Wessel Gansfort (1420-1489)

Called “Light of the World” by his friends and “Master of Contradiction” by his enemies, Wessel Gansfort strides impressively across the landscape of the fifteenth century Church.:”(This entry is based on information found in Edward Waite Miller, Wessel Gansfort: Life and Writings, Vol. 1 [New York and London: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1917], pp. 3-215.)”: The “transitional character” of his age, the age just prior to the Protestant reformation, is seen by placing him in the following chronological perspective: “Huss was burned five years before Wessel’s birth and Zwingli was born five years before Wessel’s death. Constantinople fell when when he was thirty-three years of age, printing was invented when he was thirty-five. During his lifetime began those explorations which three years after his death culminated in the discovery of the western continent.”:”(Ibid., pg. 150.)”: As well, “the first printed copy of the Latin Bible appeared in 1455, when Wessel was thirty-five years of age; the first Hebrew Bible was issued from the press the year following his death.”:”(Ibid., pg. 152.)”:

Born in 1420 in Groningen in the Netherlands, he demonstrated from an early age a marked sense of independent judgment, clarity of thought, and desire to know everything that he could possibly know. In addition to his intellectual activities, Wessel achieved great skill in the discipline of medicine–which affords us another example of the amazingly diversified abilities that characterized so many great men of the later Middle Ages. Educated in the outstanding schools of the Brethren of the Common Life, young Wessel found his mind and heart challenged to ever new heights of greatness. The Brethren’s educational model had been designed to foster the reform of the Church and stand distinct from the largely corrupt monastic system that dominated the Christian cultural landscape. That is, the Brethren had created a program, part of the “modern devotion” (devotio moderna) which focused not merely on contemplation (which by their day had led many monks to a life of luxury rather than piety) but also on action. In their houses the Brethren painstakingly copied the Scriptures and other important religious books. Meanwhile, outside their houses they worked at trades to support themselves. This tended to draw the ire not only of established monastic orders but of guildsmen as well.

Wessel’s education took place in this milieu, and it is interesting to observe that he was friends with the great pietist master Thomas a’ Kempis, author of the famed work The Imitation of Christ. Though friends (or rather, bonded together by a loving master-student relationship) the difference in the two men’s outlook was profound. One biographer relates that when Thomas tried to turn Wessel toward the Marian piety typical of the day, Wessel replied, “Father, why do you not rather lead me to Christ, who so graciously invites those who labor and are heavy-laden to come unto him?” On another occasion when Thomas recommended monastic ascetic disciplines such as fasting, Wessel answered, “God grant that I may always live in purity and temperance, and fast from all sin and crime.”:”(Ibid, pg. 47.)”: The blending of Brethren piety with intellectual achievement helped greatly to motivate the work of other reformers. At some point in his early twenties, Wessel apparently became too independent-minded to remain with the Brethren. Leaving them, he obtained a scholarship which allowed him to settle at the University of Cologne, the prestigious school at which past masters such as Albertus Magnus, his pupil Thomas Aquinas, and Duns Scotus had studied and taught. It was because of his tremendous sense of intellectual independence, tendency to reinforce his arguments with biting sarcasm, and his amazing dialectical skills (logic and rhetoric) that he was dubbed by his enemies the “Master of Contradiction.”

At Cologne Wessel became increasingly dissatisfied with the way theology, “the queen of the sciences,” was taught. To him, the teaching at Cologne was too syllogistic and derivative, lacking the creativity it had had under Albertus Magnus and Duns Scotus. As a subject, he felt it was not balanced out with the study of Scripture and the patristic writers, leading to an intolerable intellectual introversion. He studied widely and deeply on his own, which enabled him to oftentimes confute his own professors with difficult questions of which they had no knowledge. A side benefit of this personal study was that, aided by the transcription abilities he had acquired from the Brethren, Wessel compiled a multi-volume collection of passages from the books he read in the University library, complete with his own comments upon them. He called this collection “the Great Sea,” and carried it with him throughout his travels. He insisted also that the study of the “sacred sciences” be conjoined with fervent Christian piety and morality, or else it would not be “particularly acceptable to God…[but] doubtless rather odious to Him…”:”(Ibid., pg. 78.)”: A striking incident which displays Wessel’s piety occurred when, upon being asked by the newly-installed Pope Sixtus IV what papal favor he would wish to be bestowed upon him (Sixtus had in mind a bishopric or some other earthly honor), Wessel replied that he would like only a Greek and Hebrew Bible from the Vatican library. These were given to him, and he cherished them for the rest of his life. Fragments of these very manuscripts could be seen in Wessel’s hometown as late as the mid seventeenth century.:”(Ibid., pg. 86.)”:

Tremendously influential upon him during these early years of his career were the writings of a relatively obscure twelfth century abbot, Rupert, from the nearby town of Deutz. Wessel found in these writings a deep conviction that the primary source of Christian truth was Holy Scripture, and along with this a robust spirit of free inquiry regarding many matters which, subsequent to Rupert’s death, had been rigidified by the teaching of such doctors as Aquinas. It is likely that Wessel’s own rejection of transubstantiation, and perhaps other elements of his criticisms of the contemporary Church’s problems, found its source in the things he learned from Rupert of Deutz. Also during this period Wessel acquired mastery of the Greek and Hebrew languages–the former from Byzantine scholars who were being driven into Europe by Turkish invasions, and the latter from Jews resident in Cologne. In those days it was astonishing for a person to be a “three language man,” and Wessel’s reputation was significantly enhanced–and criticism against him ultimately significantly stepped up–because of this. A third product of his years at Cologne was his involvement in the bitter disputes between Realists and Nominalists which were becoming of serious import in the changes being wrought in the Christian intellectual and social landscape. At this time Wessel came down in favor of the Realists, for the typical reasons that Realism seemed to have powerful overlaps with Christianity and for its arsenal of incisive polemics against Nominalism. Wessel was particularly interested in the old argument, dating from the twelfth century, that Nominalism destroyed the doctrine of the Trinity and reduced Christianity instead to a form of tritheism.

Leaving Cologne just past the age of thirty, Wessel declined an offer to teach at the University of Heidelberg because he wished to continue his own studies rather than to teach others. In the year of grace 1454, he went to the University of Paris, which thanks to the crisis of authority that had been caused by the forty-year long Western Schism had become a locus of intellectual and doctrinal authority throughout Europe. It was from the University of Paris that the healing counsels of Pierre d’Ailly and Jean Gerson had emanated, and from the University’s advocacy that the Conciliar Movement had received much of its support.:”(The University of Paris, it should be noted, would continue to play an important role in the doctrinal opinions of Christendom all the way into the Protestant reformation, when it would become allied with the Roman Catholic cause and thus subjected to the bitter invectives against “Sophists” issued by the Protestant reformers.)”: While studying in Paris (where he remained for fifteen years, until 1469), Wessel realized through firsthand contact with many sophisticated defenders of Nominalism that he had misjudged that philosophy, which was actually more in keeping with his own intellectual temperament than Realism. Accordingly, he made a dramatic shift in his philosophical perspective, embracing Nominalism. Although declaring his openness to the truth wherever it would lead, even if back to Realism, he nevertheless remained a Nominalist for the remainder of his life.

At sometime before the close of 1470 Wessel left the University of Paris and traveled to Rome for reasons which are not clear but which may have something to do with the fact that his naturally curious mind would have found tremendous opportunities for stimulation and growth in the Italian schools. He would spend some time at the advanced schools of Florence and Venice, but most of his Italian sojourn would occur in Rome. This seems an odd fate for a scholar such as Wessel, since owing to a necessary crackdown by Pope Paul II (r. 1464-1471) on an influential group of humanist scholars in Rome who were intent on breaking not merely from Rome but from Christianity itself, the state of scholarship in Rome was not at this time well advanced. Yet this crackdown upon Renaissance learning by the pope was merely a brief exception to the general rule at Rome–for this was the heyday of the so-called “Renaissance Papacy,” when most of the serious corruptions which would help bring about the Protestant reformation were in their prime. When Paul II died prematurely in 1471, the papal throne fell to Wessel’s friend Cardinal Francis de Rovere, who took the name of Sixtus IV (r. 1471-1484). Sixtus unfortunately turned out to be a very corrupt pope, committing the traditional papal sins of nepotism, granting pluralities of benefices, engaging in political machinations and wars with other Italian principalities, participating in intrigues and assassinations, and indulging in corrupt, opulent living which at this late date could not help but destroy in the eyes of many the Papacy’s last shreds of spiritual dignity.:”(Miller describes how “this comparatively obscure youth possessed a revenue like that of a king and dazzled Rome with the magnificence of his establishment and retinue.” Ibid., pp. 82-83.)”:

Needless to say, Sixtus’ depravity astonished and dismayed Wessel, who, notwithstanding his personal friendship with Sixtus (which he downplayed) began serious criticism of the pope. Interestingly, whereas before Sixtus became pope Wessel had been subjected to a unfair criticism and ridicule by other scholars in Rome, after Sixtus’s elevation Wessel was protected by the very pope whom he was so sharply criticizing. In Wessel’s view (which had definite earlier precedents) all prelates, including the pope, were fallible, could be corrected, and need not be obeyed if they contradicted the Scriptures and the Gospel. In his later work Concerning Ecclesiastical Dignity and Power, Wessel wrote that, “it is for God’s sake that we believe the Gospel, and for the Gospel’s sake that we believe the Church and the pope. We do not believe the Gospel for the Church’s sake.” Sounding a note that was increasingly being sounded in the fifteenth century, he condemned the lives of priests as being “so scandalous that they corrupt by their example more than they edify by their speech, and [they] are no longer to be tolerated.”:”(Ibid., pg. 215.)”: Miller observes the oddity of post-Reformation Roman Catholic and Protestant polemics, so mutually exclusive, by the fact that Wessel Gansfort, in so many ways a forerunner of the Protestant reformers, was “an intimate friend of the pope and others in high ecclesiastical position.”:”(Ibid., pg. 130.)”:

In 1477 Wessel moved again, this time to teach at the University of Heidelberg (which would later educate Philip Melanchthon and Martin Bucer). Teaching Greek and Hebrew there also allowed for theological subjects to be broached, and Wessel missed few opportunities to make his views known. During this time the Realist-Nominalist controversy broke out again, this time with physical violence.:”(Students at Heidelberg would get into fights over the proper use of the vocative case of Latin!)”: Whether or not Wessel himself took part in this renewed bout of controversy is not known, but for reasons related to his own views on indulgences, the powers of the pope and the Church, and the efficacy of the sacraments he left Heidelberg in 1479 and returned to his hometown of Groningen. Apparently his brief stay there did leave a “liberalizing” mark on the University which helped it to be later receptive to the evangelical doctrines of the Protestant reformation. It was also at the University of Heidelberg that, partly through Wessel’s example and partly through the later example of the John Reuchlin,:”(It should be noted that Reuchlin was the uncle and patron of Philip Melanchthon, and that Melanchthon would make a close study of Wessel’s writings in his own university days.)”: that the study of the long-despised Hebrew language became a sought-after academic prize. Indeed, Wessel’s impact may be seen in the fact that while during his own life being a “three language man” (Latin, Greek, and Hebrew) was considered quite extraordinary, a hundred years later it would be seen as a scholarly commonplace. Characteristic of Wessel’s attitude regarding the original languages is the story of his objection to someone who cited Thomas Aquinas’s opinion on one of Aristotle’s views–Wessel replied that Thomas had barely even seen Aristotle’s shadow, but he (Wessel Gansfort) had communed with Aristotle in the original Greek. His works abound in citations of classical and patristic authors, and yet the vast majority of everything he cites is from Holy Scripture. Significantly for his being providentially placed between the ecclesiological controversies of the fifteenth century and the reforming efforts of the sixteenth century, Wessel frequently cites the works of the conciliarists Pierre d’Ailly and Jean Gerson. Wessel Gansfort was truly the epitome of the fifteenth century Christian Humanist.

The last ten years of Wessel’s life were spent in his hometown, where he continued his studies. Indeed, most of his extant writings (numbering to about a thousand pages–estimated to be only half of his actual output, since jealous and offended mendicant friars seized and burned many of his writings after his death) come from this period. Even at this advanced age he was active in reforming work, spending much time in instructing those monks he felt he could reach with the Scriptures. To this end he would read the Bible to the monks and engage them regarding its interpretation. He would encourage them to study Greek and Hebrew so as to have access to the original text, and would himself discourse on inaccuracies in the Vulgate. He also sought to direct the extra-Scriptural studies of his pupils away from the Scholastic theologians and back toward the Church Fathers, predicting of such doctors as Aquinas and Bonaventure that “all these irrefutable Doctors, black and white-cowled alike, will soon find their proper level.”:”(Ibid., pg. 104.)”: Wessel is reported to have conversed often with Rudolph Agricola, another humanist who considered himself Wessel’s pupil, regarding the dark state of the Church, problems with priestly irreverence at the Mass and with priestly celibacy, and Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith, not by works. Wessel comes down decidely in favor of what will later be called “the material principle of the Reformation.” His view of the Eucharist involved denying the corporeal presence of Christ in the elements and asserting that the verb “is” in the words of institution means “signifies”–a view which would be taken up directly from Wessel in the next century by Martin Bucer. Wessel also denied the concept of supererogatory works and their associated concept of merit in salvation, and had such an opinion of grace relative to human striving that he could write, “the man who as the result of the reading of the Bible does not come to think less and less of his moral attainments, not only reads in vain, but reads to his peril.”:”(Ibid., pg. 126.)”:

Although he was often accused of being prideful for setting himself against many received opinions, his own estimation of his desire, written shortly before his death to his friend Jacob Hoeck, is quite different:

I acknowledge that in some of the assertions that I make I am looked upon as singular. I often suspect myself of singularity, and therefore fear that I frequently fall into error. If you could look into my heart you would see there, I am sure, not pride but humility and contrition, since I often pray that I may not, as the penalty of my stubborness, fall into damnable error. I am always willing to be set right, not only by men of learning and experience like yourself, but by anyone however humble.:”(Ibid., pg. 125. Striking similarities between this self-estimation and those of Peter Abelard (some three and a half centuries prior) and Martin Luther (one generation later) are not hard to see.)”:

Wessel died on October 4, 1489–just a month before the sixth birthday of Martin Luther. Some measures of his importance to the ongoing work of reforming the Church may be seen in the facts that in the third decade of the sixteenth century the compilation of his extant works went through many editions from Protestant presses, and later his works–which included the anti-papalist tract Concerning Ecclesiastical Dignity and Power–were placed in the first class of prohibited books by the fathers of the Council of Trent. Miller classes him as a definite precursor to the Reformed (rather than the Lutheran) aspect of the Reformation, and notes that the non-Lutheran participants at the critical Marburg Colloquy had all been influenced by Wessel Gansfort’s theology.:”(Ibid., pp. 164-165.)”: Luther himself wrote in his recommendation of the 1522 edition of Wessel’s letters that, “If I had read this before, it could have well left the impression with my enemies that I copied everything from Wessel–so much are our two minds at one.”:”(Heiko Oberman, Forerunners of the Reformation: The Shape of Late Medieval Thought (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966), pg. 18.)”:

Wessel’s last recorded words are, “I thank God all the vain troublesome thoughts have gone, and I know naught but Jesus Christ and him crucified.”:”(Miller, pg. 110.)”: His bones today rest in the Church of St. Martin in Groningen.

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One Response to Wessel Gansfort (1420-1489)

  1. Chad says:

    Fascinating! Thanks for posting it.

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