Sebastian Franck was born on January 20th, 1499. He was ordained a Roman Catholic priest but in 1525 converted over to the Reformed Protestants and became a Gospel preacher. However, as time went on, he even left the Reformed movement and sympathized mostly with the Anabaptist sects, while never formally joining them. He agreed with the Anabaptists that the authentic external Church of the Apostles disappeared in its accommodation to the State during the era of Emperor Constantine, but could not agree with their attempts to re-establish external sacraments at all (not even Baptism). As a result of the collapse of the Apostolic Church in the early years, God has now resorted to sanctifying human beings purely by a spiritual means, particularly faith, repentance, self-denial, and perseverance. This could be achieved with or without organized religion, and since organized religion had gone defunct, it was God dealing directly with human beings that counted by his day.
What drew my attention to Franck was his amazing depth of reasoning as to the implications of what the Reformers and Anabaptists were teaching in the years of Protest. Franck understood that external sacramental materialism was originally instituted by God, as the Catholics believed, but that they were no longer operational in light of the apostasy of Christians right after the Apostles. He knew that a sacramental religion would require a divine calling along with an external sign to validate that call. Since the Reformers and Anabaptists were just going off their own authority, they lacked any means to properly re-construct the Church afresh without an immediate divine sanction from Christ to do so. Therefore, the Reformers and Anabaptists were, without knowing it, claiming to have the authority to re-establish and re-build the Church, but without any sanction from Christ that could be provided by external signification. It was all “Well, my reading of the Bible says X, and so we must do X, not Y”, where Y is the praxis of the Papists or the Anabaptists or the Reformers, and vice versa.
All this is revealed in Franck’s letter to a certain John Campanus , who was a Catholic turned Lutheran, and then a Lutheran turned radical Anabaptist. In this letter, Franck displays what it looks like to red-pill on the implications of Martin Luther. If indeed the Church fathers beginning right after St. John (95 AD) fell into heresies, then the Church likewise lost her operation of heavenly power in the sacraments. Franck believed this had lasted for 14 centuries up to his time, and could only be restored through an immediate revelation from Christ to get it going again. Moreover, Franck seems to have realized that Sola-Scriptura also cannot help the Lutherans since the Scripture was not perspicuous. There was Luther vs. Zwingli, the Reformers vs. the Papists, and the Anabaptists vs. them all. Thus, Franck concludes that the real message of Scripture is hidden away in the Son of God, and not Scripture, and He reveals the truth to “those who are properly instructed”. This is invisible Church 101.
What I found absolutely fascinating about this character is his wonderful consistency. He was looking at Luther, Zwingli, and the Anabaptists and was just not able to get along with their restoration efforts. If it took a supernatural and immediate intervention from Jesus Christ to get the external visible Church going in the beginning, certainly no less would be required to restart the Church 14 centuries later after having been destroyed for all those years. And yet, the Protestants had no such revelation from Christ, and so their efforts are, from start to finish, equal to the authority of human beings. This is, of course, why there is no prevention of endless schisms, since each formatted reconstruction of Christianity has a man as its author, and with that, any man could oppose it with the equal authority.
Franck believed it was far more consistent to just realize that the Protestant movement is a human-made movement with no sanction to perform any external ritual for worship and salvation. One on one spiritual relationship with God was all that was needed, until Christ could reset the Church’s life.
Now, now. Today’s Reformed and/or Lutherans will balk at all of this and insist “We must not throw out the baby with the bath water”. But really, what they have retained is not what the Church of the Middle Ages believed (500-1500). As Frank points out, these Christians held to a real sacrifice in the holy Eucharistic sacrament. That right there was enough to show they went bonkers from right after the Apostles. Where the Reformers wanted to restore the authentic gospel and evangelical praxis, which had been eclipsed by the Roman papists for centuries, they did not realize that their premises had already emptied any firm basis upon which to restore the Church since each one of their protests had for its base a man-made interpretation of Scripture which itself had no divine sanction from Christ. Who is to validate whether the Lutherans, the Calvinists, the Zwinglians, the English divine, the Anabaptists, or the Papists were right or wrong? Appeals to Scripture only gave an appearance of authenticity, but in reality, the Scripture came to the Protestants, not by Scriptural reference, but through Catholic Ecclesial tradition. Thus, appeals to Scripture came with it an appeal to the Catholic Church’s authority. Moreover, appeals to plain reason still exist on the plane of human authority, and that can be defeated with another human authority, which devolves, in matters of divine revelation, into an opinion versus an opinion. All this orbiting around weak epistemological foundations, however well defended by each party, left the critical inquirer wanting. Franck ended up so much a skeptic that he was even opposed by the Mennonites themselves. But again, I cannot but help to admire his consistency, however gravely misled he was. Just think of it. What can the Protestant pound upon in order to emphasize the necessity to follow his or her tradition? Protestant premises already took it for granted the Holy Spirit could fall asleep for nearly 14 centuries, and refrain from leading any men into the truth of the gospel, at least in any visible manner as it existed in the Church of the Apostles which started in Jerusalem. What Protestant could assure anyone that the Holy Spirit returned to the field to play ball? Protestant premises already permitted a change in beliefs from one era to the next, admitting gross error here or a retaining of essential gospel truth elsewhere in a variety of proportions. With those premises, who is to forbid the entrance of new beliefs? New beliefs had already been more than welcomed with Luther. Etc,etc. Sebastian Franck saw right through all of this and burned the whole edifice down, leaving him with a purely Quaker-style invisible and purely spiritual interaction with God in an inescapably arbitrary economy. It would only be a couple centuries before this sort of skepticism led straight to the enlightenment thinkers, the liberal movement, and then Atheism itself at the bottom of the long spiral downward.
The portion of the letter to Campanus is below. I’ve taken the English from The Spiritual and Anabaptist Writers edited by George H. Williams, page 147-160.
“Grace be unto thee, dear Campanus, from the Father of Lights through the Lord Christ, for feeling and believing and preferring to stand alone against all the doctors of the Roman or (if it please God) the Christian Church, who from the time of the Apostles until this present hour have enjoyed great renown — for preferring to maintain thyself alone against all rather than to err with all or the larger part of them….Indeed, I do not doubt but what all the highly famous doctors whose works are still available, are [those] wolves which Paul spiritually anticipated would fall in upon the flock and which John calls antichrist, men who even in the days of the Apostles fell away from them and indeed had never really been with them. This is proved by their works, especially those of Clement, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Cyprian, Chrysostom, Hilary, Cyril, Origen, and others which are merely utter child’s play and quite unlike the spirit of the Apostles, that is, utterly filled with commandments, laws, sacramental elements, and all kinds of human inventions. Jerome speaks of the seven [church] orders; Clement, a pupil of Saint James –if one wants to believe it — writes something about purgatory and brings in more foolish nonsense. Right after the Apostles everything unfolded in a contrary fashion. Baptism was changed into infant baptism; the Lord’s Supper into misuse and a sacrifice. What they have written is nothing but a shame and disgrace. Therefore, I believe the outward Church of Christ, including all its gifts and sacraments, because of the breaking in and laying waste by Antichrist right after the death of the Apostles, went up into heaven and lies concealed in the Spirit and in truth. I am thus quite certain that for fourteen hundred years now there has existed no gathered church nor any sacrament. For this is proved along with experience by the work, outward behavior, and misuse with which Antichrist has besmirched and spoiled everything….To be brief, my dear brother Campnus, that I may say it in summary fashion and openly and be understood by thee, I maintain against all eccleisastical authorities that all outward things and ceremonies, which were customary int he Church of the Apostles, have been done away with and are not to be re-instituted, although many without authorization or calling undertake to restore on their own the degenerated sacraments. These are the things which aforementioned wolves, the doctors of unwisdom, apes of the Apostles and antichrists, have vigorously propagated. And they who understood the truth of these things — their writings and instructions were suppressed by these as godless heresies and nonsense; and in their place in esteem come foolish Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, Gregory — of whom not even one knew the Lord, so help me God, nor was sent by God to teach. But rather all were the Apostles of Antichrist and are that still. I am a liar if all their own books don’t prove as much, which never hold together and are far different from and unlike the Apostles. There is not a one of them, so far as can be seen from the books they have left, who appears to have been a Christian, unless it be that they, at lest, felt differently in their hearts, being taught by God without else and repented of their lost labor. For they teach nothing properly that concerns Christian faith. Yea, they have not known nor taught… gospel, faith, baptism, supper, true righteousness, Scripture, the church, and its law. ...I, however, firmly believe that the outward Church of Christ was wasted and destroyed right after the Apostles. This is what the wolves, that is, the Father amply prove for me, although Scripture gives no testimony on this point. For all that they teach is surely idle child’s play, if they are compared with the Apostles…Now, however, since experience teaches that the power of the external churches and all things external has fallen into decay and that the Church is [invisibly] dispersed among the heathen, truly it is my opinion that no persons on earth can without a special call from God gather up the same and bring again its sacraments into use. For this is a work of external and special calling….Therefore, I have said that the outward ceremonies of the Church ought not to be reestablished unless Christ Himself command it, who has not spoken orally to use but to the Apostles and originally ordered the things that they should preach and baptize…This is what I am saying: They [Reformers] are restoring outworn sacraments, as I regard them, which no one should do unless he be especially sent for the purpose and provided with an outward sign and call...In brief, all that we have learned since childhood from the papists, we must all of a sudden again unlearn. Again, the same for what we have received from Luther and Zwingli — all must be abandoned and altered. For one will sooner make a good Christian out of a Turk than out of a bad Christian or a learned divine! For the veil of Moses hinders them, that is, the death-dealing letter of scripture, which they received as life and as life-giving Spirit. I, however, hold completely that the intention of the Lord does not reside precisely in the rind of Scripture. That is, Scripture is not so easy for everyone to understand but what I would sooner believe that it were locked with seven seals and knowable to none but to the Lamb. For to such an extent does God hide his wisdom under the covering of likeness and literary parable of letters that none but those who are taught of God himself can understand them. And he does not so lightly expose his secret to the godless world and all scamps but rather conceals it beneath the rind so that only the instructed of God, as I have said, may be able to grasp it”