Thomas Müntzer (1489-1525) was a German Radical Reformation theologian, who became a rebel leader during the Peasants' War. Initially he was a follower of Martin Luther. However he felt that the questioning of authority promoted by the Lutheran Reformation should be applied to the economic as well as the spiritual sphere. Luther disagreed and asserted that the Reformation he supported was only spiritual in nature. Following the Battle of Frankenhausen in May 1525 he was captured, tortured and decapitated. Müntzer promoted a radical apocalyptic message of the coming kingdom of God as an egalitarian society in which all things would be shared in common. Although disputed by some scholars, it is likely that Müntzer’s ideas influenced the early Anabaptist movements and in particular the thought of Hans Denck, Melchior Rinck and Hans Hut.
B. THE RADICAL REFORMATION THEOLOGY OF THOMAS MÜNTZER
What were the key dimensions of Thomas Müntzer’s Radical Reformation theology?
1. Anticlerical - The priests claim that divine revelation has ceased but the true shepherd turns people to God’s living presence.
Thomas Müntzer signed the Prague Declaration “Thomas Müntzer, who wants to worship not a mute but a speaking God.” He asserted that the clergy had not yet heard voice of God and had closed their ears to it claiming that God long ago stopped the outpouring of his Spirit. True shepherds educate the people in such a way that they hear God in their own hearts: “all of them shall have revelations.” So the authority of the priests is shattered by the experienced authority of the speaking God (Goertz 2007, p.25).
2. Mystical – The Holy Spirit undermines the Authority of the Church because it makes God directly available to all people
Müntzer drew deeply on the language and substance of medieval mysticism. Mystical piety placed the laity in a living, existentially experienced relationship with God. Direct communication with God (the basis of the priesthood of all believers) was the work of the Holy Spirit alone. Access to God was not mediated through the Holy Scriptures but through the divine Spirit alone. Scripture was only a testimony of the working of the divine Spirit (Goertz 2007, p.26).
3. Charismatic - The Holy Spirit has the power to transform people, bring them into right relationship with God and liberate them from fear of the powers of this world.
The divine Spirit permeates the person from within and restores the original harmony between creature and Creator. Faith creates a new spirit-filled person who obeys only God. This inner event is revolutionary for it destroys people’s dependence on and fear of the powers of the world. Instead it erects a new authority that consists of the fear of God.
“…fleshly, earthly people should become God through the incarnation of Christ, and thus with (Christ) become God’s pupils, taught by him, deified by him, and indeed, much more, completely transformed into him, so that earthy life changes into heavenly.” (Goertz 2007, p.27).
4. Apocalyptic - Inner transformation brings outer transformation leading to the establishment of the kingdom of God
For Müntzer, the inner transformation includes a transformation of the outer life. The renewal of the individual leads logically to a renewal of the church, the government and society. The movement of the Spirit in the individual is therefore linked to the coming of the kingdom of God. This kingdom is established in the hearts of human beings, equipping them with new insights into the conditions of this world. God alone will establish his kingdom; the human being is merely his tool in this undertaking. The Spirit of Christ active in each of the elect will smash all the earthy powers, especially the state-church system. The Spirit penetrates the world, starting with transformation within the human heart. So, in Munster’s theology the mystical and the apocalyptic impulses are fully intertwined (Goertz 2007, p.28-29).
C. THOMAS MÜNTZER AND THE EARLY QUAKER VISION
In terms of the anti-clerical, mystical, charismatic and apocalyptic aspects of his theology, Muntzer’s vision appears to share a great deal in common with that of the early Quaker movement. It is clear that Han Denck was influenced by Müntzer and in an earlier blog posting (‘D’ is for Hans Denck, 12 February 2014) we noted the similarities between the theology of Hans Denck and that of early Friends. In particular, by maintaining a rigorously biblical and Hebraic understanding of the Holy Spirit, Müntzer appears to have avoided the dualism associated with many of the other Radical Reformation spiritualists. The key area on which Müntzer and early Quakers diverge is on the method by which the kingdom of God will be established on earth. Both Müntzer and early Friends believed that the people of God (the elect) would be called to work with God to destroy evil. For Müntzer this required an outward war involving the physical destruction of the powers of this world (the princes and the priests) whereas for early Friends, the Lamb’s War was to be a spiritual struggle focused on destroying the spirit of wickedness within the human heart and within the whole creation. The Quakers’ Lamb’s War was a new covenant war and so did not involve fighting with outward weapons. It is not surprising however that early Quaker apocalyptic language often led those in power to fear that the movement was intent on violent insurrection and revolution.
D. Passages from Thomas Müntzer’s Writings
1. The Fall of the Church – Turning from the living word to human authority
I have read here and there is the history of the early fathers, and I find that the immaculate, virginal church, after the death of the pupils of the apostles, soon became a whore because of the seductive priests. Prague Manifesto, 1521 (Matheson 1988, p.370)
2. The Priests stand as a barrier between God and his people
In short, each man must have the spirit seven-fold, otherwise he cannot hear or understand the living God. I declare freely and frankly that I have never heard any donkey-farting doctor whisper the tiniest fraction or slightest point about the order (established in God and all creatures) for less speak openly about it. Not even the most distinguished Christian (I mean the hell-grounded priest) have ever caught a whiff of what the whole is, and what is incomplete, how a measure distributed in equal parts is superior to all its parts. Time and again I have heard mere scripture from them, which they have stolen in rascally fashion from the Bible like confidence tricksters and cruel murderers. They are accused by God himself for such theft, for he declares in Jeremiah 23: know this, I have said to the prophets: they steal my words, each from his neighbour, for they betray my people; I have not spoken to them at all but they dare to use my words, making them taste rotten with their stinking lips and whore-sick throats. For they deny that my Spirit speaks to them. Then with scornful keen words of derision they jab at one, at those who say that the Holy Spirit gives them invincible testimony that they are not the children of God. Prague Manifesto, 1521 (Matheson 1988, p.363)
So as long as heaven and earth stand these criminal, turn-coat priests will not be of the slightest use to the churches for they deny the voice of the bridegroom, which is the real and certain sign that they are devils pure and simple. Prague Manifesto, 1521 (Matheson 1988, p.365)
3. God speaks to, teaches and transforms his people himself
So that virtually the whole world come to think that it was not necessary for Christ himself to preach his own gospel to the elect. I affirm and swear by the living God: anyone who does not hear from the mouth of God the real living Word of God, and the distinction between Bible and Babel is a dead thing and nothing else. But God’s Word, which courses through the heart, brain, hair, bone, marrow, sap, might and strength surely has the right to canter along in quite a different way from the fairy-tales told by our clownish, testiculared doctors. Otherwise no one can be saved; otherwise no one can be found. Prague Manifesto, 1521 (Matheson 1988, p.368)
God’s messengers had listened to the bearer of the gospel himself; Christ told Peter that neither flesh nor blood had revealed the truth to him but God himself… For the living Word which brings life is heard only by the soul which has been purged. So let us be led by the teaching of the Spirit and not by the flesh. On Counterfeit Faith, 1524 (Matheson 1988, pp.217-218)
God’s true reign is truly and joyfully inaugurated when the elect come to see what God’s work reveals to them in the experience of the Spirit. Those people who have not tasted the reverse, bitter side of faith do not know this, for they have not believed against belief, or hope against hope, or met God’s love with hate (1 Cor. 2). Hence they do not know what harms or profits the people of Christ, not having put their faith to the test. They do not want to believe that God himself in his zealous, unceasing goodness will instruct man and tell him what he needs to know. This is why the world lacks the chief point of salvation, which is faith, not being able to credit that God would deign to be our schoolmaster (Matt. 23, James 3). Oh how great and stiff-necked is that unbelief which contents itself with the dead letter and turns its back on the finger which writes in the heart (2 Cor. 3)… So it is all important that we allow God to rule; that we know for sure that our faith does not deceive us, having genuine suffered the working of the living Word and being able to discriminate between the works of God and that of his creatures. An Open Letter to Brothers in Stolberg, 18 June 1523 (Matheson 1988, pp.62-63)
4. Salvation means deification (theosis)
Just as happens to all of us when we came to faith: we must believe that we fleshly, earthly men are to become Gods through Christ becoming man, and thus become God’s pupils with him – to be taught by Christ himself, and become divine, yes and far more – to be totally transfigured into him, so that this earthly life swings up into heaven (Phil. 3). Testimony on the First Chapter of Luke (Matheson 1988, p.278)
5. Destroy the evil: working with God to establish the kingdom
Go to it, go to it, while the fire is hot! Don’t let your sword grow cold, don’t let it hang down limply! Hammer away ding dong on the anvils of Nimrod, cast down their tower to the ground! As long as they live it is impossible for you to rid yourselves of the fear of men. One cannot say anything to you about God as long as they rule over you. Go to it, go to it, while it is day! God goes before you; follow, follow! To the People of Allstedt, 1625 (Matheson 1988, p.142)
Hans-Jurgen Goertz (2007) Karlstadt, Müntzer and the Reformation of the Commoners, 1521-1525 in Roth, John D. and Stayer, James M. (2007) A Companion to Anabaptism and Spiritualism, 1521-1700 Leiden (Brill)
Peter Matheson (1988) The Collected Works of Thomas Müntzer (T&T Clark)
Snyder, C Arnold (1995) Anabaptist History & Theology: An Introduction (Pandora)
Stayer, James M (1994) The German Peasants' War and Anabaptist Community of Goods (McGill-Queen's University Press)