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date: 23 July 2018

Summary and Keywords

Throughout his career as a reformer, Martin Luther often framed his critiques of the institutional Church and his original doctrinal formulations with references—both implicit and explicit—to earlier reformers. Whether turning to medieval German mystics for the terminology to describe true penitence or Bohemian heretics for proof that others had identified the papacy as the seat of Antichrist, Luther consistently embedded himself within a tradition of religious reform as he elaborated his theology and ecclesiology. Both Luther himself and many contemporary scholars have primarily understood the earlier figures whom Luther invoked as “forerunners” whose initiatives and theological insights only reached their culmination with Martin Luther’s reformation. Such a characterization of the individuals and movements that Luther invoked as precedents for his reforms, however, potentially limits our understanding of the myriad, evolving categories that Luther employed in describing his fellow reformers, and it also obscures our understanding of the specific rhetorical uses to which they were put. It is therefore time to re-examine the multiple ways in which Luther understood his relationship to earlier reformers, and especially how that relationship came to serve as a key foundation for the construction of a counter-history of the Christian church by Martin Luther and his followers. The most significant individual for Luther’s reorientation of sacred history was Jan Hus (d. 1415), the Bohemian preacher and professor who was burned at the stake by the Council of Constance. From the Leipzig Debate up until the sermons preached on Luther’s death, Hus served as the most proximate and spectacular example of the risk and reward that came from opposition to the papal Antichrist. Over time, Luther’s numerous references to Hus reflected an evolution in his perception of the Bohemian martyr; in short, Hus graduated from a predecessor and saint to a prophet of Luther’s reforms, and his death served as a pointed warning that reformers ought not trust church councils. Jan Hus was exceptional in terms of how substantially and often Luther engaged with his theology and death. Luther’s eventual conclusion that Hus embodied the broader history of God’s faithful followers on Earth was, however, ultimately emblematic of his conception of church history as founded upon the proclamation of divine truth by individuals who refused to countenance its suppression.

Keywords: Martin Luther, reformer, saint, Jan Hus, martyr, councils, heretics, church history

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