"Just as in the Time of the Apostles": Uses of History in the Radical Reformation.
In view of Geoffrey Dipple's subtitle, it is important to state fight away what he has undertaken to do: "Radical Reformation" here is to be understood in a very restricted sense of the term. The book deals with radical exponents of the German Reformation in the third and fourth decades of the sixteenth century, with emphasis coming to fall on the former. Some references to works by Erasmus, Luther, and Hutten reach back a little further, and in the case of the Anabaptists the discussion is expanded to include some works written later in the sixteenth century. This book will be of interest mostly to historians whose own research falls within these parameters. It offers, above all, a detailed and very careful examination of trends in recent work in this field by German and Anglo-Saxon (mostly North American) historians--work often devoted to re-elaborations and revisions of preceding studies. Dipple's own position in such debates is often eclectic, in search of a sound balance. He also offers an independent reexamination of primary sources, always quoting them in English translation only. Dipple is commendably cautious in suggesting that the sixteenth-century writers he examines expressed a coherent view of history. Not all were interested in history, and those who were frequently compel the modern researcher to piece together scattered remarks made in a variety of contexts. Dipple is aware of the problem that modern students may thus construct historical visions on a much larger scale than their source texts will bear out. There were exceptions, of course, and they receive due consideration. The Great Chronicle of the Hutterites and the universal Chronica, Zeitbuch unnd Geschichtbibel (Frankfurt-am-Main, 1555) of Sebastian Franck both pursue their historical vision coherently over extended periods.
The views of church history held by the humanist Erasmus, and the Reformers Luther, Zwingli, and Eberlin von Gunzburg (chapter one) present a foil for Dipple's examination of the radicals. Beginning in Saxony, he turns to the early progress of Karlstadt and, at greater length, to the development of Thomas Muntzer's perception of history (chapter two). Both saw in the age of the Apostles a "spirit-filled" church that still awaited restoration in their own day, ending various stages of decay and corruption, especially during the last four hundred years of papal tyranny and the inadequate "magisterial" Reformation. The Anabaptists, in general, saw their communities as a partial restitution of the primitive church, with a full restitution to come in Apocalyptic times (chapter three). Of the various groups gathered under the label of "Evangelical" Anabaptists (chapter four), the Swiss Brethren were preoccupied with life in conformity with Gospel precedents, especially the community of goods, and thus had little thought to spare for historical developments within the church, an exception being the university-educated Balthasar Hubmaier. Later, Pilgram Marpeck developed, gradually, a good understanding of the progress, or rather fall of the church, accentuated by such landmarks as the reign of Constantine the Great. Menno Simons, on the other hand, did not mention Constantine, but developed new insights in the practice of the primitive church. It was there that corruption in the form of infant baptism set in, while the divinely sanctioned believers' baptism still continued for a while. After Menno, his more intellectually oriented disciple Dirk Phillips conceived a "cosmic conflict" between church and "world," that from prehistorical beginnings was to last to the end of time.
Turning from the Anabaptists to the Spiritualists (chapter five), Dipple compares the positions of Caspar Schwenckfeld and Sebastian Franck. To the former, the progress of the church toward spiritual perfection was cyclical. Sometimes the church is visible, as in the apostolic age, sometimes it is not. For Franck, too, the time of the Apostles is marked by the presence of a visible church, but the reliance on visible, outward signs is merely a concession to human weakness. The true church of the Spirit, when its time comes, would not need those. There are distinct Anabaptist and spiritualist visions of history, but they are not uniform (chapter six). Hans Denck might be the most notable figure straddling the two camps, but his references to history are scattered and vague. As for Melchior Hoffman at Strasbourg and the violent prophets of Munster, their historical visions seem to have been formed largely in response to contemporary events in their respective locales. A final chapter investigates the function of dialogue -that is to say, exchanges--between the various groups and individuals in the development of their respective views of history, especially in the case of the more elaborate visions of the Hutterites and the Mennonites.
In Dipple's investigation Sebastian Franck deservedly emerges as a figure worthy of special attention. Since Franck deals at great length with political as well as church history, one might have wished to learn more about the links or, alternatively, the fissures he perceived between the two. One also wonders how his historical vision was impacted by the fact that he wrote to make a living and assembled large chunks of information second hand, seemingly without setting accents of his own. Looking back at the congeries of Reformation radicals studied by Dipple, one might ask in what measure their views of history could, themselves, be termed radical. Dipple does not answer this question directly, but he is aware of the powerful influence of Erasmus and the magisterial Reformers. Perhaps one could assume that the historical concepts of Anabaptists and spiritualists were radical to the degree that they emphasized an apocalyptic end to human history. Could a more profiled picture of the radicals' historical thinking emerge, one wonders, if their views--disintegrated as they are for the most part--were to be confronted with some other segments of the rich historical thinking of this period, such as, to mention a few at random, Erasmus's concept of accommodation in the Gospel, Zwingli's curious assemblage of righteous ones meandering through all phases of history, Guillaume Postel's elaborate cycles of Heilsgeschichte, or the highly original concept of church history developed by the Antitrinitarians of Transylvania?
Peter G. Bietenholz
University of Saskatchewan
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|Author:||Bietenholz, Peter G.|
|Publication:||Canadian Journal of History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2006|
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