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Reformer of Basel: Johannes Oecolampadius

Johannes_OecolampadiusIn the discussion of Reformed liturgies and worship there are many men that will enter the discussion. One of those that is of significance that may go overlooked is Johannes Oecolampadius (1482-1531). In another sense, his significance is also that he is arguably regarded as the spiritual father of Calvin and the entire Reformed Church. Among other things, Oecolampadius initiated church discipline, challenged Roman Catholic doctrines using his extensive knowledge of patristics, and reinstated the office of elder. 

I think Oecolampadius will be a man to be explored deeply as scholarship grows in the area of the Reformation history. Perhaps one of those benefits will be that some of his works will finally be translated into english. For example, none of his commentaries on Genesis, Job, Psalms, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, Matthew, Romans, Colossians, Hebrews and 1 John are in english. 

A foundation of his significance was that Oecolampadius was gifted in languages. He  lectured in Greek and wrote a grammar that was significant for about a century. According to Dianne Poythress, who wrote a book on Oecolampadius (Reformer of Basel. The Life, Thought, and Influence of Johannes Oecolampadius) , he spoke German, Greek, Latin, Aramaic, some Swiss German, Italian, French, and Hebrew. (5) This strength in languages was valued by Erasmus who used him to check Old Testament references, write theological annotation, proofread the print sheets, discard any heretical opinions, and write the postscript for Novum Testamenttum, the printed Greek New Testament. 

One of his works that deserve mention is a manuscript he translated and published with comments in 1520 by John of Damascus titled “How Much Do the Good Works of the Living Benefit the Dead.” In this article that deals with prayers for the dead, Oecolampadius (along with John of Damascus) assets that any works done on behalf of the deceased are done in vain, including prayers. This book became so popular that it would be printed five times in 34 years. I have yet to find it in english. 

Eck (German Catholic Apologist and Scholastic theologian during the Reformation) denounced Oecolampadius in 1522 to Rome as more dangerous than Luther after he used a sermon by Basil the Great and several other translations of the Fathers, against usury. But clearly, one of the greatest works was the lifelong work of translating John Chrysostom’s homilies while finishing works by John of Damascus. In 1522 Oecolampadius’ translation of Chrysostom were published. They included notes on contemporary applications such as rejection of papal succession, such Christ is the only foundation of the church; the importance of clergy being servants, not rulers; church and civl order; caring for the poor; rejection of any use of force to produce faith; separating of church and civil rule; excommunication understood not as anathema but as curative discipline by the church body; and the difference between the true and false church. (12)

In the subject of the sacraments, it is said he and Zwingli shared a similar view. His exhaustive work on Communion, De Genuina Verborum Domini was published in 1525. This work, that was confiscated by the Council in Strassburg, was a compilation of the Patristic citations concerning the Lord’s Supper proving the Roman Catholic view incorrect. He used every orthodox father(including Chrysostom, Cyril, Hilary, Epiphanius, and Ambrose) to witness the truth of the Reformed position. During the summer of that year he would produce 66 sermons (translated) of John Chrysostom on Genesis with an appendix on the prime authority of Christ and his Word; justification by faith; no invocation of saints; and the liberty of Christians as brothers. (17)

Oecolampadius also worked with the Anabaptists towards church unity. An endeavor that was rare. The Anabaptists viewed church purity by means of baptism and Oecolampadius viewed it by Communion. Both sides agreed that someone is not saved by baptism, but Oecolampadius argued that a child’s soul could not be cared for outside the church. Therefore a Christian child should be cared for differently than a child of the world. As he implemented liturgical reforms in the church he set forth three criteria for abandoning a practice. 1) the Bible forbids the practice; 2) the practice is disputed throughout church history; and 3) the practice is against love and faith. (18) We do ourselves a great favor to remember his legacy and contributions.

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