Archive for the ‘church history’ Category

Some of you might read the title of this post and have two questions: who is John Huss and when did he die (and why didn’t I read about it on CNN)?  To answer the first question, John Huss (or Jan Hus, to be more accurate) was a 15th century Bohemian priest who was highly critical of the excesses in the Catholic Church at that time.  Yesterday (July 6) was the 594th anniversary of his death.

Huss is often overlooked by most Christians today, which is to our detriment.  The fact is that most Christians know about the Protestant Reformation; they know the names of Martin Luther and John Calvin.  While the Reformation is generally seen as “starting” when Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the chapel in Wittenburg on October 31, 1517 (an event I celebrate), the truth is that Luther was not the first to stand against the excesses and doctrinal errors of the Catholic Church (he was, I suppose, the most successful).  Before Luther, there was John Wycliffe, John Huss and William Tyndale.

Huss himself was less theological than some of these other men.  His greatest concern was for the purity of the church, especially her leadership, which he saw lacking in his day.  He protested the exploitation he saw in the indulgence sales; he opposed the Catholic Church declaring war on another group of Christians and he stood against a ban that only allowed preaching in approved church buildings.

When I read about Huss, I’m amazed at his courage.  I’m not entirely sure we understand how courageous it is to stand against corrupted authority, who possess something close to total power.  We think someone is courageous when they write an op-ed calling out our President on some matter.  That’s not courageous- it’s built into our system of government.  Calling George Bush an evil warmongerer or Barak Obama an immoral liberal is hardly courageous.  We have thousands of bloggers in this country who spout off all sorts of rhetoric against our country’s leadership and have no fear of retribution (in fact, one could argue that it takes more courage to defend American politicians, but that’s not our concern now).

Huss, and the other Reformers, had to face the possibility of retribution.  They knew that they would have their possessions taken from them, so they held to them loosely.  They knew their churches would be endangered, so they continued to preach the Word and encourage them to stand firm.  They knew their lives could be taken from them, so they did not waste time in preaching the truth.

Huss, after multiple excommunications and threats, ultimately was brought before the Council of Constance and called to recant.  He refused, though claiming he would recant if someone could show him where he had been wrong.  He wasn’t being stubborn, he was simply calling out immorality when he saw it and calling for repentance.  His priestly tonsure was shaved off and a paper crown of demons was placed on his head as he was lead past a pile of burning books- the very ones he had written that got him into this situation.  Finally, he was burned at the stake on July 6, 1415.  Huss once said “Fire does not consume truth.”  When he uttered those words, did he know he would be burned at the stake?

We can take away any number of lessons from all this, but specifically I’m impressed by the courage of Huss.  He stood against the most powerful force of his day because he saw that the Church was not living like the people of God.  Sexual immorality, simony (buying a clerical appointment0,  exploiting the poor- these were practiced by the clergy!  Huss noted the irony that the immoral clergy walked about freely, while those (like him) who stood against those practices were thrown in jail.  What had the Church become?

It takes courage to stand against such things, especially when you’re confronting those of your own ilk (in this case, other priests and church leadership).  The easy road would be to turn a blind eye to sin in the church, the even easier road would be to partake in those sins, too.  But Huss refused, claiming that if he did not oppose these practices, he would be just as guilty as if he participated in them.  We have in John Huss a model of willingness to fight for the purity of the Church.

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In recent weeks, I’ve been reading a lot of the Apostolic Fathers and other early church writers for a paper.  The more time I spend with them, the more I realize that they were a whole lot smarter than I originally thought and far better theologians than many give them credit for.

One of those eye-opening moments for me was reading Justin Martyr on the resurrection of the dead.  There were many who mocked the Christian belief that God would raise all people in bodily form.  One of the mocking claims was that if a person died blind or lame, they would be raised blind or lame.  Here is Justin’s counter (emphasis added):

Well, they say, if then the flesh rise, it must rise the same as it fails; so that if it die with one eye, it must be raised one-eyed; if lame, lame; if defective in any part of the body, in this part the man must rise deficient.  How truly blinded are they in the eyes of their hearts!  For they have not seen on the earth blind men seeing again, and the lame walking by His word.  All things which the Savior did, He did in the first place that what was spoken concerning Him in the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘that the blind should receive sight, and the deaf hear,’ and so on; but also to induce the belief that in the resurrection the flesh shall rise entire.  For if on earth He healed the sickness of the flesh, and made the body whole, much more will He do this in the resurrection, so that the flesh shall rise perfect and entire.  In this manner, then, shall those dreaded difficulties of theirs be healed.

While the language is somewhat difficult to sort, it’s easy to see Justin’s point: Jesus’ healings point to the day when God will raise the body in perfect form, in other words, the resurrection is the final and ultimate healing.

This stuck out to me largely because I originally had thought that this was a fairly unique insight belonging to Jurgenn Moltmann, “But in the framework of hope for the coming of God and his kingdom, Jesus’ healings become inextinguishable reminders of this future” (In the End, the Beginning: The Life of Hope p.65).  It’s fascinating to me to see the same observation made 1800 years apart, and makes me wonder if others have seen this and I just didn’t know it. It also leads me to think that there is more to Jesus’ ministry on earth, the resurrection and the Kingdom of God than I currently think.

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One of my favorite stories from studying church history involves Basil the Great, the 4th century bishop of Caesarea and one of the Cappadocians Fathers.  Basil is also considered the father of Eastern monasticism, who lived in relative poverty (especially given his lofty position) in order to help the poor.

Basil was also a widely respected bishop who held to the orthodox Nicene position regarding the deity of Christ, which put him in conflict with the emperor, Valens, who was an Arian.  Valens decided to take a trip to Caesarea and sent an officer ahead of him to keep Basil in check.  Basil, however, proved to be more than he bargained for.  Justo Gonzalez tells of their face off (p185):

Finally, in a heated encounter, the praetorian prefect lost his patience and threatened Basil with confiscating his goods, with exile, torture, and even death.  Basil responded, ‘All that I have that you can confiscate are these rags and a few books.  Nor can you exile me, for wherever you send me, I shall be God’s guest.  As to tortures you should know that my body is already dead in Christ.  And death would be a great boon to me, leading me sooner to God.’  Taken aback, the prefect said that no one had ever spoken to him thus.  Basil answered, ‘Perhaps that is because you have never met a true bishop.’

I suppose there are any number of points we can take away from this exchange, but there are two I’d like to focus on.  First, there is a freedom that Basil experienced which accompanied his lack of possessions.  That doesn’t mean he had none (he mentions clothing and books specifically); it means he did not allow himself to grow attached to them.  There is a connection between the paucity of possessions and the lack of unnecessary attachments.

The second point is closely related to the first.  Because Basil did not hold possessions tightly, they had no power over him and thus that power could not be exploited.  Many throughout the years of Christianity have succumbed to the power that comes with the things this world offers.  When losing our possessions is a real possibility, we begin to think about how much we love those things and how we’ll miss them.  We can be exploited.  Because Basil held power over his possessions, he was able to look the emperor (the most powerful man of his time, supposedly) in the eye (figuratively) and refuse to compromise.  He could not be exploited because there was nothing he held to exploit.

Here’s the point: there was nothing that could be taken from Basil nor anything that could be promised him that was going to cause him to falter from God’s plan.

I can’t help but wonder what things hold power over us?  Are we finding inordinate satisfaction in things that have no eternal significance?  Are we dependent on temporary treasures?  What attachments do we have that can be exploited, causing us to compromise on those things God has called us to?

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