Book Review: “Reformation Women” by Rebecca VanDoodewaard

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A large majority of the most famous Protestant reformers are, indeed, men. There are many reasons for this, but it would likewise be a mistake to think that the Protestant Reformation was a movement instigated and propagated solely by men. Rebecca VanDoodewaard’s Reformation Women: Sixteenth-Century Figures Who Shaped Christianity’s Rebirth takes on the task of better understanding the role of women in the Reformation. While numerous women could possibly be selected, VanDoodewaard narrows down her research to twelve in particular. Some were fairly well-known, but others were virtually unheard of (to me, at least). At about 115 pages, this was a remarkably quick read. I finished more than half of it during down time on a weeklong missions trip, so it’s certainly not an intimidating size. For those interested in learning about women of the Reformation, who likewise want to be exhorted to Christian godliness, will find this concise book to be delightful.

By far, my favorite chapter was number one, which covered the life of Anna Reinhard. It is refreshing to hear of the personal details of what life was like for Anna and family in sixteenth century Switzerland, as the entire family pressed on to win people over to the Reformation. Many of VanDoodewaard’s citations are drawn from primary sources, though occasional secondary texts are referred to or quoted. VanDoodewaard makes it manifestly clear in her introductory remarks that she is not trying to follow the patterns of modern feminist historians, though she argues there is some good to be found in this recent historiographical movement. One thing that is probably most necessary to know from a historiographical perspective is the underlying motivation that VanDoodewaard seems to have in Reformation Women, namely, that this book is not merely to revise historiographical viewpoints of how women lived during the Reformation (in fact, that generally was not the case). And for that, professional historians might be a little disappointed. More so, this book could be lumped together in the “Christian Living” genre, since a great deal of emphasis is placed on finding these women  to be inspiring role models for Christian women today, and men as well. Furthermore, it is especially geared towards women in the “Reformed” theological camp. That is not to say that non-Reformed readers will find this book valueless, but there are noticeable criticisms of Catholics and Anabaptists that just did not seem to be as equally represented among those in the Reformed traditions. Overall, though, there is much to gain from reading Reformation Women, both for historical enrichment and spiritual encouragement.

***Disclaimer: Special thanks to Cross Focused Reviews for providing a free review copy. All opinions were my own.***

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History of Colonial Baptist Church (PowerPoint Presentation)

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Click Here to Download PowerPoint

Recently, I had the privilege of teaching a small Sunday school class at my church in Blue Ridge, Virginia. As the picture above denotes, I’m a member of Colonial Baptist Church, an independent Baptist congregation that has existed autonomously for several decades, though its origins lead back to the early 1800s. The topic I spoke on for a few months was “Church History,” beginning with the Early Church and concluding with an overview of North American church history, and even Colonial Baptist itself. To see the PowerPoint slides I used, click on the link above. Unfortunately, this PowerPoint only captures part of what I spoke on in class, but hopefully this will peak the interest of those familiar with this church.

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Book Review: “The Baptist Story:From English Sect to Global Movement” by Chute, Finn, & Haykin

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I first came to love church history while in college, and a major reason why had to do with my Baptist History textbook, Leon McBeth’s The Baptist Heritage. This thick, old-looking, well-researched book triggered within my not only a love for church history, however, but of Baptist history in particular. So when I heard about the recently published book, The Baptist Story, written by Anthony Chute, Nathan Finn, and Michael A.G. Haykin, I was intrigued to say the least. I still have a sentimental attachment to McBeth’s wonderful textbook, but several years have passed since then, and as historians know, there is always more to learn about ever topic. Overall, I believe that well-studied Baptist historians and people completely new to Baptist history alike will find The Baptist Story to be well worth the read.

One thing is quickly noticeable about The Baptist Story: it is much thinner than The Baptist Heritage. At just under 350 pages of text it will still take some time to get through, but it is not as intimidating as McBeth’s text. The style of the writing in The Baptist Story is very readable, but also thoughtfully examined. Throughout the pages, the book is filled with pictures, helping readers put faces to names. One somewhat disappointing aspect about the book is the lack of precision in citations. There are not any footnotes/endnotes, and while the endings of each chapter has a “For Further Study” suggested bibliography, I prefer having clearer documentation. One thing I do really like, however, is the fact that the authors (or perhaps editor) chose to insert primary source quotations/documents within text-boxes on many pages. This really helps the authors buttress their interpretations.

The Baptist Story is especially informative on matters that are more recent–things that occurred within the last five decades or so. While I think McBeth may have been a little stronger on the earlier stages of Baptist history–from English origins to Baptists in America–the authors clearly took a lot of time and attention to Baptist history since World War II. For college and seminaries professors looking to update their textbooks or bibliographies, I would highly recommend The Baptist Story. And for those who are looking for a solid Baptist history text for personal enrichment, this is a must-have book.

 

***Special thanks to B&H Academic for providing a copy in exchange for a review. All opinions were my own.***

Valentine or Valentinus? (Trivia Game)

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February 14th is indeed a holiday, and one that is named after a famous figure in church history, Saint Valentine. There was another figure in church history with a similar sounding name who has been less revered–due to his unorthodox teachings–and that was Valentinus. Do you know the differences between the two? Try out my trivia game! It’s free to download, just click on the link below.

Valentine or Valentinus Trivia Game

 

Pilgram Marpeck’s Peace in Augsburg

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Pilgram Marpeck’s Peace in Augsburg

In 1555, Charles V agreed to a treaty with members of the Schmalkadic League to institute what is now referred to as the “Peace of Augsburg.” This treaty provided Lutherans with religious toleration under specified districts via the principle of Cuius regio, eius religio, but it by no means authorized religious pluralism, or even freedom of religion for other Protestants, such as those in the Zwinglian reform movement.[1] The Anabaptists knew quite personally the difficulties facing those who espoused neither the Roman Catholic faith nor the tenets of Lutheranism. As noted by Harold J. Grimm, “It is difficult to classify the various movements of the radical reformers, especially because they seemed to spring up almost simultaneously wherever conditions permitted, and their leaders, persecuted in one place, would appear at another.”[2] Pilgram Marpeck, though not as famous among reformers such as Martin Luther or John Calvin, was one of the most influential Anabaptists in the sixteenth century. He died in 1556, just one year after the Peace of Augsburg’s signing, and had been living in Augsburg for the final twelve years of his life.[3] Contrary to many prominent figures in church history that have, for their careers, served in an ecclesiastical office, Marpeck worked as a civil engineer. This research will attempt to demonstrate how Marpeck managed to utilize his occupation for the advantage of spreading his religious convictions. Overall, it will be argued that his skillful craftsmanship allowed him to have the greatest possible amount of acceptance from non-Anabaptist civic leaders during a historical context that shunned alternative religious sects.

An Evaluation of Anabaptist Historiography

Before analyzing primary and secondary sources to arrive at conclusions concerning Pilgram Marpeck’s religious toleration, it will be necessary to evaluate the different historiographical positions pertaining to Anabaptist identification. Sebastian Franck, a contemporary of Marpeck, who was the first historian to have written on the Radical Reformation, admitted, “Even though all sects are divided among themselves, the Anabaptists are especially torn and disunited, so much so, indeed, that I can say nothing with certainty or any degree of finality about them.”[4] Since Marpeck’s time, historians have managed to sort out many of the details in Anabaptist history, though there are certainly different interpretations. James R. Coggins, in the latter part of the twentieth century, provided one of the most comprehensive overviews of Anabaptist historiography.[5] He described five historiographical schools of thought: (1) The Protestants, (2) the Marxists, (3) the Goshen School/Benderites, (4) the New Mennonites, and (5) the Syncretists.

Protestant Reformers, as Coggins notes, who were opposed to the Anabaptists especially highlighted the extremists in Anabaptism, such as Thomas Müntzer and the Zwickau prophets, and explains that the reformers’ views were believed over the marginalized Anabaptists.[6] However, as William R. Estep notes, C.A. Cornelius was one of the first historians in the nineteenth century to reevaluate the Anabaptists.[7] Thus, this first category may be better defined as “Non-Anabaptist.” The Marxist historiographers, according to Coggins, still talked much about the more radical Anabaptists, but considered their actions as being positive. Discussions of social class were at the forefront as well.[8] Harold J. Grimm hints at this interpretation by stating, “The political, economic, and social teachings of the Anabaptists, ranging from opposition to tithes and the taking of interest to Christian communism, reflected lower-class interests.”[9] The first two views are limited in the source material they implement, which erroneously focused almost entirely on the extremist Münsterites, a small sect within the Radical Reformation as a whole.

To gain a familiarity with the Goshen School/Benderites, none other than Harold Bender himself offers valuable insights into this school of thought. He is perhaps best known for his proclamation, “The Anabaptist Vision,” which included the following address:

There can be no question but that the great principles of freedom of conscience, separation of church and state, and voluntarism in religion, so basic in American Protestantism and so essential to democracy, ultimately are derived from the Anabaptists of the Reformation period, who for the first time clearly enunciated them and challenged the Christian world to follow them in practice.[10]

Meanwhile, New Mennonite historiographers, Although similar to the Goshen/Bender view, offer some important clarifications. George H. Williams, for example, distinguished the three groups of the radical Reformation as having been Anabaptists, spiritualists, and evangelical rationalists. Furthermore, “discipleship soteriology,” which was basically seen as a “continuation of medieval asceticism,” was stressed to show how Anabaptists were committed—even more than other Christians from the Reformation era—to matters of holiness.[11] Views three and four—the Goshen School/Benderites and New Mennonites—are so similar to one another that it is hard to fit the writings of a particular historian into one historiographical position or the other. Interestingly, even some modern-day Baptist scholars, especially in America, are Benderites who extol the work and beliefs of the Anabaptists, so much that the Anabaptists are hard to distinguish from modern American evangelicals.[12] Such a method is a bit questionable. However, the Goshen School/Benderites as well as the New Mennonites have contributed in immense ways to how historians and non-academics alike have come to understand the beliefs and practices of the Anabaptists.

More recently, Syncretist historiographers have looked beyond the writings of the Anabaptists themselves to allow for a wider scope of applicable source material. These historians, mostly Canadian and European (as opposed to the Goshen/Bender view, a predominately American historiographical school of thought), have attempted to “reconcile the Mennonite and Marxist views of Anabaptist history.”[13] Much of their emphasis concerns the differences among Anabaptists, particularly after the Schleitheim Confession of 1527. Thus, interpreters currently have different options to choose from when analyzing topics related to Anabaptist history. It will be proposed within this research, nevertheless, that the New Mennonite historiographical position provides the best framework for comprehending the significance of Pilgram Marpeck’s ideological motivations for seeking toleration in Augsburg.[14] However, Syncretist historiographers have also supplied Anabaptist historians with valuable insights for understanding the social factors of the Radical Reformation, such as sectarianism and the spread of ideas.

Marpeck’s Life Leading Up to Augsburg

The journey of Marpeck’s life that would eventually end in Augsburg is filled with both ordinary and extraordinary events. Marpeck was born and raised in the city of Rattenberg just a couple of decades prior to Martin Luther’s movements of reform in Wittenberg. His family lived comfortably, but once he entered into his career as a civil engineer, Marpeck earned a substantial income and his family “accumulated a considerable legacy.”[15] He accepted his appointment to become Rattenberg’s mining magistrate on April 20, 1525, a duty he would fulfill until January of 1528.[16] In that very month, an Anabaptist named Leonhard Schiemer was executed for his faith. It seems that Rattenberg’s leadership did not support Emperor Ferdinand’s mandate, and it was this command that likely led to Marpeck’s decision to resign as mining magistrate.[17] Marpeck fled his hometown as a religious refugee by April in order to avoid Ferdinand’s warning of executing all Anabaptists in the city.[18] He had possibly become one of the “heretics” during Schiemer’s imprisonment in Augsburg, though it is hard to tell with certainty.

Having witnessed the severest form of religious persecution in Rattenberg with the execution of Schiemer, Marpeck seems to have found security in the small town of Austerlitz. As Martin Rothkegel, an Anabaptist historian with Syncretist leanings, writes:

Marpeck’s activity as an Anabaptist leader—or, more precisely, the two documented phases of his activity from 1528 to 1532 and from 1540 to 1556—should be understood as part of a larger effort to establish an Anabaptist ‘church’ initiated by the Anabaptist congregation in Austerlitz (Slavkov u Brna) in Moravia, also known as the ‘Austerlitz Brethren,’ whose early history from 1528 to 1531 played an important role in the narrative of the Hutterite chronicles.[19]

Rothkegel backs up the claim that the South German Marpeck network of people was indeed the founding group of the “Austerlitz Brethren” by citing a report from Johann Weisenkircher, which was found in the Regensburg archives.[20] Marpeck did not stay in Austerlitz past the summer, and Syncretist scholars in addition to Rothkegel, such as Werner Packull and John D. Roth, argue that his departure to the city of Strasbourg was not for religious protection, but was, in fact, commissioned by the Austerlitz Brethren to serve as an elder of an Anabaptist congregation.[21]

In reference to Marpeck’s stay in Strasbourg, Harold Bender, the historiographical progenitor of the Goshen School, is helpful in describing how Marpeck managed to gain the respect of those in the city: “Pilgram Marpeck’s four years of relatively unhindered life and ministry as an Anabaptist leader in Strasbourg can thus be explained in the light of a very complex and fluid religious situation in the city, and the tolerance of Burgomaster Sturm and the Council, as well as by the need for his engineering services.”[22] Strasbourg was more lenient towards Anabaptists than most cities at the time, but it would appear that Marpeck’s usefulness to the people as a skilled engineer made him, though a “stubborn heretic” according Martin Bucer, a valuable member of the community.[23] And yet, after much theological engagement with the city’s leaders, particularly Martin Bucer, Marpeck was banished. Marpeck’s views of separation between church and state can be found in his Confession of 1532, written as he prepared to leave:

I admit worldly, carnal, and earthly rulers as servants of God, in earthly matters, but not in the kingdom of Christ; according to the words of Paul, to them rightfully belongs all carnal honor fear, obedience, tax, toll, and tribute. However, when such persons who hold authority become Christians (which I heartily wish and pray for), they may not use the aforementioned carnal force, sovereignty, or ruling in the kingdom of Christ…Because of this recognition, I conclude before my God that worldly power, for all its work, is not needed in the kingdom of Christ, whose kingdom is not of this world, and I further conclude that all who attempt to preserve the kingdom of Christ by stooping to the government authority will be punished for it and come to shame. For our citizenship is in heaven.[24]

For the next twelve years, however, Marpeck’s earthly citizenship seems to have been largely undetectable, as he moved from one place to another in Switzerland and Moravia fairly regularly.[25]

Marpeck’s Arrival in Augsburg

In 1544, Marpeck arrived to the city of Augsburg with fine timing. Augsburg’s city records tell of Marpeck being hired to assist in their wood shortage and to repair the water flumes.[26] William Estep, a Goshen School/Benderite or possibly New Mennonite historiographer, says the following about Marpeck’s acceptance in Augsburg: “That [Marpeck] was an active Anabaptist was known to the council and the cause of frequent reprimands. Apparently, he was too valuable a man for the city to lose.”[27] Augsburg had a rather early presence of Anabaptism, housing major leaders such as Balthasar Hübmaier, Hans Denck, and Wilhelm Reublin.[28] However, both an imperial mandate and the city council at Augsburg prohibited Anabaptism by 1527, and continued this ban through the 1520s and 1530s.[29] By the following decade, Caspar Schwenckfeld, a theological opponent but fellow Anabaptist, was surprised of Marpeck’s toleration, having stated, “Leonhard Hieber writes that Marpeck had to present his book to the Council. I did not think that he was there any more. Thus it sometimes happens when it is to your benefit, otherwise the Council would hardly give him shelter.”[30] Therefore, the causality for Marpeck’s admittance into the community of Augsburg is an apparent anomaly.

Marpeck’s Peace in Augsburg

Marpeck’s own words provide key insights concerning his views of how an Anabaptist ought to live in a society that is religiously opposed to Anabaptist beliefs. In 1555, he stated, “[O]ne should be quiet and not give the authorities occasion to persecute if one meets together unnecessarily. That one should exercise moderation and discretion in such a case, to this end a government often presses out of respect for its own punishment, since they do not like to persecute us.”[31] Clearly, Marpeck intended for his “brethren” to be peaceful, despite their sharp disagreements with the beliefs of the legal religion of the land. He likewise stated, “However, if God’s honor and truth are at stake, then we are obligated to give up all and to endure all persecution unto death.”[32] Thus, Marpeck’s congregation was neither deliberately confrontational nor negligent of maintaining principles.

Such a cautious methodology may have hurt the overall potential for growth, but it is important to also remember that Anabaptists had the revolutionary stigma attached to them, thanks to the extreme actions of the Münsterites and the rather forceful personalities of others such as George Blaurock.[33] By contributing to the welfare of the city through his engineering occupation, Marpeck managed to earn a measure a trust from the Protestant leaders. And by practicing their religion tactfully, the small group of Anabaptists in Augsburg was able to continue residing there. Marpeck was warned four times about his illegal religious activity in Augsburg, but David C. Steinmetz interprets these as “wrist-tapping warnings,” since no actual discipline resulted.[34] The end goal for Marpeck, according to his writings, was that Augsburg and other cities might experience “a spiritual real justice” (geistlicher wesentlicher gerechtigkeit), which William Klassen defines as “the personal and social transformation which took place when the cross of Christ was accepted.”[35] Though he was likely unsatisfied with the few converts to Anabaptism by the end of his lifetime, Marpeck’s peace in Augsburg was secured and retained through much of his own efforts as a hard-working and vigilant citizen. When Marpeck died in 1556, he was buried to finally “rest in peace” in an Augsburg graveyard.

Conclusion

This case study of how Marpeck’s actions positively affected his ability to find modest peace in Augsburg reveals not only sociological principles for peace making, but it also opens up the discussion for how Anabaptist historiography plays a critical role in interpreting the past. Benderites/Goshen School historiographers, New Mennonites, and Syncretist scholars have been cited throughout this research. Although there are contradictions among the schools of thought, especially in relation to Anabaptist origins and identity, the topic of Marpeck’s religious toleration in Augsburg draws from multiple historiographical perspectives with relative ease. This seems to be the case due to the nature of this study. Since Benderites/Goshen School historiographers and New Mennonites focus on the religious motivations of the Anabaptists, one can observe Marpeck’s writings and numerous secondary source interpretations to see that Marpeck’s Anabaptist values were crucial to his existence. But on the other hand, Syncretist scholars add the societal dimensions necessary for such a topic. Marpeck’s peace in Augsburg, in other words, can only be accurately interpreted if both religious ideals of Pilgram Marpeck and societal factors are given a fair treatment. As James M. Stayer notes, “[The] second generation of [Syncretist] interpreters is now moving into retirement and in the last decade they have, in their turn, been criticized for undervaluing the weight and independence of religious motives behind Reformation radicalism.”[36] Syncretist historiography, therefore, is in the process of revision, but Benderites/Goshen School historiographers and New Mennonites also can learn from the Syncretists’ interpretations. Therefore, a suggestible method for future historiography is that historians take seriously the personal writings and religious underpinnings of the Anabaptists, but to supplement these foundational sources with external data, particularly in reference to the spread of ideas and the evolution of Anabaptist identity.[37]

[1] Paul M. Zulehner, “Early Modern Religion Peace Agreements: Their Effects on the Ideological Development of Europe” Society 51:6 (December 2014): 606.

[2] Harold J. Grimm, The Reformation Era, 1500-1650. 2nd ed. (New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1973), p. 217.

[3] For a brief biographical sketch of Marpeck’s years in Augsburg, see William Klassen and Walter Klaassen, trans. and ed., The Writings of Pilgram Marpeck, (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1978), p. 39-41. [abbreviated hereafter, WPM]

[4] Quoted in Abraham Friesen, “The Radical Reformation Revisited” Journal of Mennonites Studies 2 (1984): 124.

[5] James R. Coggins, “Toward a Definition of Sixteenth-Century Anabaptism: Twentieth-Century Historiography of the Radical Reformation” Journal of Mennonite Studies 4 (1986): 183-207.

[6] Ibid., p. 184

[7] See Estep, The Anabaptist Story: An Introduction to Sixteenth-Century Anabaptism, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), p. 5.

[8] Coggins, “Toward a Definition of Sixteenth-Century Anabaptism,” p. 85.

[9] Grimm, The Reformation Era, 1500-1650, p. 219.

[10] Harold S. Bender, “The Anabaptist Vision” https://www.goshen.edu/mhl/Refocusing/d-av.htm [accessed July 26, 2015].

[11] Coggins, “Toward a Definition of Sixteenth-Century Anabaptism,” p. 189-196.

[12] See Malcolm B. Yarnell III, ed., The Anabaptists and Contemporary Baptists: Restoring New Testament Christianity, Essays in Honor of Paige Patterson (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishing Group, 2013).

[13] Coggins, “Toward a Definition of Sixteenth-Century Anabaptism,” p. 196-197.

[14] For clarification, one does not need to be a practicing Mennonite to prefer this historiographical position, just as one does not necessarily espouse the economic principles of Marxism to see the value of Marxist historiography.

[15] Stephen B. Boyd confirms that Marpeck, based on tax records, was one of the highest paid city employees. Boyd, Pilgram Marpeck: His Life and Social Theology (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1992), p. 6.

[16] Ibid., p. 11-12.

[17] Michael D. Wilkinson, “Suffering the Cross: The Life, Theology, and Significance of Leonhard Schiemer” in Malcolm B. Yarnell III, ed., The Anabaptists and Contemporary Baptists, p. 51-52.

[18] See John D. Roth, “Marpeck and the Later Swiss Brethren, 1540-1700” in Roth and Stayer, eds., Brill’s Companions to the Christian Tradition, Volume 6 [abbreviated hereafter, BCCT] (Boston, MA: Brill, 2007), p. 357.

[19] Martin Rothkegel, “Pilgram Marpeck and the Fellows of the Covenant: The Short and Fragmentary History of the Rise and Decline of an Anabaptist Denominational Network,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 85 (January 2011): 8. Rothkegel’s Syncretistic historiographical approach is supported by his statement, “Marpeck may have been more sectarian than generally assumed by current scholarship.”

[20] Ibid., p. 19.

[21] Rothkegel cites Packull in Ibid., p. 24. See also John D. Roth, “Marpeck and the Later Swiss Brethren, 1540-1700” in Roth and Stayer, eds., BCCT, p. 358.

[22] Harold S. Bender, “Pilgram Marpeck” Mennonite Quarterly Review 38 (July 1964): 243.

[23] Bucer’s remarks cited in J.C. Wenger, “The Life and Work of Pilgram Marpeck, “ Mennonite Quarterly Review 12 (July 1938): 147.

[24] WPM, p. 150-151.

[25] For a discussion of his whereabouts during this period, see Rothkegel, “Pilgram Marpeck and the Fellows of the Covenant,” p. 26-27.

[26] WPM, p. 39. Estep provides the date of his employment as being May 12, 1545. Estep, The Anabaptist Story, p. 124. Thus, there was some overlap of time between his arrival and his official employment. Nevertheless, he was busy writing, having composed at least four somewhat lengthy letters in 1544, and another three in 1545. See WPM, p. 13.

[27] Estep, The Anabaptist Story, p. 124-125. “Frequent reprimands” is an overstatement, as only four warnings are recorded in the historical record.

[28] See Ibid., p. 61 and John Howard Yoder, “Balthasar Hübmaier and the Beginnings of Swiss Anabaptism” Mennonite Quarterly Review 33 (January 1959): 9.

[29] Michele Zelinsky Hanson, Religious Identity in an Early Reformation Community: Augsburg, 1517 to 1555 (Boston, MA: Brill, 2007), p. 80-82.

[30] WPM, p. 40.

[31] Ibid., p. 514.

[32] Ibid.

[33] At a service in Zollikon, for example, Blaurock shockingly told the minister in the presence of the congregation, “You were not sent to preach, it was I.” See Estep, The Anabaptist Story, p. 50.

[34] David C. Steinmetz, Reformers in the Wings: From Geiler von Kaysersberg to Theodore Beza. 2nd ed. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 157.

[35] William Klassen, “Pilgram Marpeck and Our Use of Power” The Conrad Grebel Review 17:1 (Winter 1999): 45.

[36] James M. Stayer, “Introduction” in Roth and Stayer, eds., BCCT, 1521-1700, p. xiii.

[37] For example, Martin Rothkegel’s work, as already cited in this research, on the identity of the Austerlitz Brethren provides a helpful sociological background to Marpeck’s life, but it cannot adequately explain his religious motivations, which were arguably the central driving force behind his actions. Marpeck’s own writings would support such a claim: “It is only that God in His love takes pleasure in us His children, and we receive everything from the Father in Christ. It is this love alone which motivates us to perform the services of Christ to one another by grace…We do not serve ourselves but rather serve to the praise of God and our own salvation, because the Lord Himself has served us.” WPM, p. 553.

Athanasius (Early Church Mini-Bio Series)

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Series Intro: Jesus said that He will build His church, but does anyone care as to “how” He has done so? In an effort to help myself and online readers better understand the “Early Church,” I will be sharing brief research done in coordination with my graduate school work (as well as personal enrichment) on 10 important men and women in Christian history: Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Perpetua, Felicity, Tertullian, Irenaeus, Origen, and Athanasius. Join me in traveling back in time almost two millennia to encounter some of the most intriguing people you will ever meet, Christians who have left an indelible mark on church history.

– Athanasius –

There are some men and women of church history that make you want to stand up and cheer for them for what they’ve accomplished for the Christian faith. Athanasius of Alexandria is just that kind of person. A little over 40 years have elapsed between Origen’s death and Athanasius’s birth. But we are still dealing with, for the most part, the city of Alexandria and its prominence in early Christianity. Although, if you’re like me, you may be eager to hear about the life and influence of Athanasius, I think it is helpful to first consider the historical context, most specifically, the theological heresy that nearly killed Christianity: Arianism.

In the New Testament era and even into the 2nd century, the most common Christological heresy did not bring into question Jesus Christ’s divinity; it was his humanity (see, for example, my post on the heresy battled in First John). Certainly, some facets pertaining to Jesus’ divinity, according to early heretics, were not biblical either. Nevertheless, as time progressed, other heresies crept into the Church and were dealt with accordingly. But to my knowledge, probably no other heresy was as widespread and detrimental as Arianism in the latter part of the early church period. According to Justo Gonzalez, “What Arius taught was that the one who had come to us in Jesus Christ was not truly God, but a lesser being, a creature” (The Story of Christianity: Vol. 1, 175). Therefore, it was not the humanity of Jesus that was brought into contention, but his deity.

Where did this heretical idea come from? Although some have posited predecessors (for example, The Catholic Dictionary lists Paul of Samosata as the “true ancestor”), the main man to look to is Arius of Alexandria – hence the name “Ari-anism.” Arius was born in Libya, was raised in Antioch, but eventually became a presbyter (elder) at a church in Alexandria (see Ibid.). His heretical Christology got him in trouble, of course. So “In A.D. 323 a synod met in Egypt to condemn the doctrines of Arius” (Jonathan Hill, History of Christian Thought, pg. 60). While this publicly certified Arius’s views as heresy, such an action did not slow down the false teacher. One could walk through the streets of Alexandria and hear songs being sung about Jesus being “created” (rather than eternal): “There was a time when the Son was not” (cited in Christianity Today). While social media seems to be the primary mode of communication nowadays, evidently back in the 4th century people found very creative ways to promote their agendas. Another council had to be called to address this growing problem of Arianism in 325: the council of Nicaea (also spelled “Nicea”). This was not a council that “invented” the doctrine of Christ’s deity, it was simply reaffirming and clarifying what the orthodox Church already believed. At this council in 325, a young man — the pastoral assistant (perhaps an official “deacon”) to Alexander, bishop of Alexandria — was present who, though probably unknown by many at the time, would be almost a “superhero” in terms of what he did for Christian doctrine. This young man was Athanasius.

Athanasius was born in Alexandria shortly before the turn of the 4th century (probably 295 or 296). Not much is known of his early life, though he was probably well acquainted with some of the early desert monks (Gonzalez, TSOC: Vol. 1, pg. 173). In fact, he wrote The Life of Saint Anthony, a memoir of a monk named Anthony. Amidst Athanasius’s later struggles in life (especially during his numerous exiles) he found much solace within the company of monks. Justo Gonzalez tells of this important strength of Athanasius: “Of all the opponents of Arianism, Athanasius was most to be feared. The reasons for this were not to be found in subtlety of logical argument, nor in elegance of style, nor even in political perspicacity. In all these areas, Athanasius could be bested by his opponents. His strong suit was in his close ties to the people among whom he lived, and in living out his faith without the subtleties of the Arians or the pomp of so many bishops of other important sees. His monastic discipline, his roots among the people, his fiery spirit, and his profound and unshakable conviction made him invincible” (TSOC: Vol. 1, pg. 174). Christians ought to pay very close attention to what Gonzalez is saying about Athanasius. One’s personality, intelligence, and political power is no match for being a genuine and caring neighbor. Athanasius knew his fellow Alexandrians and they knew him.

Just a few years after the council of Nicaea, Alexander of Alexandria (that’s an easy connection to make with a name like Alexander!) died, opening up the opportunity for Athanasius to become the new bishop. Athanasius was no stranger to church problems, starting with the Melitian controversy in the early 330’s. All kinds of accusations were made against the young bishop, including the murder of a man named Arsenius. Was this all true?

A council convened at Tyre where Athanasius was ordered to appear for answering these rather serious charges. After the charges were laid out, Athanasius brought a man into the room who was covered in a cloak. He unveiled this man; indeed, it was Arsenius! Some men in the crowd of officials, remembering that rumors had spread of Athanasius cutting off Arsenius’s hand (rather than murder), asked for Athanasius to reveal the man’s hands as well. As cited in Gonzalez’s The Story of Christianity, “[Athanasius] then uncovered one of Arsenius’ hands. ‘It was the other hand!’ shouted some of those who had been convinced by the rumors. Then Athanasius uncovered the man’s other hand and demanded: ‘What kind of monster did you think Arsenius was? One with three hands?’ Laughter broke out through the assembly, while others were enraged that the Arians had fooled them” (pg. 176). Was this the end of the problem? Hardly. After his debacle in Tyre, Athanasius traveled to Constantinople to defend himself before the emperor, Constantine, since his defense in Tyre was not sufficient for full acquittal. Athanasius found that it was nearly impossible to gain access to speak to Constantine. Finally, when Constantine was traveling on the roads, Athanasius jumped in front of the emperor’s horse to get his attention for being allowed the opportunity to defend his orthodoxy and right to be bishop of Alexandria. Unfortunately, Athanasius’s actions served to show the point that he seemed somewhat extreme, and therefore, Eusebius of Nicomedia (not the same Eusebius of Alexandria), who was no friend to Trinitarian orthodoxy, managed to successfully accuse Athanasius of being a political menace – according to Eusebius, “Athanasius had boasted that he could stop the shipments of wheat from Egypt to Rome” (Gonzalez, TSOC, 176). Therefore, Constantine banished Athanasius from Alexandria and sent him to the West.

In God’s good providence, Constantine died in 337, enabling Athanasius to return to his homeland. By this time, however, Arianism gained a lot of power. Many were accusing him of not being the rightful Alexandrian bishop. And in 339, Athanasius had to flee Alexandria and come to Rome for safety. In Rome, Athanasius’s influence was rather effective, convincing Julius (the bishop of Rome) that the Nicene position of Christology (that Jesus is divine) was indeed the biblical view. In time, a large portion of the West rallied around Athanasius, and through a synod was declared the rightful bishop of Alexandria; meanwhile, Gregory, was agreed to have been an Arian usurper (see Gonzalez, TSOC, pg. 177). But with the death of Constantine II, things changed. Constans became emperor in the West and asked Constantius, the Eastern emperor (all the “Constan” names are confusing, I know, but try to stick with the story!) to grant Athanasius safety to Alexandria. The Eastern emperor obliged and Athanasius could return home. It is said from church historians that when Athanasius arrived in Alexandria, the city responded in a way that resembled a parade.

The people rejoiced, but why so? Well, I think there are theological reasons at play, such as the regenerating work of God in the lives of Christians, but there was also a political reason. Gregory, the former bishop (and Arian), was seen as a “bigwig,” upper-class representative, whereas Athanasius contrasted against him as being a “man of the people” (Gonzalez, TSOC, pg. 177). This new attitude of the Alexandrian men and women did not put a complete end to the Arian problem, but it certainly made an impact. There would be other encounters which would lead to more accusations and banishments. The so-called “Blasphemy of Sirmium” in 357 was a council that affirmed Arianism, even gaining the support of some former Trinitarians. Athanasius didn’t get to stay in Alexandria permanently until 366. But something happened in the Roman empire: a pagan emperor came to power, and believe it or not, this was actually good for Trinitarianism.

From 361-363, Julian “the Apostate” ruled Rome. Although he was raised with Christian parents, Julian forsook the faith for paganism (hence the name “the Apostate”). In fact, he attempted to restore Rome to its pagan roots. Many pagan temples were resurrected and Julian did accomplish some of his plans, but ultimately he would not succeed. Yet, by Julian the Apostate coming to power, this helped Trinitarianism. Jonathan Hill writes, “In order to cause the church as much confusion as possible, the new emperor ordered all bishops exiled by his predecessor to return home” (HoCT, pg. 65). One of the returnees was, of course, Athanasius. You know, King Nebuchadnezzar once admitted, “[A]ll the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and [God] does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, ‘What have you done?'” Truly, God is sovereign, and one way in which He manifested His infinite wisdom was through the pagan emperor Julian. Julian’s plans were to make Christianity into a mess, but God’s plans were to reestablish the true teachings of the faith by bringing back once exiled bishops into their places of ministry. Julian intended it for evil, but God superintended it for good. In due time, orthodox Trinitarianism would become fully established.

An important year in Athanasius’s life (and for all of church history for that matter) was just a year following his return to Alexandria, 367. In his famous (to church historians at least) “Festal Letter,” Athanasius confirmed the 27 books that make up the New Testament, while also putting to rest debates about other helpful, but non-inspired writings like “Shepherd of Hermas” or “The Epistle of Barnabas.” Many have stated that this is the first full canonized list of the 27 New Testament books. And certainly, this is indeed a very important point to notice. However, as Michael J. Kruger has noted, “This language [from Origen’s Homilies on Joshua] suggests not only that Origen had a 27 book canon, but that, in his mind at least, that canon was closed. Moreover, he mentions this quite naturally in a sermon, suggesting that his audience also would have known and accepted these books. And all of this is more than a century before Athanasius’ Festal Letter.” Nevertheless, Athanasius’s canon is just another argument for the early church’s view of the inspired Word of God that believers today also possess.

In all, Athanasius was exiled 5 times, he was many times falsely accused of wrongdoing, and probably faced many days of frustration and discouragement. Nevertheless, Athanasius provides for us an example of one of the most heroic Christians to have ever lived. At one point in his life, a bewildered fellow believer cried out to Athanasius, “The whole world is against you!” From this circumstance, we have inherited the Latin translated response: “Athanasius Contra Mundum.” It would simply have to be that Athanasius was “against the world.” Few people have ever taken on the world and survived, but Athanasius was one who lived to tell the story. Indeed, it seemed to be that the whole world was against Athanasius, but thankfully the promises of Hebrews 13:5-6 remained true to him as they are to believers of all ages: “‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’ So we can confidently say, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?’”

Church History Tip: “AAA” can be a rather handy resource to have in an automobile problem. Many instances in which AAA is called upon are probably stress-filled, and in some cases serious. The life of Athanasius mimicked these kinds of intense situations. Likewise, you can remember the 3 A‘s pertaining to Athanasius: Athanasius (himself), Alexandria (his city), and Arianism (his theological opponents). In your studies of church history, remember the acronym AAA and how all three were intertwined in the 4th century!

Origen (Early Church Mini-Bio Series)

Series Intro: Jesus said that He will build His church, but does anyone care as to “how” He has done so? In an effort to help myself and online readers better understand the “Early Church,” I will be sharing brief research done in coordination with my graduate school work (as well as personal enrichment) on 10 important men and women in Christian history: Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Perpetua, Felicity, Tertullian, Irenaeus, Origen, and Athanasius. Join me in traveling back in time almost two millennia to encounter some of the most intriguing people you will ever meet, Christians who have left an indelible mark on church history.

– Origen –

Origen is probably the most interesting heretic in the history of the Church. I know, that leaves things open for a lot of questions. Was Origen really a “heretic”? What’s so interesting about him? Why was he included on this list of significant early Christians? Let’s dive into history to find out…

Most historians that I’ve read date Origen’s birth to about A.D. 185 in Alexandria, Egypt. Now that we’re further on into the 2nd century and Christianity has had some time to gain more converts, we start to see more stories about Christians who grew up with Christian parents, and such was the case with Origen. In fact, his father, Leonidas (or Leonides), was a martyr for the faith. Origen, who had Christian zeal from even the young age of about 17, wanted to follow his father’s martyrdom by presenting himself before the authorities and die in the same manner. All Origen had to do was get properly dressed and leave his house. He encountered a problem: his mother took and hid all of his clothes! Soon enough he decided that rather than pursuing martyrdom, he would take up the responsibility of pursuing a career and assist his mother and several siblings. As Jonathan Hill remarks, “Teenage modesty prevailed over religious enthusiasm, and Origen remained safely at home” (History of Christian Thought, pg. 42).

From his childhood, Origen manifested great intellectual brilliance. His parents noticed this; therefore, they sought provide Origen with the best education possible. However, an important part of his education required Origen to study and memorize the Scriptures (Hill, pg. 40-41). Following the time of his father’s martyrdom, Origen helped support his family through teaching.

As Origen earned a living through education, he himself also continued to learn from others. One famous philosopher (who was actually pagan) was Ammonius Saccas. Eusebius, in his all-important Ecclesiastical History, records the connections between the two men. Ammonius Saccas is known to have been a teacher to Plotinus, a man who founded Neoplatonism (highly influential inside the Church and outside of it).

Also among Origen’s influences was the socio-historical context in which he lived, namely, the city of Alexandria. This city, of course, housed the famous library of Alexandria, so as you can probably imagine, Alexandria was probably a greater learning-driven society than many others in Antiquity. There was also much diversity concerning religious and intellectual ideologies. Philo of Alexandria was a Hellenistic, Jewish philosopher. Origen was a philosophical Christian. Paganism was also alive and well. Undoubtedly, some non-Christian influences crept into the theology of Origen, as will be discussed below.

It wouldn’t be long before news got out about this gifted, young teacher named Origen. Even those outside of Christianity wanted to be pupils to him. However, an opening came for a catechetical teacher in Alexandria when Origen was just about 18 years old. The Alexandrian bishop, Demetrius, did not despise the youth of Origen, thus he gave him the rather important job of training new converts to Christianity in their newfound faith. Prior to being baptized, a catechumen (new convert who sought baptism) would undergo a lengthy period of time of doctrinal instruction. So it was Origen’s job to serve in a pastoral-like capacity of teaching, though he certainly was not above the authority of the bishop, Demetrius. In time, a collision between Origen and Demetrius would arise, to which we shall return in a moment.

But what was so intriguing about the teachings of Origen? Well, it has been said that despite having an enormously thorough background in understanding pagan philosophy, a dramatic turn of events came as a result of Origen’s new catechetical job. He apparently had a progressively difficult time of trying to “redeem” philosophy — see its value — and therefore sold his pagan works, lived in poverty, and attempted to study the Bible as best as he possibly could. Jonathan Hill says, “His general outlook had more in common with that of Tertullian than that of Clement or Justin” (History of Christian Thought, pg. 43).

One rather blatant example of Origen’s “literal” approach to studying the Bible was that he is known to have castrated himself. If you have studied the Bible, then you will obviously find no clear command in Scripture. However, Origen was reading Matthew 19:12 which states, “For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.” Now, it should be noted first and foremost that Origen didn’t commit this shocking act randomly or as an attempt to modify his God-given gender. As a catechumen instructor, he spent a great deal of time with both men and women. To Origen, castration would guard him from being sexually promiscuous with a female catechumen. Some argue that one of Origen’s enemies began this rumor about him to demean his legacy. In fact, many hold that Origen did not actually subscribe to a literal interpretation (as it will be shown) and would never have done such a thing. I’m not sure we can know for certain if he did castrate himself, but since he has been known to live ascetically (despite some of his allegorizing of Scripture), it may not be out of the equation.

While Origen was a literal interpreter of Scripture in some ways, as was common for many Alexandrian scholars he also implemented a “spiritual” (really, an allegorical) hermeneutic. He interpreted the Bible within the framework of 3 “levels”: (1) the literal (2) the moral (3) the allegorical. He likened this tri-fold method to the trichotomous view of the man: body, soul, and spirit (see this article in Christianity Today).

What views of theology resulted from Origen’s hermeneutical method? It’s probably impossible to know exactly if it was the method that solely caused certain views, but there are a few notable ones. Perhaps most relevant to contemporary theological issues is Origen’s propagation of “apokatastasis.” This Greek word carries the idea of restoration. Basically, apokatastasis is the view that all creatures will be reconciled to God in the future. In fact, even Satan and his demons have the capacity to be restored unto right relationship with God. In his book On First Principles, Origen writes: “There is a resurrection of the dead, and there is punishment, but not everlasting. For when the body is punished the soul is gradually purified, and so is restored to its ancient rank. For all wicked men, and for demons, too, punishment has an end, and both wicked men and demons shall be restored to their former rank” (2.10.3). I believe Origen’s view is horribly wrong. Do we not read in Revelation 20:10 how Satan and his demons will be cast into the lake of fire “forever and ever”? And for what reason would a non-repentant, unsaved human want to, all of a sudden, turn to God in obedience and faith? The sinful nature of the unregenerate is not eradicated. Indeed, while Origen-defenders try to make this a point of merely being hypothetical and not actual or definite, such views of human nature, sin, and eternal punishment are certainly not able to be drawn from the Scriptures without some type of allegorizing and hermeneutical gymnastics.

More could be said about the questionable theology of Origen and his hermeneutical base, but let’s keep on track with the life of Origen. Certainly, his provocative doctrinal propositions made some fellow believers uncomfortable. And while we don’t have all of the gaps filled in regarding his life, one important piece of biographical information concerns his clashes with Christian leaders. Demetrius, the bishop who put Origen into a ministry position (of catechumen teacher) later wanted to take him out of one. Maybe it was because Origen was so popular that Demetrius became jealous, maybe Demetrius was simply horrified by some of the false teachings of Origen; all we know is that Demetrius, bishop of Alexandria, managed to get Origen condemned through an Alexandrian synod. Now, it appears that Origen had traveled into Palestine and was ordained as a priest, and because Demetrius was not invited, the Alexandrian bishop viewed this as being personally derogatory. Likewise, Origen was preaching as one ordained (prior to his priesthood) without consent and without ordination. So altogether, Demetrius had a case against Origen, ultimately leading to his banishment from Alexandria and sending him to Caesarea.

Origen was most definitely discouraged by this altercation. But nonetheless, his work would continue. It became increasingly harder for Origen, the theological workhorse, being that he no longer had his team of secretaries to work with as he had in Alexandria. But soon enough, Origen continued his career as a teacher of rather advanced Christian philosophy. Furthermore, the local bishops of Caesarea and surrounding areas fully supported him. After a brief while in Alexandria, though, Demetrius died. He was succeeded by a former assistant to Origen in his catechetical school, Heraclas. Would this bring reconciliation between Origen and Alexandria? It may have appeared so on the surface. But the former friend now viewed Origen as an enemy and offered no sign of forgiveness.

In the year A.D. 250, the Roman emperor Decius issued many violent orders of persecution against Christians. Origen was one of the many victims. However, despite being badly harmed, Origen persevered through the torture. Some have referred to Origen with the nickname “Iron Man,” referencing his almost undefeatable personality and his firm attitude toward his critics. But even the Iron Man could not live forever. He died in Tyre at the age of 69 (according to Eusebius of Caesarea), not from immediate persecution, but the earlier torture placed on his body probably caused much damage to his health.

According to my graduate school professor, Dr. Paul Hartog, Origen produced about 800 works in his lifetime. He was truly a scholar to the highest degree. Perhaps his most remarkable contribution was his “Hexapla.” This was a compilation of six columns (hexapla = “sixfold” in Greek) of biblical text with the available manuscripts to Origen of both Hebrew and Greek.  Origen also published On First Principles which was the world’s first systematic theology (to our knowledge). He interpreted some sections of the Bible very literally, but on others he was quite open to allegorical interpretations. In many ways, Origen was fully “orthodox” (in line with the Church), but there were certainly aspects of severe deviation.

So then, was Origen a heretic? As is quite often, it depends on how one defines “heresy.” I personally believe that Origen’s view of apokatastasis could potentially lead someone away from faith in Jesus Christ when presented with the Christian message of the Gospel. In other words, such a doctrine could leave one eternally condemned. For example, why couldn’t a person just repent and believe on Jesus Christ later on, after he/she dies? Just live any kind of life and forget about God and His Gospel for now – right? Sure, Origen might defend himself and state that he was simply talking about potentialities, not actualities. But unfortunately, the actual Gospel is greatly distorted by this kind of doctrine.

Origen, in my opinion, was a heretic, but still an intriguing one. He has left a legacy that carries on today. Even his theological perspectives are still propagated in some spheres. Rob Bell’s book Love Wins (HarperOne, 2011) has many similarities with Origen’s views of the afterlife. Another interesting, and this time non-heretical, theological view that has maintained some influence is the belief that God can be understood in the analogy of a Mind, or really (especially later on in historical theology), 3 Minds for 3 Persons of the Trinity. I have heard Christian philosophers still use this illustration. While it may not be a scholastic dissertation, William Lane Craig’s children’s book God Is Three Persons helps young minds to understand the Triune-ness of God via the “Mind” analogy.

However, it should also be noted that Origen takes the Mind illustration much too far past what Scripture allows and presents a Platonic and Gnostic-like understanding of the fallenness of man. Basically, all creatures (non-body, spirit beings) were united to God — the Great Mind — until they, in their free will, chose to be autonomous from God. Interestingly, those who did not fall away from God so severely were given “ethereal bodies,” who are now known as angels. Meanwhile, the worst rebels of all became demons (see Hill, HoCT, 55 for more details). Most Christian Philosophers would greatly reject these Platonic views that deal with God being like a Great Mind and humans being originally connected to that Mind before the Fall.

So Origen is in my understanding of Christian theology rightly deemed heretical. Though as also mentioned, he was definitely an interesting and important figure. Many of his writings have influenced others throughout church history and should be considered as valuable, though, of course, they should be handled with great discernment (as even more orthodox writings should be as well). Even in evaluating some of the overly-philosophical propositions, it’s hard to not at least be intellectually stimulated. While I would not recommend Origen to teach your Sunday School class, I would recommend your Sunday School class to teach about Origen because he plays an important part in the history of the Church.

Church History Tip: It’s hard to choose just one aspect of Origen’s career for utilizing a church history tip. But I think when we consider a name like “Origen,” it’s hard to not think of a very similarly spelled word “origin.” What are the origins of humanity and angels and of the entrance of sin? Origen believed in a very Platonic view of these origins. Likewise, Origen’s views of origins played a key role in his understanding of other things like the “Ransom to Satan Theory” of the Atonement (which wasn’t discussed above), the totality of depravity, and his apokatastasis theory. Indeed, one’s views of origins can be very significant, as they were for Origen.