Last Updated on :
IF the Brethren had hoped to find in the Lutheran areas of Europe an attitude more tolerant of their faith and ideals than the Roman Catholics showed at Rottenburg, they were swiftly disillusioned. Martin Luther's own character may be illuminated by reference to his relationship with Caspar Schwenckfeld. The case of this Silesian nobleman is interesting since he was not a convert to the Brethren, but only disagreed with Luther on certain issues, including the communion, urging that certain views held by the Brethren were more in accord with Scripture than Luther's own. Schwenckfeld owed much to Luther and made despairing efforts to maintain communication with one from whom he had learned so much. A "friendly, Christian petition and request" On the part of Schwenckfeld was sent to Luther by a third party, Hermann Riegel. Luther had Riegel arrested and then addressed the following to him:
Martin Luther, by his own hand."
MAP OF CENTRAL EUROPE 1536
With those who objected to a heresy-hunt against the Brethren in Lutheran Germany on the grounds that they were a devout and peace-loving folk, the Lutheran leaders, unable to deny this, took the line that it was the devil who inspired them with this kind of piety so that "the Gospel (Lutheranism) may fail". Urban Rhegius, author of this last expression, harried greatly one of the earliest centres of the Brethren, the city of Augsburg. Luther himself advocated the severest penalties for arrested Brethren, and in the years 1526 to 1530 at least three thousand perished at the hands of the Lutherans.
A number of important figures among or associated with the Brethren in Germany deserve mention. The brotherhood was in an interesting phase, challenging ecclesiastical practice, bringing the Bible to bear upon traditional dogmas, and shaping a far more fundamental and practical New Testament doctrinal structure than their contemporaries. Consequently the writings of various members of the community show different emphases, as attention was focussed now on one facet of faith and now on another. Also as it was a federation of independent congregations with spiritual rather than constitutional links, and not a monolithic organisation, this emphasis varied from place to place. The opportunity -- within the community -- for free discussion also permitted differing interpretations to be considered, accepted, allowed and rejected over a spectrum rather than within a narrow band of belief. But there was a greater sense of organic unity among scattered groups of Brethren than is recognised by most historians who sweep into the one all embracing net of "anabaptism" a motley of elements owning no real common loyalty.
One remarkable German writer was Johannes Denck, graduate from Ingolstadt during the vice-rectorship of Hubmaier, initially humanist and Erasmian, proficient scholar in Hebrew and Greek. He translated a portion of the Old Testament into German, and during his extensive travels to Nurnberg, St. Gallen, Strasbourg, Worms and Augsburg, wrote prolifically though generally in a heavy and ponderous style. We see there prominently the Brethren's characteristic ideal of gelassenheit, a spirit of active "yielding to God's will", which involves a renouncing of all things worldly and selfish:
He entered the lists, not altogether successfully, in the ferocious word-battles of his time on the vexed questions of predestination and freewill, the following indicating his reasonable and constructive approach. He charged most of the protagonists -- Lutheran and Calvinist -- with "sorting out Scripture in fragments and mending the old garment with new patches".
"You may say: 'Yes, Jesus died indeed out of love, but not for all: rather, only for a few'. But since love in him was perfect and since love hates or is envious of none, but includes everyone, even though we were all his enemies, surely he would not wish to exclude anyone. Scripture says that he died for many (Matthew20:28) and yet again, for all (I John 2:2). But this is not contradictory, since, though the light shines upon all (John I:9), many deny even the Lord that ransomed them."
Denck died of plague in Basel in his mid-thirties.
Associated with Denck in his translation work was Ludwig Hatzer, described as "a man of great learning deeply versed in the original languages of the Scriptures". After engaging in the disputations in Zurich along with Hubmaier and Grebel, Hatzer wandered in south Germany. He wrote a work against the Trinity, but this fell into Zwingli's hands before it could be published. His trial and burning at Konstanz in 1529 was a matter of some notoriety as he was accused not of heresy but of polygamy and immorality. This was later enlarged upon until a nonsensical story was circulated that he had had twenty-four wives. A document of the Brethren, however, whose practice was to excommunicate for immorality, refers to his being "condemned for the gospel and witnessing in knightly fashion for the truth with his blood".
Another brilliant German scholar and linguist -- he was able to speak fluent Chaldee for example -- was Martin Cellarius. Educated at Wittenberg and at one stage a personal friend of Luther, he was one of the most fair-minded and peace loving men of his age in Germany. Deputed to represent the Lutherans at a debate with Stubner and Storck of the Brethren, he admitted to being convinced of their position and became a convert. In 1536 he had to flee Germany and under a false name lived in Basel, where he taught philosophy.
Denck, Hatzer and Cellarius are linked in a particularly significant way. The French historian Leclerc comments that quite early anti-Trinitarian tendencies came to the fore among the Brethren. "Their principle of being strictly guided by Scripture led them to criticise the Trinitarian formulas accepted in the church." From Denck we have the following:
Hatzer taught similarly that "the Father alone was the true God; that Christ was inferior to the Father and of a different essence, that there were not three persons in the Godhead."
These German writers had wide influence, especially upon Brethren who under pressure of persecution moved eastwards and in turn affected Polish and Hungarian dissenting movements. The nature of the Godhead proved to be a cause of dissension and division among the Brethren. At Strasbourg in the 1550's a conference suggested a unifying formula, but the "confusion of tongues among the Brethren" ultimately caused the movement to pursue diverging paths, as a later chapter indicates.
A much more controversial figure than any of the above was Melchior Hofmann. A convert to the Brethren from the Lutherans at Strasbourg, his short career was colourful and his writings passionately charged and full of highly-wrought Scriptural imagery. He carried this somewhat mystical presentation of the Brethren's faith to the Netherlands, where social and political conditions favoured radical religious reform. Described as a man of peace who
taught quiet confidence and non-violence, Hofmann encouraged the Brethren to a burning missionary zeal and an eager anticipation of the imminent return of Jesus Christ.
Accepting the word of life means surrendering and yielding to the Lord,
In an age when the religious were more concerned to justify themselves as the elect than to blaze such a missionary trail, the theological basis of Hofmann's exhortation -- namely the freedom of men to accept or reject the Gospel preached -- was seriously suspect. So too was the idea that salvation depended upon a faithful walk in Christ. In their trials and persecutions Hofmann encouraged his fellow-pilgrims to be steadfast, and hope in the promise of the Kingdom:
Hopes of the Advent Intensified
As persecution was intensified in the lands of the Rhine, adventist hopes and apocalyptic expectations intensified also. Hofmann suggested 1533 as the year of Christ's appearing. In fact that year only brought him imprisonment in Strasbourg; he remained there for ten years until his death. It is said that he frequently invited his friends to the prison so that he could encourage them and warn them against the spirit of fanaticism that was stirring in some areas of northwest Europe.
For the relentless persecution from both Protestants and Roman Catholics, the years of living under the constant shadow of death, was producing strains and tensions; unbalanced elements appeared in places and gained a notoriety greater than they deserved.
Outbreaks of militant millennialism occurred in northwest Europe, despite the warnings and pleadings of more stable spirits. Revolutionaries fanned flames of discontent. Fanatical powerseekers utilised widespread interest in apocalyptic expectations, claiming in some cases to be divinely authorised to overthrow the godless. One of them was Jan Matthys, a tall Dutchman with a long black beard. Together with a young follower of his, Jan Bockelszoon, Matthys came to reside in Munster, quickly dominated the town, deposed the bishop, and finally established what amounted to a virtual reign of terror. Claiming to offer an open door to all persecuted "anabaptists", he drew a considerable number of refugees from the Low Countries into the city. He then instituted a communistic system in which surrender of money was made a test of loyalty. Many who found themselves deceived were unable to leave. The city was finally captured by the Roman Catholic army and Bockelszoon was displayed in a cage like a performing bear.
The Munster episode, together with less flamboyant uprisings in Groningen, Amsterdam, and Minden, had important repercussions. Although there was no similarity in spirit between the militant "anabaptism" of Munster and the simple piety of the Brethren, the possession of certain common doctrines and practices, and certain other links such as the writings of Campanus, led the
innocent to be involved in the general condemnation of the guilty. Severer penalties were invoked upon all those who practised believers' baptism, and "anabaptism" of whatever colour became a word of odium invariably associated with Munster. Despite the fact that force and revolution and the whole attitude of the Munster revolutionaries were uncompromisingly repudiated by the great majority of the Brethren, the episode was an acute embarrassment to those with nobler aims, and the state religious authorities found in it a convenient means to destroy the influence of those whom they looked upon as thorns in their path.
Within the fellowship of the Brethren there were repercussions too. Emphasis upon the imminent return of Jesus to establish the Kingdom of the saints, having risen in some places almost to fever pitch in the early I530's, subsided somewhat and was given generally less prominence, but rose again in the turbulent years of the midseventeenth century, Much attention was focused on the "ban", that is the Scriptural procedure of withdrawal of fellowship for departure in faith or morals from "the faith". Efforts were made to tighten the bonds that bound the loose international movement together, but inevitably this led to a considerable amount of fragmentation. Menno Simons, a Netherlander, engaged in many discussions on this question of church discipline.
For Simons the brotherhood of believers in Christ could never be content with merely outward forms or a legalistic attitude to membership:
The highest love must be extended to all, even to enemies. No other community is worthy to be the "purchased possession" of the King of Kings.
William Tyndale, the great English Bible translator, was strongly influenced by both Vaudois and the Brethren in Christ, particularly during his years as a fugitive on the Continent. His deep committal to believer's baptism, the second coming of Christ and the mortality of man -- among many other scriptural doctrines unacceptable to his contemporaries -- led him to break with Luther, a fact not mentioned by any of his popular biographers. Although his zeal for Bible translation and his missionary outlook have led contemporary evangelicals to honour his name (Tyndale Bible Translators, Tyndale Press) his beliefs would be no more acceptable to most modern evangelicals than is the faith of present day Christadelphians. It is significant that although the so-called King James Version of the Scriptures is based very closely indeed upon Tyndale, his translation of some expressions was deliberately altered to make them palatable to the highly "orthodox" monarch and the divines of the Anglican Church. The 1611 translators have diverted to themselves a great deal of credit, especially in the matter of style, that should really go to Tyndale.
Tyndale was a compelling open-air speaker, by all contemporary accounts, and folk on many village greens in the English West Country listened enraptured to his poetic diction, immersed in Biblical idiom. Typical of his written works is his A Pathway into the Holy Scripture, a document of great interest, and published in 1525, the same year that the Swiss Brethren were organised in Zurich. He carefully outlines the hope of the Christian as depending on faith and understanding of the revealed Word, not on obedience to church decrees. Eternal life is not inherent, but will be bestowed at the second coming of Christ in glory. In an even earlier work, Exposition upon certain words in Holy Scripture, he explains the Scriptural meaning and significance of "hell", distinguishing carefully between sheol, hades and gehenna, the last a place of destruction into which the rejected will be consigned "at the general judgement".
Sir Thomas More, Henry VIII's Romanist Chancellor, vigorously attacked Tyndale's works and what has been described as a literary war followed. More scorned belief in the return of Christ, asserting that the faithful should not have to wait aeons for their reward, but enter bliss with their last breath. To which Tyndale replied:
Tyndale was hounded around Europe, his Bibles destroyed by the crateload, and he was finally betrayed in Flanders to the Imperial authorities and burnt in the courtyard of Vilvoorde prison near Brussels.
All Books/Booklets, Editorials, and Articles are FREE and can be downloaded without permission.