The Friends of God

INTRODUCTION

On his website and in discussions on the Truth Meetings Message Board, Nate has referred to a group known as the Friends of God. This appears to be part of his ongoing crusade to find a continuous chain of 2x2 precursors from apostolic times to William Irvine in the late 19th Century. In other words, by finding a group known as "friends" in the 14th Century, Nate may think that he is establishing another sequence in the apostolic heritage of the 2x2s. His website article quotes Frances Bevan's book Three Friends of God: Records from the Lives of John Tauler, Nicholas of Basle, and Henry Suso which was written in 1887 and can be found online at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library here. Nate's interest was probably heightened by Bevan's statement that the Friends of God "stood in immediate connection with Waldensian 'Brethren'", but it should be pointed out that Bevan writes in his preface that the Friends of God were "of the fourteenth century" (i.e., not apostolic in origin) and that his book's history may be "very imperfect" for the usual reasons that are offered by revisionist historians trying to make a point but lack substantial proof thereof, such as persecution and suppression of evidence by opposing powers. Upon examination of the lives of those three men mentioned by Bevan, it will be shown that such a position does not withstand scrutiny. In order to preempt any objection that the conclusions reached in this article are merely my own invention, I have purposely made heavy use of numerous scholarly sources.

Friends of God

The Friends of God (Gottesfreunde in German) were a group of Catholic mystics having their origins in Germany and Switzerland in the early 14th Century. This was a period of major turmoil in society due to the Black Plague, the collapse of the Hohenstaufen dynasty, the moral decay of the clergy, the struggle for authority between Bavarian Emperor Louis IV and the pope, earthquakes and floods leading to famine, the exile of the papacy to Avignon from Rome, and generalized economic instability. The response of Christians seeking comfort from God was to renew emphasis on developing a closer communion with God by withdrawing from the world in order to cultivate their inner spirituality. Their name was taken from the passage in John 15:15: "Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends...". They did not represent a separate, organized sect but rather were Catholic in theology and practice; they were comprised of priests, nuns, and people who were not even part of the clergy. It is necessary to point this out because of the tendency of non-Catholics (including Martin Luther and, of course, Nate) to try to portray the Friends of God as pre-Reformation Protestants. Even the great historian Philip Schaff, who was by no means a friend (pardon the pun) of the Catholic Church, says that they "were not bound together by any formal organization. Their only bond was the fellowship of a common religious purpose", and that they carried out their mission "without disparaging the sacraments or disputing the authority of the [Catholic] Church" (History of the Christian Church, iv).

John Tauler

John (or Johannes) Tauler was born in Strasbourg, Germany, around the year 1300. At a young age he became a brother in the Dominican order there and later went to Cologne to finish his studies. He was beloved by all as an outstanding preacher and humble Catholic priest. In keeping with the medieval custom of cura monialium, he provided spiritual guidance and care to the nuns of the several convents in Strasbourg. His sermons were a wonderful combination of the mystical with the concrete, the spiritual with the practical - emphasizing man's inherent desire for God accomplished through Abgeschiedenheit, or detachment from wordly things. He taught that the way to God is through love and the contemplation of the Divine nature by recognizing the grace of God already at work within. He often spoke of the "ground of the soul" (Seelengrund) as that private inner place where one can turn to God in prayer. For this he was known as the Lebmiester, or "master of living" as opposed to the more esoteric preaching of Eckhart as the "master of thinking" (Davies, 11). In his article "Johannes Tauler: Mystic, Pastor, and Preacher" Michael Berry points out that Tauler "does not preach a message of 'retreat' per se, or an absconding from tribulation, but instead a more truthful entrance into reality -- through suffering with Christ." It is what Schaff calls his "evangelical spirit" that "brings him in close affinity with the views of the Reformers", although Schaff is careful to point out that "the mood of the heretic, however, was furthest from Tauler" because "the [Catholic] Church was to him a holy mother". Although such an "evangelical spirit" is a description too vague to apply solely to Protestant reformers, Tauler's sermon on the Feast of St. Matthew removes all doubt as to his Catholicity:
By God's Grace and from holy Church I have received my order, my cowl, this habit and my priesthood that I might become a teacher and might hear confessions. Now if it should come to pass that the Pope and the holy Church, from whom I have received them, should wish to take them away from me....I should let them go and I should not question why they did so....I should not remain any longer in the monastery with the brothers, nor be a priest, nor hear confessions nor preach....But if anybody else [but the Church] wanted to take these things from me, I would rather die than allow them to be taken from me. Again, if the holy Church were to refuse us the holy Sacrament externally, we must submit; but nobody can deprive us us the privilege of taking it spiritually." (from Die Predigten Taulers aus den Engelburger und den Freiburger Hndschriften quoted in Jones' The Flowering of Mysticism p 97; 1939)
Because of the ongoing struggle between the Bavarian Emperor Louis IV who openly defied Pope John XXII, an interdict was issued by the pope forbidding the administration of sacraments (including the celebration of mass) in cities that were loyal to the Bavarian king. In 1338 Louis of Bavaria issued a law ordering the reinstatement of worship in all cities under the pope's interdict. This forced a Catholic priest into a predicament, because to obey this law mean to disobey the Church; likewise, to obey the Church's interdict meant to break the new law. Regardless, Tauler's Sermon on the Feast of St. Matthew demonstrates that he was willing to obey the papal interdict at all costs if the pope said so, but only if the pope said so. As Jones asserts, Tauler "loved the Church, he was a loyal son, he was not likely to break with the sacred requirements of the Church which had become to him a beloved mother." (97)

Henry Suso

Henry Suso (or Heinrich Seuse) was acquainted with John Tauler, being a Dominican priest as well. Together they formed the center of the universe of the German mysticism movement along with Meister Eckhart. He was born at Lake Constance in Germany around the year 1300 and became a priest after entering the Dominican convent there at age thirteen.

In contrast to what Kieckhefer calls the "less bold, less provocative, more obviously balanced" preaching of Tauler (Szarmach, 259), Suso's prose tended to be exuberantly poetic and graphically emotional. He has been labeled "extremely sentimental" with "the vivid imagination of a poet - an artist's temperament." (Jones, 142) For decades he practiced a severely ascetic lifestyle, forsaking worldly pleasures and sometimes going so far as to inflict suffering upon himself as a form of penance, although caution should be exercised when reading his own descriptions of such practices by taking them in the context of his "imaginative dominion over actual life" (Jones, 148). "Psychologists, even such wise ones as William James, have often gone wrong in their assumptions that the horrible details which are given in Suso's pages of the torments perpetrated on his body from the time he was eighteen until he was forty are to be taken literally." (Jones, 145)

Suso preached Gelassenheit, that one must die to himself by complete detachment in order to achieve perfection of the soul in Christ. He wrote in his autobiography that it was desirable to "be steadfast and never rest content until thou has obtained the Now of Eternity as thy present possession in this life."

Just as with John Tauler, there should be no question as to Suso's status as a Catholic. He was a Dominican priest. He was sent to Cologne in 1324 to finish his studies because of his faithful adherence to Catholic teaching and his superb intellectual abilities. He cared for and corresponded with the nuns of various convents in Germany. He claimed the influence of other Catholics such as St. Dominic, St. Arsenius, St. Bernard, St. Aquinas, and St. Dionysius. Like John Tauler, he took the side of the pope over Louis of Bavaria and was forced to leave Constance as a result. He died and was buried in Ulm in 1366 "already venerated by many in his order and by others in those areas where he had been engaged in preaching and other pastoral activities" (Tobin, p. 26). His life was one of fervent devotion to God and his church, so much so that he was beatified by Pope Gregory XVI in 1831. For these reasons, Wikipedia Encyclopedia states that "in his doctrine there was never the least trace of an unorthodox tendency".The encyclopedia goes further, saying: "the individualism, the philosophic insight and the anti-Catholic tendencies which made the mystic movement in its later manifestations so important a forerunner of the Reformation are absent in Suso." (emphasis added)

The Mysterious Friend of God from the Oberland

The main reason why these German mystics are sometimes mistakenly assumed to be pre-Reformation reformers is because of the creation of a fictional character known as Der Gottesfreund vom Oberland, or the "friend of God from the Upland" (see gray box for details). The story of this mysterious layman was told in the Meisterbuch ("Book of the Master") and was assumed for centuries to represent an actual person. Today, no serious scholar regards either Tauler, Eckhart, Suso, or even Nicholas of Basle as the Master. Accordingly, Rufus Jones writing in 1939 says the following:
"The research of the last sixty years has assaulted nearly all of Schmidt's historical positions and has left very little of the visible structure of his work standing. Father Denifle began the demolition of Schmidt's work in 1879, while he and later scholars have slowly completed the debacle. Doubts about the story of Tauler's conversion had been expressed much earlier than this date by various writers who felt suspicious that the story was untrustworthy." (87)


The "Meisterbuch" of the "Friend of God of the Upland" gives an account of a master of the Scriptures who attracted great attention in 1346 by his preaching. One day a layman accused the master of seemingly seeking his own honour rather than that of God, saying also that probably he had not himself borne the burdens he had laid upon others. Without making any stipulations the master allowed himself to be guided by the layman and learned from him to forget the world and himself, to turn all his thoughts upon God and to lead a life of the Spirit. For two years he lived in seclusion. When after this he preached again for the first time the effect was so great that forty of his hearers went into convulsions and twelve could hardly be revived. After the master had lived and laboured for nine years more he fell dangerously ill, and calling for the layman gave him a written account of his conversion. To this account the layman added five sermons of the master that he had copied." (CE)


The reason the identity of the "friend of God" and his "Master" is so important is because of the obviously anti-Catholic tone of the Meisterbuch. In other words, if it could be demonstrated that any of the German mystics were the Master, it would prove that they were not Catholic at all but rather were true believers seeking to "purify" the Roman Catholic Church before the Reformers existed. Jones summarizes Denifle's work with regard to Tauler with the following:
  • None of the editions of Tauler's sermons before 1498 (which is more than 100 years after his death) contain any reference to the story of his conversion.

  • Tauler was always referred to as "Brother Tauler", as a member of the Dominican order of priests, never as "Master" or "Doctor" (the title of "Doctor" = "Master of Holy Scripture").

  • The edition published in 1508 (which is the one Martin Luther read and liked so much) is the first one to call Tauler "Doctor".

  • Tauler never received the degree or title of "Master" or "Doctor" in his lifetime. This began when fifteenth- and sixteenth-century authors who assumed the The Meisterbuch was true began referring to him this way.

  • The sermons in The Meisterbuch were not even sermons by Tauler in the first place. The first one was actually Tractate No. 7 in the Pfeiffer collection now attributed to Meister Eckhart. The others do not match the well-known style of Tauler.

  • The sermons in The Meisterbuch show the writer of them to be in a state of revolt against the authority of the Church and an insurgent against the prescriptions and sanctions of the Church. As has been already shown, such as in his Sermon on the Feast of Saint Matthew for example, Tauler never stood against his church.

  • The date of death of the "Master" is given in The Meisterbuch as 1369, when it is well-documented that Tauler died in 1361.
  • The reasons given above led Jones to decide that "we may now take as settled the conclusion that The Meisterbuch has nothing to do with Brother Johannes Tauler and supplies no biographical material for the story of his life." (91-93). Even Schaff admits that "it is doubtful whether such a personage ever lived." (History of the Christian Church, iv, § 32). Modern scholarship tends toward the position that the friend of God was a literary creation of an layman named Rulman Merswin, whom Schaff calls the "inventor of this fictitious personage...The reason for this view is that no one else knows of the Oberlander and that, after Rulman's death, attempts on the part of the Strassburg brotherhood to find him, or to find out something about him, resulted in failure."(iv, § 32). The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge calls his writing "plainly the work of an ignorant, unskilful layman" (vol. iv p. 393) which would be in stark contrast to the preaching of Suso or Tauler.

    Nicholas of Basle

    Nicholas of Basle was born around the year 1308. Information about his life is scarce - a "very imperfect sketch" according to Bevan who writes about him in chapters 38-39 of his book referenced by Nate. He grew up as the son of a rich merchant and became a preacher after having an intense religious experience on the night before his wedding (a story strikingly similar to the one of St. Alexis which so inspired Peter Waldo, the founder of the Waldensian movement). Ferdinand Piper's 1880 book Lives of the Leaders of the Church Universal identifies him as a "mysterious and indefatigable chief of a Waldensian society" (vol I, 224). Frederick Leete's Christian Brotherhoods 1912 characterizes him merely as a "traveling missionary" (p 76).

    Because he relied on Karl Schmidt's research, Frances Bevan believed that Nicholas of Basle was the mysterious layman from the Oberland. However, the Encyclopedia Britannica points out that "a considerable legend has attached itself to Nicholas through the persistent but mistaken identification of him with the mysterious 'Friend of God from the Oberland'". The encyclopedia goes on to say that "since Denifle's researches (see especially Der Gottesfreund im Oberlande and Nikolaus von Basel, 1870) the belief has gained ground that the 'Friend' is not a historical personage at all...Apart from the collection of literature ascribed to him and Merswin there is no historical evidence of his existence." [emphasis added] It appears that Schmidt's conclusion was reached with questionable motives, as the Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics states: "before long the process of historical criticism brought to light the fact that Schmidt had excercised a quite arbitrary choice in his editing of the sources and had - without due indication - altered rubrics and text in accordance with his own opinion...Denifle's work was so thorough and convincing that Schmidt's, on the chief question, was completely undermined." (p. 140).

    It is interesting to note that already by the writing of Leete's, Christian Brotherhoods 1912 the scholarly opinion had turned against the idea that Nicholas of Basle was the truly the friend of the Oberland, saying merely that he was "at one time generally identified with the mysterious layman from the Oberland" (p. 76). The available evidence seems to be that he became the leader of the group called the Beghards, a heretical sect that began spreading throughout the Netherlands, Germany, France, and Italy in the fourteenth century. The Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics (p. 843) quotes a startling passage from a private book of the Beghards:
    "Moreover, the godlike man operates and begets the same that God operates and begets. For in God he worked and created heaven and earth. He is also the generator of the eternal word. Nor can God do anything without this man. The god-like man should, therefore, make his will conformable to God's will, so that he should will all that God wills. If, therefore, God wills that I should sin, I ought by no means to will that I may not have sinned. This is true contrition. And if a man have committed a thousand mortal sins, and the man is well regulated and united to God, he ought not to wish that he had not done those sins; and he ought to prefer suffering a thousand deaths rather than to have omitted one of those mortal sins." (quoted from Mosheim, Instititutes of Ecclesiastical History, II. v, 11)
    In other words, this group took the doctrinally-correct mysticism of Tauler and Suso and turned it into a license to indulge in the pleasures of the flesh. They did so by somehow rationalizing that once you reach that state of perfect union with God, you are not capable of sinning; therefore, any act you commit is not a sin. As appealing as this illogic may seem, the Catholic church understood it as the theological nonsense that it was and reacted the way it always dealt with perceived threats to the moral fabric of society - Nicholas and two of his followers were burned at the stake in Vienna in 1409. It seems that Tauler and Suso were aware of this deviant group because Tauler "shows at every stage a keen awareness of the need to protect himself and to protect his congregations from the dangers of heretical licence based on false claims to mystical experience." (Davies, p. 10) and Suso "distinguishes carefully the role of genuine despoilment from that of the Beghard libertines." (Petry, 247)

    CONCLUSION

    Desiring closeness to God is a natural tendency in humans, and it was certainly not new to Catholic theology by the time of Tauler and Suso. Even before the 12th Century which has been called "the contemplative age of gold" (Petry, 47), Catholics throughout history have written beautiful works emphasizing detachment from the world and inward focus on a closer union to God. As Tobin writes, "This emphasis on an intense personal relationship with God can hardly be considered an innovation of the fourteenth century. Within Western Christianity one can point to the writings of St. Augustine, especially the Confessions, and to those of St. Bernard of Clairvaux as clear evidence that an intense personal relationship with God was already established as a primary concern in the best traditions of Christian thought." (Henry Suso: The Exemplar, p. 15). Indeed, examination of Tauler's sermons - such as his Sermon for Epiphany, Sermon for the 1st and 2nd Sunday of Advent, and Sermon on Christmas - demonstrates total fidelity to his Church and awareness of his spiritual lineage from St.Anselm, St. Augustine, St. Bernard, St. Gregory, St. Francis, St. Jerome, St. Thomas, and others.

    The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge affirms that the Friends of God were "strongly influenced by the teaching of Bernard of Clairvaux" (vol. iv: p 392) and even notes that with Henry Suso "many of his views and speculations are derived from the great teachers of the Church, John of Damascus, Augustine, Bonaventura, and others." (vol xi: p. 172) To the example of Augustine in the fifth century and Bernard of Clairvaux of the twelfth I would add Benedict of Nursia, whose Rule was known as ora et labora, or pray and labor; see also John Chrysostom, Hilary of Poitiers, Ambrose of Milan. Irenaeus, writing in the third century, said, "for communion with God is life, and separation from God is death" (Adv.Her., V, 27,2 quoted in Clement's The Roots of Christian Mysticism).

    The Friends of God were not early Protestants. They were Catholics who sought ways to become closer to God through meditation and prayer without forsaking the sacraments of the Catholic Church. Because Rulman Merswin created a nonexistant character named the friend of God whose false writings contained anti-Catholic statements, many historians have been misled into portraying them as proto-Protestants. The Columbia Encyclopedia puts it delicately: "In spite of their orthodox and scholastic Catholicism, they have been much admired by Protestants." On the other hand, Schaff is more blunt with regard to Tauler, for example - saying that "in his attitude to the revealed Word, he is no more entitled to the name of forerunner of the Reformation" (New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, vol xi: p 277). Jones agrees, saying "The attempts of late writers to turn Tauler into a pre-Protestant reformer rest on fiction and not on verifiable facts." (95) Schaff summarizes it best: "Their practices did not involve a breach with the Church and its ordinances. They had no sympathy with heresy, and antagonized the Brethren of the Free Spirit. The little treatise, called the German Theology, at the outset marks the difference between the Friends of God and the false, free spirits, especially the Beghards." (A A 32)
    ----------------------------

    SOURCES

    Clark, James M. The Great German Mystics: Eckhart, Tauler, and Suso. Oxford, 1949.

    Clement, Olivier. The Roots of Christian Mysticism. London: New City Press, 1993.

    Davies, Oliver, ed. The Rhineland Mystics: The Writings of Meister Eckhart, Johannes Tauler, and Jan van Ruusbroec and Selections from the "Theologica Germanica" and the "Book of Spiritual Poverty". New York: Crossroad, 1989.

    Hastings, James, ed. The Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1910.

    Jones, Rufus Matthew. The Flowering of Mysticism. New York: The Macmillan Co., 1939.

    Ozment, Steven E. Homo spiritualis. A Comparative Study of the anthropology of Johannes Tauler, Jean Gerson and Martin Luther (1509-16) in the Context of Their Theological Thought. Leiden E. J. Brill, 1969.

    Petry, Ray, ed. Late Medieval Mysticism. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1957.

    Schaff, Philip. History of the Christian Church. Vol. VI, chapter 4. http://www.ccel.org/s/schaff/history/ (accessed December, 2005).

    Schaff, Philip. New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge. Vol IV. http://www.ccel.org/s/schaff/encyc/ (accessed December, 2005).

    Szarmach, Paul, ed. An Introduction to the Medieval Mystics of Europe. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984.

    Tauler, Johannes. Sermons. The Classics of Western Spirituality Seris. New York: Paulist Press, 1985.

    Tobin, Frank, ed. Henry Suso: The Exemplar with Two German Sermons. New York: Paulist Press, 1989.




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