in Czech. This allowed his ideas to propagate.

Hus and Vatican II

Vatican II in Dei verbum restored the imbalance introduced in the counter-reformation Council of Trent which opposed Tradition and Scripture.Both are now considered complimentary in the transmission of revelation because both have the same divine source.

Contrary to Wycliffe Hus accepted both Tradition and Scripture basing his arguments on the two sources not on sola Scriptura. However, Hus disagreed with the tradition of preeminent papal interpretation called infallibility, especially since he experienced papal corruption in his time. (According to the First Vatican Council (1869–71) and reaffirmed at Vatican II (1962–1965), the Pope, is infallible when he is speaking ex cathedra on matters of faith and morals. This means that when he explicitly intends to use his papal office to teach the whole Church definitively and irreformably on matters which deal directly with faith and morals. 
There exist only two excathedra declarations: Mary's Immaculate Conception, declared by Pope Pius IX in 1854 and repeated in the First Vatican Council’s declaration of papal infallibility in 1870 and her bodily Assumption into heaven, declared by Pope Pius XII in 1950.)

Hus preached in Czech, wrote hymns in the vernacular and had the bible translated. His aim was to bring the Bible closer to believers through their own language. Dei Verbum also encourages the availability of scripture in the vernacular and the Mass in the local language.
Hus changed his definition of the Church during his movement for reform. In his early view he described the Church as the congregation of the faithful but later he understood it as a community of the elected, the predestined. 
Lumen gentium in Vatican II defined the Church as the 'People of God' underlining the common priesthood of all the baptised. The presbyters and bishops are in the service of the People.

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