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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 3 — John Huss and the Hussite Wars

Chapter 12 — Wicliffe, Huss, and Jerome, or the first three witnesses of modern Christendom

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Great Eras and their Heralds – Dispensation for the Approach of which Wicliffe was to Prepare the Way – The Work that Wicliffe had done – Huss and Jerome follow Wicliffe – The Three Witnesses of Modern Christendom

EACH new era, under the Old Dispensation, was ushered in by the ministry of some man of great character and splendid gifts, and the exhibition of miracles of stupendous grandeur. This was needful to arouse and fix the attention of men, to tell them that the ages were passing, that God was "changing the times and the seasons," and bringing in a new order of things. Gross and brutish, men would otherwise have taken no note of the revolutions of the moral firmament. Abraham stands at the head of one dispensation; Moses at that of another; David at the head of a third; and John the Baptist occupies the van in the great army of the preachers, confessors and martyrs of the Evangelic Dispensation. These are the four mighties who preceded the advent of One who was yet mightier.

And so was it when the time drew nigh that a great moral and spiritual change should pass over the world, communicating a new life to Churches, and a liberty till then unknown to nations. When that era approached Wicliffe was raised up. Abundantly anointed with that Holy Spirit of which Councils and Popes vainly imagined they had an exclusive monopoly, what a deep insight he had into the Scriptures; how firmly and clearly was he able to lay hold of the scheme of Free Salvation revealed in the Bible; how completely did he emancipate himself from the errors that had caused so many ages to miss the path which he found, and which he found not by a keener subtilty or a more penetrating intellect than that of his contemporaries, but simply by his profound submission to the Bible. As John the Baptist emerged from the very bosom of Pharisaical legalism and traditionalism to become the preacher of repentance and forgiveness, so Wicliffe came forth from the bosom of a yet more indurated traditionalism, and of a legalism whose iron yoke was a hundred times heavier than that of Pharisaism, to preach repentance to Christendom, and to proclaim the great Bible truth that Christ's merits are perfect and cannot be added to; for God bestows His salvation upon men freely, and that "he that believeth on the Son hath life."

So had Wicliffe spoken. Though his living voice was now silent, he was, by his writings, at that hour publishing God's re-discovered message in all the countries of Europe. But witnesses were needed who should come after Wicliffe, and attest his words, and seal with their blood the doctrine which he had preached. This was the office to which Huss and Jerome were appointed. First came the great preacher; after him came the two great martyrs, attesting that Wicliffe had spoken the truth, and sealing their testimony with their lives. At the mouth of these Three, Christendom had admonition tendered to it. They said to an age sunk in formalism and legalism,

"Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord" (Acts 3:19). [1]

Such is the place which these two martyrdoms occupy, and such is the importance which attaches to them. If proof of this were needed, we have it in the proceedings of the Council of Constance. The Fathers, not knowing what they did, first and with much solemnity condemned the doctrines of Wicliffe; and in the next place, they burned at the stake Huss and Jerome for adhering to these doctrines. Yes, the Spirit of God was present at Constance, guiding the Council in its decisions, but after a different fashion, and toward another and different end, than the Fathers dreamed of.

The "still small voice," which was now heard speaking in Christendom after ages of silence, must needs be followed by mighty signs – not physical, but moral – not changes in the sky, but changes still more wonderful in the hearts of men. And such was the phenomenon displayed to the eyes of the men of that age in the testimony of Huss and Jerome. All about that testimony was arranged by God with the view of striking the imagination and, if possible, convincing the understandings of those before whom it was borne. It was even invested with dramatic effect, that nothing might be wanting to gain its end, and leave those who resisted it without excuse. A conspicuous stage was erected for that testimony; all Christendom was assembled to hear it. The witnesses were illustrious for their great intellectual powers. These compelled the attention and extorted the admiration even of their enemies. Yet more illustrious were they for their spiritual graces – their purity, their humility, their patience of suffering, their forgiveness of wrong, their magnanimity and noble-mindedness – the garlands that adorned these victims. And the splendor of these virtues was brought out in relief against the dark background of an age woefully corrupt, and the yet darker background of a Council whose turpitude rotted the very soil on which it met, poisoned the very air, and bequeathed to history one of the foulest blots that darken it. And to crown all there comes, last and highest, the glory of their deaths, tarnished by no dread of suffering, by no prayer for deliverance, by no tear shed over their fate, by no cry wrung from them by pain and anguish; but, on the contrary, glorified by their looks of gladness as they stood at the stake, and the triumphant hallelujahs which they sang amid the fires.

Such was the testimony of these three early witnesses of Christendom, and such were the circumstances that adapted it to the

crisis at which it was borne. Could portent in the sky, could even preacher from the dead, have been so emphatic? To a sensual age, sunk in unbelief, without faith in what was inward, trusting only in what it saw or did, and content with a holiness that was entirely dissevered from moral excellence and spiritual virtue, how well fitted was this to testify that there was a diviner agency than the ghostly power of the priesthood, which could transform the soul and impart a new life to men – in short, that the early Gospel had returned to the world, and that with it was returning the piety, the self-sacrifice, and the heroism of early times!

God, who brings forth the natural day by gradual stages – first the morning star, next the dawn, and next the great luminary whose light brightens as his orb ascends, till from his meridian height he sheds upon the earth the splendors of the perfect day – that same God brought in, in like manner, by almost imperceptible stages, the evangelical, day. Claudius and Berengarius, and others, were the morning stars; they appeared while as yet all was dark. With Wicliffe the dawn broke; souls caught its light in France, in Italy, and especially in Bohemia. They in their turn became light-bearers to others, and thus the effulgence continued to spread, till at last, "centum revolutis annis," the day shone out in the ministry of the Reformers of the sixteenth century.

Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, October 22nd, 2020
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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