Denck, Hans (ca. 1500-1527)
Hans Denck (Denk), an outstanding leader of the South German Anabaptists, though of the spiritualist type, was born at Habach, near Huglfing in Upper Bavaria; died of the plague in November 1527, at Basel, Switzerland. Denck stated in his confession of faith of 14 January 1525: "I was taught the faith from my childhood by my parents." In 1517 he enrolled at the University of Ingolstadt, from which he received the Bachelor of Arts degree two years later. Later he attended the University of Basel. He was versed in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and was at home in the Humanistic circles of the day. Although he may for a time have been a disciple of Erasmus, not much of the latter's influence on him is discernible. For a time he served as literary editor ("corrector") in the printery of the famous Cratander of Basel, later in that of Valentine Curio. At the latter he edited the last three volumes of a four-volume Greek grammar by Theodore Gaza. For some time in 1523 he also attended the lectures of Johannes Oecolampadius in Basel on the Prophet Isaiah, but was also not much influenced by Oecolampadius.
The real source of Denck's religious life and thought was in medieval mysticism as represented by Deutsche Theologie, which Luther had reissued in 1518. He was also influenced by Thomas Müntzer's mysticism. Denck was burdened for the deepening of his own spirituality and that of the church.
At the age of 23 he was appointed rector of the St. Sebald School in Nürnberg, having been nominated for this position by Oecolampadius. By this time he was also married. Nürnberg was at that time torn between the Lutherans and those who were disappointed in the fruits of the Reformation; also some were returning to the Catholic Church. Denck was arraigned before the city authorities upon the testimony of an "ungodly" painter, Sebald Behaim, who with several other painters was charged with unsound remarks about baptism and the communion, and who reported certain conversations with Denck which cast doubt upon Denck's doctrinal soundness. The result was that Denck was banished from the city, although he was not yet an Anabaptist.
Denck had by this time come to challenge the Lutheran doctrine of justification by faith which seemed to guarantee the standing of a believer with God regardless of the character of his life. Denck's whole emphasis was put instead on discipleship to Jesus. Indeed his motto was: "No one may truly know Christ except one who follows Him in life." Denck and the Lutheran Osiander were in sharp disagreement in spiritual matters. Osiander was, in fact, present at Denck's trial before his banishment from Nürnberg. At this trial the city council demanded a confession of faith from Denck, which he submitted in two installments, the first on 14 January 1525, two weeks after his trial, and the second during the following week. In the former he made the following confession:
I, Johann Denk, confess that as far as my hereditary nature is concerned I am a poor soul, subject to every sickness of body and spirit. . . . For a time I prided myself as possessing faith, but I have finally become convinced that it was a false faith, because this faith did not overcome my spiritual poverty, my inclination to sin, my weaknesses and my sickness; on the contrary, the more I polished and adorned myself when I had such a nominal faith, the more severe became my spiritual sickness. ... I do not venture to assert that I now have the faith which translates itself into life, although I see clearly that my unbelief cannot continue before God. Therefore I say: Yes, in the name of the Almighty God whom I fear from the bottom of my heart: Lord, I have the desire to believe; help me to come to faith. . . . When Christ the sun of righteousness arises in our hearts, then the darkness of unbelief is overcome for the first time. That has not yet taken place in me. ... He who does not hearken to the revelation of God in his own breast (i.e., who does not receive illumination from God's Spirit) but undertakes of himself to give an exposition of the Scripture—which only the divine Spirit is able to do—makes of God's secrets which are contained in Scripture a desolate abomination, and misuses the grace which he has received from God.
At the end of the confession Denck added:
All unbelief is sin; it is this which wrecks the righteousness of God by law. Only when the law has fulfilled its role, i.e., when self-seeking is conquered, does the Gospel find room in the heart. Faith comes by hearkening to the Gospel. Where there is faith, there is no sin; where there is no sin, there the righteousness of God dwells. The righteousness of God is God Himself; sin is that which is contrary to God. All believers were at one time unbelievers. To become believers they had to have their passions, their earthly man, die in the sense that it was no more they themselves who lived, as they had done when still in unbelief, but God lived in them through Christ; they no longer had their walk here on earth, but in heaven, as Paul says. All this I believe. May God break down my unbelief.
The second confession of Denck (submitted several days after the first) deals with baptism and communion. He distinguished between an outer and an inner baptism; the former is not necessary to salvation, while the latter is. Water baptism is of value only when it is performed as a covenant with God. The inner baptism is the one meant where it says, He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved. (The verdict of the Nürnberg clergy on Denck's confession is printed in Keller, Johann von Staupitz: 404-11.)
The magistracy of Nürnberg issued its verdict on Denck on 25 January 1525. He was compelled under threat of imprisonment to swear never to come closer to the city than 10 miles the remainder of his life, and was thus banished from his wife and children, for whose support his property was appropriated. Denck swore the oath and left the city a deeply shaken man. Where he spent the next few months is not known.
In June 1525 Denck was staying at the home of an Anabaptist in St. Gall, where he attended also the Anabaptist meetings. It is said that his belief in universalism gave offense to the Anabaptists there.
From September 1525 until October 1526 Denck was in Augsburg in South Germany. He earned a living by teaching Latin and Greek to the children of two noblemen who took him into their homes. Soon after his arrival he had to give account of himself because news of his banishment from Nürnberg had reached Augsburg. Nevertheless he was not banished.
Spiritually Augsburg was badly divided: Lutherans and Zwinglians were combating each other, and there was also a Catholic minority. Moral conditions were bad. Yet there was apparently a small group in the city, perhaps of Zwinglian inclination, whose members lived a life of strict morality and presumably formed the nucleus of the Anabaptist congregation established in 1526 by Hubmaier. To this group Denck was attracted, and was baptized by Hubmaier. After Hubmaier's departure for Nikolsburg in Moravia, Denck became the leader of the Augsburg Anabaptists. He in turn won for the brotherhood such men as Hans Hut, and perhaps Siegmund Salminger, Jakob Dachser, and Eitelhans Langenmantel. It is estimated that about 1527 the Augsburg Anabaptist congregation numbered 1,100 souls. (This number has, however, not been substantiated.)
But Denck's stay in Augsburg was destined to come to an end soon: Urban Rhegius, the reformer of the city, became his powerful opponent. This led to a disputation between Denck and the Lutheran clergy, to be followed by a second and this time public disputation. But before this could take place, the weary Denck left the city.
By November 1526 Denck was in Strasbourg. Here he enjoyed the friendship of the Anabaptists. But the presence of such an outstanding "heretic" as Denck in Strasbourg was disconcerting to Capito and Bucer, the Protestant leaders of the city. Once again Denck had to participate in a disputation, this time with Bucer. He was thereupon expelled from Strasbourg and left the city in December 1526. Following brief residences in Bergzabern and Landau in the Palatinate—and another disputation at the latter city—he located briefly in Worms, where he helped Haetzer finish the translation of the Old Testament Prophets. They were published in April 1527 at Worms, and are therefore known as the "Wormser Propheten." They were possibly used by Luther and the Swiss theologians in their German translations of the Bible. Denck then visited Anabaptist congregations in South Germany and Switzerland, and presided at the Martyrs' Synod in Augsburg on 20 August 1527. It was there decided to send Anabaptist preachers and evangelists as emissaries to South Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. Denck was in a group of three commissioned "to comfort and teach" the brethren in the Zürich and Basel areas of Switzerland.
In late September 1527, near the end of his life, Denck arrived in Basel and found refuge in the home of a friend. He was sick in body and spirit, weary of conflict and persecution, longing for rest and peace. He therefore wrote an appealing letter to Oecolampadius, asking permission to stay in the city (Comeniushefte 1898, 230-43; Mennonitisches Lexikon I, 409). Oecolampadius seems to have taken a kindly attitude toward the sick Denck; he visited him repeatedly and engaged in many discussions with him. At Oecolampadius' request Denck wrote a brief statement of his views, which Oecolampadius published under the somewhat misleading title, Hans Denks Widerruf (Recantation). In ten points Denck covered the following topics: Scripture, Christ's "payment," faith, free will, good works, separation and sects, "ceremonies," "baptism, bread and cup of communion," and the oath. The whole thrust of Denck's position is on the utter necessity of the inner life with God; everything outward is secondary if not useless. "Faith is obedience to God." Also, "God sees the faith and the good works, is pleased by them, and rewards them. Not that they have their source in us, but that we do not receive the grace which is offered us in vain. Everything comes from one source, and that is a good one, namely from the Word which was with God from the beginning and in the last times became flesh. And happy is the man who does not despise the gifts of God." Denck confessed freely that he had erred in the past, and still erred. He also expressed no particular objection to infant baptism, and promised never again to baptize anyone. In reference to his own activity in baptizing he remarked that the zeal of the Lord had sent him out, and had again brought back his understanding. It is evident that his mysticism, a spirit foreign to the Swiss Brethren, had largely undermined his Anabaptist convictions -- indeed he fully approved of oaths in this same confession. It was of the essence of authoritative Anabaptism to insist on an open testimony and commitment with baptism as its outward symbol. In agreeing to abandon baptism, Denck abandoned Anabaptism in a sense and approached the position of Caspar von Schwenckfeld. But it is also true that Denck was now a broken man, crushed by the harsh measures that his religious opponents succeeded in having the magistracy take against him, and his sensitive soul was unable any longer to bear the load. At any rate, Denck had now returned to his original mysticism. He died of the plague in November 1527.
Denck has been accused by his enemies as well as modern scholars such as Dunin-Borkowski of being an anti-Trinitarian (see Antitrinitarianism). Modern Unitarian historians claim him as a spiritual ancestor, e.g., F. L. Weis and E. M. Wilbur, who calls him "a pioneer of our movement." However, the characterization of him by Schwindt as "a beginner of undogmatic Christianity" is more accurate. The final word has not been said on the matter of Denck's presumed antitrinitarianism and may never be able to be said because of lack of evidence in Denck's own writings.
Hans Denck is the author of the following items, given in chronological order: (1) The Confession of Faith of January 1525; (2) Wer die warheil warlich lieb hat . . . (1525), a discussion of 40 paradoxes in the Bible. His conclusion is that only the inner Word of God which comes through the Holy Spirit is the authoritative, infallible guide. (3) Was geredet sei, das die Schrift sagt,. . . (1526), a treatise on the freedom of the will in me form of a dialogue between the author and the reader. (4) Vom Gesatz Gottes, Wie das Gesatz aufgehoben sei und doch erfället werden muss (1526), a plea for genuine holiness of life on the basis of Paul's ideas as expressed in Romans; man must strive to attain love for God and faith in God. (5) Ordnung Gottes und der Creaturen Werk (1526). This is one of Denck's most important works. It is principally a second treatise on the freedom of the will. In 12 chapters he discusses such questions as predestination, hell, heaven, the Trinity, idolatry in the pomp of the churches, and the peace of God. (6) Von der waren Liebe (1527), a sequel to the preceding work, deals with the love of God for man, as it is revealed in Jesus. The man who loves God has no need for institutions, which can blind his soul. This is Denck's masterpiece. It was reprinted at Elkhart, Indiana, in 1888, edited by John Horsch, together with Hans Langenmantel's pamphlet on the Lord's Prayer, under the following title: Von der wahren Liebe .... Auslegung des Vaterunser .... Zwei altevangelische Schriften aus dem Jahre 1527. (7) Hans Dencken Widerruf (1528), which is a restatement of his original position and an abandonment of certain Anabaptist ideas, rather than a true recantation, given shortly before he died. (8) Gespräch H. Dencks mit ]oh. Bader über die Taufe, which is preserved only in Bader's publication, Brüderliche Warnung vor dem neuen abgöttischen Orden der Wiedertäufer (1527), (9) Micha, der Prophet, aus rechter hebräischer Sprache verdeutscht und wie den Denk, ouf diese letzte Zeit verglichen hob (1532), a German version of Micah's prophecy. (10) Etliche Hauptreden . . . , also known by the title, Wie Gott einig wäre .... The former is the title in the appendix to the 1528 edition of the Deutsche Theologie, (11) Alle Propheten nach hebräischer Sprache verdeutscht von Ludwig Haetzer und j. Denk. (Worms, 1527).
Denck's contemporaries recognized his significance as a leader. Bader spoke of him as "the famous Hans Denk"; Bucer called him the "pope" of the Anabaptists; Rhegius called him their "abbot"; Haller spoke of him as their "Apollo"; Bullinger, as their "Rabbi"; and Vadian spoke of him as a highly talented youth. Yet it should be noted that Denck stood somewhat apart from the main theological stream of Anabaptism, and that he cannot be regarded as the spokesman of the group in those areas where he held to his peculiar emphases. His major contribution lay in the earnestness with which he contended for Christianity as discipleship, and in the beauty of his sincere Christian spirit. He is one of the few personalities of the 16th century who never indulged in controversy except with a heavy heart; not a trace of abusiveness or unfairness is to be found in his writings.
A critical edition of Denck's complete works, prepared by Walter Fellmann, appeared as Quellen zur Geschichte der Täufer, Vol. VI, Part II, in Quellen und Forschungen zur Reformationsgeschichte, Vol. XXIV (Gütersloh, 1956). Part I of this volume, published in 1955, was George Baring's exhaustive Bibliographie of Denck's writings.
Baring, G. "Die Wormser Propheten." Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte. (1934): 23-41 (with bibliography).
Boerlage, Coba. Hans Bench. Amsterdam, 1921.
Coutts, Alfred. Hans Dench, 1495-1527: Humanist & Heretic. Edinburgh, 1927.
Crous, E. "Zu den Bibelübersetzungen von Haetzer und Denk." in Beiträge zur Geschichte der Mennoniten. Festgabe für D. Christian Neff. Weierhof, 1938: 72-82.
Evans, A. P. An Episode in the Struggle for Religious Freedom; The Sectaries of Nuremberg 1524-1528. New York, 1924.
Gelbert, H. P. Magister Joh. Baders Leben und Schriften. Neustadt a.d.H., 1868.
Gerbert, C. Geschichte der Strassburger Sektenbewegung zur Zeit der Reformation 1524-1534. Strasbourg, 1889.
Haake, G. Hans Denk, ein Vorlaufer der neueren Theologie. Norden, 1897.
Heberle, Wilhelm. "Johann Denk und die Ausbreitung seiner Lehre." Theol. Studien u. Kritiken. Tübingen, 1855: 817-90.
Heberle, Wilhelm. Johann Denk und sein Büchlein vom Gesetz Gottes. 1851.
Hege, A. "Hans Denk." (inaugural-diss., Tübingen, 1942).
Hege, Christian. Die Täufer in der Kurpfalz. Frankfurt, 1908.
Hege, Christian and Christian Neff. Mennonitisches Lexikon, 4 vols. Frankfurt & Weierhof: Hege; Karlsruhe: Schneider, 1913-1967: v. I, 401-14.
Hegler, A. "Hans Denk." in Realencyclopedie für Protestantische Theologie and Kirche IV: 570-80.
Hulshof, A. Gesch. van de Doopsgezinden te Straatsburg van 1524 tot 1557. Amsterdam, 1905.
Keller, L. Ein Apostel der Wiedertäufer. Leipzig, 1882.
Keller, L. Reformation.
Keller, L. Johann von Staupitz. Leipzig, 1888.
Kielstra, Tj. Hans Denck, No. 3 of the Geschriftjes . . . .
Kolde, Th. "Zum Prozess des Joh. Denk und der drei gottlosen Maler in Nürnberg." in Kirchengeschichtliche Studien. Leipzig, 1887.
Kolde, Th. "Hans Denk und die gottlosen Maler in Nürnberg." Beiträge zur Kirchengesch. VIII.
Lüdemann, H. Ref. und Täufertum in ihrem Verhältnis zum christlichen Prinzip. 1896.
Mennonitische Blätter (1883, 1886).
Monatshefte der Comeniusgesellschaft I, 225; V, 286; VI, 77 ff., 139 ff.; VII, 230 ff.; VIII, 57; X, 173; XI, 145 ff.
Röhrich, G. E. Essai sur la vie, des ecrits et la doctrine de l'anabaptiste Jean Denk. Strasbourg, 1853.
Schwabe, Ludwig. "Ueber Hans Denk." Briegers Ztscht für Kirchengesch. XII: 452-93.
Schwindt, A. M. Hans Denk, ein Vorkämpfer undogmatischen Christentums. Schlüchtern, ca. 1922.
Stieve. Die Einführung der Ref. in der Reichsstadt Donauwörth, Sitzungsberichte der phil. hist. Klasse der Akademie zu München (1884): 390.
Vittali, O. E. Die Theologie des Wiedertäufers Hans Denck. Offenburg, 1932.
Weis, F. L. The Life, Teachings and Works of Johannes Denck. Strasbourg, 1924; printed at Pawtucket, R.I., 1925, contains an attempted complete bibliography of Denk's writings with locations of extant copies.
Wilbur, E. M. A History of Unitarianism: Socinianism and its Antecedents. Cambridge, 1946.
Cite This Article
Neff, Christian and Walter Fellmann. "Denck, Hans (ca. 1500-1527)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1956. Web. 8 Jun 2023. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Denck,_Hans_(ca._1500-1527)&oldid=146402.
Neff, Christian and Walter Fellmann. (1956). Denck, Hans (ca. 1500-1527). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 8 June 2023, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Denck,_Hans_(ca._1500-1527)&oldid=146402.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, pp. 32-35. All rights reserved.
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