Pilgram Marpeck’s View of Original Sin, Humanity and States of Salvation

At this time I want to illuminate Pilgram Marpeck’s position on Original Sin, the nature of humanity post-Fall and the states of salvation. This is a continuation of his replies to the Reformed theologian Caspar Schwenckfeld that was addressed previously.

Marpeck begins by arguing “that for children neither inherited nor actual sin counts before God because a child remains in ignorance and in created simplicity (schoepflichen einfalt) until it grows up into understanding (in die vernunft erwachst) and the inheritance is realized in and through it.”[1] The Anabaptist leader continues on by stating that before “that, sin has no damning effect; neither inherited nor actual sin is counted against child before God” or as he put it plainly the “origin and beginning of inherited sin is in the knowledge of good and evil.””[2]  When children reach the age of understanding of right and wrong “then the inheritance which leads to damnation becomes effective in them . . . inherited sin becomes inheritable.”[3] Marpeck calls this process the dying off of their “created simplicity”.

Before moving on with the remainder of the material we see from the offset Marpeck posits a view contrary to the Reformed teaching that all have inherited original sin and deserve the severe judgment of God. Marpeck maintains the Swiss Brethren view that children are not judged by God in the fashion that He assesses adults.

After explaining that physical and mental maturity that permits the comprehension of good and evil transitions a child from being in a state of created simplicity to one of accountability for potential sins Pilgram Marpeck introduces a new state called “simplicity of faith”.  He articulates that before the change “the child is reconciled and excused for all things; hereafter, it may still hold onto the simplicity of faith in which understanding is taken captive through faith in Christ. As long as this simplicity continues, no sin is counted before God until we fall again out of simplicity into understanding and sin and grow in them.”[4]

Marpeck then appeals to Matthew 18 where Jesus admonished his listeners by saying “unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” for the supposed purpose of explaining what comprises simplicity of faith.[5] One is to not interpret Jesus’ words to communicate “that we should in all things become like youth in its lack of understanding or its inarticulateness.”[6] But instead “become like children in our readiness to change direction and all those things which hinder people who have reached the age of understanding from receiving salvation.”[7]

To say it differently a person must have the willingness to follow the lead of another i.e. one must have a spirit of obedience in the same fashion that (some) children will listen to the instruction of their parents and turn from an action that they are told to no longer engage in.

We turn away from sin through faith and Gospel teaching, by turning from what we know is malicious, proud, and in love with the world. Through true remorse and regret we disown all of it, returning, as if into forgetting and ignorance, because we surrender our understanding into captivity. We become simple, without falseness or guile, as children are.[8]

He there is mention of turning “away from sin through faith” and “Gospel teaching” thus one being instructed in what posture to take towards life. Next Marpeck then follows with a number of biblical texts such as Matthew 10:16; Romans 16:19; 1 Corinthians 14:20 to fortify his argument that we are to parallel the “created ignorance” of the original man and woman in Eden prior to the Fall of humanity.[9] From this point Pilgram Marpeck appeals heavily to the first and second chapter of the book of Romans to explain that when people attain the natural knowledge of God, good and evil and when they even neglect the little light that illuminates the good that’s imbedded in the human conscience only then will the type of sinfulness that lead to condemnation that was inherited from Adam will be a factor.

We stand firm in our confession . . . that sinfulness leading to condemnation follows as an inheritance only as people grow out of their created simplicity into the common, natural human knowledge of good and evil. When it extends into carnal selfish reason (fleischlich aigen vernuft) and the abandonment of the knowledge of good which came through the light of nature, then people stand before a judge, Jesus Christ. They do this through their fallen nature and the work of the devil. If they carry out the evil they know as heirs of Adam’s fall in an understanding which is contrary to their true selves, if they do not heed the fact they knowingly bear either God and goodness or evil and sin (Rom. 1)—in sum, if they acknowledge evil or sin in their conscience, that comes not out of an unfallen but a fallen nature. They have their judge, Jesus Christ (Rom. 2). God preserve us from excusing such people! We excuse young, innocent children from guilt and the remnants of their inheritance through none other than Christ. There is no more condemnation for them through Adam and Eve’s fall. Nor do they have an inheritance which leads to condemnation; the wrath of God is not upon such children until they reach understanding, that is, the common knowledge of good and evil. We say, “Let the children remain in the promise of Christ until they can be instructed, until they can know and believe.[10]

Also these things apply to those in the past or as Marpeck puts it the “children of the old age” because in the same fashion they inherited the potential for sin in Adam they also inherited and have the “advantage of the promise of long ago and the grace it afforded, Christ’s reconciliation” through his death.[11] At this juncture Marpeck he becomes more detailed in how Satan and sin actually works upon and within humanity. Likewise it appears that Marpeck communicates an additional manner in which someone can exist in a state of simplistic faith that is attained through the light of creation that was mentioned earlier if adhered to by someone.

We are told that as “soon as the simplicity of the created order dies out in children, as soon as the simplicity of faith dies out in old people” then the “the old Adam comes alive in their understanding and in their lust for falsehood.”[12] This results in these individuals existing in a state of opposition to God. Then the “serpent becomes everyone’s head and the person becomes a member of the serpent’s body. This serpent holds sway among the children of malice.”[13] What he is saying here is that the sin is connected to one’s disposition or view and approach to life. The person that has embraced sin will behave in accordance with remainder of those that are in opposition to God and His directives and abide by the dictates of the serpent. Also at this point Marpeck broaches the matter raised earlier. He writes if “such a person is again to come to grace, he must die again and be buried through baptism into Christ’s death, be born of water and Spirit, and rise again with Christ through the simplicity of faith in the word. Such a one has accepted the kingdom of God like a child!”[14]

Previously he said that “the simplicity of faith dies out in old people” and prior to that he appears to argued that the simplicity of faith is achieved through the turning “away from sin through faith and Gospel teaching” i.e. coming to faith. Yet he does mention the “knowledge of good which came through the light of nature”. He expands on this thought by saying towards the conclusion of his thoughts on human anthropology. He says that all:

those who were naturally holy after Adam’s fall—Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Cornelius the centurion, and others—were made that way through their immortal spirit and the light of nature. Still today it shines in all who admit it and creates such light or law in people in whom the fear of God dwells and leads them into natural holiness. This same light shone on Adam unhindered before the fall. But after the fall, its light is obstructed by our own perverse life and will. It hinders everyone who lets it do so. In a child this light is untouched, unextinguished, un-darkened until understanding and reason appear. Then it makes its own darkness; great is that darkness . . . The light dims or darkens through sin and malice of the flesh.[15]

So now we have another category that seems to be synonymous with the simplistic faith without conversion category called “natural holiness”. This is a state where one essentially follows the lead of the light of creation which would most likely involve following the law of conscience rooted in human beings by means of God. John Rempel notes concerning this section that “Marpeck seems to be saying here that a “natural” relationship with God is possible, i.e. that in a spiritually receptive person there need not be an existential “fall” in which all capacity to respond to God is lost. There is an inescapable allusion here to the train of thought, if not the actual text, of Romans 2:6-16.”[16]

In summary from this it appears that Pilgram Marpeck held to three categories of right standing with God. There are the Creative Ignorance which is the state that all humanity are born in. It is the ignorance that all children have regarding good and evil. After this within time as the child matures and start to attaining the knowledge of good and evil they can either embrace sin or enter into one of two states. There is the state of the Simplicity of Faith Non-Christian or Natural Holiness. This is where the individual that is spiritually receptive obey God by means of responding positively to the light of nature. This obedience is based on the recognition of something greater and following the law of God as found in the conscience. Finally there is the Simplicity of Faith that leads to one genuinely coming to faith and becoming a member of the Body of Christ and a citizen of the Kingdom of God.

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[1] 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), 1:89.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Matthew 18:13

[6] Ibid., 90.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 90-1.

[11] Ibid., 91.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 92.

[16] Ibid., 148.

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