January 2004 Siebert

Reading Marpeck for the First Time


Abstract: Marpeck’s theology, when read for the first time, is seen to be thoroughly incarnational: ?essences? can only be known through mediation, meaning is constituted only in performative, bodily action, and Christ’s specific embodiment is integral to his identity. What emerges at the heart of Marpeck’s thought is the ?inscripted Christ,? the Christ of the biblical narrative. Although this critique of Spiritualism and various forms of rationalism is provocative, it proves problematic because of the persisting power over Marpeck of essentialism, his inability to fully break with disembodied theories of rationality, and his treatment of the Jews as being too ?carnal.? These failings tend to vitiate the overall incarnational logic of his thought, and diminish his ability to do justice to the Christ rendered in the biblical texts. Nonetheless, Marpeck’s radical theology of inscription has much to teach a post-September 11th Christianity, tempted as it is by various forms of enlightenment rationalism and postmodernist textualism, both of which find it uncomfortable to speak’as Marpeck insists that we must’of the inscripted Christ.

Everybody who has ever read Pilgram Marpeck at one point in time read him for the first time.

Although we have a mythology about first things’there’s presumed to be something magical about first love, for example’there is no innocence in such first moments. First readings, for their part, are always shaped by the self that we have become, the communities in which we continue to be shaped, and the language that we use to tell the stories and articulate the points of views that configure the world that we inhabit. Lacking, then, the moral authority conferred by imagining that there is a privileged place where one reads and hears without distortion, on what grounds does one presume to reflect publicly’especially to such an august group of readers’immediately after having read someone for the first time?

I could pretend, of course, that my task was to rescue Marpeck from the theologians. After all, Marpeck the civil servant’engaged in ?worldly? activities like managing mines and forests and rivers by day, while theologizing by night’sounds more like Steven Siebert (software developer, and student of theology only in the wee hours of the morning) than a systematic theologian.

But I have no such pretensions. Although I had never read so much as a single word of Marpeck’s before embarking on this project, I did know of his extra-theological dabblings, and imagined that his mode of working and theologizing might be worth exploring. But I had no idea as to whether he needed, let alone deserved, defenders.

Rather, a first reading might offer the opportunity at least to hear a text before it has been fully assimilated. In the process of such readings’not knowing how it will turn out in the end’we sometimes allow ourselves to be addressed or provoked in ways that other readings sometimes do not.

But a strange thing happened along the way to this particular first reading. Marpeck, the object of a little intellectual thought experiment, turned out to be a reluctant and uncooperative subject. For while I love academic theology, Marpeck, I think, does not. In his hands theology is an instrument wielded, in urgency, in the hour of decision, only in defense of the Gospel: theology is nothing other than the confessing church’s articulation of its faith in the context of its obedience to, and following of, Christ.

As such, Marpeck’s thought not only permits, but in fact encourages’indeed, demands’that we engage it at the visceral level of a first reading. But not just any such reading (read: solitary, academic) will do. For Marpeck is writing theology for congregations seemingly too small, too poor, too threatened to even be engaged in doing theology. Perhaps to understand that paradox is to understand not only Marpeck but the task of theology itself.

As an academic theologian (at least avocationally), however, I find myself compelled to do a very un-Marpeckian thing’namely, explain myself to other academic theologians by engaging in one last bit of prolegomenon. And so the obligatory word about method. Although trained in, among other things, analytic philosophy, I will eschew a careful reading of some localized Marpeckian claim for the ?big picture.? Such an approach, it seems to me, does fuller justice to Marpeck’s own theological style, which suggests, paradoxically, that one can get it right (in substance) while doing it wrong (in regards to detail, precision, consistency, method). And while I do not think that attention to detail’a careful, well-considered argument, attention to what precisely we mean’is unimportant, throwing such scruples to the wind for the moment seems appropriate, not only for a first reading, but because it takes seriously Marpeck’s own mode of theologizing. Indeed, in some respects, it might also turn out to be the only way theology can be claimed again by the church’and not just academics’as its language and its life.


Marpeck provokes. But provocation was hardly my first reaction. The dispute about ?ceremonies? (especially baptism and the Lord’s Supper) and the apostolic office in the early writings not only struck me as unremarkable, but even as pedestrian, replete with the kind of incessant scriptural referencing common to various fundamentalisms for whom there is no hermeneutical imperative, no sense of being addressed by an alien and unmasterable text, which we interpret and which, in the process, ?interprets? us.

But upon rereading, and particularly as one encounters the later writings, Marpeck’s texts’once experienced as arcane and ordinary’become ?contemporary? and provocative. And what provokes is this: Marpeck’s thought’shaped by fluid and uncertain interactions with political realities, and engaged with Catholic, magisterial and Radical Reformation traditions’emerges, in the end, as thoroughly and radically incarnational.

To Marpeck, the words, deeds, sayings and life of Jesus’and then the continuing presence of the promised Spirit who calls into being communities marked by discipline and sacramental life’is alone the locus where we encounter, and are encountered by, God. For Marpeck, there is no access to what he often calls the ?inner essence? other than through the embodied, incarnated Christ. Neither the direct nonmediated interiority valorized by the Spiritualists (even if allegedly shaped by general Christian structures) nor other embodied, mediated, but non-christological traditions can bring us to the ?knowledge of God [or allow us to] partake in the divine nature.?[1] On the contrary, Marpeck writes, only the ?faith that focuses on the time and history of Christ’s death for the forgiveness of sins . . . [o]nly this death . . . feeds, strengthens, and consoles the mourning soul and conscience through faith.?[2]

From one point of view, such affirmations are hardly exceptional, and could be thought to simply express the plain sense of the scriptural texts as that which the church has, if not always, at least originally, believed.

But in fact, these seemingly straightforward words, in Marpeck’s hands, mean something far more concrete and specific than one might otherwise imagine.

I propose to look at three overlapping issues.

The Necessity of Mediation

In the face of the persistent tendency in various strands of European thought, both theological and philosophical, to valorize the ?spiritual? over the ?physical,? the ?inner? over the ?outer,? and the ?essential? over the ?representational? (as image, picture, sign), Marpeck articulates an alternative vision, according to which the primary term in each pair is determined to be impossible without the secondary, usually subordinate, term.

As Marpeck says:

Without the outward testimony, no concealed or inward testimony can be made known or revealed to us as men. Nor can an inward testimony be recognized, except when it is preceded by such outward teaching, deeds, commands, and ceremonies of Christ. . . . These things must be received and employed in a physical manner before the inner testimony can be felt and recognized. Although reason and thought . . . resist this act, nevertheless they must all come under the physical feet of Christ.[3]

?The truth,? Marpeck insists, ?lies in never separating or dividing the inward from the outward or the outward from the inward.?[4] Applying this notion more specifically to the scriptural accounts of Jesus? teaching, Marpeck notes that Jesus ?spoke on two levels, first through a parable, and following that he penetrated to the essence which was signified by the parable, . . . [but] the meanings are not adverse to each other. . . . Together, a single color emerges with a single meaning.?[5]

On occasion, the impossibility of isolating the ?inner? from its representational form is evident in less explicitly theological passages, as when Marpeck observes that

The heart moves our external members. Whenever the heart laughs, is compassionate, rejoices, or gets angry, then the mouth, eyes, ears, head, hands, and feet laugh, are compassionate, rejoice, get angry, move, and grasp without delay the external things which correspond to anger, joy, mercy, or laughter. The opposite is also true.[6]

Marpeck’s insistence that human understanding is always mediated through language, and, as we shall see, through concrete action and symbolic, ritualized behavior’that there is, in short, no abstract disembodied rationality’constitutes a radical break from what in many ways became, in variations on the Cartesian cogito, the dominant cultural underpinnings of emerging modernity. Indeed, Marpeck can in some respects be said to be so far ?ahead of his time? that he even sounds distinctly postmodern, roundly criticizing Schwenckfeld for

call[ing] a written, repeated word a perishing word’not spirit and life but a script, a sound, a voice . . . . But we say that it is and becomes an expressed word from God and Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit, a single word of address . . . spoken and proclaimed from the heart of believers.[7]

For those interested in claiming Marpeck as a postmodernist, here is something worth noting: one not only hears an affirmation of the ?written, sounded, and voiced? dismissed so contemptuously by Schwenckfeld, but intimations’in the way in which the written derives its decisive power from being spoken, proclaimed and addressed’that speaking is prioritized over writing.

The Primacy of Enactment

This same suggestive passage, drawing out the power of speech, also points to another crucial component of Marpeck’s theology, which I choose to call the ?primacy of enactment.?

Unlike other more static conceptions of identity prevalent in the surrounding (and succeeding) European culture, Marpeck understands that the kind of identity of the ?inner? and ?outer? he is at pains to defend is not an ontological identity, but one that is brought into being through action. As Marpeck says in the passage just quoted, the written ?is and becomes an expressed word from God . . . [when] spoken and proclaimed from the heart of believers [my emphasis].?

That meaning is constituted in action is at the heart of Marpeck’s theory of the sacraments: ?So we don’t ascribe any special holiness to the elements, but much more, to the action. It’s the action, involving the heart. . . .?[8] He goes on to argue that:

even though they are necessary, it is not the elements of bread and wine in themselves, but the action called ?baptism? and ?the Lord’s Supper? which matters. . . . The significance doesn’t lie in the elements; [but] the action is of one essence with the internal. . . . What we confess with the pouring of water, also with eating and drinking, is that it is of one essence with the inwardness of the believer.[9]

Elsewhere, Marpeck, while still defending the primacy of action, draws the contrast in somewhat different’and more careful’terms. No longer does he simply distinguish between the ?elements . . . in themselves,? problematically construed to be outside the chain of signifiers entirely, on the one hand, and meaning-engendering action on the other. Instead, he now articulates the distinction as one between what are at least’if still only’?figures or signs,? and not merely things, as previously, on the one hand, and the action that gives them significance on the other: ?To the extent that a Christian lacks the inner essence [the action], to that extent the bread and the wine of that Supper are only a figure or sign. But with such form and discrimination communion is both: an essence and a figure and sign.?[10] While acknowledging that the elements themselves are already implicated in some form of signification, and are thus at least theoretically capable of attaining ?essences,? Marpeck argues that such representation itself, at least insofar as sacramental reality is concerned, is meaningless without action.

For Marpeck, then, the ?outer? that fully renders the ?inner? refers not to elements in themselves, necessary though they may be, nor even to their articulation, as figures and signs, in larger representational systems, but to action’pouring, eating, drinking.

But a careful reading of Marpeck indicates that even the concept of action so construed is still inadequate. Speaking again of the sacraments, he asks: ?What is intended by the actions of pouring and consuming? If they are accompanied by verbal confession, thanksgiving, and proclamation . . . expressed by them orally, . . . they are like the stories in Acts and elsewhere.?[11]

This provocative passage gives final shape to our preliminary understanding of the primacy of action in Marpeck’s theology: it is not action as such that engenders meaning by depicting ?essences,? but rather action that (a) is performative, constituting itself in the very act of oral expression (confession, thanksgiving, proclamation), (b) in the midst of an already constituted and constantly reconstituting community, which (c) in its action repeats and takes part in the meaning and significance of other actions, in this case, the experience of the early church. Such action brings into being something more than itself, and thus could more properly be called ?enactment,? or, perhaps, ?reenactment,? rather than ordinary ?action.?

Focused as it is on meaning-engendering, both retrospective and prospective, enactment is never isolated, but always implicates other actions and other actors in its performance, inasmuch as ?being like the stories? already told, or to be told, is constitutive of what it is.[12]

Without further clarification and refinement,[13] the distinction drawn here between action and enactment can only be suggestive, hardly definitive. But as befits a first reading, it is intended merely to point our attention toward the way in which action is embedded in communal’in this case, largely liturgical’contexts, and constituted by performance, recapitulation and anticipation.

Schematically, then, Marpeck’s view of the relationship between the ?outer? and the ?inner? can be depicted something like this:

elements themselves

(no significance for ?inner’)

representational system of figures and signs (?signifying? elements)

(no significance for ?inner’)

physical action surrounding and embedding representation

(no significance for ?inner’)

enactment’meaning-generating action that repeats and reinvokes other meaningful action

(?penetrates to the essence’)

Marpeck’s commitment to the primacy of enactment is not limited in application to the sacraments. In a very interesting passage in the Admonition of 1542,[14] Marpeck argues that all of human history is part of a larger divine drama: ?All creatures,? Marpeck says, ?are ordered and disposed through the Word. Creatures, time, essence, place, and person must remain, and nothing can come to fulfillment of the will of God without this means, for He has disclosed His will in His order of the creatures. . . .?[15] If this weren’t true, Marpeck continues, if creaturely activity (time, place, person) were not essential to the order of reality, then ?everything would be merely a monkey show, an aping such as the world does when it puts on a play or an act.?[16] While there is much that is problematic here with how Marpeck characterizes the play, especially to postmodern ears,[17] it becomes clear in this passage that Marpeck is not interested in embodied action in general (the play certainly has that, but only, in Marpeck’s view, in the mode of brute repetition and imitation), but rather in particular kinds of meaning-constituting action. For those who do not understand this, Marpeck insists, ?creation would have been adequate without a process of becoming real essence, and work would be an oversight . . . thus despising election and the providence of God without the order of history or work.?[18] In the overarching scheme of things, what matters to Marpeck is not embodiment, action or the ?outer? as such, but only that which enacts’that which actively figures, implements, invokes and, indeed, performs the divine plan. Only thus does the ?outer become real essence.?

Marpeck’s views here are strikingly similar to what has been called Karl Barth’s ?actualism,? in which the language of becoming (George Hunsinger speaks of ?occurrence, happening, event, history, decisions, and act’[19]) takes priority over the language of being: as Barth says, ?Our thinking and speaking . . . becomes similar to the . . . true revelation of God? and ?in our knowing this analogy of truth becomes by means of the decision of his grace.?[20]

The Specificity of Embodiment

This same language of becoming is applied by Marpeck to the Incarnation. He describes, for example, how Jesus? bodily resurrection confirms Jesus? genuine creatureliness, and both together bring corporeality to the very being of God: ?This transfigured person and spiritual body of Christ with his bodily humanity is the temple in which God lives because the corporeality of Christ has become part of God.?[21] And Marpeck is more explicit yet: not only is Jesus Christ described as ?the body of God,?[22] but the flesh and humanity of Christ ?have been taken up into God of very God, who is Spirit. Therefore, Christ’s flesh is also God, as it is also the Holy Spirit, in the oneness of the Trinity.?[23] Indeed, Marpeck can even speak of ?the divine, if now invisible, features: eyes, ears, hands, arms, fingers, virtues, understanding, and wisdom which God the Father has possessed in eternity!?[24]

This is provocative and radical language, but it is no casual comment said in an unguarded moment. On the contrary, the very identity of Christ (and also, then, of God) is constituted by the incarnated, physical, embodied, human, fleshly Jesus, and not by some supposedly more ?spiritual? essence divorced from such embodiment. As Marpeck says, ?our salvation came about through Christ’s untransfigured body, flesh, and blood. . . . His transfigured body couldn’t have helped us. Everything would have been in vain.?[25]

Marpeck’s insistence on this point is emphatic. Not only does he disagree with the theology of the celestial body of Christ,[26] thus distancing himself from many of his fellow Anabaptists in terms of the origins of the incarnated Christ, he also distinguishes himself from his contemporaries (and most of his successors) in his radical view of the destiny of the incarnated Christ. Taking seriously Stephen’s claim that ?after [Jesus’] ascension, [he] saw him sitting at the right hand of God,? Marpeck goes on to argue that ?the human nature of Christ after the resurrection lost none of its properties . . . [only being] established in a perpetual way.?[27] Among other things, Marpeck continues, this means that ?even now that his human, mortal nature has been transfigured, he can be in only one place.?[28]

This strong’indeed, astonishing’view of embodiment is well considered, and Marpeck does not shrink from reinforcing, again and again, as explicitly as he knows how, the implications of this view. Thus, while Schwenckfeld ?wants Christ . . . to be everywhere . . . [even] in his human nature,?[29] Marpeck insists that ?this Christ, in his transfigured human nature, has the distinction of not being able to be at more than one place at one time.[30] Even so, he is God through and through, transfigured in God, in whom is all and all, localized or not.?[31] This affirmation reaches a virtual crescendo when Marpeck proclaims that

the eternal, almighty Word, as divinity, has put on flesh. As something that belonged to him, Christ carried his flesh up to glory and divinity. He lives in it and bears it in a transfigured manner as his possession. . . . Through this union the physicality of Christ with the Word is God: the fullness of the Godhead dwells in him bodily . . . God as Word became flesh, in, with and through the flesh he took upon himself.[32]

That the Incarnation implies that, in Christ’s human nature, even when resurrected, he is embodied, a specific, localized, human presence, through and through (all the while being fully God) is what I call the ?specificity of embodiment.?

The Inscripted Christ

It is now time to weave these related strands together into a larger picture. Taken as a whole, they bring sharply into focus the one who is (what I shall call) the ?Inscripted Christ.?

The texts that we have marshaled, as well as others left unmentioned, suggest that Marpeck believes, among other things: (a) that Jesus Christ is thoroughly embodied, both on earth and in heaven; (b) that’in his humanity’he is thus localized in time and space; (c) that as a person, embodied and localized, he is ?defined? or constituted by who he is’that is, by his ?words, works, deeds, and life,? culminating in his death and resurrection (that is to say, he is not an ?idea? or ?spiritual principle’); (d) that all that he does, and has happen to him, are on our behalf for our salvation; (e) that we have no knowledge of who Jesus’or God, for that matter’is (Marpeck’s ?inner? or ?spiritual? realities) other than through the written, spoken and proclaimed word (the ?outer’); and, finally, (f) that this word is that which is proclaimed in the Spirit by the faithful church who follows and confesses him.

In the simplest of terms, Jesus Christ’far from being a name, title, concept, idea, symbol, cipher or pattern of events’is the person whose identity is rendered in the scriptural proclamation; he is the unsubstitutable ?character? whose identity is constituted by ?what he did and underwent? in such a way that it can be said in the most basic sense that ?Jesus is his story.?[33]

But if the content of Christian faith is the incarnate, embodied, suffering and resurrected Christ who reveals, and is, God (as it clearly is for Marpeck), rather than other generically spiritual notions, ultimately severable from a particular character, and if this inner meaning and content is only accessible through the outer’by the proclamation in and by the church of the ?words, works, deeds, and life’[34] of the incarnate Christ’then we are not far from the kind of theological sensibility that preceded what Hans Frei has called the ?eclipse of biblical narrative.?[35]

In this respect, at least, Marpeck is clearly premodern (or, some might argue, postmodern), but definitively not modern. The Kantian project of religion within the limits of reason alone would strike him as absurd, for there is no kernel to be accessed by stripping away the husk. On the contrary, the content of Christian faith is precisely that ?positivity,? contingency and particularity that for Kant belongs to the insignificant trappings of religion’the inscripted Christ, the one who is particular, embodied, incarnated and known only insofar as he is ?written? and proclaimed.

Taken as a whole, then, one would be hard pressed, I think, to find a more radical view of the significance and reality of the incarnated, embodied Christ, both for the very being of God and for the identity and nature of the church.[36]


For all of its brilliance, however, Marpeck’s incarnational theology seems to fail to do full justice to the embodied Jesus Christ and the scriptural texts that depict him.

In part, one might attribute this failure to what seems to be Marpeck’s tendency to waver, equivocate and otherwise seemingly lose nerve at just the crucial moment in his disputations with his adversaries. While he seems, for the most part, to have had the courage of his convictions, not infrequently Marpeck ends up conceding the very point that he logically might have pushed just a little bit further.

At other times, the issue is apparently not simply hesitation, but outright confusion’Marpeck’s arguments often appear inconsistent with each other, not only from one work to another but frequently from paragraph to paragraph (indeed, even from sentence to sentence!), even when he is read carefully and sympathetically.

Neither of these failings strike me as particularly problematic in general. Despite them, Marpeck, in fact, seems to have done an extraordinary job of theologizing: not only does he grapple with an immensely complicated subject matter (the human and divine identity of Jesus Christ and the nature of the church), he does so as a part-time theologian in a very fluid and contentious environment, one where the personal and communal stakes were extremely high, and where risk of failure had, literally, life-and-death consequences.

Nonetheless’despite what I think can only be called a remarkable performance’Marpeck often ends up numbing the incarnational nerve of his theology by his failure to hold fast to his own deepest theological criterion, faithfulness to the inscripted Christ.

I would like to isolate three such areas of concern.[37]

The Inescapable Lure of ?Essences?

Marpeck’s conviction that ?without the outward testimony, no concealed or inward testimony can be made known or revealed to us as men,?[38] represents, as I have suggested above, a radical critique of much of the theological tradition, including that which preceded, surrounded and then succeeded him.[39] Marpeck understands as well as anybody else in the Christian tradition how our embodied humanity, constituted as it is by the ?written, sounded, and voiced,? is part of the order of both creation and redemption. Indeed, as we have seen, Marpeck provocatively maintains that such embodiment is also part of the very being of God.

However, despite his repudiation of the possibility of direct, unmediated access to ?spiritual? realities, Marpeck remains, it seems to me, fundamentally committed to a dualist distinction between ?essences,? on the one hand, and sign, picture, image and figure on the other. Speaking of the sacraments, he argues that ?outward initiation and communion must be either picture or an essence’they cannot be both. For the believer they are no sign or picture. …?[40] He is even more vehement later, when he defends himself against Schwenckfeld, who ?makes a cheap accusation based on our first thoughts, as though we don’t take the words of Christ . . . to be spirit, life, and eternal truth. As if we take it to be only a figure or a picture. . . . We understand them not as figures but essence.?[41] Or even more pointedly, ?in Christ there is only essence and truth, not sign or figure, as we have often said.?[42]

Residues of this epistemological dualism’that both meaning and truth are ultimately severable from sign, picture, image and figure’runs like a fault line through Marpeck’s otherwise brilliant critique of Spiritualist epistemology.

How is one to account for its ongoing presence, inasmuch as it seems to vitiate the heart of his argument against disembodied rationality and the claims of direct Spiritualist intuition? A variety of factors come into play here, no doubt, not least of which is Marpeck’s ontological dualism: he seems to be unable’again despite the overall shape of his theology’to shake himself free from the persistent tendency in the Western tradition to value the ?spiritual,? ?hidden,? ?heavenly? and ?inner? ?essence.? In fact, he cannot seem to conceptualize salvation other than through use of these categories: ?In this present age God’s word makes us spiritual and heavenly through a new birth in our inward and hidden person,?[43] using all these valorized terms in implicit contrast to their opposites’?physical,? ?earthly,? ?outer,? ?visible.? No doubt Marpeck found himself forced, often against his will, to defend himself against Schwenckfeld’s hurtful accusations that it was ?non-spiritual? even to suggest that the spiritual needed any form of mediation.

But what would it have looked like for Marpeck to refuse to accept the prevalent dualism, thus obviating the necessity of defending the one pole (the ?spiritual’) over against the other? Are not these dualisms in fact alien to the inscripted Christ, the one whose identity is rendered in the shape of his life, death and resurrection? The scriptural texts, taken in their entirety,[44] contrast, not ?inner, spiritual? people as opposed to ?outer, carnal, or physical? ones, but those who hear the call of Christ and as a result take up their cross to follow him, on the one hand, and those, on the other, who do not. Those who share in the inbreaking of the coming kingdom, and who look for the resurrection to come, are no less physical, outward and visible than those who do not. Rather, the difference is that they live their inescapable embodiment in the light of the incarnate Christ and the God whose presence he enacts. Had Marpeck paid closer attention to the texts, and the Christ rendered in them, he might have more readily escaped the powerful grasp of the dualistic ontology that shaped his times, his opponent and his own thinking.

While I am clearly concerned about Marpeck’s persistent ontological dualism,[45] for the moment it is actually his residual epistemological dualism that bothers me most. This is partly because escaping the former seems never to have been an integral part of Marpeck’s project in the first place, and he never came quite so tantalizingly close to breaking its stranglehold as he did when addressing the latter.[46] But most of all, it is because Marpeck’s failure on this point opens the door for the reassertion of the problematic Spiritualist principle. For at heart, far from leading us to despair, to have only ?pictures, figures, signs, and images? rather than direct access to ?essences,? forces us to encounter the Christ inscripted in the biblical texts, rather than the Christ of our imagination.

Uninscripting the Inscripted Christ

In the course of his writings, Marpeck often pauses mid-argument, as it were, to summarize and encapsulate that which he seems to consider the heart of Christian existence. A Clear Refutation speaks, for example, of ?baptism and the Lord’s supper . . . external teaching, separation from the world, ban, rebuke, exhortation, prayer, kneeling, the example of believers,?[47] while A Clear and Useful Instruction lists ?baptism . . . the Lord’s supper, the laying on of hands, the ban, reproof, and similar gifts from Christ.?[48] The Response, too, is full of such brief encapsulations, referring, to take one such case, to ?preaching, teaching, correct baptism, communion, ban, and Christian way of life.?[49]

Although teaching or preaching is almost always included in the itemization, in fact the only items that invariably appear in all such lists are baptism, the Lord’s Supper and the ban. This is most remarkable, especially the inclusion of the latter. Equally striking, however, is the regular inclusion of a variety of terms that suggest an emphasis on the more severe aspects of church discipline’?admonition,? ?punishment,? ?discipline? and ?reproof.?

Exactly what Marpeck intends by these thumbnail sketches is open to dispute. Given his clear and passionate belief in the crucified and resurrected Christ, they cannot be intended as complete summaries of the essentials of Christian belief. It is more likely that they are intended to demarcate Marpeck’s communities of faith from those with whom he is in conflict and disagreement.[50] But even if intended to function in that way, it is not likely that they in reality would, or even could, have that desired effect. Instead, they seem to bring about’and not only by virtue of their incessant repetition, but also by what I think can only be called a one-sided emphasis on church discipline’a substantive reshaping of the complex, narrated reality of the inscripted Christ, effectively undercutting the incarnational theology of grace that alone can ground such communities.

While attempting to defend a more embodied, active form of sacramental and reflective practice, Marpeck ends up giving coherence to theological concepts by abstracting them from the concrete depictions of them in the biblical narrative. Thus, while Marpeck’s theological reflection is resolutely shaped by the biblical text, he often seems to reference those texts more as illustration than as enactment’they appear to merely buttress that which, in principle, could be comprehended and articulated independently of their concrete and specific rendering in the scriptural narrative. Indeed, the very style of argumentation that allows for quick thumbnail sketches, intended to encapsulate the essential elements of a position without recourse to their embeddedness in concrete acts and rituals, seems to be a residue of the more classical, disembodied notions of rationality, according to which (to repeat the point once again) concepts can somehow be apprehended directly, without reference to the actual narratives, practices and meaning-constituting matrixes in which they function.

This mode of theological discourse not only threatens Marpeck’s own project vis-a-vis his Spiritualist opponents, by suggesting that there is, after all, knowledge of essences other than through mediation. Rather, his style is also expressive of a mode of theologizing that cannot properly serve an embattled church of nontheologians, whatever its superficial merits in terms of its ability to provide an easy laundry list of ideas around which the faithful could rally. On the contrary, as Marpeck himself notes, there is a reason why Jesus so often spoke in parables.[51] He did so, not as some concession to untutored commonsense, but because the reality of which he spoke’the divine action on behalf of a broken creation’can only be properly articulated in words that depict and enact that action, and not in a mere itemization of concepts abstracted from that storied world.

And, as noted above, the substance or content of Marpeck’s theological summaries are equally problematic. A naive reader of the biblical texts, or at least a first-time reader, could only conclude that Marpeck’s litany of ?doctrines? purporting to encapsulate the meaning of those texts involves a substantive over-emphasis on particular sacramental practices (baptism and the Lord’s Supper), along with an unwarranted focus on a relatively harsh group of practices related to discipline within the community of faith. Such prioritizing of specific elements’and the elements that are singled out’comes at the expense of a fuller telling of the biblical narrative, and the all-encompassing incarnational reality which is depicted in it. To be sure, one must be mindful of the particular context in which Marpeck was writing, and not judge him too harshly for focusing on the realities that seemed to be called into question by his opponents. At the same time, one wonders whether the Spiritualist tendency to vitiate the reality of our actual, embodied, concrete human relationships could not more powerfully be undercut by a fuller, less abstract, rendering of the biblical story.

That is to say, a Jesus who comes preaching the in-breaking Kingdom of God and the fulfillment of the hopes of Israel by casting out demons, driving out the money changers, healing the sick, consorting with sinners, associating with women, welcoming children, forgiving sins, proclaiming liberty to the captives, eating and breaking bread in intimate circles and among the swarming crowds, and weeping and praying and sweating tears as he set out to his death, his body broken on the cross, only to become, against all hope, God’s vindicated and resurrected Christ’such an inscripted Jesus, it seems to me, depicting as it does God’s powerful engagement with our reality on our behalf, is a much more powerful ?argument? against Spiritualist inwardness, while simultaneously offering encouragement to a beleaguered community of faith, than is ever possible just utilizing concepts abstracted and isolated from that reality.

Christ without Context

We have already taken note of Marpeck’s persistent belief in the priority of ?internal essences,? and his frequent tendency to denigrate a wide range of oppositional terms (?physical,? ?sign,? ?figure,? ?representation,? ?image,? ?picture,? ?shadow? and ?carnal? to list a few), in the process raising questions as to whether his ongoing commitment to the dualistic structure implied by this strategy allows him to do justice to the inscripted Christ. Equally, if not more, problematic is how his residual commitment to this overall conceptual scheme seems to shape his theology of the ?ancients.? As he says, without even a hint of irony, ?in the Old Testament it was all only fleshly, figurative, shadowy, and temporal, but not actual. Nor did they have the spirit of divine promise which leads to eternal life. Nor did they have other actual things . . . for they were not then given but only promised.?[52]

There can be no misunderstanding on this point, as Marpeck’s denunciation’and that seems to me to be the proper term’continues unabated:[53] ?The ancients adhered only to that which was human and physical, and not to that which is divine’;[54] ?they experienced in faith through figurative, temporal, and physical manifestations and appearances, but not in essence.?[55]

And it is not only the delicately named ?ancients? who suffer at Marpeck’s hands, but also the ?Jews.? Continuing long centuries of Christian rhetoric, Marpeck speaks of the failures of ?the Jews, [who] as a vexation to the cross of Christ, wait for the sending of another messiah, and have been deceived until today . . . to their ruin’like the Jews.?[56]

Theoretically, it might be possible to articulate a non-anti-Semitic theology of Israel (by which I mean pre-common era Judaism) according to which it partook only in the ?promise? but not the ?reality.?[57] But such a theology, I suggest, would be possible only in the context of a radical commitment to Jesus the Jew as the fulfillment of the hope of Israel. Marpeck, however, shows no inclination of thematizing this, even in the context of his recognition that Jesus is of the seed of Abraham. In any case, it is most decidedly not possible, I think, when coupled with, and defended by reference to, concepts such as ?physical,? ?carnal,? ?childish,? ?figurative,? ?shadowy,? ?temporal? and ?fleshly.? Yet that is precisely what Marpeck does. Without seeming hesitation, he disparages Judaism under the various rubrics noted above not merely because, to his mind, it lacked the ultimate divine fulfillment (again, a theologically defensible claim, perhaps, although not one that I share), but also because it is too earthly and embodied, and thus not ?spiritual? enough. But by so doing’by sundering, in relationship to Judaism, that which he understands to be intimately and integrally tied together in Christ, namely the ?spiritual? and the ?physical’? Marpeck vitiates the overall incarnational logic of his thought.

The irony of it all is that Marpeck’s Spiritualist foe, Schwenckfeld, offers a much more positive valuation of the allegedly carnal and physical Israel than does Marpeck, the defender of the necessity of physical mediation in rendering the divine.

I am not suggesting that Marpeck’s attitude toward Israel was arbitrary.[58] On the contrary, given the pressing need within early Anabaptism to both repudiate the use of the sword in worldly (to say nothing of spiritual) affairs, and to distinguish true baptism from infant baptism, it is not surprising that one would adopt the kind of interpretive strategy that Marpeck did. For unless Israel’s understanding of God is somehow relativized (so that they are not considered as full participants in the divine community), the use of the sword, and the practice of circumcision, could be treated as analogues to’and thus provide justification for’the very practices that Marpeck was intent on repudiating. And, of course, Marpeck is not unique in adopting this particular hermeneutical approach.

But if nowhere else than from where we stand today, I think we must judge Marpeck’s evaluation of Judaism as profoundly problematic. This is so not only because it stands in ambiguous relationship to the church’s long history of anti-Semitism, but also because it serves to undercut the deepest impulses of his own theology. In fact, it is precisely the ?carnality of the Jews? that Augustine, for one, attacks, which should be seen, from the perspective of incarnational theology, as the necessary corrective to generations, indeed, centuries, of overly spiritual readings of the biblical text.[59]

A fully incarnational theology must engage in a double movement: the so-called ?carnality? of Israel must be allowed to shape our understanding of the embodied, inscripted Christ, focusing on, and articulating, the ways in which his presence for us and with us works for the redemption of the fullness of our human, embodied brokenness, rather than simply the so-called ?spiritual? dimension of our lives. At the same time, the story of the life, death and resurrection of Christ must reconfigure our understanding of Israel’s full reality itself, so that the inscripted Christ in whom God dwelled and acted on our behalf can be seen as the true meaning of the entire process of creation and redemption, rather than only a late-breaking moment in the history of God. In short, although we have spoken of an inscripted Christ, following the logic of Marpeck’s thought, our incarnational theology actually needs to span the entire history of creation.


These failings notwithstanding (although it is hard to shake the suspicion that Marpeck’s treatment of Israel is nearly fatal to his entire project), Marpeck’s theology can rightly be said to be provocative, not only to his sixteenth-century audience, but equally so to us who encounter him at the beginning of the twenty-first. Far from being of only antiquarian interest, Marpeck raises profound and interesting challenges to the way we engage our world and theologize about it. In fact, in many respects, I would suggest that Marpeck is too radical for us: in our current situation’which some consider to be a moment of crisis’it may be too difficult for us to take his insights seriously.

Now it is undoubtedly foolish to claim that there is a general cultural crisis at the moment (even though doing so is to share in Marpeck’s, and many of his contemporaries’, sense that the end of the age was dawning), let alone to attempt to characterize that crisis in a few sentences. It is equally problematic to try to briefly describe what we might learn from listening to Marpeck’s voice. But I am going to risk doing so nonetheless.

On the one hand, there is, by all accounts, a specific crisis related to the events of September 11th, and its aftermath; on the other hand, more generally, there is considerable confusion as to how to articulate the Christian Gospel in the midst of a pluralist, multicultural, multinational ?modern,? becoming ?postmodern,? world.

The September 11th Crisis

After September 11, Christians in New York City’s ?confessing? churches, while acknowledging the horrific nature of the World Trade Center attacks, immediately raised concerns about the problematic nature of our national response. Repudiating the notion of absolute American innocence and righteousness, they felt compelled, with almost one voice, both to (a) call into question the propriety of the attempt by the Authority (to use a Marpeckian term) to punish the perpetrators and prevent future attacks, and to (b) reach out towards both Muslims and other ?people of good will,? drawing on notions such as ?dialogue,? ?common humanity,? ?peace? and ?shared common interest.? Both courses of action were thought to be in the pursuit of the larger human good, and both functioned as antidotes to the bellicose pronouncements and actions that surrounded us on all sides.

As I understand it, Marpeck’s particular form of incarnational theology would find both moves problematic. On the one hand, Marpeck thinks that Christians should be less critical of what the various nations, including our own, do (in practice, that is, much less aligned with the political left) and, on the other, much less engaged in shared causes. Instead, Christians should focus on their own unique, particular claims and calling.

Insofar as the tendency within the confessing church to critique the American national response to the September attacks is concerned, a whole range of Marpeckian texts suggest that this is fundamentally misguided. A single, sustained, reference will suffice:

I will certainly grant the point that all who claim to own something and desire protection for their property call on the government and complain that it is obligated to protect their temporal property and everyone else’s in temporal peace [are right to do so]. . . . Everyone is obligated to obey his own authority; the spiritual in spiritual peace, the carnal in carnal peace. . . . The carnals are committed to preserving the power of the sword for punishment and vengeance against all wickedness, otherwise there would be no peace in temporal things as one can see everywhere. . . . God . . . in his mercy also established and ordained divine Authority on earth to preserve temporal peace . . . in order that they don’t destroy each other over their property. . . . God permits it all for the sake of the good to prevent the even worse situation of total destruction in temporal things.[60]

Some suggest that this not entirely typical Anabaptist theology of the state has its roots in Marpeck’s personal involvement in the structures of civil society and the state. This is undoubtedly part of the picture. But Marpeck’s view of these matters also has strong theological roots: if not a direct consequence of his theology of the Incarnation and embodiment, his views on civil society and the state bear at least a family resemblance to that theology. That is to say, it is Marpeck’s deep commitment to the inscripted Christ (and not merely the course of his, Marpeck’s, life) that shapes his views on these matters. And they, in turn, have implications for a theology of creation and culture, according to which so-called ?worldly? concerns cannot be so readily dismissed as outside the concerns of Christ as many adherents of the Radical Reformation tradition otherwise tend to do.

What Marpeck does argue, for the most part, is that Christians, as followers of Christ, have a different calling. Although not ruling out all engagement in worldly structures, Marpeck is convinced that Christians can never adopt the coercion, violence and self-justification of the state for their own interests. He would, to begin with, vociferously repudiate any suggestion that the authorities could or should appeal directly to divine authority to legitimate their actions. There is little doubt that Marpeck would be appalled, as I frankly was, at the action of Jim Wallis of Sojourners, to take but one prominent example, who found himself able to sign a statement that justifies a response to September 11th by invoking God. ?In the name of God,? the statement reads, ?we too demand that those responsible for these utterly evil acts be found and brought to justice [my emphasis].?[61]

It is easy for many people in the peace church tradition to get agitated over such illicit Christian justifications of military reprisals against terrorists and the right of the state to defend its citizens from attack. What is less easy’in fact, virtually impossible’for us to do is to hold our ?prophetic? tongue and let the powers that be work out their proper response in terms of their own imminent logic. Yet I suggest that Marpeck would insist that we do both, both that which comes naturally to us, as well as that which seems like a betrayal of everything we believe in. Specifically, Marpeck would argue that Christians should not criticize the authorities for taking (at least restrained) steps to defend the property and lives of its citizens, a position that most of us would find scandalous.

Marpeck’s apparent indifference in these matters should not be attributed to a quietist or ?spiritualist? withdrawal from worldly affairs. On the contrary, I think that it is precisely because Marpeck takes embodiment’indeed, all of creation’seriously that he wants to find some breathing room for the appropriate practice of ?worldly? matters, free from unnecessary critique by those who, as followers of Christ, have a different calling, vision and destiny. Even these latter, in Marpeck’s view, share this worldly domain: as he not infrequently notes, those ?born of the Spirit? are ?earthly and have need of earthly places, dwellings, order, food, drink, and conversation.?[62]

By the same token, I think Marpeck would have found the notion that the appropriate Christian response in moments of crisis is to join company with others committed to the good of the larger human community[63] to be a betrayal of what it means to follow Christ. While he likely would not have thought it inappropriate to engage, as ?fellow travelers,? with ?people of good will,? he would consider any claim that such engagement is constitutive of Christian faith and practice to be nothing other than a temptation of the worst kind. What Marpeck would suggest that we do instead, I cannot say. On the one hand, he would likely think that there are enough people outside the church who are properly committed to such engagement on behalf of justice and peace for them to do it on their own (he may of course be wrong about this), without the church joining in as a partner in this specific task; on the other, to the extent that such reconciliation across economic, ethnic, racial, sexual and national divides is desirable, Marpeck would likely argue that it is the task of the church as church, in relationship to those who are members of the body of Christ, and not in relationship to the larger world.

As is the case with Marpeck’s view of the state, this critical attitude toward any mandate for the church to engage in the larger cultural quest for peace and justice undoubtedly has its roots both in Marpeck’s own personal situation (his conflict with the governing authorities and with his theological foes) and in the depths of his theological reflection. Despite his often irenic style, Marpeck was clearly no modern-style ecumenist: he regularly found himself compelled to engage in (even sometimes mean-) spirited debate with those who at least paid nominal homage to Christ. But if even such people ?perverted and misled? the faithful, how much more so would, in his eyes, Muslim, Buddhist, committed leftist and other fellow travelers? In any case, for Marpeck the deepest realities of faith involve sacramental practices (baptism and the Lord’s Supper, to say nothing of the ban!) enacted only in and by the church. How then can we imagine that the church’s primary task, even in an age of crisis, is to join forces with those for whom these sacramental realities, and the life of the community of faith, is not constitutive for them?

In short, one cannot read Marpeck without seeing that, for him, belief in the mediated presence of God in the unique Christ and in a particular embodied church calls us to a more specifically christological and ?churchly? response, one that risks being seen as marginal, sectarian, even arrogant, from the perspective of the larger dissenting traditions. The articulation of the shape that this distinctly Christian response should take is our own particular theological task, about which we are, I am afraid, too often strangely silent.

Alternatively, in the event that we cannot follow Marpeck in his rejection of both the claim that the church’s calling involves serving as judge of the practices of civil society and the state and the related contention that a significant element of the church’s mission is to actively engage, in close cooperation with the dissenting traditions in the surrounding culture, in the generic search for justice and peace, then we will need to do so in serious engagement with the issues and objections that he raises. The way forward, if there is one, is through (a) a revisioning of Marpeck’s continuing preference for the ?spiritual,? and other cognate notions (notwithstanding his convictions about the necessity of mediation), thus freeing up even more space than he did for ?worldly? affairs, coupled with (b) a much fuller and more robust depiction of the inscripted Christ (one that is less abstract and less doctrinally articulated in terms of its focus on traditional sacramental realities and church discipline), culminating in (c) a radical rethinking of Marpeck’s criticisms of a too ?carnal? Israel. The result would be a broader and richer understanding of salvation, one that encompasses and embraces all of creation.[64]

Clearly, such a radical rethinking of these notions may itself call into question, either directly or indirectly, some of our tradition’s deepest beliefs, including those relating to the role of coercion in civil society and the state, as well as that cluster of beliefs that grounds the Anabaptist ecclesiology of a separated community of the faithful whose identity as God’s chosen is established in grace and enacted in the sacramental practices of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

But only through this strenuous hermeneutical task’proceeding from, and working through, the claims that Marpeck marshals against it’can we arrive at a coherent Christian theology that would justify the politically prophetic critique of power, coupled with a commitment to the shared common good of all of humanity, that seems to be the only course of action that we, for the moment, seem to be able to imagine in the current darkness.

But like the other task noted above, this one, too, is apparently too daunting for us’we seldom arrive at this position through hard theological reflection, after working our way through all that can be said against it, but instead arrive fresh and perky at the destination, much like the New York marathon runner who took the subway to the finish line.

It is fitting that we end up with a New York image, for New York is in many respects (and not only from the perspective of its fabled arrogance and hubris) the epicenter of the September 11th crisis. And not only that’New York, place of mastery, polyphony and excess, stands as icon and image of the larger cultural crisis.

The General Crisis

The traditional language of crisis is complicated and diverse, shaped anew in every age, largely, but not only, by traditions of faith, each convinced that the long-dreaded decline is finally and unalterably upon us. The presence of homelessness, pervasive materialism, the terror of sexual abuse, the persistence of poverty, the horrors of ethnic cleansing, the inanity of mall culture, the destructiveness of substance abuse, the perils of unencumbered technology, environmental devastation, the threat of fundamentalisms, never-ending racism, the domination of multinational corporate control and, now, stateless terror against which there can be no triumph[65]?these are just some of the evils that preoccupy us, driving us to the conclusion that we cannot go on any longer as we have in the past.

I may not be Anabaptist, or apocalyptic, enough to share this conviction that we now uniquely face terrors unknown before our own historical moment.

Rather, the crisis that interests me is another, having to do with the relationship between the church and the world, and, lurking in the shadows behind it all, the uncomfortable question of the inscripted Christ.

Before briefly addressing that question, a final methodological note is appropriate. This first reading of Marpeck has wavered between two often contradictory demands: the need to simultaneously engage in the practice of academic theology, whereby (at least as traditionally construed) one’s own beliefs are somehow to be held in abeyance, while remaining true to the subject’s (in this case, Marpeck’s) quite different style of theologizing, according to which such suspension of commitment is impossible. Regardless of whether or not I have accomplished this balancing act during the exposition and subsequent critique that form the first two parts of this paper, the preceding, and certainly the ensuing, parts of the present section dealing with ?Marpeck in the Moment of Our Crisis? have quite clearly tilted the balance toward the kind of engaged theological style that characterized Marpeck’s own work. And I confess that I am unapologetic about that.[66]

For there is, in the final analysis, no escaping such engagement. Particularly in New York City (to display again that problematic New York conceit), the theological issues raised above regarding rapprochement with, or repudiation of, the larger culture seem especially concentrated. The intensity of this encounter comes about not only because of the sheer weight and diversity of the cultural structures surrounding the church, but also because many who live and worship here have been drawn to the city precisely because of the opportunity it offers to throw off the unbearable weight of their sectarian, confessing past.

The truth is that I, too, cannot imagine returning to a sectarian mode of withdrawal,[67] nor can I disengage from the issues raised by the traditions of dissent, representing as they do, in their multicultural diversity, the only world in which I really want to live. The church always must be, in ways our tradition has not always appreciated, in, of and for the world.[68]

So in this place where every tongue is spoken, and every creed espoused, should we not then speak only loosely’if at all’of the inscripted Christ?

In many ways, the consensus within the church’whether Catholic, Protestant or Anabaptist’is that yes, we must indeed learn to speak less forcefully, and more tentatively and haltingly, of that divisive and scandalous one.

And in so doing we decide to leave Marpeck behind.

If there is one thing that the culturally predominant modernist view, along with its emerging postmodernist transmutation, agree upon’amidst their incessant quarrels with each other’it is that the storied rendering of the inscripted Christ is ultimately dispensable.[69]

The enlightenment project insists that we need not tell particular stories; those disillusioned by the failure of enlightenment insist that tell stories we must, but that we cannot limit ourselves to a particular story. We can get directly at the universal, rational meaning to which they all point, and let the husk fall away, we are told, or there is no center, no master narrative, nothing to hold on to.

We either join together with people of good will because we share, underneath all the superficial differences, in some common essential humanity, or we join together with people of good will because, in our inescapable and irreducible differences, that is all we can do.

We are terrified’and we should be’of dogmatism, fundamentalism, violence, power.

And so our language, and our practice, becomes more and more inclusive, more generic, more universal’less particular, less identifiable, less scandalous.[70]

We want to be fellow travelers, rather than wanderers and aliens.

What is lost, Marpeck would say to us, were he in our midst, is the inscripted Christ’the unsubstitutable one whose identity can be articulated only by recounting all that he did and had done to him, the one who emerges from this telling as the very face and body of God.

[1]. Pilgram Marpeck, ?A Clear Refutation,? in The Writings of Pilgram Marpeck, trans. and ed. William Klassen and Walter Klaassen (Kitchener, Ont. and Scottsdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1978),63.
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[2]. Marpeck, ?Response to Caspar Schwenckfeld’s Judgement,? in The Expos, a Dialogue, and Marpeck’s Response to Casper Schwenckfeld: Later Writings of Pilgram Marpeck and His Circle (Kitchener, Ont.: Pandora Press, 1999),113.
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[3]. Marpeck, ?A Clear and Useful Instruction,? in Writings of Pilgram Marpeck, 79.
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[4]. Marpeck, ?Response,?137.
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[5]. Ibid.,132?3.
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[6]. Marpeck, ?Clear Refutation,?65.
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[7]. Marpeck, ?Response,?122.
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[8]. Ibid.,85.
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[9]. Marpeck, ?Response,?86. A little later Markpeck says, ?We wrote against the understanding the Thomists, Papists, and Lutherans have of the words ?this is my body; this is my blood.? We wrote against their writings in which they hold that after the speaking of the quoted words the bread and wine are the body and blood of Christ or something like that. . . . We say, ?Paul and the other apostles do not place a high value on the elements and, indeed, attribute no special holiness to them, but much more the action and the usage? (Marpeck, ?Response,?105).
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[10]. Marpeck, ?Response,?107.
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[11]. Marpeck, ?Response,?86. Note again, in passing, the emphasis throughout on the spoken word.
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[12]. In some respects, ?enactment? parallels the concept of ?depth? or ?background? that Eric Auerbach claims to be constitutive of biblical literature (Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, trans. Willard Trask [Garden City: Doubleday, 1957]), according to which everything already points to something else, a deeper reality, indeed, to ?universal history.?
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[13]. For example, the contrast here is not between apparently self-contained and self-interpreting action on the one hand’as though an outsider observing such behavior in isolation for the first time could describe it fully and without residue’and action that implicates other action on the other. Indeed, the former type of action simply doesn’t exist: even the most mundane and apparently isolate action (for example, pouring water) can only be understood in the context of the larger linguistic and cultural system in which it is embedded. But if such simple actions are already linked to everything else, including other action, then such linkage, particularly by itself, can hardly serve to distinguish action from what we have called enactment. Rather, the distinction is how action differs (among other ways) from so-called enactment in precisely how each implicates other actions. A careful account of such differences would obviously require more than the few paragraphs that can be devoted to it in this first reading.
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[14]. This passage is taken from a longer sustained argument against the idea that the Jews share/d in the true essence of salvation, as opposed to the promise of that true essence, a claim that I find highly problematic, as noted below. This caveat notwithstanding, it reinforces the notion that meaningful action takes place in the context of a larger meaning-constituting reality, and thus serves to further illuminate Marpeck’s theological project.
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[15]. Marpeck, ?The Admonition of 1542,? Writings of Pilgram Marpeck,233?4.
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[16]. Ibid.
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[17]. Marpeck speaks derisively, for example, of ?its rhymes and costumes, cackling and mimicking? (Marpeck, ?Admonition,?233?4).
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[18]. Ibid.
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[19]. George Hunsinger, How to Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991),30.
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[20]. As quoted in Garrett Green, Theology, Hermeneutics, and Imagination: The Crisis of Interpretation at the End of Modernity (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2000),151.
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[21]. Marpeck, ?Response,?118.
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[22]. Ibid.,115.
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[23]. Ibid.,114.
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[24]. Ibid.,115.
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[25]. Ibid.,114.
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[26]. Although Marpeck sometimes seems to say things that could be construed as supportive of this notion, for the most part he repudiates it. He speaks, for example, of how the body of Christ ?did not come from heaven but from the Virgin Mary, in untransfigured and mortal form? (Marpeck, ?Response,?114).
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[27]. Marpeck, ?Response,?117.
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[28]. Ibid. Marpeck is well aware of how outrageous this claim would appear to his opponents, and seems indeed to delight in their certain discomfort: He immediately precedes this assertion (in the English translation, with which I contented myself for this first reading), with the provocative ?ponder this,? or, as we might say more colloquially, ?chew on this for a change.?
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[29]. Marpeck, ?Response,?115.
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[30]. Of course, this does not mean that the resurrected Christ cannot act ?at a distance,? since even the earthly Jesus did so. Indeed, from other of Marpeck’s statements, such action at a distance seems not necessarily to be a prerogative only of the divine nature. In any case, such action is emphatically not to be taken as diminishing Marpeck’s insistence on the unique locality of the body of even the resurrected Christ.
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[31]. Marpeck, ?Response,?118.
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[32]. Ibid.,119.
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[33]. See especially the insightful recent work of Gerard Loughlin (Telling God’s Story: Bible, Church, and Narrative Theology [Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1996]), but also Garrett Green (Theology, Hermeneutics, and Imagination).
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[34]. Marpeck, ?Clear Refutation,?63.
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[35]. See, most notably, his seminal The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative: A Study in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Hermeneutics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974), but also his other works, including The Identity of Jesus Christ, the Hermeneutical Bases of Dogmatic Theology, reprint, 1967 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975) and the various posthumous collected papers.
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[36]. Marpeck’s ecclesiology is also extremely provocative, founded as it is upon his view that the church is the continuing body and incarnation of Christ in the world. But we already have our hands full with Marpeck’s Christology, and thus cannot, within the confines of this paper, give his ecclesiology its due.
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[37]. I’m mindful that a proper defense and articulation of these claims would demand far more detail and precision, given as they are to a synoptic overview of issues that strike me as problematic after having read’and now ?telling’?Marpeck for the first time. But I do believe that these claims could be developed so as to withstand scrutiny.
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[38]. Marpeck, ?Useful Instruction,?79.
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[39]. Contemporary postmodernists, taking note of Marpeck’s insistence on the absolute necessity of the ?written, sounded, and voiced? (see above, and what follows) might be tempted to claim him as one of their own. There is certainly more than a little justification for such a move. To be sure, any attempt to make him into an extreme textualist, for whom nothing exists except the indeterminability of signs in never escapable difference from each other, is doomed to failure. But it seems to me that Marpeck’s overall theory of incarnational reality that we have outlined above at least weakly commits himself to a form of ?modified textualism,? according to which, while there is acknowledged to be a reality outside of the linguistic system, there is in fact no access to it other than through signs.
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[40]. Marpeck, ?Response,?86.
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[41]. Ibid.,132.
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[42]. Ibid.,107. Part of Marpeck’s argument seems to consist of a distinction between the application of the concept of picture or sign to Christ himself, on the one hand, and to sacramental practice on the other. And insofar as these latter realities are concerned, what Marpeck often seems to be suggesting is that the mere things (the bread and wine) by themselves’until enacted and remembered in a community brought together in and by love’have no significance. So he can say, for example, that ?to the extent that a Christian lacks the inner essence, to that extent the bread and the wine of that Supper are only a figure or sign. But with such form and discrimination communion is both: an essence and a figure and sign? (Marpeck, ?Response,?107). This is surely where the logic of Marpeck’s thinking should lead him, but in fact, driven by the dualism from which he starts, he usually finds himself forced to claim that while the outer mediates the inner, it does not do so as figure, picture, image or sign. See, again, for example, the reference just above where he argues that even ?for the believer they are no sign or picture.?
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[43]. Marpeck, ?Response,?130.
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[44]. There are certainly numerous passages, and not restricted to the Pauline letters, that seem, at least on first reading, to support this dualism of flesh and spirit. For one who thinks, as I do, that the biblical texts matter, not only because of some putative meaning that resides behind them, but in their very shape, expression and form, these texts pose something of a challenge. But when read contextually, including in light of the history of Israel (see ?Christ without Context? below), they can, I believe’without being unduly stretched’fit in the reading that is outlined here.
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[45]. I realize that my claim that such ontological dualism is problematic (in Marpeck and elsewhere) has not been adequately defended. But developing this critique is one of the major challenges facing Christian theology today. What is needed is to articulate a radically nondualistic orthodoxy, one that engages and embraces embodiment without regret, while remaining true to the orthodox confession of a creating and redeeming God who is not seen, and who dwells in a ?temple made without human hands.?
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[46]. It is also probably the case, if faced in some hypothetical world with the necessity of choosing between ontological and epistemological dualism, that one would have to choose the former as more plausible. And to the extent that the biblical texts alluded to above provide warrant for either, I think it is fair to say that they would do so for the former, rather than the latter.
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[47]. Marpeck, ?Clear Refutation,?52.
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[48]. Marpeck, ?Useful Instruction,?81.
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[49]. Ibid.,136. There are numerous other passages in the writings that offer similar litanies. For example: ?Gospel teaching, baptism, the Lord’s supper, the ban, and a lifestyle of piety and truth? (Marpeck, ?Clear Refutation,?135) or ?teaching, baptism, Lord’s Supper, admonition, ban, discipline, evidence of love and service for the common good, a handclasp? (Marpeck, ?Response,?85). Even within the same work, the list differs: In this last mentioned work, a few pages later Marpeck speaks of the ?external word of teaching or preaching, as well as baptism, the Lord’s Supper, admonition, discipline, punishment, the ban, and more? (Marpeck, ?Response,?105).
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[50]. For those theologians for whom theological affirmations are understood to be the grammar of faith, or second-order rules governing the meaning of other, more primary assertions, Marpeck’s itemization of theological nonnegotiables could be taken to mean something like this: All of our first-order theological affirmations need to be consistent with, and provide support for, a sacramental life practiced by a holy, separated community of the faithful who have not turned away from the true faith in Christ. In short, these itemized lists would then articulate the kind of purity and faithfulness that alone could ground a besieged, dissenting minority tradition buffeted, and attacked, by a surrounding faithless culture.
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[51]. Marpeck notes, to take just one example, that the ?secrets of the kingdom of Christ can neither be expressed nor understood without parables? (Marpeck, ?Useful Instruction,?82)?yet he then proceeds, in some respects, to attempt precisely that which he properly denies.
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[52]. Marpeck, ?Preface to the ?Explanation of the Testaments,?? Writings of Pilgram Marpeck,556.
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[53]. Virtually every paragraph in some sections, while adding some nuance or slightly shifting the focus, drives home the same point: ?The ancients had a sketchy, figurative, yet symbolic faith . . .? (Marpeck, ?Admonition,?233); ?The ancients . . . were so childish in the covenant of promise that they saw only the physical promises and were, in fact, opposed to the true promises. . . . Unknown to them, the spiritual was hidden beneath the physical? (Marpeck, ?Admonition,?235); ? . . . such corporeal, temporal, and visual things in which the ancients placed their faith . . .? (Marpeck, ?Admonition,?236?7); ?Don’t say that there was grace in the past? (Marpeck, ?Admonition,?237); and ?The figures and shadows of the Old Testament have held up the light. The essence and truth is now present. After all, we are now no longer under the Old Testament; we are under the New, in which God the Father desires to be worshiped in spirit and truth, and no longer in physical representations? (Marpeck, ?Admonition,?240?1).
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[54]. Marpeck, ?Admonition,?229.
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[55]. Ibid.,236.
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[56]. Marpeck, ?Response,?142.
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[57]. A lot of people have done precisely this. But I phrase the statement in this questioning mode in order to draw attention to the pitfalls that face those who attempt such a project.
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[58]. And I am certainly not suggesting that it is anti-Semitic in any strong sense, at least as that is understood post-Holocaust.
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[59]. See Daniel Boyarin’s provocative argument in Carnal Israel: Reading Sex in Talmudic Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).
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[60]. Marpeck, ?Expos of the Babylonian Whore,? The Expos, a Dialogue, and Marpeck’s Response to Casper Schwenckfeld,31.
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[61]. ?Deny Them Their Victory: A Religious Response to Terrorism,? in The Present Darkness, unit 1 of a study series by the editors of Sojourners magazine titled A Moral Response to Terrorism: Conscience in a Time of War (Washington, D.C.: Sojourners Magazine, 2001), 2. This article is prefaced with the following statement: ?In the climate of sorrow and anger after Sept. 11, Sojourners joined together with Jewish, Muslim, and Christian clergy to write a statement promoting a religious response to terrorism. The breadth of participation made the document one of the most inclusive religious statements ever published. Leaders of nearly 4,000 synagogues, mosques, churches, theological seminaries, universities, and other faith-based organizations subsequently joined in support of its message.?
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[62]. Marpeck, ?Response,?130?1.
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[63]. See, for example, the introduction to ?Deny Them Their Victory? above, where the editors speak, with evident pride, of ?the breadth of participation [that] made the document one of the most inclusive religious statements ever published.? This same broadly ecumenical approach’extending even outside the Christian communion’increasingly characterizes the practice of the whole peace church tradition, and not simply Sojourners magazine.
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[64]. For the moment, I’m not necessarily arguing that we should move beyond Marpeck in this way. I’m only suggesting in what follows that if we find ourselves compelled to do so, we must work a little harder at it than we usually do.
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[65]. September 11th, of course, only brought home to Americans what has been the reality for millions of people elsewhere for generations.
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[66]. Why that is so’i.e., why theological reflection should not be practiced in a disengaged style, and why we should not apologize for not doing so’is a task for another occasion. But if Marpeck teaches us anything, it should be that theologizing is a form of life, the provenance of the church, and not merely of the academy.
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[67]. It is, of course, folly to attempt to engage Yoder at this point, but I must confess that however Yoderian my position might sound in some respects elsewhere in this paper, in fact I have serious disagreements with him, precisely to the extent that he seems to be more comfortable with various forms of cultural and political disengagement than I ever have been or could be. Some of my objections are no doubt due to differences in our upbringing, inasmuch as I have, unlike him, grown up and been educated outside of Anabaptist circles. While I share his passionate christological commitments, the inscripted Christ I’ve attempted to briefly articulate in this paper seems to me to be more ?for the world? than Yoder is willing to acknowledge. To defend that claim, of course, is to take us far beyond where we can go at the moment.
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[68]. I must confess that I’ve always been provoked by Bonhoeffer’s ?religionless Christianity? for a world ?come of age? (while not taking that latter notion very seriously). Some might think that this represents a decisive (whether mistaken or not) move beyond Marpeck’s all-too-confessional stance. Of this I am not so certain. A Marpeck for our time, so to speak, might very well find himself theologically more open to the kind of engagement suggested here, given the changed social and theological situation, as long as the church did it in its uniquely churchly (although still possibly ?religionless’) way.
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[69]. I probably need to make more explicit what I hope has at least been suggested throughout the course of this paper, namely that there is much in postmodernism’s critique of modernity that I find compelling, especially the claim that there is never any unmediated access to ?essences.? In that respect, the ?both ?a? and ?b? fail . . .? style of this and the following paragraphs might be misleading, since I consider modernity’s particular form of epistemological realism to be entirely untenable, while I find much to agree with in postmodernism’s various ?textualisms.? At the same time, however, I believe that we are called to speak, passionately and persistently, of the inscripted Christ, and to proclaim him as the irreplaceable one. How to do so in the current situation is the precise question at hand.
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[70]. Marpeck would argue that we (and that includes not a small number of Anabaptist theologians) have become Spiritualists: We are not all that interested in the messiness of embodiment, our particular historical embeddedness, the fact that we live in just this particular community, and not another, and are shaped by just these stories, and not others. We pretend that all this just gets in the way of our ability to get directly at the really important things (about ?love,? ?peace,? ?justice’) that unites us when all our selfish, contentious, nonessential differences finally fall away.
The Mennonite Quarterly Review
Reading Marpeck for the First Time
*Steven Siebert is founder and director of product development of Nota Bene, a software program he designed while working on his Ph.D. in philosophy and theology at Yale University. He now resides in New York where he is active in both Mennonite and Episcopal churches. This essay was originally presented at the ?Pilgram Marpeck: From Strassburg to New York? conference held on June 7-8, 2002, in New York City.
MQR 78 (Jan. 2004)