Francis Dávid's Epistemological Borrowings

from Henry Cornelius Agrippa of Nettesheim


by Judit Gellérd


I.  Introduction

II.  Thesis

Agrippa influenced Dávid both directly and indirectly in Dávid's search for an epistemological stance that could defy the medieval church and its dogmatic authority.  That stance was rational biblicism.

III.  Historic background

The Radical Reformation

IV.  Biographical data

A. Francis Dávid

B. Henry Cornelius Agrippa

V.  Arguments by Example

A.  Arguments 1-6

B.  Counter Arguments

VI.  Conclusion






Francis Dávid's Epistemological Borrowings

from Henry Cornelius Agrippa of Nettesheim


                                                                                                          by Judit Gellérd


I.  Introduction

Two outstanding figures of the Renaissance and Radical Reformation, the German philosopher-scientist Henry Cornelius Agrippa and the Hungarian theologian Francis Dávid, will be compared in this essay.   I will argue that Agrippa influenced Francis Dávid both directly and indirectly in Dávid's search for an epistemological stance that could defy the medieval Church and the authority of its dogmas.  That stance was rational biblicism.  This will entail a "paradigm shift" that contains three interlocking assertions: scripture is God's authorative word and reason is God's gift to understand scripture (revelation); the divine activity of the Holy Spirit is seen in human reason (faith) since "reason is the lantern of faith";[1] God's gift of reason for the "divinization" of humankind must be free of all human coercion since a free conscience is necessary for faith to produce a free human being, not a slave.  Thus, the influence of Agrippa on Dávid would be suggesstive; ideas would be taken from their medieval roots and recreated in a form that had little precedent in his age.

 Francis Dávid while studying in Wittenberg, read Agrippa and in his De falsa et vera[2] he claims Agrippa as his predecessor among the “reclamatores” [‘protesters’].[3]  I will set forth selections from Agrippa and Francis Dávid which illustrate their epistemological foundations.[4] I will summarize the historical background as well as the major ideas of both men.  But I will limit my anaylsis to a single problem:  epistemological borrowings and influence.  I am going to present examples and to argue that these allow us to see Dávid's use of Agrippa in creating his epistemological position from which he can carry out his Radical Reformation.  Most of the illustrative texts will center on the use of scripture as the highest authority for truth.  The examples will proceed from a general human ability to study scripture, to encouragement of use of Hebrew and Greek manuscripts of scripture, to use of scripture as law rather than canon law and papal decrees.  Finally,  there is a plea for tolerance of what one learns in the pursuit of truth.  But the instances of borrowing are not the real story.  I will conclude that Dávid repeatedly expanded and re-applied Agrippa's notions into a way of knowing that pointed toward Biblical criticism based on reason and freedom of conscience, based on the essense of faith itself.



II. Historic background:

The Radical Reformation


George Huntston Williams in The Radical Reformation defined a three-pronged movement  of “loosely interraleted congeries of reformations and restitutions” of the Anabaptists, spiritualists and evangelical rationalists as Radical Reformation, arising in opposition to Lutheran-Zwinglian-Calvinist line of magisterial reformation and extending between 1516 (Erasmus’ translation of the Greek New Testament) and 1579 (death of Francis Dávid).[5]  All three agreed in renouncing of coercion and war and spreading their doctrines through philanthropy, mission and martyrdom.  Williams argued that they differed from magisterial reformers who "carried the seed of a complete Christian commonwealth within"--even when they were not aided by magistrates.[6]  Radical reformers emphasized regeneration and deification, disapproving the doctrine of original sin and predestination.  Their main emphasis was on personal religious experience and imitation of the life of the original apostolic community of the New Testament, believing it to be in imitatio Christi.  In the breakup from the medieval church, magisterial reformers differed from radicals in their goal of reformatio by dukes or kings. The radical reformers sought restitutio, that is, reinstitution of the apostolic church based on God's Word and freedom of conscience in responding to it.

Evangelical rationalists, as Francis Dávid and Transylvnaian Unitarians were, tended to be individualists but were opposed to the Nicene Creed and its doctrine of the Trinity.  They preferred Erasmus' Third Church, “neither Protestant nor Catholic, devout but not doctrinaire.”[7]  “The doctrine of the inwardly disciplined but externally free 'apostolic' church has therefore been rightly recognized as one of the common marks of the whole of the Radical Reformation,”[8] Williams concluded.


III. Biographical Data


Francis Dávid (1510?-1579)


Transylvanian Unitarian reformer, Francis Dávid,[9] is situated in the radical wing of the Reformation, even though he converted a magistrate to his reforms. He was the only reformer who, once gaining power to coerce other's to his reform, actually practiced the principles of the minority--that of toleration of those who did not have the power to coerce others.  He remained an evangelical rationalist even after gaining access to power, granting toleration of religious differences as a matter of freedom of conscience rather than pleading for it from those in power.[10] Francis Dávid perfectly reflected the Transylvanian Reformation.  He had been a Roman Catholic priest, converted to Lutheranism becoming its first superintendent in Transylvania, led in the Calvinist reforms as one of two bishops, and then initiated the Unitarian movement, converting King John Sigismund to his reforms and then issuing the Edict of Torda.[11] But this period of toleration of conscience ended suddenly with the death of the young king and with Dávid finally being imprisoned at the fortress of Déva and dying there as a martyr.  A cluster of events in 1578 and 1579, including Dávid's death, led Williams to conclude that the Radical Reformation ended then.  From that point onwards this fourth wing of the Reformation softened its most radical elements and reentered the mainstream of Christian history.[12] 

Francis Dávid's epistomological method of re-examining Christian doctrines in the light the Bible lead him to acceptance of only those teachings that had a foundation in the Gospel and were compatible with reason.   Dávid replaced scholastic dogmatism with the direct voice of the Bible.   The dogma of the Trinity emerged as the central theme for Dávid's reforming work.  After thorough examination--using his brilliant language skills of Greek, Hebrew and Latin--Dávid replaced the dogma of the Trinity with the idea of unity of God, indivisible in his essence and his person, thus restoring the Biblical notion of one God in its original purity.  Dávid praised Erasmus, “the wise man who faithfully wrote against Trinity.”[13]  Here Dávid "leaps" to a conclusion that Erasmus did not articulate.  Is this the insight of a master chess player who sees the next move (although it is not obvious to a beginner)?  Or has Dávid again demonstrated how quickly he moved beyond a suggestion to his own insights?  In the Rövid Magyarázat Dávid wrote:[14]


There is nothing clearer in the great Scripture that the science about God’s unity.  The Bible consistently calls God the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. . . . But the Antichrist could not spoil this, but, through the sophists, added to it and made the only God one being, but three in persons. . . The simple teachings of the Apostles thus have been corrupted and God’s true being was obscured.

With such vain obscurities the Antichrist locked out the true Christ from the Church and from the hearts of the people. . . the Christ of whom the Apostles wrote and whom God commended us as his beloved Son.   The Antichrist masked the essence of both the Father and the Son.  To give authority to its dogmas, the Antichrist added creeds to this, namely the Nicene and the Athanasian Creed in which God is three.[15]

Dávid’s strong humanistic views echoed that of Agrippa’s.  Agrippa’s notion of “deificatio” corresponded with Dávid’s notion of “divinizatio,” a process of continuous perfection.  The essence of the Unitarian reformation consisted in “the disruption of the ontological structure of medieval Christian theology and in recognition of value-orientation of the Gospel, thus bringing an axiological Christianity to light, of axiological salvation replaced ontological salvation.”[16]  Heaven was no longer a cosmological notion but “the summary of all divine qualities in us,”[17] that is, an axiological notion.   Sin was merely a deficiency in human moral development.  The good news of Dávid was that all humans have the same “divine potentials,” therefore have the responsibility to follow Jesus as their ultimate example.  Imre Gellérd puts this as a “moral imperative”--because one can follow Jesus, therefore one must.

Though Dávid was accused of the most dreaded charge of “innovation” when sentenced to life in prison, he vehemently argued against his accusers: “Do not claim to anyone that we would start a new science but let everybody understand that we preach the old Gospel which St. Paul the apostle and other apostles had been preaching.”[18]  Dávid did not intend to reform the church, but the faith and foundation which deviated from the Gospel.  He was confident that through the internal, the external framework will be renewed as well.  The ideal congregation was that of the time of the Apostles, when “simplicity, purity, truthfulness, humility, love and self-sacrifice--that is, the holy spirit acted among believers.”[19]

Whatever Dávid might have said in his defense against reform, revolt or innovation, from the vantage point of history, his way of reading scripture was not part of the medieval world.  Dávid completely bypassed the authority of councils and popes.   Dávid encouraged every Christian to read God's Word in original languages of Greek and Hebrew rather than Latin--or for the laity not to  read scripture at all (the position of the scholastics).  Dávid argued that only a free man[20]--not a serf or slave--can exercise a free conscience, which is the necessary requisite of faith.  Thus, the introduction of religious toleration and freedom of conscience is his universal legacy.  



Henry Cornelius Agrippa of Nettesheim (1486-1535)

Pre-Reformation Agrippa fascinated and influenced prominent thinkers and artists of his time and beyond.  Agrippa was a German physician and philosopher, a faithful follower of Erasmus.  An extended correspondence testifies his close connection with Erasmus who praised Agrippa's De vanitate et incertitudine scientiarum et artium [Of the Vanitie and Uncertaintie of Artes and Sciences.]   However, after Agrippa self-declared war on immoral monks and corruption of the Church, Erasmus not only cautioned him, but slowly distanced himself from Agrippa whose radicalism he viewed politically dangerous in time of the Inquisition.

Agrippa's life was full of extremes of success and disaster.  Being a charismatic personality with impressive erudition--mastering six languages, being a Doctor in canon and civic law as well as in medicine, being knighted by the Emperor--he had a very unsettled life.  But wherever he re-surfaced in great cities of Europe--Paris, Cologne, Antwerp, Geneva, Metz--became instantly a center of intellectual life.  Not too long, though, for his radical thoughts, viewed as dangerous, alienated his friends and patrons alike.  While his book De occulta philosophia   (1533) was one of the most influential books of the Renaissance, it did not interest Dávid at all since he focused on a revealed Bible read by a trained and reasoning mind.

Agrippa’s main focus on esoteric aspects of science and radical gnostic theological views--Neoplatonic occultism, alchemy, Cabala, Hermetic literature--as well as his political attacks against corrupt practices of the Church and of the Papacy, made him a leader of progressive intellectuals as well as threat for the establishment in the church.  Like Dávid, Agrippa upheld humanistic views and optimism of creative potentials of each individual.  Such a conclusion was a reflection of his own scientific views, endangering him in the time of the Inquisition.  Agrippa even supported marriage of the Catholic clergy and argued for superiority of women and the egalitarian views of the early Christians.[21]  He demanded simplifying the church and worship, getting rid of images which he calls idolatry of paganism.   “Perfect Christians require little or no externality in religion.”[22]  One aspect of corruption of the Church, he complained, is adding more and more external acts of ritual, and reaching a point when the “essentials of religion are obscured by the external husk.” (Chap XCII.) He insisted on inwardness in worship: “It is safer not to attach our faith to visible things but to worship . . . in spirit and truth through our Lord Jehova.” (Chap. lvii).  These ideas found expressions in the Unitarian simplicity of white-washed, unadorned churches and liturgy, even today.  One particular liturgical moment especially echoes Agrippa, the call for silent prayer: “We need to worship God in spirit and truth.  Let us turn inward and listen to the voice of our conscience.”

Slowly, Agrippa became increasingly skeptical about his own scientific and philosophical pursuits and concluded in fideism, in a kind of "fundamentalist anti-intellectualism." [the way his English interpreter reads him--Catherine M. Dunn].  God's word and grace became the principle source of knowledge for Agrippa. "To know all things without the words of God, is to know nothing."[23]   

In his brilliance and skepticism, Dunn and Nauert claim, Agrippa became the literary model for the legend of Faust and the figure of Doctor Faustus, inspiring Goethe's Faust.  Nauert also suggests Agrippaa’s influence on Boccaccio's Decameron, the artwork of Dührer, some fiction and poetry of Franz Kafka, as well as writings of Jaque Derrida.


From Rational Skepticism to Biblical Rationalism

Agrippa's De Vanitate provided Dávid with supportive notions for his own endeavor in Transylvania.  Agrippa's skepticism against the teachings of the theologians of the Church (whom he liked to call derogatively "theosophistae"[24]), his attacks on the corruption of the monks carrying out the inquisition, and his strong reliance on scripture over against the dogmas of councils and doctors of the Church found fertile ground in Dávid.   But where Agrippa stopped, Dávid proceeded.   Agrippa remained faithful to his Roman Catholic tradition, yet under “Christian liberty”--his favorite expression--full-heartedly supported reform, but not schism.  Dávid pursued restitution of a Church based on the Gospel, even if it meant schism.  Agrippa ended his quest for truth after, for what must have been at that time, a daring and brilliant career of skeptical exploration in the bosom of faith.  

I will continue to present numerous examples drawn from a comparison of Agrippa's De Vanitate[25] and Dávid's Rövid Magyarázat.[26]  I will focus on Agrippa's use of scripture against a corrupt Church and his end in what others have called "fideism."[27]  Dávid moves past Agrippa's rational skepticism to construct an epistemology that is both medieval and radical: biblical rationalism.

Example One: Skepticism toward Canon Law. Agrippa accused scholastic theologians who corrupted the Christian gospel and who “have obscured the pure and simple word of God by their sophisticated subtleties, bending the teachings of Christ to the opinions of pagan philosophers” and burdensome canon laws:[28]

. . . the whole Canon Lawe is of all the most inconstaunt, and more mutable then the Chameleon, and more intricate then Gordians knotte, and that same Christian Religion, at the beginninge whereof Christe toke awaie ceremonies, hath nowe more than euer the Iewes had, the paise of which being put thereto, the light and sweete yoke of Christe is become much more greauous then all the rest, and the Christians are enforced to liue rather after the order of the Canons, then after the Gosple.[29]

In Dávid’s opinion God revealed his laws but not through councils and doctors of the Church, not through so-called holy traditions, but through biblical revelation and humanity.  (Imre Gellérd calls the first “objective,” the second “subjective” element of revelation.)  Echoing Agrippa’s views, Dávid regretted that philosophers “. . . didn't understand the truth and proffered such words along with God's Word which led people away from their faith;"[30]  “You were created as ‘old [hu]man’ whom Jesus had saved.  But the councils and the doctors of the church corrupted your true knowledge and you became outlawed old man again. . .”  But “these corrupters of the scripture won't mislead us because all that they have inserted into God's word from the conjuring of their heads will be burned, like chaff, by the fire of God's truth."[31]  It must be noted that Dávid combine the primacy of scripture and skepticism for ecclesiastical authority.  This would lead Dávid to a much more radical stance than Agrippa.

Example Two: Despising not God’s Word. Agrippa argued against the proud, despising scholastics (philosophers and doctors of canon law) who did not follow Christ's Gospel, who are proud in their own learning and knowledge, and, in fact despise the holy scriptures. 


I see many ware prowde in Humane learninge and knowledge, that therefore they do despise and lothe, the Sacred and Canonicall Scriptures of the Holie Ghoste, as rude and rusticall, because they haue no ornamentes of woords, force of sillogismes, and affectate perswasiens, nor the strange doctrine of the Philosophers: but are simply grounded vpon the operation of Vertue, and pon bare Faithe, but beside this they haue it in greate contempte.[32]

This argument resonates in Dávid’s Rövid Magyarázat when he warns against such pride and tendency to despise the scripture.  Unless simple people being mislead by philosophers, “we all have the necessary wisdom to understand the Scripture and need not to despise it.”[33]

Example Three: Studying the Bible. Agrippa argued for the study of the bible.[34]  He attacked those conservatives who opposed humane letters, especially the study of Hebrew and Greek.  The Bible, however, is not only for the learned, Agrippa argued, but also for simple people, the “lesser souls.” The Bible should be democratically accessible for all, not just for theologians.    

The theologians err greatly in concealing the Bible from the people. Understande ye then that there is nothinge in the holy Scriptures so harde, so profounde, so difficulte, so hidden, so holy which appertaineth not to all them that beliue in Christe: nor that hath in suche sorte bene committed to these our Masters, that they ought and maie hide it from the Christian people but rather all diuinitee ought to be common to all beleuers, and eurey one according to the capacitee, and measure of the gifte of the holy ghoste.[35]

Dávid echoes these ideas, emphasising the sola scriptura principle of  the Reformation, as the gospel being the condition for salvation.  "Only God's words (gospel) deserve full honor." (E.II.)[36]  The Bible is clear enough, Dávid argued, to be understood and used as an honest measure by everyone.  There is no need for mediators.  “If belief in those [of church councils’] dogmas are the condition for salvation, no simple peasant ever would be saved, for they could never comprehend such teachings.”[37]

The Holy Spirit enlightens our mind to recognize the truth.  Councils and Church fathers veil and falsify the truth, confusing human and divine matters.[38]  One can learn the truth, Dávid argued “by drawing from the one well and lighting only one torch, the true, unfalsified Jesus.”[39]  Studying the Bible in original languages in order to avoid distortion of the true meaning, was also Dávid’s lifelong pursuit and he has become known in Hungary and Transylvania as one of the greatest Biblical scholars of his time.

Agrippa further argued that "The holy Scripture has the authority, but keep in mind that the letter killeth, it is deadly, it is vnprofitable, . . . we ought to search out that whiche lieth hidden in the letter..."[40]

Dávid too made a sharp difference between the spirit and the letter of the scripture.  But he extended Agrippa's argument into new territory.  Being the first Hungarian scholar to use Biblical criticism in the age of the Reformation, Dávid argued that John 5:7 “was smuggled into the canon by the doctors of the Trinity, in order to patch up the doctrine of the Trinity.”[41]  He recognized that “. . . we can follow the great Holy Scripture as true ruler [linea],” but refused to be a slave to its letter.  “Dávid related to the Bible through two guiding principles of the apostolic tradition: the first, try everything and keep what is good.  The second, the letter kills but the spirit gives life,”[42] Imre Gellérd wrote.  Dávid viewed Biblical text as metaphorical, symbolic expressions. “The scripture shows God’s deeds in symbols.”[43]  It speaks figuratively and by parallelism.

As usual Dávid added something to Agrippa's agrument: in this instance a moral or axiological factor to Bible study. Agrippa seemed content with arguing for enough space for his own independence to be a physician, scientist and philosopher.  He argument for an individual's study of scripture seemed more a protection the stake or the gallows.    Dávid's argument expanded into a holistic program that would result in a life modelled on that of Christ.  Concerning this hermeneutical criteria of correct interpretation of the Bible, Mihály Balázs argues,[44] Dávid emphasized the ethical criteria.  He gives his own example of the process of “illumination” in the studying the Bible.  First overwhelmed and confused, he needed God’s help to understand its true meaning.  Then the qualitative leap followed, when one’s life transforms and “shall be true disciples of Christ, . . . being instructed by him.  And coming to the Lord, the obscurity of our eyes and the hardness of our hearts will be taken away.”[45]  The axiological criteria and creation exclusivity is key to correct interpretation of the scripture.  Bible is available to all, but only “God has hidden the meaning of His word under the secret signs of the letter, lest dogs and pigs should roam freely in that garden of roses, but that it should belong to those who sell all they possess and, buying this land, do not travel to trade in foreign parts.”[46]

Example Four: Judging Scripture with Reason. Agrippa held the opinion that even scripture can err because of human mediation of divine revelation, or later alteration of the original text.  "Prophetic utterances were to be tested by their general harmony with the rest of the Scripture."[47]  Here Agrippa sided with Erasmus.

Francis Dávid shared Agrippa’s emphasis but began to apply this notion: reason must be used to determine scriptural contexts.  A favorite expression of Dávid was “according to the flow of the scripture. . .”  Imre Gellérd wrote that “Dávid was selective of Biblical passages.  The flow of scripture was not uniform, some passages being better than others.  Therefore the people had the right to ‘screen the Word.’”[48]  Scripture was not static but "flowing rationality and wisdom."   "Do not take just one verse, but many."  "No one is a better interpreter of one's own words than one's self."  He sought de scope et intentione auctoris.[49]

Dávid recognized that there were obscure assertions in the Bible, but ". . . what is obscure in the scripture must be explained with clearer descriptions.  And because there is no text in the Bible that is without a parallel, it is necessary that the clear one explain the obscure.  Search for the sayings from the Old Testament in the New Testa­ment as well."[50]

Another principle of Dávid, reproduced by Gellérd was this: "In order to understand the Bible one could also use external resources, "which cannot be found in God's Word, but which should not differ and contradict it."[51]  In one sermon we read this characterization:  "What it should teach it doesn't, and what it does say is not true."[52] "The Word of God is clear.   It doesn't point randomly here and there, and nothing is contrary in it; rather, it must be pondered well."[53] 

Dávid’s emphasis on the listening to God’s words “as it flows” in the scripture is eloquently expressed later in the Edict of Toleration.  "God didn't hide his Word in a sack; God explains your salvation through his holy spirit if you listen to him."[54]   The individualism of the Radical Reformation--and more importantly of individual conscience-- is manifest in this teaching:   "When you explain scripture, you should be concerned first of all with what the scripture tells you and only afterwards take into consideration another's opinion."[55] 

Dávid emphasized the importance of faith and reason in interpreting the scripture ". . . because one must be selective, as to whether or not it [the message] corresponds to the true faith."[56]  The scripture measured the person, but the person also screened the scripture.  Dávid declared that the scripture must be read and explained intelli­gently, ". . . but we can only comprehend its true meaning with the spirit."[57]  "God's word is true but without reason it is too flavorless."[58]  "If we want to get to the true meaning of scripture, it is necessary to fix our vision upon the true master, the holy spirit.[59] 

Again Dávid needed only the seed of an argument to see further implications.  He would take this argument about responsibility in interpreting scripture and connect it with universal toleration before God.  No Christian before him had seen a Christian principle that would prohibit coersion to establish faith in God and God's laws. 

Example Five: Faith as the basis for toleration.  Persecutions based on canon law and on decrees of the popes, Agrippa argued,  acted as if both were without error and forced the heretic to swear an oath against their own conscience.  It seemed they might have allowed persecution based on scriptural truths. “Human error alone is not heresy,” Agrippa declared, not admitting though that with this he became a Protestant in his view. 

Inquisitoures of Heretickes although it ought to be grounded vpon deuine doctrine ad the holy Scriptures, yet they doo most cruelly exercise all this Arte according to Canon Lawe, and decrees of the Popes, as if it were impossible that the Pope should, neglecting the Holy Scripture as it were a deade letter, and shadowe of the truthe.... [The heretics are coerced to revoke their opinion,] to denie by othe his opinions againste his conscience, and if he will not doo it, they deliuer him into the handes of the temporall iudge to be burned...[60]

Dávid turned Agrippa's attack on Canon Law and errors of the Papacy into a reason for freedom of conscience for faith.   Religion should not be forced upon anyone neither from outside nor from inside, for, he said, faith is from God and no one must act against God's gift.  This would be expressed completely in the Edict of Torda by Francis Dávid (1568).[61]

Again Dávid's agreement with Agrippa is a springboard to a larger agenda.  Agrippa's toleration is extended in both intention and application.  Agrippa argued to avoid being branded a heretic, while Dávid argued against heresy as such.  For Dávid heresy has no basis.  If God requires an act of faith, and that act is from a free person not a slave, then the sword cannot suddenly be lifted in the name of God to coerse conformity. 

Last Example: "Fideism." (Truth and knowledge) Agrippa ended his rational skepticism in De Vanitate in the bosom of faith.  Human reason admonished with humility of spirit and cleanness of heart, the unadorned Word of God--these were the values that man needed. What man must do is believe, not understand.  He emphasized also grace and love which was necessary for the intellect to guide the will.  For Agrippa love had priority over cognition in knowing God. “Man’s highest felicity is to know and love God.” 

The Diuine wisdome neuer faileth, nothinge escapeth it, nothinge augmenteth it, but comprehendeth al things.  Understande you therefore now, that there needeth not muche labour in this place, but Faithe and Praier: not the studie of longe time, but humbleness of Spirite and cleannesse of Harte.[62]

Agrippa seemed to undercut his own enterprise, the pursuit of truth and learning, with his conclusion.  Did he end his life as a philosopher in despair of his own profession?  Did he finally become a faithful son of the Church?  Or was this the last refuge for a clever philosopher whose skepticism was radicalized by persecution?   Agrippa affirmed God as the author of all truth and that it must be revealed from above. 

"...God alone hath in him selfe the fountaine of truth, from which it is necessarie that he drawe, which desireth the true doctrine: seeinge that any science is not, nor can be had of the secretes of nature, of the seuered substances, nor of God the authoure of them, excepte it be reuealed from aboue."[63]

Whatever this might mean, it would be an incomplete epistemological solution for Dávid. Even his most popular expressions show this difference.  Dávid, along with Luther and other reformers, viewed the Bible superior to decrees of councils and synods.  God has revealed the truths in the Bible.  In his view, the way towards learning the truth is not faith as with Luther, neither the salvatoric work of Christ for Calvin, but "spiritual wisdom and clear vision" in an engaged study the Bible.  The true meaning of the Scripture would be shown (or revealed) by the aid of the Holy Spirit.  Thus "we learn to distinguish between truth and falsehood and find the true meaning of the Scripture."  "This is indeed an optimistic humanistic view of the values and rights of human reasoning."  "People should give up on other speculations, Councils, Doctors of the Church and other authorities and believe the pure Gospel of God and be satisfied by it.  Councils and Doctors confuse people by their many views of discord."[64]

Once again, Dávid took Agrippa's superficial formulations about faith and applied them to a new context.  Dávid could be said to disagree with fideism as a retreat.  But for Dávid, faith was not a retreat at all.  It was the engaged posture of a free, reasoning, divinized [hu]man.  It can be argued that this is not fideism at all.  Or it can posited that the "paradigm shift" entailed in Dávid's biblical rationalism fills faith with new richness and meaning.  Faith is freedom to study God's Word, to respond freely as one's conscience dictates, and to live freely led by the Holy Spirit.

Counter Argument 1.  I had to limit my research to one primary source and secondary materials to interpret Francis Dávid.   My father worked with all the original sources in Latin and old Hungarian and I translated his writings into English.  But my father's purposes did not require him to mention Agrippa directly.  Mihály Balázs in his Early Transylvanian Antitrinitarianism analyzed the more scholarly Latin version of Dávid’s Rövid Magyarázat: the De falsa et vera, in which Balázs quotes Dávid mentioning Agrippa positively among important reclamatores or “protesters,” predecessors of Antitrinitarianism, alongside with Erasmus, Servet, Valdesius, Gentile, Ochino, Lelio Sozzini and others.[65]  One could argue that my thesis is weakened by lack of use of more original sources.  Dávid's manuscripts are preserved in only one library in the world, that of the National Academy of Sciences, Cluj (Kolozsvár) Branch, Romania.  I plan to work with Prof. Mihály Balázs this summer to digitize these rare documents.

Counter Argument 2.  Besides secondary materials I only had an English translation written in Old English of Agrippa's De Vanitate.   It may be argued that the translators made a poor translation or that the original wording would not have been of value to Dávid.   It may be possible to demonstrate that Dávid’s reading of Agrippa in Latin would not be as striking as the translations into English.  Certainly, to see more dependencies, influences, reconstruction, deviations or misunderstandings of Agrippa by Dávid, I will need to work with the Latin text.

Counter Argument 3.  Dávid's use of Agrippa may seem inconsequential and therefore be deemed no philosophical influence at all.  But this counter argument surely requires that Agrippa and Dávid operated from the same worldview.  If, and this seems to be substantiated, Dávid began a "paradigm shift" built upon philosophical borrowings, then the triviality of borrowings from Agrippa would not refute their importance.  If Dávid's epistemological stance differs completely from Agrippa, that suggest Dávid's reworking of medieval and renaissance material into a new paradigm.  His epistemology would have a triple formulation based on the Bible, the Holy Spirit and human reason.  Prison and death cut short Dávid's process of articulating, weighing and adjudicating these elements. 


V.  Conclusion: Dávid's Biblical Rationalism


In Dávid’s theology there were three elements: the scripture itself (revelation), divine activity of faith (the Holy Spirit), and human reason.  He seems to be a bridge between medieval analogical and symbolic use of scripture and modern hermeneutics.   Divinized (sanctified) reason is the lantern of faith.  But there must also be knowledge in faith.”[66]  In Dávid’s optimistic view, humans are being equipped to approach God through reason and faith:


We must take off the cataracts from our eyes in order to clearly see. . . . God has provided not only reveation through scriptures, but also enabled man to understand the written revelation through true reason, liberated conscience and clear vision.[67]

Agrippa's pursuit of knowledge has been, justly, characterized as eclectic, and even shallow (Nauert, Dunn).  But what is essential is that his use of Platonic notions does not lead to a new epistemological foundation or stance.  He criticized the vanity of all learning (an ancient skeptical argument) for its contradictions and lack of common sense (running contrary to reason and observation).  But he could not find an epistemological foundation other than faith, to which he retreats.  Despite all his pursuits into new and ancient learning, he submitted to the Church--and seemingly abandoned human reason as folly.  Agrippa did criticize the Church's excesses with scripture.  If only faith could unveil the true learning (the Ideas) to the soul, and if one submitted to the Church as the abode of faith, then Agrippa's criticism of the Medieval Church remained shallow.  It would require a paradigm shift to place Agrippa's reliance on scripture in service of a fundamental critique of the epistemological foundations of the church itself. 

In summary, Dávid applied Agrippa's skepticism and aspects of his arguments into a solid epistemological foundation, that being  biblical rationalism.   Dávid's epistemological foundation is unlike any of the other reformers.    Dávid's way of reading scripture was not part of the medieval world.   Here he joined Erasmus and Agrippa. Dávid completely bypassed the authority of councils and popes.  Dávid encouraged every Christian to read God's Word in original languages of Greek and Hebrew rather than Latin--or for the laity not to  read scripture at all (the position of the scholastics).  Dávid argued that only a free man[68]--not a serf or slave--can exercise a free conscience, which is the necessary requisite of faith.  And Dávid  enjoined kings and princes from coersing God's children in their exercise of reason--which was the essense of faith.  Thus, Dávid  introduced religious toleration and the freedom of conscience into politics.  Others would argue, as members of persecuted minorities for these, but none gave it to others if they obtained the power of the state.   In so many ways, Dávid prefigured things yet to come.

Therefore, it is concluded, with quite high probability, that Agrippa influenced Dávid, both directly and indirectly, in Dávid's search for an epistemological stance that could defy the medieval church and its dogmatic authority.  That stance was scriptural or biblical rationalism.  But that stance entailed a paradigm shift from a medieval worldview to one for which Europe was not yet ready.




Primary Sources:

Agrippa, Henry Cornelius. Of  the Vanitie and Vncertaintie of Artes and Sciences.  Edited by Catherine M. Dunn Northridge, Ca.: California State University, 1974

Dávid, Ferenc. Rövid Magyarázat [Short Explanation]. Albae Ivliae: Typographum Regium Raphaelem Hoffhalterum, MDLXVII; Facsimile reprint 1910


Secondary Sources:

Balázs, Mihály. Early Transylvanian Antitrinitarianism. Baden-Baden & Bouxwiller: Éditions Valentin Koerner, 1996

Erdö, János. Transylvanian Unitarian Church. Translated by Judit Gellérd. Chico, CA: The Center for Free Religion, 1990

Gellérd, Imre. A History of Transylvanian Unitarianism through Four Centuries of Sermons, Translated by Judit Gellérd.  Kolozsvár: Unitarian Printing House, 1999

Nauert, G. Charles Jr.. Agrippa and the Crisis of Renaissance Thought (Urbana: University of Illinois Studies in the Social Sciences, vol. 55, 1965)

Williams, Huntston George. The Radical Reformation. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1962



[1]Imre Gellerd, A History of Transylvanian Unitarianism through Four Centuries of Sermons, translated by Judit Gellérd (Kolozsvár: Unitarian Printing House, 1999), quoting Dávid, 21.

                [2]This Latin manuscript of Dávid is preserved in only one library in the world, that of the Romanian Academy of Sciences, Kolozsvár [Cluj] Branch.  The selections of my arguments are from a Hungarian work of Dávid, the Rövid magyarázat  [Short Explanation].

                [3]Mihaly Balázs, Early Transylvanian Antitrinitarianism, (Baden-Baden & Bouxwiller: Éditions Valentin Koerner, 1996) 34. 

                [4]My choice of Agrippa was partially based on phone conversations with Prof. Mihaly Balázs at JATE University of Szeged, Hungary, an authority in sixteentth century Hungarian literature.  I have learned from him that in spite of ample evidence, Agrippa’s role in the Transylvanian Antitrinitarian movement is completley unreasearched.  Therefore my paper is a pioneering attempt.

[5]George Huntston Williams, The Radical Reformation (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1962), xxxi.

[6]Ibid., xxiv.

[7]Ibid., xxix.

[8]Ibid. xxix.

[9]Dávid is the family name and would appear first in Hungarian usage.  Francis is commonly substituted for Ferenc.

[10]I have argued (in my “Transylvania and Religious Toleration" paper, presented at Toledo, OH, 1988 conference on Religious Toleration) that this is a first in European Christianity. 

[11]Resolution of the Diet at Torda on January 6, 1568 is commonly called “The Edict of Torda:  Preachers everywhere are to preach the gospel according to their understanding of it; if the parish willingly receives it, good: but if not, let there be no compulsion on it to do so, since that would not ease any man’s soul; but let each parish keep a minister whose teaching is acceptable to it.  Let no superintemdent or anyone else ace violently or abusivley to a preacher.  No one many threaten another on account of his teaching, with imprisonment or deprivation of office: for faith is a gift of God; it comes from listening, and listening is through God’s word.”  János Erdö, Transylvanian Unitarian Church Translated by Judit Gellérd (Chico, CA: The Center for Free Religion, 1990), 52.

[12]George Huntston Williams, The Radical Reformation, xxxi.

                [13]A reference on Erasmus’ Novum Testamentum omne, diligenter ab Erasmo Rotterdamo recognitum et emendatum, who left out the only supportive passage of the Trinity, John 5:7, from his transaltion of the New Testament. 

                [14]All quotations from this Hungarian work are my own translation.

                [15]Ferenc, Dávid, Rövid Magyarázat [Short Explanation] (Albae Ivliae: Typographum Regium Raphaelem Hoffhalterum, MDLXVII; fac-simile reprint 1910), A I.

[16]Imre Gellérd, A History of Transylvanian Unitarianism through Four Centuries of Sermons, trans. by Judit Gellérd (Kolozsvár: Unitarian Printing House, 1999), 32.

                [17] Ibid.

                [18] Ibid., 15.

                [19]Ibid., 39.

[20]Ember--man as a collective term and "free man" who has the right to bear arms.

[21][in footnote?]

                [22]Henry Cornelius Agrippa, Of  the Vanitie and Vncertaintie of Artes and Sciences, edited by Catherine M. Dunn (Northridge, Ca.: California State University, 1974). Chap XCII.

                [23]Ibid. Introduction.

[24]"Theosophy," Mircea Eliade (ed.),  Encyclopedia of Religion,  Vol.14, 465

[25]Henry Cornelius Agrippa, Of  the Vanitie and Vncertaintie of Artes and Sciences, edited by Catherine M. Dunn (Northridge, Ca.: California State University, 1974).

[26]Dávid Ferenc, Rövid Magyarázat [Short Explanation] (Albae Ivliae: Typographum Regium Raphaelem Hoffhalterum, MDLXVII; fac-simile reprint 1910).

[27]Cathrine Dunn's preface to Agrippa's De Vanitate [Of the Vanitie...].

[28]Charles G. Nauert, Agrippa and the Crisis of Renaissance Thought (Urbana: University of Illinois Studies in the Social Sciences, vol. 55, 1965), 177.

[29]Agrippa, De Vanitate, 341.

[30]Imre Gellérd, A History of Transylvanian Unitarianism through Four Centuries of Sermons, trans. by Judit Gellérd (Kolozsvár: Unitarian Printing House, 1999), 37.


[32]Agrippa, De Vanitate, 341.

[33]Dávid's Rövid Magyarázat, E.IV (my translation).  Hereafter, a capital letter refers to a fascicle of the printed manuscript and the roman numeral to one of the folded pages of that fascicle.

[34]Nauert, Agrippa and the Crisis

[35]Agrippa, De vanitate, chap C

                [36]Dávid Ferenc, Rövid útmutatás

                [37]Imre Gellérd, A History, 37.

[38]Imre Gellérd, A History, 34.

                [39]Ibid. 17

[40]Agrippa, De Vanitate, 354.

                [41] Imre Gellérd, A History, 38.

                [42] Ibid., 35.


                [44]Mihaly Balázs, Early Transylvanian Antitrinitarianism, (Baden-Baden & Bouxwiller: Éditions Valentin Koerner, 1996)

                [45]Dávid Ferenc, Rövid útmutatás 59, p. 66

                [46]Ibid. 50, p. 67.

[47] Agrippa, De vanitate, Ch. XCIX.

[48]Gellérd, op. cit., p. 36.



[51]Ibid. ,37.





[56] Ibid.  Brackets added by the editor.

[57] Ibid.

[58] Ibid.

[59] Ibid.

[60]Agrippa, De vanitate, 348.

[61]Full text of the Edict of Torda: See Footnote 7, page 4.

[62]Agrippa, ibid., 388.

[63]Agrippa, ibid., 373

[64]All quotations in this paragraph are from Dávid’s Rövid magyarázat  (E. IV.)

                [65] My choice of Agrippa was partially based on phone conversations with Prof. Mihály Balázs at the JATE University of Szeged, Hungary, an authority in sixteenth century Hungarian literature.  I have learned from him that Agrippa’s role in the Transylvanina Antitrinitarian movement is completely unresearched.

[66]Imre Gellerd, A History, 21 quoting David.

[67]Imre Gellerd, A History, 52.

[68]Ember--man as a collective term and "free man" who has the right to bear arms.