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The Theology of the Czech Brethren from Hus to Comenius

Craig D. Atwood


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480 pages
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The Theology of the Czech Brethren from Hus to Comenius

Craig D. Atwood

“Atwood's important study contributes a great deal to our understanding of the complex Brethren community. It helps to disentangle the important elements of transmission across the line that notionally divides the medieval from the Reformation era. It characterizes the thought of what was in many respects a non-intellectual movement, giving the influence of Marsilius of Padua its proper place.”


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Craig Atwood addresses the serious lack of comprehensive treatments in English of the Moravians. The Moravian Church, or Unity of the Brethren, was the first Western church to make separation of church and state a matter of doctrine and policy. The Unity’s vision for social and educational reform also sets it apart. Its theology centers on the key concepts of faith, love, and hope. The Unity—the heartbeat of the so-called Czech Reformation—was engaged with society and with other churches and did not retreat to isolationism, as did several movements in the Radical Reformation. Rather, the Unity continued to evolve as political and theological climates changed.
“Atwood's important study contributes a great deal to our understanding of the complex Brethren community. It helps to disentangle the important elements of transmission across the line that notionally divides the medieval from the Reformation era. It characterizes the thought of what was in many respects a non-intellectual movement, giving the influence of Marsilius of Padua its proper place.”
The Theology of the Czech Brethren from Hus to Comenius makes a vital argument for the importance and lasting insight of the Unitas Fratrum. It will be of particular use to students who study Protestantism’s long historical trends, including the growth of ecumenism in both pragmatic and ideological forms and the idea of separate sacred and secular realms.”
“This unusually helpful book offers the best history available in English of the quasi-Protestant Unity of the Brethren (Unitas Fratrum), one of several different churches to descend from Jan Hus and the Czech Reformation. . . . It is an indispensable guide to an influential movement that will prove to be a blessing to English readers everywhere.”
“There is so much to learn from Atwood’s book! In addition to providing a good education on the given subject-matter, the author’s evaluations are fair and friendly, comparisons insightful and edifying, and conclusions learned and thought provoking.”
“While the book is superbly researched and the scholarship is scrupulous, at times Atwood’s clear personal affection for the Brethren and his strong Christian faith is the dominating feature of his analysis. Neither affection nor faith should in any way be considered an impediment to producing a scholarly text, and Atwood’s scholarship is of the highest standard. But it does lead Atwood to advance an interpretation of the Brethren’s later impact and global significance that draws several long bows.”

Craig D. Atwood teaches theology at the Moravian Seminary in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He is also the author of Community of the Cross: Moravian Piety in Colonial Bethlehem (Penn State, 2004).


For more than two centuries, the Unity of the Brethren (in Latin, Unitas Fratrum) was a distinctive church with a supple theological tradition that allowed it to work for peace, justice, and reconciliation even in the midst of persecution. The Brethren developed new understandings of the Bible, sacraments, and church discipline that influenced the Protestant reformers of the sixteenth century. The Unity’s writings were read with approval by reformers like Erasmus, Luther, Calvin, Melanchthon, Zell, and Bucer. In addition, the Unity published the first Protestant hymnals, and many of their hymns became part of the Protestant corpus. With their conviction that obedience to Jesus’ ethical teaching is as important as doctrine, the Unity anticipated some of the themes and issues of the Radical Reformation and charted the path followed by the eighteenth-century Pietists and Methodists. Throughout their history, the Brethren maintained a strict discipline with clear boundaries of membership, but they were also intentionally ecumenical. Their confessions of faith rejected rigid confessionalism and sought common ground with other churches on the essentials of the faith. Their doctrine insisted that faith must be completed in love, and their schools were based on the conviction that love rather than fear is the proper basis for learning.

The first generation of Brethren formed a believers’ church that separated itself from the secular world by refusing to swear oaths or participate in state-sanctioned violence. The second generation, acting from internal motivations rather than outside pressure, adopted a more positive stance toward society. This was one of the more remarkable transformations of a community of faith in the history of Christianity. Under the leadership of Luke of Prague, they transformed the Unity into a voluntary church that practiced infant baptism while repudiating the notion of a state church. The Unity can legitimately be considered the first voluntary church in Western history. As such, their understanding of the church as a community of faith within society set the pattern for many modern churches.

Throughout the Reformation era the Unity maintained its existence as a separate church while maintaining good relationships with other Protestant bodies, particularly the Reformed Church. Often subjected to persecution in their homeland, the Brethren were eventually driven into exile in Poland, where they dwindled into obscurity after 1648. Despite exile and the destruction of their institutional life, the Brethren had a lasting impact on Western civilization through the work of Bishop John Amos Comenius (1592–1670). Comenius produced some of the most important works ever written in the areas of education, social reform, and peacemaking. Comenius used the heritage of the Unity in his proposals for universal reform. Aware that the Unity he served was dying, he labored to preserve its distinctive theological heritage for the future. His works had a great impact beyond the confines of the Unity, and they continue to speak to reformers in the twenty-first century.

The Czech Reformation and the Unity in Historical Research

This is the first book to focus on the theology of the Unity of the Brethren ever written in English. Despite the importance of the Unity of the Brethren and the Moravian Church to the development of Christianity and Western society, little attention has been given to their history and theology, especially among American scholars. Edmund de Schweinitz was the only American scholar to publish a history of the Unity (in 1885), which continued to be the standard text until the 1960s. Knowledge of the Hussite period and Comenius has progressed a great deal since de Schweinitz’s day. In the 1990s C. Daniel Crews published his translation of Rudolf <Ř>< í>< č>an’s 1957 history of the Unity, which had earlier appeared in German translation, but it deals only in cursory fashion with the theology of the Brethren. In honor of the 550th anniversary of the founding of the Unity, Crews wrote a popular history of the church in 2007.

Many factors contribute to historians’ relative lack of attention to the Unity and its theology. First of all, the Unity’s history does not fit neatly into the chronology generally employed in Western historiography: the patristic period of the church followed by the Middle Ages, the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, and then the modern period. The Unity had roots in medieval reform movements that called the church to live in apostolic poverty. Many of these reform groups, such as the Waldensians, were condemned by the papacy as heretics. Historians often discuss the Unity as a medieval heresy rather than an early Protestant church. It is interesting that few scholars would use the word “heresy” to discuss various Christian groups after the time of Luther but have no problem employing it for pre-sixteenth-century religious movements, such as the Unity. By using the language of the dominant institution, historians have contributed to the marginalization and silencing of dissenters such as the Brethren and the Waldensians.

Since it began before Luther’s reform, the Czech Reformation is often ignored by Reformation historians, even though it anticipated many of the themes of the sixteenth-century reformations. The only question that has attracted significant attention by Reformation historians through the years has been whether the Hussites had any influence on Martin Luther. There has been little interest in the Brethren and their continuing existence for their own sake outside of central Europe, but this is changing. Increasingly, historians have noted that not a single reformation began with Luther’s posting of the Ninety-five Theses in 1517. Luther’s work was a dramatic episode in a two-hundred-year period of reformation and division in the Western church. Many scholars today refer to an <“>age of reform<”> to indicate that there was more than one reformation.

Czech historians and theologians in the mid-twentieth century introduced the term <“>First Reformation<”> to describe the variety of late medieval and early modern reform movements, such as the Franciscans, Waldensians, Beghards, Beguines, devotio moderna, Hussites, and Anabaptists, who advocated a praxis approach to reform rather than the doctrinal approach of magisterial reformers like Luther and Calvin. Historians in general have not adopted the term <“>First Reformation<”> for several good reasons. For one thing, it is hard to establish historical connections between these diverse groups, some of which promoted Catholic doctrine and some of which rejected the papacy as the Antichrist. Plus, the so-called First Reformation did not include the sweeping social, economic, cultural, artistic, and political changes associated with the reformations of the sixteenth century that are of interest to most historians. There is also the fact that terms such as <“>first<”> and <“>second<”> merely increase divisions between such movements rather than move toward a more accurate analysis of the complexities of the early modern period.

Perhaps it is best to use the term <“>Czech Reformation<”> to distinguish the history of religious and political conflict in Bohemia and Moravia in the fifteenth century from the German, Swiss, Scottish, and English reformations that took place in the next century. One can also use the term <“>Hussite Reformation<”> because of the prominent role played by the martyr Jan Hus as the key figure of the Czech Reformation, just as one may speak of the Lutheran Reformation. In using the word <“>Hussite,<”> though, it is important to keep in mind that the reform effort in Bohemia had been active years before Hus began preaching in the city of Prague.

Another factor in the relative lack of interest in the history of the Brethren and their theology is the problem of language. Most of the source materials and secondary scholarship for the Unity is in Czech, often in hard-to-obtain sources. The language barrier has prevented most English-speaking scholars, including scholars of the Moravian Church, from examining the Unity. It is possible, however, to study the theology of the Unity through the sources that have been translated by Czech and German scholars, which is what I have done. There are works of superior scholarship on the Hussite heritage, such as Josef M<ü>ller’s monumental history of the Unity, grounded firmly in the records of the Unity itself, but more extensive translation of original and secondary sources is needed.

Historical Overview of the Czech Reformation

Because most people are unfamiliar with the history of the Czech Reformation and the Unity of the Brethren, a timeline is provided in the Appendix to help orient the reader. The primary goal of this book is to introduce English-speaking audiences to the richness of the Brethren’s theological heritage, so I have used the anglicized version of many names of persons and places. This is especially true of first names: Mat<ě>j becomes Matthew; <Ř>eho<ř>, Gregory; Ji<ř><í>, George; Vaclav, Wenceslas; Luk<á><š>, Luke; Mikul<á>s, Nicholas; Petr, Peter; and T<ů>ma, Thomas. I hope this makes the book easier to read without causing confusion, but when quoting other scholars I have left the names as they wrote them.

Before examining the theology of the Unity in detail, a brief overview of the Czech Reformation may be helpful. At the end of fourteenth century there was an effort to reform the Catholic Church in the kingdoms of Bohemia and Moravia (the modern Czech Republic) in the face of numerous abuses. Jan Hus (1369–1415), the rector of the University of Prague and a Catholic theologian, emerged as the leader of this Czech reform. He was popular with the laity because he called for priests to remember their vows of poverty and to serve as shepherds rather than lords. Hus was burned at the stake as a heretic by the Council of Constance in 1415 because of his insistence that the church of his day was in error and had erred in the past. He also asserted that the Bible and plain reason, not canon law, are the final authority in the church. Some of Hus’s most important ideas became part of general Protestant teaching during the sixteenth century.

After Hus’s execution the kingdom of Bohemia openly rebelled against the Holy Roman emperor and the pope. The Czech Reformation developed into one of the first genuine political revolutions in Europe in 1419. Invoking the name of <“>Saint Jan Hus,<”> the people of Bohemia rose up against their monarch, established new political orders, and created two churches that were formally separated from the papacy. Though rarely mentioned in histories of Christianity, these were the first enduring non-Catholic Western churches that endorsed the ancient confessions of faith (the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds).

Hus’s followers took the radical step of giving the laity permission to drink from the chalice during Holy Communion, in direct violation of church law. The chalice became the symbol of resistance to the papacy among all the Hussite parties. Five crusades were launched against the Hussites in the fifteenth century, but none of them was successful. Hussite soldiers used the chalice as their coat of arms as they defended the right of all people to be included in the full communion of the church. The more moderate Hussites were called Utraquists, from the Latin phrase for <“>communion in both kinds,<”> that is, bread and wine. In the sixteenth century the monarchs of England and Sweden established national ecclesiastical bodies, the Church of England and the Church of Sweden, but by that time the Bohemian Church was more than a century old. For much of its history, the Utraquist consistory hoped for reconciliation with Rome, but this never happened. Throughout its history the Utraquist Church relied on Catholic bishops outside Bohemia to ordain its priests.

The most radical of the Hussite groups, the T<á>borites, were inspired by apocalyptic prophecies about the end of the reign of the Antichrist and the coming of the New Jerusalem. Inspired by apocalyptic zeal, they formed the most effective portion of the Hussite army, and they used force of arms to promote a more complete reform of the church. Though they frequently fought each other with words as well as swords, the Utraquists and T<á>borites managed to agree on the famous Four Articles of Prague as a basis for church reform. The articles demanded that (1) the Word of God should be preached everywhere, freely; (2) all believers should receive both the body and the blood of Christ reverently from baptism until death; (3) the clerical order must be reformed and simony abolished; (4) sin, including sins of the clergy and rulers, should be punished and destroyed.

The Council of Basel, which met from 1431 to 1449, was called by Pope Martin V after the shocking defeat of the imperial army at the Battle of Doma<ž>lice in August 1431 by Prokop Hol<ý>’s Hussite army. It had become evident that the Hussites could not be forced to submit to the papacy by force of arms; therefore the Catholic Church tried to come to an agreement with them. Utraquist, T<á>borite, and Catholic representatives agreed on terms for negotiation, called the Judge of Cheb (for the town in which it was signed), and the Hussites defended the Four Articles of Prague at the Council. The Utraquists compromised and signed an agreement with the Catholics (called the Compacta). They made a military alliance with the Catholics against the T<á>borites, and Hol<ý>’s forces were for the first time defeated in battle, at Lipany in 1434. The last stronghold, the city of T<á>bor, surrendered to the king in 1452 and accepted the authority of the Utraquist bishop of Prague, Jan Rokycana.

Around the time that the city of T<á>bor was preparing to surrender to the king, Rokycana’s nephew, a young man of the lesser nobility named Gregory (<Ř>ehor) (c. 1425–1474) became interested in the radical side of the Hussite movement. He read the works of the most original Hussite thinker, Peter Chel<č>ick<ý> (c. 1380–c. 1458), who had distanced himself from the violence of the Hussite revolution. Using Chel<č>ick<ý>’s theology as a guide, Gregory and a small band of friends who were dissatisfied with the worldliness of the Utraquist Church formed a small Christian community in the winter of 1457–58 in Kunwald in eastern Bohemia. They called themselves the Unity of the Brethren, and their theology stressed humility, discipline, peacefulness, and simplicity in worship and life. In 1467 the Brethren established their own priesthood and episcopacy, marking the real founding of the church.

As the first generation of Brethren died off, there was dissension over the elders’ strict application of biblical teaching. This dissension led to open schism around 1495. The Minor Party wanted to keep strictly to the writings of Gregory, while the Major Party, led by Luke (Luk<á><&sacron;>) of Prague (c. 1460–1528), opted for more engagement with the world. The Minor Party, for the most part, joined with the Anabaptists in Moravia. Luke led the main branch of the Unity for decades and was instrumental in establishing much of the doctrine and practice of the Unity. As such, he is a major focus of study in this book.

Luke also had direct contact with Martin Luther, and he criticized the German reformer’s idea of justification by faith alone. As early as the Leipzig Disputation in 1419, Luther recognized many similarities between his critique of Catholic doctrine and the thought of Hus. After the death of the conservative and scholastic Luke, the Unity embraced key Protestant doctrines, most notably that there are only two sacraments, and the Brethren established close connections with the reformers Phillip Melanchthon and Martin Bucer. Many Unity pastors and theologians studied at Wittenberg, Geneva, Herborn, and Heidelberg, where they learned Lutheran and Reformed theology while introducing the doctrine and practice of the Unity to key figures in Protestantism. The Unity suffered from periods of persecution in Bohemia throughout the sixteenth century, and their principal bishop, Jan Augusta (1500–1572), was imprisoned for sixteen years at midcentury. Thanks in part to persecution, the Unity spread to Poland and Hungary, where it had close ties to the Reformed Church.

In the early seventeenth century, when the Habsburg emperor Ferdinand II threatened to extinguish all religious dissent in his realm, the Brethren in Bohemia joined with other Czech Protestants in rebellion. With the support of the Utraquists and Unity, the nobility crowned Frederick V, the elector of the Palatinate, rather than Emperor Ferdinand, king of Bohemia. This began the Thirty Years’ War (1618–48), which led to the destruction of the Unity. After the defeat of the Protestants at the Battle of White Mountain in 1620, the Habsburgs set out to re-Catholicize Bohemia and Moravia. Many of the Brethren fled into exile, especially to Poland, where they had already established congregations. The Unity was left out of the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which granted toleration to the Reformed churches, and the fate of the church was sealed. Recognizing that his church was dying, Bishop Comenius wrote several works to preserve its witness. Though scattered remnants of the Brethren survived at least until the nineteenth century in Poland, Hungary, and Prussia, the Unity itself largely died out in the seventeenth century.

In his last years Comenius published a variety of resources to preserve the heritage of the Unity of the Brethren, including an account of the Unity’s doctrine and order, called the Ratio disciplinae. This last work in particular helped pass on the heritage of the Brethren to the emerging Pietist movement of the eighteenth century. In 1702 August Hermann Francke, head of the famous Pietist institutions in Halle, published Comenius’s Panegersia, or Universal Awakening, the introduction to his ambitious plans for the reformation of church and society. Another Halle professor, Johann Franz Buddeus, republished Comenius’s Ratio disciplinae. The Pietists sought to renew the spiritual life of the church in Germany and the Netherlands. Much like the Brethren, they emphasized the idea of spiritual rebirth, formation of Christian communities, and social ministry. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodists, was profoundly influenced by the Pietists. In the judgment of one early Pietist leader, <“>The Bohemian community had apparently come very near to being the ideal community of the New Testament in terms of church order, discipline, and moral life.<”>

Remnants of the Brethren in Moravia found refuge on the estate of Count Nicholas von Zinzendorf in Upper Lusatia in the 1720s. There they formed the core of a new Pietist church called the Br<ü>dergemeine (Community of the Brethren). In 1727, Zinzendorf, who had studied with Francke, used the Ratio disciplinae and Buddeus’s account of the Brethren as one of the resources in the formation of the Herrnhut community. Comenius’s grandson, Daniel Ernst Jablonsky, recognized the Herrnhuters as Brethren when he laid hands on David Nitschmann and Nicholas von Zinzendorf, making them bishops of the Unity of the Brethren. In America the Br<ü>dergemeine adopted the name Moravian Church in the nineteenth century to emphasize its connection to Hus and the Czech Brethren, but the original Unity died in the seventeenth century.

The Eucharist, Heresy, and Revolution

One of the difficulties of dealing adequately with the past is that so many issues for which people were once willing to die are now so commonplace that we can hardly imagine why there was a controversy to begin with. Many theological issues that once gave life to a community of faith today seem quaint or even disturbing. Much of what vexes and inspires us today will likewise be confusing or irrelevant to future generations. One of these issues from Christian history is the lay chalice, which was the unifying symbol for the Hussites. In order to make sense of the Czech Reformation, it will be helpful to look briefly at the history of the Eucharist in Western Christianity and its connection to political life.

The Eucharist, or Holy Communion, is the central ritual of Christianity. It is a simple meal of bread and wine taken in worship as a way to participate in the life, sufferings, and death of Jesus Christ. It is a visible and tangible <“>means of grace,<”> or a mode of spiritual blessing. It also provides worshippers with a connection to previous generations of Christians and symbolizes the unity of the church. In short, the Eucharist is a meal that helps define the nature of a Christian community. Those who are allowed to take Holy Communion are in the church. Unbelievers, infidels, heretics, and others deemed unworthy may not share the meal. Over the centuries, the Eucharist became a powerful tool for discipline and control in the church, and as the church expanded and exerted more influence in society, the Eucharist became a political tool of social control as well.

Miri Rubin sums up the complex relationship between the church’s claims to universal authority in the Middle Ages and the development of the Catholic Mass or Eucharist: <“>Out of a wide range of religious practices and diverse understandings of the place of priests in communities, a new blueprint was carefully drawn, one which could bring together disparate regions and peoples through adherence to a single ritual practice and a shared ethical and mythical framework. . . . Within the cultural system of this world and the language of sacramental religion which communicated so many of its meanings, the Eucharist offered access to the supernatural, grace, hope for salvation, and a framework for meaning in human relations.<”> In other words, as the Roman Catholic Church was attempting to create a Christian society obedient to its teachings, what we call Christendom, the Eucharist became a primary means to compel conformity and universality. Since it had become a central focus of meaning and unity of church and society, it is not surprising that this ritual would be a focus of controversy during periods of social and political strife.

A key component of the history of the Eucharist is the development of the doctrine of transubstantiation in the Catholic Church. For centuries Christians had taken Jesus’ words in the Gospels (<“>this is my body<”>) more or less literally, but theologians were content to view the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist as a mystery. During the Middle Ages there was a lively debate among scholar-monks over the nature of this mystery, and the papacy felt a need for greater definition of the Eucharist. In the thirteenth century, Scholastic theologians used Aristotelian philosophy to give intellectual respectability to the claim that a miracle occurs each time the Mass is celebrated. The outward appearance (or accidents) of the bread and wine remains unchanged, but the priest transforms the essence or substance of the bread and wine completely into the body and blood of Christ. This doctrine, called transubstantiation, was decreed the official dogma of the Roman Catholic Church by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. It became heresy to teach any other view or even to question the official dogma, and in the fourteenth century <“>the doctrine of transubstantiation comes to be more a question of the authority of the post-apostolic Church than of the understanding of the Eucharist.<”>

For most of Christian history, the laity drank the blood of Christ from the cup, just like the priest, during communion. When the Catholic Church developed the doctrine of transubstantiation, though, Eucharistic practices changed. As the Mass became a regularly repeated miracle performed by the priest, there was a growing fear that the unwashed masses would profane the sacred. This fear that the laity would spill Christ’s blood was closely connected to the growing power of the church and its clergy as a separate order of society. <“>As the church came to be the articulator of hegemonic culture, of the symbolic order of the world,<”> Rubin explains, <“>the place and role, education and privilege of the clergy, were reconsidered. . . . Priests were seen as teachers but above all as ritual performers of sacramental acts, those acts which tie the Christian world to God through repeated, and reiterated procedures that only the priest could perform.<”> There was a clear division between the priests and the laity that was symbolized by who could drink the blood of Christ.

Communion in one kind, that is, with bread alone, became the normal practice of the Catholic Church and was officially proclaimed dogma by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. Only ordained priests could commune <“>in both kinds.<”> Gradually theologians adopted the idea of <“>concomitance<”> to justify the denial of the cup to the laity. Concomitance meant that when the wafer, or host, was consecrated by the priest with the words <“>this is my body,<”> it became the full body of Christ, complete with blood. Since the laity, theoretically, received the blood along with the body, there was no longer any reason for them to drink from the cup. Reports of miracles associated with the host, especially visions of a bleeding host, proliferated in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and were used as evidence of concomitance.

Because of the miracle of transubstantiation, the laity could adore the actual body of Christ in their local church. The consecrated host was often kept in a pyx or monstrance on the altar, and the faithful were instructed to revere the host just as they would Jesus. When a priest took communion to those too sick to attend services, he was instructed to carry the host in a solemn procession with bells and candles. Gradually this procession of the host through the streets developed into a new Corpus Christi (Body of Christ) festival of the church, introduced in the thirteenth century. The adoration of the host quickly became an important part of lay devotion throughout Europe.

There is little evidence that the laity expressed concern over being denied the cup or that theologians objected to the doctrine of concomitance before 1400. In fact, there seems to have been little interest among the laity in the fifteenth century in taking communion at all. Most were content to adore the consecrated host. The various dissenting movements in the late Middle Ages, such as the Waldensians, did not make the lay chalice an issue, although some dissenters objected to the pomp of Catholic worship. It appears that the Hussite priest Jakoubek of St<ř><í>bro was the first priest in western Europe publicly to offer the chalice to laypersons in defiance of Catholic teaching.

For centuries it was the lay chalice that kept all of the Hussite churches separated from Rome. The papacy’s refusal to tolerate the practice of the lay chalice indicates that there were more substantive issues involved than fear of spilling the blood of Christ. Advocates and critics alike saw clearly that access to the chalice was symbolic of all the other issues of the Czech Reformation, especially the political power of the church. In the 1960s, reforming cardinals and theologians at the Second Vatican Council approved giving the cup to the laity and even allowed laypersons to assist in serving communion. This step was connected to the new official definition of the church as the <“>people of God,<”> which had been central to the Czech Reformation. It took only 550 years for the Hussite reform to transform the entire Christian world. Today almost all Christians are able to drink from the chalice during Holy Communion.

Theology of the Unity

The Unity of the Brethren represented a type of <“>third way<”> in Protestantism in the early modern period. Though closely aligned with the Lutheran and Reformed churches, many aspects of the Brethren’s doctrine and practice were similar to the Anabaptists. For instance, the Unity advocated separation of church and state, and the Brethren’s ethics was based on the Sermon on the Mount. In dealing with other churches and changing social circumstances, the Unity adapted its doctrine, but we will see that the Unity of the Brethren had a clear and consistent theological tradition that was supple enough to adapt to changing historical situations. From Gregory to Comenius that tradition was expressed in ever more sophisticated ways, but it was based on several core convictions. Seven of these are identified and discussed in detail at the end of the book, but it may help to discuss them briefly at the beginning as well.

1. The continual search for sound doctrine was a theological principle for the Unity. The Brethren rejected the notion that a church can write an authoritative statement of faith for all time. This approach allowed the Brethren to be flexible as society changed. The Unity understood that doctrine is simply a way to learn from the insights of the past in order to live faithfully in the present while wisely preparing for the future. Without a rich and supple doctrinal tradition, there is nothing to unite the community of faith other than bureaucracy, inertia, habit, and class consciousness. As a community changes as part of the flow of history and the gaining of new insights, its teachings will change. Thus it is not surprising that the doctrine of the Unity changed over time.

2. The Unity taught that the church must distinguish between those things that are essential to salvation and those that minister to salvation. The essentials for the Brethren were the work of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in creation, redemption, and sanctification; and, second, that humans must respond to God in faith, love, and hope. God provides the priesthood, sacraments, vestments, and even the scriptures to lead people to the essential matters. This may have been the Brethren’s most important contribution to Christian theology in general. It was the foundation for their ecumenical activity and the means by which they were able to adapt to changing circumstances.

3. The Brethren created the first truly voluntary church in Western history. They associated the state church with the emperor Constantine, who they believed brought the oppression and violence of the Roman Empire into the church. If the church wanted to follow the teachings of Jesus rather than Caesar, then it would have to reject political authority. Despite pressure from the magisterial reformers in Wittenberg and Geneva, the Unity never abandoned this foundation of its faith. The Brethren also taught that there is no true Christianity without a visible community of love. Their understanding of Christian community was inspired by the example of the early church of the apostles.

4. One of the fundamental impulses of the Czech Reformation was the effort to provide scripture in the language of the people and to make scripture the law of the church. It was the Brethren who provided the definitive translation of the Bible in Czech. They made a clear distinction between the Gospels, which were binding on the followers of Christ, and the Old Testament, which was not. The Eucharist was also vital to the life of the Unity, and the chalice was one of the symbols of the church. The Brethren taught that Christ was truly spiritually present in the Eucharist. It was a communion with Christ.

5. The Brethren placed greater emphasis on orthopraxy (right action) than on orthodoxy (right belief). Christianity was not a theoretical science for the Brethren; it was the art of following Christ in the real world. This meant that social ethics (based on the Sermon on the Mount) was a part of the Brethren’s theology in a more intense way than it was for other Protestants. The Brethren disagreed with Luther over the importance of the Epistle of James for Christian teaching. They based their theology and praxis on the Epistle of James, which asserts that without works, faith is dead. The Unity’s moral teaching may be understood as an interesting blend of Anabaptist and Reformed ethics, but its doctrine predated both of those Christian traditions and was more Christocentric in its development of ethics. The Brethren called themselves Brethren of the Law of Christ, and they maintained this identity despite the criticism of Protestants and Catholics alike.

6. Education was central to the doctrine of the Unity. The Brethren believed that people grow in faith, understanding, and ability to follow Christ. They published the first Protestant catechisms and helped define the Protestant understanding of confirmation as a rite of personal profession of faith for those baptized as children. It was this idea of pedagogy and growth in love that connected the Unity to the sixteenth-century humanists, although the Brethren were not sophisticated scholars. Comenius is the most famous proponent of the Brethren’s pedagogical view of religious faith.

7. Throughout their history, the Brethren witnessed to Christ as the Prince of Peace who calls his followers to love even their enemies. The Brethren taught that Christian love is by its nature nonviolent and not coercive. This applies to education, home life, economics, and politics. The Unity was not always dogmatically pacifist, but its members avoided violence as inconsistent with the ethic of love. They simply could not understand how someone could love their neighbors while torturing or killing them.

The Unity was a product of the Czech Reformation and shared many of the convictions of that fifteenth-century movement, and the encounter with the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century brought changes to the Unity, but the Brethren also brought the convictions of the Czech Reformation into the discussions of the sixteenth century. The writings of the Brethren lack the grandeur of Luther’s works or the systematic rigor of Calvin, but the Brethren made distinctive and important contributions to Western Christianity. Ernst Troeltsch noted that the historic influence of the Hussite movement was “both extensive and profound,” particularly in the area of social doctrine.

© 2009 Penn State University