On with the Reformation!, circa 1567: the under-appreciated Matthias Flacius Illyricus (part II of III)

30 Oct

matthias-flacius-illyricusThe insights contained in this post are mostly culled from a paper given by my pastor, Paul Strawn, at a conference on Flacius given in Northfield, MN. In 2011: The Holy Spirit as Interpreter of Scripture in the Clavis Scripturae Sacrae of Matthias Flacius Illyricus. (you can read it here)

Regarding the Scripture’s interpretation, Strawn states “Luther had argued for a clarity provided by the Holy Spirit externally via the ministry of the Word (that is, the Son of God) and internally in the heart of the Christian”.  This was in contrast to

“Schwenkfeld[, who] understood the actual words of the text of the New Testament not to be the actual Word of God, word’s dictated by the Holy Spirit in one way or another to man, but in quite a modern sense, only a human record of a type of divine event. Such words could thus only truly be understood by the direct divine illumination of the reader and were open to much interpretation.

Not only this, but though he is widely considered, for good reason, the most mild-mannered and conservative voice of the Radical Reformation, Schwenckfeld – who had actually been converted by reading Luther – told him in 1525 that

“his colleague Crautwald—a scholar in the original languages of Scripture—claimed he had received in a ‘revelation’ [about the Lord’s Supper]…. Schwenckfeld believed his interpretation was divinely sent, and he hoped that Luther would recognize in his doctrine a solution to the debate that was causing serious strife and discord among Christians.”

Evidently, Schwenkfeld met with Luther three times but persisted in his (mis)understanding. To put it mildly, Luther did not see additionally revealed doctrines from heaven as the way forward (can confessional Lutherans allow for any extra-Scriptural guidance from God?  Yes!  See here). For those who are interested, their meetings, as recounted by Schwenkfeld, are discussed in a 1980 volume of Christian History magazine devoted to him (the previous quote above is from there – see here).  In that issue, we also read this summary of his views:

Caspar Schwenckfeld

Caspar Schwenckfeld

Schwenckfeld is perhaps the best representative of the fourth Radical reformation group, the Spiritualists. He and others who are placed in this category tendedto make a sharp distinction between spirit and flesh, the spiritual words of the Scripture and the physical letters, the spiritual-invisible universal Church and the physical institutionalized forms of Christianity, the spiritual sacraments and the bread or water.

What is going on here ultimately?  Obviously, many persons who claim Christ will disagree about this matter, but according to Joachim Wach, in his Types of Religious Experience, Christian and Non-Christian, (Chicago: Chicago Univ. Press, 1951), this is all rather simple.  Platonism lies at the base of Schwenkfeld’s views.  As quoted by Strawn:

Plato: How large is his influence in Christianity?

Plato: How large is his influence in Christianity?

“…Against Luther and his followers Schwenckfeld holds that faith, by which we grow in the knowledge of the divine does not come in or by the outer word or sign (‘fides ex auditu’) but, being of the spiritual or inner order, it comes from God, is his work, and hence cannot have its origin in the external or material.

(also see this post for more about Plato’s influence in Christianity and how this might be related to views on baptismal regeneration, for example)

I know what you are thinking – give us Illyricus!  Well, here is where Matthias Flacius Illyricus, who had studied in close proximity to Luther for five years, comes in.  He took up the fight against Schwenkfeld in the 1550s, as they disputed this question: “What is the relationship of the Word of God, to the Bible, to the Christian?”  This can be seen from the titles of the books they published, in debate with one another, during that decade:

1) Schwenkfeld: Concerning the Holy Scriptures (1551);

2) Schwenkfeld: Concerning the Gospel of Christ and its Abuse (1551);

3) Flacius: Concerning the Holy Scriptures and their Effect (1553);

4) Schwenkfeld: Concerning the Word of God (1554);

5) Schwenkfeld: A Book Concerning the Difference Between the Word of God and the Holy Scriptures (1554);

6) Flacius: A Refutation of the Book concerning the Word of God and all the Spiritually

-Vacillating Books of Stinkfield (1555);

7) Flacius: Fundamental Refutation of a Number of New Donatistic Writings of Stinkfield (1555);

8) Schwenkfeld: Conclusion and Farewell (1555);

9) Flacius: A Few Contradictions (1556);

10) Schwenckfeld: Defense Against the Little Book of Flacius known as “Contradictions” (1556);

11) Flacius: Fundamental Refutation of all harmful Spiritual Vacillation of Stinkfield (1557);

12) Flacius: Fifty Gross Errors of the Stinkfieldien Spiritual Vacillators (1558);

13) Schwenckfeld: Rejection and Response to the Fifty Lies or Calumnies of Flacius Illyricus (1559)

HowtounderstandPersonal insults aside, the content of what they were discussing does seem rather contemporary, especially given the disputes about the Bible that took place in the 20th century.

I will simply leave you with a small selection of some of Strawn’s  observations concerning Flacius’ view:

“Of importance for us here is the mere assertion that when Scripture is interpreted, according to Flacius, something more is going on than a mere grammatical pursuit of clarity. 2 Peter 1:20, for example, at least here in this section of the Clavis, is not cited to prove divine authorship of the Scriptures, as it is done in most explanations of the Small Catechism. [my note: which Luther himself did not write] It is instead cited to demonstrate the Spirit’s ongoing work in these End Times as an interpreter of Scripture. What is more, however, such interpretation of Scripture by the Spirit in these End Times is understood to be always in conjunction with the incarnate Son of God Himself, who works Himself through the Spirit via the Scripture to affect the heart and soul of the reader or hearer of the Bible….

[Commenting on John 16:7-11] Flacius, without referent [cf. Rom. 15:4], puts it this way: “All that is written, therefore, is written for us, so that Scripture first binds us under sin and condemns us; then, testifies to us about Christ; third, consoles us so that we might have patience and hope.”

How Flacius understands exactly how the Holy Spirit then carries out this binding, condemning, testify and consoling, specifically as the Christian encounters the Word of God in memory, paintings, interpretation, singing, whistling or “in whatever way possible” is beyond the scope of this little paper…”

But even though Strawn’s paper does not go there, it is well worth reading, to get a fuller discussion of what has been discussed here.


One more key quote.  Here is how Strawn ends his paper:

“…Of greatest importance, however, is to understand what would follow in the writings of Flacius about the interpretation of Scripture as coming into shape, coming into form within this eschatological context.   It simply is too simplistic to look at the hermeneutical principles and ideas found in the Clavis, and then later in the writings of John Gerhard (1582-1637), to create some sort of scholastic straw man which modern man in his arrogance of all things self can quickly set alight in the name of intellectual and even Christian freedom.  At a minimum, the attempt should always be made to understand such an approach to Scripture as something that Flacius hoped would truly correspond to its God-given reality.  That Flacius had something of this sort in mind is clearly seen by its development out his interaction with Schwenkfeld.  More effort, and more sympathy, is needed to describe clearly exactly what it was.”

Tomorrow, we will conclude this series with a brief picture of Martin Chemnitz, “the second Martin”.


Picture of Flacius: ; Picture of Schwenkfeld: Wikipedia ; Picture of Clavis:

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Posted by on October 30, 2013 in Uncategorized


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