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John Wessel Goesport
A fifteenth-century Dutch theologian, born at Gröningen in 1420; died there on 4 Oct., 1489. He was educated at Zwolle and lived in the seminary of the Brothers of the Common Life. From 1449 he studied at the University of Cologne, and graduated master of arts there. In 1456-7 he was temporary professor of arts at the University of Heidelberg. About the beginning of 1458 he went to Paris, intending to induce two celebrated teachers from the Netherlands, then lecturing at Paris, to change from Formalism to Realism, which he advocated zealously. He himself, however, was converted to Formalism, and then adopted Nominalism, to which he afterwards adhered. His stay at Paris lasted probably until 1473; He left very likely because of the edict issued in that year by Louis XI against Nominalism. He then spent some time in 1474 at Venice, and apparently at Basle, after which he returned home and devoted himself in quiet to learning. He spent the greater part of his last years alternately in several monasteries. Though he remained a layman, he was interested mainly in theological questions. A selection from his writings, "Farrago rerum theologicarum", was issued at Zwolle, probably in 1521 (reprint at Wittenberg, 1522, and Basle, 1522, this latter containing a commendatory preface by Luther). The Basle edition included several letters to and from Wessel. Shortly after 1521 Wessel published at Zwolle: "De sacramento Eucharistiæ et audienda missa"; "De oratione et modo orandi"; "De causis incarnationis". A complete edition of his works appeared at Gröningen in 1614, with a biographical sketch by the Protestant preacher Albert Hardenberg.
Protestants usually regard Wessel as a precursor of Luther. The first publication of the "Farrago rerum theologicarum" was the work of Protestants, who presented in it a collection of extracts which seemed to favour Protestantism. This judgment, maintained in modern times by Ullmann, is one-sided and exaggerates Wessel's deviations from the teaching of the Church. True his theology contains dogmatic errors, some of which were later taught by Luther. He denies the infallible office of teaching of the Church, and the infallibility of the pope and the ecumenical councils. He disputes the right of ecclesiastical superiors to give commands that bind under sin. He emphasizes too strongly the subjective activity of the faithful in sharing the fruits of Communion and of the Sacrifice of the Mass (opus operantis), so that the objective working of the sacrament (opus operatum) seems to be impaired. In the Sacrament of Penance he acknowledges the priestly absolution, but denies its judicial character. He rejects satisfaction as a part of the sacrament, holding that with the remission of sins the temporal punishment is also remitted. He regards an indulgence as a merely external release from canonical punishments and censures; in his opinion, purgatory serves not to punish temporally sins remitted in this world, but only to purify souls from inordinate desires, and from venial sins. Yet in those points which touch the fundamental doctrines of the Reformers, Wessel stands entirely on Catholic ground. He teaches the freedom of the will, justification not by faith alone but by faith active in love, the meritorious character of good works; the rule of faith as formed by the Scriptures and Tradition; he acknowledges the primacy of the pope, the efficacy of the Sacraments ex opere operato, Transubstantiation by the priestly consecration, the sacrificial character of the Holy Eucharist, and holds firmly to the veneration of the Blessed Virgin. Such being the character of his theology, he cannot be regarded as a precursor of the Reformation. He never thought of separating from the Church and he died a Catholic. During his lifetime he was never taken to task by the Inquisition. In the sixteenth century his writings, however, were placed on the Index of forbidden books on account of their errors.
Ullmann, Reformatoren vor der Reformation, II (Gotha, 1866), 235- 557, partisanly Protestant; Friedrich, Johann Wessel (Ratisbon, 1862); Paulus, Ueber Wessel Gansfort's Leben und Lehre in Der Katholik, II (1900), 11-29, 138-154, 226-24.