Birthplace: Ossing, Germany
Location of death: Ulm, Germany
Cause of death: Illness
Race or Ethnicity: White
Executive summary: Vergötterung
Kaspar Schwenkfeld, of Ossing, a German theologian, was born in 1490, and after studying at Cologne and other universities served in various minor courts of Silesia, finally entering the service of the Duke of Liegnitz, over whom he had great influence. The writings of Johann Tauler and Martin Luther so impressed him, that in 1522 he visited Wittenberg, where he made the acquaintance of Andreas Carlstadt and Thomas Münzer. On his return to Liegnitz he helped to spread the principles of the Reformation in the principality and in Silesia, while warning his colleagues against the abuse of the doctrine of justification by faith.
The Protestant controversy on the Eucharist (1524) revealed his disagreement with Luther on that critical point. He sought to establish a via media between the doctrines of Luther and Zwingli, and vainly hoped to obtain for it Luther's acceptance. He as vainly sought to secure Luther's adoption of a strict rule of church discipline, after the manner of the Moravian Brethren. Meanwhile the Anabaptists obtained a footing in Silesia, and suspicions of Schwenkfeld's sympathy with them were aroused.
Letters and writings of his own (1527-28) proved him to hold strongly anti-Lutheran heresies, and both Catholics and Lutherans urged the Duke of Liegnitz to dismiss him. He voluntarily left Liegnitz in 1529, and lived at Strasbourg for five years amongst the Reformed clergy there. In 1533, in an important synod, he defended against Martin Bucer the principles of religious freedom as well as his own doctrine and life. But the heads of the church carried the day, and more stringent measures being adopted against dissenters, Schwenkfeld left Strasbourg for a time, residing in various cities of south Germany and corresponding with many nobles.
In 1535 a sort of compromise was brought about between himself and the Reformers, he promising not to disturb the peace of the church and they not to treat him as a disturber. The compromise was of only short duration. His theology took a more distinctly heterodox form, and the publication (1539) of a book in proof of his most characteristic doctrine -- the deification of the humanity of Jesus Christ -- led to his active persecution by the Lutherans and his expulsion from the city of Ulm.
The next year (1540) he published a refutation of the attacks upon his doctrine with a more elaborate exposition of it, under the title Grosse Confession. The book was very inconvenient to the Protestants, as it served to emphasize the Eucharistic differences between the Lutherans and Zwinglians at a moment when efforts were being made to reconcile them. An anathema was accordingly issued from Schmalkald against Schwenkfeld (together with Sebastian Franck); his books were placed on the Protestant "index"; and he himself was made a religious outlaw. From that time be was hunted from place to place, though his wide connections with the nobility and the friendship of his numerous followers provided for him secure hiding-places and for his books a large circulation.
An attempt in 1543 to approach Luther only increased the Reformer's hostility and rendered Schwenkfeld's situation still more precarious. He and his followers withdrew from the Lutheran Church, declined its sacraments, and formed small societies of kindred views. He and they were frequently condemned by Protestant ecclesiastical and political authorities, especially by the government of Württemberg. His personal safety was more and more imperilled, and he was unable to stay in any place for more than a short time. At last, in his seventy-second year, he died at Ulm, on the 10th of December 1561, surrounded by attached friends and declaring undiminished faith in his views.
Schwenkfeld, whose gentle birth and courtly manners won him many friends in high circles, left behind him a sect (who were called subsequently by others Schwenkfeldians, but who called themselves "Confessors of the Glory of Christ") and numerous writings to perpetuate his ideas. His writings were partially collected in four folio volumes, the first of which was published in the year 1564, containing his principal theological works. Erbkam states that his unprinted writings would make more than another four folios.
His adherents were to be found at his death scattered throughout Germany. In Silesia they formed a distinct sect, which has lasted until the present time. In the 17th century they were associated with the followers of Jakob Boehme, and were undisturbed until 1708, when an inquiry was made as to their doctrines. In 1720 a commission of Jesuits was despatched to Silesia to convert them by force. Most of them fled from Silesia into Saxony, and then to Holland, England and North America. Frederick the Great of Prussia, when he seized Silesia, extended his protection to those who remained in that province. Those who had fled to Philadelphia in Pennsylvania (1734) formed a small community under the name of Schwenkfelders; and Zinzendorf and Spangenberg, when they visited the United States, endeavored, but with little success, to convert them to their views. This community still exists in Pennsylvania and their views appear to be substantially those of the Quakers.
Schwenkfeld's mysticism was the cause of his divergence from Protestant orthodoxy and the root of his peculiar religious and theological position. It led him to oppose the Lutheran view of the value of the outward means of grace, such as the ministry of the word and the sacraments. He regarded as essential a direct and immediate participation in the grace of the glorified Christ, and looked on religious ordinances as immaterial. He distinguished between an outward word of God and an inward, the former being the Scriptures and perishable, the latter the divine spirit and eternal. In his Christology he departed from the Lutheran and Zwinglian doctrine of the two natures by insisting on what he called the Vergötterung des Fleisches Christi, the deification or the glorification of the flesh of Christ. The doctrine was his protest against a separation of the human and the divine in Christ, and was intimately connected with his mystical view of the work of Christ. He held that, though Christ was God and man from his birth from the Virgin Mary, he only attained his complete deification and glorification by his ascension, and that it is in the estate of his celestial Vergötterung or glorification that he is the dispenser of his divine life to those who by faith become one with him. This fellowship with the glorified Christ rather than a less spiritual trust in his death and atonement is with him the essential thing. His peculiar Christology was based upon profound theological and anthropological ideas, which contain the germs of some later theological and Christological speculations.
Luther's nickname for him was Stenkfeld ("Stinkfield").
Theological: University of Cologne
Theological: European University Viadrina Frankfurt
Converted to Lutheranism formerly Catholic (1519)
Exiled self-imposed (1529)
Exiled from Ulm (1539)
Heresy tried by the Schmalkaldic League (1540)
Risk Factors: Deafness
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