"If he were prophetic, he must have meant Martin Luther, who shone about a hundred years after." So wrote John Foxe in his sixteenth-century Book of Martyrs, referring to a statement attributed to the Bohemian reformer Jan Hus on the occasion of his death. Convicted of heresy in 1415 by the Council of Constance, Hus—according to a story that originated some years after the fact—turned to his executioners shortly before his sentence was carried out and remarked, "Today you burn a goose, but in one hundred years a swan will arise which you will prove unable to boil or roast."
Why might Hus have identified himself as "a goose"? And why might later commentators—not least, Luther himself—have believed that Hus' legendary prophecy referred to the German monk whose protest against indulgences launched the Reformation a century later?
The first question is easier to answer than the second. Hus, born about 1372, hailed from the southern Bohemian town of Husinec (literally, "Goosetown") in what is now the Czech Republic. His surname, derived from his place of birth, means "goose" in Czech. Understanding why Luther and later Protestants believed Hus had anticipated, if not predicted, the Reformation is more difficult and requires some consideration of Hus' life, doctrine, and death.
In 1390, Hus, whose early years remain obscure, enrolled at the University of Prague with the intention of training for the priesthood. He later confessed that ordained ministry appealed to him for its promise of providing a comfortable life and worldly esteem. Despite devoting, by his own admission, too much time to playing chess, Hus excelled at his studies and, upon receipt of his master's degree in 1396, joined the philosophy faculty of the university.
Shortly after he began teaching, Hus experienced, in the words of one biographer, a "radical and fundamental change" resulting in a deepened commitment to Christ. This "change" may have stemmed from exposure to the thought of John Wycliffe, whose ideas were beginning to create a stir in Prague. Wycliffe's reforming program—which included strident criticism of clerical immorality, rejection of the medieval doctrine of transubstantiation, and insistence upon lay access to Scripture in the vernacular language—reached Bohemia thanks largely to Czech students who studied at Wycliffe's own Oxford University and returned home with heads full of Wycliffe's ideas and backpacks full of Wycliffe's books.
In 1403, conflict over Wycliffe's ideas came to a head at the University of Prague. Although Hus took exception to Wycliffe's rejection of transubstantiation, he agreed with much that the English reformer had said, and threw in his lot with the pro-Wycliffe reforming party. Just one year earlier, Hus had been appointed preacher of Bethlehem Chapel in central Prague. His sermons from the pulpit of Bethlehem increasingly reflected Wycliffe's concern over corruption within the church.
The preaching of "God's little goose," as Hus came to be called, was immensely popular, drawing crowds of several thousand. Hus was eager to make Scripture and his reforming message accessible to the people. He not only preached in Czech, but translated portions of the liturgy as well as several Latin hymns into the vernacular language. He even took advantage of empty wall space in the chapel to advance his message, commissioning murals that contrasted Christ's humility and simplicity with the vanity and greed of contemporary priests.
In 1409, the papacy, perturbed by the growing fame of Hus, ordered the archbishop of Prague to prohibit any further preaching in Bethlehem Chapel. Hus refused to relinquish his pulpit. The following year, the archbishop excommunicated Hus on grounds of heresy and immediately thereafter fled the city for fear of popular reprisal. Hus continued preaching. In 1411, the papacy, which had by then issued a second excommunication of Hus (to no effect), placed the entire city of Prague under interdict, thereby forbidding Prague's clergy from offering sermons, weddings, the Eucharist, or other religious services to the people.
The pope's interdict initially had little force thanks to King Wenceslaus IV of Bohemia. Wenceslaus (whose name-sake from the tenth century would later become the subject of a Christmas carol) supported Hus and ordered Prague's clergy to disregard the interdict. In 1412, however, circumstances pitted Hus and Wenceslaus against one another. The papacy began selling indulgences in Bohemia to raise money for a military campaign. Wenceslaus took no exception to this, largely because he received a share of the earnings. But Hus, who saw the sale of indulgences as symptomatic of the church's corruption, protested from both pulpit and lectern. The king, eager to sustain his newfound income, prohibited criticism of indulgences. He reinforced that prohibition by beheading several men who spoke out against them. In order to further undermine Hus, the king now commanded Prague's clergy to enforce the pope's interdict.
Hus, reluctant to see the people deprived of Word and sacrament on his account, quit Prague in 1412. He spent the following two years in self-imposed exile in southern Bohemia, writing works that furthered his reforming ideals. In 1414, he was cited to appear before the Council of Constance to answer charges of heresy, and he was promised a safe return from the council by the Emperor Sigismund, brother to King Wenceslaus. Hus agreed to attend the council, aware that he might not return but hopeful that he might be given opportunity to promote his vision for reformation of the church. Upon arriving in Constance in November 1414, he was placed under arrest and remained imprisoned until his trial and execution the following summer.
Hus was no mere mime of Wycliffe, as some scholars have suggested. Nor, as others have implied, did he anticipate Protestantism in every regard. Contra both Wycliffe and the Reformers, he defended the doctrine of transubstantiation, though he denied that priests per se have the power to effect the transformation of bread into Christ's body. Contra the Protestant doctrine of sola fide, he believed that charity plays an instrumental role in the justification of sinners.
Nevertheless, Hus anticipated a number of Protestantism's key convictions. He criticized his contemporaries' idolatrous veneration of Mary and the saints. He likewise criticized the medieval practice of withholding the chalice from the common people (out of fear, ostensibly, that they might mishandle Christ's blood) and offering them only the bread in the Eucharist. Hus' insistence that the laity should receive both bread and wine so came to define his followers that, when forced to defend themselves militarily in the wake of Hus' death, they incorporated a chalice into their coat of arms.
Hus further anticipated the Reformers—and revealed the extent of his debt to Wycliffe—in his doctrine of the church. Hus identified the true church as that invisible body of believers in the past, present, and future who have been eternally elected by God unto salvation and incorporated into Christ as their head. Not every member of the visible church, he argued, belongs to the invisible church, and when clergy in particular prove themselves reprobate by their actions, their authority is suspect. This doctrine informed Hus' stinging criticisms of priests and popes as "antichrist" and his willingness to disregard papal bulls when they clearly contradicted Scripture.
Closely related to his doctrine of the church was Hus' doctrine of Scripture. Hus rejected any claim that the visible church, which might at any point be populated more by the reprobate than the elect, exercised infallibility in its rulings or interpretations of Scripture. He held traditional voices in the church, especially the church fathers, in high regard; indeed, he privileged the church fathers' interpretation of Scripture over any individual's interpretation, including his own. But Hus acknowledged that even the fathers could err. Thus, he recognized Scripture as the only infallible norm of Christian faith and practice, a view that the Reformers would express with the slogan sola Scriptura.
Hus was given limited opportunity to defend his doctrine at the Council of Constance, and he was eventually convicted on a mixture of legitimate and spurious claims about his beliefs. He was called upon to recant the teachings falsely attributed to him. Hus refused to do so, even though it sealed his fate, because he didn't want to perjure himself by admitting to beliefs he didn't hold.
On July 6, 1415, Hus was stripped of his clerical robes, decorated with a dunce cap embellished with drawings of demons, tied to a stake, and burned to death. According to an eyewitness account, he entrusted his soul to God and sang a hymn to Christ as the flames enveloped him. Once he was dead, the authorities ground up his remains and cast them into the Rhine River to keep them from being venerated by his followers. Ironically, Hus probably would have appreciated this final gesture.
Hus never actually uttered the famous prophecy attributed to him on the occasion of his death. He did express, in a letter he wrote during his imprisonment, a hope that stronger "birds" than he would arise to carry on his work. It was in fact Luther, in writings from the 1530s, who transformed Hus' words into an oracle that found its fulfillment in him. Regardless, Hus would, one suspects, have rejoiced to see Luther's day and would have been happy to acknowledge Luther's work and subsequent efforts to reform the church according to God's Word as a proper continuation of his own labors.