Pilgram Marpeck’s Arguments against Common Views of Sin during the 16th Century

At this time I will look to the South German Anabaptist leader Pilgram Marpeck.[1] The German theologian and Reformation preacher Caspar von Schwenckfeld (1489-1561) accused Pilgram Marpeck of not holding to the historic Church’s position on original sin and in its place Palagianism. Marpeck responds to this accusation in his almost systematic work entitled the Response. In the course of replying to Schwenckfeld’s allegations Marpeck presents arguments communicated by Schwenckfeld concerning the nature of original sin and he provides some very thought-provoking counter arguments.

Marpeck begins his rejoinder by addressing the claim that inherited sin comes into being through the “matrimonial act of creation” (eelich werk der schoepfung natur)” i.e. “only within marriage—which happens through the conception or birth of the flesh”.[2]  In other words original sin comes into being at conception. That is when a husband and wife conceive a child said child will be tainted with sin.

He begins by appealing to Martin Luther’s treatment of the matter in “The Estate of Marriage” written in 1522. Marpeck summarizes the arguments Luther employs by stating “that the matrimonial act is part of the created order of nature and of God’s commandment to multiply humanity and be fruitful, filling the earthly kingdom.”[3] Next Jesus thoughts on the matter is appealed to concluding with the affirmation that the “matrimonial act leads to birth and not sin.”[4]

After this Pilgram Marpeck takes up the argument that others held by namely that “flesh and blood in and of itself” is the source of inherited sin.[5] Marpeck reasons that if flesh and blood was intrinsically sin “God . . . would have created Adam in sin; indeed, he would have created sin!”[6] He then immediately asks a series of inquiries. The first being if “that were the case, how could God fairly judge the world?”[7] The second asks how “could he be called a righteous God and Judge, as Scripture attests of him”?[8] The South German leader replies that it “would be blasphemy to say that God in his majesty, glory, righteousness, and irreproachableness made Adam transgress, as if God were guilty of his fall and sin. All of that is contrary to Holy Scripture.”[9] In short sin did not originate from God.

Pilgram Marpeck also argues that if human flesh and blood was innately sinful then one would have to wrestle with the virginal conception of Jesus. Namely that Jesus took his flesh and blood as it were or his physical organism from Mary thus if flesh and blood was sinful simply because it is flesh and blood then Jesus was be sinful amongst others. The Anabaptist writes:

If flesh and blood were sin in and of themselves, then the flesh and blood of the blessed virgin Mary, as the mother of the Lord Jesus—indeed, the flesh and blood of Christ himself, from the seed of David . . . would have to be called sinful. So also the flesh of John the Baptist, the prophets, apostles, and all other saints would have to be called sin. How could they have been saved, how could a single person be saved today or eternally, if flesh and blood were sin in and of themselves? Otherwise, how could someone be set free from sins, distinguish them from the flesh itself, or purify the flesh, if it were sin itself? Is, then, flesh the wages of death and its disciple? The only alternative to this view would be the error that in the resurrection another flesh would be given to the devout then the one they bore when they lived within time. Far be it from us to believe that! This view would fortify those people who erroneously deny that Christ partook his flesh from the human generation of Mary.[10]

Marpeck also explains that flesh and blood is not inherently sin but that it “became a dwelling place for sin through Adam’s fall . . . It’s not that flesh and blood are sin, but that sin lives in them. Through the fall of Adam and Eve the devil took root in flesh and blood through the serpent.”[11]

The Anabaptist leader Pilgram Marpeck’s human anthropology is very eye-opening and it has ramifications that touches on many other “theological” categories such as the nature and character of God for instance. If God essentially is good and did not configure the material universe in a fashion that would make Him the author of sin that would disqualify much of Calvinist theological paradigm.

___________________________________________

[1] Even though he was South German he is considered a member of the Swiss Brethren and so what he posits represents their views to a greater or lesser extent.

[2] Walter Klaassen, John Rempel, and Werner O. Packull, trans., Later Writings by Pilgrim Marpeck and His Circle: The Expose, A Dialogue, and Marpeck’s Response to Caspar Schwenckfeld, Anabaptist Text in Translation (Kitchener, Ont.: Pandora Press, 1999), 1:87.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 88.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 89.

[11] Ibid., 88.

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