Schwenckfeld, Caspar von (1489-1561)
1958 Article: IntroductionCaspar von Schwenckfeld (Kaspar Schwenkfeld von Ossig), a notable and attractive figure in the German Reformation, though he founded no church, was born in Ossig near Lüben, in the principality of Liegnitz, Silesia, Germany. He came from the ranks of the nobility, and studied at various universities (at Cologne 1505-1507), but did not secure a degree, nor was he ever ordained, remaining a layman all his life.
Schwenckfeld's spiritual awakening began in 1518 when the first news of Luther's innovations in Wittenberg reached the court of Brieg, Silesia. Soon thereafter he entered the service of Friedrich II of Liegnitz and in 1522 persuaded the duke to launch the evangelical movement in Silesia. His hearing having become impaired, he left the court and returned to his home in Ossig in 1523, continuing, however, to serve occasionally as an adviser to the duke. From the beginning he adopted the role of a lay evangelist and remained such throughout his life, winning followers in Silesia and in South Germany.
In December 1525 Schwenckfeld personally presented his spiritual interpretation of the words of institution of the Lord's Supper to Luther in Wittenberg in a fraternal spirit. Three months later Luther wrote him a vehement condemnation, whereupon Schwenckfeld and the Schwenckfelder brotherhood in Liegnitz advocated suspension of the observance of the Supper until a better understanding of it was forthcoming. Schwenckfeld always acknowledged his indebtedness to Luther.
Schwenckfeld prevented his duke from evicting the Anabaptists from his dukedom. The wrath of King Ferdinand of Austria was stirred by the liberal policies of the duke and Schwenckfeld, their appointment of Swiss theologians to the University of Liegnitz, their toleration of Anabaptists, and the publication of two of Schwenckfeld's books by Zwingli and Oecolampadius; the consequence was a mandate by the king demanding that his Silesian subjects return to the old faith. In order to save his duke from further embarrassment, Schwenckfeld voluntarily left Silesia in 1529 and went to Strasbourg. There he was kindly received by Capito and Bucer and remained until 1533, when he set out on a journey to visit friends in Hagenau, Landau, Speyer, Esslingen, and Augsburg, where he lived with Bonifacius Wolfhart for several months, then to Mindelheim, Kempten, Memmingen, and Ulm. In Ulm he was entertained by the city officials. In July 1534 he returned to Strasbourg. The city having adopted a course of suppression of all dissenters, he left the city permanently, and went to Ulm where he resided with the burgomaster, Bernhard Besserer, until 1539. In 1540-1547 he lived in the Justingen Castle of the von Freyberg family, and 1547-1550 in the Franciscan Monastery at Esslingen. In 1551-1561 he was a homeless wanderer, constantly evading his persecutors. In 1561 Agathe Streicher, a daughter of the widow Helena Streicher, invited him to their home in Ulm to receive her medical services. He accepted the invitation and died in the Streicher home three months later, 10 December 1561.
Most of Schwenckfeld's writings are epistles on devotional, religious, and controversial subjects. During his lifetime, with the assistance of friends, he wrote and published 180 books and booklets, a few of which appeared in the year after his death. Four folio volumes of his letters and one of treatises were printed in 1564, 1566, and 1570. Four additional folio volumes of his letters were preserved by faithful friends. A complete edition of his works was in process of publication, the Corpus Schwenckfeldianorum. Fifteen volumes of this 18-volume edition appeared in 1907-39. Publication of the three final volumes (1558-1561) resumed in 1958.
"In Schwenckfeld's opinion, spiritual life and experience were of greater importance than creeds, theologies, or any church organization bearing his name. He worked untiringly to the end of his life for one united Christian Church founded on faith and freedom of belief, a fellowship of all who love God and Jesus Christ, the ecumenical church." "The Christian Church," said he, "is the company of God's people, of all or of many who with heart and soul are believers in Christ, a willing people drawn by the Father. It is the company of those regenerated souls in all lands who worship the Father in spirit and in truth, whether or not they adhere to one doctrine, confession, and order of worship." Schwenckfeld's doctrine of the church and his basically spiritualistic type of Christianity furnished no adequate basis for organizing his followers into a church and he deliberately chose not to establish a church, even though strong groups of his disciples arose in Silesia (Glatz, Goldberg, Jauer, and Wohlau) and Schwenckfelder conventicles met at various places in South Germany. Consequently no Schwenckfelder church was ever organized in Europe. Schwenckfeld used the term "church" only in the generic sense, never to apply to his own followers or to a local congregation. "Questioned in the evening of his life concerning his following or church, Schwenckfeld says he has no church; that his doctrine, being so vehemently spoken against, has comparatively few adherents; these separate themselves from none who love and fear God, but they assemble in conventicles for prayer, for mutual instruction and consultation. It was never Schwenckfeld's aim or desire to found a church or to have a large following, but it was his steadfast purpose to help mankind to a better knowledge of God through a saner interpretation of Scripture" (Schultz, 358).
The details of Schwenckfeld's life and work are given in an excellent full-length biography by Selina Gerhard Schultz, after 1929 Associate and Managing Editor of the Corpus Schwenckfeldianorum.
In the late 1520's Schwenckfeld had his first contacts with the Anabaptists, but these were Sabbatarian Anabaptists; hence Schwenckfeld obtained the erroneous impression that all Anabaptists were legalistic and Judaistic, charges which he repeated in subsequent years. These years were important for the development of his policy of "Stillstand," which meant a temporary halt in the administration of the sacraments. For this practice he gave two reasons: his personal unworthiness to partake, and the lack of an apostolic church in which to partake. Schwenckfeld explicated this policy in his letter about the Lord's Supper drawn up in December 1528. Infant baptism he provisionally rejected because of the abuses connected with it, and not on principle. He certainly would not himself submit to rebaptism, but rather he had come to the conclusion that the outward rites should not overshadow the inner essence. Schwenckfeld's stay in Strasbourg in 1529-1533 forced him to take a stand on a number of other issues also, and he there met Martin Bucer, Capito, Pilgram Marpeck, Melchior Hoffman, and many other Reformation and Anabaptist leaders and writers. His disposition toward the oppressed caused him to intercede for Melchior Hoffman, and in spite of Schwenckfeld's rejection of Hoffman's Christology the positions of the two men on this point are not very different. Schwenckfeld said both Hoffman and Sebastian Franck drew error from his truth as a spider draws poison from a lovely flower. He met Bernhard Rothmann in Strasbourg on one occasion.
Schwenckfeld's Strasbourg ResidenceWhen Schwenckfeld arrived in Strasbourg in early May 1529, he found a city in several respects suited to his search for truth. His views of the Lord's Supper were warmly received by Capito and Bucer; he lived in Capito's home until Capito's wife died in 1531. Here also he formed a close friendship with the Zell family.
Arriving as he did a year after Pilgram Marpeck, he found the Anabaptist movement in Strasbourg trying to decide among the various approaches of church reform suggested by Hans Bünderlin, Jacob Kautz, and Melchior Hoffman. Marpeck had taken the initiative in attempting to formulate an Anabaptist church order. In a city where Bünderlin's writings were being read in the Anabaptist assemblies this was not an easy task, and caused a major parting of the ways within the Anabaptist movement, with the Bünderlin group on one side, the Hoffman group on the other, and the Reublin-Marpeck group between them. That Schwenckfeld was aware of these tensions appears from his statement about this time that "the Anabaptists call Bünderlin a squabbler (Zanker)." Schwenckfeld's awareness of the issues raised by Anabaptism appears also in his writings of this period. For example, he was concerned about the question of authority, and in 1530 wrote a short treatise on the question of the keys. The question of church discipline also occupied him during this period. Being a friend of Capito (as was Marpeck) and Bucer he was caught in the middle in the discussions on infant baptism, and took his stand on the position that it was of little importance. Earlier this had also been Capito's and Bucer's position but through their dealings with Hans Denck, Jacob Kautz, and Clemens Ziegler the Strasbourg Reformers were gradually changing their position. Schwenckfeld decried the fact that the only kind of Christians that the Reformation was able to harvest were "water-Christians," and this is a repeated complaint against the Anabaptists also in later years.
Most clearly Schwenckfeld's position toward the Anabaptists is seen in his Judicium de Anabaptistis (Manuscript, 1530), where he takes issue with them on their radical eschatology (Hut, Hoffman?), chides them for being so concerned about events before the beginning of the world and after its end, and expresses the wish that they might spend less time discussing how things are in the presence of God. It is interesting that this same point appeared again in the later controversy between Marpeck and Schwenckfeld when Schwenckfeld chided the Anabaptists for not spending enough time on how matters stand before God. Finally he is critical of the Anabaptists for the haste with which they accept members, and advises them to give new converts catechetical instruction before accepting them. Related to this is his criticism that they appoint a leader so soon after he has become an Anabaptist, without formal instruction. While Schwenckfeld admits that he does not know the Anabaptists too well, and he would wish that they might testify more in the open so that their views could be better known, it is clear that the dividing lines between him and them are already clearly visible at this time. He accuses the Anabaptists of being too much concerned with external baptism and the external letter of the Word, and thus missing its inner and deeper meaning.
Part of Schwenckfeld's criticism of the Anabaptists stems from his program of reform. While in Strasbourg he published two catechisms as a contribution to the Reformation. He also promoted an edition (by Ulhart in 1531) of the Nachfolge Christi, and since mention is made of this book in a letter by Scharnschlager, it is possible that the Anabaptists at Strasbourg used this publication. On the question of his relationship to Anabaptism his letter to John Bader in 1530 is most instructive. Schwenckfeld shows the abuses of infant baptism in the past and therefore rejects it. He does not, however, take the step to adult baptism, but rejects this approach as forced baptism. Baptism is an external thing, and hence cannot be a requirement for church membership since it is not essential for salvation. In the same letter he refers to a booklet written against him by the Anabaptists, and it is quite possible that this refers to either of the two booklets written by Marpeck in 1531, or perchance to the Clare verantwurtung, which deals with some of his arguments, although its main target was likely Bünderlin.
The clearest evidence of Schwenckfeld's attitude toward Anabaptism is seen in the disruption of his friendship with Wolf Sailer, who was also a friend of Marpeck and was drawn more and more into the Anabaptist brotherhood. This common friendship with Sailer is notable evidence that Schwenckfeld and Marpeck were close to each other in this period, although after their tensions came out in the open after 1542, Schwenckfeld gives the impression that at first all had gone smoothly between him and Marpeck. Whether this is merely a rhetorical device or was actually the case because of limited knowledge of each other and little common discussion is not clear. It is difficult to see how they could have been close friends. Schwenckfeld follows the Denck-Kautz spiritualistic line which depreciates the sacraments and all external means, while Marpeck follows the active missionary line of Sattler, Hans Hut, and Leonhard Schiemer, whose major concern was to build the church of Christ here and now. Schwenckfeld's major concern was always to emphasize the spiritual instead of the external, using the method of discussion (oral or written), while Marpeck's was the building of the church through corporate Bible study and mutual exhortation.
Schwenckfeld and Marpeck Literary Debates, 1540-1550The clash between Schwenckfeldian spiritualism and the Marpeck brotherhood became more serious after 1540. In 1560 Schwenckfeld said, "Pilgram was dear to me for many years until he began to warn about me and my teaching." Marpeck appeared surprised at Schwenckfeld's reply to the Vermanung published by his brotherhood, and considered Schwenckfeld's Judicium of 1542 as a malicious attack upon him and the group.
This interchange must be seen in the light of Marpeck's intention to consolidate the Anabaptist movement through the Vermanung. A member of his own brotherhood, Helena von Freyberg, handed a copy of the Vermanung to Schwenckfeld, requesting his opinion of it. On 21 August 1542 Schwenckfeld indicated in a letter that at the request of certain brothers he had written a refutation of the Vermanung. This letter, written to Magdalena Marschalck von Pappenheim, was Schwenckfeld's reply to her request for instruction. He was deeply disappointed when the reply was written by Marpeck for Magdalena. The letter was addressed to Helena Streicher, but she was close to Schwenckfeld, and the letter contained a number of points directed against Schwenckfeld; so it is clear for whom it was meant. Two factors contributed to the writing of Schwenckfeld's Judicium: the request of some, and Schwenckfeld's feeling that the Vermanung was directed against him as he explicitly says. In addition to this there were a number of other concerns not mentioned in the Vermanung, to which Schwenckfeld addressed himself in the Judicium. Through a letter from Valentine Ickelsamer he had found out that Marpeck defended the position that it would have been possible for Christ to sin. Also he had heard that Marpeck believed that Christ suffered in Hades after the crucifixion. He was furthermore concerned about the extent to which the Anabaptists were making an idol of the cross. Finally he was disturbed about the "creaturely" emphasis which their view of Christ contained; he would rather see them stress the exalted Christ a little more. Marpeck's intention to form a church he considered futile, and at numerous places Schwenckfeld ridicules the efforts of the Anabaptists to unite their movement.
The discussion of the differences between the Anabaptists and Schwenckfeld has generally revolved around the idea of infant baptism. A study of the writings of the two men reveals, however, that much more is involved. Torsten Bergsten has not only thoroughly discussed the external features of this discussion such as the dates of the various epistles, but has also laid bare the essential theological differences which stood between them. Although the differences may be put in various ways, such as the place of the rites and ceremonies of the church, the normative place of the Bible, etc., this was actually one of the hardest battles ever waged for the existence of a church. While this controversy never came to public attention, its issues have relevance far beyond the scope of the actual participants in the discussion. Schwenckfeld began with a Christology which is basically Greek (Hilary of Poitiers, Cyril and Athanasius are his favorite church fathers) and stressed the reigning Christ. In his discussions of Christ's life he pushed the glorified Christ so far back into His earthly life that His humanity seems to be somewhat reduced in significance. The corollary to this was that all externals were depreciated, whether in the history of the church or in its practical life today. On church discipline, e.g., he said that he would take a matter to the brotherhood if there were such a brotherhood today as Christ described. To this the Anabaptists replied that even if he had lived in the time of the apostles he would not have been satisfied with the church and would have found some reason for criticizing.
The Anabaptists were disappointed in Schwenckfeld's position on the Old Testament. In the beginning of his writing career, especially in his discussions with Bucer, he held essentially the same position as the Anabaptists, viz., that one should not erase the timeline between the Old and New Testaments, but rather make the Incarnation the time point of the division. Later in his discussions with the Marpeck brotherhood he took Bucer's position that the Old and New Covenants are the same in so far as Christ's redemption is retroactive even for the patriarchs. In the second part of the Verantwortung the Anabaptists amassed a series of contradictions between the earlier and later Schwenckfeld on the doctrine of the two covenants.
Both Marpeck and Schwenckfeld began with the idea of freedom of religion and the necessity of choice by the individual. Schwenckfeld thought that even the Christian should not be subjected to any kind of restraint (except on a purely individual basis), while for Marpeck the freedom of the Christian was a reality only as he was a part of the body of Christ. Marpeck believed that the church as the body of Christ must continue His sufferings, while Schwenckfeld urged his followers to avoid being persecuted if possible, and it is not by chance that the Schwenckfelders had so few martyrs for their faith. The Anabaptists insisted upon a visible church, whereas Schwenckfeld kept his church invisible.
Schwenckfeld's charge that the Anabaptist movement was legalistic is not entirely justified. He was really showing Marpeck the danger inherent in an approach which takes the Bible seriously, and in so doing he rendered a distinct service not only to Marpeck, but to Anabaptism as a whole. Moreover, Schwenckfeld seems not to have been aware of the danger of his own approach, namely, that so much value will be ascribed to the purely spiritual that the material forms and the historical events to which they point are depreciated and discarded. Certainly for his own group Schwenckfeld rejected the term "church." The reason for this was that he felt that wherever a form comes into being an element of Judaism enters in. This can be illustrated with respect to his view on baptism. After reading the Vermanung he wrote that one of the best things about the book was its clear rejection of the identification of John's baptism of repentance with Christian baptism. And yet despite this recognition of the clear distinction between the two baptisms made by the Anabaptists he repeatedly accused them later on of basing their baptism on the baptism of John; indeed, he accused Hans Klöpfer of basing it on the Jewish rite of circumcision. Since Klöpfer's writing is not extant it is impossible to make a historical judgment, but it would have been highly irregular and practically impossible for an Anabaptist to base his argument for adult baptism on circumcision. Instead, it is likely that Schwenckfeld was here reacting against the necessity of baptism as a covenant witness among Anabaptists, and calling this compulsion a form of Judaism.
Schwenckfeld and the Anabaptists, 1550-1561The Marpeck-Schwenckfeld controversy did not die at once. One hears rumblings of it intermittently throughout the rest of Schwenckfeld's life. A host of people were drawn to Schwenckfeld's quiet conventicle type of Christianity as well as to the more aggressive missionary approach of the Anabaptists, which resulted in a continuing church body rather than in an amorphous group of interested persons. Schwenckfeld was interested in discussion, the Anabaptists in commitment within a covenantal community.
One person who clearly shows this is Daniel Graff. Apparently he was at one time a follower of Schwenckfeld. Arriving in Augsburg, Graff met with the group for discussion, and when the Schwenckfelders insisted that the external rites were not necessary, indeed should not be used, Graff disagreed with their interpretation. In an epistolary exchange between him and Schwenckfeld it became clear that Graff was much more a follower of Marpeck's views than of Schwenckfeld's.
Another person who continued the discussion with Schwenckfeld was Hans Klöpfer von Feuerbach, who was an active Anabaptist missionary and won some Schwenckfelders to the Anabaptist cause. Klöpfer wrote to Ursula Heugin urging upon her the necessity of baptism. She turned the letter over to Schwenckfeld so that he might answer it for her. It is surprising to find Schwenckfeld in this correspondence taking in some respects an opposite position to the one which he had taken in the discussions with Marpeck.
Finally there are a number of references in Schwenckfeld's correspondence of these years to "Schweiger," or "silent" Anabaptists. Sibilla Eisler, one of the women with whom Schwenckfeld was in constant correspondence, had an Anabaptist maid who frequently did not speak at all nor greet anyone. She apparently belonged to this small group of Anabaptists in the area of Allgäu. Schwenckfeld was very critical of their habit of not greeting people and not bearing arms. It is not clear whether these are actually the "Schweiger" to whom Sebastian Franck refers, who were apparently a deviant Anabaptist sect, or whether they are merely called that because they greeted only their fellow Anabaptists. These "Schweiger" are mentioned also in Christoph Erhard's and George Eder's lists of the sects of the late 16th century.
There is no notice in the writings of Schwenckfeld of the death of Pilgram Marpeck, although the former must have known about it. About 1550 he knew that Marpeck had been asked to submit the Testamenterleütterung to the city council of Augsburg, and was irritated by the fact that Marpeck's services as an engineer had made it possible for him to remain in Augsburg so long. He wrote to Marpeck with sarcastic surprise that he would entangle himself so much in the affairs of this world (alluding to 2 Timothy 2:4) as to work as an engineer alongside of his work as a leader in the church.
It is apparent that much of the friction between Schwenckfeld and the Anabaptists had a rather slim basis and actually resulted from personality differences and lack of understanding. It would be a mistake, however, to minimize these differences, for at the heart of them lie two entirely different approaches to the problem of the church in the world. Schwenckfeld was a sincere Christian whose piety and integrity were above reproach and who has correctly been termed a Pietist before Pietism. But precisely because he was a Pietist he could not appreciate the Anabaptists and their stress on the visible corporate body of Christ, the church, as taking on a concrete form within a historical context. While he waited for the Spirit to break through with some kind of special revelation, the Anabaptists allowed the Spirit to work through them, using them with their inadequacies and insufficiencies to His own ends. Within this historical context they acknowledged that the Spirit needed to use elements bound by time and space, but they also acknowledged that the Spirit was sovereign, and that no man can force the Spirit to move by going through the motions prescribed in the Scriptures. -- WKla
1989 UpdateBorn into a noble family in Ossig, Silesia, Caspar Schwenckfeld began service as advisor to Friedrich II, Duke of Liegnitz in 1518. In the same year, having read Luther's works, he underwent a religious awakening which drew him into humanist and Reformation circles.
Few documents from Schwenckfeld's early period remain, but in his major work, the Admonition of 1524, he maintains on essentially ethical grounds, that Luther's teaching on justification, the bondage of the will, the role of works, the law, and Christ's satisfaction result in immoral libertarianism.
In 1525 Schwenckfeld arrived at a spiritualist interpretation of the Lord's Supper, teaching that flesh can never participate in spirit, nor serve as a means in the work of the Spirit. His conclusions, supported by a vision experienced by his colleague Valentine Crautwald, was that the words of institution are to be understood as saying, "My body is this, namely, food." Such food, he believed, was the glorified body of Christ, of which the individual became a spiritual partaker. Since all Christendom was in turmoil, in 1526 Schwenckfeld and his followers called for a Stillstand, a suspension of the observation of the Lord's Supper, until God should make his will known in the matter. This interpretation was fiercely rejected by Luther in 1526.
Schwenckfeld's theological debates continued throughout the next several years and in 1529, to save his Duke embarrassment, Schwenckfeld went into voluntary exile in Strasbourg. There he soon came into conflict with Bucer and by 1534 had begun what was to continue in large part a peripatetic life throughout the south German regions in and around Augsburg and Ulm until his death.
Just prior to his self-exile, he and Crautwald encountered Silesian Sabbatarian Anabaptism as propounded by Oswald Glait and Andreas Fischer, and in Strasbourg he met other proponents of Anabaptism, among whom were Hans Denck, Melchior Hoffman and Pilgram Marpeck. (Schwenckfeld was initially on friendly terms with the latter but debated openly with him in the early 1540s.) These contacts directed him to consider the matter of baptism. Following his Spiritualist framework, Schwenckfeld insisted that by inner washing alone one is united with the body of Christ. Baptism should be for adults who understand its significance, but infant baptism although attacked by him, was not rejected.
Christological concerns, already with Schwenckfeld in 1525, were settled for him by 1538 when he composed his Great Confession. Schwenckfeld insisted that Jesus's humanity was not that of a creature but, rather, of heavenly origin, a celestial flesh in which a progressive deification took place, the divine nature more and more divinizing it.
By the grace of God fallen human beings may participate in the new creation through faith. Faith not only declares that one is justified but is knowledge (Erkenntniss Christi). Implanted in the believer, faith develops parallel to the way the divine progressed in Christ's celestial flesh, leading one through suffering into glory, if it is allowed free reign.
This distinction between the physical and the spiritual was the controlling force, as well, in Schwenckfeld's approach to the Scriptures and to the doctrine of the church. For him the outer voice is subordinated to the inner, the letter of the Scriptures to the spirit, words to the Word. The church too is understood as a spiritual entity. Salvation is ultimately a private matter, for which no institution can be responsible. Thus, the state is to play no role in the life of the church, nor is the church to insist that the state must maintain particular theological positions. -- PCE
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Wach, J. "Caspar Schwenckfeld; A Pupil and a Teacher in the School of Christ." Types of Religious Experience. London, (1951). Also in Journal of Religion XXVI (1946): 1-29.
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|Peter C. Erb|
Cite This Article
Klassen, William and Peter C. Erb. "Schwenckfeld, Caspar von (1489-1561)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 17 Aug 2017. http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Schwenckfeld,_Caspar_von_(1489-1561)&oldid=121301.
Klassen, William and Peter C. Erb. (1989). Schwenckfeld, Caspar von (1489-1561). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 17 August 2017, from http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Schwenckfeld,_Caspar_von_(1489-1561)&oldid=121301.
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