Christian History Home > 1989 > Issue 21 > The Life and Thought of Caspar Schwenckfeld von Ossig
The Life and Thought of Caspar Schwenckfeld von Ossig
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Sometime in 1518, or perhaps 1519, Caspar Schwenckfeld experienced what he refers to as a “visitation of the divine” (in German, Heimsuchung Gottes, literally “home-seeking of God”). He admits that he was not particularly religious during his early years as a court advisor, but his pattern of behavior changed after 1518.
The visitation to which he refers was not the only change in his life at the time. He was directly affected by his reading of Luther’s writings, and he undertook a serious study of the Scriptures at this point in his life as well. Shortly before September 1519, his father died and not long after that Schwenckfeld began to lose his hearing, an event which forced him to return to his family estate at Ossig (now run by his brother Hans) and to serve Duke Friedrich as only an occasional advisor, although he did remain highly influential at the court.
By 1521 he was seriously supporting the cause of reform, and had won his Duke to his programme by 1522. But from the very beginning Schwenckfeld’s position seems to have differed from Luther’s, and by 1524 the differences were abundantly clear. In June of that year he published an Admonition to the Silesian preachers in which he attempted to rectify problems he saw arising from Luther’s theology.
He was concerned above all that the five principles at the center of Luther’s position were misleading the simple people of the day. These were (1) that faith alone justifies, (2) that an individual does not have free will, (3) that we cannot keep God’s commandments, (4) that our works are of no avail, and (5) that Christ has made satisfaction for us.
The Nature of Faith
Ever concerned with the practical results of theology, Schwenckfeld did not reject these principles out of hand in his Admonition. Indeed, he had been initially drawn by their very “practicality” for the reform he supported. But by 1524, he had come to believe that if pressed too far, these keystones of reformation could prove ultimately destructive of their very intent.
To grasp the issue it might be best for a moment to stand back from the specifics of Schwenckfeld’s argument and look at the debate over the first principle, “that faith alone justifies,” in its full context.
The traditional theology that Schwenckfeld had inherited had always taught that an individual is justified by grace through faith—that was a Catholic as well as a Protestant position. The problem arose in regard to the nature of the faith by which one is justified. Catholics in Schwenckfeld’s day (and ours) teach that justifying faith must be understood in the context of Galatians 5:6: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith working through love.”
It was this last phrase, “working through love,” which had led to the problems Luther pointed to.
When simplistically interpreted by some theologians, this phrase had come to mean for many that the faith which availed was dependent on the acts of love through which it worked. Worse yet in the hands of ecclesiastical bureaucrats “works of love” came to be understood as the fulfillment of institutionalised religious regulations.
In this setting, one can understand both Luther’s and Schwenckfeld’s sense of release when they read Ephesians 2:8: “For by grace you have been saved through faith.” Here “faith” stood alone; the words “working through love” were missing, and the remainder of the verse emphasized the fact: “this is not of your own doing, it is the gift of God—not because of works.” Faith availed in itself for salvation and required no “working through love,” certainly not in the sense of keeping the particular rules set down in a code of church law, or by reciting formulaic prayers.
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