Frankenthal Disputation (1571)
This disputation held in Frankenthal, Palatinate, Germany, in 1571 is the most important of the disputations of the 16th century arranged by representatives of the state churches with South German Anabaptists. In the range of subjects discussed and the duration of the dispute it exceeds all others. The published report records all the details.
The initial instigation came from the Palatine elector Frederick III. He was the first German prince to embrace Calvinism and he tried to lead his people into the same fold. In general the change from the Lutheran and Catholic creeds to the Reformed was accomplished in a short time under government pressure. On the other hand, all attempts to win the numerous Anabaptists scattered over the land met with failure, on account of Anabaptist insistence on founding their faith solely on the Bible and rejection of government regulation of matters of faith. Economic pressure was equally unavailing, for they preferred prison and exile to disloyalty to their faith.
To Frederick III it was a matter of importance to win the pious Anabaptists to his creed, that they might have a reviving influence on the state church. When severity failed to bring about the desired union, he tried to achieve it by peaceful negotiation. Like his predecessor Otto Heinrich, who had the leading Lutheran theologians of South Germany debate with the Anabaptists at Pfeddersheim in 1557, Frederick decided to have the questions at issue publicly debated, assuming that the Anabaptist preachers would accept the proofs offered by his theologians. He therefore arranged for the public disputation on 28 May 1571 in Frankenthal, at which all Anabaptist preachers would be permitted to express themselves freely. He promised them safe conduct 14 days before and after the dispute, and free board and lodging for its duration. Foreigners were invited and prisoners could take part on condition that they refrained from preaching and baptizing.
In spite of the assurance that no risk of life and liberty was involved, very few came to take part, for they knew that any Anabaptist who openly stated his faith would be subject to new oppression at the expiration of the stated period. This fear was justified, for the elector, who on 10 April issued the proclamation for the debate, signed the death sentence of Sylvan in Heidelberg for religious nonconformity. Participants from other countries where the Anabaptists were not tolerated would by attending the debate draw the attention of the authorities, thus running a grave risk.
From the Anabaptist congregations 15 participants arrived, including preachers from Moravia and the South German imperial cities. Most of them were Swiss; two of them, Peter Walpot and Leonhard Summer, were Hutterian delegates. Dutch Mennonites were also reputedly present, but they did not announce themselves as such. The Hutterian Brethren took little part in the discussions. The Palatine representatives were also very reserved. The chief speaker was Diebold Winter from the imperial city of Weissenburg in Alsace, who had attended the Pfeddersheim disputation and after the opening at Frankenthal made a speech in the name of his brethren, expressing thanks for the privilege of talking from the Word of God with the theologians of the Palatinate; they were willing to change their views if convinced of error; they were concerned only with the glory of God and their salvation. In addition Hans Büchel of Mur, a noted writer of hymns, took an active part in the discussions. Rauff Bisch was chosen to represent the Palatine preachers. Others present from the Palatinate were Claus Simmerer of Siebeldingen near Landau, Hans Rannich of Dossenheim near Heidelberg, Hans Greiker of Heppenheim auf der Wiese near Worms, Peter Hutt of Kleinbockenheim near Frankenthal, and Anstatt Habermann of Heinsheim. In addition there were Jost Meyer of Rauensperg, Felix Frederer of Hofheim, Hans Sattler of Andernach, Philipp Tösslin of Heilbronn, and Peter Walter of Schlettstadt.
Rannich and Simmerer were brought from prison to Frankenthal. They were cross-examined repeatedly beforehand in order to use their statements at the public discussion, where somewhat different interpretations might be given by their brethren. They were, for instance, questioned on their conception of the nature of the human body after the resurrection, which question was also presented by the theologians at the public debate. The Anabaptist preachers were not learned, but they knew the Bible well. They were therefore convinced of the Scripturalness of their doctrine and were not confused by the clever sophistical arguments of their eloquent opponents. Rauff Bisch expressed his surprise to Dathenus, the chaplain, at the captious questions.
For 19 days, from 28 May to 19 June 1571, the disputation continued. On every day except Sunday two sessions were held, which began at six in the morning and two in the afternoon. The elector attended the opening session and kept himself informed on the progress of the discussions.
The following 13 points were presented to the Anabaptists:
- Concerning the Holy Scriptures. Whether the Old Testament is as valid to the Christian as the New; that is, whether the principal doctrines of faith and life can and must be proved from the Old Testament as well as the New.
- Concerning God. Whether the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are a single divine Being, yet in three distinct Persons.
- Concerning Christ. Whether Christ received the nature of His flesh from the substance of the flesh of the Virgin Mary or elsewhere.
- Concerning original sin. Whether children are conceived and born in sin and are therefore by nature the children of wrath, worthy of eternal death.
- Concerning the churches. Whether believers in the Old Testament are with the believers in the New Testament a single church and people of God.
- Concerning justification. Whether the perfect obedience of Christ accepted in true faith is the one and only sufficient atonement for our sins and the reason for our eternal salvation, or whether we are saved partly through faith in Christ and partly through bearing the cross and good works.
- Concerning the resurrection of the body. Whether the essence of this body will rise on the last day, or whether another will be created by God.
- Concerning marriage. Whether the ban and unbelief dissolve a marriage.
- Concerning community of goods. Whether Christians may buy and own property without transgressing against Christian love.
- Concerning government. Whether a Christian may be a ruler and punish the wicked with the sword.
- Concerning the oath. Whether Christians may render a proper oath in the name of God, that is, to call on God as a witness to the truth.
- Concerning baptism. Whether the children of Christians should be baptized.
- Concerning communion. Whether the communion is merely an empty symbol and an admonition to patience and love, or also a powerful seal of the blessed fellowship which all believers have with Christ unto eternal life.
The answers of the Anabaptist preachers to these questions are briefly stated in the article Disputations. For the most part they were the same doctrinal points which Martin Bucer discussed with the Hessian Anabaptists. But in addition questions were asked which cannot be unambiguously answered from the Scriptures; Rauff Bisch finally remarked, "It almost seems to us that you are asking questions that are over our heads; for we know nothing else to say about them than what the texts simply say." What these men, versed in the Bible, could not grasp they did not try to fathom; they did not deviate from this principle. They therefore withheld their opinion when Dathenus expounded his views on the most mysterious matters.
Although there was agreement on a number of questions, nevertheless the captious argumentation of the chaplain on unfathomable matters roused the objection of the simple Biblicist Anabaptists. Thus Frederick III failed in 37 discussions to secure what Philip of Hesse had obtained 33 years earlier in two days through Bucer's attitude of moderation. "We do not want," said Rauff Bisch in his concluding speech, "to burden our consciences with several articles which we cannot believe with a good conscience, but only as we hope to answer to God, and as we do not know any better way, to remain on this position."
In a report that the chairman read aloud at the end of the disputation, the elector's disappointment was expressed in the failure of his "gracious and paternal benevolent intentions." But he still did not give up the hope that the Anabaptists might be won to the church, and promised, if they did so, that he would protect and help them, and restore anything that had been taken from them.
But even these promises could not change them. Only one of their leaders, presumably one of the prisoners, showed an inclination to agree with the State Church, except on the question of baptism. It is not stated whether he did so. The others were not moved from their opinion and finally said that even if they agreed in doctrine, the wicked living of those who called themselves orthodox would not agree with theirs.
The elector then forbade the Anabaptists to teach in his realm, "in order not to confuse our subjects." The preachers were regarded as insurrectionists and violators of electoral commands, and after another attempt to convert them, were banished.
The protocol was published three months after the disputation closed in a 710-page book, and reprinted in 1573, both times at Heidelberg. In 1571 a Dutch translation was also published, arranged by Caspar Heidanus, the Reformed preacher at Frankenthal. The Palatine clergy used the book as a basis for attempts at conversion. Copies of all three editions are in the Mennonite Historical Library (Goshen, Indiana).
Bronsfeld, A. W. Gespreek met de Doopsgezinden te Frankendal 1571. Harderwijk, 1871.
Hege, Christian. Die Täufer in der Kurpfalz. Frankfurt, 1908.
Hege, Christian and Christian Neff. Mennonitisches Lexikon, 4 v. Frankfurt & Weierhof: Hege; Karlsruhe; Schneider, 1913-1967: I, 675-677.
Mennonitische Blätter (1882): 75
Monatschrift des Frankentaler Altertums-Vereins (May 1903): 18.
Protocoll, Das ist Alle Handlung des gesprechs zu Franckenthal inn der Churfürstlichen Pfaltz, mit denen so man Widertäuffer nennet. Heidelberg, 1571.
"Religions-Gespräch zu Frankental mit den Wiedertäufern 1571," in Thesaurus Picturarum der Grossherzoglichen Hofbibliothek in Darmstadt: 96-102. Describes the disputation. The elector at first presided in person. Names of other chairmen follow, with the names of the Reformed and Anabaptist debaters. The 13 articles are stated, and the threatened severe measures.
Zeitschrift für die Geschichte des Ober-Rheins LXIX, new series 29, 1914
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, pp. 373-375. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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MLA style: Hege, Christian. "Frankenthal Disputation (1571)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1956. Web. 23 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/frankenthal_disputation_1571.
APA style: Hege, Christian. (1956). Frankenthal Disputation (1571). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 23 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/frankenthal_disputation_1571.