Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Critically Appropriating Tradition: Pilgram Marpeck's Experiments in Corrective Theologizing

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Critically Appropriating Tradition: Pilgram Marpeck's Experiments in Corrective Theologizing

Article excerpt

Abstract: What sets apart Pilgram Marpeck's theology more than anything else is his fusion of the "spiritual" and "sacramental" principles, of "inner" and "outer." Marpeck makes his case for this fusion by the relationship he establishes among Christology, ecclesiology and sacramentology. Part of situating Marpeck in his context is the significance of the fact that he belongs to the second wave of radical reform. His goal was to give staying power to the charisma of the first generation. It is striking that Marpeck was able to support himself throughout his Anabaptist career as an engineer. This involved participation in the structures of civil society. Marpeck argued that when the spiritualist corrective becomes the norm it betrays the incarnation. He used this traditional argument to make the case for a visible church of believers. In the process the Lord's Supper becomes paradigmatic for his theology as a whole.

Among the radicals of the Reformation Pilgram Marpeck is unique in his fusion of the "spiritual" and "sacramental" principles of Christianity by means of biblical exegesis and doctrinal formulation. (1) Historically, the spiritual and sacramental principles have led to separate types of church life. For example, in Augustine's conflict with the Donatists, Augustine insisted that it was the office of the priest that made the baptisms he performed valid, independent of his character. The Donatists claimed that the validity of a priest's baptisms was conditioned by his character. In the medieval Catholic world, broadly speaking, the spiritual principle was never autonomous from the sacramental one. It was only with the repudiation of Catholic authority in the sixteenth century that spiritualism of the sort Marpeck opposed came into being. Caspar Schwenckfeld and Christian Entfelder are two of its major representatives. It discarded outward forms in the belief that only the inward was spiritually real.

This article examines the means by which Marpeck bridged this divide by synthesizing spiritual and sacramental principles. The implications of Marpeck's synthesis are as far reaching for mission and ethics as they are for worship and doctrine, even though in this article I focus mostly on the latter.

The enquiry begins with an overview of Marpeck's life and context now that a half century has passed since modern research on the subject first reached English-speaking scholars and readers. How much light can be shed on the sources and patterns of Marpeck's way of thinking from our limited knowledge of his intellectual biography?

The second step is to examine the Marpeck legacy, especially his teaching on the presence of Christ in the Lord's Supper, to illustrate how he shapes his three defining doctrines--Christology, ecclesiology, sacramentology--and how they, in turn, influence his thinking. This involves revisiting the Reformation-era debate concerning the Holy Supper because it was here that rival Christologies most clearly contended with one another. The originality of Marpeck's theology consists in the inseparable relationship he posited among Christology, ecclesiology and sacramentology.

Marpeck's theological structure and method might be considered "experiments" for several reasons. To begin, Marpeck reflects improvisation in his thought--a willingness to borrow and a refusal to let himself be either confined within or forced to abandon the passionately contested theological tradition inherited by the sixteenth century. Second, there is a certain caution in Marpeck's approach that is open to the experimental. He often counseled patience when others called for judgment; he was willing to wait for the flower to give way to the fruit. Finally, there is the inescapable--and ironic--fact that Marpeck's attempt at synthesis left behind a durable eucharistic theology but not a durable eucharistic community. That is, his critique of a spiritual realm that exists beyond history and nature has stood the test of time. …

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