It is not known when this remarkable man was born. We don’t even know when exactly he died. We actually don’t even know what name he was given after his birth. The records say RTEP (PETR from CHELČICE). Unlike most ecclesiastical thinkers and theorists of his time he wrote all his many works in his native language. When just over 600 years ago his famous compatriot was burned at the stake in Konstanz for heresy against the doctrines of the Established Church, Petr might have been around the age of Christ at his crucifixion. Throughout the upheavals sparked by this martyr’s death, Petr stood outside the main stream of events, invisible yet opposed to all factions. However, in the national effort to reform religion and morality, PETR CHELČICKÝ has remained at the forefront. This text is in his honor to mark the occasion of Christmas Day.
‘And it came to pass, that, as the people pressed upon him to hear the word of God, he stood by the lake of Gennesaret, And saw two ships standing by the lake: but the fishermen were gone out of them, and were washing their nets. And he entered into one of the ships, which was Simon’s, and prayed him that he would thrust out a little from the land. And he sat down, and taught the people out of the ship. Now when he had left speaking, he said unto Simon, Launch out into the deep, and let down your nets for a draught. And Simon answering said unto him, Master, we have toiled all the night, and have taken nothing: nevertheless at thy word I will let down the net. And when they had this done, they inclosed a great multitude of fishes: and their net brake. And they beckoned unto their partners, which were in the other ship, that they should come and help them. And they came, and filled both the ships, so that they began to sink. When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord. For he was astonished, and all that were with him, at the draught of the fishes which they had taken: And so was also James, and John, the sons of Zebedee, which were partners with Simon. And Jesus said unto Simon, Fear not; from henceforth thou shalt catch men. And when they had brought their ships to land, they forsook all, and followed him. ‘ (L5, 1-11)
Thus begins the book Net of Faith by Peter Chelčický: with the New Testament story about fishermen lowering nets when Jesus summoned them to follow him.
Right from the beginning of his extraordinary book Peter takes pains to stress that the words of the Apostle ‘at thy word I will let down the net’ serve to ‘give us a lesson of the true benefit of pursuing good works; we should not try to let down the nets for spiritual results except in obeying the words of Christ. Otherwise the work will be in vain’. Peter thus leaves his readers in no doubt that he will not tease them with unfruitful theological interpretation. He does not aim at theology, nor is he aiming at reinforcing already intolerable and omnipresent collective “Christian” ego that was evident in his society’s fratricidal struggle. On the contrary, he is concerned with the living faith of the individual. To follow Jesus in faith, by his example, words and deeds, is everything to him. Peter calls such faith ‘useful’ and sees it, although ‘greatly torn by two monstrous whales’, as a safety net ‘by which man can be drawn out of the deep sea of the world and its wickedness’. Peter points out however that it is a matter of each person individually, as he reminds us: ‘No one can be pulled out by the net of faith against his will’.
Sweeping involvement of the church in states and powers
Peter is dealing with the contradiction between the good consequences of following the example of Jesus and the dire social reality, through revealing the cause of deep social decay resting on the secular authorities associated with the Established Church. Through his innovative critical analysis Peter brings to light the nature of the governance of society and the state alongside the history of why and how all this happened, how ‘the church became rich through its sweeping involvement in states and powers’. Peter reveals the causes of the problem that the disquieted beating heart of Europe would continue facing for nearly five centuries until the rather bigoted Habsburg monarchy finally ended up in the throes of World War I.
Foolish church crazy for Christ
In his interpretation Peter proves depending on the ‘lying’ and ‘proud’ church for seeking and finding God is a delusion. He turns his thoughts to the original community ‘foolish and poor in Christ’ that worshiped without vestments, altars, and church buildings, a church ‘crazy for Christ and in mourning’. Peter aimed at contrasting this with the institution of the matured Church ‘wise in Christ that has prospered with riches and with honors of this world; resting in peace while others carry the sword of temptation for her’. He understands that Jesus did not tell his disciples to go out and establish a church as an institution, to worship him as an idol under layers of ‘laws that are contrary to the right law descended from God’, with the unfortunate consequence that ‘the people are therefore ignorant of the law of God and have strayed from it; and the Christians have known nothing about it for many centuries’. Therefore, Peter insists on the original ‘foolish’ faith, on Jesus’ law of love, and his commandment of brotherly love, a law that ‘will bring about an equality of all, they shall love one another as they love themselves, they shall carry each other’s burden, and each shall do to others as he wishes that they would do to him’. The law of love is thus the true heritage, untarnished and enlightening souls.
The Law of Love
Peter stands firmly on what he received from Jesus, and thus is utterly convinced that ‘Christ requires nothing of man but love, and the means to attain to it’. He puts himself into the roles of the Master Antagonist, to present the obvious outworking of this law: ‘there is no doubt…if there were many who would correctly abide by the law of love, imperial and civil laws would become superfluous; the law of love would be sufficient’. Peter arrives at the conclusion that the more man departs from the law of God, the law of love, the more he must rely on man-made rights and laws for his sustenance. Peter however, while severely and exhaustively criticizing the arbitrariness of worldly powers and their undesirably interrelation with the church of Rome, does not reject those laws, but consistent with contemporary like-minded theologians, regarded them as possessing their own reason: ‘If this sinful generation had no laws by which to abide, revenge would kill one party after another without end, until the whole of mankind would perish. But it lives on, tottering and burdened with evil, because it leans against laws. However, those who live by the laws of love have a healthy and strong spiritual life.’
Illuminated became a light itself
When Jesus was born in Judaea in the days of Herod the king, rather weird things seemed happening on the sky. Unusually strongly shining star rising in the east moving before the wise men that came from the same direction just to fall down and worship the child over which the Bethlehem star would stop.
Christ’s light shined on Peter too. Therefore he leaves his readers in no doubt that in order to have a functioning humane society, suitable to all those created in the image of God, human laws are insufficient. For Peter, without the law of love written in the hearts of men, and the commandment of brotherly love, such an outcome is not conceivable, and this is despite then already fact that ‘only human edicts and statutes are accepted as right, the law of Christ rejected as impractical’.
– the second part of this blog to follow soon –