Wesel, Johann Von
Wesel, Johann von whose name really was Johann Ruchrath of Oberwesel, was one of the most prominent forerunners of the Reformation in Germany. He was born early in the 15th century. The first authentic record we have of his life brings him into view as a master in philosophy at Erfirt, about 1445. Soon afterwards he was professor and doctor' of theology. In philosophy he was a nominalist, and sufficiently able to project his influence over many years, so that Luther is yet constrained to acknowledge his power (see De Conciliis, in Opp. ed. Walch, 16:2743). The age in which he lived was too greatly under the rule of traditional authority to be strongly impressed by his Biblical tendency in theology, as may be seen in the fact that a scholarly essay from his pen aimed against indulgences excited so little attention that he was chosen, subsequent to its appearance, to be vice-rector of the university, and preacher at Mayence, about 1460: it does not seem certain that he accepted the latter position. A statement is extant to the effect that Wesel was driven from Mavence in 1461 or 1462 by pestilence, and afterwards became preacher at Worms giving the next seventeen years to the preaching of the Gospel. His utterances were exceedingly frank and bold, and were supported by the labors of his pen until the rulers of the Church came to regard him as a mischievous personage, upon whom they might justly bring vexatious tribulations, and whom, eventually, they must silence. An article directed against the hierarchy as the central abuse in the administration of the Church finally induced the archbishop of Mayence, Diether of Isenburg, to take definite measures for compelling the bold agitator to end his work. It is not known why the archbishop, whose jurisdiction did not extend over Wesel, took action rather than the bishop of Worms, Reinhard of Sickingen, who was Wesel's immediate superior; but Argentre, who reported the trial of Wesel, asserts that the persecution of Wesel had for its inspitation the hatred which the Thomists who stood opposed to him in philosophy bore against him. Wesel was summoned before a tribunal composed of theologians from the universities of Cologne and Heidelberg, who were, with a single exception, realists. The Dominicans N.I. Gerhard Elten, M. Jacob Sprenger, and a third unknown person were inquisitors at the trial. The preliminary proceedings began on the Friday after Candlemas, probably February 4, 1479, at Mayence, Elten, a fanatic, presided. The accused was required to explain certain suspicious facts in his personal history, such as his intercourse with the Bohemians, and especially with a certain Nicholas of Bohemia. He was examined with regard to any possible adherents he might have gained, and respecting a communion service he had held. Bayle (Dictionnaire, s.v. "Wesalia") an Erhardlt (Gesch. des Wiederaufblühens, etc., 1, 291) state that he was also questioned with regard to his relations with the Jews; but as Argentre does not mention this point, a confounding of Wesel with Wessel would seem to have been made by those authorities. A second part of his trial was concerned with doctrinal errors alleged against Wesel, e.g. that he denied the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Son, which he admitted, but defended his view by an appeal to the Scriptures; that he rejected the authority of tradition, with respect to which he was obliged to acknowledge his opinion that the holy fathers and doctors were not guided in their interpretations of Scripture by the same infallible Spirit by which it was originally revealed, and that the immediate direction of the Holy Spirit could not be certainly assumed of every council which might be convened by the proper authority. Other errors charged against him had reference to indulgences, the sacraments, sin in general, and original sin in particular.
Under the dogma of the Church, he stated his belief in. one holy Church; but was charged with omitting the attribute of universality. He conceded the rule of the Holy Ghost over the Church, and also met freedom from error. He also conceded the necessity of a papacy to the Church of Rome, though not without equivocation. It is evident that he did not hold the views respecting the authority of the Church which were current in his time. He denied any distinction between bishop and presbyter, and endeavored to overturn the right of civil jurisdiction and legislation as claimed by the Church. He did not consider celibacy, monasticism, and fasting as of binding obligation, and was able to reply in a satisfactory manner to the charges against him upon these points, only because they were conceived and expressed in a form in which he had actually never held the views to which they referred. It appears that Wesley endeavored to give way to his persecutors as far as he could without doing too great violence to his conscience, and that he sought to take advantage of every ambiguity in the charges against him, or which he could weave into his own explanations. He even went so far as to repeatedly ask for mercy. He needed all the encouragement he could get. He was old and broken down, threatened with death by fire, and obliged to undergo usage which he declared would have turned Christ himself into a heretic. He finally consented to retract, with the proviso that the retraction should be charged upon the conscience of his judges. The formula adopted was of a general nature, and set forth that erroneous matter might be found in his writings, which he now recalled; that he submitted to the authority of the Church anti the teachings of her doctors; that he was ready to perform whatever penance might be imposed; and that he asked for forgiveness. This retraction took place before the assembled tribunal, and was followed by a similar act in the cathedral. His writings were burned, and he was himself condemned to life-long imprisonment in the Augustinian convent, where he died in 1481.
Wesel stated the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture, the formal principle of Protestantism, with greatest clearness than was possible to the Reformers in the beginning of their work. He joined its perspicuity with its sufficiency as a necessary consequence. He also laid down the foundations of the doctrine of the witness of the Spirit, though he did not develop it. With reference to the material principles of the Reformation Wesel was less clear. He assailed indulgences, as not authorized by Scripture, and denied that God could confer jurisdiction in divine things upon the Church. His argument, how ever, was altogether that of a clear-headed, well-meaning theologian, who saw in the doctrine of indulgences a scientific error involving practical consequences, but it was not at all the retort of a conscience whose most sacred convictions are outraged. Indulgences were in his view an ecclesiastical abuse, but not a peril, which threatened the soul. His idea of sin is that it is a debt and a deficiency. He does not appreciate its power over the inner man. Grace is exalted by him, but rather as demonstrating the causality of God than as benefiting the soul of man; and he accordingly gives a foremost place to the doctrine of election.. He regarded the Church as being above all a communion, and held that the true Church is the holy Church, within the universal Church. He denied emphatically that the apostles had received power from Christ to enact canons and laws, and refused to recognize the pope as the vicar of Christ in any sense which would involve the concession of legislative functions. He was even disposed to question the authority of secular princes to enact laws; but as he was compelled to see the necessity of order in the world, he found himself involved in uncertainty, which led him to concede much on his trial which he had previously denied. Ministers were conceived of by him as ambassadors for Christ, and both pope and priests as deriving their authorization from him. Every Christian possessed the right in his view of refusing obedience to an ecclesiastical commandment which antagonizes the Word. of God, and the humblest Christian has authority to rebuke an erring pope. He required obedience to the clergy, however, in things indifferent. Wesel was probably a fertile writer. Jakob Wimpfeling says, in Flacius, that Wesel had adorned the Erfurt school by his teaching and writings; and Flacius adds that the writings were still preserved at Erfurt. Only the two tracts Adversus Indulgentias and De Potestate Ecclesiastica are now extant. See Argentre, Collectio Judiciorum, I, 2, 291 sq.; Walch, Monum. Mediii 16, 1, 1, 114 sq.; Ulmann, Johann Wesel, der Vorlsfer Luther's; 1. Reformatoren vor der Reformation. — Herzog, Real Encyklop, s.v.