Brenz, Johannes (1499-1570)

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Johannes Brenz. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Johannes Brenz, reformer of Swabia, born 24 June 1499 at Weil (Neckar region in Württemberg), studied at Heidelberg, 1514-1522, Lutheran preacher at Schwäbisch-Hall 1522-1546, severely persecuted after the Interim of 1548, provost in Stuttgart, 1544, instigated the passing of a severe edict in 1558 against the Anabaptists and Schwenckfeld, who had influential friends at the court during Ulrich's (d. 1550) life. In 1527 he wrote the first Protestant catechism and cooperated in introducing the church order of Brandenburg-Ansbach, Nürnberg, and Württemberg. He died 11 September 1570.

Like the other reformers, Brenz became a zealous opponent of the Anabaptists. At first he took a position against punitive procedure on the part of the state in religious matters and repeatedly defended the freedom of individual religious conviction. He frequently found occasion to express his opinion on prospective penalties against the Anabaptists. Though he did not favor complete toleration, he was nevertheless one of the few leaders of Protestantism in the period of the Reformation who openly opposed the death penalty for the Anabaptists. But in his later years he did not maintain this view consistently. In fact, as he grew older he grew visibly more intolerant, as was also the case with Luther. In his earlier writings he is not so much preaching love of one's neighbor as defending his own religious views over against the Catholic Church, with which the Protestant state church still had to reckon. But where the Protestant Church reigned he was of course unwilling to see the rise of another doctrinal point of view. He grants toleration only as long as the existence of his own church is not jeopardized thereby. He permits everybody to believe whatever he wishes, but not to express those beliefs unless they coincide with the views of the established church. Meetings for edification from God's Word, if held without the knowledge of the clergy, can according to his opinion only lead to division; it follows that the government therefore must interfere, "not as judge of the doctrine, but as judge of dissension, since it devolves upon their office to preserve a quiet and peaceful life among the subjects" (Hartmann, I, 296). Brenz even calls it sinful blasphemy when citizens separate from the church and arrange for their own assemblies without official permission. He requires the government not to permit any groupings in religious matters to arise in its territory. "The case is different when a government accepted by subjects of two or three different faiths permits each one to retain his old faith" (Hartmann, I, 297). Toward the Anabaptists he did not think this consideration applicable. For their suppression he recommended the forbidding of "civil manipulation" and expulsion from the country. It was merely clever calculating caution when he recommended a milder punishment in religious matters than the death penalty customarily used against Anabaptists. For, he writes, "Although governments at times persecute erroneous faith, their descendants may become so inured to persecuting that they persecute the true faith. . . . It is better to tolerate unorthodox faith four or ten times than to persecute the true faith only once."

Brenz actually resisted the death penalty in matters of faith by his deeds. He knew what dangers threatened his church if the old heresy laws of the Roman Catholic Church, which had been pushed into the background by the power of the popular movement, should be revived. A beginning had indeed been made by the mandate of Emperor Charles V of 4 January 1528, which punished the repetition of baptism with death. What was true of the Anabaptists here might later threaten any other non-Catholic branch in case of political or religious realignment. He stated his doubts on the application of the death penalty in matters of faith in a book published in 1528, which bears the title, Underricht Philips Melanchthon widder die leere der Widderteuffer. Ob ein weltliche öberkeit mit Götlichem und billichem Rechten mög die Widderteuffer durch fewer odder schwerd vom leben zu tode richten.

[[[Melanchthon, Philipp (1497-1560)|Melanchthon's]] booklet to which Brenz replied in the title cited by Hege appeared first at Wittenberg in 1528 (probably May) ; a second edition appeared at Marburg in October 1528, with the Brenz reply attached, which is the title cited above by Hege. The original Wittenberg title was Underricht Philip. Melancht. wider die Lere der Widerteuffer auss dem latein verdeutschet durch Just. Jonas. According to Schottenloher’s Bibliographie (# 44218) the Brenz reply appeared in 1558 (with an addition to the title) "published by someone friendly to the Anabaptists." - HSB]

In his reply Brenz denies the government the authority to decide religious questions with violence. If heresy is to be abolished by force, he writes, "why should one study the Holy Scriptures, since the hangman would then be found the most learned doctor." He threatens the governments with divine retribution if they hold judicial power over life and death in religious matters. "Anabaptism," he continues, "has not been more powerfully strengthened and furthered by anyone than by the authorities who in the very hour, without study of God's Word, have tyrannically proceeded against them with the sword. For in trying to meet spiritual wickedness with unjust means and using the temporal sword more and further than is commanded, they have angered the Lord our God with the misuse and tyranny of the temporal sword and He has in punishment upon men required the devil to rage ever more vehemently, and ever more powerfully to inflame man's error, so that afterward physical punishment brought no reform to the common people, but rather furthered their error."

Brenz requires that "only the Gospel and the Holy Scriptures be permitted to fight against heretics." In his book, after an attempt to justify infant baptism, he selects the points in the Anabaptist ideas that find analogies in the Catholic Church, in order to conclude that the death penalty should be applied to Catholics with the same right as to Anabaptists. In this way the Anabaptist views on their attitude toward government office, on the community of goods, and on rebaptism serve him as means to castigate doctrines of the Catholic Church, thereby creating the semblance of being a convinced defender of the Anabaptists. The doctrine of community of goods had in simple ignorance been taken from the Bible by the Anabaptists, "Should one always murder such a one at once, when he misunderstands a saying or two from the Bible? Who would then be safe from the sword? One finds in almost all holy teachers misunderstanding of several passages; should one kill them at once for that, and what kind of reasonableness would that be?" Monks and nuns also practice community of goods; if one is going to introduce the death penalty in this matter, it should be applied to the spiritual bishop and monks rather than the "poor Anabaptists who do not sell heaven and eternal life with deception." He also opposed the intention of imposing the death sentence upon the Anabaptists for refusing the oath and not finding it compatible with their conscience to take a government office. If they are to be killed for such reasons, "it should have been begun long ago with the clergy, priests and monks"; for they taught, "No clergyman shall exercise power over life and death. Without special dispensation they have not accepted any of this kind into their consecration and order. What is this but forbidding all true Christians to hold the office of temporal government? For all true Christians should be truly spiritual and the office of temporal government cannot be conducted without shedding blood. They are also the ones who have given the government neither oath nor vow nor other civil obligation, and this not out of the favor or permission of the government, but out of their own assumed right. Yea, where they have been pushed in these matters they have excommunicated the temporal authorities." In the matter of baptism Brenz also uses the Catholic clergy as an analogous case. "And if one," he writes, "wanted to martyr these people for the sake of their rebaptism, one would have to do the same to the pope and all his priests. For these have also rebaptized and do it yet; namely, if a child is baptized in haste at home by the women, they baptize it again in church. Is this not rebaptizing, exactly as the other Anabaptists do? They say, of course, if you are baptized, I baptize you in the name of the Father, etc. But why should the priests need this addition? They know from the statements of the women that the children have been baptized, why do they not leave it at that? The Anabaptists do not say either that they rebaptize but that they perform the first proper baptism. For they consider infant baptism no baptism at all, as the papists consider baptism by the women almost no baptism, although they do not show this outwardly."

Applying the death penalty for rebaptism Brenz considers absolutely inappropriate. Emperor Theodosius (says Brenz) to whom the mandate of Charles V of 4 January 1528, refers, did not of his own will threaten Anabaptists with death; he merely wished to meet the wishes of the bloodthirsty bishop Nestorius of Constantinople, who in return had promised him divine aid against the Persians. It was not suitable for a Christian government to chastise with the executioner's sword persons who had only for lack of understanding fallen into error. Insurrection would not need to be feared from them, if the worldly sword were properly used; the chief cause of insurrection was the wicked life of the authorities. "Therefore," he concludes, "the government should avert its punitive hand from the Anabaptists and leave them to the Gospel for punishment; but otherwise provide for peaceful and honorable unity; for whoever acts against this, be he Anabaptist or not, he shall receive suitable punishment from it." "But if it is a duty to take life because of error, who would be allowed to live? There would be no end of killing."

The book was widely distributed and was published in many editions, five in German, four in Latin, two in Dutch, and one in French (W. Köhler, Bibliographia Brentiana, Berlin, 1904). But it did not influence the course of events. In the next year at the famous Diet of Speyer of 1529, the imperial law was passed against the Anabaptists, sanctioning the death penalty for rebaptism. The Evangelical representatives voted for it.

Brenz does not grant postponement of baptism on the basis of Christian liberty. A postponement of the baptism might arouse the suspicion of "Anabaptism" in one's neighbor; he should not be subjected to this offense. The government should compel the obstinate to hasten the baptism. It has the authority to do this, for baptism is the foundation of Christian society. Whoever is born within the Christian social order of Christian parents, is born into the social order of the Church. "The principle of a single Church within the social structure can probably not be more clearly expressed; society, Christian society, and the Church coincide. Consequently the Church has the right to baptize the children belonging to it by birth. The withdrawal of their children from baptism on the part of the Anabaptists is an offense against the social order, and this has long since become deeply rooted" (W. Köhler, Archiv für Ref.-Gesch.).

The presence of Anabaptists seems to have occupied Brenz later on as well; in 1544 he wrote to Bullinger of frequent journeys of their adherents through the region on their way from the Rhine to Moravia (Köhler, Bibliographia Brentiana, 362). He apparently came into personal contact with them; thus it is known that in April 1557 at Stuttgart he examined two Anabaptists, both named George Rapp from Pforzheim in Au, who had been arrested at Vaihingen; they were released because they were merely traveling through and had held no meetings (G. Bossert, Zeutschrift). On 24 August 1557, at the request of Elector Otto Henry of the Palatinate, he with Jakob Andreae conducted the disputation with the Anabaptists at Pfeddersheim, one of whose representatives, Diebold Winter, later complained to the Palatine Elector Frederick III, that things had been published about them which they had never thought of, to say nothing of talking about them (Protocoll . . . des Gesprecks zu Frankenthal, Heidelberg, 1571, 8).

Indicative of Brenz's later attitude on toleration is the publication issued soon after the Pfeddersheim disputation by the Protestant theologians' conference at Worms, Prozess, wie es soll gehalten werden mit den Wiedertäufern, which Brenz signed as a participant, and in which the theologians recommended the death penalty against the Anabaptists. In support of this harsh procedure, referring to Leviticus 24 and Romans 13, the very points are cited which Brenz had defended as pardonable errors in his book of 1528: the scruples of the Anabaptists against a conscientious Christian's holding government office, the refusal of the oath, and their views on community of goods; as a further point of accusation was cited their avoidance of lawsuits.


Brenz, Johannes. Operum reverendi et clarissimi theologi D. Ioannis Brentii, praepositi stutgardiani tomus .... Tübingen: Gruppenbach, 1576-1590.

Bossert, G. Zeitschrift für die Geschichte des Oberrheins 59 (1905): 76

Hartmann, Julius and Carl Jäger. Johann Brenz: Nach gedruckten und ungedruckten Quellen. Hamburg: Perthes, 1840-1842, 2 vols.

Hege, Christian. Die Täufer in der Kurpfalz: ein Beitrag zur badisch-pfälzischen Reformationsgeschichte.Frankfurt am Main : Kommissionsverlag von H. Minjon, 1908: 93-99.

Hege, Christian and Christian Neff. Mennonitisches Lexikon, 4 vols. Frankfurt & Weierhof: Hege; Karlsruhe; Schneider, 1913-1967: v. I, 264-266.

Herzog, J. J. and Albert Hauck, Realencyclopedie für Protestantische Theologie and Kirche, 24 vols. 3rd ed. Leipzig: J. H. Hinrichs, 1896-1913: v. III, 386.

Köhler, Walter. Bibliographia Brentiana : bibliographisches Verzeichnis der gedruckten und ungedruckten Schriften und Briefe des Reformators Johannes Brenz ; nebst einem Verzeichnis der Literatur über Brenz, kurzen Erläuterungen und ungedruckten Akten. Berlin: Schwetschke, 1904. Reprinted Nieuwkoop: de Graaf, 1963.

Köhler, Walter. Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte 9 (1911-12): 96.

Author(s) Christian Hege
Harold S. Bender
Date Published 1959

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Hege, Christian and Harold S. Bender. "Brenz, Johannes (1499-1570)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1959. Web. 16 Dec 2018.,_Johannes_(1499-1570)&oldid=144008.

APA style

Hege, Christian and Harold S. Bender. (1959). Brenz, Johannes (1499-1570). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 16 December 2018, from,_Johannes_(1499-1570)&oldid=144008.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, pp. 418-420; v. 4, p. 1068. All rights reserved.

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