*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***
It is the 10th of December 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org; I’m Dan van Voorhis.
So it was on this day, the 10th of December in 1561, the notorious heretic Caspar Schwenkfeld died in Ulm, Germany. However, it was kept a secret by his friends at the time. For someone as reviled as him, to admit that he died and certainly to announce where he was buried would cause a great commotion among his enemies and perhaps the disturbance of his final resting place.
In fact, for decades after his death, the somewhat amorphous term “Schwenkfelder” was a nickname for a heretic and radical reformer.
[May I jump in quickly: I get that “radical” Reformation is often used by people who want to disparage those Reformers outside the Lutheran or Calvinist camps… but to Gen X/Millenial folk like myself, that sounds like the best of the Reformations- “radical” like, Schwenkfeld is doing Ollies, Muntzer is crushing Mountain Dews, maybe there are some BMX bikes involved… I digress]
But for all the heat about Schwenkfeld and his beliefs, the whole story comes down to his views concerning the Lord’s Supper and the person of Christ.
A few things about the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper in the Reformation Era: early Modern Christians who were coming into the Reformation would have had the Lord’s Supper at the center of their understanding of piety. It was the central part of the Mass; it was the one thing that most Christians participated in during an otherwise passive Mass (in Latin, no more diminutive). And the Lord’s Supper at this time consisted only of the bread- this is another story for another time, but that would be enough to let people know that something was different, maybe off. That and the doctrine of Transubstantiation would vex many would-be Reformers.
But it was also the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper that would forever divide Protestants as Lutherans insisted on the “real presence” of Christ in the Sacrament, and Zwinglians insisted on a “spiritual presence.” It was disagreement on the doctrine of the Two Natures of Christ and the Lord’s Supper that kept the Reformation a fractured and regional movement.
Now to Caspar.
Caspar Schwenkfeld was born in 1489 to minor nobility in Silesia (Think Central Europe/Poland). He was sent to school in Cologne and Frankfurt and was ordained a priest. Around 1518 he began to follow the news of Luther and was reading everything from Luther that he could get his hands on. Schwenkfeld left the Catholic ministry and encouraged his Duke and fellow priests to embrace the Reformation (and many of them did).
Schwenkfeld saw that the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper was dividing the new Reformers and sought to find a middle way between the Zwinglians and Lutherans. Schwenkfeld claims to have received a vision in which he was assured that Christians feast on Christ’s real body during Communion. Still, his real/physical body was divinized since the ascension, and thus he argued Christians feed on both a real but spiritual Christ.
He began writing to Luther to no avail. In 1525 he made the trek to Wittenberg to report his “findings” to the Reformer. Luther was not instantly combative and argued that Caspar might be correct but that visions couldn’t assure sound doctrine. Furthermore, Luther argued, he had a friend who claimed a vision teaching the opposite of Schwenkfeld, so who was right?
As Schwenkfled continued to teach his doctrine, especially about the divinized Body of Christ, Luther and others turned on him more harshly.
Schwenkfeld would move from Luther to Martin Bucer in Strasbourg and the Radical Reformers. But Schwenkfeld and his followers saw the division in the church over the Lord’s Supper as perhaps the most significant problem for the Reformation. This was on account of this doctrine touching the doctrine of the Person of Christ and His two natures (which, of course, has been a significant issue throughout the church's entire history). Furthermore, there was the issue of “discerning the body,” as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians. As long as Christians couldn’t agree on what was happening in the Lord’s Supper, the Schwenkfeldians refused to celebrate the sacrament.
Over the rest of his life, having been unmoored from the mainstream Reformation movement, he was criticized by Magisterial Reformers and the Catholic Church. Schwenkfeld’s “middle way” ended up falling between two stools, and his name would become a watchword for heresy to both his right and left. His followers would be known as Schwenkfelders, and some exist today, but most found their way into other Anabaptist and Radical traditions. Born in 1489, Caspar Schwenkfeld was 72 when he died in 1561.
The last word for today comes from 1 Corinthians 11:
23 For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, 24, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way, after supper, he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 10th of December 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by the always radical, Zubaz-rocking, Oakley-wrap-around-wearing Christoper Gillespie.
The show is written and read by a man who rocked the very cool but very impractical Surfside Sports backpack as a 6th grader in 1990. I am Dan van Voorhis.
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.