Kasper von Schwenckfeld

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Kasper von Schwenckfeld

The Silesian nobleman and theologian Kaspar von Schwenckfeld (1489/1490-1561) formulated doctrines concerning the nature of Christ and the Eucharist that caused him to break with Luther and spend much of his life in exile as a religious outlaw.

Kaspar von Schwenckfeld was born in the town of Ossig in Silesia. After university training he became sympathetic to the principles of the early Lutheran Reformation, and his influence at the court of the Duke of Liegnitz was instrumental in bringing the Reformation to Silesia. Schwenckfeld, however, did not agree with Martin Luther on all points, and he disagreed particularly on the questions of "real presence" (that is, whether or not Christ is present in the Eucharist) and on the nature of Christ.

In 1525 Schwenckfeld went to Wittenberg to discuss his differences with Luther, but the two failed to agree. Another opponent of Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, then published a treatise by Schwenckfeld, and the ensuing difficulties in Silesia forced Schwenckfeld to leave his home in 1529, the first of many such journeys. From 1529 to 1533 Schwenckfeld lived in Strasbourg, the home of many Reformation exiles. In 1533, however, Schwenckfeld's doctrines came under heavy criticism from Martin Bucer, and their condemnation at the Synod of Strasbourg in 1533 caused Schwenckfeld to leave that city. From 1533 to 1538 Schwenckfeld lived in Ulm, but eventually another controversy arose over his Christological doctrines, and he left Ulm in 1538. Schwenckfeld's doctrines were again formally condemned at Schmalkalden in 1540.

At this time Schwenckfeld wrote his most important treatises on theology: Vom Fleische Christi (1540; On the Body of Christ) and Grosse Confession (1541; The Great Confession). From 1540 until his death, Schwenckfeld produced many letters and treatises, so many that Philip Melancthon referred to Schwenckfeld as a "hundred-hander"—a man who wrote so much that he must have had a hundred hands. Schwenckfeld's chief influence lay in his Christological doctrines. He was particularly concerned with the process of human salvation and saw this process as an indwelling of Christ in the saved man. Besides this concern, however, there lay also his opposition to religious persecution and his persistent defense of freedom of conscience and religious liberty.

Schwenckfeld's place in the Reformation has long been obscured because of the many condemnations heaped upon him and his followers in their own time both by Protestants and by Catholics. Schwenckfeld's harried later years drew more opposition down upon him, and when he died, he was buried under the house of friends in Ulm so that his body could not be exhumed and burned as that of a heretic. After his death his followers published his works and lived in Silesia until the arrival of the Jesuits in 1719. They then emigrated to Saxony, to England, and finally to North America, where they settled in eastern Pennsylvania in 1734.

Further Reading

The best biography of Schwenckfeld in English is Selina Gerhard Schultz, Caspar Schwenckfeld von Ossig (1946). Schwenckfeld's place in the Reformation is examined in George H. Williams, The Radical Reformation (1962). His theology is discussed in the good study by Paul L. Maier, Caspar Schwenckfeld on the Person and Work of Christ (1959), which also contains further bibliographical references to Schwenckfeld's life and thought.

Additional Sources

McLaughlin, R. Emmet, Caspar Schwenckfeld, reluctant radical: his life to 1540, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986.

McLaughlin, R. Emmet, The freedom of spirit, social privilege, and religious dissent: Caspar Schwenckfeld and the Schwenckfelders, Baden-Baden: V. Koerner, 1996. □