October 04, 2017

The Goose and the Swan

Stephen Nichols
The Goose and the Swan


We are continuing our trek through Martin Luther’s life, exploring his thought, and his legacy. We have been examining Luther’s time at Erfurt. Luther became a monk in the Augustinian order, and his time as a monk was a time of intense spiritual struggle. As an Augustinian, he would have been ordained as a priest and instructed to give his first Mass at the monastery church in Erfurt.

Interestingly, in that church is a stone slab in front of the altar that is actually the burial place of Johannes Zacharias, bishop of Erfurt. Zacharias was born in 1384 and lived until 1428. He was trained at Oxford and became the chair of theology at the University of Erfurt. Zacharias’ greatest legacy was the role he played at the Council of Constance in Germany. He was a fierce opponent of one of the forerunners of the Reformation, Jan Hus.

There were two forerunners of the Reformation who factored into the Council of Constance. In May 1415, the council posthumously condemned John Wycliffe, who had died of natural causes in 1384, the same year Zacharias was born. Wycliffe had had two strokes, which likely led to his death. Wycliffe was an Oxford scholar and is often called the “Morning Star of the Reformation.” He challenged the papacy and translated the Bible into English. For these actions, the Council of Constance condemned him as a heretic.

There was also Jan Hus. Hus was from Prague in Bohemia, or what is now the Czech Republic. He served at Bethlehem Chapel in Prague. He was charged with several great crimes against the church, the first of which was that he preached in the Czech language rather than in Latin. He also refused to wear the clerical garb of the medieval church because he believed it contributed to an illegitimate distinction between clergy and laity. Finally, he was also in favor of congregational singing and desired the reform of the church. He was greatly influenced by the writings of Wycliffe. Eventually, Hus’ own writings and influence drew the attention of church officials, and he was summoned to the Council of Constance. There, he was condemned as a heretic. Actually, the council condemned him as a heresiarch—an arch-heretic. He was led about a kilometer outside the city and was martyred by burning at the stake.

Hus’ last words are important. He declared that he would die trusting in the gospel that he had proclaimed and taught. Then he told his executioners that they could burn the goose (his surname means “goose” in Czech), but a hundred years later, a swan would come whom they would be incapable of killing.

Hus was almost a true prophet. It wasn’t exactly a hundred years later, but rather a hundred and two years later, that Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses to the church door at Wittenberg.

Johannes Zacharias was Hus’ fiercest opponent at the Council of Constance, and he was buried under the slab in the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt where Luther was ordained as a priest. At that monastery, Luther studied not just the traditions of the past but also the Word of God. Out of that study, the Reformation began.