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date: 28 April 2017

Martin Luther’s Protestant Opponents

Summary and Keywords

A variety of dissident movements within the church appeared and disappeared throughout the medieval period. Each sought to reform the church along various millenarian, moralistic, biblicistic, and anticlerical lines. In the wake of Martin Luther’s (1483–1546) public calls for reform, groups of these kinds reappeared in Europe. Most of them referred to Luther as an inspiration, and they often associated themselves with Luther and his reforms.

In order to distance himself from these groups, Luther used the pejorative German word, Schwärmerei to describe and critique what he saw as their most fundamental error: that they would establish their respective churches on a foundation other than what he called, in the Smalcald Articles (1538), the “First and Chief Article” of the Christian faith: Christ alone, grace alone, faith alone, and God’s Word alone. Moreover, because these opponents also represented forms of 16th-century protest against the Roman Catholic Church, they would cite him as a source of their teaching. His use of Schwärmerei, then, separates his reform proposal from the ideas and the implications of these groups. As a metaphor, Schwärmerei also vilifies Luther’s Protestant opponents as “swarms” of bees or locusts. The term not only links Luther’s opponents together, it also identifies their presence as unpredictable and hazardous. This usage clearly reflected the polemical discourse common in this historical period and contributed to the generally harsh persecutions of the groups in principalities ruled by Lutherans.

In a variety of ways, Luther’s Protestant opponents taught that believers were capable of knowing God directly (e.g., through spiritual experience or reason). Such knowledge was deemed necessary for a truly faithful and transformed life. Luther’s Protestant opponents, then, maintained that full membership in the church depended on their internal experience of the Holy Spirit, an experience that was to be shared ritually with the community as public witness to the Spirit’s work. Both the experience itself and the subsequent life of discipleship were deemed necessary by these groups in order for one to be a true follower of Christ.

For Luther, however, saving knowledge of God comes only through God’s chosen means of self-revelation: the Word and the sacraments. The gospel of the forgiveness of sins, therefore, is always mediated to believers from an external source—through preaching the Word of God and through the means of grace (i.e., baptism and the Lord’s Supper).

In addition, these groups’ overemphasis on subjectivity left them vulnerable to abuse by their leaders. They could claim authority, based on their internal experiences, to dominate their followers with cult-like power. Luther believed this to be the dynamic at work in the disastrous “Kingdom of God” at Münster (1535), the Peasants’ War (1525), and the Wittenberg disturbances (1522).

For Luther, the Word alone, as God’s law and God’s gospel, provides the basis for the one, holy, Christian, and apostolic church. His opponents disagreed that such a foundation was sufficient for the church to be the church. Indeed, by the end of his career, the Reformer would describe nearly all of his opponents as Schwärmer—eventually even including the papacy and the Roman Catholic Church among their ranks.

Keywords: Martin Luther, Anabaptist, Antitrinitarians, justification, Mennonites, rationalism, sacrament, Spiritualism, Schwärmer, Word of God

Luther and Language

Schwärmerei as Metaphor

Martin Luther’s use of the 16th-century German words Schwärmerei and Schwärmer has no automatic equivalent in modern English—as a list of representative renderings demonstrates: “enthusiasts, fanatics, rabble, ravers, radicals, rebels, romantics, schismatics, sectarians, spiritualists,” and so on. As their absence from this list indicates, the literal English cognates, “Swarm-ism” and “Swarmers,” do not deliver the symbolic sting that Luther intended. He used this nature metaphor to connect his adversaries to colonies of flying insects on the move—vilifying his opponents, while warning and frightening his followers. A proper translation depends on the larger linguistic landscape in which the word was used.1 Generally speaking, Luther used Schwärmerei as a pejorative metaphor to critique his Protestant opponents’ doctrines (and the practices associated with those doctrines). Perhaps coined by Luther himself,2 it points toward important linguistic, doctrinal, and ethical issues at work in Luther’s day.

Linguistically, Schwärmerei invokes the image of a cloud of aggressive insects. As swarms of bees or locusts are dangerous and unpredictable and terrifying, so these groups also appeared to Luther. They seem to rise from obscurity, migrate without intentionality, inflict chaos, spread like a plague, and eventually destroy the places where they landed. Ergo, contended Luther, such pestilence cannot be allowed to infest civil society. It is too hazardous and must be driven away or exterminated.

In many ways, Luther’s generative use of language, so deeply rooted in the linguistic fields of early modern Europe, nourished his reformation efforts. His words, spread by pulpit and press, took root throughout Europe. Positively, he preached and taught and wrote compellingly about the mercy and grace of God. He was arguably at his best when he sought to connect with folk like his flock at the City Church of Wittenberg—instructing and inspiring illiterate, unsophisticated peasants who had been misinformed about the Christian faith.

Luther’s translation of the Bible contributed mightily to the regularization of the German language (as the King James Version of the Bible would later do for English). And his catechisms, while making doctrine accessible to the masses, also planted Lutheran parishes in a common grammatical and syntactical field.

As a preacher, the Reformer’s powerful command of language is no more evident than when he confronted the Schwärmer-inspired disturbances that broke out in Wittenberg in early 1522. Luther, in hiding at the Wartburg since the Diet of Worms, received word of religious riots back home. Incited by his university colleague Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt, peasant mobs destroyed works of art in the city church, forced communicants to take both bread and wine, compelled nuns to marry, drove monks from monasteries, assaulted priests, and committed other violent acts. With such chaos connected with his call for reform, Luther could not stay safely hidden. He returned to Wittenberg to help quell the violence.

Significantly, he wore his monk’s habit and tonsured hair to the scene of much of the violence, the City Church. There he began a series of daily sermons on the Sunday after Ash Wednesday (“Invocavit Sunday”). From March 9 to March 16, 1522, he preached his famous “Eight Lenten Sermons” in the City Church.3 By this decidedly linguistic act, he helped to restore order and, by doing so, emphasized the power of language to bring about reform. In sermon number two of the series, preached on Monday, March 10, he spoke to his congregation about reform and the Word:

Take myself as an example. I opposed indulgences and all the papists, but never with force. I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept [cf. Mark 4:26–29], or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends . . . the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything. Had I desired to foment trouble, I could have brought great bloodshed upon Germany; indeed, I could have started such a game that even the emperor would not have been safe. But what would it have been? Mere fool’s play. I did nothing; I let the Word do its work.4

Interestingly, the rioters stopped to hear the Word and, by the end of that week and after six more sermons, they stopped rioting. The Word, one might say, domesticated the swarming pests of Wittenberg.

Negatively, when Luther used his considerable linguistic skills to critique his opponents, he could be fierce. As a polemicist, Luther used the received conventions of his day to satirize the errors and pretensions of his opponents. Particularly when he thought his adversaries were stubbornly ignoring the plain truth and clinging to their positions, not because they cared about the truth but because they sought some personal gain, he could attack. He would not only go after the ideas of his adversaries; he would go after the adversaries themselves.

Such usage might have been customary in 16th-century polemics, but modern English speakers can find it offensive, even vulgar. Luther invented words and applied language creatively to attack the arguments of his adversaries in pointed, memorable, and often humorous ways. In addition, his use of metaphors drawn from the common experiences of most people allowed him to instruct his audience relative to the theological issues at hand. Examples of Luther’s wordplay readily present themselves: papal decretals (Dekretale) become “decraptals” (Drecktale); a Roman Catholic priest becomes a “massling” or “slave-of-the-Mass” (Messeknecht); Luther’s opponent at the University of Leipzig, Dr. Eck, becomes Dreck (“crap”). Schwärmerei is more than a mere play on words. As a metaphor, it carried a set of powerful associations, graspable by Luther’s peasant, rural audience. It is overwhelmingly negative, even dehumanizing. Thus, Luther’s language (moderns might even call it “hate speech”) had consequences. Indeed, the label Schwärmer needs to be seen in the context of what a Lutheran-Mennonite International Study Commission’s report notes as

. . . the legacies of violence from that formative period. On the Lutheran side, there had been both persecution and theological justification for these violent actions. While Anabaptists did not return this persecution, they also have carried burdens from that era in their memories of what they had suffered.5

As such, Schwärmerei, translated literally into English as “Swarm-ism” and Schwärmer as “Swarmers,” lose the sting they had in Luther’s day. Perhaps words such as “radicalized terrorist” or “cult” as used in the 21st century begin to communicate a bit of the emotional impact Luther intended with his use of Schwärmerei.

Protestant Opponents

The classification of continental European Reformation-era groups first proffered by George H. Williams in 1962 continues to provide a standard set of categories by which to describe Luther’s Protestant opponents.6 At the outset, Williams distinguishes between the “Magisterial Reformation” and the “Radical Reformation.” Luther and the Magisterial Reformers maintained an overall positive view of culture and pursued their protest agenda within existing institutions (as damaged as those institutions were). They accepted, for example, that the inherited forms of government (the “magistrate”) and church (the “magisterium”) had positive leadership roles to play in society. Their affirmations of spheres of influence in earthly life (“orders” of creation), therefore, identifies them readily with the cultural institutions that served as their base: Luther with Wittenberg and its university, Ulrich Zwingli (1484–1531) with the Great Minster of Zürich, Martin Bucer (1491–1551) with the city of Strasbourg, and John Calvin (1509–1564) with Geneva’s Consistory.

The Radicals (from Latin radix “root”), were so designated by Williams because they intended to uproot and replant the church in new cultural soil. They rejected contemporary structures in order to set up communities of faithful believers apart from or parallel to the majority culture. Although they were, in various ways, influenced by the Magisterial Reformers, the Radicals would reject their proposals in favor of their own reformations.7 They were often intensely persecuted by empire and church (by both Roman Catholics and Protestants), marginalized, and exiled. These dynamics contributed to the diversity of expressions that Williams would divide into three subcategories: Anabaptists, Spiritualists, and Rationalists. These designations are not rigid categories. The various reform movements, though distinguishable for the sake of analysis, were fluid, interpenetrating, and mutually influencing.

With this in mind, three additional criteria further define Luther’s Protestant opponents for our purposes. First, they needed to have launched unsuccessful public protests against the 16th-century Roman Catholic Church. Second, they needed publicly to have disagreed with Luther. Third, Luther needed to have disagreed publicly with them and to have treated them as Schwärmer. Therefore, neither the Genevan nor the English Reformation comes directly into play here. Luther, for a variety of reasons, did not pay much attention to Calvin or to Canterbury.

Reclaiming Language

The Anabaptists, the largest group of Luther’s opponents, received their name from their distinctive practice of “believer’s baptism”—reserving the ritual for those who had reached an age of maturity and were able to make a conscious, faithful choice to be baptized. Therefore, because virtually everyone born into medieval Christendom was baptized as an infant, the dominant culture derisively labeled these people “Anabaptists” (in German, Wiedertäufer), meaning “rebaptizers.” They certainly did not think of their practice as a second baptism. Rather, it was for them simply baptism; they maintained that the ceremonial washing of infants was an empty liturgical practice and not a first, Christian baptism.

They would eventually accept the moniker “Anabaptist” through a process akin to what modern linguists and sociologists call “reclaiming” or “reappropriating.”8 This process continued as descendants of 16th-century Anabaptist groups identified themselves by names that originated as terms of derision, invented by their opponents to vilify them. They were eventually adopted and valued positively their members: Mennonites (named for Menno Simons, 1496–1561), Hutterites (named for Jakob Hutter, 1500–1536), and, later, Amish (named for Jakob Ammann, c. 1644–c. 1720).

Moreover, Luther’s followers engaged in a similar sort of process. “Lutheran” originated as a slur by the Reformer’s opponents, emphasizing that his reform agenda was about him and his new ideas, and thus not about Christ’s teaching. When supporters, however, began also to use the term, the Reformer expressly rejected it. As he put it in 1522:

In the first place, I ask that no one refer to my name. Let them call themselves Christians, not Lutherans. What is Luther? After all, the teaching is not mine [John 7:16]. Neither was I crucified for anyone [1 Cor. 1:12]. St. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 3:4 would not allow the Christians to call themselves Pauline or Petrine, but Christian. How then should I—poor stinking maggot-fodder that I am—come to have people call the children of Christ by my wretched name? Not so, my dear friends; let us abolish all party names and call ourselves Christians, after the One whose teaching we hold. The papists deservedly have a party name, because they are not satisfied with the teaching and name of Christ, but want to be papists as well. Let them be papist then, since the pope is their master. I am not, and I don’t want to be, anyone’s master. I hold, together with the universal church, the one universal teaching of Christ, who is our only master [Matt. 23:8].9

In spite of Luther’s directive, here, his supporters would reclaim “Lutheran” and the label remains a common feature of global churches who identify themselves as followers of the Reformer’s teaching.10

Martin Luther’s Protestant OpponentsClick to view larger

Figure 1. Hans Brosamer, Seven-Headed Luther, 1529, woodcut.

By permission of the Richard C. Kessler Reformation Collection, Pitts Theology Library, Candler School of Theology, Emory University.

The appellation Schwärmer, however, was not reclaimed and put to any positive purpose. It remains pejoratively negative. Indeed, Luther’s Roman Catholic polemicist Johann Cochlaeus turned the insult on Luther himself, when he lampooned the Reformer as “The Seven Headed Luther” (Figure 1)—identifying him with the seven-headed beast of Revelation 13. And one of those heads was a Schwärmer.

Doctrinal Issues

Fundamentally, Luther disagreed with his Protestant opponents about the meaning of grace and the means of grace. Luther’s opponents were by no means monolithic, yet they all opposed his view of Word and sacrament—that the Holy Spirit works through physical, external means, such as the material elements in the sacraments of baptism (i.e., the water) and the Lord’s Supper (i.e., the bread and wine), to communicate God’s gracious mercy and favor.

Instead, Luther’s opponents valued various kinds of internal, immediate experiences of the Holy Spirit, prioritizing such encounters as the origin of faith. This, then, led to an understanding of the church as the voluntary gathering of people who had been touched by the Spirit in this way. Such a spiritual conversion not only brought the forgiveness of sins and true faith, it was necessary for authentic discipleship. After would-be followers had been touched by the saving presence of God, they could then gain full admittance into their respective faith communities made up of similarly mature believers. These people, then, had chosen discipleship, based upon insights they had gained through their direct, personal encounter with the Spirit.

Their claims to inner spiritual experiences of God led Luther, in 1538, to identify Schwärmer also as “enthusiasts.”11 This was not a reference to their emotional states or energy levels; he used the word in a technical sense, connecting the literal meaning of the word’s constituent Greek parts, en [in] + theos [God] + ism [belief] = “indwelt by God-ism.” His opponents, he thought, claimed too much for themselves and their subjectivity. Thus, they undervalued the revelation of God in Jesus Christ and the gospel of God’s unmerited mercy and favor. Luther took their emphases on direct, internal spiritual experiences to mean that Christ’s redemptive work was insufficient. So they added the need for some kind of experience or special revelation apart from the Word, as a precondition for salvation.

Therefore, Luther saw in the teachings of these groups a legalistic subjectivity that distorted the Christian life: either with the agony of despair (engendered by the unyielding judgment of the law) or with the false comfort of works-righteousness (engendered by the trivialization of the law). In other words, according to Luther, the enthusiasts’ root problem was that they confused law and gospel.

With this overall critique in view, Luther and his allies identified a specific doctrinal issue, a sort of “signature heresy,” in the teaching and practice of each of their opponents. In the thought of Anabaptists like Konrad Grebel (1498–1526) and Michael Sattler (1490–1527), as well as the Saxons Thomas Müntzer (1498–1525) and Karlstadt, their doctrine of baptism was the presenting issue.12 They viewed baptism as an action performed by an obedient follower of Christ—an action that bore ritual witness to their conversion, the prior moment when the Holy Spirit brought the believer to the recognition of sin, repentance, and faith. Then, subsequent to that moment of the Spirit’s indwelling, the community of faith expected new believers to submit to baptism, symbolizing their decision to accept God’s gracious gift of forgiveness and to live accordingly.

The symbolism of believers’ baptism could draw on various images from scripture: washing, dying, rising, being reborn, and so on. Clearly, none of these actions could be accomplished by infants. Furthermore, the baptized would be expected to continue to perform acts no baby could perform: to choose continually to live their baptismal commitments as self-conscious, faithful disciples of Jesus and full-fledged members of the faith community.

The ritual itself, however, does not actually do anything. The Spirit, prior to baptism, has already done everything. Because God acts directly in the life of the believer to bring the individual to faith, baptism as a means of grace is not necessary. Put simply, Anabaptists “ . . . demanded personal faith before baptism . . . because they saw the two sacraments, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, as symbols only, not true sacraments.”13

Thus, Anabaptists observed baptism and the Lord’s Supper as external rituals that bear witness to members’ internal experiences of God. These rituals provide the community with an opportunity to express its obedience to Christ’s words, “Do this in remembrance of me” and “baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” In this way, Anabaptists would witness to their experience of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God bestows grace on the convert directly and, when the Holy Spirit touches the human spirit, the believer experiences a spiritual rebirth or conversion. Therefore, rituals like baptism and holy communion (to which some groups added practices like foot washing) are public, liturgical expressions of the disciple’s prior conversion and subsequent faithful life of obedience.

In the thought of Spiritualists like the Silesian nobleman Casper Schwenckfeld (1490–1561), as well as the “Sacramentarian” Zwingli, the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper was the presenting issue. The Spiritualists, in a manner akin to the Anabaptist view of baptism, understood the Lord’s Supper symbolically. With a presupposed dualism between matter and spirit, they followed the logic of John 6:63, “the flesh is useless,” to reason that the bread and wine simply represent the body and blood of Christ. Therefore, when Christians reenact the first Lord’s Supper ritually, they are actually communing spiritually with Christ.

The bread and the wine, then, as symbols of Christ’s body and blood, remind believers of the Lord’s suffering on their behalf. And by this remembering, faithful people would receive Christ spiritually. Although sorrowful for Christ’s suffering, they could joyfully commune with Jesus, who now sits at the right hand of the Father in heaven. The finite physical elements of bread and wine are not capable of containing the infinite Lord. Participation in the Lord’s Supper is a public event in which disciples dutifully obey the Risen One who, on the night before his crucifixion, commanded believers to celebrate this meal.

For Luther, the issue at stake was a Christological one. As he evaluated the Spiritualists, he concluded that they contended that the divine and human natures are united in Jesus Christ in name only. That is, neither of the two natures shares with the other that which is unique to its particular nature. The personal union of Christ is, in reality, simply the sharing of signifiers: God may be identified as a human being, and Jesus may be identified as God. However, God is simply too majestic to become truly incarnate as a human being. In the end, divinity cannot inhabit humanity, and humanity cannot contain divinity.

Zwingli and his Swiss allies, such as Heinrich Bullinger (1504–1575) of Zürich (successor to Zwingli) and John Oecolampadius (1482–1531) of Basel, wanted to distance themselves from Anabaptists (particularly from Müntzer and Karlstadt), but Luther would consistently link them all together. From Luther’s perspective, their rationalism led them to overvalue the spiritual and internal dimensions of life and devalue the physical and external. In Luther’s mind, the underlying premise of Karlstadt’s assertion that the Spirit worked apart from the Word and sacraments and the Swiss assertion that finite things could not bear the infinite, were basically the same. Luther thought they relied too much on human reason to explain the mystery of the sacrament, rather than trust the clear sense of God’s Word.

For Luther, the sacraments are external, physical means of grace. To qualify as such, a practice must meet three basic criteria. First, a sacrament requires dominical institution—Jesus’ clear command to his followers to “go and baptize” and to “do this.” Second, a sacrament requires a physical, material element—using water, bread and wine. Third, a sacrament requires an explicit promise of forgiveness or connection with the grace of God (i.e., “for the forgiveness of sins,” Matthew 26:28 and “so that your sins may be forgiven,” Acts 2:38).

The sacraments, according to Luther, are about what God does. The sacraments are not about what believers do. Through these means, God acts to bestow grace and engender faith. They are not to be explained rationally, but celebrated as divine mysteries. They are beyond human understanding. The presence of the Risen Christ, for example, in the Lord’s Supper is a mystery akin to the divine presence in the incarnation itself. The Latin phrase finitum capax infiniti (“the finite can be the bearer of the infinite”) describes this well: God uses the physical, material world. There is no need for bread and wine to be transubstantiated into the body and blood of Christ in order for God to be sacramentally present. Because the Lord spoke the words “This is my body,” Luther thought Christians could believe that Christ was indeed present in, with, and under the bread and wine.

In the thought of Rationalists like the Spaniard Miguel Servetus (1511?–1553) and the Socinians (led by Laelius Socinus, 1525–1562 and his nephew Faustus Socinus, 1539–1604), the presenting issue was their doctrine of the Trinity—specifically, their rejection of it. Deeply influenced by Renaissance humanism, these anti-Trinitarians taught that the doctrinal paradoxes approved by the ecumenical councils of the early church, with their creedal focus on the Holy Trinity, had given rise to continuing theological conflict in the church. Indeed, the escalating conflicts of the 16th century were further expressions of unneeded and untenable doctrines. The anti-Trinitarians sought to overcome the irrationality that participated in the violence of the period and to explain the faith within the confines of human reason and logic. They emphasized the moral teachings of Jesus and preferred the logical rationality of a Unitarian view of God. Much of their thought, however, seemed to Luther simply to revive various ancient arguments against the ecumenical councils’ doctrine of God, so Luther would dismiss them along with ancient heresies such as those of Arius, Sabellius, and Nestorius.

Ethical Issues

As is still the case in the majority world, medieval Europeans assumed that religious agreement, if not uniformity, was necessary for political stability. Therefore, although Luther had the protection of a powerful succession of Saxon princes (Frederick, John, and John-Frederick), he still lived some thirty-five years as a fugitive from the emperor’s gallows and the pope’s bonfire. Similarly, when Luther’s Protestant opponents rejected the sacraments as means of grace and repudiated the Trinitarian creeds, they were not only committing heresy, they were committing treason.14 This reality gave the ethics of Luther and his Protestant opponents a distinctive shape.

The Anabaptists sought to gather likeminded believers into distinctive communities of faithful disciples. These communities, founded in conscious opposition to the worldly institutions and traditions of medieval Christendom, envisioned their church lives as coterminous with their civic lives, with faithful members formed into an intentional community of the genuinely committed.15 As congregations of saintly servants, they generally believed the people of God need not organize themselves hierarchically: neither clergy nor creeds, police nor magistrate, prince nor emperor. True saints would follow the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount. They would joyfully share their property and morally separate themselves from the dominant culture. As a result, they were seen as treasonous subversives undermining the government and disrupting civic life. And for that, they were persecuted.

Spiritualists like Schwenckfeld (a layman) taught that the indwelling of the Holy Spirit not only provided the basis for their invisible fellowship; the Spirit also bestowed on each believer special insight into the interpretation of scripture. Such groups would reject the ordination of clergy and the presumed authority of formal, degree-attaining theologians. For example, Karlstadt, a highly trained academic, would reportedly ask random illiterate peasants to interpret Bible passages he would read to them—believing the Spirit would provide them with immediate inspiration.16 Luther pointed to this issue in 1525: “. . . Dr. Karlstadt and his spirits replace the highest with the lowest, the best with the least, the first with the last. Yet he would be considered the greatest spirit of all, he who has swallowed the Holy Spirit feathers and all.”17 Rationalists like the non-Trinitarians had, for generations, kept their views to themselves. The Reformation, however, seemed to provide them with an opportunity to offer their critiques publicly. So Servetus published two works against Trinitarian dogma and entered into correspondence with John Calvin. However, when he traveled to Geneva in 1553, to converse with Calvin face to face, he was arrested, tried, and executed—all with the approval of the Genevan Reformer.

For Luther, the problem was exacerbated by what seemed to him to be an interconnected series of violent events involving his Protestant opponents. First, the Wittenberg disturbances of 1521–1522 were fueled by the claims and methods of his onetime friend and colleague at the university, Karlstadt. Although Luther agreed with the direction of the reform measures Karlstadt instituted (e.g., celebrating the Lord’s Supper in “both kinds,” allowing nuns, monks, and priests to marry, releasing “religious” from vows, abandoning superstitions), he disagreed profoundly with Karlstadt’s violent approach—claiming special revelation from the Spirit, inciting the peasants to riot, and instituting such reforms by force. Luther thought that sound preaching of the Word should come first, that the gospel would make the legalisms and false teachings of the past irrelevant. Thus, neither disorderly enforcement of reform measures nor self-serving appeals to spiritual insight were appropriate.

Second, the Peasants’ Revolt (1525) and the role of people like Thomas Müntzer in fomenting rebellion seemed to Luther to be the Wittenberg disturbances writ large.18 Müntzer, an influential Thuringian priest who had drawn on Luther for some original influences, claimed the Holy Spirit was leading him to aid and abet the peasants in an armed rebellion against the forces of evil (i.e., the Roman Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire). Luther understood Müntzer’s apocalyptic claim that it was God’s will for the peasants to rebel as a tragic and heretical confusion of law and gospel that led to some 100,000 deaths.

Third, the Anabaptist “kingdom of God” in Münster (1534–1535) was another instance of Spiritualism that led to disastrous consequences.19 Its strong leaders claimed that the Spirit had anointed them to establish the Kingdom of God in the city, and they preached with a passion that seemed to authenticate their assertions. Once they gained control, their cult-leader control became increasingly oppressive and totalitarian. They claimed that Münster was the new Jerusalem, and that all the faithful were to gather there to wait for and to survive the Last Judgment. More than a thousand believers in the city were baptized (or “rebaptized”), and hundreds more emigrated to Münster. Prince Philip of Hesse blockaded the city. As conditions worsened within Münster’s walls, the Anabaptists drove out some two thousand residents who had refused rebaptism, instituted polygamy (according to Old Testament models), and crowned John of Leiden the new “King David.”

When Münster finally fell and outsiders saw the abuse inflicted on the populace, Leiden and his top associates were tried, tortured, and executed. Finally, their mutilated bodies were placed in cages and suspended from the steeple of St. Lambert Church overlooking the town square. Those cages were intended to serve as gruesome reminders of what happens to such seditious heretics.

Echoes of the Peasants’ War, though a decade in the past, seemed to find horrific resonance in the horrible events at Münster, confirming in Luther’s mind how the Spiritualism and legalism of his opponents provided the conditions for the possibility (if not inevitability) of abuse. Therefore, he concluded that society could not bear the risk of allowing such teaching in the church (i.e., heresy) or in the civic realm (i.e., sedition).

Indeed, from Luther’s perspective, this points to the basic, even fatal, flaw in the theologies of his opponents. For all their differences, they all insisted that they could obtain true (saving) knowledge of God apart from what had been revealed in the scriptures. The means to achieving this knowledge might vary from group to group, but their claims to spiritual insights and lives of true discipleship meant that the Word of God revealed in scripture and distributed in the sacraments was somehow deficient.

In the end, concluded Luther, his opponents put their subjective experiences (i.e., themselves) above the Word and, therefore, did not allow scripture its proper authority. This dynamic was as prevalent in Swiss Reformed theology as it was among the Anabaptists, Spiritualists, and Rationalists. This meant that their willingness to follow the dictates of their charismatic leaders created the conditions for the possibility of the Wittenberg disturbance, the carnage of the Peasants’ War, and the Münsterite disaster.

Papal Postscript

Luther was convinced that he had identified the key mistaken assumption of his opponents: that the experience of an immediate, spiritual revelation of one kind or another, not scripture, was normative for public preaching and teaching. With this insight, then, he looked beyond Münster and Zürich, and he saw the original sin of Adam and Eve. In his “theological testament” of 1538, he put it this way:

This is all the old devil and old snake, who also turned Adam and Eve into “God-within-ists” and led them from the external Word of God to “spirituality” and their own presumption—although he even accomplished this by means of other, external words. In the same way, our “God-within-ists” also condemn the external Word . . .20

From this perspective, Luther also saw the issues at stake in his conflict with the church of Rome in a new light. That is, the papacy itself, with its claims to authority de jure divino, was Schwärmerei: “The papacy also is pure ‘God-within-ism’ in that the pope boasts that ‘all laws are in the shrine of his heart’21 and that what he decides and commands in his churches is supposed to be Spirit and law—even when it is above or contrary to the Scriptures or the spoken Word.”22 In this way, Luther connected his Protestant opponents with the papacy. They all contended, at some level, that they possessed some kind of unqualified, direct access to the Holy Spirit. When they did that, Luther was convinced, they claimed that this access was above the Word of God.

Review of the Literature

The early 20th century work of Ernst Troeltsch and Karl Holl set the trajectory of modern scholarly interest in questions of origins, definitions, and categories relative to Luther’s Protestant opponents. As Troeltsch interpreted Luther’s initiatives in the context of the various reform programs of the period, he identified two primary forms of Schwärmer, based on their respective origins and focuses. The schismatic Anabaptists of Switzerland, exemplified by people like George Blaurock (1491–1529) and Conrad Grebel, are not to be confused with the Spiritualists of Germany, exemplified by people like Thomas Müntzer and Andreas Karlstadt.23 Holl, on the other hand, identified essentially a single origin of Reformation-era Schwärmerei: Thomas Müntzer. As the progenitor of 16th-century Schwärmerei, Müntzer stressed the internal, spiritual revelation given to individual believers by the Spirit. Then, based on this personal experience, he called for the individuals who have received this revelation to work for the transformation of society (by violent means, if necessary).24

When Luther scholarship resumed in earnest after World War II, Wilhelm Maurer identified an additional Reformation-era set of groups as opponents to Luther: the “Sacramentarians.” Maurer argued that, because Luther counted Karlstadt, Zwingli, and Oecolampadius as Schwärmer, scholars would do well to do so also. Ironically named “Sacramentarians,” they rejected, in various ways, the idea of the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the sacrament of the altar, and thus they rejected the notion of the sacrament as a means of grace.25

Maurer’s proposal appeared at the leading edge of scholarly attention to questions of definition and categorization. Regin Prenter26 and Karl Steck27 focused on Luther’s doctrine of the Holy Spirit, which led them to look anew at Luther’s Spiritualist opponents. However, they saw Schwärmer and “Enthusiast” as essentially the same and employed the terms interchangeably. Eric Gritsch in 197628 and Alois Haas in 199729 suggested that the term Schwärmer applies most accurately to the programs exemplified by Müntzer and Karlstadt. Still other scholars (e.g., Mark Edwards30 and Harry Loewen31) avoid the use of Schwärmerei altogether. In addition, a school of German Democratic Republic scholarship arose that interpreted Müntzer and his work from a Marxist perspective—a perspective that would honor Müntzer with his portrait on the GDR five-mark note.32

Primary Sources

Luther, Martin. “Against the Heavenly Prophets in the Matter of Images and Sacraments (1525)”. In Luther’s Works, vol. 40: Church and Ministry II. Edited by Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, 73–223. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1999.Find this resource:

Luther, Martin. The Smalcald Articles (1538). In The Book of Concord. Edited by Robert Kolb and Timothy Wengert, 295–344. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000.Find this resource:

Luther, Martin. “Brief Confession Concerning the Holy Sacrament” (1544). In Luther’s Works, vol. 38: Church and Ministry II. Edited by Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, 279–319. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1971.Find this resource:

The Schleitheim Confession of 1527. Translated by John H. Yoder. Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1977.Find this resource:

Karlstadt, Andreas Bodenstein von. The Eucharistic Pamphlets of Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt. Translated and Edited by Amy Nelson Burnett. Kirksville, MO: Truman State University Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Further Reading

Arand, Charles P., James A. Nestingen, and Robert Kolb. The Lutheran Confessions: History and Theology of the Book of Concord. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012.Find this resource:

Bender, Harold. “The Anabaptist Vision.” Mennonite Quarterly Review 18.13 (1944): 67–88.Find this resource:

Bizer, Ernst. Studien zur Geschichte des Abendmahlsstreits im 16. Jahrhundert. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1962 [1940].Find this resource:

Brecht, Martin. “Luthers Beziehungen zu den Oberdeutschen und Schweizern von 1530/31 bis 1546.” In Leben und Werk Martin Luthers von 1526 bis 1546: Festgabe zu seinem 500. Geburtstag. Edited by Helmer Junghans, 497–517, 891–894. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1983.Find this resource:

Burnett, Amy Nelson. Karlstadt and the Origins of the Eucharistic Controversy: A Study in the Circulation of Ideas. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Clasen, Claus-Peter. Anabaptism: A Social History. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1972.Find this resource:

Edwards, Mark U. Luther and the False Brethren. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1975.Find this resource:

Fast, Heinold, ed. Der Linke Flügel der Reformation: Glaubenszeugnisse der Täufer, Spiritualisten, Schwärmer und Antitrinitarier. Bremen: Schünemann, 1962.Find this resource:

Friesen, Abraham. Thomas Muentzer, a Destroyer of the Godless: The Making of a Sixteenth-Century Religious Revolutionary. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.Find this resource:

Goertz, Hans Juergen, ed. Profiles of Radical Reformers. Translated by Walter Klassen. Kitchener, ON: Herald, 1982.Find this resource:

Gritsch, Eric. “Luther und die Schwärmer.” Luther 47 (1976): 105–121.Find this resource:

Haas, Alois M. Der Kampf um den Heiligen Geist: Luther und die Schwärmer. Fribourg: Universitätsverlag, 1997.Find this resource:

Lindberg, Carter. The European Reformations, 2d ed. Oxford: Blackwell, 2010.Find this resource:

Loewen, Harry. Ink Against the Devil: Luther and His Opponents. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2015.Find this resource:

Lohse, Bernhard. Martin Luther’s Theology: Its Historical and Systematic Development. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999.Find this resource:

Karant-Nunn, Susan C. Zwickau in Transition, 1500–1547: The Reformation as an Agent of Change. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1987.Find this resource:

Knox, Ronald A. Enthusiasm: A Chapter in the History of Religion, with Special Reference to the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1950.Find this resource:

Köhler, Walther. Zwingli und Luther: Ihre Streit über das Abendmahl nach seinen politischen und religiösen Beziehungen. Gütersloh: Bertelsmann, 1953 [1924].Find this resource:

Kolb, Robert. ‘“Was sollt’ ein Handvoll Wassers der Seelen helfen?’ Luthers Predigten über die Taufe in den Jahren 1528–1539.” Lutherische Theologie und Kirche 23 (1999): 126–149.Find this resource:

Maurer, Wilhelm. “Luther und die Schwärmer.” In Luther und die Schwärmer. Edited by Wilhelm Maurer et al., 7–37. Berlin: Lutherisches Verlagshaus, 1952.Find this resource:

Mühlpfordt, Günter. “Luther und die ‘Linken’. Eine Untersuchung seiner Schwärmerterminologien.” In Martin Luther. Leben—Werk—Wirkung. Edited by Günter Vogler et al., 325–345. Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1986.Find this resource:

Oberman, Heiko A. “‘Via Antiqua’ and ‘Via Moderna’: Late Medieval Prolegomena to Early Reformation Thought.” Journal of the History of Ideas 48 (1987): 23–40.Find this resource:

Oyer, John S. Lutheran Reformers Against Anabaptists: Luther, Melanchthon and Menius and the Anabaptists of Central Germany. The Hague: Nijhoff, 1964.Find this resource:

Oyer, John S. “Luther and the Anabaptists.” Baptist Quarterly 30.4 (1983): 162–172.Find this resource:

Prenter, Regin. Spiritus Creator. Translated by John M. Jensen. Philadelphia: Muhlenberg, 1953.Find this resource:

Roth, John D., and James M. Stayer, eds. A Companion to Anabaptism and Spiritualism, 1521–1700. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2007.Find this resource:

Seebass, Gottfried. “Luthers Stellung zur Verfolgung der Täufer und ihre Bedeutung für den deutschen Protestantismus.” In Die Reformation und ihre Aussenseiter: Gesammelte Aufsätze und Vorträge, Translated by Gottfried Seebass and Edited by Irene Dingel, 267–282. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1997.Find this resource:

Stayer, James M. “The Radical Reformation.” In Handbook of European History, 1400–1600. Edited by Thomas A. Brady, Jr., Heiko A. Oberman, and James Tracy, vol. 2, 249–282. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmanns, 1995.Find this resource:

Steck, Karl Gerhard. Luther und die Schwärmer. Zollikon and Zürich: Evangelischer Verlag, 1955.Find this resource:

Trigg, Jonathan D. Baptism in the Theology of Martin Luther. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2001.Find this resource:

Troeltsch, Ernst. The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches. Translated by Olive Wyon. New York: Macmillan, 1931. German original, 1912.Find this resource:

Williams, George H. The Radical Reformation, 3d ed. Kirksville, MO: Truman State University Press, 1992.Find this resource:


(1.) Günter Mühlpfordt identifies twelve different applications of the term by Luther, in “Luther und die Linken: Eine Untersuchung seiner Schwärmerterminologie,” in Martin Luther: Leben—Werk—Wirkung, ed. Günter Vogler (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1986), 325–345.

(2.) Christian Peters, “Luther und Seine Gegner,” in Luther Handbuch, ed. Albrecht Beutal (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2005), 121; and Karl Gerhard Steck, Luther und die Schwärmer (Zurich: Evangelischer Verlag, 1955), 6.

(3.) Also known as “Invocavit Sermons”; LW 51:67–100.

(4.) LW 51:78–79. For the entire sermon series see WA 10/III:1–64.

(5.) Lutheran-Mennonite International Study Commission, “Healing Memories: Reconciling in Christ”, report by the Lutheran World Federation and the Mennonite World Conference, 2010, 5. This report contributed to the reconciliation between the MWC and the LWF, in a service of repentance and forgiveness, in Stuttgart, in 2010.

(6.) George Huntston Williams, The Radical Reformation (3d ed.; Kirksville, MO: Sixteenth Century Journal, 1992).

(7.) This reference to “Reformations” blends Williams’s typology with the work of scholars such as Carter Lindberg. Cf. Carter Lindberg, The European Reformations (2d ed.; Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).

(8.) Adam M. Croom, “Slurs,” Language Sciences 33.3 (May 2011): 343–358.

(9.) “Receiving Both Kinds in the Sacrament,” LW 45:70–71 (translation altered).

(10.) E.g., the “Lutheran” World Federation and the majority of its member churches identify themselves as “Lutheran.” Cf. Alfred Goetze, “Lutherisch,” Zeitschrift für deutsche Wortforschung 3 (1902): 183–198.

(11.) Martin Luther, “The Smalcald Articles” (1538), in The Book of Concord, eds. Robert Kolb and Timothy Wengert (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000), SA III, viii, 3–13; henceforth cited as SA. Luther uses Enthusiasten in paragraph 3 and then pairs it with Schwarmgeisterei in paragraph 5. What follows draws on the work of Charles P. Arand, Robert Kolb, and James A. Nestingen, The Lutheran Confessions: History and Theology of the Book of Concord (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012), 149ff.

(12.) In Against the Heavenly Prophets (1525), Luther offers a specific critique of the ideas of Andreas Karlstadt (WA 18:135, 24–139, 26; and LW 40:146–49).

(13.) Harry Loewen, Ink Against the Devil: Luther and His Opponents (Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2015).

(14.) The Roman emperor Justinian established this as imperial law already in the mid-6th century CE.

(15.) This tendency continues to influence contemporary Anabaptist groups. The Hutterites of North America, descendants from 16th-century Anabaptists, live in distinct communities known as “colonies.” Later the Amish were to adopt this sort of pattern.

(16.) Charles P. Arand, James A. Nestingen, and Robert Kolb, The Lutheran Confessions: History and Theology of the Book of Concord (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012), 150.

(17.) “Against the Heavenly Prophets in the Matter of Images and Sacraments,” 1525, LW 40:83. Translation altered.

(18.) Letter to the Princes of Saxony, WA 15:210–215; LW 40:49–59. Cf. Siegfried Bräuer, “Die Vorgeschichte von Luthers ‘Ein Brief an die Fürsten zu Sachsen von dem aufrührerischen Geist’,” Lutherjahrbuch 47 (1980): 40–70.

(19.) Lutheran-Mennonite International Study Commission, “Healing Memories,” 37–38 (and the references identified there).

(20.) SA III, 8:6 (translation altered).

(21.) Corpus juris canonici, Liber Sextus I, 2, c. 1.

(22.) BSLK, 454; BC, 322.

(23.) Ernst Troeltsch, The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches, vol. 2, trans. Olive Wyon (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1992–1931), 691–807 (German original, Die Soziallehren der christlichen Kirchen und Gruppen, 1912). This is a basic distinction made by Harold S. Bender (“The Anabaptist Vision”).

(24.) Karl Holl, “Luther und die Schwärmer,” in Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Kirchengeschichte, ed. Karl Holl (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr/Siebeck, 1928 [1922]), 420–467. Cf. James Stayer, “‘Luther und die Schwärmer’: Karl Holl und das abenteuerliche Leben eines Textes,” In Aussenseiter zwischen Mittelalter und Neuzeit: Festschrift für Hans-Jürgen Goertz, eds. Norbert Fischer und Marion Kobelt-Groch (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1997), 169–188.

(25.) Wilhelm Maurer, “Luther und die Schwärmer,” in Luther und die Schwärmer, eds. Wilhelm Maurer et al. (Berlin: Lutherisches Verlaghaus, 1952), 7–37.

(26.) Regin Prenter, Spiritus Creator, trans. John M. Jensen (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg, 1953).

(27.) Karl Gerhard Steck, Luther und die Schwärmer (Zollikon and Zürich: Evangelischer Verlag, 1955).

(28.) Eric Gritsch, “Luther und die Schwärmer,” Luther 47 (1976): 105–121.

(29.) Alois M. Haas, Der Kampf um den Heiligen Geist: Luther und die Schwärmer (Fribourg: Universitätsverlag, 1997).

(30.) Mark Edwards, Luther and the False Brethren (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1975).

(31.) Harry Loewen, Ink Against the Devil: Luther and His Opponents (Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2015).

(32.) Romwald Maczka, “Thomas Müntzer: Theologian, Reformer, and East Germany Forefather,” Occasional Papers on Religion in Eastern Europe 9.1 (1989).