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Franck, Sebastina (c. 1499–1542)

FRANCK, SEBASTINA (c. 14991542)

FRANCK, SEBASTIAN (c. 14991542), Reformation era heterodox theologian, chronicler, and printer. Sebastian Franck is one the more problematic figures of the Reformation era to categorize in the standard terms of the time. His refusal to associate with the mainstream movements of his era and the heterodox nature of his thought made him an isolated and persecuted figure and restricted the impact of his thought on his own time and on the eras that followed. On the other hand, Franck's tenacious individuality makes him of interest in the modern world and a significant figure for understanding the boundaries of sixteenth-century intellectual life.

Franck was born in 1499 in the small south German imperial city of Donauwörth and was educated in the universities at Ingolstadt and Heidelberg, where he first came into contact with humanism and the incipient reform movement. Of particular influence were the ideas of Desiderius Erasmus (1466?1536) and Martin Luther (14831546). In 1525 Franck formally aligned himself with the evangelical movement and took up a pastoral position near Nuremberg, but his formal association with the party of reform and with institutional religion ended when he resigned his position in 1529. From 1530 onward his many writings presented a spiritualist theology that rejected the main premises of the theologies of Luther, Huldrych Zwingli (14841531), and various Anabaptists. Because of his rejection of established institutions and theologies of the Reformation, Franck lived a peripatetic existence. From 1530 to 1532 he resided in Strasbourg, from whence he was expelled because of his publications. He eventually settled in Ulm, where he took up the trade of printing. He was granted citizenship in 1535, despite his controversial writings and the attempts of the pastorate in Ulm to have him expelled. Eventually, though, his continued publication of controversial works and the continued pressure of the ecclesiastical authorities led to his expulsion in 1539. From there he moved to Basel, where he died, probably as a result of the plague, in 1542.

Franck's ideas centered on the proposition that God communicated directly with humanity through his Word, which for Franck signified an image or spark of the divine being residing at the core of the human being. In his first major work, Chronica, Zeytbuch und Geschychtbibel (1531; Chronicle, book of time and historical bible), Franck chronicled the distressingly profane course of human affairs. He recorded the affairs of emperors, the church, and heretics and in so doing sought to show the absence of true divine being in the outward course of the world. Of particular interest is Franck's treatment of heresy and heretics, since it is only in the ideas of those rejected by the outward church that one finds God's true indwelling Word. For Franck the outer world was incapable of containing or recognizing the true spiritual inner Word of God, and thus all physical manifestations of religion were illegitimate. His many other publications, over twenty in all, sought to establish this central concept. Given his conviction that outward means are insufficient to contain God's spiritual Word, it makes sense that Franck's own work lacked systematic rigor. He typically composed by compiling and commentating upon the work of others. Probably the single best example of Franck's writing and ideas is his 1534 work Paradoxa Ducenta Octoginta (Two hundred eighty paradoxes), in which he collected numerous seemingly contradictory statements from the Bible and ancient authorities and then provided the exegesis that shows only a spiritual understanding of the texts can overcome the apparent contradictions.

In many ways the reactions to Franck's writings is of greater interest than the ideas themselves. Given the unorthodox nature of his thought, it is not surprising that his printed works met with almost universal condemnation. More noteworthy is the provisional tolerance he found during his lifetime. Despite his initial expulsion from Strasbourg and the vehement opposition to his presence among Ulm's pastorate, Franck persuaded the magistrates in Ulm to grant him entry and citizenship. Franck's spiritualist theology actually resonated among some of Ulm's magistrates, many of whom sympathized with the teachings of Caspar Schwenckfeld von Ossig (14891561), whose own spiritualism was broadly similar to Franck's inner Word theology. Franck's opposition to institutional religion was useful for magistrates who were seeking to emphasize their prerogative over religion, over and against Ulm's pastors. Such fissures in the administration of religion in the early Reformation provided the limited tolerance within which Franck was able to pursue his idiosyncratic intellectual enterprise. Even after his expulsion from Ulm, he was able to find refuge and citizenship in Basel. Franck's ideas were in many ways derivative, but his persistence and vehemence of expression define one of the margins of early modern intellectual life and consequently define and reveal the boundaries of political tolerance for heterodox thought in this era of upheaval.

See also Erasmus, Desiderius ; Luther, Martin ; Lutheranism ; Reformation, Protestant ; Theology ; Zwingli, Huldrych .


Primary Sources

Franck, Sebastian. Chronica, Zeytbuch und Geschychtbibel. Strasbourg, 1531.

. "A Letter to John Campanus." In Spiritual and Anabaptist Writers, edited by George Huntston Williams and Angel M. Mergal, pp, 147160. Philadelphia, 1957.

. 280 Paradoxes or Wondrous Sayings. Translated by E. J. Furcha. Lewiston, N.Y., 1986. Translation of Paradoxa Ducenta Octoginta (1534).

Secondary Sources

Hayden-Roy, Patrick. The Inner Word and the Outer World: A Biography of Sebastian Franck. New York, 1994.

Ozment, Steven E. Mysticism and Dissent. New Haven, 1973.

Patrick Hayden-Roy

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