W ESSEL was born in 1419 in the town of Groningen in the Netherlands. In the 15th century, few people had the privilege of attending school, but Wessel did.
Although he excelled at learning, he had to leave school at the age of nine because of the extreme poverty of his parents. Fortunately for him, when a rich widow heard of young Wessel’s intelligence, she became his patroness and offered to pay his fees.
Thus, he was able to continue his education. In time, he obtained a Master of Arts degree. It appears that later he also obtained the title doctor of theology.
Wessel had a tremendous thirst for knowledge. However, in his day, there were very few libraries. Even though printing with movable type was invented in his lifetime, most books were still handwritten and were very costly. Wessel belonged to a group of scholars who traveled from library to library and from monastery to monastery in search of rare manuscripts and long-lost books.
They then shared their discoveries with one another. He gathered a mass of knowledge and filled a personal notebook with quotations and excerpts from classical works. Other theologians were often suspicious because Wessel knew so many things that they had never heard of. Wessel was thus called Magister Contradictiouis, or Master of Contradiction.
“Why Do You Not Lead Me to Christ?”
Some 50 years before the Reformation, Wessel met Thomas a Kempis (about 1379-1471), who is generally accepted as the author of the famous De Imitatione Christi. (Imitation of Christ) . Thomas a Kempis belonged to the Brethren of the Common Life, a movement that stressed the need to live a devout life. A biographer of Wessel states that Thomas a Kempis encouraged Wessel on several occasions to turn to Mary for assistance. Wessel reacted by saying: “Why do you not lead me to Christ, who kindly invites all who are loaded down to come to him?”
Wessel was reportedly opposed to the idea of ordination to the priesthood. When asked why he declined the tonsure, or shaved patch on the head identifying one as a member of the clergy, he answered that he was not afraid of the gallows as long as he was in possession of all his thinking faculties . He was apparentIy referring to the fact that ordained priests could not be prosecuted, and it appears that the tonsure did indeed save many priests from the gallows!
Wessel also took a stand against some common religious practices.
For example, he was criticized for refusing to believe the miraculous events described in a popular book of his day, Dialogus Miracu lorunz. In response, he said: “It would be better to read from the Holy Scriptures.”
“We Know Only As Much As We Ask”
Wessel studied Hebrew and Greek and acquired extensive knowledge of the writings of the early Church Fathers. His love for the original languages of the Bible is particularly remarkable, since he lived before Erasmus and Reuchlin.*
(These men contributed greatly to the study of the original Bible languages.
In 1506, Reuchlin published his Hebrew grammar, which led to a deeper study of the Hebrew Scriptures. Erasmus published a master Greek text of the Christian Greek Scriptures in 1516.)
Before the Reformation, knowledge of Greek was rare. In Germany, only a mere handful of scholars were familiar with Greek, and there were no tools available to learn the language. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Wessel apparently came in contact with Greek monks who had fled to the West, and he learned from them the rudiments of Greek . In those days, Hebrew was restricted to the Jews, and it seems tha t Wessel learned basic Hebrew from converted Jews.
Wessel had a great love for the Bible. He viewed it as a book inspired by God and believed that all the books of the Bible are in complete harmony with one another.
For Wessel, the interpretation of Bible verses had to be in harmony with the context and could not be twisted. Every forced explanation should be suspected of heresy. One of his favorite Bible verses was Matthew 7:7, which states: “Keep on seeking, and you will find.” On the strength of that verse, Wessel firmly believed that it is beneficial to ask questions, reasoning that “we know only as much as we ask.”
A Remarkable Request
In 1473, Wessel visited Rome. There he had an audience with Pope Sixtus IV, the first of six popes whose grossly immoral conduct finally led to the Protestant Reformation.
Historian Barbara W. Tuchman points out that Sixtus IV introduced a period of “unabashed, unconcealed, relentless pursuit of personal gain and power politics.” He shocked public opinion by his open nepotism. One historian writes that Sixtus may have wanted to make the papal office a family business. Few dared to even condemn those abuses.
Wessel Gansfort, however, was different. One day Sixtus told him: “My son, ask whatever you want, and we will give it to you.” Wessel promptly answered: “Holy father,. ..... since you on earth occupy the place of the highest priest and shepherd, I ask....., that you fulfill your elevated duty in such a way that when the Great Shepherd of the sheep comes, he may say to you: ‘Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your Master.’
Sixtus replied that this was his responsibility and that Wessel should choose something for himself. Wessel answered: “Then I ask that you give me a Greek and Hebrew Bible from the Vatican Library. The pope granted his request but remarked that Wessel had acted foolishly and that he should have asked for a bishopric!
“A Lie and an Error”
Badly in need of funds for the building of the now famous Sistine Chapel, Sixtus resorted to the sale of indulgences for the dead. These indulgences were truly immensely popular. The book Vicars of Christ — The Dark Side of the Papacy states: “Widows and widowers, bereaved parents spent their all trying to get their loved ones out of Purgatory.” Indulgences were welcomed by the more common people, who fully believed that the pope could guarantee that their dead loved ones would go to heaven.
Wessel, however, firmly held that the Catholic Church, the pope included, did not have the ability to forgive sins. Wessel openly called the sale of indulgences “a lie and an error.” Nor did he believe that confession to priests was necessary to obtain forgiveness of sins.
Wessel also questioned the infallibility of the pope, saying that the foundations of the faith would be weak if people were expected always to believe the popes, since they committed errors. Wessel wrote: “If the prelates set aside the commands of God and enjoin their own man-made commands, . . . what they do and command is of no avail.”
Wessel Prepares the Way
for the Reformation
Wessel died in 1489. Although he had opposed some of the wrongs in the church, he remained a Catholic. Yet, he was never condemned by the church as a heretic. After his death, however, fanatic Catholic monks tried to destroy his writings because these were not considered pure . By the time of Luther, the name of Wessel had almost been forgotten, none of his works had been printed, and very few manuscripts had survived. The first edition of Wessel’s works was finally published between 1520 and 1522. It included a letter penned by Luther in which he personally recommended Wessel’s writings.
Although Wessel was not a Reformer, as Luther was, he openly condemned some of the wrongs that led to the Reformation. In fact, he is described by McClintock and Strong’s Cyclopedia as “the most important among the men of German extraction who helped to prepare the way for the Reformation.”
Luther saw in Wessel an ally. Author C. Augustijn writes: “Luther compares his own age and fate to that of Elijah. Just as the prophet thought that only he had been left to fight God’s battles, so Luther felt that he was quite alone in his struggles with the church. But on reading Wessel’s works he realized that the Lord had saved a ‘remnant in Israel.’” “Luther goes so far as to declare: ‘If I had read his works earlier, my enemies might think that Luther had absorbed everything from Wessel, his spirit is so in accord with mine.’
“You Will Find”
When the Reformation occurred, it was not a sudden turn of events. The stream of ideas that led to the Reformation had been flowing for some time. Wessel realized that the decadence of the popes would ultimately lead to the desire for reform. He once said to a student: “Studious boy, you will live to see the day when the teachings of... ... . quarrelsome theologians will be rejected by all true Christian scholars.”
Although Wessel discerned some of the wrongs and abuses of his day, he was unable to reveal the full light of Bible truth. Still, to him the Bible was a book that should be read and studied.
According to the book A History of Christianity, Wessel “held that, being in-
spired by the Holy Spirit, the Bible is the final authority in matters of faith.” In the modern world, true Christians believe the Bible to be the inspired Word of God. (2 Timothy 3:16) However, Bible truths are no longer obscure or difficult to find. Today, even more than in the past, the Bible principle holds true: “Keep on seeking, and you will find.”—Matthew 7:7; Proverbs 2:1-6.
THE WATCHTOWER Magazine
March 1, 2007 (Pgs 13-16)
Church of the Science of God
La Jolla, California 92038-3131
© Church of the Science of GOD, 1993