Standing Alone for Unity

The attempt to bring European Christians together forced one reformer, Caspar Schwenckfeld, straight to the fringe

Schwenckfelders have always been different. When Roman Catholics and Lutherans battled over the pieces of modern Germany during the Reformation era, Schwenckfelders did not fit in either camp, so they experienced persecution from both sides. From 1526 to 1895, Schwenckfelders, unlike almost all other Christian groups, did not partake of Communion. Today, whereas most Americans celebrate Thanksgiving in November with turkey, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie, Schwenckfelders celebrate in September (this weekend, in fact) with bread, butter, and apple butter. Ironically, all of this has been done in the name of a man with a passion for Christian unity.

Born into a noble Silesian family in 1489, Caspar Schwenckfeld von Ossig was just slightly younger than Martin Luther. He encountered Luther's writings as a young man and eagerly joined the campaign for reform. He even traveled to Wittenberg in 1525 to meet with Luther and his colleagues.

On several points, though, Schwenckfeld thought that Luther had staked out a position too far removed from traditional (Catholic) belief. Luther wanted a radical shift; Schwenckfeld sought a "Middle Way."

Specifically, Schwenckfeld questioned Luther's understanding of faith and works. The medieval Catholic church, following Galatians 5:6, taught that people are justified by faith "working through love" (NKJV). Luther, following Ephesians 2:8, taught that people are justified by faith alone.

Schwenckfeld agreed with Luther that the medieval church overemphasized works and wrongly pushed certain formal practices, but he hesitated to jettison works entirely. Surely, Schwenckfeld thought, good works must have some purpose and meaning—otherwise, what would be the point of striving toward a godly life? ...

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