Johannes (or Hans) Denck was a soft-spoken person who was inclined to avoid controversy. He was described by his contemporaries being friendly, mannerly, modest, intelligent and earnest. One professor described him as "surpassing his age and seeming older than what he was." Far from being a rebellious sort, Denck nevertheless was an outcast in his own day for his Anabaptist beliefs.
He enrolled at University of Ingolstadt when he was seventeen years old and graduated two years later with a bachelor's degree; fluent in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. In his first job, he undertook the editing of a three-volume Greek dictionary.
In September 1523 he became headmaster of St. Sebald's school in Nuremburg. He married a young woman of the city and they had a child. He was settling into a quiet and respectable life, but for one small problem: His contemplative soul was hungry for more of God. He wanted to see a greater expression of inner holiness and union with God in his own life. While in Nuremberg he came across the Theologia Germanica, a mystical contemplative work that influenced him greatly.
Hans began to enter into a personal awakening. Instead of focusing on "thinking for himself," he began to find the peace he was looking for by learning to “think like Christ” and follow him implicitly, even if he had to do it alone. His motto became, "No one truly knows Christ unless he follows him daily in life."
In January 1525 Sebald Behaim, one of three artists on trial for making unsound remarks concerning baptism and communion, mentioned that he had conversed with Denck on these matters.
The city court of Nuremberg demanded an explanation for his "odd behaviour." Hans replied in writing:
I confess that I am a poor soul, subject to every weakness of body and spirit. For some time I thought I had faith, but I have come to see that it was a false faith. It was a faith that could not overcome my spiritual poverty, my inclinations to sin, my weaknesses and my sickness. Instead of that, the more I polished and adorned myself on the outside (with my supposed faith) the worse became my spiritual sickness on the inside. . . . Now I see clearly that I cannot keep on in this unbelief before God, so I say: Yes Lord! In the name of the Almighty God whom I fear from the bottom of my heart, I want to believe. Help me to believe.
For the above statement, the city council decided that Hans Denck must be expelled from Nuremburg. On January 21, 1525, they cast him from the city for the rest of his life, with orders not to come closer than ten miles to it, on pain of death. They confiscated his property to support his wife and child who had to stay behind. And so, he found himself alone and homeless, in the dead of winter with nothing but the clothes on his back -- and the inner conviction that he was doing what was right.
Upon leaving Nuremberg, Denck joined the Anabaptist movement. In May 1526 he was baptized as a believer by Balthasar Hubmaier. Shortly thereafter, he published three brief works defending his beliefs: Whether God is the Cause of Evil, The Law of God, and Paradoxa: He Who Truly Loves the Truth.
He defined baptism as the "covenant of good conscience with God,” but it was not of central importance to his religious ideas. In fact, he considered ceremonies in general as superficial and secondary, and harshly criticized the hypocritical ecclesiastics who reduced faith to external observance of inherited superstitious rites.
For Hans Denck, the imitation of Jesus was what counted; ceremonies were justified only if they furthered love. The inner baptism of the spirit was far more important than outer baptism of water. The Lord's Supper he interpreted as a spiritual union with Christ. Like the early church, he held that love was the supreme goal for the Christian, superior to both faith and to hope. He firmly believed that "Christ cannot truly recognize anyone who does not imitate him in this life." Denck's fundamental insight: "It is not enough for God to be in you; you must also be in God" paved the way for later movements like Quakerism.
Denck on the Bible
While Denck esteemed the Bible "above all human treasures," he did not equate it with God's Word. He felt that many in his day had made an idol out of the Bible, elevating it to something beyond what God originally intended. He did not believe that God’s ability to communicate with His creation depended solely upon the Scriptures, but that any true seeker of God may receive illumination from Him apart from (but not in contradiction to) the Scriptures.
I value the Scriptures above all human treasure, but not as highly as the Word of God which is alive, strong (Heb. 4:12), eternal, and free. The Word of God is free from the elements of the world. It is God himself. It is Spirit and not letter, written without pen or paper so that it can never be erased.
As a result of this, salvation is not bound to Scripture, even though Scripture may help one on to salvation (2 Tim. 3:16). We need to understand, scripture cannot possibly change an evil heart, even though it may make it more learned. A godly heart, on the other hand, in which the little light of God shines, can learn from all things. We see then, how the Scriptures help those who believe toward salvation and holy living. But to those who believe not, they serve only for their condemnation. . . .
If salvation depended only on reading the Scriptures or hearing them preached, many illiterate people, and many towns to whom no preacher has come, would be lost.
The inner light, he said, "speaks clearly in everyone, in the deaf, dumb, and blind, even in unreasoning beasts, even in leaves and grass, stone and wood, heaven and earth, and all that is in them, that they may hear and do his will. In man alone, who does not want to be nothing and yet is even more than nothing, is there resistance to it."
Like many in his day, Denck had a great appreciation for biblical paradox. He felt that differences and arguments arose through appeal to isolated parts of the Scripture, rather than trying to see it as a whole. He was fascinated by apparently contradictory scriptures and loved to place them side by side, such as the following:
"I will not be angry for ever." (Jeremiah 3:12)
"And they will go away into eternal punishment." (Matthew 25:46)
He believed that "in matters of faith all must proceed freely, willingly, and unforced." Every individual should be free to seek his own salvation. Moreover, since the accessibility to the "inner Word" is universal and individual, nobody holds a monopoly on truth. Because he felt it was better to leave others in error than to compel them against their conscience, he became an advocate of tolerance in matters of religious truth, moral right and social justice. In his darkest hours Denck maintained his belief in freedom of thought, and encouraged others to do the same.
He admonished: "But you, if you hear your brothers say something that is strange to you, do not at once contradict, but hear whether it be right, whether you may accept it. If you do not like to hear it, still, do not condemn him, and if it appears to you that he is mistaken, consider whether you may not be more mistaken."
He made every effort not to hate his religious adversaries, and he insisted that although he had been barred from the community of believers, he had not allowed his heart to be turned away from them. Nor did he show a bitter spirit, for he was convinced that this was the price he had to pay for his beliefs.
In December 1526 Martin Bucer labelled him "the Anabaptist pope" and had him expelled from Strasbourg. He went to Worms where he worked on a translation of the writings of the Old Testament prophets from Hebrew to German. Here he also published two more works: Concerning Genuine Love and Divine Order.
He died in Basel on November 15, 1527 of the black plague. He was only 32 years old.
On Free Will
Denck disagreed with Luther's doctrine of the bondage of the will. He strongly opposed the idea that unbelievers refused to repent because God made them blind:
"Those who are cunning in scripture speak . . . about a stark blindness . . . This [blindness], according to them, is also without any distinction wrought by God, as though the godless also stood tranquil in God and not they but rather God sinned in them . . . Say it somebody. How could the devil have better messengers?" (Whether God is the Cause of Evil in Spiritual and Anabaptist Writers, ed. by George Williams, Westminster Press, 1957, p. 98.)
Instead, Denck suggested that God ordains sin, but for a purpose—He uses it to display His glory by overcoming it with good:
“…For sin is over against God to be reckoned as nothing; and however great it might be, God can, will, and indeed already has, overcome it for himself to his own eternal praise without harm for any creatures." (Whether God is the Cause of Evil, p. 90.)
God is exonerated from causing evil because, "He who ordains evil and yet can compensate with greater gain than the loss he cannot prevent is not be blamed for evil." (Whether God is the Cause of Evil, p. 103.)
Denck believed that God desires the salvation of all persons:
"Since love in him was perfect and since love hates or is envious of none, but includes everyone, even though we were all his enemies, surely he would not wish to exclude anyone. And if he had excluded anyone, then love would have been squint-eyed and a respecter of persons. And that, [love,God] is not!" (Whether God is the Cause of Evil, p. 102.)
Whether Hans Denck was an outright universalist or not, has been argued by the theologians and historians who followed him. Certainly, he leaned in that direction, and most historians classify him as a universalist.
A Poem by Hans Denck:
Oh, who will give me a voice that I may cry aloud to the whole world
that God, the all highest,
is in the deepest abyss within us
and is waiting for us to return to him.
Oh, my God, how does it happen in this poor old world,
that You are so great and yet nobody finds You,
that You call so loudly and nobody hears You,
that You are so near and nobody feels You,
that You give Yourself to everybody and nobody knows Your name!
Men flee from You and say they cannot find You;
they turn their backs and say they cannot see You;
they stop their ears and say they cannot hear You!
Purchase! The Selected Writings of Hans Denck
See also The Anabaptists for more information on universalism within the movement
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