Franck, Sebastian

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Franck, Sebastian

(b. Dönaworth, Bavaria, Germany, 20 January 1499; d. Basel, Switzerland, 1542)


We have no precise information about Franck’s parents and early life. He may have attended the grammar school in Nordlingen before matriculating, in March 1515, in the Arts Faculty of the University of Ingolstadt, where he received a humanistic education that included Latin and Greek but not Hebrew. After graduation in December 1517, he went to Heidelberg in January 1518 to study theology at the Dominican college that was incorporated with the university. The theological faculty was then dominated by Aristotelian Scholasticism, but a few months after his arrival Franck heard the new Augustinian voice when he attended Luther’s famous Heidelberg disputation. Among his fellow students were his later opponents Martin Frecht and the Strasbourg reformer Martin Bucer. We do not know when Franck left Heidelberg. He entered the Catholic priesthood, but by the end of 1527 he was a Protestant pastor in Gustenfelden, near Nuremberg. In 1528 he married Ottilie Beham, the sister of Albrecht Durer’s pupils Barthel and Hans Sebald Beham, both known for their Anabaptist leanings and for their association with Hans Denck. At this time, during the turbulent years that followed the Peasants’ War, Franck adopted the spiritualist views that put him in strong opposition to Luther.

He left his pastorate before the end of 1528, and for the rest of his life he earned his living as a popular writer, printer, and, for a while, soapmaker, wandering from place to place with his family as he was banned from one town after another for his unorthodox writings. For a while he was in Nuremberg, where he published his first writings, but in 1529 he was in Strasbourg, then known for its liberal religious atmosphere and as a gathering place for radical reformers, who during these years included Michael Servetus, Hans Bünderlin, and Kaspar von Schwenkfeld. Here Franck published his great work Chronica, Zeitbuch und Geschichtbibel (1531), which immediately brought complaints from many sides, including one from Erasmus, whom Franck greatly admired. The book was confiscated, Franck was arrested, and at the end of the year he was expelled from Strasbourg.

In 1534 Franck became a citizen of Ulm, where he almost immediately faced new difficulties owing to his publications there, the Paradoxa ducenta octoginta, das ist CCLXXX Wunderred und gleichsam Räterschaft, aus der Heiligen Schrift (1534), his most characteristic theological work, and Das theur und Künstllich Büchlein Morie encomion (1534), which Franck also called “die vier Kronbuchlein.” It developed his spiritual doctrine by showing that all worldly piety and wisdom are folly before God. This work contained German versions of Erasmus’s In praise of Folly and of Agrippa von Nettesheim’s De incertitudine et vanitate omnium scientiarum et artium as well as two pieces by Franck, Ein Lob des thorichten Gottlichen Worts and Vom Baum des Wissens Gutes und Boses, which along among Franck’s writings has been published in English. It was translated by the mystic John Everard, under the title The Forbidden Fruit: Or a Treatise of the Tree of Knowledge (1640).

Franck was now accused of rejecting the efficacy of preaching and the authority of the Bible but was allowed to remain in Ulm, provided he submitted to censorship. He published his next books in Tübingen, Augsburg, and Frankfurt. They included a book of geography (including the New World), folklore, and anthropology, Weltbuch: Spiegel und Bildniss des ganzen Erdbodens (1534); a history and description of Germany called Germaniae chronicon (1538); and Die Guldin Arch (1538); which is a sort of concordance to Scriptures designed to awaken the reader to the inward word. It was followed by Das verbütschierte mit 7 Siegeln verschlossene Buch (1539), a “discordance” in which Franck deliberately juxtaposed contradictory Scriptural passages. His presence in Ulm again became controversial and, with Schwenkfeld, he was banished from the city in January 1539. With his wife, his ten children, and his printing press the left for Basel, where he was allowed to live until his death in 1542. His first wife died in 1540, and the following year he married Margarete Beck, the daughter of the printer Reinhard Beck and the stepdaughter of Balthasar Beck, who had printed Franck’s Chronica. Franck’s last works, including a collection of German proverbs, were published at Basel.

Franck’s thought presents a mixture of theology and philosophy. It was neither highly original nor entirely consistent, but what he borrowed he molded into a powerful and unusual statement of the spiritual freedom and self-sufficiency of the individual. It was guided by the principle that all men, regardless of time and place, are given equal capacity for moral, intellectual, and religious insight. From the beginning of history, God has in His creation revealed Himself unambiguously and uniformly to all mankind, and this revelation in nature is surer and more universal testimony to His power, wisdom, and goodness than the Scriptures are. The Scriptures are recorded in the dead letter of writing, full of contradictions and available only to part of mankind. Since God is impartial, faith and divine favor cannot depend on Sccripture alone.

Hence the Incarnation and the historical Christ have no place in Franck’s theology. Adam and Christ, the flesh and the spirit, the outward and the inward man, are qualities that lie in human nature. The common creation of the macrocosm and the microcosm ensures their conformity as well as the uniformity of human nature. Thus all men are born with the ability to gain divine insight. Reason, or the light of nature, combined with experience is the means man has been granted to gain this insight. Taken together with his individualism, this aspect of Franck’s thought has a rationalist and naturalist quality that is absent in his German contemporaries but somewhat reminiscent of the philosophy of the late seventeenth century.

Franck is generally grouped with the spiritual reformers or mystics of his own century because, like them, he rebelled against the increasing dogmatism and growing institutional rigidity of the Protestant churches. But his rationalism and radical universalism set him apart from them. Unlike the true mystics—Valentin Weigel and Jacob Boehme, for instance—Franck never claimed authority and special insight by virtue of some unique personal revelation; the knowledge that was open to him was open to all. He was no enthusiast. Similarly, he had no fondness for esoteric and cabailistic lore, did not engage in fanciful verbal mysticism, and had no predilection for magic.

Although it may appear curious, Franck’s outlook resembles that of John Locke (no influence is postulated). Both believed that the play of reason on experience was a God-given and certain avenue to all knowledge, both natural and moral; that this knowledge was equally open to all mankind; and that it agreed with the moral and religious precepts of the New Testament. Both had profound doubts about the Trinity and the divinity of Christ; both insisted on God’s impartiality and therefore gave tolerance a prominent place in their concerns; and both took an interest in comparative anthropology. Their agreement on so many fundamental points is summed up in their mutual abhorrence of enthusiasm as an enemy of reason and tolerance. This position is not incompatible with the chiliasm which Franck shared with so many in his own and the following century, although it did not play a prominent role in his writ ings. Chiliasm gave a strong impulse to rationalism; being God-given and Godlike, only reason can discover the proper method for the speedy increase of knowledge.

Franck taught the most radical form of spiritualism. True belief depends on the illumination of the individual soul by the inward spirit, which is also called Christ, truth, and the inward word. Having created man in his own image, God has planted this spirit in man and has made it innate. All men are in this respect equal, whether they have heard the outward word or not. Just as many who have never heard of Adam live according to the flesh, so many who have not heard of Christ are filled with the spirit. God is impartial. He is wholly love, and this love is extended to all of creation, which gives testimony to his love and power. God is essentially without will. Self-will entered the world with the Fall, but the loving God will not use force against it. Union with God can occur only when man is rightly moved by the spirit, making himself altogether empty of will and thus becoming independent of outward things. This willless state of the soul is called Gelassenheit, a term common among the spiritual reformers, who found it in the writings of late medieval mystics. It was also used by Luther and later regained importance among the Pietists. To ensure that man is indeed capable of this will-less spiritual state, Franck argued that man can actively exercise free will by prevenient grace alone, that is, grace before conversion and baptism. Predestination and election are contrary to the essential love and impartiality of God.

Within these terms, so very different from Luther’s, Franck agreed with Luther that justification occurs by faith alone, but he firmly rejected Luther’s scripturalism (the necessity of the outward word, even though insufficient, prior to the awakening of the inward spirit). God’s word and truth cannot be writern and read, spoken and taught. As reason will not submit to written rules, so the spirit cannot be contained in the dead letter. The only possible church is the invisible church of individual believers, each man gaining faith by his own private efforts. All men being endowed with the spirit and allowed full freedom of will, they free choice. The Old and New Testaments are written in the hearts of all men. When Franck revealed, in the Paradoxa and in other works, the contradictions contained in the Bible, he sought to weaken man’s faith in the dead letter in order to guide him toward his own reliance on the spirit within. In this sense Franck can be said to have advocated an extreme and fundamental form of individualism. Still, the importance he attached to the Bible (when understood with spiritual guidance) is sufficiently strong to relieve him of mere pantheism.

Although Franck held that the hidden God can be understood only in the truth and faith that are the fruits of spiritual insight, he did not believe that this insight can be gained directly. Guided by the light of nature or reason, the experience of outward things, whether they were made by God or man, is the means by which man may learn to find the truth that lies hidden behind the mask of appearance. The world of man and his institutions has always been dominated by man’s will, except among the apostles. It is the world of Antichrist, and it is an unending record of chaos, decay, violence, and intolerance. The events of history offer instruction when they are seen as the very opposite of truth, a view that forms the powerful theme of the Chronica. The world, Franck says in the preface, is God’s carnival play; appearance is the reverse of truth. The most characteristic part of this work is the book devoted to the men who have been judged heretics by the Roman Church. Among them Franck included Luther, Erasmus, Zwingli, and the Anabaptists. As victims of mere human authority, will, and force, all heretics have become witnesses to truth by following their own consciences.

Tolerance and impartiality are duties man owes to man by virtue of being created in the image of God. Experience, truth, and faith will always be private and individual. For this reason Franck made no basic distinction between pagans and Christians. He accorded equal significance to citations from the Bible and from Plato, Seneca, Proclus, Plotinus, and Hermes Trismegistus, whom he knew from Ficino’s Latin translation and commentary. They saw the good by means of experience and the inner light or reason that is common to all mankind. Although he cited them often, Franck admitted no special authority for the Church Fathers. He agreed with Erasmus that the wisdom of the learned is folly before God. In line with what may perhaps be called Franck’s democratic spiritualism, he found wisdom in the proverbs of the common folk.

Franck’s position in his own time was as independent as his theology. Although he had much sympathy for the Anabaptists, he was as little inclined to join them as any other sect. He was strongly influenced by Erasmus and the young Luther, as well as by late medieval German mysticism, especially by Johannes Tauler and the Theologia Germanica. He was indebted to a number of his contemporaries among the spiritual reformers, especially Hans Denck, Johann Bunderlin, and Michael Servetus. The distinctive quality of his thought was determined by his heavy debt to Renaissance humanism and the Neoplatonic tradition. It was his special accomplishment to make this tradition available to the public at large. As a writer of German prose, Franck was second only to Luther.

Franck and his teachings were condemned in the strongest terms by Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and Melanchthon. He naturally formed no sect, but his writings, although often banned and burned, were reprinted with some frequency in Germany. Yet it was in the Netherlands that Franck gained his greatest following. He had a direct influence on David Joris and Dirck Coornhert, and some of his writings are preserved only in translations made for the Dutch spiritualists and published at Gouda. Valentin Weigel cites Franck with approval, but the true extent of his influence on later German spiritualists is not easily determined. The title of Gottfried Arnold’s Unparteiische Kirchen- und Ketzer-Historie (1699–1700) is a reminder that Franck was not forgotten by the Pietists.


I. Original Works. Although not complete, the best list of Franck’s works is Karl Goedeke, Grundrisz der Deutschen Dichtung aus den Quellen, II, Das Reformationszeitalter, 2nd ed. (Dresden, 1886), 8–14. There is an unsatisfactory edition of the Paradoxa by Heinrich Ziegler (Jena, 1909). The original works are rare, but good selections will be found in the following: G. H. Williams, ed., Spiritual and Anabaptist Writers (Philadelphia, 1957), pp. 145–160 (“A Letter to John Campanus”); Heinold Fast, ed., Der Linke Flugel der Reformation (Bremen, 1962), pp. 217–248 (“Letter to Campanus” and preface to the book on the Roman heretics in Chronica); Kurt von Raumer, ed., Ewiger Friede, Friedensrufe und Friedensplane seit der Renaissance (Freiburg-Munich), pp. 249–288 extensive excerpts from Kriegbüchlein des Friedes [1539]). Good excerpts various sources are also in Peter Meinhold, ed., Geschichte der kirchlichen Historiographie, I (Freiburg-Munich, 1967), 301–310; and in Ernst Staehelin, ed., Die Verkündigung des Reiches Gottes in der kirche Jesu Christi, IV (Basel, 1957), 342–356.

II. Secondary Literature. The secondary literature is listed in Karl Schottenloher, Bibliographie zur Deutschen Geschichte im Zeitalter der Glaubensspaltung 1517–1585 I Leipzig, 1933), 263–266; V (Leipzig, 1939), 92; VII (Stuttgart, 1962), 79–80. See also E. Teufel, “Die Deutsche Theologie und Sebastian Franck im Lichte der neueren Forschung,” in Theologische Rundschau, 12 (1940), 99–129.

The standard work on Franck and still the best is Alfred Hegler, Geist und Schrift bei Sebastian Franck, eine Studie zur Geschichte des Spiritualismus in der Reformationszeit (Freiburg, 1892). This work should be supplemented by Hegler’s Sebastian Franck,” in Albert Hauck, ed., Realencvklopädie für protestantische Theologie und Kirche, 3rd ed., VI (Leipzig, 1899), 142–150. The best biography is E. Teufel, "Landraumig” Sebastian Franck, ein Wanderer an Donau, Rhein und Neckar (Neustadt an der Aisch, 1954). Somewhat diffuse, with extensive quotations from the works, is Will-Erich Peuckert, Sebastian Francks, ein Deutscher Sucher (Munich, 1943). Wilhelm Dilthey devoted an influential section to Franck in Weltanschauung und Analyse des Menschen seit Renaissance und Reformation, Gesammelte Schriften, II (Leipzig-Berlin, 1914), 81–89.

General aspects are dealt with in Rudolf Stadelmann, Vom Geist des ausgehenden Mittelalters, Studien zurGeschichte der Weltanschauung von Nikolaus Cusanus bis Sebastian Franck (Halle, 1929). A special issue of Blätter für Deutsche Philosophie, 2 (1928–1929) was devoted to Franck. See also Alexandre Koyré, “Sébastien Frank,” in Mystiques, Spirituels, Alchimistes du XVIe siecle allemand (Paris, 1955), pp. 21–43; and Walter Nigg, Das Buch der Ketzer (Zurich, 1949), pp. 382–392. G. H. Williams, The Radical Reformation (Philadelphia, 1962), deals with Franck on pp. 264–268, 457–466, and 499–504. Good general introductions are offered in Rufus M. Jones, Spiritual Reformers of the 16th and 17th Centuries (New York, 1914), pp. 46–63; and Doris Rieber, “Sébastian Franck,” in Bibliothèque d’humanisme et renaissance20 (1958), 218–228.

Special topics are dealt with in Kuno Räber, Studien zur Geschichtsbibel Sebastian Francks (Basel, 1952), which is vol. XLI in Basler Beiträge zur Geschichtswissenschaft. Joseph Lecler, Histoire de la tolérance au siecle de la reforme, I (Paris, 1955), 177–187, is excellent. Meinulf Barber, Roleranz bei Sebastian Franck (Bonn, 1964), has a good bibliography (this is n.s. 4 in Untersuchungen zur allgemeinen Religionsgeschichte) see also Robert Stupperich “Sebastian Franck und das münsterische Tauferturm, “in Rudolf Vierhaus and Manfred Botzenhart, eds., Dauer und Wandel der Geschichte... Festgabe fur kurt von Raumer zum 15. Dezember 1965 (Münster, 1966), pp. 144–162. On Gottfried Arnold and Franck, see Erich Seeberg, Gottfried Arnold, die Wissenschaft and die Mystik seiner Zeit (Meerane, 1923; repr. Darmstadet, 1964), pp. 516–534, Franck’s role in the study of comparative anthro pology and folklore is demonstrated in Erich Schmidt Deutsche Volkksunde im Zeitalter des Humanismus und der Reformation, Histroische studien, E. Eberling, ed., no. 47 (Berling, 1904), pp. 108–131

There is an excellent chapter on the general outlook of the Anabaptists in Claus-Peter, Die Widertäufer im Herzogtum Württemberg und in benachbarten Herrschaften Ausbreitung Geisteswelt und Soziologie (Stuttgart, 1965), pp. 69–117.

Hans Aarsleff