Marpeck: A Life of Dissent and Conformity
Walter Klaassen and William Klassen. Waterloo, ON and Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2008. 423 pages.
Perhaps no person has generated as much interest in recent Anabaptist scholarship as the Swiss/South German civil engineer and Anabaptist theologian Pilgram Marpeck (1495–1556). Until the beginning of the last century, Marpeck’s name was virtually unknown, but with the publication of one of his books, the discovery of his numerous letters and treatises, and the translation into English of several of his most salient writings, Marpeck has indeed become a person of growing interest.
Scholars now widely recognize that he was a key personality during Anabaptism’s formative years. As a theologian and church leader he gave sustained attention to matters pertaining to hermeneutics, Christian unity, the role and significance of the sacraments, and pacifism. His perspectives provided contemporaries with a useable framework for navigating complex issues. In our time his views have resonated with scholars and church leaders who likewise have wrestled with ecclesiological and political issues.
Thanks to Walter Klaassen and William Klassen, who have already contributed to Marpeck scholarship by way of translations and commentaries, we now have a rich biography of Marpeck. In this work their efforts have culminated in a seminal resource, bringing to light a fresh interpretation of a key Anabaptist personality.
The book follows Marpeck over the course of his life as he journeys from his native town of Rattenberg in the Austrian Tirol to the environs of Moravia, Strasbourg, Appenzell, and Augsburg. As engineer, cosmopolitan, entrepreneur, politician, theologian, defender of the faith, and ecumenist, Marpeck was often in conversation with political leaders, mainline reformers, spiritualists, and representatives of his own tradition. While many Anabaptists in the sixteenth century suffered persecution and even martyrdom for their convictions, somehow Marpeck managed to survive, avoiding imprisonment and premature death. It has sometimes been asked whether he compromised his faith by accepting employment from the state, while many died at the hands of the state for their faith convictions. The authors seek to address this question not only by attending to Marpeck’s writings, but also by following his actions as he carefully negotiated the boundaries between the religious and worldly realms.
Much more than a biography of a single person, this monograph provides a wide-ranging description of Anabaptism, highlighting not only the diversity of the movement, but also bringing to light the way in which the various disparate Anabaptist groups were connected to each other. The volume also attends to the dynamics of Marpeck’s inner circle. Although Marpeck was an original and creative theologian, he collaborated extensively with others, and depended on a close and intimate community for his thoughts and perspectives. Readers are introduced to a number of competent women and men of Marpeck’s circle, who gave significant leadership and direction to the Anabaptist movement.
Historians of early modern Europe often reject religious factors and substitute social, political, or economic explanations in their interpretations of historical change and upheaval. The authors of this work assume that the sixteenth century was a religious century and that central arguments of the period were religious. Much attention therefore is given to Marpeck’s thought in the context of broader Reformation perspectives. The authors consider Marpeck’s emphasis on the incarnation and the humanity of Christ as key to understanding his theology as a whole.
While the book is rich in its description of Marpeck’s theological vision, it also contributes to matters that are of interest to social historians. The authors skillfully draw readers into the late medieval and early modern world, painting a masterful portrait of urban and rural life. And so readers are introduced to typical living quarters and furnishings of sixteenth-century European dwellings, and to the way in which persons of various social standings would have interacted with one another. In matters pertaining to economics, readers are introduced to the process of mining and transporting lumber, and to the various technologies that were available to industry of that time period. On the political front, readers are provided with a helpful picture of the leading personalities of the Holy Roman Empire thereby rendering intelligible a landscape often confusing to students of history. The authors scrutinize the major political events of the time and skillfully lay bare the way in which international and regional forces affected not only the everyday lives of Anabaptists, but also the typical European citizenry.
It is difficult to find fault with this volume. The book is splendidly written; the authors have done their research, providing rich detail throughout. Perhaps too often they try to speculate about details that cannot be entirely ascertained from the sources. But their honest attempt to fill in the gaps of Marpeck’s life where the sources are found to be wanting also provides a plausible narrative that enhances the story line which future scholars may someday be able to corroborate.
While the authors set out to write a biography of someone who lived centuries ago, they also endeavor to link the past with the present, convinced that Marpeck has something valuable to say to the present Christian community. They note that Marpeck was a complex, perhaps even a somewhat enigmatic figure of the Reformation, who sought to live faithfully in a world much like our own. He was given the task of building public works projects in various cities across Europe that resulted in the improvement of people’s lives, yet his primary focus was the spiritual realm. He collaborated with the world’s authorities for the sake of the common good, yet he had the courage to stand firm in his convictions regarding the truth of the gospel. In this respect the book succeeds in not only being relevant for scholars but also for those interested in contemporary questions of faith. I highly recommend the book.