Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Benes Optat, "On Baptism and the Lord's Supper": An Utraquist Reformer's Opinion of Pilgram Marpeck's Vermahnung

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Benes Optat, "On Baptism and the Lord's Supper": An Utraquist Reformer's Opinion of Pilgram Marpeck's Vermahnung

Article excerpt

The Utraquist priest Benes Optat (d. 1559) was a prominent advocate of reform within the Utraquist Church in Moravia. Theologically, he formed part of a regional Sacramentarian-Spiritualist movement that blended radical traditions of the Bohemian ("Hussite") Reformation with elements of Erasmian biblical humanism and the Swiss-Upper German Reformation. In "On Baptism and the Lord's Supper" (1556-1559), which is an expert opinion on the Vermahnung (anonymously published by Pilgram Marpeck), Optat sharply condemns the persecutors of the Anabaptists and any use of force in matters of faith, candidly compares the Anabaptist positions with those of the Swiss-Upper German reformers and suggests a practical compromise between infant baptism and baptism of believers. This contribution places Optat's treatise, written at the request of a Moravian magnate, in the context of religious tolerance in early modern Moravia and argues that the tolerant attitude of the Moravian nobility towards the Anabaptists and other religious minorities, was, on a theological level, influenced by Spiritualist concepts that were propagated in the Margraviate by Optat and others.

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The aristocratic dominions in the southern part of the Margraviate of Moravia formed one of the few regions in sixteenth-century Europe where the Anabaptists enjoyed tolerance and protection. This tolerance was the result of specific political and economic conditions, and of a specific religious attitude of Moravian aristocracy, or, more exactly, of a group of its most influential representatives. Whereas the political and economical backgrounds of tolerance in early modern Moravia have been the subject of many studies, (1) the religious aspect has been described only vaguely. Recently, Josef Valka and Thomas Winkelbauer identified a "supra-denominational Christianity" as the rationale of the tolerant religious politics of the Moravian nobles, but remained reluctant to assign a positive theological content to the term. (2)

The tolerant practice on many Moravian dominions was a matter of permanent conflict between the Moravian estates and their Catholic overlords, especially King Ferdinand I (ruled 1527-1564), who insisted on the suppression of the Anabaptists and other minorities. The estates repeatedly answered the king by arguing that faith is an immediate gift of God and cannot be forced by humans, simply because faith cannot be given by any outward means (implying that persecuting religious dissenters contradicts God's sovereignty). To quote only two instances: In 1538, the Moravian diet agreed on the formula that "people can not be forced to believe, for faith is nothing else than a gift of God, and cannot be given by anybody else than by God himself." (3) One year later, the influential Lord Jan z Pernstejna (Johann von Pernstein, d. 1548) wrote to the king: "Faith, most gracious king, is a gift of God, and nobody can give it to those who do not receive it from God." (4)

The formula shows a high degree of theological reflection. Where is its place in the context of the competing strands of Reformation theology? Luther had uttered similar thoughts in 1523. (5) But the way the argument was applied by the Moravian estates in 1538-1539 was certainly not "Lutheran." The formula, rather, shows an affinity to a Spiritualist concept of faith, and it can actually be found, in very similar wording, in the writings of several Moravian Spiritualists, or rather Sacramentarians, (6) who may have exercised influence on politics by their writings and by theological expert advice. Indeed, the quotation from 1538 noted above is part of a protest resolution by the Moravian estates against the confinement of a Sacramentarian leader, the knight Jan Dub ansky ze Zdenina. The historical context suggests that the "supra-denominational" rationale of religious tolerance in Early Modern Moravia, as phrased in the quoted texts, may be characterized as a political application of a Spiritualist understanding of faith. …

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