Karlstadt, Andreas Rudolff-Bodenstein von (1486-1541)

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Karlstadt from Basler Gedenkblatt von 1541/42. Source: Wikipedia Commons

Andreas Rudolff-Bodenstein Karlstadt studied scholastic philosophy and theology at the universities of Erfurt (1499) and Cologne (1503), became an influential professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg (1505-1522), in a short time winning high honors and offices. In 1516 he acquired the juristic doctorate (in Siena) and the prospect of a higher ecclesiastical position.

Returning from Rome and Siena to Wittenberg early in 1517, he joined Luther in promoting the Reformation. Influenced by Augustine, the German mystics, and Luther, he attacked with tongue and pen the known errors and abuses of the Catholic Church. In this he was on Luther's side; but in his efforts at reform and his doctrinal ideas he went his own way, which often brought him close to the position of Anabaptism.

Karlstadt was a Biblical theologian. "Turn your eyes and ears toward the Scriptures!" The text and canon he regarded with remarkably scholarly independence and freedom; yet he insisted on the unconditional spiritual authority of the entire Bible, including the Epistle of James, which he, contrary to Luther and in accord with the Anabaptists, valued very highly for its ethical content. In the summer semester of 1520 he declared before a large audience: "I am grieved by the bold depreciation of James" by Luther. Faith and works belong together organically. "Beware that you do not take a paper and loveless faith for the greatest work," he warned the Lutherans, who at once accused him of legalism and fanaticism.

As early as 1521 he took a genuinely Anabaptist position on the oath: "It would be better if oaths were discarded, because through oaths no one becomes better; many, however, become worse. He who does not honor God will never honor an oath. Therefore let it fall into disuse."

At the communion service held with a large congregation at Christmas 1521, which was the first to be observed in both kinds, he emphatically stressed the necessity for faith in receiving the emblems. Outward formalism and images in the churches he considered reprehensible. "Having images in our churches is contrary to the first commandment: Thou shalt have no other gods!" Nevertheless Karlstadt cannot be held responsible for the iconoclasm of the masses early in 1522. He had scarcely any contact with the Zwickau prophets and Thomas Müntzer. "There is a deep chasm between their views and Carlstadt's religious thinking" (Barge, 403). Karlstadt disliked disorder and always defended orderly government. In his church innovations and social improvements (abolition of begging) he proceeded hand in hand with the Wittenberg council, and was the instigator of the famous "Ordnung der Stadt Wittenberg," which the council passed on 24 January 1522.

Elector Friedrich III was, however, displeased with Karlstadt's conspicuous reforms, especially in his change of the cult. So the Mass was restored, Luther having come from the Wartburg to Wittenberg on 6 March for that very purpose. Karlstadt retreated to his pastorate in Orlamünde and here continued his reformation. As an ardent exponent of the priesthood of the believers—he himself wished to be called a "new layman" and took off his priestly robes—he now sharply attacked the Mass, without Luther's regard for "weaker brethren." He spiritualized the sacraments, denying the necessity of baptism and communion. These reforms disturbed Wittenberg to the extent that Luther had him banished from electoral territory in September 1524; he then fled to South Germany and Switzerland.

The Swiss Brethren, who eagerly read his tracts, sided with Karlstadt against Luther. Conrad Grebel, who was corresponding with Karlstadt, wrote to Vadian, "A reasonable reader will judge from the Karlstadt books that Luther is retrogressing, and that he is an excellent procrastinator and a competent defender of his scandal." In the letter Grebel and his associates wrote to Müntzer on 5 September 1524 (the letter written to Karlstadt by Andrew Castelberger, in the name of the group was unfortunately lost), Karlstadt was frequently mentioned.

Against infant baptism Karlstadt, unlike the Anabaptists, spoke only incidentally, classing it as an "outward thing" with circumcision. He said, to be sure, that it was better to postpone baptism until the candidate was sure of his faith, and that it was superficial of Luther to baptize infants who do not understand their lusts, to say nothing of the death of their lusts through Christ. Karlstadt's wife refused to have her own son baptized (1525).

After a short meeting with the Swiss Brethren in Zürich, in October 1524, there were apparently no contacts between them and Karlstadt. They did not enter into his dispute on the communion, though they read and distributed his tract on the subject; its printing in Basel was arranged for by Felix Manz and Karlstadt's son-in-law, Dr. Gerhard Westerburg.

Ludwig Haetzer, however, was banished from Augsburg for siding with Karlstadt against Urban Rhegius in the dispute on communion. —The strange view of Karlstadt that in the words, "This is my body," Christ was referring to His own body, was accepted in some Anabaptist circles, as the testimony of Veit Frick of Württemberg (Gutenberg) before the magistrates on 29 July 1563 shows: The words, This is my body, and this is my blood, had reference to Christ's body and not to the bread and wine; the meaning is, this body sitting at table with the disciples must be given and His blood shed, and bread and wine are a symbol and memento of this suffering and death (Bossert, 228).

Caspar Schwenckfeld in his Judicium also accuses the Anabaptists of having adopted Karlstadt's view of communion. Nor does Marpeck in his Verantwortung repudiate the idea: "When Christ says, this is my body which is given for you, we believe it naturally as referring to His real body which sat at table, was betrayed, and truly given for us. But of the bread and wine we understand it figuratively, as the bread that we break and the wine that we drink is a memorial of the body and blood of Christ; thereby we shall remember that Christ gave His body and shed His blood for us" (Loserth, 56).

Against Karlstadt's doctrine of the communion Luther wrote his libelous pamphlet, Wider die himmlischen Propheten, which at the same time attacks the Zwinglians. In Rothenburg Karlstadt replied with three pamphlets. The Rothenburg schoolmaster, Valentine Ickelsamer, also defended him against Luther in his Klag etlicher Brüder an alle Christen von der grossen Ungerechtigkeit und Tyrannei, so Endressen Bodenstein von Carlstadt jetzo von Luther zu Wittenberg geschieht.

The sharp opposition between Karlstadt and Luther must be considered not only a matter of personalities, but also one of content. For when Karlstadt had to flee Rothenburg and begged Luther to receive him, Luther consented to let him return to Wittenberg on condition that Karlstadt recant his heterodox views on the communion and refrain from lecturing. But the old opposition could not be suppressed, and he finally had to flee again.

Karlstadt now turned toward Holstein at Melchior Hoffman's invitation, to take part in the Flensburg disputation on the communion, but was not admitted. After Hoffman was expelled from the country the two met again briefly in East Friesland, where Karlstadt remained nearly a year under the protection of the Zwinglian Ulrich von Dornum, writing polemics against Luther and his doctrines. Compelled to leave the domains of the strictly Lutheran Count Enno, he sought protection in Switzerland. With recommendations from Bucer in Strasbourg and Oecolampadius in Basel, he went to Zwingli in Zürich, who helped him to a position as proofreader in the Froschauer print shop and later as deacon at the Spital.

In Zürich and Altstätten, where he had a temporary pastorate, Karlstadt allied himself with the Zwinglians, who defended him against Luther's attacks. In 1534 he was called to Basel as preacher at St. Peter's and professor at the university. He died of the plague on 24 December 1541.

The elusive relationship between Karlstadt and the Anabaptist movement deserves further study. In his Wittenberg period he was certainly a near-Anabaptist, yet his visit to the Zürich brethren did not result in a union. Why did he not become an Anabaptist? -- GHe

1987 Update

Andreas Rudolff-Bodenstein von Karlstadt, a scion of Franconian nobility, became the first Reformer to develop a Baptist theology. He wielded a seminal influence, especially among nonresistant Anabaptists. Upon leaving Franconia, he took on the name "Karlstadt," after his native town. He studied at the modernist University of Erfurt (BA 1502), the Thomist University of Cologne, and the newly founded University of Wittenberg (MA 1505). He earned a doctorate in theology from Wittenberg (1510) and a doctorate in canon and civil law (utriusque juris) from the Sapienza in Rome (1515-1516).

During his teaching career at Wittenberg (1505-22) Karlstadt at first blended Thomism and Scotism and absorbed medieval mysticism when he annotated the Sermons then attributed solely to Tauler (Augsburg: 1508). Luther's publication of the Theologia Deutsch in 1516 was also influential. Karlstadt's Gelassen (1520), Gelassenheyt (1522), Sabbat (1524), and Axiomata (1535) demonstrate the persistence of mystical ideas.

Prodded by Luther to purchase Augustine's writings in 1517, Karlstadt proclaimed the reformation of his thought on 26 April 1517, when he nailed his 151 Theses to the door of the Church of All Saints (the "Castle Church"). Although Luther influenced Karlstadt, their paths never fully converged.

Karlstadt's first major contribution came from his preoccupation with hermeneutics. As a result of his long-term study of Hebrew, he declared the Apocrypha to be non-binding (Scripturis: 1518-1520). The first sign of his social concerns came in his public attack on mendicancy. He publicly denounced papal supremacy in 1520 (a year after Luther). However, he attacked conciliarism well before Luther (1515-1516). He gradually moved from the thirteenth to the sixth century in dating the Fall of the Roman church. He saw the alternative as the heuflein gottes, the true church of the sainted few—a believers' church, congregationally led and governed. In Gewaldt (1521), Karlstadt denounced the use of force on behalf of the church, since it is in the nature of the church to endure violence.

Crucial was Karlstadt's lifelong dissent from predestinarianism. Karlstadt held that human inability is met by God's enabling power. This freely grants to all the power to choose, during the moment of discernment between good and evil-- whether in this life or in a flameless purgatory in the afterlife. Also seeing human choice and divine enabling power as preceding baptism, Karlstadt had to reject infant baptism.

In May and June 1521, Karlstadt was in Denmark, advising King Christian II. He stimulated the enactment of legislation curbing the power of bishops, exempting only married clergy from taxation, reforming the monasteries, and disallowing appeals to Rome. This established the Danish national church.

Later in 1521, Karlstadt demanded that all clergy be married. He abrogated all his own monastic vows and become the first professor at Wittenberg to marry (January, 1522). He recognized that his reasons for opposing monastic vows voided all vows and the swearing of all oaths.

Karlstadt also opposed churchly images as prohibited by Moses and Paul, because they imbue the people with superstition and fear. He advocated their legal removal. However, when a new town council reneged on promises made by its predecessor, and students broke some images, Karlstadt neither participated with nor condemned the students. His Bylder (1522) was to be used as the basis of Ludwig Haetzer's Ein urteil gottes (1523). By January 1522, Karlstadt was also promoting social reform, including opposition to compulsory greater and lesser tithes.

His involvement as Archdeacon of the Church of All Saints kept Karlstadt from being a merely academic theologian. On Christmas 1521, without vestments, he conducted the first publicly reformed communion. He omitted the elevation of the bread and wine, expunged the canon and all sacrificial references from the Mass, and shouted in German (rather than whispering in Latin) the words of institution.

These reforms led to friction with Friedrich the Elector and Luther, who now returned from the Wartburg and temporarily restored Roman practice. No longer being allowed to publish freely, and having been made the butt of Luther's Invocavit Sermons, Karlstadt withdrew to Orlamünde to establish his own reformation. The organ was removed from the church. Psalm singing by the congregation in the vernacular was substituted. Infant baptism was no longer practiced. Up to three members of the congregation were allowed to prophesy in the service. Karlstadt, meanwhile, took to farming, though he still led the little flock as "Brother Andrew," the minister whose congregational call had been divinely confirmed by the casting of lots.

In 1523, Karlstadt fully repudiated the intercession of the saints, even of the Virgin Mary. Until his expulsion in August 1524, Karlstadt composed six treatises on the Lord's Supper and one on baptism. Karlstadt and his brother-in-law, Gerhard Westerburg, then visited Conrad Grebel and Felix Manz and their followers in Zürich, who raised the necessary financial support to have the treatises printed. From late October till early November 1524 (while Karlstadt was secretly lodged at the house of Lorenz Hochrütiner) Westerburg, Manz, and probably Andreas Castelberger had the six works dealing with the Lord's Supper printed. This permanently rended the unity of Protestantism.

Karlstadt left Basel, entrusting the manuscript of Dialogus Vom Tauff to Manz, who tried to have it printed. However, both Johannes Bebel and Thomas Wolf, who had printed the other tracts, rebuffed him. On the basis of historical, theological, and philological evidence, Manz's Protestation on baptism to the Zürich council appears to have been based on the manuscript of Karlstadt's dialogue. Frustrated by the loss of the first manuscript, Karlstadt composed another dialogue, which he published anonymously in 1527. He felt grateful for Manz's earlier efforts, so a major participant in the new dialogue was named "Felix."

Karlstadt had already in 1523 demanded that baptism be administered only upon repentance and amendment of life as signs of dying and rising with Christ. Thus he no longer baptized infants during his final year (1523-1524) in Orlamünde. He was, however, a baptist, not an Anabaptist, for he did not baptize adults who had been baptized as infants. In that he resembled the mainline reformers, who also accepted Roman baptism as valid, despite its errors. Karlstadt was a transitional figure, but where he prevailed, his spiritual children became (Ana)baptists.

During the Peasant Revolt, Karlstadt found refuge in Rothenburg on the Tauber, but in the summer of 1525 he fled to Wittenberg. Forced to make his peace with Luther, his creativity as a theologian came to a halt. In 1529 he sought refuge with Melchior Hoffman in Holstein and composed with him the Dialogus on the trial of Hoffman in Flensburg. Karlstadt's writings, especially his doctrine of the church, had already left a remarkable imprint on Hoffman's theology.

Being driven out of Holstein, and unwelcome in Strasbourg and Basel, Karlstadt, for the sake of his starving family, made his peace with Ulrich Zwingli. In June 1534 he was called to Basel, where he spent the last seven years of his life as Professor of Old Testament, rector of the university, and pastor of the University Church of Saint Peter.

To what extent did Karlstadt compromise his Baptist insights during his final years in Switzerland? Obviously he had not capitulated to Luther from 1525-1529. However, he was received kindly in the Swiss confederacy, and the Reformed churches stood closer to him than did Luther. One way to gauge Karlstadt's influence in Basel is to compare the First Confession of Basel (1534), before his arrival with the Second Confession of Basel (1536), also known as the First Helvetic Confession. Although the Anabaptists were still reproached for secessionism and unspecified heretical teachings in the Second Confession, no special section was devoted to them anymore. Neither were their views on infant baptism described as an "abomination" and a "blasphemy."

The outright rejection of the Anabaptist position on oaths of 1534 was now (1536) replaced with an affirmation of oaths "where they are manifestly not opposed to Christ." This accommodated Karlstadt perfectly. Finally, in the Second Confession the section on predestination was worded so ambiguously that it could embrace both a Reformed and a Karlstadtian interpretation. Double predestination was opposed by implication with Karlstadt's favorite text: "Our salvation is from God, but from ourselves is nothing but sin and damnation."

While in Basel, Karlstadt promoted a compromise with the Lutherans on the Lord's Supper. He was accused of knowingly harboring unreconstructed Roman Catholics and Anabaptists in his congregation. He ministered to all during the plague of 1541, to which he himself on Christmas Eve fell victim.

For over three centuries, Karlstadt's reputation fell prey to his opponents, but he has been rehabilitated in the twentieth century, first by Hermann Barge, then by Ronald Sider (who refuted the traditional polemic against Karlstadt). Others aiding the rehabilitation include Ulrich Bubenheimer (who has filled in old lacunae in respect of Karlstadt's life and his concerns with jurisprudence) as well as Calvin Pater (who dealt with Karlstadt's views of Scripture, ecclesiology, baptism and his impact on the Swiss and northern Dutch and German Anabaptists). The popular sketch of Gordon Rupp in Patterns of Reformation (Philadelphia: 1969) is now obsolete. Only Denis Janz has recently accused Karlstadt of knowingly falsifying Thomism, but his whole argument assumes that Karlstadt wrote the annotations added to his 151 Theses in 1520 by the censors of the Sorbonne University in Paris. -- CAP


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Bender, Harold Stauffer. Conrad Grebel, c. 1498-1526 : the founder of the Swiss Brethren sometimes called Anabaptists. Goshen, IN: Mennonite Historical Society, 1950.

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Bubenheimer, Ulrich. "Karlstadt." Theologische Realenzyklopaedie. XVII: 655-657.

Erbkam, H. W. Geschichte der protestantischen Sekten im Zeitalter der Reformation. Walluf bei Wiesbaden : M. Saendig, 1972: 174 ff.

Die Religion in Geschichte and Gegenwart, 2. ed., 5 vols. Tübingen: Mohr, 1927-1932: Col. 632 ff.;

Gedenkschrift der Mennoniten: 49 und 65 ff.

Hertzsch, Erich. Karlstadt und seine Bedeutung für das Luthertum. Gotha, L. Klotz, 1932.

Loserth, J. Quellen und Forschungen zur Gesch. der oberdeutschen Taufgesinnten. Vienna, 1929.

Müller, Karl. Luther und Karlstadt : Stücke aus ihrem gegenseitigen Verhältnis untersucht. Tübingen : Mohr, 1907.

Pater, Calvin A. Karlstadt as the Father of the Baptist Movements: The Emergence of Lay Protestantism. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984: 303-327.

Sachsse, C. D. Balthasar Hubmaier als Theologe. Berlin, 1915: 54-57. Reprinted Aalen : Scientia, 1973.

Hege, Christian and Christian Neff. Mennonitisches Lexikon, 4 vols. Frankfurt & Weierhof: Hege; Karlsruhe: Schneider, 1913-1967: v. II, 463-465.

Author(s) Gerhard Hein
Calvin A. Pater
Date Published 1987

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Hein, Gerhard and Calvin A. Pater. "Karlstadt, Andreas Rudolff-Bodenstein von (1486-1541)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1987. Web. 23 Apr 2019. http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Karlstadt,_Andreas_Rudolff-Bodenstein_von_(1486-1541)&oldid=145557.

APA style

Hein, Gerhard and Calvin A. Pater. (1987). Karlstadt, Andreas Rudolff-Bodenstein von (1486-1541). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 23 April 2019, from http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Karlstadt,_Andreas_Rudolff-Bodenstein_von_(1486-1541)&oldid=145557.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, pp. 519-521, v. 5, pp. 481-482. All rights reserved.

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