Johannes Oecolampadius just may be the most important Reformer you’ve never heard of, and Diane Poythress wants to help fill that gap in our study of church history. Dr. Poythress is author of Reformer of Basel: The Life, Thought, and Influence of Johannes Oecolampadius, and recently she took the time to talk about this reformer and about her book.
Who and when was Johannes Oecolampadius, and in just broad strokes why is he someone we really should not have overlooked?
He was born 1482, the year before Luther was born, so they were contemporaries. They wrote to each other and debated theology together. Oecolampadius was German, just like Luther, but he did most of his work in German-speaking Basel, Switzerland. My own theory as to his importance needs to be researched by others in greater detail. But as I began to uncover his writings, it seemed to me that he was the father of Reformed thought, including Calvin’s. That is an academic theory.
But the importance of his life spiritually is far more extensive. He was a really godly person. Even his enemies praised him in his patience, forbearance, gentleness in debate, kindness. My doctoral advisor said that my book sounded like a hagiography and that I needed to mention bad things and criticisms about him. But I couldn’t find any. There was only some sarcasm about the fact that he got married like all the other former priests who turned Reformers. There were attacks on his theology, so for example Luther upbraided him concerning his interpretation of the Lord’s Supper. But no one seemed to deny his personal godliness, but rather, in fact, as I said, even his enemies commended him. If we look at him in an exemplary way, we will find him visiting the sick even out in the countryside, gently, yet firmly, holding to biblical truth even in a set-up debate where he is outnumbered, or being firm yet humble in his interaction with Luther at the Marburg discussion on the Lord’s Supper, loving his enemies which included heretics like Servetus, being silent while persecuted by another preacher in town, interceding for Anabaptists to the point of kneeling in tears to beg for their lives in front of the city council, being wise in dealing with the government of the world as he compromised on non-essential issues like how many government representatives would be on the excommunication board, counseling and trying to persuade heretics of God’s truth–even hosting some in his home, wrestling deeply and quietly with career and life choices which he did at a monastery, loving and commending his children to God and his own soul to his Savior in death.
Perhaps we can speak more of his actual writings later, since these are what actually remain to us. These open God’s Word at deeper and deeper levels from a sanctified understanding. He sees so much more of God and His person and grace and intent in a passage, than I ever see.
Highlight his early life for us and how he came to pursue theological studies. And how did his acquaintance with Erasmus come about?
He was the only surviving child of his parents and very bright. So he went to a sort of college prep elementary school where he had to go to Latin class at 5 in the morning. But there was also a teacher there who taught him to think more along the lines of the actual biblical text. His parents had plans for him to be a lawyer. He started studies at college when he was 17 at Heidelberg and seems, even then, to have had a deep love for the Lord. Again he benefited from teachers who loved the Word of God and knew it well, especially in the original languages of Greek and Hebrew. We have a little poem he wrote at that time which says in part, “Love with your whole heart the word-bearing Christ.” Anyway, after he got his bachelor’s and master’s degree there, his parents sent him to Bologna Law school, but the man entrusted with his money ran off with it all. At that point he returned to Germany and began studies in religion at Heidelberg. Then he studied Hebrew and theology at Tubingen University and continued doctoral work at the University of Basel. His first published work came out in 1512, when he was 20, about salvation by faith alone, pointing to the thief on the cross. It is important to note that this was 5 years before Luther tacked up his 95 theses. To me, that shows how God was beginning to work through His Word in many different men simultaneously to prepare for a reformed church.
Briefly, he helped Erasmus publish a good Greek New Testament, then took a pastorate at one of the top cathedrals in Europe. Shortly afterward, he left and entered a monastery, but then fled from there, leaving his glasses, books, scrolls, everything, and hid in a nobleman’s castle, just like Luther was doing at the same time. At the castle, he served as chaplain. There he completely rewrote the liturgy. When he left the castle to return to Basel, this great published and acclaimed doctor of theology and acknowledged European master of Hebrew, Greek and Latin, had nothing. A man who owned the printing press that used to publish his work took him in and gave him a proof-reading job. That actually takes us up to the time when God then used him in a mighty way in Basel and throughout the Church. He began preaching and teaching the Scripture in German to the effect that people closed their shops for the opportunity to hear the Bible preached in their own language. Just 8 years later, the city structure, the church theology, and the courses for schooling had been completely redone to fit Scripture better. The city had joined politically with other areas where the Reformation was held.
But you asked specifically about his acquaintance with Erasmus. He had two teachers who wrote to Erasmus praising his academic prowess. They praised his language ability, especially in Hebrew, but also his excellence in Greek and theology. Erasmus had moved to Basel because of the beautiful font at their printing presses. He was compiling all the Greek texts he could find in order to produce an authoritative edition of the Greek New Testament. This would be the basis for all the Reformers’ interpretations. It also was the basis for the King James Version. Oecolampadius was 33 years old when he went to help Erasmus. It was his job to check Hebrew quotes and see if there were any theological problems. This actually turned out to be a rather dangerous job, since the original Greek clearly contradicted the idea of Mary as a repository of grace, which was the basis for indulgences and other doctrines in the powerful Roman Catholic Church at that time. Erasmus was about 15 years his senior, and they were friends who deeply respected each other their whole lives, even when they differed. Oecolampadius even had a letter from Erasmus framed and hung over his desk, until someone stole it.
How did he come to embrace the Reformed faith, and what connections did he have with the early Reformers?
I’m glad you asked it that way. Some people think that people were not born again Christians until after Luther hammered his theses to the church door. That may be true of some, but actually many men knew the Lord, and then were suddenly awakened to truths in Scripture by actually seeing it in its original language and not just hearing a second hand annotated interpretation.
Because we don’t really have a clear statement about his rebirth, only a vague idea about when he clearly took a stand for the “Lutheran” side, it’s hard to say when he was born again. Frankly, I can’t find a time he didn’t seem to love the Lord, but only God knows the heart. In any case, his early teachers had already begun to pave the way for criticism of immorality and incorrect theology in the church and its practices, along with giving him a love for looking at the original, at what God Himself said. He was standing up for Reformation principles even back in 1512 and had a reputation for favoring the “Lutheran” position in 1518. Maybe he even anonymously authored a tract in support of Luther at that time. My own study has led me to believe that God worked on his heart to come to conclusions similar to Luther and others, but apart from their influence. It was more as if God poured out His Holy Spirit on men throughout Europe to guide them into the same truths simultaneously. In each case, their convictions came as they read the Bible in the original language, not as they heard someone else’s ideas.
As to his relations with the early Reformers, he was pretty much in conversation with almost all of them. He went to Marburg with Zwingli, Bucer, Capito, and Hedio to debate the Lord’s Supper and knew Luther, Melanchthon, and Bruggeman from the Wittenberg crowd. He had counseled and housed Farel, who later worked with Calvin. I could give a long list of names but I think it would be maybe more helpful to mention countries that were affected by his teachings and then concentrate on a couple men. So apart from the obvious Switzerland and Germany, there were in France several men including LeFevre and some groups like the Waldensians and Meaux Circle who sought him out. Many of his writings and teachings got into England, especially through Bucer and Peter Martyr Vermigli. Men in Italy, Bohemia, and Poland read and repeated his written works.
But the men he seems closest to were Bucer and Capito from Strasburg. They went to debates together, wrote letters back and forth, encouraged and sharpened each other in personal and academic and political areas. When Oecolampadius died, his old classmate, Capito, finished and published his commentaries on Jeremiah and Ezekiel and added a short biography in honor of him. Bucer made sure that all of Oecolampadius’s commentaries were published in Strasburg and given to each parish, so every pastor could reference them. Bucer also changed his opinion about several points of ecclesiology after being with Oecolampadius in Bern and Ulm. But the most peculiar and interesting point is that these men not only nurtured Oecolampadius’s ideas, but also his wife and children. About a year after Oecolampadius died, Capito’s wife died in the Black Death Plague, leaving him with several young children. He was quite depressed and while traveling to Basel, visited Oecolampadius’ widow and her 4 children. He asked her to marry him. So she moved to Strasburg with him to help with his children. Nine years later the Plague came through again and killed Capito and also Bucer’s wife, Elizabeth, leaving Bucer with young children. Bucer then married Capito’s widow taking in his children, along with Oecolampadius’ children. The times were rougher than just what we think about in terms of church discussions.
Tell us about his published works. What kind of writing did he do? And what were some of his theological distinctives?
He wrote all kinds of things. Besides the Greek New Testament done with Erasmus and commentaries on 24 Bible books, he wrote a church liturgy, sermons and lectures, a catechism for children, a Greek grammar, hundreds of letters, pamphlets on ministering to the sick and poor, theological apologetics about current concerns, and he translated over a hundred works by ancient church fathers. He was both a Greek and a Patristics expert, so he translated many of the really strong biblical writings from Chrysostom from the 300’s, for example. There is such a rich diversity of subjects that anyone looking for a subject for a doctoral thesis or book could easily find plenty of options to explore.
Much of what he taught might be considered typical of Reformation renewal, such as allowing clergy to marry, no works righteousness, no idols in the church, no prayers to saints, no purgatory, no indulgences, no Mariology, no appeals to tradition equal to Scripture, no papal authority, and so on. In many ways his own distinctives theologically really just came from going back to the Bible and early church times. That means he saw the Lord’s Supper as a special sacrament of grace, but not of salvation.
On the positive side he emphasized the authority of Scripture alone, salvation by faith alone, with exegesis and preaching centered on Christ alone. He pushed to reinstate elders in the church, which hadn’t been done for maybe a thousand years or more. Having elders meant that an authority could be granted them, apart from the government. That was a new separation of church and state. The elders could excommunicate unrepentant people caught in public sin, which made the church more pure, more Christian. Excommunication was defined narrowly, to be used for people not repenting of publicly breaking the moral laws of the 10 Commandments or denying Bible doctrine, for example that Jesus was fully God and fully man. He petitioned the city government to allow congregational singing, where before this was done by a little chorus in Latin. When he restructured the university, he got rid of the theology department and had the Bible professors teach theology as it came from the Bible. His preaching depended on the Word, which he preached in a verse by verse exposition week by week, always centered on Christ as our Savior and sustainer of our faith.
Tell us something of his influence on the Reformers and the Reformation itself. What should we know about him in this regard?
From my own beginnings of research in this area, it appears that Calvin got most of his ideas from Oecolampadius. Sometimes in a commentary Calvin actually quotes him verbatim without mentioning his name. Calvin really copied everything Oecolampadius did in instituting elders, even to the point of having session meetings on Thursday nights.
But Oecolampadius also clearly influenced Capito and Bucer. We know that Bucer changed his idea on the separation of church and state after helping Oecolampadius set up a reformed structure in the city of Ulm. You could trace out some of the influences directly, but others are just implied. For example, Bucer was called by King Edward the 6th to England to set up the Reformation there. Much of what he took to England had been influenced by Oecolampadius. Oecolampadius’s books went all over Europe and his commentaries were printed by the governments of Strasburg and Geneva for the pastors and laymen.
But I think there is a dimension that is often neglected, partially because it cannot be assessed. What, in the light of eternity, is the effect of someone being born again, or having his life spared as with the Anabaptists, or having a godly father nurture and pray for them? How many were set on roads of truth that bore fruit in whole families or communities? These are probably the most important influences, but who can say what happened?
Several scholars like to point to his ideas on elders, church discipline, the Lord’s Supper, or his influence on Calvin. For me, the most wonderful thing is his exposition of Scripture and how it draws me into the presence of God through His Word. His own concern was always to encourage the faithful in glorifying God. If I may, I would like to add a quote from him which typifies his rich knowledge of God and love for God’s people. “We worship the Lord, asking that He bring us to the apostolic spirit, that is, the doctrine of the Apostles, which, sitting in the chariot of our heart, and revealing deep things, He may preach to us in Isaiah that Jesus is the Christ, by which we also may be made learned and joyful.”
Is there a good reason why we have not heard more about Oecolampadius? And why does his work remain untranslated?
That is a good question. In fact, that same question came up at my doctoral dissertation defense. You could say it was because he was not as brash or colorful of a personality as Luther or Zwingli. Or you could say it was because he died so young. But I now think it is because the continuing thrust of the Reformation went through Geneva. Refugees from Scotland, England, and Holland were taught by Calvin, and so took Calvin’s materials back with them to disseminate. It might also have been aided by the fact that Calvin gave a summary handbook of what the Bible taught, arranged by topics, that is, his Institutes of the Christian Religion. Oecolampadius seemed to prefer to have people grow through exposure to the truth of the Biblical Word itself, through his sermons and commentaries. He wrote one brief catechism to help teach children and published some topical theology to correct false teaching. But he never wrote a systematic theology.
Why hasn’t more been translated? Much of what he wrote was in Latin, which people don’t seem to study anymore. Calvin used and expanded much of Oecolampadius’s his material, so perhaps it seemed redundant. It was somewhat easier to access Calvin’s material, as mentioned before, through the refugees, and now through English translations. But I find Oecolampadius’s sermons and commentaries more directly edifying. So it is actually one of my hopes in writing this book, that more Christians would begin to read and translate his work. Some who have discovered him have taken an academic-theological interest in his sources, methods, and influences, using a scholarly approach. They are interested in analysis, not translation. However, I hope that God’s people as a whole would be built up in faith by reading God’s Word as he opened it. So, I do hope that more would be translated. At this time, of all his 24 commentaries on Bible books, only 11 chapters have been translated into English: Gen. 1-3; Isaiah 53, 36-37; 1 John. All of these have been published in only the last 6 years.
Now tell us about your book. What can a reader expect to find?
The book has 3 main parts. First there is his life, which is a fascinating picture of God’s hand in the midst of the Reformation, which leads into his interaction with other men of that time. Then there is an analysis of his hermeneutical methods and what a systematic theology by him might have looked like, if he had written one. Lastly, there are his publications which include in the appendix a translation of his Isaiah commentary, chapters 36-37.
If you want a quick read, I would suggest chapter one and the appendix. The hand of God in the general revelation of history in chapter one and the Word of God declared in special revelation in the appendix are incredibly edifying. If you want a one page taste of Oecolampadius, I suggest reading the charge to a preacher, just after the contents page. You will see how he is so filled with Scripture that he is just a bubbling fountain of that eternal water. I really pray that God continues to give us the same wisdom and faith and that He raises up men like him in every generation to lead His Church.
Buy the books
Reformer of Basel: The Life, Thought, and Influence of Johannes Oecolampadius