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Hans Denck: Polarization, Pestilence, and Divine Love
Texts: Matthew 5:1-10; 1 John 4:7-8
Speaker: Joel Miller
January 21, 1525 – That’s the date most frequently cited as the beginning of the Anabaptist movement. That’s the day a group of mostly young dissidents met in a home in Zurich, Switzerland. It was a tumultuous time – religiously, politically, economically. After discussion and prayer, this small group decided this was the day each of them was going to be baptized – re-baptized. Their infant baptism had joined them to a church they could no longer claim as their own. It was their conviction that this second baptism, as free-willing adults, was a public statement of their commitment to follow the way of the gospel and to live out its economic, political, and religious implications.
That very same day, January 21, 1525, over 250 miles away in Nuremberg, Germany, a young headmaster at a prominent parish school named Hans Denck was banished from that city for his not-orthodox-enough theology.
These were the early rumblings of an Anabaptist movement from which Mennonites came.
A bit of math shows we’re approaching the 500 year anniversary of those beginnings. The baptism workshop we hosted at the church yesterday, led by professor John Roth of Goshen College, was one of numerous events leading up to that anniversary. It’s a sign of the different time and circumstances we’re in that the Lutheran and Catholic presenters were warmly received and made no attempts to banish the Mennonites from the city. We did have them outnumbered.
Regardless of how close we might be to a big anniversary, I like to use this first Sunday of November to tell the story of an Anabaptist forebear. I guess the fact that we observe a version of All Saints and Souls means we’re also getting in touch with our older Catholic roots out of which Anabaptism emerged. It was indeed a different time and place, but also, perhaps, not that different.
And so, the Anabaptist of the year is…Hans Denck, with the intentionally somewhat provocative sermon title Hans Denck: Polarization, Pestilence, and Divine Love.
If you know nothing about Hans Denck, you know only slightly less than I did several weeks ago. What I did know was enough to pique my curiosity. He was considered a mystic and possible universalist – as in no one is ever outside the reach of Divine love – and, rather than dying as a martyr, like so many of those early Anabaptists, he died of the plague. Thus the mention of pestilence. We can’t quite escape that theme these days.
When the influential historian Harold Bender was doing some revisionist history back in the first half of the 20th century, separating the true Anabaptists from those who weren’t, according to the theological and ethical framework he valued, Hans Denck did not make the cut. Not that he was unethical, quite the contrary, and not that his theology wildly differed from other Anabaptists, but, as other historians have observed, Hans Denck is really hard to classify. His writings and brief life resist easy categorization. All the more intriguing.
So I guess this time we can put a question mark after Anabaptist? forebear.
Hans Denck was born and lived his life in Southern Germany. He received a humanist education, which basically means he was proficient in Latin and Greek, plus Hebrew. His first job after university was as a private tutor for a wealthy family, moving on to be a printery corrector, basically a copy editor, for the owner of a printing press.
It’s worth remembering that these machines were relatively new on the scene and that they completely changed the way information was shared. The ideas that led to the Lutheran Reformation and Anabaptist movement had been around for centuries in smaller pockets, but were suddenly much easier to communicate. Pamphlets and books, and thus ideas, could now be mass produced and shared widely. Not quite to the scale of Twitter and Tik-Tok, but the printing press was the original meme making machine. And, like today, it amplified public conflicts that had previously been more private unacknowledged differences.
It was his boss at the printing press who recommended Hans Denck for the school master position in Nuremberg. It was a big post, one of the prominent parishes of the city, with an official invitation from city leaders. In Nuremberg Denck married, and together he and his wife hosted various reform-minded leaders who passed through the city, which itself was already influenced by Luther’s writings.
But Denck’s ideas, and no doubt his influence on students, went too far afield for the local clergy and city council. After a little over a year at his position he was required to give an account of his beliefs. In response, Denck wrote an extensive statement that the Council quickly realized they needed to keep away from those pesky printing presses for wider distribution. Among Denck’s offenses was his belief that scripture - rather than being the Word of God itself - was a witness to the Word, which ultimately lived beyond the text in the Spirit of God and one’s inner being. He also had little interest in whether the Eucharist transformed into the real body and blood of Christ in the sacrament, emphasizing instead the importance of the inner transformation of the person taking the bread and the cup.
For this and other statements contrary to the clergy and council’s approval, Denck was forced to swear an oath that we would never again come within 10 miles of the city. He did this, coincidentally, the same January day in 1525 the Swiss Brethren were baptizing themselves in Zurich. This banishment separated him from his wife and their child, labeled him an outcast heretic, and led to several years of wandering and temporary stays before his life was cut short.
Among those temporary stays was time in Augsburg where he published several influential writings. Perhaps beyond even his own expectations, Denck’s influence spread rapidly.
Augsburg is where Denck was baptized.
In Augusburg he quietly led outdoor Anabaptist gatherings that grew to over 1000 participants. These were replicated in surrounding centers of South Germany. After these were found out he fled Augsburg, but returned later in 1527 for secret meetings with Anabaptist leaders. There was no single strategic movement, no central leader or platform or confession. During the meetings Denck managed to convince a prominent leader who was charismatically apocalyptic to back off his urgent predictions of Christ’s return. The group decided a next step would be to go in pairs to strengthen all those scattered Anabaptist fellowships. That gathering came to be known at the Martyr’s Synod because the majority of its participants were jailed before they could leave the city, then executed.
Denck made it out alive, but he couldn’t escape the force that had been turning Europe – and the rest of the known world - upside down for almost 200 years, the most fatal pandemic in recorded history, wiping out perhaps ¼ of the world’s population in the 14th century, setting the stage for social, political, economic, and of course religious upheaval and reform in 16th century Europe. In 1527 there was another localized outbreak of that same plague and Hans Denck died. He was most likely 27 years old.
In an age of heated public forums and theological jousting, when the most common strategy was to write a polemic against the other side to show why they were wrong, Denck’s writings were meditative, even self-deprecating, admitting he didn’t have the whole truth.
Denck wrote: “...if you hear your brother say something that is strange to you, do not refute it right away, but listen first to determine whether it is right for you to accept it, too.”
His preferred theological move was to point back to the love of God which, he believed, dwelled deeply within each person. He frequently cited the beatitudes, identifying especially with the first – Blessed are the poor in spirit.
A biographer wrote: “Denck was too overwhelmed by God’s love to be much preoccupied with God’s wrath” (The Spiritual Legacy of Hans Denck, Bauman, p. 29)
We perhaps think of these 16th century Anabaptists as always going straight back to scripture for inspiration, but, just like us, they had their own spiritual lineages. Denck was deeply influenced by the medieval German mystic Meister Eckhart who wrote poetically about getting lost in the love of God, that everything was ultimately one within the all-encompassing embrace of God.
As I was reading about Hans Denck it made me think of the way Thich Naht Hanh has formed what he calls “Engaged Buddhism.” To the mindfulness practices of Buddhist tradition he has added the element of being a socially engaged peace activist. Maybe Hans Denck represents “Engaged Mysticism” and maybe that’s one of the reasons it’s hard to put him in a category.
The most commonly cited quote of Denck goes like this: “No one can truly know Christ unless they follow him in life. And no one can follow him insofar as one previously knows him.” This play between the inner life of communion with God’s Spirit and outer life of discipleship, including nonviolence, is another common theme of Denck’s writings. For Denck it’s not that humans have to merely summon their moral courage to do good, but yield to the Divine spark already within them, which leads to courageous discipleship. Engaged mysticism.
Along with Anabaptists, Denck is seen by both Unitarians and Quakers as a spiritual ancestor.
He and a co-writer were the first to translate the Hebrew prophets into German. And, one of the things I find most remarkable, in an age when Jews were the ultimate other, easily scapegoated for social problems – including the plague - and easily damned for supposedly rejecting Christ, Hans Denck actively consulted with rabbis to make the translation. I assume this means he often took their advice over his own interpretative leanings. Martin Luther was not pleased with this at all, but had high praise for the scholarship of the translation and likely relied on Denck’s work when he translated the whole Bible into German.
There are some clear parallels between 16th century Europe and 21st century life with the polarization that new communication technologies amplify, and the instability brought on by whichever p word you choose to use – pestilence, plague, or pandemic.
Hans Denck died way too early to say all he could have said. But he still has plenty to say to us.
He practiced worldview humility while still speaking truth as he best saw fit.
He gave primacy to love above all things.
He treasured the inner life of spirit and the outward life of discipleship.
He was hard to categorize. What a great life goal – to be hard to categorize.
He was less concerned with how others labeled him, or perhaps even remembered him, and more concerned with being a vessel of Divine Love.
May his memory be a blessing, and may we be a blessing.