Franck, Sebastian (1499–1542)

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Sebastian Franck, also known as Franck von Word, was an outstanding figure among the spiritualists of the Reformation. His basic spiritualist concept of the conflict in each human being and in the world between the Inner Word (Son of God; eternal, invisible Christ), which is ultimate reality, and the outer word (law, flesh, selfishness), which is only appearance, shadow or phantom, was developed in all his philosophical, theological, historical, and cosmographical works. Franck was born in Donauwörth, Germany, and died in Basel. After studying at the University of Ingolstadt, Franck entered the Dominican Bethlehem College in Heidelberg in 1518. As a priest he officiated in the diocese of Augsburg. He turned to the Lutheran faith about 1526 and became Lutheran pastor in Buchenbach near Ansbach and then in Gustenfelden near Nürnberg. Franck resigned his pastorate in 1528 or early 1529 to become an independent writer and lived in Nürnberg until 1529 or early 1530.

Nürnberg, a cultural center, offered ample literary resources and personal contacts, especially with Theophrastus Paracelsus and the many followers of Hans Denck. Among Denck's followers were Albrecht Dürer's famous pupils the brothers Hans Sebald and Barthel Beham, whose sister Ottilie became Franck's wife. When Franck left Nürnberg, three of his controversial books were already written. Two of them were free translations from Latin into German (with many of his own unorthodox ideas injected) of Andreas Althamer's Diallage (1528), a Lutheran attack against Anabaptism, and of an unknown author's Chronica und beschreibung der Türkey mit yhrem begriff (Nürnberg, 1530), in which his ideas on the invisible church were already outlined. The first book wholly his own, Von dem grewlichen laster der trunckenheyt (1528), is a notable contribution to the literature on alcoholism.

From Nürnberg he moved to Strassburg, where he had occasion to meet Johann Buenderlin, Caspar Schwenckfeld, Melchior Hofmann, Jacob Ziegler, Michael Servetus, Johann Campanus, and, again, Paracelsus. There he wrote a universal history, extending from the creation of the world to the reign of Emperor Charles V and of Pope Clement VII, titled Chronica, Zeytbuch und geschycht bibel (Strassburg, 1531), famous for its numerous penetrating spiritualistic comments on many ecclesiastical and secular personalities and events. Its chronicle of heretics included Erasmus of Rotterdam as a Roman heretic. Because of this and his adverse remarks about Charles V, Franck was arrested and banned from Strassburg in 1531.

After living in Esslingen, Franck settled in Ulm as a printer and wrote most of his books there. His spiritualistic interpretation of the Scriptures can be found in his Paradoxa ducenta octoginta (Ulm, 1534), Die guldin Arch (Augsburg, 1538), and Das verbütschiert mit sieben Siegeln verschlossen Buch (Basel, 1539). Die vier Kronbüchlein (Ulm, 1534) contains Erasmus's Das thèur und kunstlich Buochlein Morie Encomion, das ist, ein Lob der Thorhait and Cornelius Agrippa's Von der Heylosigkeit Eitelkeit und ungewissheit aller Menschlichen Kunst und Weissheit (both of which he freely translated from the original Latin texts), Vom Baum des Wissens Guts and Böss , in which he tries to prove that awareness of good and evil can impair one's goodness, and Encomion, ein Lob des Thorechten Gottlichen Worts . His Weltbuch, Spiegel un bildtniss des gantzen Erdbodens (Tübingen, 1534), a cosmography with one of the first German descriptions of America and with one chapter dealing with the different religious movements of his time, which initiated systematic comparison of religion on Reformation soil, became one of his most popular books. His Germaniae Chronicon (Augsburg, 1538) has been used as an important source for historical research. In his Das Krieg büchlein des Friedens (1539) Franck tried to prove that war not only contradicts Christ's teaching but is also "a devilish, inhuman thing, an abhorrent plague an open door for all vices and sins and destruction of land, soul, body and honor." Most of these works made Franck the defendant in a trial before the city council that was instigated by Martin Frecht, main preacher in the cathedral of Ulm, Philipp Melanchthon, Martin Butzer, and Landgrave Philip of Hesse. It resulted in his expulsion from Ulm.

Franck, his wife, and their six children went to Basel in July 1539. There, after the death of his wife, he married Barbara Beck of Strassburg. His famous collection, with his interpretation, of Sprichwörter (Frankfurt, 1541) was partially republished by G. E. Lessing. The last years of his life were devoted mostly to his Latin paraphrase of the Deutsche Theologie, which was never published, and to several posthumously published tractates (Van het Ryke Christi, Gouda, 1611; Een Stichtelijck Tractaet van de Werelt des Duyvels Rijck, Gouda, 1618; and Sanctorum Communio, Gouda, 1618), all of which survive only in the Dutch translations. They prove that dualism of God and world fully dominated his thoughts before his death.

Franck's worldview is primarily panentheistic, with heterogeneous elements drawn from Lutheranism, medieval mysticism, Neoplatonism, Renaissance speculation, humanism, Anabaptism, and rationalism, with ample citation of the Church Fathers and non-Christian philosophers. This comprehensive syncretism makes Franck an almost unique figure in the Reformation era and therefore a major figure in the history of ideas. As a religious philosopher he will be remembered for his radical spiritualistic tendency to replace exterior authority with inner illumination by God's spirit. The deep spiritual meaning of the Bible (outer word)which is allegorical, not historical but typological, full of contradictions and merely testimonial to the eternal truthcan be comprehended only by those who have already accepted the Inner Word: "Unless we listen to the word of God within ourselves, we can make nothing of Scripture for everything can be decked and defended with texts" (Das verbütschiert mit sieben Siegeln verschlossen Buch ). In the light of his spiritualism none of the churches and sects, with their outgrown external disciplines, dogmas, sacraments, ceremonies, and festivals can be the true church. The true church is his ecclesia spiritualis, where only inward enlightenment is sufficient; it is the universal invisible church of the spirit, to which even those non-Christians who without knowledge of the incarnate Word have accepted the Inner Word can belong: "I love any man whom I can help and I call him brother, whether he be Jew or Samaritan I cannot belong to any separate sect" (ibid.).

As a historian Franck placed the Reformation in the stream of historical development and thus relativized it. He is credited with recognizing the historic force that externalizes the spiritual ("The world must have a papacy even if it has to steal it."). He also observed the typical recurrent rise and fall of kingdoms and peoples, and by recognizing this change of fortune as God's punishment for disobedience of his Inner Word, saw history as interaction between God and the world, as the struggle between the spirit and the forces which resist it.

As one of the most ardent advocates of religious liberty in the sixteenth century, Franck insisted on toleration not only among the individual members of the different churches and sects in Christendom but also toward Jews, Muslims, heathens, and even heretics, since all men, created by God, descended from Adam, and accessible to the Holy Spirit, are equal.

Martin Luther, Philipp Melanchthon, and Martin Butzer were especially aware of the danger of Franck's unorthodox thoughts to the new Protestant position. Luther called him "the devil's most cherished slanderous mouth." The convention of Protestant theologians at Schmalkalden in 1540 issued a resolution of condemnation of both Franck and Schwenckfeld, which the latter called a (Protestant) papal bull.

Franck's extraordinarily well written books had a great influence on German prose style. They were widely read in German, Dutch, Swiss, and even English editions until the end of the seventeenth century. There exist at least ten editions of his Chronica and as many of his Sprichwörter. His Weltbuch went through at least six editions, as did his Vier Kronbüchlein or parts of it.

While Franck's specific traceable influence was restricted in Germany to Valentin Weigel and Gottfried Arnold, and in Basel to Sebastian Castellio, his spirit and ideas found ardent followers in Holland (Dirk Volkerts Coonhert, Menno Simons, David Joris, and the Franckists or Sebastianists). Although he had strong roots in the late Middle Ages, much of Franck's thought carried the seed of what was to become important in modern thinking. Wilhelm Dilthey rightly testifies that "the ideas of Franck flow toward modern times in a hundred streamlets."

See also Dilthey, Wilhelm; Emanationism; Humanism; Ideas; Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim; Luther, Martin; Medieval Philosophy; Melanchthon, Philipp; Neoplatonism; Paracelsus; Reformation; Servetus, Michael; Toleration.


additional works by franck

Klagbrieff oder supplication der armen dürftigen in Englandt an den könig daselbst gestellt wider die reychen geystlichen Bettler. Strassburg, 1529.

Dass Gott das einig ain und höchstes Gut sey . Ulm, 1534.

Sechshundertdreyzehn Gebot und Verbot der Juden. Ulm, 1537.

Des Grossen Nothelffers und Weltheiligen Sant Gelts oder S. Pfennings lobgesang . Ulm, 1537.

Was gesagt sei: Der Glaub tuts alles: Und warumb im die Rechtfertigung alleyn werde zugeschriben . Ulm, 1539.

Schrifftliche und gantz grundtliche ausslegung des LXIIII Psalm. Ulm, 1539.

Handbüchlein Siben Haubtpunken aus der Bibel gezogen und zusammengebracht, darin angezeigt ist leben und todt, Himmel und Hell durch Sebastian Franck gemacht. Frankfurt, 1539.

"A Letter to John Campanus by Sebastian Franck, Strassburg, 1531." Translated by G. H. Williams, in Spiritual and Anabaptist Writers. Library of Christian Classics, Vol. XXV. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1957.

works on franck

Bainton, R. H. "Concerning Heretics (Castellio)." In Records of Civilization XXV, 93104. New York, 1935. Republished New York, 1966.

Barbers, Meinulf. Toleranz bei Sebastian Franck. Bonn: Röhrscheid, 1964.

Becker, Bruno. "Nicolai's Inlasshing over de Franckisten." Nederlandsch Archief voor Kerkgeschiedenes, n.s. 18 (1925): 286296.

Dilthey, Wilhelm. "Auffassung und Analyse des Menschen im 15. und 16. Jahrhundert." In his Gesammelte Schriften, Vol. II. Stuttgart and Göttingen, 1957.

Gritsch, E. W. "The Authority of the Inner Word. A Special Study of the Major German Spiritual Reformers in the 16th Century." Dissertation. Yale University, 1959.

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

Hegler, Alfred. "Beitrage zur Geschichte der Mystik in der Reformationszeit," in Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte, Vol. I. Berlin, 1906.

Hegler, Alfred. Geist und Schrift bei Sebastian Franck. Freiburg im Breisgau, 1892. The most important work on Franck.

Hegler, Alfred. Sebastian Francks lateinische Paraphrase der deutschen Theologia und sein holländisch erhaltenen Traktate. Tübingen, 1901.

Jones, R. M. Spiritual Reformers in the 16th and 17th Centuries, 4664. London: Macmillan, 1914. Republished, Boston: Beacon, 1959.

Kaczerowsky, Klaus. Sebastian Franck: Bibliographie. Wiesbaden, Germany: G. Pressler, 1976.

Koyré, Alexandre. Mystiques, spirituels, alchimists du XVIe siècle allemand, 2243. Paris, 1955.

Krahn, Cornelius, and N. van der Zijpp. "Sebastian Franck." In The Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. II, 363367. Scottdale, PA, 1956.

Muller, Jan. Sebastian Franck, 14991542. Wiesbaden, Germany: Otto Harrassowitz, 1993.

Oncken, Hermann. "Sebastian Franck als Historiker." In Historisch-Politische Aufsätze und Reden, Vol. I, 273319. Munich and Berlin: Oldenbourg, 1914.

Peuckert, W. E. Sebastian Franck, ein deutscher Sucher. Munich: Piper, 1943. The only recent interpretation of all aspects of Franck's thought.

Quast, Bruno. Sebastian Francks 'Kriegbüchlin des Frides': Studien zum radikalreformatorischen Spiritualismus. Tübingen, Germany: Francke, 1993.

Racber, K. Studien zur Geschichtsbibel Sebastian Francks. Basel: Helbing and Lichtenhahn, 1952.

Raumer, Kurt von. Ewiger Friede, 2360, 249. Freiburg im Breisgau: Alber, 1953.

Rieber, Doris. "Sebastian Franck (14991542)." Bibliothèque d'humanisme et Renaissance 21 (1959): 190204.

Schottenloher, Karl. Bibliographie zur deutschen Geschichte im Zeitalter der Glaubensspaltung, Vol. I, 263266. Leipzig: Hiersemann, 1933. Lists all books on Franck to 1932.

Teufel, Eberhard. "Die 'Deutsche Theologie' und Sebastian Franck im Lichte der neueren Forschung." Theologische Rundschau, n.s. 11 (1939): 304319, and 12 (1940): 99129.

Teufel, Eberhard. Landraümig; Sebastian Franck, ein Wanderer an Donau, Rhein und Neckar. Neustadt an der Aich: Degener, 1954.

Teufel, Eberhard. "Luther und Luthertum im Urteile Sebastian Francks." In Festgabe für D. Dr. Karl Müller zum 70. Geburtstag dargebracht von Fachgenossen und Freunden, 132144. Tübingen, 1922.

Troeltsch, Ernst. The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches, Vols. I and II. Republished, London: Allen and Unwin, 1956.

Weigelt, Horst. Sebastian Franck und die lutherische Reformation. Gütersloh, Germany: Gerd Mohn, 1972.

Williams, G. H. The Radical Reformation. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1962.

Jacques J. Whitfield (1967)

Bibliography updated by Christian B. Miller (2005)