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


Hans Denck has generally been enrolled among the Anabaptists, and it is possible to use that name of scorn with such a latitude and looseness that it includes not only Denck but all the sixteenth-century exponents of a free, inward religion. Anabaptism has often been treated as a sort of broad banyan-tree which flourished exuberantly and shot out far-reaching branches of very varied characters, but which held in one organic unity all the branches that found soil and took root. A name of such looseness and covering capacity is, however, of little worth, and it would promote historical accuracy if we should confine the term to those who opposed infant baptism and who insisted instead upon adult baptism, not as a means of Grace, but as a visible sign of the covenant of man with God. The further characteristic marks which may be selected to differentiate Anabaptism from other movements of the period are:

1. The treatment of the Gospel as a new law to be literally followed and obeyed by all who are to have the right to be called |saints.|

2. The true Church is a visible Church, the community of the saints, founded by covenant, with adult baptism as its sign, formed exactly on the pattern of the apostolic {18} Church and preserved in strict purity by rigorous church discipline; and

3. The denial to magistrates of all power to persecute men for their faith and doctrine on the ground that the Gospel gives them no such authority -- its great commandment being love.

Hans Denck, though in his early period of activity closely identified with this movement and regarded as one of its chief leaders in Germany, does not properly belong, however, to the banyan-tree of Anabaptism. His writings reveal ideas and tendencies of such enlarged scope that it appears clear that he had discovered and was teaching another type of Christianity altogether. He is the earliest exponent in the sixteenth century of a fresh and unique type of religion, deeply influenced by the mystics of a former time, but even more profoundly moulded by the new humanistic conceptions of man's real nature.

There are few biographical details of Denck's life available. He was, most probably, a native of Bavaria, and he was born about the year 1495. He studied in the University of Ingolstadt, where he was admitted among the baccalaureates in 1517. In the year 1520 we catch a glimpse of him in close association with the Humanists of Augsburg. In 1522 he was at work in Basle as proof-reader for the famous publisher, Valentin Curio, and was living in intimate fellowship with the great scholar OEcolampadius, whose lectures on the Prophet Isaiah he heard. In the autumn of the same year, on the recommendation of OEcolampadius, he was appointed Director of St. Sebald's School in Nuremberg, which was then the foremost seat of learning in that city, {19} a great centre of classical humanistic studies. During the first period of his life in Nuremberg he was closely identified with the Lutheran movement, but he soon shifted his sympathies, and aligned himself with the radical tendencies which at this period were championed in Nuremberg by Thomas Muenzer, who, in spite of his misguided leadership and fanatical traits, had discovered a genuine religious principle that was destined to become significant in safer hands. Muenzer read Tauler's sermons from his youth up; in his own copy of these sermons, preserved in the library at Gera, a marginal note says that he read them almost continually, and that here he learned of a divine interior Teaching. It was Muenzer's teaching of the living Voice of God in the soul, his testimony to the reality of the inner heavenly Word, which God Himself speaks in the deeps of man's heart, that won the Humanist and teacher of St. Sebald's School to the new and perilous cause. He also formed a close friendship with Ludwig Hetzer, who, like Muenzer, taught that the saving Word of God must be inward, and that the Scriptures can be understood only by those who belong to the School of Christ. Having once caught the idea from these impassioned leaders, Denck proceeded directly to work it out and to develop its implications in his own fashion. He was himself sane, clear-minded, modest, sincere, far-removed from fanaticism, and eager only to find a form of religion which would fit the eternal nature of things on the one hand, and the true nature of man on the other -- man, I mean, as the Humanist conceived him.

Already in this Nuremberg period, Denck became fully convinced that Luther's doctrine of sin and justification was an artificial construction -- Einbildung -- and that his conception of Scripture and the Sacraments was destined to clamp the new-found faith in iron bonds, tie it to outworn tradition, and make it incapable of a progressive {20} and vital unfolding. He declared in his testimony or |confession| to the city council of Nuremberg in 1524, that although he had not yet a full experience of the inward, powerful Word of God, he distinctly felt its life as an inner witness which God had planted within him, a spark of the Divine Light breaking into his own soul, and in the strength of this direct experience he denied the value of external ceremonies, and declared that even the Bible itself cannot bring men to God without the assistance of this inner Light and Spirit.

As a result of this change of attitude, the schoolmaster of St. Sebald's was banished from the city of Nuremberg, January 21, 1525, and from this time until his early death he was homeless and a wanderer. He spent some months -- between September 1525 and October 1526 -- in Augsburg endeavouring to organize and direct the rapidly expanding forces of the liberal movement. He was during these months, and especially during the period of the great Anabaptist synod which was held at this time in Augsburg, endeavouring to give the chaotic movement of Anabaptism a definite direction, with the main emphasis on the mystical aspect of religion. He hoped to call a halt to the vague socialistic dreams and the fanatical tendencies that put the movement in constant jeopardy and peril, and he was striving to call his brotherhood to an inner religion, grounded on the inherent nature of the soul, and guided by the inner Word rather than on |a new law| set forth in the written word. There were, however, too many eddies and currents to be mastered by one mind, too many varieties of faith to be unified under one principle, and Denck's own view was too intangible, inward, and spiritual, to satisfy the enthusiasm either of the seething masses or of {21} the leaders who saw a new Jerusalem just ready to come down out of heaven from God.

After the Augsburg period, Denck spent some time in Strasbourg, where he gained many followers. Capito bears testimony at this time to the purity of Denck's life, to his moderation and goodwill, and to the impressive effect of his preaching and teaching upon the people of the city. Vadian, the Humanist and reformer of St. Gall, too, in spite of his disapproval of some of Denck's ideas, speaking of him in retrospect after his death, called him |a most gifted youth, possessed of all excellencies.| But his teaching was too strange and unusual to be allowed currency even in free Strasbourg. After being granted a public discussion he was ordered to leave the city forthwith. During a short stay in Worms, following the Strasbourg period, in collaboration with Ludwig Hetzer, they brought to a successful conclusion a German translation of the Prophets from the Hebrew, a work which Hetzer had begun. This important piece of scholarly work was published under the title, Alle Propheten nach hebraeischer Sprache verteutscht, in Worms, April 3, 1527, and had a wide circulation and use, its main demerit being that it had been done by |Anabaptists.|

Pursued on every hand, hunted from place to place, he finally sought peace and shelter with his old friend, the teacher who had first inspired him in his youth, OEcolampadius, and here in Basle in a quiet retreat, he died of the plague in November 1527, hardly more than thirty-two years of age.

We must now turn to the little books of this persecuted and homeless Humanist to see what his religious teaching really was, and to discover the foundation principle which lay at the root of all the endeavours of this period to launch a Christianity grounded primarily on the {22} fundamental nature of man. Denck writes like a man with a message -- straight to the mark, lucid, vivid, and intense. He believes what he says and he wants others to see it and believe it. His writings are entirely free from the controversial temper, and they breathe throughout the spirit of tolerance and charity. He knows when to stop, and brings his books to an end as soon as he has made his points clear. The fundamental fact of man's nature for Denck is personal freedom. Starting with no theological presuppositions he is under no obligation to make the primary assumption common to all Augustinian systems that man is devoid of any native capacities which have to do with spiritual salvation. He begins instead with man as he knows him -- a sadly marred and hampered being, but still possessed of a potentially Divine nature, and capable of co-operating, by inward choices and decisions, with the ceaseless effort of God to win him completely to Himself. His little book, What does it mean when the Scripture says God does and works Good and Evil, is throughout a protest against the idea of |election,| which, he says, involves |a limitation of the Love of God,| and it is a penetrating account of the way in which man by his free choices makes his eternal destiny. |God compels nobody, for He will have no one saved by compulsion.| |God has given freewill to men that they may choose for themselves, either the good or the bad. Christ said to His disciples, 'Will ye {23} go away?' as though He would say, 'You are under no compulsion.'| |God,| he says again in the Widerruf, |forces no one, for love cannot compel, and God's service is, therefore, a thing of complete freedom.|

It is freedom, too, which explains the fact of sin. God is in no way the author of sin; He is wholly good; He can do nothing but what is good; He ordains no one to sin; He is the instigator of no evil at all. All the sin and moral evil of the world have come from our own evil choices and purposes. |The thing which hinders and has always hindered is that our wills are different from God's will. God never seeks Himself in His willing -- we do. There is no other way to blessedness than to lose one's self-will.| |He who surrenders his selfishness,| he says in another treatise, |and uses the freedom which God has given him, and fights the spiritual battle as God wills that such battles are to be fought and as Christ fought His, can in his measure be like Christ.| The whole problem of salvation for him is, as we shall see, to bring about such a transformation in man that sin ceases, and the least thing thought, said, or done out of harmony with the will of God becomes bitter and painful to the soul. |To be a Christian,| he once wrote, |is to be in measure like Christ, and to be ready to be offered as He gave Himself to be offered. I do not say that we are perfect as Christ was, but I say rather that we are to seek the perfection which Christ never lost. Christ calls Himself the Light of the world, but He also tells His disciples that they too are the light of the world. All Christians in whom the Holy Ghost lives -- that is all real Christians -- are one with Christ in God and are like Christ. They will therefore have similar experiences, and what Christ did they will also do.|

Not only is there a power of free choice in the soul; there is as well an elemental hunger in man which pushes him Godward. |God,| he often says, |can give only {24} to those who hunger.| In a very great passage which reminds one of Pascal he says: |The kingdom of God is in you and he who searches for it outside himself will never find it, for apart from God no one can either seek or find God, for he who seeks God, already in truth has Him.| He says nearly the same thing again in the little book, Vom Gesetz Gottes: |He who does not know God from God Himself does not ever know Him.| This central insight of Denck's religious faith that God and man are not completely sundered, but meet, as he says, in the deeps of ourselves, is grounded upon the fact of experience that there is within us a supra-individual Reality which becomes revealed to us sometimes as a Light, sometimes as a Word, sometimes as a Presence or environing Spirit. This testimony is Denck's main contribution, and we must next see how he sets it forth. There is, he says, a witness in every man. He who does not listen to it blinds himself, although God has given him originally a good inward eyesight. If a man will keep still and listen he will hear what the Spirit witnesses within him. Not only in us but in the heathen and in Jews this witness is given, and men might be preached to outwardly forever without perceiving, if they did not have this witness in their own hearts. The Light shines, the invisible Word of God is uttered in the hearts of all men who come into the world, and this Light gives all men freedom and power to become children of God. There is both an inward principle of revelation which he calls das innere Wort, and a principle of active power which he calls die Kraft des Allerhoechsten (the power of the Highest), not two things, but one reality under two aspects and two names, and he insists that he who turns to this Divine, spiritual reality, which is one with God, and obeys it and loves its leading has already found God and has come to himself. |Oh, who will give me a voice,| he writes, |that I may cry aloud to the whole world that God, the all highest, is in the deepest abyss {25} within us and is waiting for us to return to Him. Oh, my God, how does it happen in this poor old world, that Thou art so great and yet nobody finds Thee, that Thou callest so loudly and nobody hears Thee, that Thou art so near and nobody feels Thee, that Thou givest Thyself to everybody and nobody knows Thy name! Men flee from Thee and say they cannot find Thee; they turn their backs and say they cannot see Thee; they stop their ears and say they cannot hear Thee!|

This self-giving nature of God is everywhere taken for granted -- it is just that which he feels that Christ has once for all made sun-clear, and it is because He is essentially self-giving that God pours out His life and love upon us as He does His sunshine upon the grass and flowers. |The Word of God is with thee before thou seekest; He gives before thou hast asked; He opens to thee before thou hast knocked.| God like a Father deals with His wayward children. |Oh, blessed is the man,| he writes, |who in his need finds the love of God and comes to Him for forgiveness!| No one of us who has been washed from his sins, he beautifully says, ought to eat a piece of bread without considering how God loves him and how he ought to love God, who in Jesus Christ His Son laid aside His right to Divinity that His love might appear complete. |It has pleased the eternal Love,| he writes, |that that Person in whom Love was shown in the highest degree should be called the Saviour of His people. Not that it would be possible for human nature to make anybody saved, but God was so completely identified in Love with Him that all the Will of God was the will of this Person, and the sufferings of this Person were and counted as the sufferings of God Himself.|

Christ is for him the complete manifestation of life and the perfect exhibition or unveiling of God's love, and he who appreciates this love, feels its attraction, and lives a life which corresponds to his soul's insight, becomes {26} himself Christlike, forsakes sin and self, and enters upon a life of salvation. |All who are saved,| he says, |are of one spirit with God, and he who is the foremost in love is the foremost of those who are saved.| |He who gets weary of God has never found Him,| while the person who has found Him in this love-way will be ready and willing to give up even his own salvation and accept damnation for the love of God, since he knows in his heart that |God is so wholly good that He can give to such a man only what is highest and best, and that is Himself!| That is to say, he who is willing to be damned for the love of God never will be damned!

But salvation must never be conceived as something which is the result of a transaction. It is from beginning to end a life-process and can in no way be separated from character and personal attitude of will. |He who depends on the merit of Christ,| he says, |and yet continues in a fleshly, wicked life, regards Christ precisely as in former times the heathen held their gods. He who really believes that Christ has saved him can no longer be a servant of sin, for no one believes rightly until he leaves his old life.| |It is not enough,| he elsewhere writes, |that God is in thee; thou must also be in God, that is, partake of the life of God. It does not help to have God if thou dost not honour Him. It is no avail to call thyself His child if thou dost not behave thyself like a child!| He insists that no one can be |called righteous| or be |counted righteous| until he actually is righteous. Nothing can be |imputed| to a man which is not ethically and morally present as a living feature of his character and conduct. No one, he truly says, can know Christ as a means of salvation unless he follows Him in his life. He who does not witness to Christ in his daily walk grows into a different person from the one he is called to be. The person who lives on in sin does not really know God, and, {27} to use his fine figure; is like a man who has lost his home and gone astray, and does not even know that he is at home, when his Father has found him and has welcomed him back, but still goes on hunting for home and for Father, since he does not recognize his home or his Father when he has found them!

Salvation, then, for Hans Denck is wholly an inward process, initiated from above through the Divine Word, the Christ, whom we know outwardly as the historical Person of the Gospel, and whom we know inwardly as the Revealer of Light and Love, the Witness in us against sin, the Voice of the Father to our hearts, calling us home, the Goal of our spiritual quest, the Alpha and the Omega of all religious truth and all spiritual experience. The Way to God, he says, is Christ inwardly and spiritually known. But however audible the inner Word may be; however vivid the illumination; however drawing the Love, there is never compulsion. The soul itself must hear and see and feel; must say yes to the appeal of Love, and must co-operate by a continuous adjustment of the personal will to the Will of God and |learn to behave as a child of God.|

Having reached the insight that salvation is entirely an affair of the spirit, an inward matter, Denck loosened his hold upon the external things which had through long centuries of history come to be considered essential to Christianity. Sacraments and ceremonies dropped to a lower level for him as things of no importance. With his characteristic breadth and sweetness, he does not smite them as an iconoclast would have done; he does not cry out against those who continue to use them. He merely considered them of no spiritual significance. |Ceremonies,| he writes in his dying confession, |in themselves are not sin, but whoever supposes that he can attain to life either by baptism or by partaking of bread, is still in superstition.| |If all ceremonies,| he adds, |were lost, little harm would come of it.| {28} He appeals to Christians to stop quarrelling over these outward and secondary matters, and to make religion consist in love to neighbour rather than in zeal for outward ceremonies. He laid down this great principle: |All externals must yield to love, for they are for the sake of love, and not love for their sake.|

He was, consistently with his fundamental ideas, profoundly opposed to every tendency to make Christianity a legal religion. His friends, the Anabaptists, were inclined to turn the Gospel of Christ into |a new law,| and to make religion consist largely in scrupulous obedience to this perfect law of life. To all this he was radically alien, for it was, he thought, only another road back to a religion of the letter, while Christ came to call us to a religion of the spirit. |He who has not the Spirit,| he wrote, |and who fails to find Him in the Scriptures, seeks life and finds death; seeks light and finds darkness, whether it be in the Old or in the New Testament.| |He who thinks that he can be made truly righteous by means of a Book is ascribing to the dead letter what belongs to the Spirit.| He does not belittle or undervalue the Scriptures -- he knew them almost by heart and took the precious time out of his brief life to help to translate the Prophets into German -- but he wants to make the fact forever plain that men are saved or lost as they say yes or no to a Light and Word within themselves. |The Holy Scriptures,| he writes in his dying testimony, |I consider above every human treasure, but not so high as the Word of God which is living, powerful, and eternal, for it is God Himself, Spirit and no letter, written without pen or paper so that it can never be destroyed. For that reason, salvation is not bound up with the Scriptures, however necessary and good they may be for their purpose, because it is impossible for the Scriptures to make good a bad heart, even though it may be a learned one. A good heart, however, with a Divine Spark in it is improved by everything, and to such the Scriptures will bring blessedness {29} and goodness.| The Scriptures -- the external Word -- as he many times, in fact somewhat tediously, declares, are witnesses and pointers to the real and momentous thing, the Word which is very near to all souls and is written in the heart, and which increases in clearness and power as the will swings into parallelism with the will of God, and as the life grows in likeness to the Divine image revealed in Christ. This inward life and spiritual appreciation do not give any ground for relaxing the moral obligations of life. No fulfilling of the law by Christ, no vanishing of the outward and temporal, furnish any excuse to us for slacking a jot or tittle of anything which belongs to the inherent nature of moral goodness. |Christ,| he says, |fulfilled the law, not to relieve us of it, but to show us how to keep it in truth. The member must partake of what the Head partakes.| To love God alone and to hate everything that hinders love is a principle which, Denck believes, will fulfil all law, ancient or modern.

Such were the ideas which this young radical reformer, dreamer perhaps, tried to teach his age. The time was not ripe for him, and there was no environment ready for his message. He spoke to minds busy with theological systems, and to men whose battles were over the meaning of inherited medieval dogma. He thought and spoke as a child of another world, and he talked in a language which he had learned from his heart and not from books or from the schools. It is |the key of David,| he says, that is, an inward experience, which unlocks all the solid doors of truth, but there were so few about him who really had this |key|! His task, which was destined to be hard and painful, which was in his lifetime doomed to failure, was not self-chosen. |I opened my mouth,| he says, |against my will and I am speaking to the world because God impels me so that I cannot keep silent. God has called me out and stationed me at my post, and He knows whether good will come of it or not.|


It is not often that a man living in the atmosphere of seething enthusiasm, pitilessly pricked and goaded by brutal and unfeeling persecutors, compelled to hear his precious truth persistently called error and pestilent heresy, keeps so calm and sane and sure that all will be well with him and with his truth as does Denck. |I am heartily well content,| is his dying testimony, |that all shame and disgrace should fall on my face, if it is for the truth. It was when I began to love God that I got the disfavour of men.| He confesses that he has found it difficult to |keep a gentle and a humble heart| through all his work among men, to |temper his zeal with understanding,| and to |make his lips say always what his heart meant,| but he did, at least, succeed in loving God and in hating everything that hindered love. In an epoch in which the doctrine was new and revolutionary, he succeeded in presenting the principle of the Inward Word as the basis of religion without giving any encouragement to libertinism or moral laxity, for he found the way of freedom to be a life of growing likeness to Christ, he held the fulfilling of the law to be possible only for those who accept the burdens and sacrifices of love, and he insisted that the privileges of blessedness belong only to those who behave like sons.

The best studies on Denck are Heberle's articles in Theol. Studien und Kritiken (1851), Erstes Heft, and (1855) Viertes Heft. Gustave Roehrich's Essai sur la vie, les ecrits et la doctrine de Jean Denk (Strasbourg, 1853). Ludwig Keller's Ein Apostel der Wiedertaeufer (Leipzig, 1882). The last two books must, however, be followed with much caution.

One branch of the Anabaptists held that the |saints| may, however, rightly use the sword to execute the purposes of God upon the godless, and to hasten the coming of the Thousand Years' Reign of the Kingdom.

I have included him, in my Studies in Mystical Religion (1908), among the Anabaptists, but he can be called one only by such a loose use of the word that it ceases to have any definite significance.

See J. Kessler's Sabbata (1902), p.150.

L. Keller, Johann von Staupitz, p.207.

Ibid. p.208.

OEcolampadius' Letter to Pirkheimer, April 25, 1525.

Georg Theodor Strobel, Leben, Schriften und Lehren Muenzers (Nuernberg, 1795); J. R. Seidemann, Thomas Muenzer (Dresden, 1842).

A contemporary chronicle calls Denck a scholar, eloquent, modest and, withal, learned in Hebrew. -- Kessler's Sabbata, p.150.

This |Confession| is in the archives of Nuremberg, and has been extensively used in Keller's Ein Apostel der Wiedertaeufer, see especially pp.49-62. See also Th. Kolde, Kirchengeschichtliche Studien (1888), p.231 f. In this connection much interest attaches to a passage in a letter which Luther wrote to Johann Brismann, February 4, 1525. He says: |Satan has carried it so far that in Nuremberg some persons are denying that Christ is anything, that the Word of God is anything, that the Eucharist is anything, that Magistracy is anything. They say that only God is.|

See Nicoladoni's Johannes Buenderlin von Linz (Berlin, 1893), p.114.

Letter of Capita to Zwingli, December 26, 1526.

Kessler says that OEcolampadius in a Christian spirit was with him at his death. Op. cit. p.151.

The little books of Denck from which I shall extract his teaching are: (1) Vom Gesetz Gottes (|On the Law of God|), printed without place or date, but probably published in 1526. I have used the copy in the Koenigliche Bibliothek in Berlin, sig. Co.2152. (2) Was geredet sey doss die Schrift sagt Gott thue und mache guts und boeses (|What does it mean when the Scripture says God does and works Good and Evil|), 1526. Copies of this are to be found in the University Library of Marburg, also in the Koenigliche Bibliothek of Dresden. (3) Widerruf (|Confession |), 1527. I have used the copy in the Koenigliche Bibliothek in Dresden sig. Theol. Cathol.817 (4) Ordnung Gottes und der Creaturen Werck (|The Divine Plan and the Work of the Creature|), 1527, in the above library in Dresden. (5) Wer die Warheif warlich lieb hat, etc., no date (|Whoever really loves the Truth,| etc.), and (6) Von der wahren Liebe (|On the True Love|), 1527. This last tract has been republished in America by the Mennonitische Verlagshandlung, Elkhart, Indiana, 1888.

|To hear the Word of God,| he elsewhere says, |means life; to hear it not means death.| -- Ordnung Gottes, p.17.

Was geredet sey, p. C. (The paging is by letters.)

Was geredet sey, B.3.

Widerruf, sec. iv.

Was geredet sey, B.

Ibid. B.5.

Venn Gesetz Gottes, p.15.

Was geredet sey, B.6.

Was geredet sey, B.2.

Ibid. B.5.

Ibid. B.1 and 2.

Ordnung Gottes, p.7.

Vom Gesetz Gottes, p.27.

Was geredet sey, D.1 and 2.

Vom Gesetz Gottes, p.33.

Van der wahren Liebe (Elkhart reprint), p.7.

Van der wahren Liebe (Elkhart reprint), p.8.

Vom Gesetz Gottes, p.19.

Widerruf, ii.

Was geredet sey, B.1.

Ibid. D.

Was geredet sey, A.4 and 5.

Ibid. B.3.

Widerruf, vii.

Ibid. vii.

Vom Gesetz Gottes, p.33.

Ibid. p.22.

Ibid. p.21.

Widerruf, i.

Vom Gesetz Gottes, p.9.

Ibid. p.12.

Was geredet sey, Preface.

Widerruf, Preface.

Ibid., Preface.

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