Introducing Petr Chelĉický

Context

Petr Chelĉický was a Czech. He lived through a fascinating period in European history when his homeland of Bohemia was involved in a prolonged struggle for political and religious freedom. Czech nationalism and a popular movement for church reform joined forces and held at bay the combined might of the Catholic Church and the so-called Holy Roman Empire. The roots of the Bohemian Reformation can be traced back to the middle of the fourteenth century, but the main action took place during the first half of the fifteenth century. 

The names usually associated with this movement are those of Jan Hus, the rector of the Bethlehem Chapel in Prague, whose sermons denounced abuses and called for reform, and who was burnt after defending his views at the Council of Constance in 1415; Jakoubek of Stribro, a university professor who insisted that both bread and wine should be received by lay people and who was a key early leader of the movement; Jan Zelivsky, a monk turned radical preacher, who led a violent coup against the Catholic Council in Prague in 1419; Jan Zizka, a professional soldier whose strategic brilliance inflicted serious defeats on imperial armies sent to crush the reform movement; and Jan of Rokycana who succeeded Jakoubek as the leader of the moderate reform party.

The various political, military and spiritual developments are not easy to follow or to describe briefly. The Czech reformers were divided into radical and moderate factions, who worked together in the early years to establish control in Bohemia and to introduce certain church reforms, but who then split over a number of issues and eventually went to war against each other.

In 1420 the Four Articles of Prague were adopted by the whole reform movement as their doctrinal position. These stated:

  • The Word of God was to be preached without interference.
  • The sacrament was to be administered in both kinds to all believers.
  • The dominion exercised by priests and monks over large secular possessions was to be abolished.
  • All mortal sins and all evils contrary to the divine law, including the heresy of simony, were to be duly punished.

These articles make clear the nature of the reform: it was moral rather than theological, concerned with clerical abuses, and seeking greater freedom in certain church practices. The demand that all believers should receive both bread and wine (instead of only the bread as in Catholicism) became the symbolic centre of the movement, which is sometimes known as the Utraquist (‘in both kinds’) movement.

But no sooner was this agreed than the moderates and radicals split over the way forward. The aim of the moderates was to work with civil leaders to bring about a national reformation that would re-Christianize society by removing corruption from both church and state, but which need not involve a break with Rome. The radicals wanted no further contact with Rome. Instead they planned to set up a theocratic state under their own leadership. Fired with expectation that the millennium was about to arrive, they set up camp on a mountain they renamed Mount Tabor. Their early pacifist ideas were replaced with a new militancy and strict discipline. A number of damaging splits took place among the radicals but, under the leadership of Zizka, the Taborites routed the imperial armies and secured Bohemian independence.

The division between moderates and radicals was too great to allow reconciliation, however, and in 1434 the moderates’ army inflicted a crushing defeat on the Taborites. Shortly after this, the new Pope decided that negotiation with the Czech reformers was preferable to continued fighting and, in 1436, a Compactata was signed which satisfied the moderates but was rejected by the remaining radicals. By mid-century, Rome had gone back on the terms of the Compactata and was asserting its control once more over Bohemian church life.

The likelihood that the hard-won achievements of the reform movement might be lost inspired Jan of Rokycana, the leader of the moderates, to preach fiery sermons reminiscent of Hus and the early years of the movement. He gained many followers and, though he refused to start a new movement himself, he did not discourage his nephew, Rehor, from doing so. This new group, longing for a restoration of primitive Christianity, became known as the Unitas Fratrum (Unity of Brethren), and in due course gave rise to the Moravian Church. Established officially in 1467, the Unitas Fratrum owed much to the influence of a man who had known and been consulted by most of the main figures in the reform movement, radicals and moderates, but who had not identified himself fully with any group: Petr Chelĉický.

Life

For many years Petr Chelĉický was unknown even in Czechoslovakia, let alone in the rest of Europe. He was rediscovered in the early twentieth century by Czech historians, who valued both his literary style and his accounts of the Bohemian reformation. As one who was involved with most of the main participants in the different reform groups, his writings provide unique insights into contemporary events. But although his writings have survived to give us a clear picture of his ideas and his views on the extraordinary events taking place around him, little is known about the details of his life.

His date of birth is uncertain. His occupation and social status are unclear. The exact date of his death is unknown. Relatively few facts can be established from his writings about where he lived and what he did. But what can be discovered introduces us to an unusual and prophetic figure whose writings still hold a powerful challenge, and whose life bore fruit that he did not live to see. 

It is likely that Petr was born in about 1380, the son of a country squire in southern Bohemia named Petr of Zahorci who died shortly after his son’s birth. He was probably brought up, after his mother also died, by his uncle, a parish priest in Krumlov, where he lived until about 1414. He would have received some basic theological education here and as a young man came into possession of a Czech Bible that had been revised by Jan Hus. This evidently had a powerful effect upon him. It is likely that he had contact with some Waldensians who had reached Bohemia with their call for the church to renounce its wealth and prestige and return to the New Testament. He was also impressed by a former Catholic priest, Vojtoch of Chelcice, who had joined the Hussites. As a result of these influences, Petr embraced the reform movement. 

His financial position was quite secure, enabling him to spend time in Prague as well as on the family estate. He had links with the radical wing of the reform movement in their early pacifist years but turned away in sorrow as they developed into a military group. He was in Prague during the momentous years of 1419-20, where he engaged many of the moderate leaders in debate over their ideas and plans. He witnessed the crushing defeat inflicted on the imperial army by the Bohemians at Vysehrad in 1420 and risked unpopularity by denouncing warfare during the celebrations that followed. Alone among the reformers he rejected the argument that taking up arms in self-defence was ethically justified and insisted that there were no circumstances in which Christians could violate the command ‘Thou shalt not kill’. But he was not heeded.

It seems that Petr then returned to Chelcice and settled there for the rest of his life, making occasional trips to Vodnany, Pisek and several visits to Tabor. He spent his time overseeing the affairs of his estate and writing many tracts on the issues of the day. Many leaders from the various factions in the reform movement came to consult him. Despite his profound disagreement with them on several issues, he was held in high regard as a spiritual counsellor and original thinker. It is likely that Petr continued to have significant contacts with some Waldensians, whose views on the nature of the church and pacifism were similar to his.

Late in his life, a group gathered around Petr at Chelcice and at least one similar group existed at Vilemov. Several others seem also to have been formed and to have looked to Petr for pastoral and spiritual guidance. Few details are known about these groups, which may have been informal renewal groups still linked to the state churches or the beginnings of separate congregations, but it seems clear that they were intent on restoring New Testament Christianity. Another group began at Kunvald under the leadership of Rehor in 1457, after consultations with Petr, and several others developed over the next few years who looked to Rehor for direction. He travelled widely to provide oversight to these groups, but he himself looked to Petr for counsel and guidance.

Petr Chelĉický probably died in or around 1450 – an unusually long life for such a radical figure in the Middle Ages. He did not live to see the establishment of the Unitas Fratrum out of the small groups he and Rehor had founded, but he passed on to Rehor the basic principles which he had stood for and which are his legacy to future generations.

Teaching

Chelĉický agreed with both the moderates and radicals of the Bohemian reformation that the church was corrupt and reform was overdue. He agreed with the radicals that a restoration of New Testament Christianity was needed, rather than the limited reforms suggested by the moderates. But he disagreed with both groups on the means used to achieve their goals and on the actual goals they were aiming at. 

Alone in his generation Petr seemed to understand that there must be a complete separation between church and state, a rejection of coercion, and a new concept of the church as the community of believers only. The moderate reformers were content to work with the present civil and church authorities; the radicals wanted to replace these with their own system and impose their own convictions on both church and state. Petr urged both groups to give up this idea of state-enforced Christianity, for so long accepted without question but in fact the result of the ‘fall’ of the church at the time of Constantine. He rejected the parish system with its assumption that everyone in society was Christian and so belonged to the parish church.

In his most famous work, The Net of Faith, Petr uses the imagery of the Parable of the Net in Matthew 13 and complains that two killer whales have been caught up in the church’s net – the Pope and the Emperor, civil and religious power hand in hand – and that these predators are damaging the church. The only way forward is to form churches that are free from the dominion of such powers and able to develop as communities of believers who are ruled by love and who are distinct from society.

This view of the church was perhaps the most distinctive of the ideas that Petr wrote about at length. But there are several other commitments in his writings that have lasting importance.

(1) The authority of the Bible. Petr and his friends studied the Bible in their own language and, like many before them and since, discovered that many features of the church they belonged to had no biblical basis. Petr denounced the many practices and beliefs that the church had added which were not to be found in the Bible. He rejected the idea of purgatory, and ridiculed much of the ceremonial life of the churches – pilgrimages, praying to saints, special fast days, bell ringing and liturgies. The Bible seemed to advocate a much simpler way of being the church. In his Reply to Rokycana, Petr writes to those who defended such practices: ‘and this you do not want to believe, how much you have harmed the world through this doctrine of purgatory, and with whatever has been made up of false laws, oaths, simonistic services and in goods looted by the priests…’ Petr also objected to the use of the Old Testament to justify various practices that seemed contrary to Jesus’ teaching. While not rejecting the Old Testament, he insisted that Christians were under a new covenant now.

(2) Pacifism. In his first major treatise, Of Spiritual Conflict, and in many of his subsequent writings, Petr rejected the use of force either to impose beliefs or to defend beliefs. In The Net of Faith, he wrote: ‘By the use of force no man is brought to faith in Christ, as unlikely as that a man should acquire a knowledge of the Czech language by studying German…Since we believe that it was by meekness and humility unto the cross that Christ has delivered us from the power of Satan, therefore we cannot allow that the perfecting of our faith comes by worldly power as though force were a greater benefit than is faith.’ He argued that the ‘just war’ doctrine used by all sides to justify going to war was unbiblical and he was unimpressed by the victories won by the Hussites on the field of battle. Referring to Ephesians 6, he stressed that the real battle was not against human enemies but against demonic forces and that the only kind of fighting open to Christians was spiritual warfare against the devil and all his works. Military service was not allowed. Capital punishment was not to be defended. ‘Faith,’ he wrote in On the Triple Division of Society, ‘having spiritual power, prospers without the power that induces fear and drives people to its bidding through terror and against their will.’ For Petr, pacifism did not mean ‘passivism’, but fighting against the real enemy with biblical and spiritual weapons.

(3) Separation. Not only should church and state be separate, according to Petr, but true Christians should be quite distinct from the rest of society. They should live simple lives and not accumulate wealth. They should refuse to swear oaths, to assert their rights in the courts or participate in the government. They should live holy and upright lives. He accepted the need for the state and for governments, but saw no need for Christians to be directly involved in a system that was based on force.

(4) Social Criticism. For Petr, being separate did not mean being uninvolved or uninterested in social and political issues. He was fully involved in the issues of the day, as a counsellor to many politicians and revolutionaries, and as a writer. He wrote often against the injustice of the feudal system that seemed so firmly rooted in European society, calling for its abolition. He opposed the class divisions in society as unfair and unchristian and set out a vision of a new social order based on equality. But this revolution was to be achieved non-violently.

On several topics Petr was uncertain. He had doubts about the validity of infant baptism but did not reject it; he did not accept the idea of transubstantiation in communion but he was uneasy with the radicals’ view that the bread and wine were mere symbols; he saw some place for penance but advocated repentance and a changed lifestyle as preferable; he seems to have been unsure about the value of marriage. But on the issues where he was clear he maintained a consistent testimony for decades and offered his contemporaries an alternative vision of both church and society.

Significance

Petr Chelĉický was a prophetic figure, highly respected in his own time but unable to persuade more than a handful of people that his views were right. The rediscovery of his writings makes available to us his testimony and legacy. A ‘loser’ in his own generation, his views on the church as a community of believers and on the need for church and state to be distinct are now widely accepted. His radical critique of social injustice issues a challenge to Christians to be concerned about the many injustices that continue to plague our nations. 

Petr’s refusal to endorse either a status quo maintained by force or a revolution achieved by violence is an important testimony. His teaching on physical and spiritual warfare offers an important contribution to those who want to change their societies. Liberation movements that resort to violence or attempt to impose a new order on society reinvent the wheel. Liberation theology can be just as tied to the Christendom model as the establishment theology it hopes to replace. The utter rejection of coercion and the undue use of influence or power by the church is still not firmly established among the people of God. Nor do those who endorse pacifism always balance their rejection of physical warfare with a commitment to spiritual warfare and social transformation. A commitment to spiritual warfare without a rejection of the use of force is as dangerous as a commitment to pacifism without engaging in spiritual warfare. Petr identifies clearly the reality of the battle and the nature of the weapons available to Christians.

Petr Chelĉický stood alone in his time. But he stands also in a long line of ‘losers’ in church history who refused to let go of a vision they had found in the Bible of a peaceful non-conforming church of disciples, living simple and upright lives, involved in their society but distinct from it, committed to a restoration of New Testament Christianity. 

Further Reading

M. Lambert: Medieval Heresy (Edward Arnold, 1977)
M. Wagner: Petr Chelcicky (Herald Press, 1983)