Wessel, Johann (1)
Wessel, Johann (1)
was unquestionably the most important among the men of German extraction who helped to prepare the way for the Reformation. The circumstances connected with his private life are involved in great uncertainty, insomuch that even his names have been made the subject of inquiry (John, Hermanni; Gansevort, Basilius). He was born in 1400 or 1420, probably the latter year. His birthplace was Groningen, where the very house in which he was born is yet shown. He was orphaned at an early age, but received into the house of a kinswoman named Oda or Odilla Clantes, and sent to a school at Zwoll, which was conducted by the Brothers of the Common Life, and had a good reputation. He there not only devoted himself to scientific pursuits, but also to the promotion of the religious life, being aided in the latter respect by Thomas A. Kempis, who sojourned in the neighborhood of Zwoll. In time he came to fill the place of an under teacher, but unpleasant surroundings and a thirst for greater knowledge drove him away from Zwoll to Cologne, where he studied Greek and Hebrew, chiefly under the direction of private tutors, and also examined the libraries. His habit was to note the results of his readings and impressions in memoranda, which he continued to keep to the end of his life. The independence of thought which such a method of study displayed was yet further cultivated by the study of Plato, the great antagonist of scholasticism and agent in the restoration of theology, and the simple and unadorned mystic Rupert of Deutz (q.v.). It was not possible, however, that he should find in bigoted Cologne a soil suitable for the propagation of his views. A call to Heidelberg was extended to him, but he was not yet ready to demote himself exclusively to the work of teaching, and felt himself attracted to Paris, where the controversy between nominalists and realists had broken out afresh. He paused for a little while at Louvain, and then hastened to Paris, actuated by the desire to gain his countrymen Henry of Zomeren and Nicholas of Utrecht, both famous professors, over to realism; but the end was that he became a nominalist himself, and continued to be such while he lived. He remained in Paris about sixteen years, not sustaining an altogether receptive attitude, but doing his part to shape the mind of the coming generation. He was most powerfully stimulated by association with cardinal Bessarion, Rovere, then general of the Franciscans, but afterwards pope Sixtus IV, and with younger men like Reuchlin and R. Agricola. He visited other French cities also, e.g. Angers, in order to take part in disputations, and two years before the close of the pontificate of Paul II came to Rome. Here he found the most advanced culture of the time, but also the most evident and shocking corruption in the Church. On his return to Paris he witnessed the attempt of Louis XI to put down nominalism by force. In 1475 he was at Basle with Reuchlin, and later at Heidelberg as a member of the philosophical faculty. His combativeness as a debater had in the meantime earned for him the title of Magister Contradictionun. He soon afterwards retired to privacy in his native town of Groningen, and spent his remaining, days in arranging his views into a defensible form, and in the cultivation of a profound piety. All the works from his pen, which we possess, were probably written in this period, when the mystical trait in his nature was becoming: prominent. He is said to have been the physician of the bishop David of Burgundy, and in a former period of Rovere (see above), which circumstance probably deterred the inquisitors of Cologne from proceeding against him, as they did against J. von Wessel (q.v.), and as Wessel thought they would. He maintained a large correspondence and received many visitors. He also contributed much towards the formation of the characters of R. Agricola, Alexander Hegius, Hermann Busch, etc., with reference to whose influence in the future he predicted that his young friend Oestendorp would live to see the time when scholasticism, i.e. the teachings of Aquinas, Bonaventure, etc., should be rejected by all truly Christian divines. Before he died he was assailed by doubts respecting all the verities of the Christian faith, with which he struggled almost-despairingly, but which he conquered with the cry, "I know nothing but Jesus, the crucified one." He died in peace, but without having received the papal absolution, Oct. 4,1489, and was buried in the Church of the Nunnery at Groningen. After his death the mendicant monks subjected his writings to their rage, and probably destroyed a portion of them, though a sufficient quantity of them was preserved by the devotion of his pupils to enable: us to estimate the character of the man. The first collection was published by Luther, omitting an essay on the Lord's supper, which was added for the first time in the Groningen edition of 1614.
Wessel's career was largely determined by the fact that he was never bound by any vow, official station, or other similar obligation; so that while he was greatly interested in the conditions of the Church and the school, it was yet possible for him to be to some extent an independent observer. He was thus able to command the leisure required for a thorough examination of the matters he discussed, and the calmness essential to scholarly polemics. It must be added that he was naturally endowed with an independent spirit and sound judgment. Neither the superstitions of the Church nor the mysticism of the Brothers of the Common Life could overturn his balanced mind.
The writings of Wessel do not constitute a system. His method was somewhat aphoristical, involving the discussion of separate theses, and not affording any one central, fundamental principle from which the whole of his position might be understood. They hold a ground intermediate between scientific discussion, ascetical application and reformatory polemical exhortation. His theology, like that of Zwingli, is largely determined by Platonism. The principal work he has furnished in this department. is the De Providentia Dei, which conceives of God as the absolute cause, or, in other words, as independent Being. The pantheistic tendency of this idea of God is not sufficiently guarded against, but finds its rectification in the emphasis which Wessel elsewhere lays upon the idea that God is pure Being, distinct from and above the world. In the doctrine of the Trinity the Father is the divine wisdom, the Son the divine reason, the Spirit the divine love. The Deity is the creative life, the original idea, which is necessarily active and compelled to glorify itself. This glorifying of the divine nature constitutes the Son, the λόγος πρῶτος; and in order that both may not be unemployed, the self-conscious and self-glorifying Being must also eternally love himself. In anthropology man is conceived of as being in the likeness of God, as respects his inner nature. The parts of the divine image are mens, intelligentia, and voluntas (De Purgatoriat, 80 b); and each of these parts is, it would appear, held to be incessantly subject to the divine influence. He locates the divine image even more particularly in the human will, which is free, and which is' sharply distinguished from the intellect and the desires. In discussing the Ego, Wessel defines personality as being the fruitful source from which spring the will, the judgment, self- consciousness, etc., and remarks that man has in his personality the ability to transform the naturally existing relation between the Divine Spirit and the human into an ethical relation, an immediate consciousness of .God being implanted in him; and that he is under obligation to effect this change. In soteriology he places the origin of sin in the angel-world, but does sot account for its transfer into the world of men. It would even seem that he regards it as an inherent factor in the constitution of man, since it is to him merely debitum. Adam and Eve were far from being perfect while in Eden, and needed, even if temptation had been resisted, development in every side of their nature. It is difficult to see how this undeveloped state could be other than a sinful state under his definition. He recognizes a moral depravation as having been added in the fall, but makes it amount to a mere infirmity, which does not extend so far as to destroy the freedom of the will, though it unfits man from attaining to his rightful goal. Grace is necessary and the only means of salvation, because it was required for human well being from the beginning.
Redemption is a process, which required that Jesus should be the "express image" of God. Christ, as the source of life, was mediator from the beginning. He was from all eternity appointed to be the king and head of an empire, which is in no-sense a merely social organization, but in which he is the life of all its members and is himself the end for which it exists. In the atonement Jesus died for us and made satisfaction to God. The process of redemption is, however, constantly described by Wessel as a conflict in which the Lamb is not regarded as taking upon himself the wrath of God, but as resisting the assaults of the devil, who is empowered to wage war and is assisted therein by God. The death of Jesus is then conceived as the completion of the life-long struggle. His victory consists, on the one hand, in the subjugation of the devil, who is unquestionably regarded as the personification of the power of evil, and, on the other, in the demonstration afforded by this triumph that he is the testator of the New Test. in his death and in his evident drawing of all men to himself in his righteousness and love. His merits as redeemer are superabundant, for he is the consummation of the race, and in his capacity as head and redeemer has more to offer than man possessed before the fall.
The condition of salvation is faith in God, based on the word of Christ. Justification is distinguished from the remission of sins, and conceived of as the positive act of renewing in righteousness through a union with Christ and the Trinity by faith. God regards man as being positively righteous in Christ, though not for Christ's sake. This is stated in a different light when Wessel teaches that faith does not: lay hold upon the work of Christ, but upon his life-giving person. This union having been formed, faith melts into love, and good works may appropriately be said to flow from either quality. Remission of sins is nowhere allowed an independent place in Wessel's theological system. Repentance is not with him sorrow for the sins of the past, but is, in substance, conversion or freedom from sin. It is a matter of the will rather than of the feelings.
Upon the doctrine of the Church Wessel differed from 'Wycliffe and Huss in that he did not define the Church to be a communio prcedestinorum, but a communio sanctorum. The circumstances of his age obliged him to look for the visible Church within the papacy, and he accordingly conceded a jurisdictio papalis; but he restricted its operations altogether to externalities, and denied that a papal excommunication has power to control God. He even asserted that a pope is entitled to be the director of the faith of the Church only when his own faith is correct; and he rated the authority of the universities higher than the authority of the clergy. But he esteemed the Scriptures even above the universities, and addressed to them the final appeal. "The Scriptures," he held, "are simply the Holy Ghost speaking to man. They are clear and self-explanatory and also sufficient." Tradition, however, was not rejected, and the regula fidei was apparently placed on an equality with Scripture by him.
With respect to the sacraments, Wessel denied that they are of themselves effectual means of grace. The infusion of love into the heart constitutes true baptism, and God is himself the administrator, according to his view; the priest, of whatever degree he may be, is simply a minister, and not able to contribute anything whatever to the gracious power of the sacrament. The sacrament of penance was not allowed by him to possess any vital connection with inward purification, and the priest's agency in connection with it was limited to the calling-forth of proper dispositions through the employment of instruction, exhortation, etc. This view carried with it the rejection of indulgences as a matter of course, for they were the fruitage of the sacrament of penance as held by the Church.. Wessel does not hesitate to term them swindles, and plenary indulgences abominations. In connection with the Lord's supper, he contended against the opus operatum, or bringing of masses in behalf of particular individuals. He held that the mass has value for him who hungers and thirsts for the bread of life, the eating of which constitutes the sole value of the sacrament. The idea of sacrifice has no place whatever in his view.
In eschatology Wessel held firmly to the existence of purgatory, but as a place of purgation rather than satisfaction; the fire which burns there is the fire of piety, and, more particularly, of love. Christ himself is there to preach his Gospel among the dead, and to make of purgatory a place of delights. Wessel did not paint the state of the lost, and therein left his description incomplete. The fanatical hostility of the mendicant monks prevented the immediate publication of Wessel's writings. Luther's collection of these writings, entitled Farrago Rerum Theologicarum Uberrima, appeared in 1521, and was followed by repeated editions in 1522 and 1523. The last edition was that of Strack (Giessen, 1617) following a complete edition of Wessel in 1614. The Farrago: contains the following books: De Benignissima Dei Provlentia; De Causis, Mysteriis et Effectibus Dominicae Incarnationis et Passionis; De Dignitate et Potestate Ecclesiastica; De Sacramento Penitentice; Quae sit Vera Communio Sanctorum; De Purgatorio; and a number of letters, among which one, De Indulgentiis, addressed to Hoeck, deserves special mention. The complete edition contains, in addition, the tract De Eucharistia, which Luther had omitted for dogmatic reasons, and also an extended essay, De Causis Incarnationis et de Magnitudine Dominicae Passionis, in two books; and three ascetical works entitled, respectively, De Oratione, Scala Meditationis, and Exempla Scace Meditationis. The impression made by a reading of the Farrago is that Wessel was a man who lived with pen in hand, and who for that very reason seldom undertook the composition of an extended work. It is, accordingly, not remarkable that statements with respect to lost writings from his pen do not harmonize. For information respecting such writings and also concerning Wessel's life, see Hardenberg; Suffridus Petri De Scriptoribus Frisiae; Ubbo Emmius, Historia Rerum Frisicarum; the Effigies et Vitae Professorum Academiae Groningae (1654); and especially Muurling, Commentatio Hist. Theol. de Wesseli, etc. (Traj. ad Rhen. 1831); id. De Wesseli Gansfortii, etc. (Amstelod.
1840); and Ullmann, Reformatoren vor der Reformation (Hamb. 1841). See also Schmidt, Augustin's Lehre von der Kirche, in Jahrbuich. für deutsche Theologie, 6:210 sq.; Benthem, Holland. Kirchenund Schul- Staat. 2, 178; Herzog, Real Encyklop. s.v.