“WHAT is truth?” That was the question that Pontius Pilate, Roman governor of Judea in the first century, asked of Jesus, who was on trial before the governor. (John 18:38) Pilate, of course, was not really seeking the truth. If anything, his question revealed his skeptical or cynical attitude. Apparently, to Pilate truth was whatever a person might choose or was taught to believe; there was really no way to determine what is truth. Many today feel the same way.
Churchgoers in 16th-century Europe faced the dilemma of what to believe as truth. Raised to believe in the supremacy of the pope and in other teachings of the church, they were confronted with new ideas spread by the Reformation, which was sweeping through Europe at the time. What should they believe? How would they decide what is truth?
During that period, there were, among many others, three men who were determined to seek out the truth. How did they go about identifying what was true and what was false? And what did they find? Let us see.
“LET THE BIBLE . . . ALWAYS RULE SUPREME”
Wolfgang Capito was a young man with deep religious convictions. A student of medicine, law, and theology, Capito became a parish priest in 1512 and then chaplain to the archbishop of Mainz.
At first, Capito tried to soften the zeal of Reformers who preached a message contrary to Catholic dogma. Soon, however, Capito himself began to advocate reform. What did he do? When confronted with various teachings, Capito believed that “the best source with which to judge their preaching was the Bible, for only it was certain,” writes historian James M. Kittelson. Capito thus concluded that the church teachings on transubstantiation and the veneration of saints were unscriptural. (See the box “See Whether These Things Were So.”) Abandoning his prominent post with the archbishop in 1523, Capito settled in the city of Strasbourg, a center of religious reform at the time.
The Capito home in Strasbourg became a place where religious dissenters met and no doubt discussed many religious matters and Bible teachings. Though some Reformers still promoted the Trinity doctrine, Capito’s writings, according to the book The Radical Reformation, reflect “reticence on the doctrine of the Trinity.” Why? Capito was impressed by the way that Spanish theologian Michael Servetus appealed to Bible texts to disprove the Trinity.
Denial of the Trinity could bring fatal consequences, so Capito was cautious about declaring his feelings openly. However, his writings suggest that he had privately questioned the Trinity doctrine even before he met Servetus. A Catholic priest later wrote that Capito and his associates “proceeded to discuss in their private capacity, and without appeal,—the profoundest mysteries of religion; [and] rejected that of the most Holy Trinity.” A century later, Capito was listed first among prominent anti-Trinitarian writers.
Capito believed that the Bible was the source of truth. “Let the Bible and the law of Christ always rule supreme in theology,” he stated. According to Dr. Kittelson, Capito “insisted that the chief failing of the scholastic theologians lay in their neglect of the Scriptures.”
This earnest desire to learn the truth from God’s Word was shared by Martin Cellarius (also known as Martin Borrhaus), a young man who stayed at the Capito home in 1526.
“KNOWLEDGE OF THE TRUE GOD”
Born in 1499, Cellarius was a diligent student of theology and philosophy. He accepted a teaching post in Wittenberg, Germany. Since Wittenberg was the cradle of the Reformation, Cellarius soon became acquainted with Martin Luther and others who wanted to reform church teaching. How could Cellarius distinguish mere human ideas from Scriptural truth?
According to the book Teaching the Reformation, Cellarius believed that true understanding results “from the assiduous reading of Scripture, from frequent comparison of Scripture with itself, and from prayer joined with repentance.” What did Cellarius find in his examination of the Bible?
In July 1527, Cellarius published his findings in a book entitled On the Works of God. He wrote that church sacraments, such as transubstantiation, were purely symbolic. According to Professor Robin Barnes, Cellarius’ book also “put forward an interpretation of scriptural prophecies in which a coming period of general calamity and suffering would be followed by a universal renovation and fulfillment.”—2 Peter 3:10-13.
Especially noteworthy were Cellarius’ brief remarks regarding the nature of Jesus Christ. Although he did not directly contradict the Trinity, Cellarius distinguished the “Heavenly Father” from “his Son Jesus Christ” and wrote that Jesus was one of many gods and sons of the almighty God.—John 10:34, 35.
In his book Antitrinitarian Biography (1850), Robert Wallace noted that Cellarius’ writings did not follow the Trinitarian orthodoxy common in the 16th century. Several scholars thus conclude that Cellarius must have rejected the Trinity. He has been described as one of God’s instruments “in inculcating a knowledge of the true God and of Christ.”
HOPE OF A RESTITUTION
In about 1527, Wittenberg also became home to theologian Johannes Campanus, considered to be one of the greatest scholars of his day. Although at the center of religious reform, Campanus became dissatisfied with the teachings of Martin Luther. Why?
Campanus objected to the ideas of both transubstantiation and consubstantiation. According to author André Séguenny, Campanus believed that “the Bread as a substance remains always bread, but as a sacrament, it represents symbolically the flesh of the Christ.” At the 1529 Marburg Colloquy, a meeting held to discuss these very questions, Campanus was not permitted to share what he had learned from the Scriptures. Thereafter, he was shunned by his fellow Reformers in Wittenberg.
The Reformers were especially upset by Campanus’ beliefs about the Father, the Son, and the holy spirit. In his 1532 book Restitution,Campanus taught that Jesus and his Father are two distinct persons. The Father and Son “are one,” he explained, only as a husband and wife are said to be “one flesh”—united, yet still two persons. (John 10:30; Matthew 19:5) Campanus noted that the Scriptures use the same illustration to show that the Father has authority over the Son: “The head of a woman is the man; in turn, the head of the Christ is God.”—1 Corinthians 11:3.
What about the holy spirit? Again, Campanus appealed to the Bible, writing: “With no Scripture may it be adduced that the Holy Spirit is the third person . . . The spirit of God is taken in an operative sense, in that He prepares and carries out all things through his spiritual power and activity.”—Genesis 1:2.
Luther called Campanus a blasphemer and an adversary of God’s Son. Another Reformer called for Campanus’ execution. Yet, Campanus was undeterred. According to The Radical Reformation,“Campanus was convinced that the loss of this originally apostolic and biblical understanding of the Godhead and of man accounted for the fall of the Church.”
It was never Campanus’ intention to organize a religious group. He had sought in vain for truth, he said, “among the sects and all the heretics.” So he hoped that the Catholic Church, by means of a restitution, would reinstate true Christian teaching. Eventually, however, Catholic authorities arrested Campanus, and he may have spent upwards of 20 years in prison. Historians believe that he died in about 1575.
“MAKE SURE OF ALL THINGS”
Diligent study of the Bible enabled Capito, Cellarius, Campanus, and others to distinguish truth from error. Even though not all of the conclusions reached by these truth seekers were in full harmony with the Bible, these men humbly searched the Scriptures and treasured the truth that they learned.
The apostle Paul urged his fellow Christians: “Make sure of all things; hold fast to what is fine.” (1 Thessalonians 5:21)