AT 24: Pilgram Marpeck: An Ecumenical Anabaptist?

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by David Southall
Originally Published in Anabaptism Today, Issue 24, Summer 2000

Pilgram Marpeck was born in Rattenberg in the last decade of the fifteenth century and spent time in Strasbourg (1528–32) and Augsburg (1544–56), with the intervening time possibly in Switzerland and Moravia. He was a citizen of two leading imperial cities and was in the employ of the city councils in the capacity of a ‘mining magistrate’ and mining engineer, ensuring the city of Strasbourg was provided with wood and performing other types of engineering work.

Marpeck’s writings1 (which are very readable) demonstrate influences from a number of sources including medieval mysticism and Hutterite Anabaptism. However, he had the ability to draw on older concepts and use them creatively in order to develop a unique position within early Anabaptism. Three important motifs recur again and again in his writings: the connection between inner and outer spirituality; freedom of conscience with respect to legalism and coercion; and the primacy of love.

Marpeck engaged in debate around these issues with many of his contemporaries, including the Strasbourg Reformer, Martin Bucer; Spiritualists such as Hans Bunderlin, Christian Entfelder and Caspar Schwenckfeld; the Swiss Brethren; and the Hutterites. He was concerned about the individualism of Spiritualism, with its emphasis on the meaningless nature of external ceremonies. But he doubted that either the legalistic and coercive nature of ‘the ban’ within the Swiss Brethren movement or the communitarianism of the Hutterites was in line with the freedom and love expressed in the gospel.

In response to these positions, Marpeck developed a critique both of radical individualism and of collectivism and demonstrated a deep desire to find a mediating position that would produce unity amongst the diverse Anabaptist streams.

The Debate with Martin Bucer

The debate with Bucer in Strasbourg was fruitful for Marpeck’s development and has been described as the ‘debate where two of the best spirits of the Reformation met each other’.2 In contrast to the vitriolic nature of other debates between Reformers and radicals, one senses that Marpeck and Bucer really did desire to understand one another and sought to listen to each other’s points of view.

Nevertheless, in the end, they did disagree on two issues. First, Marpeck clearly recognised a separation (albeit moderate) between the church and the state, in that he refused to permit authorities to have the final say in prescribing the shape of his Christian faith. Second, in exploring the relation between the Old Testament and the New Testament, Marpeck insisted that the Christ-event marked a decisive break and concluded that the ceremonies of the Old Testament were signs and figures, whereas the ceremonies of the New Testament implied substance and reality. This meant that he rejected infant baptism, which the Reformers based on a covenantal theology. It was within this debate with Bucer that Marpeck clearly marked himself out as an Anabaptist.

The Debate with the Spiritualists

The initial context of Marpeck’s debate with those called ‘Spiritualists’ also took place in Strasbourg, a city whose reputation for tolerance had drawn proponents of various radical groups into its shelter. Two such were Bunderlin and Entfelder, transitional Anabaptists who began to develop a theology against external ceremonies. They proposed a radical program of omitting church ceremonies in an attempt to see the real essence of religion in the inner attitudes and feelings rather than the external expression.

The attractiveness of the Spiritualist position should not be underestimated. Its strength lay in various factors, including the scepticism generated by endless disputes concerning ‘externals’ (for example, Luther and Zwingli’s interminable arguments regarding the Lord’s Supper) and the concern felt

over legalism within Anabaptism, particularly following the promulgation of the Schleitheim Articles. Neither must the context of persecution be ignored for followers of radical groups. Indeed, for many Anabaptists who lived in a situation of constant persecution and danger, Spiritualism was an attractive option. After all, if true baptism is spiritual and inner, perhaps it wasn’t worth losing one’s life over an outer ceremony.

Marpeck’s response to the Spiritualist position of Bunderlin is demonstrated in his work, A Clear Refutation. One of the Spiritualists’ complaints revolved around the fact that there was ‘no longer any command or witness of the Scripture concerning such [external] ceremonies’.3 Marpeck responded to this by accusing them of a radical individualising of the Spirit. His answer lay in the idea that there is a need to love one another, and that such love is displayed in external actions.

In refuting their position, Marpeck also developed an argument to show that inner and outer existence are indissolubly linked. He did this by developing a Christology based on the incarnation and particularly the humanity of Christ. In this way Christ is seen as validating the ‘material world’ and the church continues his work as the Body of Christ, carrying out his actions. Thus Christology became one of Marpeck’s significant contributions to the theology of the developing Anabaptist movement.

This ‘logic of the incarnation’ as developed by Marpeck is noteworthy because it begins to engage with the Spiritualists by affirming the spirituality of the Christian faith, but also in seeking to answer the question as to why Christianity is more than spiritual subjectivism. His link with the incarnation provided him with the answer. In fact, it is the incarnation which demonstrates the necessity of taking the material world seriously and is demonstrated by believers in their love for one another and their enemies.

As his incarnational theology developed, ‘Marpeck conceived of a transformed community of transformed persons transforming a larger human community’.4 The reality of this theological position was shown in a practical way: he provided physical and spiritual welfare to those outside of the congregation; he was active in attempts at ‘poor relief’; and he provided wood and water for the people in Strasbourg.

Above all, Marpeck’s chief concern shone through: he wanted through his theology to maintain a mediating position between polarised stances. If the Spiritualists, with their rejection of externals, were at one pole, the Swiss Brethren and Hutterites were at the other.

The Debate with the Swiss Brethren and the Hutterites

If Marpeck judged the Spiritualists guilty of prioritising ‘inner spirituality’, he criticised other groups for the way in which they gave ‘externals’ primacy. He saw the Swiss Brethren, Hutterites and Munsterites as examples of biblical literalism, harsh legalism and coercive practices against individual conscience. His central motifs in formulating responses to these positions were the freedom of the Spirit and the centrality of love within the gospel. Although these themes flow through much of Marpeck’s writing, they are particularly prominent in his discussions regarding the use of the ‘ban’ within Anabaptism and the communitarian practices of the Hutterites and Munsterites.

Within the Swiss Brethren movement, the ban was dealt with in Articles 2 and 4 of the Schleitheim Confession. It was based on Matthew 18:15ff. (where they perceived the necessity for the ‘unity of the body’ before taking the Lord’s Supper), and also on 2 Corinthians 6:14, which required a separation from those whose works were evil and needed to be excommunicated. Their chief concern was the need to keep the body (the church) flawless and without sin.

Marpeck saw this view as one that led the Swiss into a legalism which caused them to use the ban too quickly, and he responded to it in Judgement and Decision.5 He stressed the primacy of love and the key issue of freedom. For him, law brought the threat of punishment, but the gospel brought freedom from the law. Thus, any recourse to legalism missed the emphasis of the gospel. He wrote: ‘Christ erases the handwriting of the devil so that it is no longer the law that reigns, but grace and freedom in Jesus Christ, according to the nature of the true love of God and neighbour. This love in God is the real freedom.’6

It is no surprise to find that Marpeck was criticised by the Swiss, who saw him as expounding anti-nomianism. However, such is the fate of those who desire balance, he also had to speak out against some of those in Alsace and Moravia who were too liberal in their interpretation of the freedom of Christ. Therefore, in Concerning the Libertarians (1544),7 he showed that it is impossible to live in sin and self-indulgence, because such behaviour displays a lack of love, and portrays an ‘invented liberty,’ in slavery only to sin.

If his writings on the ban demonstrate Marpeck’s anti-legalist stance, his views on ‘the community of goods’ represent his ‘anti-coercive’ position. Amongst the Hutterites and in Munster, there was enthusiasm for the sharing of possessions as described in Acts 4. Marpeck responded with a statement of his own position, showing that communitarianism was not prevalent in all the churches of the New Testament, and was more a matter of love than coercion. He explained: ‘No coercion or commandment, however, made them [i.e. the early Christians] share all things communally. Rather, the sharing was done simply out of a free love which caused the community to be of one heart and soul.’8

He saw the practice of communitarianism in his day as one which was born out of greed and which coerced others into giving for dubious motives. Marpeck’s vision was not one of external collectivism but for ‘true believers to say in their hearts that their possessions are not theirs, but belong to the poor and the needy’, being ‘yielded to God without earthly coercion’.9

Marpeck’s chief concern was with coercive collectivism and coercive legalism and their violation of the individual conscience. For him, the problems of a coerced faith were obvious; namely, that it was not of the Spirit and merely resulted in a superficial faith. Furthermore, in that it was achieved by violent means, it stood in stark contrast to the cross, which was a ‘permanent protest against coercion’.10

In his dialogues and debates with Reformers, Spiritualists, Swiss Brethren and Hutterites, Marpeck appears to have been searching for a mediating position between these groups, seeing them holding extreme positions which he felt could be bridged. He sought to do this by developing a theology that linked inner spiritual reality with the necessity for real outer ceremonies, where neither was obsolete or redundant. A major motive for this search was his desire for unity in the church with a concomitant dislike of schism.

Evaluating Marpeck

But how successful was he? In evaluating Marpeck’s contribution to early Anabaptism it is necessary to exercise caution, and to identify the grounds on which his work is to be judged. In terms of his dialogue with other groups, Marpeck failed. It seems that others were not as interested in the possible unity of a mediating position. The Hutterites refused to allow him to pray in their assemblies,11 the Swiss remained unimpressed by his arguments, and Spiritualism remained an attractive option. Furthermore, his movement within South German/Austrian Anabaptism failed to survive ‘much past the sixteenth century’.12

Despite this apparent failure, Marpeck’s contribution was influential in differentiating his group from the other radical groups in Strasbourg and also by bringing a high degree of unity to discordant groups in the Augsburg area. He raised important questions regarding identity and unity within Anabaptism, and having shown in his debate with Bucer that he was no Magisterial Reformer, he also distanced himself from extreme apoca-ypticism, dogged literalism and separatism. His interest in intra-Anabaptist debate is unparalleled and gives a unique insight into the live issues of early Anabaptism itself.

His theological work set the agenda for his ethical practice. It presented a vision of the church being involved in the work of Christ in the world by showing love and promoting anti-coercive practices. In this way he provided a link between the regenerate community and the world which was markedly different from the extreme separatism of Schleitheim. He demonstrated his concern for others in poor relief and social action, ‘so that Christ might spread to all of the empire, but without coercive power’.13

Above all, Marpeck demonstrated another way of being Anabaptist. His theological stress on love was demonstrated in his irenic writing (one needs only to compare this with Luther’s vitriolic polemics) and the determined desire for a mediating position between legalistic coercion and spiritualism. He died of old age, a rarity amongst Anabaptist leaders, and despite claims that he compromised with the authorities,14 it is more likely that his wisdom in not provoking others and his Christian love allowed him to continue teaching his unique Anabaptist insights for longer than most.

Marpeck for Today?

There is something immensely attractive about the character and life of Pilgram Marpeck. He lived in a period when dogmatic stances were the norm, and yet somehow he managed to be able to hear the arguments of others without resorting to vitriol or reacting with fear. It is not stretching the evidence to say that he was an ecumenical Anabaptist.

He was certainly irenic and winsome in his writings – perhaps a trick he learned from working with the authorities. However, this does not mean that he had no firm beliefs of his own. He cared passionately about the truth and was especially grieved when church unity was put at risk. And yet he seemed to communicate this in a way that respected the other’s point of view. Perhaps you would expect no less from a man who stood against coercive practices that damaged freedom of conscience and who sought a mediating position between the extremes in early Anabaptism. But there are numerous examples, even of Anabaptists, whose lives did not match their words. Pilgram Marpeck is not one of them.

Perhaps Marpeck was ahead of his time. Certainly, his words ring with remarkable clarity and resonance today. Coercive practices are always a possibility within the Christian community – imposed both by church leaders upon their flock and by Christians upon other groups. In such situations Marpeck still calls for love and tolerance. Legalistic and literalistic stances are all too easy to adopt in the Christian community: Marpeck calls us not to bind people’s consciences. Finally, in a church where dogmatism is a safe option – first because it tells us who we are, and second because it enables us to identify our enemies – Marpeck issues a challenge. It is a challenge to dare to listen to others without fear, and to dare to believe that the rare quality of unity is worth being passionate about and can be attained.

It is remarkable to find such a mediator as Marpeck in the turmoil of the sixteenth century. Perhaps it is no less remarkable that his words still have something to say to us today.

David Southall is a final-year student at Spurgeon’s College, training for the Baptist ministry.

Editor's Note: For more from Marpeck, check out his A Clear Refutation in the Primary Document Section


1. His extant work is collected together in W. Klassen and W. Klaassen, The Writings of Pilgram Marpeck (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1978).

2. Klassen and Klaassen, Writings, p. 36.

3. Klassen and Klaassen, Writings, p. 47.

4. S.B. Boyd, Pilgram Marpeck: His Life and Social Theology (Durham: Duke University Press, 1992), p. 170.

5. Klassen and Klaassen, Writings, pp. 311ff.

6. Klassen and Klaassen, Writings, p. 315.

7. Klassen and Klaassen, Writings, p. 403.

8. Klassen and Klaassen, Writings, pp. 278-279.

9. Klassen and Klaassen, Writings, p. 279.

10. Boyd, Pilgram Marpeck, p. 161.

11. H.-J. Goertz (ed.), Profiles of Radical Reformers (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1982) p. 172.

12. C.A. Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology: An Introduction (Kitchener, Ontario: Pandora, 1995) p. 79.

13. Boyd, Pilgram Marpeck, p. 171.

14. See Friedmann, in Klassen and Klaassen, p. 40.