Today most Protestant churches, at least in the
western world, take for granted that those who attend a church should have some
say in how it is run. That hasn't always been so. Even when the Protestant
Reformation began in the sixteenth century, Luther and other reformers thought
that the church ought to be directed primarily by the clergy.
The first person to suggest otherwise was a little
known reformer called Oecolampadius. (His real name was Hussgen. But in those
days it was popular to change one's name into a classical language.
"Hussgen" sounds like the German for house-shine, so he became
"house lamp" in Greek.) Oecolampadius's suggestion that laymen be
allowed a say in church affairs was shot down when he proposed it to the town
council of Basle, Switzerland. However, other reformers, such as John Calvin
and John Knox agreed with him, and so an important element of religious freedom
was brought into the church.
Oecolampadius was a top-notch student of languages.
The ground-breaking linguists of the day were Reuchlin and Erasmus.
Oecolampadius studied with both. He even helped Erasmus edit and publish the
New Testament in Greek which had such a profound effect on the rise of the
One way a scholar could earn a little extra money
in those days was to translate Greek books for the recently invented and hungry
printing press. Oecolampadius translated writings of the Greek fathers. After
the Reformation got rolling, he sided with the reformers. Despite weak health,
he labored hard for reform in Switzerland.
In 1516, a year before Luther posted his famous
theses, Ulrich Zwingli spearheaded a reformation movement in Zurich. He was
still a Roman Catholic, but insisted on teaching through the Bible. Around
1523, Oecolampadius began a friendship with Zwingli and drifted away from the
more conservative and timid Erasmus.
His relationship with Zwingli is often compared to
the relationship of Melanchthon with Luther. A peaceful man, Oecolampadius was
tolerant of differences in the Protestant beliefs about the Lord's Supper. He
also rebuked harsher reformers for their abrasive behavior. He wrote to William
Farel, "Your mission is to evangelize, not to curse. Prove yourself to be
an evangelist, not a tyrannical legislator. Men want to be led, not
driven." Reformation should be orderly, said Oecolampadius.
He worked so hard in spite of his bad health, that
when he died on this day, November 24, 1531, he was only 49. A little-known
light of the Reformation was extinguished.
"Oecolampadius, John." The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert
Johannes." The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Edited by F. L.
Cross and E. A. Livingstone. Oxford, 1997.
3.Rupp, E. Gordon. Patterns of
Reformation. London: Epworth Press, 1969; especially pp. 3 - 41.