Johannes Oecolampadius: Lighthouse of Basel

Johannes Oecolampadius - Hans Asper - 1550

Johannes Oecolampadius – Hans Asper – 1550

Johannes Oecolampadius served as catalyst for the Reformation in the canton of Basel of the Old Swiss Confederacy. A true scholar, Oecolampadius worked with Desiderius Erasmus on his creation of a Greek New Testament. Not only this, he helped to lead and introduce the Reformation to his home canton forever altering the ecclesiastical leanings of his territory in a clear Zwinglian direction. He knew people like Huldrych Zwingli, Martin Bucer, Philipp Melancthon, and Martin Luther personally and he took part in the Marburg Colloquy in 1529. Johannes Oecolampadius’ contributions to the Reformation were important and lasting. Church historian Philip Schaff summarizes his life well when he says: “He was inferior to Zwingli in originality, force, and popular talent, but surpassed him in scholastic erudition and had a more gentle disposition. He was, like Melanchthon, a man of thought rather than of action, but circumstances forced him out of his quiet study to the public arena.” (“Oecolampadius”) Oecolampadius served the Reformation as a scholar in his study quietly carrying the torch to the end of his life.

Johannes Oecolampadius - Hans Asper - University of Edinburgh

Johannes Oecolampadius – Hans Asper – University of Edinburgh

Born in 1482 in Holy Roman Empire state of Württemberg in Weinsberg, Oecolampadius showed an amazing aptitude for study. He went to schools in Heilbronn and Bologna, and eventually the University of Heidelberg in 1499. Here he delved into Renaissance humanism, learned about the scholastics, and composed some Latin poems. (Schaff) After Heidelberg, he spent a brief time as a “tutor to the sons of the Palatinates’ elector and in 1510 became preacher at [his hometown of] Weinsburg.” (“Johann Oecolampadius – German Humanist”) As his preaching career took off, Oecolampadius decided to continue his studies and went to the University of Tübingen for his Master of Arts taking up Greek, Latin, and further studies in theology. It was here around the year 1513 that he made the acquaintance of the young Philipp Melanchthon. The Reformation would not start until 1517 when Martin Luther would hammer the 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, however, one subjects that Melanchthon and Oecolampadius would have talked about how the church might be reformed. Corruption had gone out of control and everyone knew it. Yet, at this point it was still inconceivable that any real split with the church could happen.

Upon moving to Basel in 1515 after Heidelberg, he met Desiderius Erasmus. Erasmus found Oecolampadius impressive and admired his studies of Greek so much that he invited him to help him “in preparing his edition of the Greek New Testament.” (“Johann Oecolampadius-German Humanist”) In addition to this, he also ”produced translations of works by various Greek Fathers of the church, including Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil, John of Damascus, Chrysostom, and Theophylact.” (“Johann Oecolampadius-German Humanist”) Oecolampadius wore his scholar’s robes well and his translations from the Greek of the early church fathers helped to increase scholarship in church history all they way down to the present.

A continual traveler, Oecolampadius decided to take a job preaching in Augsburg, The Holy Roman Empire (Germany), in 1518 where he met and started to consume the works of Martin Luther. The 95 Theses had been printed for mass distribution and it is no doubt that Oecolampadius would have had a copy in his hands. Schaff relates that Oecolampadius gave sermons which “showed his moral severity and zeal for a reform of the pulpit.” Eventually, he resolved to join some Brigittine monks, but “found opposition as he sought to emphasize God’s Word and the truth contained therein. Within a year he was forced to depart, and painfully left a good part of his precious Latin, Greek, and Hebrew library behind.” (Dyck) Change was coming slow to the Catholic church and people did not want to break with tradition. Erasmus’s Greek New Testament had been new and disruptive to monastic life. Oecolampadius and other people consuming the new learning actually believed that they could study the bible and learn from it apart from the interpretations of the church. Not only this, he actually believed that the Bible should and ought to instruct the church. As a direct result, “growing disillusionment with the Roman Catholic view that the bread and wine of the Eucharist are transubstantiated into the body and blood of Christ and his increasing admiration for Martin Luther caused him to leave in 1522.” (“Johann Oecolampadius – German Humanist”) He left dismayed, after a brief stint as a chaplain, left to go back to his studies in Basel to attain a D.D.

Johann Oecolampadius - Statue located in Basel, Switzerland

Johann Oecolampadius – Statue located in Basel, Switzerland

The early 1520’s in Basel became a great time of growth for Oecolampadius. He developed a close friendship with the reformers of Zurich, Huldrych Zwingli and William Farel. He also started “lecturing in three languages to large audiences and preaching at Saint-Martin’s Church [in Basel, where he soon] became the dominant figure of the city.” (“Johann Oecolampadius – German Humanist”) He started to attack the Eucharist more formally as well as the sacrificial and sacramental practice of the mass. He emphasized the supremacy of the Word of God in preaching and followed Zwingli in preaching in an expositional style throughout the entire bible. Diane Poythress, who has recently written a biography on Oecolampadius, translated with Vern Poythress one of his commentaries on Isaiah chapter six, Originally published in 1525 it reads:

And when you know God and see how great is his majesty, beyond profound and inscrutable [p. 57b] judgment, and how great is his goodness, then, if the vision be to that [such a calling], teach, lest you be among those who run but are not sent, and instead of the word of God you offer the trash of your dreams.

In the Scriptures, however, if you search them, you will see God.  And when Uzziah has died, you may at once declare God fullest and best.  This is not a perceptible unction to you, or a rite consisting in ceremonies, nor were bishop’s hands furnishing [it].  But the sincere heart will be fit for the Holy Spirit and heavenly unction.

Poythress captures vividly the seriousness and boldness with which Oecolampadius preached. In this short passage alone we see an attack against mysticism in preaching, an affirmation of the Word of God as supreme because it is the place where we see him, and also a pointing out that bishops or other church officials did not bestow the Holy Spirit on human beings, but God himself bestows it on who he wills.

The Marburg Colloquy - 1529 - Christian Karl A., 1867. Original: Darmstadt, Hessisches Landesmuseum / GK 470 Standort bitte unbedingt angeben!; Foto: Hermann Buresch;

The Marburg Colloquy – 1529 – Christian Karl A., 1867.
Darmstadt, Hessisches Landesmuseum

It is this spirit that Oecolampadius brought with him to the Marburg Colloquy a few years later. Here a disputation took place between himself, Zwingli, Luther, Martin Bucer, Philipp Melanchthon, and others to hash out a unified view on the Eucharist and thus unite the Reformed and the Lutherans together in the Reformation. It was not a success. The Zwinglians continued to maintain a memorial view of the Lord’s Supper (a remembrance), while the Lutherans held to the idea that the real presence of Christ was present in the Eucharist. A sacrament of the church, the Supper kept these groups from uniting, yet both sides were sharpened in their viewpoints.
Back in Basel, Joahann Oecolampadius continued to lead and to preach. He labored over the latter parts of his life in putting together the pieces of the relationship between church officials and officials in the civil government. Dyck relates that “It was important to him that good church government be established in the place of the prelatic government of the Roman organization….more remedial than punitive….[He put together] four pastors, four magistrates, and four representatives of the lay people. He held that this system of organization would avoid tyranny and uphold the dignity of the church.” (“Johannes Oecolampadius: Lighthouse of the Reformation”) Such experiments in government by Oecolampadius and Calvin held that by dividing the councils in this way a separation of powers could be established in a way that the government of the Roman Church had not allowed. In this way, he sought to lessen the ability of corrupt government to develop as quickly.

Oecolampadius eventually passed away in poor health. The Reformation, after gaining so much momentuim had finally garnered a sweeping Catholic counter-reformation response. A catholic army killed Zwingli at the Battle of Kappel in October of 1531, Oecolampadius passed a month later after a sickness laid him low.
Johannes Oecolampadius will remain a hero of the Reformation. Thanks to the Poythress’s in translating some of his works into English, Oecolampadius is now known to the English speaking world in a way that he has not since the time of the Reformation. It is hoped that we will continue to remember Oecolampadius for his great work in seeking to reform, and to reshape, and re-envision Christian life on Reformation terms. It is for this reason he is continually honored.

Dyck, John. “Johannes Oecolampadius: Lighthouse of the Reformation.” 8.96 Western Reformed Seminary Journal. Alberta, Canada. Web. 27 October 2015.

“Johann Oecolampadius – German Humanist”. Encyclopedia Britannica. Web. 26 Oct. 2015.

Oecolampadius, John. “Oecolampadius on Isaiah 6.” Diane Poythress and Vern Poythress, Trans. 21 May 2012. Web. 28 Oct. 2015.

Schaff, Philip. “The Reformation in Basel: Oecolampadius.” History of the Christian Church: Vol VIII – Modern Christianity: The Swiss Reformation. Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Web, 26 Oct 2015.

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