Journey to Wittenberg
He had official business to attend to for his duke, Friedrich II, with “Doctor Martin” and John Bugenhagen (“Pomeranus”), theologian and priest of the Wittenberg castle Church. Schwenckfeld’s personal goal, however, was to discuss with Luther the breakthrough he and Valentine Crautwald believed they had achieved on the meaning of the Lord’s Supper.
Schwenckfeld would not have approached Luther with trembling, for he himself had the prestige of a nobleman; still, he must have had great respect for the powerful doctor of Wittenberg whose writings were shaking all Europe and had been decisive in his own life (he had been converted after reading Luther). It was during the Peasant’s War, a trying time for Luther; it must have taken a degree of courage on Schwenckfeld’s part to approach Luther on this topic at this time. He therefore must have traveled through the crisp, chilly Saxon landscape in deep thought and expectation.
Previously, Schwenckfeld had written to Luther laying out twelve arguments for his understanding of the Supper; he had received no reply. His conception was based upon an interpretation that his colleague Crautwald—a scholar in the original languages of Scripture—claimed he had received in a “revelation.” The debate about the Lord’s Supper turned upon only a few of Jesus’ words in the original Greek. It is hard for most of us today to fathom the enormous importance these men placed upon the differences made by the order in which these few words were translated, and the resulting shifts of meaning.
Schwenckfeld believed his interpretation was divinely sent, and he hoped that Luther would recognize in his doctrine a solution to the debate that was causing serious strife and discord among Christians. He was deeply concerned about division in the Body of Christ, and he yearned for unity and peace among believers.
The varying interpretations of the central rite of Christianity caused a great dilemma. Religious practice hinged on these, and it seemed impossible that there could be more than one correct understanding. And, of course, each group eventually became sure that their way was the right way, and that all others were of the devil.
Schwenckfeld eventually championed a “Middle Way,” a “Royal Road” of peace between Catholic and Protestant poles. Because of the discord he saw among those who claimed to be Christians, he halted the practice of Communion among his followers. (Schwenckfeld’s “spiritualism”—his belief that physical and spiritual things are incompatible allowed him to take this extreme step.) His followers did not practice Communion again for centuries after his death.
The meetings were polite, and the picture we get of Luther from Schwenckfeld’s own account (written down each evening at the inn where he lodged) is of a courteous man willing to freely discuss and penetrate to the heart of the matter. The picture we get of Schwenckfeld from his own account is of a sincere, earnest man whose intention was to find harmony; to stand his ground and not compromise the truth, but not to create discord.
Months later, however, when Luther had firmly concluded that Schwenckfeld’s ideas were wrong, he treated Schwenckfeld differently, even referring to him later in his Tabletalk as “Schweinfeld” (from the German schwein for “pig”). Once Luther decided someone was wrong, he apparently viewed them as an enemy of Christ and in league with the devil. He decided that Schwenckfeld’s ideas were dangerous to the Faith, and exhorted Schwenckfeld not to publish his errors and lead others astray. Schwenckfeld was branded a schwaermer—a madman.
Schwenckfeld proved a more diplomatic and courteous man. However he didn’t spare strong language about Luther later on, and concluded that Luther’s teachings were not of the Spirit. His ideas grew farther and farther from those of the man who had once been a major inspiration.
The following excerpts from a letter of Schwenckfeld’s containing his account of his meetings in early December 1525 are taken from chapter 3, A Visit to Luther and Its Results, in the biography of Schwenckfeld by Selina Gerhard Schultz.
Friday, December 1, 1525, after we had discharged our Lordship’s business and orders with Doctor Martin Luther, in the presence of Pastor Pomeranus [Bugenhagen], and Doctor Martin was accompanying us to the door, I drew him aside to a window and called his attention to the fact that I had previously written to him respecting the article concerning the Sacrament and that I wished to speak with him (he interrupted, saying: Yes, Zwingli!) and give an account of what God had imparted to us in Silesia and how by His grace we had come to a better understanding of the matter. …
He thereupon replied: Dear Caspar, I will be glad to confer with you, come tomorrow, as early as you wish, six, seven, or eight o’clock. Nothing shall hinder me. We will then give consideration to the matter. …
The next day, Saturday, I called upon him at seven, at daybreak. I explained my lack of understanding and inability to discuss such an important article with him, and even though God had granted me perception, I could not express myself as circumstances called for. I found comfort, however, in the thought that he was a Christian and despised no one. Undoubtedly he would ponder and take to heart what I would lay before him, since neither money nor property, but God’s honor and our salvation were concerned.
… I could easily perceive how during the year many queer persons came to him with strange ideas, but that he, as one well versed in Scripture, knew how to judge everything according to the Word of God. I trusted that in this matter also God’s glory and man’s salvation alone would be sought.
I wanted to be considered as coming to him as to confessional, hoping he would bear with my simplicity. I was not conscious that I had hitherto sought my own under the name of the Word of God, and hoped that God would in the future shield me against the same….
Neither would I withhold it from him, even though he should regard me suspiciously, that I refused to be bound by anyone’s views. Should I adhere to any one person, he would be the first, but God had given me freedom of judgement, to prove all things by his Word, for which I was thankful at all times. Therefore, I did not wish him to be of the opinion that in this matter I was building on Zwingli ….
… I said in addition: My dear sir and brother, be not vexed; I will explain our action and reason, and what transpired, quite candidly, and discuss with you what is in my heart.
Doctor Martin answered: This you shall do, but tell me one thing, do you have a different ground than Carlstadt or Zwingli?
Schwenckfeld: Yes, with regard to the words [referring to Christ’s words].
Martin: Very well. Continue.
[Next there was a discussion of the Latin rendering of Christ’s words—Hoc est Corpus Meum: “This is my body”—in which Schwenckfeld defended his interpretation. Then Luther pointed out some things in the Greek text. Schwenckfeld soon left and was invited to return for further discussion after Luther had had an opportunity to study and discuss the matter with his colleagues. Later the same day Schwenckfeld had a lengthy talk with Luther’s colleague, John Bugenhagen . A few days later, after Luther had considered Schwenckfeld’s Twelve Questions, he and Schwenckfeld talked again.]
First of all, he laid the papers on the table, and said: I have examined your matter, but cannot give a final answer until I have considered the matter with Philip [Melanchthon], who is not at home …. I wish first of all to excuse myself to you and to others who may think ill of me, since the good man (i.e., Valentine Crautwald) wrote to the provost that I was unwilling to yield, of which I am not aware. So far as I perceive the truth, I do not want to be found obstinate. I previously yielded to Carlstadt and others in regard to the intercession of saints and other articles. Why should I not yield in such an important article, if I be sufficiently instructed. God forbid that I should do this! And, as I wrote about myself, I repeat: If anyone should convince me by substantial grounds, I would drop my opinion. But so far it has not happened.
You show me a revelation. I cannot and do not wish to be against God. If we only could be sure that it was God’s will thus to understand the matter. Wherefore I beg you not to think hard of me that I cannot so soon agree with you. The matter is important. I exhort you, too, act in the fear of God, pray to him; I will do the same. He has promised me not to let me err. In many things he has been my strong support. I entrust myself to him. He will not forsake me in this matter, and if it be his will thus to understand it, I hope he will grant it to me also. But that I should express myself to favor you, is not fitting. For this is a matter of faith. I must first of all have and feel it in my conscience.
Nevertheless, I will not condemn your opinion, although I cannot accept it, for proof is insufficient. The matter needs further study. If God grant, I will gladly agree with you.
Why should I not consider the matter at more length? There are now three opinions, Karlstadt’s, Zwingli’s, and yours. In two cases a revelation is claimed. One must be in error. The spirit of the Lord is not a spirit of dissension. Karlstadt assailed me hard and with strong protestation that he was certain of his opinion. I only know that I am also certain.
Your opinion is plausible, it is very good, if it can be proved sufficiently, but you must see to that. It is not sufficient that I have good sense. I must be convinced, particularly in such important articles, that it is to be thus understood and not otherwise.
[More technical discussion on the order of wording followed.]
In conclusion he said: Dear Caspar, I have discussed the matter, so far as I can see now, and do not see how I can agree with you, unless you prove your proposition. If you will leave your booklets here, I will discuss the matter with Philip and others more fully and, by God’s grace, will report our decision in writing to you.
Finally in parting he said, in the presence of others: You have your answer. But as we were passing out, I besought him alone, at the last moment, to take the matter to heart. Thereupon he whispered in my ear: Wait a while. The Lord be with you.
The trip to Wittenberg was a disappointment to Schwenckfeld; most of his time had been limited to discussions with Bugenhagen. About two months later, around February 1526, Luther returned some of Schwenckfeld’s booklets and a letter which contained the words, “You must stop misleading the people. The blood of those you are misleading must be upon your own head. In brief, either you or we must be the bondsmen of the devil, because we on both sides boast of having the Word of God.”
Later that year, in April, Luther wrote again saying, among other things, “It is therefore my friendly petition that you cease from your open error and not increase the number of those who now mislead the world so deplorably. But if it cannot be, go ahead, let God’s will happen; but it does grieve my heart nevertheless.”
In a letter to Crautwald written the same day, Luther wrote, “… I am innocent of your blood and the blood of those whom you now cause to perish. Farewell! and return to your sane mind, or cease to call us brethren, or to have anything to do in common with us under any appeal to the name of Christ.”
Copyright © 1989 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
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