Weigel, Valentin

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(b. Naundort [near Dresden], Saxony, Germany, 1533; d. Zschopau, Saxony, Germany, 10 June 1588), mysticism, philosophpy of nature.

Weigel occupies an important position in the history of religion and philosophy between Luther and the seventeenth century. He belongs with the mystics who reacted against Lutheran orthodoxy and the rigid institutionalization of the church, advocating instead that all men are created with innate resources that make faith and knowledge independent of the priesthood and even of the spoken or written word. These are merely aids to the awakening of preexisting inward knowledge. Sin being the consequence of contrary will, rebirth and salvation can occur only when the abandonment of will creates a state of total passivity and submission in the act of union with God. This is the state of Gelassenheit, which played an important role in the thought of such early German mystics as Master Eckhart and Johann Tauler, who, with the socalled Theologia Germanica, are the chief spiritual fathers of sixteenth-century German mysticism. The early Luther was close to this tradition, which also deeply influenced Thomas Müntzer. Sebastian Franck, and Caspar Schwenckfeld. A generation younger than these figures, Weigel knew and used their work as well as the older sources, in addition to the German mystics including Plotinus, Proclus, Hermes Trismegistus, Dionysius the Areopagite, Johannes Scottus Eriugena, Boethius, and the Neoplatonists of his own century. The special mark of Weigel’s thought is the combination of this mystical spiritualism with Paracelsian naturalism, chiefly in his later writings. Weigel founds his theory of knowledge on the doctrine of harmony between the macrocosm and the microcosm; it is by virtue of this harmony that man is capable of knowledge. To know oneself is therefore the beginning of wisdom and faith. Cosmology and anthropology are complementary sources of insight.

The son of poor Catholic parents, Weigel owed his early education to a local patron who secured free schooling for him at the recently established ducal school of St. Afra in Meissen, which Weigel attended from 1549 to 1554. He spent the next ten years at the University of Leipzig, where he gained the B.A. in 1558 and the M.A. the following year. During this time he was among a small number of students who were not only supported by the elector Augustus I (1526-1586), but also given special attention at the university. In addition to theology, Weigel’s studies included philosophy, mathematics, natural science, and medicine. He took part in the usual academic disputations and also taught at the university, but in 1564 he transferred to Wittenberg, where he also taught. It is not known why he made the transfer. This long academic career gave Weigel philosophic training and dialectical skill beyond the normal accomplishments of Lutheran pastors. In 1565 he married Katherina Poch, the daughter of a local pastor. In addition to a daughter, they had two sons who grew up to practice medicine. In 1567 the elector appointed him pastor of Zschopau, where he remained until his death, loved and respected by his parishioners for his dedicated work among them.

The years of Weigel’s pastorate coincided with a period of growing Lutheran orthodoxy and tightening church discipline. This movement found expression in the Formula of Concord (1577), which enjoined commitment to articles that no spiritual reformer could accept, such as the doctrine of justification and the scriptural principle of the necessity of the outward word. Weigel subscribed to the formula. The ecclesiastical visitors found no grounds to suspect him of unorthodoxy, except on one occasion, in 1572, when he quickly and successfully cleared himself in a written defense that was dedicated to his bishop. In this skillful piece, Weigel relied on both the ideas of the Theologia Germanica (first put into print by the young Luther in 1518) and of Luther, thus retaining as much as possible for his own theological position without giving cause for further suspicion.

Underneath this calm official surface, however, Weigel was leading a double life. From 1570 until his last years he wrote a number of works advancing a religious philosophy that constituted a total rejection of the ruling orthodoxy. The large number of still surviving manuscripts indicate that these writings were copied and circulated, perhaps chiefly on the initiative of Weigel’s deacon and successor at Zschopau, Benedikt Biedermann, who a dozen years after Weigel’s death was disciplined by the church for spreading heretical doctrines. Weigel’s writings finally found their way into print between 1609 and 1618, when at least a dozen of his works appeared at Halle and Magdeburg, As a consequence, the authorities took stronger action against Weigelian doctrine, but it was now too late. It seems clear that Boehme during these very years came under the influence of Weigel, whom he resembles in a number of ways, although most clearly in the heavy dependence on Paracelsus. Weigel’s thought also had affinity with Rosicrucianism, which during these same years was taking shape in people’s imaginations owing to Andreae’s mystifications. Weigel’s name meant so much that at least a dozen items were falsely published under his name in 1618 alone, a few of them written by other well-known mystics. In consequence Weigel’s thought was diffused into a debased form of philosophy, which for the rest of the century was mentioned along with other forms of enthusiasm. Weigel was well known and respected among English Quakers, and like the mystical Protestant tradition in general, his thought was taken up by the Pietists.

It is Weigel’s basic doctrine that all men are born with the means of knowing all that pertains to their spiritual welfare. The divine or inward light is infused by God and the Holy Ghost. In conformity with the macrocosm-microcosm doctrine, the light of nature reveals all things pertaining to God’s creation, while the light of grace ensures supernatural knowledge. The inward word is the term he commonly uses to refer both to the innate capacity for knowledge and to the innate knowledge itself. The objects of cognition seen by the eye only awaken what is already in the mind; but these objects are necessary just as the kernel of wheat will not grow and bear fruit without being planted in the soil. It is clear that this radical subjectivist doctrine entails a thorough rejection of all outward authority and forms: church, priesthood, sacraments, confession, ceremonies, outward speech or scripture, books, and universities. Even the historical Christ has no meaning; faith and religion do not depend on the revelation of religious events in time and space. With the mystics of his own and the next century, Weigel shared the doctrine that the only true church is invisible as well as the commitment to toleration in all matters. The first three chapters of Genesis constitute an epitome of the scriptural story of creation, fall, and redemption written for this secular life; but in the future world of perfection, there will again be no need of languages, art, and knowledge, just as Adam in his angelic state had no need of them. In that future state, nature as we know it will cease to exist. For the time being, however, we must continue to make the effort to learn by seeking to let the outward world awaken our innate knowledge; the chief obstacle is the false teaching of the pseudotheologians. Weigel’s epistemology and cosmology are chiefly set forth in the following works: Gnothi seauton, nosce teipsum, erkenne dich selbst; Vom Ort der Welt; and Der güldene Griff, alle Dinge ohne Irrthum zu erkennen, vielen hochgelehrten unbekannt, und doch allen Menschen nothwendig.


I. Original Works. The canon of Weigel’s writings is the subject of Winfried Zeller’s Die Schriften Valentin Weigels: Eine literarkritische Untersuchung (Berlin, 1940), which is Historische Studien, no. 370. In addition to the printed items attributed to Weigel, Zeller lists no less than 130 MSS, of which more than a dozen are judged genuine;a few of these have been printed only recently. The early printings are very rare, but since 1962 Will-Erich Peuckert and W. Zeller have edited the Sämtliche Werke, eventually to contain all the genuine works. The following have appeared: Vom Ort der Welt, W.-E. Peuckert, ed.(1962); Von der Vergebung der Sünden oder vom Schlüssel der Kirchen, W. Zeller, ed. (1964); Zwei nützliche Tractate and Kurzer Bericht und Anleitung zur Deutschen Theologie, W. Zeller, ed.(1966); Dialogus de Christianismo, Alfred Ehrentreich, ed. (1967); Ein Büchlein vom wahren seligmachen Glauben, W. Zeller, ed. (1969)—this last item is Weigel’s defense of 1572.

Two of Weigel’s works appeared in English trans. during the 17th century: Of the Life of Christ (London, 1648) and Astrologie Theologized (London, 1649); the latter is presumably a translation of Gnothi seauton, pt. II. John Locke’s friend, the Quaker Benjamin Furly, with whom Locke stayed while in exile in Rotterdam, left a translation of “A Brief Instruction of the Way and Manner to Know all Things …Written by Valentyn Weigelius, in Hyhdutch and New Englished by a Lover of Truth, Benj. Furly 1664” (see W. Zeller, Schriften, p. 77).

II. Secondary Literature. Three early works have rich bibliographies and important information about the ways in which Weigel and his thought have been judged. There is a long chapter “Vom Weigelianismo,” in Ehregott Daniel Colberg’s critique of all forms of enthusiasm, Das Platonisch-Hermetisches Christenthum, begreiffend die historische Erzehlung vom Ursprung und vielerley Secten der heutigen fanatischen Theologie, unterm Namen der Paracelsisten, Weigelianer, Rosencreutzer, Quaäler. Böhemisten, Wiedertäuffer, Bourignisten, Labadisten, und Quietisten (Frankfurt-Leipzig, 1690), 205–264. A very well-informed and sympathetic treatment will be found in Gottfried Arnold, Unpartheyische Kirchen-und Ketzer-Historie, 2 vols. in 4 pts.(Frankfurt, 1699-1700), pt. 2, 615–640. Zedler’s Grosses Universal-Lexicon aller Wissenschaften und Künste, 54 (1747), has two articles (with full bibliographies) that are critical of Weigel’s heretical doctrines: “Weigel,” cols. 293–304; and “Weigelianer,” cols. 304–326.

For a brief bibliography of the secondary literature, see W. Zeller, Schriften, pp. 86–87. There is a useful survey of the primary literature, also indicating the subject and argument of each work, in Ludolf Pertz, “Beiträge zur Geschichte der mystischen and ascetischen Literature. I. Weigels Leben und Schriften,” in Zeitschrift für die historische Theologie (1857), pp. 3–94; and “II. Weigels Theologie,” ibid. (1859), pp. 49–123. There is no recent work that compares in scope to that of these two items: Julius Otto Opel, Valentin Weigel: Ein Beitrag zur Literatur- und Culturgeschichte im 17. Jahrhundert (Leipzig, 1864); and August Israel, Valentin Weigels Leben und Schriften (Zschopau, 1888). For a penetrating and critical review of Israel, see G. Kawerau, in Theologische Literaturzeitung13 (1888), cols. 594–598.

The author’s Lutheran orientation deepens the interest of Hans Maier, “Der mystische Spiritualismus Valentin Weigels,” in Beiträge zur Förderung christlicher Theologie. 29 no. 4 (1926), 389–495. Since several of Weigel’s works are not readily available, Heinz Längin, “Grundlinien der Erkenntnislehre Valentin Weigels,” in Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie, 41 (1932), 434–478, is useful not merely for its cogent analyses but also owing to its extensive quotations. See also Winfried Zeller, “Meister Eckhart bei Valentin Weigel. Eine Untersuchung zur Frage der Bedeutung Meister Eckharts für die mystische Renaissance des sechzehnten Jahrhunderts,” in Zeitschrift für Kirchengeschichte, 57 (1938), 309–355; and Alexandre Koyré “Un mystique protestant: Valentin Weigel,” in Mystiques, spirituels, alchimistes du XVIe siècle allemand (Paris, 1955), which is in Cahiers des Annales, no. 10, pp. 81–116; originally published in 1930 soon after the same author’s monograph on Boehme, this essay has all the virtues of Koyré’s insight and clarity, but it should be noted that Koyré accepts Studium universale in the Weigel canon, contrary to later and, it would seem, well-founded judgment. Fritz Lieb, Valentin Weigels Kommentar zur Schöpfungsgeschichte und das Schriftum seines Schülers Benedikt Biedermann (Zurich, 1962), argues that Biedermann is the author of the pseudo-Weigelian works and that they were written while he was Weigel’s deacon, that is, concurrently with Weigel’s own works. Lieb also argues that Weigel was the author of the Genesis commentary, “Viererley Auslegung über das erste Capittel Mosis, von der Schöpfung aller Dinge” (see W. Zeller, Schriften, pp. 66–67); he shows that it was published early in the 18th century, and that it was translated into Russian during the reign of Catherine II owing to the popularity of Weigel and other mystics in masonic circles. For an important aspect of the relationship between Paracelsus and Weigel, see Kurt Goldammer, “Friedensidee und Toleranzgedanke bei Paracelsus und den Spiritualisten. Franck und Weigel,” in Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte, 47 (1956), 180–211. Ernst Wilhelm Kämmerer, Das Leib-Seele-Geist-Problem bei Paracelsus und einigen Autoren des 17. Jahrhunderts (Wiesbaden, 1971), deals with a Paracelsian doctrine that Weigel took over (esp. pp. 70–76). Two useful recent books place Weigel in the larger context of his century: Siegfried Wollgast, Der Deutsche Pantheismus im 16. Jahrhundert. Sebastian Franck und seine Wirkungen auf die Entwicklung der pantheistischen Philosophie in Deutschland (Berlin, 1972), esp. pp. 267–286, and Steven E. Ozment, Mysticism and Dissent. Religious Ideology and Social Protest in the Sixteenth Century (New Haven, 1973), pp. 203–245. Weigel’s role in Quaker thought is treated in Rufus M. Jones, Spiritual Reformers in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (New York, 1914), chiefly in the chapter devoted to “Valentine Weigel and Nature Mysticism,” pp. 133–150.

Hans Aarsleff