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Spiritual Reformers In The 16th And 17th Centuries by Rufus M. Jones



The study of Denck in the previous chapter has furnished the main outlines of the type of Christianity which a little group of men, sometimes called |Enthusiasts,| and sometimes called |Spirituals,| but in reality sixteenth-century Quakers, proclaimed and faithfully practised in the opening period of the Reformation. They differed fundamentally from Luther in their conception of salvation and in their basis of authority, although they owed their first awakening to him; and they were not truly Anabaptists, though they allied themselves at first with this movement, and earnestly laboured to check the ominous signs of Ranterism and Fanaticism, and the misguided |return| to millennial hopes and expectations, to which many of the Anabaptist leaders were prone.

The inner circle of |Spirituals| which we are now engaged in investigating was never numerically large or impressive, nor was it in the public mind well differentiated within the larger circle of seething ideas and revolutionary propaganda. The men themselves, however, who composed it had a very sure grasp of a few definite, central truths to which they were dedicated, and they never lost sight, in the hurly-burly of contention and in the storm of persecution, of the goal toward which they were bending their steps. They did not endeavour {32} to found a Church, to organize a sect, or to gain a personal following, because it was a deeply settled idea with them all that the true Church is invisible. It is a communion of saints, including those of all centuries, past and present, who have heard and obeyed the divine inner Word, and through co-operation with God's inward revelation and transforming Presence have risen to a mystical union of heart and life with Him. Their apostolic mission -- for they fully believed that they were |called| and |sent| -- was to bear witness to this eternal Word within the soul, to extend the fellowship of this invisible Zion, and to gather out of all lands and peoples and visible folds of the Church those who were ready for membership in the one family and brotherhood of the Spirit of God. They made the mistake, which has been very often made before and since, of undervaluing external helps and of failing to appreciate how important is the visible fellowship, the social group, working at common tasks and problems, the temporal Church witnessing to its tested faith and proclaiming its message to the ears of the world; but they did nevertheless perform a very great service in their generation, and they are the unrecognized forerunners of much which we highly prize in the spiritual heritage of the modern world.

The two men whose spiritual views we are about to study are, I am afraid, hardly even |names| to the world of to-day. They were not on the popular and winning side and they have fallen into oblivion, and the busy world has gone on and left them and their little books to lie buried in a forgotten past. They are surely worthy of a resurrection, and those who take the pains will discover that the ideas which they promulgated never really died, but were quick and powerful in the formation of the inner life of the religious societies of the English Commonwealth, and so of many things which have touched our inner world to-day.

Johann Buenderlin, like his inspirer Denck, was a scholar of no mean rank. He understood Hebrew; he knew the Church Fathers both in Greek and Latin; he {33} makes frequent reference to Greek literature for illustration, and he was well versed in the dialectic of the schools, though he disapproved of it as a religious method. He was enrolled as a student in the University of Vienna in 1515, under the name of Johann Wunderl aus Linz, Linz being a town of Upper Austria. After four years of study he left the University in 1519, being compelled to forgo his Bachelor's degree because he was too poor to pay the required fee. The next five years of his life are submerged beyond recovery, but we hear of him in 1526 as a preacher in the service of Bartholomaeus von Starhemberg, a prominent nobleman of Upper Austria, and he was at this time a devout adherent of the Lutheran faith. He was in Augsburg this same year, 1526, at the time of the great gathering of Anabaptists, and here he probably met Hans Denck, at any rate he testified in 1529 before the investigating Judge in Strasbourg that he received adult baptism in Augsburg three years before. He seems to have gone from Augsburg to Nikolsburg, where he was present at a public Discussion in which a definite differentiation appeared between the moderate and the radical, the right and left, wings of the Anabaptists. Buenderlin took part in this Discussion on the |moderate| side. He remained for some time -- perhaps two years -- in Nikolsburg and faced the persecution which prevailed in that city during the winter of 1527-1528. The next year he comes to notice in Strasbourg where, for a long time, a much larger freedom of thought was allowed than in any other German city of the period. The great tragedy which he had to experience was the frustration of the work of his life by the growth and spread of the Ranter influence in the Anabaptist circles, through the leadership of Melchior Hoffman and others of a similar spirit. He loved freedom, and here he saw it degenerating into license. He was devoted to a religion of experience and of inner authority, and now {34} he saw the wild extremes to which such a religion was exposed. He was dedicated to a spiritual Christianity, and now he was compelled to learn the bitter lesson that there are many types and varieties of |spiritual religion,| and that the masses are inclined to go with those who supply them with a variety which is spectacular and which produces emotional thrills. Our last definite information concerning Buenderlin shows him to have been in Constance in 1530, from which city he was expelled as a result of information against the |soundness| of his doctrine, furnished in a letter from OEcolampadius. From this time he drops completely out of notice, and we are left only with conjectures. One possible reference to him occurs in a letter from Julius Pflug, the Humanist, to Erasmus in 1533. Pflug says that a person has newly arrived in Litium (probably Luetzen) who teaches that there are no words of Christ as a warrant for the celebration of the Sacrament of the Supper, and that it is to be partaken of only in a spiritual way. He adds that God had intervened to protect the people from such heresy and that the heretic had been imprisoned. The usual penalty for such heresy was probably imposed. This description would well fit Johann Buenderlin, but we can only guess that he was the opponent of the visible Sacrament mentioned in the letter which Erasmus received in 1533.

Buenderlin's religious contribution is preserved in three little books which are now extremely rare, the central ideas of which I shall give in condensed form and largely in my own words, though I have faithfully endeavoured to render him fairly. His style is difficult, {35} mainly because he abounds in repetition and has not learned to write in an orderly way. I am inclined to believe that he sometimes wrote, as he would no doubt preach, in a prophetic, rapturous, spontaneous fashion, hardly steering his train of thought by his intellect, but letting it go along lines of least resistance and in a rhythmic flood of words; his central ideas of course all the time holding the predominant place in his utterance. He is essentially a mystic both in experience and in the ground and basis of his conception of God and man. This mystical feature is especially prominent in his second book on why God became incarnate in Christ, and I shall begin my exposition with that aspect of his thought.

God, he says, who is the eternal and only goodness, has always been going out of Himself into forms of self-expression. His highest expression is made in a heavenly and purely spiritual order of angelic beings. Through these spiritual beings He objectifies Himself, mirrors Himself, knows Himself, and becomes revealed. He has also poured Himself out in a lower order of manifestation in the visible creation where spirit often finds itself in opposition and contrast to that which is not spirit. The highest being in this second order is man, who in inward essence is made in the image and likeness of God, but binds together in one personal life both sensuous elements and divine and spiritual elements which are always in collision and warfare with each other. Man has full freedom of choice and can swing his will over to either side -- he can live upward toward the divine goodness, or he can live downward toward the poor, thin, limiting isolation of individual selfhood. But {36} through the shifting drama of our human destiny God never leaves us. He is always within us, as near to the heart of our being as the Light is to the eye. Conscience is the witness of His continued Presence; the drawing which we feel toward higher things is born in the unlost image of God which is planted in our nature |like the tree of Life in Eden.| He pleads in our hearts by His inner Word; He reveals the goodness of Himself in His vocal opposition to all that would harm and spoil us, and He labours unceasingly to be born in us and to bring forth His love and His spiritual kingdom in the domain of our own spirits. The way of life is to die to the flesh and to the narrow will of the self, and to become alive to the Spirit and Word of God in the soul, to enter into and participate in that eternal love with which God loves us. This central idea of the double nature of man -- an upper self indissolubly linked with God and a lower self rooted in fleshly and selfish desires -- runs through all his writings, and in his view all the processes of revelation are to further the liberation and development of the higher and to weaken the gravitation of the lower self.

His first book deals with God's twofold revelation of Himself -- primarily as a living Word in the soul of man, and secondarily through external signs and events, in an historical word, and in a temporal incarnation. With a wealth and variety of expression and illustration he insists and reiterates that only through the citadel -- or better the sanctuary -- of his inner self can man be spiritually reached, and won, and saved. Nobody can be saved until he knows himself at one with God; until he finds his will at peace and in harmony with God's will; until his inward spirit is conscious of unity with the eternal Spirit; in short, until love sets him free with the freedom and joy of sons of God. Priests may absolve men if they will, and ministers may pronounce them saved, but all that counts for nothing until the inward transformation is a fact and the will has found its goal in the will of God: |Love must bloom and the spirit {37} of the man must follow the will of God written in his heart.|

All external means in religion have one purpose and one function; they are to awaken the mind and to direct it to the inward Word. The most startling miracle, the most momentous event in the sphere of temporal sequences, the most appealing account of historical occurrences can do nothing more than give in parable-fashion hints and suggestions of the real nature of that God who is eternally present within human spirits, and who is working endlessly to conform all lives to His perfect type and pattern. In the infant period of the race, both among the Hebrews and the Gentile peoples, God has used, like a wise Teacher, the symbol and picture-book method. He has disciplined them with external laws and with ceremonies which would move their child-minded imaginations; but all this method was used only because they were not ripe and ready for the true and higher form of goodness. |They used the face of Moses until they could come to the full Light of the truth and righteousness of God, for which all the time their spirits really hungered and thirsted.| The supreme instance of the divine pictorial method was the sending of Christ to reveal God visibly. Before seeing God in Christ men falsely thought of Him as hostile, stern, and wrathful; now they may see Him in this unveiling of Himself as He actually is, eternally loving, patiently forgiving, and seeking only to draw the world into His love and peace: |When the Abba-crying spirit of Christ awakens in our hearts we commune with God in peace and love.| But no one must content himself with Christ after the flesh, Christ historically known. That is to make an idol of Him. We can be saved through Him only when by His help we discover the essential nature of God and when He moves us to go to living in the spirit and power as Christ Himself lived. His death as an outward, historical fact does not save us; it is the supreme expression of His limitless love and the complete dedication {38} of His spirit in self-giving, and it is effective for our salvation only when it draws us into a similar way of living, unites us in spirit with Him and makes us in reality partakers of His blood spiritually apprehended. Christ is our Mediator in that He reveals the love of God towards us and moves our will to appreciate it.

Every step of human progress and of spiritual advance is marked by a passage from the dominion of the external to the sway and power of inward experience. God is training us for a time when images, figures, and picture-book methods will be no longer needed, but all men will live by the inward Word and have the witness -- |the Abba-crying voice| -- in their own hearts. But this process from outward to inward, from virtue impelled by fear and mediated by law to goodness generated by love, gives no place for license. Buenderlin has no fellowship with antinomianism, and is opposed to any tendency which gives rein to the flesh. The outward law, the external restraint, the discipline of fear and punishment are to be used so long as they are needed, and the written word and the pictorial image will always serve as a norm and standard, but the true spiritual goal of life is the formation of a rightly fashioned will, the creation of a controlling personal love, the experience of a guiding inward Spirit, which keep the awakened soul steadily approximating the perfect Life which Christ has revealed.

The true Church is for Buenderlin as for Denck, the communion and fellowship of spiritual persons -- an invisible congregation; ever-enlarging with the process of the ages and with the expanding light of the Spirit. He blames Luther for having stopped short of a real reformation, of having |mixed with the Midianites instead of going on into the promised Canaan,| and of having failed to dig down to the fundamental basis of spiritual religion.

In his final treatise he goes to the full length of the implication of his principle. He recounts with luminous {39} simplicity the mystical unity of the spiritual Universe and tells of the divine purpose to draw all our finite and divided wills into moral harmony with the Central Will. Once more religion is presented as wholly a matter of the inward spirit, a thing of insight, of obedience to a living Word, of love for an infinite Lover, the bubbling of living streams of water in the heart of man. He declares that the period of signs and symbols and of |the scholastic way of truth| is passing away, and the religion of the New Testament, the religion of life and spirit, is coming in place of the old. As fast as the new comes ceremonies and sacraments vanish and fall away. They do not belong to a religion of the Spirit; they are for the infant race and for those who have not outgrown the picture-book. Christ's baptism is with power from above, and He cleanses from sin not with water but with the Holy Ghost and the burning fire of love. As soon as the spiritual man possesses |the key of David,| and has entered upon |the true Sabbath of his soul,| he holds lightly all forms and ceremonies which are outward and which can be gone through with in a mechanical fashion without creating the essential attitude of worship and of inner harmony of will with God: |When the Kingdom of God with its joy and love has come in us we do not much care for those things which can only happen outside us.|


Christian Entfelder held almost precisely the same views as those which we have found in the teaching of Buenderlin. He has become even more submerged than has Buenderlin, and one hunts almost in vain for the events of his life. Hagen does not mention him. Gruetzmacher in his Wort und Geist never refers to him. The great Realencyklopaedie fur protestantische Theologie und Kirche has no article on him. Gottfried Arnold in his {40} Kirchenund Ketzer-Historien merely mentions him in his list of |Witnesses to the Truth.| The only article I have ever found on him is one by Professor Veesenmeyer in Gabler's N. theol. Journal (1800), iv.4, pp.309-334.

He first appears in the group of Balthasar Huebmaier's followers and at this period he had evidently allied himself with the Anabaptist movement, which gathered into itself many young men of the time who were eager for a new and more spiritual type of Christianity. Huebmaier mentions Entfelder in 1527 as pastor at Ewanzig, a small town in Moravia, where, as he himself later says, he diligently taught his little flock the things which concerned their inner life. In the eventful years of 1520-1530 he was in Strasbourg in company with Buenderlin, and in this latter year he published his first book, with the title: Von den manigfaltigen in Glauben Zerspaltungen dise jar erstanden. (|On the many Separations which have this year arisen in Belief.|) A second book, which is also dated 1530, bears the title: Von waren Gotseligkayt, etc. (|On true Salvation.|) He wrote also a third book, which appeared in 1533 under the title: Von Gottes und Christi Jesu unseres Herren Erkandtnuss, etc. (|On the Knowledge of God and Jesus Christ our Lord.|)

His style is simpler than that of Buenderlin. He appears more as a man of the people; he is fond of vigorous, graphic figures of speech taken from the life of the common people, much in the manner of Luther, and he breathes forth in all three books a spirit of deep and saintly life. His fundamental idea of the Universe is like that of Buenderlin. The visible and invisible creation, in all its degrees and stages, is the outgoing and unfolding of God, who in His Essence and Godhead is one, indivisible and incomprehensible. But as He is essentially and eternally Good, He expresses Himself in revelation, and goes out of Unity into differentiation and multiplicity; but the entire spiritual movement of the universe is back again toward the fundamental Unity, for Divine Unity is both the Alpha and the Omega of the {41} deeper inner world. His main interest is, however, not philosophical and speculative; his mind focuses always on the practical matters of a true and saintly life. Like his teacher, Buenderlin, his whole view of life and salvation is mystical; everything which concerns religion occurs in the realm of the soul and is the outcome of direct relations between the human spirit and the Divine Spirit. In every age, and in every land, the inner Word of God, the Voice of the Spirit speaking within, clarifying the mind and training the spiritual perceptions by a progressive experience, has made for itself a chosen people and has gathered out of the world a little inner circle of those who know the Truth because it was formed within themselves. This |inner circle of those who know| is the true Church: |The Church is a chosen, saved, purified, sanctified group in whom God dwells, upon whom the Holy Ghost was poured out His gifts and with whom Christ the Lord shares His offices and His mission.|

There is however, through the ages a steady ripening of the Divine Harvest, a gradual and progressive onward movement of the spiritual process, ever within the lives of men: |Time brings roses. He who thinks that he has all the fruit when strawberries are ripe forgets that grapes are still to come. We should always be eagerly looking for something better.| There are, he says, three well-marked stages of revelation: (1) The stage of the law, when God, the Father, was making Himself known through His external creation and by outward forms of training and discipline; (2) the stage of self-revelation through the Son, that men might see in Him and His personal activity the actual character and heart of God; and (3) the stage of the Holy Spirit which fills all deeps and heights, flows into all lives, and is the One God revealed in His essential nature of active Goodness -- Goodness at work in the world. Externals of every type -- law, ceremonies, rewards and punishments, {42} historical happenings, written Scriptures, even the historical doings and sufferings of Christ -- are only pointers and suggestion-material to bring the soul to the living Word within, |to the Lord Himself who is never absent,| and who will be spiritually born within man. |God,| he says, |has once become flesh in Christ and has revealed thus the hidden God and, as happened in a fleshly way in Mary, even so Christ must be spiritually born in us.| So, too, everything which Christ experienced and endured in His earthly mission must be re-lived and reproduced in the life of His true disciples. There is no salvation possible without the new birth of Christ in us, without self-surrender and the losing of oneself, without being buried with Christ in a death to self-will and without rising with Him in joy and peace and victory. He who rightly loves his Christ will speak no word, will eat no bit of bread, nor taste of water, nor put a stitch of clothes upon his body without thinking of the Beloved of his soul. . . . In this state he can rid himself of all pictures and symbols, renounce everything which he possesses, take up his cross with Christ, join Him in an inward, dying life, allow himself, like grain, to be threshed, winnowed, ground, bolted, and baked that he may become spiritual food as Christ has done for us. Then there comes a state in which poverty and riches, pain and joy, life and death are alike, when the soul has found its sabbath-peace in the Origin and Fount of all Love. His first book closes with a beautiful account of the return of the prodigal to His Father and to His Father's love, and then he breaks into a joyous cry, as if it all came out of his own experience: |Who then can separate us from the Love of God?|

Those who rightly understand religion and have had this birth and this Sabbath-peace within themselves will stop contending over outward, external things, which make separations but do not minister to the spirit; they will give up the Babel-habit of constructing theological {43} systems, they will pass upward from elements to the essence, they will stop building the city-walls of the Church out of baptism and the supper, which furnish |only clay-plastered walls| at best, and they will found the Church instead upon the true sacramental power of the inward Spirit of God. The true goal of the spiritual life is such a oneness with God that He is in us and we in Him, so that the inner joy and power take our outer life captive and draw us away from the world and its |pictures,| and make it a heartfelt delight to do all His commandments and to suffer anything for Him.

Here, then, in the third decade of the sixteenth century, when the leaders of the Reformation were using all their powers of dialectic to formulate in new scholastic phrase the sound creed for Protestant Christendom, and while the fierce and decisive battle was being waged over the new form in which the Eucharist must be celebrated, there appeared a little group of men who proposed that Christianity should be conceived and practised as a way of living -- nothing more nor less. They rejected theological language and terminology root and branch. They are as innocent of scholastic subtlety and forensic conceptions as though they had been born in this generation. They seem to have wiped their slate clean of the long line of Augustinian contributions, and to have begun afresh with the life and message of Jesus Christ, coloured, if at all, by local and temporal backgrounds, by the experience of the earlier German mystics who helped them to interpret their own simple and sincere experiences. They are as naive and artless as little children, and they expect, as all enthusiasts do in their youth, that they have only to announce their wonderful truths and to proclaim their |openings| in order to bring the world to the light! They go to the full length of the implications of their {44} fresh insight without ever dreaming that all the theological world will unite, across the yawning chasms of difference, to stamp out their |pestilent heresy,| and to rid the earth of persons who dare to question the traditions and the practices of the centuries.

Instead of beginning with the presupposition of original sin, they quietly assert that the soul of man is inherently bound up in the Life and Nature of God, and that goodness is at least as |original| as badness. They fly in the face of the age-long view that the doctrine of Grace makes freewill impossible and reduces salvation wholly to a work of God, and they assert as the ineradicable testimony of their own consciousness that human choices between Light and Darkness, the personal response to the character of God as He reveals Himself, the co-operation of the will of man with the processes of a living and spiritual God are the things which save a man -- and this salvation is possible in a pagan, in a Jew, in a Turk even, as well as in a man who ranges himself under Christian rubrics and who says paternosters. They reject all the scholastic accounts of Christ's metaphysical nature, they will not use the term Trinity, nor will they admit that it is right to employ any words which imply that God is divided into multiform personalities; but nevertheless they hold, with all the fervour of their earnest spirits, that Christ is God historically and humanly revealed, and that to see Christ is to see the true and only God, and to love Christ is to love the Eternal Love.

In an age which settled back upon the Scriptures as the only basis of authority in religious faith and practice, they boldly challenged that course as a dangerous return to a lower form of religion than that to which Christ had called men and as only legalism and scribism in a new dress. They insisted that the Eternal Spirit, who had been educating the race from its birth, bringing all things up to better, and who had used now one symbol and now another to fit the growing spiritual perception of men, is a real Presence in the deeps of men's {45} consciousness, and is ceaselessly voicing Himself there as a living Word whom it is life to obey and death to disregard and slight. Having found this present, immanent Spirit and being deeply convinced that all that really matters happens in the dread region of the human heart, they turned away from all ceremonies and sacraments and tried to form a Church which should be purely and simply a Communion of saints -- a brotherhood of believers living in the joy of an inward experience of God, and bound together in common love to Christ and in common service to all who are potential sons of God.

See Veesenmeyer's article on Buenderlin in N. lit. Anzeiger for August 1807, P.535.

The details of his life here given have been gathered mainly from the excellent monograph on Johannes Buenderlin by Dr. Alexander Nicoladoni. (Berlin, 1893.)

This incident is given in Dr. Carl Hagen's Deutschlands literarischt und religioese Verhaeltnisse im Reformalionszeitalter, 1868, iii. p.310.

The books are: --

(1) Ein gemayne Berechnung ueber der Heiligen Schrift Inhalt, etc. (|A General Consideration of the Contents of Holy Scripture.|) Printed in Strasbourg in 1529.

(2) Aus was Ursach sich Gott in die nyder gelassen und in Christo vermenschet ist, etc., 1529. (|For what cause God has descended here below and has become incarnate in Christ.|)

(3) Erklaerung durch Vergleichung der biblischen Geschrift, doss der Wassertauf sammt andern aeusserlichen Gebraeuchen in der apostolischen Kirchen geubet, on Gottes Befelch und Zeugniss der Geschrift, von etlichen dieser Zeit wider efert wird, etc., 1530. (|Declaration by comparison of the Biblical Writings that Baptism with Water, together with other External Customs practised in the Apostolic Church, have been reinstated by some at this time without the Command of God or the Witness of the Scriptures.|)

These three books can be found bound in one volume, with writings of Denck and others, in the Koenigliche Bibliothek in Dresden. There is also a copy of his third book in Utrecht. Besides using the books themselves I have also used the monograph by Nicoladoni and the study of Buenderlin in Hagen, op. cit. iii. pp.295-310.

This idea is reproduced and greatly expanded in the writings of the famous Silesian Mystic, Jacob Boehme.

Ein gemayne Berechnung, p.57.

Ibid. p.14.

Ibid. p.221.

Ein gemayne Berechnung, pp.218-221, freely rendered.

Ibid. pp.30-34.

Erklaerung durch Vergleichung.

Aus was Ursach, p.33. These phrases, |Key of David| and |Sabbath Rest for the Soul,| occur in the writings of all the spiritual reformers.

See N. lit. Anzeiger (1807), p.515.

Entfelder to his brethren at the end of his first book: Von Zerspaltungen.

Vorrede to Von Zerspaltungen.

Von waren Gotseligkayt, pp.18-21.

See especially Von Zerspaltungen, pp.6-8.

This |Babel-habit of constructing theological systems| is constantly referred to by Jacob Boehme, as we shall see. I believe that Boehme had read both Buenderlin and Entfelder.

See Von Zerspaltungen, passim, especially p.17.

Von waren Gotseligkayt, p.13.

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