Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Return of the Zwickau Prophets

The year was 1521.  Martin Luther had disappeared into the Wartburg castle, now labeled an enemy of the state.  His stand at the Diet of Worms had all but signed his death warrant as an outlaw.  Fortunately, Luther had friends who wanted him protected, and protect him they did.

But someone needed to be responsible for continuing Luther’s work back in Wittenberg.  Someone needed to continue leading the Reformation–someone who had a steady hand, an intelligent mind, and the ability to hold onto the truths that Luther had re-discovered.  Luther believed that person to be Philip Melanchthon.

Melanchthon was a scholar par excellance.  He was adept in ancient languages.  He was skilled in theology, and he was a tremendous preacher.  Luther believed he was the right man for the job in his absence.  However, as Eric Metaxas writes in his book Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World, “Luther had far more confidence in him than Melanchthon had in himself.”1

This would pose problems as Luther stayed hidden in the Wartburg.

The first of these problems arose when two colleagues began pushing the Reformation in ways that Luther had never anticipated.  Andreas Karlstadt and Gabriel Zwilling began their own form of legalism contrary to Luther’s teaching of grace.  For instance, Karlstadt began proclaiming that whereas lay folks were once allowed only the bread at Holy Communion, it was now sinful if lay folks did not take both bread and wine at communion.  Melanchthon said nothing regarding this.  When Luther found out, he was furious.  “The Gospel gave us the freedom to do these things if we chose, but it did not in any way compel us.”2

The second of these problems came in the form of the “Zwickau prophets.”  These three men claimed to have direct communication from God.  They had essentially been run out of Zwickau as a result of their preaching, and they came to Wittenberg.  One of these three had actually been a student of Melanchthon’s, and perhaps this is why “they quickly overwhelmed the shy genius with their confident biblical interpretations and stories of heavenly ecstasies.”3
For some strange reason, none of the outlandish things these men said seemed theologically iffy–until they shared with Melanchton their views on infant baptism, which they were implacably against.  Of all things, it was this that got his attention.  But they said other things that ought to have alerted him, such as the idea that direct revelation from God himself could now supersede the Bible.  After all, they said, if the Bible were so necessary, God might have sent it to them directly from heaven.  Now, they had the Holy Spirit.  Melanchthon was in a dither.  He didn’t feel confident enough to understand whether these fast talking holy men were onto something or not, and he felt sure that Luther needed to return again to judge the situation properly.4
Luther would eventually return, and he did not have kind words to say to these so called “prophets.”  In fact, after meeting with one of them, he thought that he had spoken with the devil incarnate.5  Luther had no bones about shutting them down and ruling them out of bounds.

There is of course, more to the story, and it has a tragic ending.  But for our purposes, there has been enough history shared.  It is now helpful to move into the present.  I am becoming more and more convinced that the same spirit that inhabited the “Zwickau prophets” has inhabited some in our churches today.

I remember vividly attending a Synod Assembly in 2007/2008 where Presiding Bishop Mark Hansen, of the ELCA spoke about the proposed social statement on human sexuality, “A Social Statement on Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust.”  I remember a recurring statement ushering forth from him.  “It seemed good to the Spirit and to us...”  It was a play on Acts chapter 15 indicating that this new teaching on human sexuality–that homosexual relationships were not only not forbidden by God but accepted and blessed–was given by the Spirit.  Oh, and we just happened to agree with it as well.  Zwickauian anyone?

And the redefining of the Gospel continues in that vein.  No longer is Christ’s work on the cross an act of atonement, but it is God’s solidarity with the oppressed.  Scripture lines up perfectly with Marxist thought as social justice supercedes individual repentance and conversion.  (I’m still struggling to find that without doing tremendous exegetical gymnastics.)

God loves you just as you are has replaced God loves you in spite of who you are.  You do not have to change–it is society that must change and conform to acceptance and tolerance.  After all, Jesus was completely and totally tolerant of everyone.  (That’s why they tried to throw him off a cliff in his hometown, you know.)

And grace really, truly covers all.  If there is a hell, it is empty.  God really doesn’t give you up to your passions so that you will follow them for eternity.  He will bring you to him even if it is against your will and desire.  He will eventually force you to love Him.  Oops, I’ve committed another mortal sin.  I can’t use masculine pronouns.  God will eventually force you to love God.

Yes, people really believe this stuff.  And more.  And why isn’t it shut down?  Why doesn’t anyone call it for what it is?  Well, most who are in a position to do so are very much like Melanchthon.  In fact, I’d probably argue that we have far too many Melanchthons in our churches these days and far too few Luther’s.

And I get that too.  I understand that very well.  For to be a Luther means that not only must you speak out against such things, you also must be willing to bear the tremendous weight of attack that is thrown at you.  Most of us know very well that Luther was attacked by the Roman Church, but when he began speaking out against Karlstadt, Zwilling, and the Zwickau prophets, he had to endure their attacks as well.

But Luther was more than up to the challenge.  He believed he rested on the Truth.  He believed and argued vehemently for it.  He was willing to take a stand, not just once or twice, but over and over and over again.

May we all find such courage in these times.  May we all.

1. Metaxas, Eric.  Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World. Viking: New York 2017. p. 243.

2, Metaxas. p. 256.

3. Metaxas. p. 267.

4. Metaxas. p. 267-268.

5. Metaxas. p. 286

No comments: