The Long Legacy of a Roasted Goose

Proto-reformer John Hus was burned at the stake 600 years ago this week. We are all Hussites now. /

In the summer of 1519, Martin Luther debated theologian John Eck in the city of Leipzig on the primacy of the pope. Eck reached for that ever-convenient polemical tactic: guilt by association. Didn’t Luther realize, Eck asked, that his rejection of the divine origin of papal authority was one of the teachings for which Czech theologian John Hus had been executed a hundred years earlier?

This was an effective move, because Luther—like many who ran afoul of the papacy in the 15th and early 16th centuries—had been appealing to the authority of a general council over the pope. Eck showed that some of Luther’s ideas had already been condemned by a council, forcing Luther to reject the authority of councils as well as of the pope if he wanted to maintain his teachings.

Eck’s tactic was also effective in a more superficial, political way. The area where the debate was held had been laid waste by invading Czechs in the war that followed Hus’s death. Thus, praising Hus was almost equivalent to a modern American theologian praising Osama bin Laden.

In the months following the debate, Luther read more of Hus’s work, and the more he read, the more convinced he became that he had been right to defend Hus. Writing to his friend and patron George Spalatin in February of 1520, Luther concluded, “We are all Hussites without knowing it. Indeed, Paul and Augustine are literally Hussites.”

What did Luther mean by this? Who was Hus, and what about him struck Luther as so central to the Christian faith that he could describe even Paul and Augustine as “Hussites”?

A Fiery Preacher

John Hus was born around 1372 in a small village in southern Bohemia (present-day Czech ...

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