Valentin Weigel was a dissenting Lutheran pastor, whose work incorporates various medieval and Renaissance influences in an attempt to justify the freedom of conscience and thought of the layman.
KeywordsSixteenth Century Biblical Text Critical Intellect Early Modern Philosophy Outward Activity
Valentin Weigel was as limited in movement and outward activity as he was bold in dissent and speculative thought. After completing his university studies in theology in Leipzig and Wittenberg, he served as Lutheran town pastor in the city of Zschopau. While serving with the apparent sympathy of his congregation, he quietly composed treatises and sermons of dissenting theology. Published posthumously during the tension-filled decade preceding the 30 Years’ War, these writings earned Weigel a long-standing infamy. His reputation is perhaps best regarded as a measure of the authoritarian petrification of Lutheran culture in the wake of the mid-century internecine doctrinal disputes, the enforcement of the Lutheran Formula of Concord (1577), and the rising threat of religious war, all of which he vehemently opposed.
The term commonly applied to Weigel’s orientation is Spiritualism. In contrast to orthodox Protestantism and Anabaptist dissent, the ideal type of the individualistic Spiritualist disdains the externalities of formal doctrine, sacrament, and ceremony in favor of the divine inner authority of the Holy Spirit or inner word. By its very nature, the Spiritualist type is elusive in comparison with the confession or sect. By the same token, the Spiritualist appears more modern and tolerant. Weigel’s absorption of the influences of mysticism (Meister Eckhart, Tauler, and the Theologia Germanica), medieval philosophy (Hugo of St. Victor and probably Saint Augustine and Nicholas Cusanus), the nature philosophy of Paracelsus, and the currents of Protestant dissent (notably Sebastian Franck) contributed to an evolving synthesis aimed at arming the thinking lay person against clerical authoritarianism.
Weigel’s earliest writings after leaving the university tended toward the eclectic; however, the power of his critical intellect soon began to create something new and whole which, on the one hand, recovered the deeper impulses toward lay opposition and intuition in his sources and, on the other, reformulated the received impulses in response to the post-Reformation era. Already in his Gnothi seauton of 1571, the reorientation reveals his well-grounded originality. Restoring a tendency of thought developed by Saint Augustine and Meister Eckhart, Weigel advises the reader to look within to achieve a selfless self-knowledge. Tantamount to a knowledge of God, Weigel’s inner knowledge approaches union with God, though this union is rather a daring leap of logic than the outcome of ritual steps of purification. Gnothi seauton can be read as an epistemological treatise on sense perception and intuition. It is closer to Augustine and the scholastic Hugh of St. Victor than to Kant and the Enlightenment. Nevertheless, in any full survey of the history of epistemology, Weigel must stand among the adherents of the principle that knowledge is generated in the knower and not derived from the thing known. In his case, this position in effect responds to the aporia of the Protestant principle of sola scriptura: if all truth of salvation derives from the Holy Scripture, how is it possible that various advocates of the Reformation are embracing putatively Bible-based doctrines which are in violent opposition to one another? His response to the religious quandary, more than deliberate borrowing from Platonism itself, drove Weigel to look inward.
Soon after writing Gnothi seauton, Weigel was denounced by a fellow Lutheran pastor for questioning the authority of Luther. By carefully defending his views and stressing their general conformity to the Lutheran spirit, Weigel was able to save his position. We can assume that during the standard visitations carried out in every Lutheran territory, his parishioners were asked about the propriety of their pastor. His retention of his position suggests that either his opinions were well concealed or, perhaps more likely, the congregation was on his side. Modern research into the preserved notes from visitation inquiries reveals stubborn popular resistance to the supervisory demands for conformity. Indifferent to doctrinal fine points, parishioners were inclined to close ranks and denounce a pastor for authoritarian behavior or lack of sympathy for the laity regardless of doctrinal considerations. It therefore seems rather likely that Weigel was protected by his congregation. It is certain that he defended them by validating the conscience of the individual.
The mid-1570s saw Weigel’s most refined and radical theoretical treatises: On the Place of the World (Vom Ort der Welt) in 1576 and The Golden Grasp (Der güldene Griff) in 1578. Both works typically incorporated cosmological, epistemological, exegetic, and devotional themes and ideas. In On the Place of the World, the key symbol is that of a cosmos suspended in the infinite void of God: there are no objective coordinates of up or down. Intriguingly, this theme is borne out by some rather concrete cosmological reflections revealing Weigel’s interest in the scientific activity of his day. The thrust of his argument is intended to deprive outer reality of its overbearing solidity, thereby shifting the locus of knowledge and meaning inward. In The Golden Grasp, the author again covers a range of themes, but his focal point is that all knowledge occurs in the knower and does not reside in the external object of knowledge. The Bible is an external object whose meaning is only disclosed within the divinely illuminated, therefore selfless and nonauthoritarian, human intellect. The title of the work may be an allusion to Matthias Flacius Illyricus’ strict scripturalist anti-spiritualist exegetic work known as the Aurea Clavis or “golden key.” The metaphor of the “key” was associated with the authority of the church and its power to bind and unbind or to lock and unlock the gate of heaven. Unlike the metaphorically external “key,” our “grasp” of truth is intrinsic.
Another work deserves to be singled out for its clarity and originality: Weigel’s Dialogus de Christianismo of 1584. It stands out both because of its staunch opposition to spiritual tyranny and religious war and on account of its unusual dialogue form between a universalized Preacher and a layman Auditor. The figure of Death (Christ) puts an end to the conversation, as both men pass through deathbed scenes declaring their convictions. Death finds in favor of the Auditor. The Preacher is consigned to a kind of spirit-world afterlife which is his just punishment, though hardly as grim as the orthodox visions of Hell. Here, too, most of Weigel’s themes are recapitulated, but the Dialogue on Christianity has in addition a certain literary drama to it. It can stand alongside the Everyman dramas and Faust plays as one of the most powerful judgmental visions of the highly judgmental sixteenth century.
Though these writings are perhaps of greatest interest in philosophy, they are only a portion of his entire work. Weigel wrote cycles of sermons based on biblical texts. We do not know whether they were delivered to his congregation or whether the homiletic form was only a vehicle, rather like the essay form for others. Even the chapters of his more theoretical works consist of sermon-like tracts which sometimes conclude with a prayer or invocation. Weigel was of course by training and vocation a preacher. His criticism of the pastorate was self-criticism, but this was by no means unusual. Of the countless anticlerical voices of his century, the majority were almost certainly clergymen, just as the ranks of academics today include many critics of the academy. It is also worth noting in consideration of his seemingly modern clarity, tolerance, and antiauthoritarianism that Weigel was very much a man of the sixteenth century who appears to have believed in unobserved supernatural spirits and elemental creatures in the tradition of Paracelsus. Upon the authority of the latter, he accepted an alchemical theory of nature which posited a triune process at the core of created being.
Among the tasks to be completed in Weigel studies, one of the foremost is the evaluation of the writings attributed to him or published under his name. They can tell us much about his impact and early reception. Also of interest is the resonance of his work with the thought of later figures such as Gottfried Arnold and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, as well as the possible impact of early Dutch and English translations of his writings. It seems likely that such research will arrive at credible conclusions only by exploring his impact as part of larger currents. Looking backward, more needs to be studied regarding his debt to Augustine and Hugh of St. Victor.
Primary literature: Beginning in the nineteenth century, Weigel’s writings were recovered and studied in order to restore a voice of early modern dissent which, despite its posthumous delay, still speaks out boldly with surprising clarity and conviction. In the twentieth century, Siegfried Wollgast, a historian of early modern philosophy, strengthened the foundations of Weigel Studies by publishing in one volume the chief writings with a first-rate commentary. Winfried Zeller had already undertaken a complete edition. After Zeller’s death, his survey of Weigelian materials undertaken in inauspicious times was deemed inadequate for completion of the project. Based on a more successful search for sources, Zeller’s erstwhile assistant Horst Pfefferl began again and at last completed a comprehensive edition.
The most substantial writings were edited by Wollgast in Valentin Weigel, Ausgewählte Werke (Gnothi seauton, Vom Ort der Welt, Der güldene Griff, Die Predigt vom armen Lazarus, Dialogus de Christianismo) (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1977). Available in English are Sermon on the Good Seed and the Weeds, On the Place of the World, and The Golden Grasp in Valentin Weigel, Selected Spiritual Writings, trans. and intro. Andrew Weeks, pref. R. Emmet McLaughlin (New York, Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 2003). Most important of all for the accuracy and scope of its sources and the breadth of its commentary and bibliography is Valentin Weigel, Sämtliche Schriften (Neue Edition) (Stuttgart-Bad Cannstatt: Frommann-Holzboog, 1996f.).
Secondary literature: Historical and philosophical context can be found in Siegfried Wollgast, Philosophie in Deutschland zwischen Reformation und Aufklärung, 1550–1650 (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1988). An overview in English of his life, times, and writings is offered by Andrew Weeks, Valentin Weigel (1533–1588): German Religious Dissenter, Speculative Theorist, and Advocate of Tolerance (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000).