The year was 1531. As autumn darkened into winter, prospects for the Reformation in Switzerland looked grim. Within a month, two of its leaders were dead: the rugged and charismatic Huldrych Zwingli, reformer of Zurich, slain on the battlefield at the age of 47; and the gentler, more scholarly Johannes Oecolampadius, leading pastor in the city of Basel, who had sickened and died at 49. With Zurich’s defeat and the death of these men, the evangelicals were in retreat.
Yet the cause would survive and prosper under new leaders such as Heinrich Bullinger and Jean Calvin. Zwingli’s legacy would be preserved, his legacy re-cast in a heroic mould. But what of Oecolampadius? One of the leading Hebrew scholars of his day, an outstanding biblical commentator and reformer of a prominent city, yet his name is largely unknown outside specialist circles and the great bulk of his work has never been translated into English. Who was this forgotten reformer?
His name may partly be to blame! It is a Greek translation of his German surname, Huszgen, which means “house-lamp”. Johannes followed the fashion of the time for scholars to re-name themselves in the languages of the learned. Certainly, the “light” of learning was his guiding star for much of his career.
Born in 1482 (a year before Luther) in southern Germany, he pursued academic studies at Heidelberg and Tubingen. He shares with Luther the distinction of being one of the few early reformers academically trained in theology. Languages and the works of antiquity were his first interest. He surpassed most in his generation to gain the rare distinction of being an expert in all three sacred languages – Greek, Latin and Hebrew. Hence the name tells us much of the man.
His zeal for learning was not simply academic. His first introduction to Basel was in 1515 as Hebrew assistant to the great Erasmus, labouring on his edition of the Greek New Testament, and he shared Erasmus’ passion for the reform of the church through a return to the simple “philosophy of Christ”. Basel boasted Switzerland’s greatest university and the finest printing houses north of the Alps, and Oecolampadius could share in the interests of a wider scholarly circle in the interpretation of Scripture, especially the Old Testament and its application to the purifying of both church and state.
However, the blend Erasmus offered of cosmopolitan scholarship and urbane moralism would not satisfy Oecolampadius for long, as his sympathies became more evangelical. Already by 1510 he was preaching on justification by faith alone, and even as Luther’s early works were spreading through Europe he was engaged in evangelical ministry in Augsburg from 1518 to 1520. In contrast to Luther, his deepening convictions drove him in 1520 into a monastery, where he could reflect and study undisturbed.
He was never simply an acolyte of Luther: with his own scholarship and with early church fathers such as Chrysostom as his guides, he would be one of the earliest to pursue conclusions that would eventually characterise the Reformed stream of the Reformation. Both Luther and Erasmus would count him as an opponent.
Take, for example, his view of worship, especially the Lord’s Supper. In 1523, as Luther was advancing his own cautious liturgical alterations, Oecolampadius drafted a revolutionary new liturgy, possibly the first attempt to transform the Roman Mass into an evangelical service. Later, in 1525, he would publish his most controversial treatise, On the Genuine Meaning of the Lord’s words: This is my Body, an erudite critique of the notion that Christ’s body and blood were physically present in the Sacrament.
Though this view is considered “Zwinglian”, in many ways it was Oecolampadius who did the theological heavy-lifting, drawing on his extensive labours in exegesis and study of the Fathers. In fact, his views foreshadow those of Calvin, with his emphasis on Christ’s physical presence in heaven after the ascension, and our spiritual communion with Him through the Supper.
Meanwhile, Oecolampadius was back in Basel, lecturing, preaching and debating. Hundreds would gather for his lectures, ordinary townsfolk as well as clergy and students. He wears his learning lightly in his commentaries, which are clear and succinct. 1523 saw a landmark series on Isaiah. Once again a trailblazer, this series outlines the covenant theology later so characteristic of the Reformed faith. He found in the testament of Christ – His finished work on the cross – the unifying foundation of all biblical covenants, Moses as well as Abraham. He could not accept Luther’s sharp divide between law and gospel, for the law could never be fulfilled except through the gospel, and the final purpose of the gospel was not simply justification but also the writing of the law on the hearts of God’s people.
For Oecolampadius, this law was therefore the law of the Spirit. Here, he did observe a distinction between Moses and the testament of Christ, but only when considered externally. Commenting on Hebrews 7:18-19, he said, “Those who know only the law, neglecting the law of faith and the Spirit, have not been made perfect… Do you see rejection of the law here? Yes, but only of external ceremonies … however beautiful the body, it is a corpse if the Spirit is lacking; so all works, no matter how commendable to sight, perish if the vivifying Spirit is not in them.” The Holy Spirit is the great interest of Oecolampadius: in the Supper, in worship and especially in the new life of Christ’s church. In this he foreshadows Calvin once again.
Oecolampadius was a gentler man than a Luther or a Zwingli. Rank abuse was not his strong suit. Though outraged by the Roman Mass, he can bring himself to pray for its defenders, “that the Lord would see fit to open their eyes and disperse the fog of error”. He was a teacher and preacher foremost.
Yet tumultuous events surrounded him. Agitation and street riots would eventually push the city council to open several of the city’s churches for evangelical worship in 1527. The same year saw him take the radical step of marrying Wibrandis Rosenblatt, with whom he would have three children (she would go on to marry two other reformers after Oecolampadius’ death: his friend Wolfgang Capito, and then the famous reformer of Strasbourg, Martin Bucer). His firm alliance with Zwingli would lead him to a disputation in Bern that would establish reformation there, and, most fatefully, to the great Marburg Colloquy between the Lutherans and the Swiss Reformers in 1529. Hence Oecolampadius, along with Zwingli, was the object of Luther’s attacks on the Swiss teaching that there was no physical presence of Christ in the Supper.
It was only now that the Reformation was officially established at Basel, and Oecolampadius would see its progress for a few short years. The city’s printing presses churned out his commentaries and his catechism, his proposals for the reformation of church government as well as of public worship. But the pall of division and military threat hung over these years. Even news of his death in 1531 was poisoned by vicious rumours of suicide, and Luther regarded it as God’s judgment – an attack of the devil to snatch away his life. Yet we owe much to the labours of Johannes Oecolampadius, whose work was so extensive and yet has attracted far too little recognition. Under God, we owe to men like him, and not simply the leading names such as Calvin or Luther, the foundations of our Reformed and evangelical heritage.