Protestant reformer who Luther opposed.by Rit Nosotro First Published:: 2003
“The Christian Church is the entire community of the children of God. It is the actual Body of Christ, the Seed of Abraham, the House of the living God, the Temple of the Holy Spirit. It has its life and power through the obedience of faith, it manifests to the world the Name of the Lord, the goodness and the glory of Him who called its members from darkness into His marvelous Light. Wherever such a Church is gathered, there also is Christ, its Head, who governs it, teaches it, guards and defends it, works in it and pours His Life into its members, to each according to the measure of his living faith. This inward invisible Christ belongs to all ages and all times and lands.”1 This view of Christ and the Church was perhaps the greatest truth recovered by Kaspar Schwenckfeld, possibly the only Reformer to be viewed as the devil incarnate by fellow Reformers. Why would Reformers such as Martin Luther and Uuldriech Zwingli hold one of their own in such contempt, so as to identify him with the devil? The reason for this was because his revelation from the Word went so radically beyond everything that was believed during his time, that his belief was rejected because of a fear of the unknown. Schwenckfeld's ideas were definitely unknown and unheard of. He saw things from the Word that no one else could see, because they still were bound by various aspects of the Catholic Church. This was the case with Luther, who flatly rejected Schwenckfeld and his beliefs. But what did Schwenckfeld believe? What did he see that caused him to become the object of extensive persecution by both the Lutherans and the Catholics? More importantly, why today, is his work so hidden? Why is his name virtually unknown in the Christian community? Who was Kaspar Schwenckfeld and what was his ministry?
Although little is known about Schwenckfeld’s early life, it is clear that God was moving in his environment, even from birth. Born in late 1489, in Ossig Silesia, Kaspar Schwenckfeld von Ossig was the oldest of three children, from a noble family. In times where one's level of education determined one's status in the intellectual world, a good education was necessary to be accepted by such people like Martin Luther and Uldreich Zwingli. Because of his station in life it was imperative that he receive a good education. God clearly was behind this arrangement in Schwenckfeld’s life. From 1496-1504, he attended a form of high school in Liegnitz, Silesia, and later on studied in Cologne, in Frankfurt-on-the-Older, and probably also in the University of Erfurt, though he attained no university degree. Through his study, however, he was able to learn Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, languages that would become an asset for him later as he studied the Scriptures. His career as a courtier and advisor started in 1511. From that year and until 1518, he was the advisor to two different dukes in two different places. First, he served as an advisor to Duke Karl I of Munsterburg-Oels from 1511-1515, and then later on as an advisor to Duke Georg I of Brieg from 1515 to 1518. The year of 1518 was a time of change for Schwenckfeld, both inwardly and outwardly. He became an advisor to Duke Friedrich II of Liegnitz, where he would serve for 11 years and gain the duke as a staunch supporter of his efforts at reform. In addition, it was in the year of 1518, that Kaspar Schwenckfeld received the Lord's calling, or as he called it, "a visitation of the divine,"2 which literally translates from German as "home-seeking of God."
The details of Schwenckfeld’s spiritual awakening are not well-known. As a result, though, he undertook a serious study of the Scriptures. Meanwhile, other changes were taking place in his life. Following the death of his father in 1519, he returned to his estate, of which he had become co-heir. It was during this time that he also began to read the writings of Martin Luther, who had published his Ninety-Five Theses two years earlier. Luther's heroic contest against the evils and corruptions of the Church stirred the young Schwenckfeld into action, and he visited Luther in Wittenberg many times. The two of them became close friends in the early Reformation years, and Luther confided in Schwenckfeld many of his concerns regarding various aspects of the movement. Luther was always impressed with the lack of real, intense, personal religion which resulted from the Reformation movement. He once told Schwenckfeld, "Dear Kaspar, genuine Christians are none too common, I wish I could see two together in one place!"3 His influence on Schwenckfeld was evident, for during the remainder of his ministry, Kaspar continued to call attention to the superficiality of the change which was taking place in men's lives as a result of the Reformation. Schwenckfeld vigorously pushed the Reformation forward in Silesia, and by 1521, he had won the duke over to his programme. Unfortunately, he slowly began to lose his hearing and by 1523, he was forced to retire from active court life, although he still served as an occasional advisor to the duke and remained highly influential at the court.
As time went on, differences began to arise in the positions taken by Schwenckfeld and Luther. By 1524, the differences had become abundantly clear, and in June of that year Schwenckfeld published an Admonition to the Silesian preachers, in which he attempted to rectify problems that he saw arising from Luther's theology. Above all he was concerned that the five principles at the center of Luther's position were misleading the simple people of the day. These principles were: 1) that faith alone justifies, 2) that an individual does not have free will, 3) that we cannot keep God's commandments, 4) that our works are of no avail, 5) that Christ has made satisfaction for us. Because Schwenckfeld had not started out as a priest and because he was not a doctor of theology, his mind was free of many conflicting teachings and doctrines. This perhaps accounts for why he was not just concerned with the theology, but also with the practical aspects of the theology. As a result, he did not reject Luther's principles in his Admonition, for they had drawn him to the Reformation movement in the first place. However, he believed that if pressed too far, these keystones of reformation could prove destructive of their very intent. The basis of his concern rested in the matter of justification by faith.
From his birth, Schwenckfeld had been taught that an individual was justified by grace through faith. This was a Catholic as well as Protestant position. The problem arose in regard to the nature of the faith by which one was justified. The Catholics taught that justifying faith had to be understood in the context of Galatians 5:6, "For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumscision is of any avail, but faith working through love." The problem came from the last part of the verse in the phrase "working through love." When simplistically interpreted by some theologians, this phrase meant that the faith which was availed was dependant on the acts of love through which it worked. Worse yet, in the hands of ecclesiastical bureaucrats "works of love" came to be understood as the fulfillment of institutionalized religious regulations. As a result, when Luther read Ephesians 2:8 "For by grace you have been saved through faith," he experienced a wonderful sense of release. Salvation was no longer just attainable by works, but also by faith. However, Ephesians 2:8 continued, "it is not of yourselves; it is the gift of God--not of works." When Luther read the rest of Ephesians 2:8, he carried his theology to another level. He limited it to the fact that salvation could not be attained through works but by justification through faith. Consequently, when Schwenckfeld came onto the scene, there were two extreme doctrines that he was faced with. But when Schwenckfeld read Eph 2:8 he experienced very much the same release of Luther, and more. Because he was more concerned with the results of a theological system on the life of individuals and on the society in which they lived, he looked at theological matters in a different light, than Luther and the clergy. He realized that there were two ways to be saved, through Christian works of love and justification by faith. He did not limit himself to one or to the other, but instead accepted both because he felt that one aspect could not be practical without the other aspect. He often spoke of his position as a "middle way" between what had become two warring doctrines in the early sixteenth century. Unfortunately, his stand was viewed in a different light by the Catholics and Protestants. Because he supported both doctrines each side viewed him as supporting their opponents, so he became a bit of an outcast.
But the greatest blow that Schwenckfeld would deliver to both the Reformation and the Catholic Church was yet to come. The publishing of his 1524 Admonition was not that controversial, comparatively, that is. To find a middle way between two opponents was one thing; but when a topic arose where there were three conflicting opinions, with Schwenckfeld disagreeing with all of them, then problems arose. The topic in question was the Lord's Supper, and the Catholics believed in the doctrine of transubstantiation. In essence, when the priest elevated the bread at the altar and pronounced the words of consecration, the bread literally became the body of Christ. The Swiss, led by Uldriech Zwingli, altogether rejected the doctrine of transubstantiation and insisted that the bread merely represented the body of Christ. In a sense, in this disagreement, Luther's position was the middle way. He taught that a more simple transformation occurred in the sacrament, but they rejected any interpretation which led one to think in terms of magical transformation. Instead, the body of Christ was "in, with, and under" the bread. This doctrine, supported by Luther, was known as consubstantiation. For Schwenckfeld all three explanations were unsatisfactory. Once again, what troubled him were not the divisive theologies regarding the Sacrament, but the practical results. He believed according to 1 Cor. 11:27 that "whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and of the blood of the Lord." Schwenckfeld rightly felt that unworthy participation consisted of participating in the Lord's Supper while anathematizing one's fellow Christians. How could these three groups' doctrines concerning the Lord's Supper, a central rite of Christian faith and unity, be accurate if they were causing division? He discussed the issue at length with a good friend Valentine Crautwald, the Lector of the Dom in Liegnitz, who was also very troubled by the issue. It was during this time that God gave Schwenckfeld a revelation through Crautwald.
On September 16, 1525, Crautwald had returned from early communion and had spent the rest of the day reflection upon the subject. He slept for a short time and awoke the next morning before dawn on September 17. Suddenly, without warning, he experienced a vision pertaining to the problem. All the passages of the Scriptures were open before him and a "sweet voice"4 opened them to him. Two months after Crautwald's vision, on November 30, Schwenckfeld traveled to Wittenberg to present their finds to Martin Luther. He was immediately rebuffed by the great reformer and, in dismay, Schwenckfeld returned back to Silesia. Upon returning, he sent a messenger to Luther, in hope of a friendly understanding. Luther's answer was brief and final: "The stupid fool, possessed by the devil, understands nothing. He does not know what he is babbling. But if he won't stop his drivel, let him at least not bother me with the booklets which the devil spues out of him."5 What had Schwenckfeld done? Why had Luther gone from "Dear Kaspar" to "the stupid fool"? Obviously, the implications of Schwenckfeld's theology were too hard for Luther to swallow. As it turned out, the very implications that bothered Luther, formed the heart of Schwenckfeld's ministry.
However, in order to understand Schwenckfeld’s position, his beliefs regarding the Lord’s Supper should be placed in the context of his theology. For Schwenckfeld, everything revolved around Christ. He believed according to 1 Cor. 15:45 that Christ passed through a process to become a life-giving Spirit. As the life-giving Spirit, Christ could then come into man and planted a divine seed, which would then begin to grow and start to spread in man’s spirit, overflowing into his soul. This divine, spreading seed would enter into our fallen human nature, conquer our stubborn bent toward sin, and eventually saturate our entire being, ultimately resulting in the transformation of the human body into a divine and heavenly substance. But, in order to spread, that divine seed required nourishing. Through His victorious resurrection, Christ was able to unite Himself inwardly with the believers so that His spiritual, resurrected flesh and blood could be their food. When the believers ate of this spiritual food and drank of this spiritual drink, the divine seed of life within them would receive nourishing, causing this divine life to soak man’s entire being with Christ. Schwenckfeld wrote, “If the spirit of man is to be truly nourished, vitally fed and watered, so that it comes into possession of Eternal Life, it must die to its fleshly life and receive into itself a divine and spiritual Life, having its source in the Being of God.”6 The Bible as the Word of God, had its source in God, and therefore was a viable source of spiritual food and drink. Schwenckfeld believed this with all his might, but maintained that without Christ, the Word was nothing but dead letters (2 Cor. 3:6). As Schwenckfeld said, “The Scriptures cannot bring to the soul that of which they speak. This must be sought directly from God Himself…In a word, to understand the Scriptures a man must become a new man, a man of God; he must be in Christ who gives forth the scriptures.”7 The Bible leads to Christ and bears witness of Him as no other book does, but it is not Christ. The Bible remains a closed book until Christ opens it. “The spiritual realities of life cannot be settled by laboriously piling up texts of Scripture,” wrote Schwenckfeld, “not by subtle theological dialectic, or by learned exegesis of sacred words. If these spiritual realities are to become real and effective to us, it must be through the direct relation of the human spirit with the divine Spirit—the inward spiritual Word of God. He who will see truth must have God for eyes.”8 This distinctively inward perception of the Christian faith was the focus of Schwenckfeld’s theology.
In the context of his theology, Schwenckfeld’s view of the Lord's Supper fit his entire conception of Christianity as an inward faith. Hence, his beliefs were far richer and a lot more practical than the beliefs of the other three groups involved in the hot debate that surrounded the Lord’s Supper. In pondering this matter, Schwenckfeld used Judas, in the Bible, as a test-case. If the bread and the wine of the Last Supper were identical with the blood and body of Christ, then Judas must have eaten of Christ as the other disciples, and, notwithstanding his evil spirit, he must have received the divine nature into himself. That was the view supported by the Catholics and Lutherans. But how could Judas have received the divine nature into himself, and still have betrayed the Lord? There, a problem arose. Fortunately, Schwenckfeld saw something in the sixth chapter of John. In that chapter, Christ promised to feed His disciples, His followers, with His own flesh, by which they would partake of the eternal nature and enter with Him into a resurrection life (John 6:51-58). But in that same chapter, the Lord also said, "It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words which I have spoken to you are spirit and are life." (John 6:63) Schwenckfeld then surmised that since the Lord promised to feed his disciples, and since the flesh profits nothing, the Lord must have been referring to the sacrament as a pictoral symbol of the actual experience. Accordingly, Schwenckfeld considered the Lord’s Supper to be a visible profession of faith, an outward sign that should not have occupied the foreground of attention. What should have occupied the foreground of attention was the actual experience symbolized by the Lord’s Supper, the inward partaking of the spiritual food and drink, for the spread of the divine life. That was Schwenckfeld’s view of the Lord’s Supper.
Why did Luther reject all this? The answer lies in the times. The majority of the people were just not ready for what Schwenckfeld saw. Luther himself, was not ready, as can be seen from his rejection. He still clung to various outward aspects of the Catholic Church and Schwenckfeld’s theology went against all of that. Luther had a doctorate in theology, and he was familiar with many different doctrines and teachings, but nothing like Schwenckfeld’s. Schwenckfeld’s theology was based on a revelation from God, not on religious theories based on research of the Bible without Christ. Schwenckfeld’s theology went beyond dead, religious concepts and focused on a personal, intimate, workable relationship with the Lord. Such a relationship with God was simply unorthodox because at that point in time, sacerdotalism was the conventional way to establish a relationship with God. Schwenckfeld’s theology completely turned away from any form of sacerdotalism and relied on an unconventional, one-to-one relationship between God and man. Luther did not simply reject Schwenckfeld because he thought he was wrong, but because he was afraid of what Schwenckfeld had seen.
In spite of Luther’s rebuff, Schwenckfeld remained hopeful that the fighting between Christians over the Lord’s Supper would stop. But now he had entered the fray, and the situation seemed hopeless as far as reconciliation was concerned. Finally, on April 21, 1526, he, Crautwald, and the preachers and pastors of Liegnitz issued a circular letter reflecting the tension they felt, and the impossible situation in which they found themselves. "The fact of the matter is this: Since we and many others, including some of the populace, have felt and recognized that little betterment is resulting as yet from the preaching of the Gospel, something must be wrong. And what could be more wrong than the improper celebration of the central Christian rite? [Since this is the case,] we think that the Holy Sacrament or mystery of the body and blood of Christ has not been observed according to the Gospel and command of Christ. Those who eat and drink unworthily, eat and drink judgment unto themselves, and therefore, we admonish men in this critical time to suspend for a time the observance of the highly venerable Sacrament."9 This suspension or “stillstand” of the Sacrament is what Schwenckfeld is best known for. However, the suspension did not ease the tensions between the rival groups and so Schwenckfeld directed his writing towards this issue for the next four years. During this time, the duke of Liegnitz, who had supported Schwenckfeld since the beginning of his ministry, came under increasing political pressure to draw toward the Lutheran position. But, with a counselor of so high a profile as Schwenckfeld expressing an anti-Lutheran position, this was difficult. Finally, in 1529, Schwenckfeld voluntarily exiled himself from Silesia, his fatherland, to save his duke further embarrassment. He moved to Strasbourg, a city famous for its religious tolerance. There he met the Anabaptist Pilgrim Marpeck, with whom he soon entered into a lengthy debate on baptism. Schwenckfeld did not approve of rebaptism because he insisted, consistent as always with his theology, that the all important matter was not how or when the water was applied, but the reception of Christ’s real baptism. Much like the Lord’s Supper, he viewed baptism as a symbol of the actual experience. When a person was baptized they were declaring to the whole universe that they were leaving their old sinful nature behind, and becoming a new man. Christ’s baptism, according to Schwenckfeld is an inner baptism, a baptism of spirit and power, by which the inner man is clarified, strengthened, and made pure.
Unfortunately, his theology regarding all these various aspects was a minority in the tangled web of political and religious cooperation, and was never supported by a powerful political leader. This meant that he was forced to debate without the possibility of winning. Because Schwenckfeld was such a nonconformist, he endured a great deal of persecution for what he believed in. Time and time again, he was forced to flee cities, villages, and reply to various accusations made by his enemies. In 1535, after having lived peacefully in Strasbourg for over five years, he was forced to go into hiding, as a result of numerous complaints, threats, and edicts issued against him. After five years on the run, his teachings were publicly condemned by theologians assembled at Schmalcald. Compelled to hide under roofs, and in nooks and corners, he lived secretly in forest of Esslingen, traveling only at night, in rain and storm, writing many letters and treatises on various aspects of the Bible. For a time, he was able to find refuge in a Benedictine Monastery in Kempten, where he wrote what is considered his greatest work, The Great Confession on the Glory of Christ, in 1541. In this work, Schwenckfeld’s thought on the nature and person of Christ was fully developed. Perhaps the chief point presented in this work was the matter of the Body of Christ, the Church. In this work Schwenckfeld writes, “We maintain that the Christian Church according to the usage of the Scripture is the congregation or assembly of all or of many who with heart and soul are believers in Christ, whose Head is Christ our Lord, as St. Paul writes to the Ephesians and elsewhere, and who are born of God’s Word alone and are nourished and ruled by God’s Word.”10 Schwenckfeld had no interest in the formation of a sectarian denomination, and he consistently stated that the true Church could not be identified with a temporal, empirical organization. “No outward unity or uniformity, either in doctrine or ceremonies, or rules or sacraments, can make a Christian Church; but inner unity of spirit, of heart, soul and conscience in Christ and in the knowledge of Him, a unity in love and faith, does make a Church of Christ,”11 wrote Schwenckfeld. He believed that in a very true sense, the Church is bone of Christ’s bone and flesh of Christ’s flesh, vitalized by His blood, empowered by His real presence, and formed into an organism which reveals and exhibits the divine and heavenly life. In fact, he held that without recognizing that the Church is the universal Body of Christ, and not merely the physical social-political entity made up of those who hold particular doctrines in common against others, one disparages the Glorified Christ.
After his completion of The Great Confession, he was soon on the run again. But, he found refuge in Justigen, where he lived for five years, writing about fifty books, and over two hundred letters. During this time, he attempted to once again win Luther, but was rebuffed. Soon, the printing of his works became forbidden in many cities, and in 1547, he was forced to flee to a Franciscan convent in Esslingen, where he assumed the name of Eliander. In 1549, he declared the defeat of Protestantism due to its mingling of church and state. This was in direct accordance with his belief concerning the Church not being an empirical organization. His respite of freedom was brief, however, and he soon became the target of the clergy, who were bent on the extinction of all non-conformists. In 1555, he was also outlawed by the Protestants at the peace of Augsburg. This occurred at the same time that he published a vindication against Melanchthon’s edict at Nurnberg. His outlaw status was again confirmed in 1556, when the Protestant convention in Weimar condemned him and outlawed him through a mandate, issued in Palantine. In 1558, his health began to fail, and for a time he was unable to read any letters that he received. He recovered quickly, though, and answered a condemnation against him by Saxon Theologians in 1559. But slowly, his health began to decline and he was forced to live in Memmingen, under the proffered medical care of a noted physician, Agatha Streicher. His health grew worse, but he continued to spend his days in daily reading, study, and prayer. Finally, on the morning of December 10, 1561, Kaspar Schwenckfeld died in his sleep of dysentery.
Schwenckfeld’s life was one filled with persecution and wandering. He spent most of his life going from one place to another, with no permanent home. The machinations of his enemies dogged his steps until his death. Even his mentor, Luther, turned against him. When Luther denounced him, Schwenckfeld replied in a letter, “I owe to you in God and the truth all honor, love, and goodwill, because from the first I have reaped much fruit from your service, and I have not ceased to pray for you according to my poor powers.”12 In reply, Luther and the other Reformers persecuted and hounded him out of every place that he might have called home. In that respect, they were no better than the clergy who did not approve of Schwenckfeld’s theology either. Toward the end of his life, Schwenckfeld gave his testimony, “If I had wanted a good place on earth, if I had cared more for temporal than for eternal things, and if I would have deserted my Christ, then I might have stayed in my fatherland and in my own house, and I might have had the powerful of this world for my friends.”13
Today, Kaspar Schwenckfeld is remembered by few and far between. Today, Luther is one of the most prominent figures in history. The only logical reason behind this is that Schwenckfeld touched something that other Reformers did not want touched. To tread the path that Schwenckfeld took meant to deny oneself, one’s education, one’s common sense, and one’s beliefs. Only a few Reformers were willing to take that road. In response, the other Reformers had to exercise the only remaining option: persecution. That is why today, no one ever hears of Kaspar Schwenckfeld or Valentine Crautwald. Their work had to be hidden, so as to maintain the validity of the whole Reformation movement. If the people had discovered during that time, that it was possible to have a one-on-one, personal relationship with God, who knows what would have happened? Luther and Zwingli would definitely have been ignored. Not to belittle the truths that they recovered; but as Schwenckfeld discovered, there was a much larger picture. It was not just a matter of justification by faith, but what happened after justification? Not much was recovered in that way, unless of course one considers Schwenckfeld. But, Schwenckfeld was a man who was ahead of his time. Even today, the Christian community continues to argue with itself over various doctrines and beliefs; a situation remarkably similar to that which Schwenckfeld entered during the beginning of the Reformation movement. It’s amazing that back in the sixteenth century, there was a man who saw the universal Body of Christ in way that is still far from being fully realized today.
Erb, Peter C. The Life and Thought of Kaspar Schwenckfeld von Ossig. Pennsburg: Schwenckfelder Library, 1997.
Hartranft, Chester D. Corpus Schwenckfeldianorum, Letters and Treatises of Caspar Schwenckfeld von Ossig. Pennsburg: Board of Publication, 1997.
Schultz, Selina Gerhard. A Course of Study in the Life and Teachings of Kaspar Schwenckfeld von Ossig. Pennsburg: Board of Publication, 1964.