Preachers, popes, and princes

Johannes Staupitz (c. 1460–1524)

Johannes Staupitz was Luther’s superior in the Augustinian order, his predecessor in the chair of Bible at the University of Wittenberg, and his adviser in an especially critical period of theological development.

Staupitz was one of a long line of theologians in the late Middle Ages who protested in the name of Augustine the direction that the church was taking in its interpretation of the Gospel. The Reformation was a continuation of that protest, even though the form was somewhat different and the content of the reformers’ answers was often radically new.

Unlike Luther, Staupitz belonged to the Saxon nobility. Numbered among his childhood friends was Frederick the Wise, the future elector of Saxony. In 1500 Staupitz’s quiet life was interrupted by a call from Frederick to become professor of Bible at the newly founded University of Wittenberg and to serve as the first dean of the theological faculty. He had hardly settled into the routine when he was summoned to assume additional responsibilities, as the vicar-general of the Reformed Congregation of the Hermits of Saint Augustine.

Since Staupitz was busy in his administrative activities, he had very little time to spend as professor at the University of Wittenberg. Because he felt that his work as an administrator was more important than his work as an educator, he decided to prepare a younger man to take over his post at the university. In 1511 he encouraged Luther to earn a doctor’s degree in theology and to assume the chair that Staupitz felt he could no longer fill. As Luther later recounted the story, he presented a long list of excuses in opposition to the suggestion, only to have them all wittily countered by Staupitz.

During his early years at Wittenberg, Luther sought Staupitz out as his confessor and spiritual adviser. Staupitz, whose theology was firmly rooted in the thought of Augustine and whose disposition was marked by an unbounded confidence in the mercy of God, found it difficult to understand the complexity and depth of the spiritual torment through which Luther was passing. Nevertheless, as Luther himself later acknowledged, Staupitz was able to help him to see the positive purpose of God in the temptations and trials that assailed him.

When the indulgences controversy broke out in Germany in the fall of 1517, Staupitz at first stood by Luther, though he urged him to consider the possibility of recantation.

As soon as it became clear to Staupitz that Luther was in danger of arrest, he released Luther from his vows to the Augustinian order so that Luther could act with greater freedom. After Augsburg, Luther and Staupitz corresponded and even saw each other again in Saxony. But, frightened by the turn of events and fearful for his own safety, Staupitz resolved to take himself out of the conflict between Luther and Rome and to seek a quiet sanctuary where he could spend his last years in peace.

In a 1523 letter to Luther, Staupitz reaffirmed his faith in Christ and in the Gospel and compared his love for Luther to the love that David had for Jonathan. However he also made it clear that he was not entirely sympathetic with the direction that the Reformation had taken. It seemed to him that the adherents of the new movement had made issues of conscience out of matters that were theologically neutral and had abused the freedom of the Gospel by their conduct. He died shortly after this final correspondence.

Frederick III “The Wise” (1463–1525)

Frederick III, elector of Saxony, was both an avid collector of relics and a supporter of modern scholarship. He was educated at an Augustinian monastery and made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He collected religious relics—19,013 of them, in fact, by the year 1520—with the wish that Wittenberg, as a depository of sacred items, would become the Rome of Germany. He had such rarities (it was claimed) as four hairs from the Virgin Mary, a strand of Jesus’ beard, and a piece of the bread eaten at the Last Supper.

The pious Frederick also founded the University of Wittenberg in 1502. After inviting Luther (and later Melancthon) to teach there, he found himself having to protect his troublesome professor of Bible. When in 1518 Luther was summoned to Rome for a hearing, Frederick intervened and arranged for the meeting to take place on safer German soil. He also refused to execute the 1520 papal bull that condemned Luther. And after the Diet of Worms placed the reformer under an imperial ban, Frederick secretly offered him refuge at his castle, the Wartburg.

The Saxon ruler’s reputation for justice earned him the title “the Wise,” but Luther noted his cautious nature and took to calling him “the hesitater.” His chaplain and secretary, Georg Spalatin, made him familiar with Lutheran teaching, but scholars debate how much of it Frederick accepted.

Spalatin supervised the publication of many of Luther’s works and became a trusted friend. In 400 letters to Spalatin, Luther shared everything from the deeply personal and intimate—how Spalatin should make love to his bride—to the mundane: “I have planted a garden and built a wall, both with marvelous success.”

Though Frederick never openly advocated reform, he refused to suppress Luther, and in 1524 he ended the veneration of relics in Saxony (though he did protest the iconoclasm of Luther’s followers). Perhaps the best clue to Frederick’s final position came when he lay on his deathbed in 1525. The elector asked to receive the Lord’s Supper in both bread and wine—contrary to papal doctrine, which forbade the cup to the laity, but in keeping with Luther’s teaching. Luther preached at his funeral, and Melancthon praised him as the prince who had done more than any other to advance the Reformation.

Leo X (1475–1521)

Extravagant son of a notorious Renaissance family, Giovanni de’ Medici was made a cardinal at the age of 13 and became Pope Leo X at 38. Described as both “a polished Renaissance prince” and “a devious and double-tongued politician,” the pleasure-loving and easy-going Leo went on a wild spending spree as soon as he ascended the papal throne.

His coronation festivities alone cost 100,000 ducats—one-seventh of the reserve Pope Julius had left in the papal treasury. Leo’s plans for rebuilding St. Peter’s Basilica were estimated to cost over a million ducats. Within two years as pope, Leo had squandered the fortune left by his predecessor and faced serious financial embarrassment.

To keep up with his expenditures, his officials created more than 2,000 salable church offices during his reign. The total profits from these offices have been estimated at 3,000,000 ducats—but still that was not enough for Leo.

The sale of indulgences provided the pope with yet another source of income. To pay for St. Peter’s, offset the costs of a war, and enable a young noble to pay for three offices to which Leo had appointed him, the pope issued an indulgence for special sale in Germany.

A Dominican, Johann Tetzel, was given the task of promotion, to which Luther reacted with his theses. The rest, as they say, is history.

Leo condemned Luther’s teachings in 1520 with the bull Exsurge Domine, calling the reformer “a wild boar” who had invaded “the Lord’s vineyard.” When Luther refused to recant, Leo excommunicated him and called for the secular government to punish him as a heretic.

In 1521 Leo’s armies defeated the French at Milan. Characteristically he celebrated the triumph with an all-night banquet, from which he caught a chill, developed a fever, and died. In his brief seven years as pope, he had spent an estimated 5,000,000 ducats (over $22,000,000) and left behind a debt of nearly another 1,000,000. With the papal coffers empty and the papal residence plundered, Leo’s coffin had to be lit by half-burned candles borrowed from another funeral. His successor, Adrian VI, was the last non-Italian pope until John Paul II.

Johannes Bugenhagen (1485–1558)

Bugenhagen, the popular Protestant minister of the city church in Wittenberg, loved to preach and was reluctant to quit. In Table Talk, Luther is reported to have told of a man who came home from church on Sunday, expecting to find a hot meal waiting for him. When his wife hurriedly put a half-cooked meal on the table, he was outraged and demanded an explanation. “Well,” his wife said, somewhat flustered, “I thought Dr. Pommer [Bugenhagen’s nickname] was going to preach today.” Bugenhagen was so widely respected that his penchant for preaching long sermons was overlooked as the one regrettable weakness in an otherwise splendid pastor.

Bugenhagen, who had studied the classics rather than theology, was nevertheless ordained to the priesthood in 1509. Like many other Protestant reformers, he was influenced by Erasmus (see “The man who yielded to no one,” pp. 46–49) to undertake a deeper study of the Bible and the church fathers. Unlike Luther he had no real background in late medieval scholastic theology. In 1517 he read the first writings of Luther to be published in Germany.

Shocked at first but eventually persuaded, he began to correspond with Luther and finally set out for Wittenberg to learn more from Luther himself. He arrived in 1521, shortly before Luther departed for his fateful confrontation at the Diet of Worms.

Luther was quick to see that a man of unusual talent had come to Wittenberg and cast about to find a place where he could make the best use of him. He settled on the city church, whose pulpit had recently fallen vacant, and succeeded in installing Bugenhagen there in 1523.

Of all the reformers in Wittenberg, Bugenhagen was the first to marry; in 1522, after courting one woman briefly, he married another instead. When Luther eventually decided to follow Bugenhagen’s example, Bugenhagen performed the ceremony and defended the marriage of Christian clergy in print.

Bugenhagen was the great popularizer of the Lutheran Reformation. He had a gift for making difficult ideas clear and understandable to people who lacked the ability to follow an intricate argument or to distinguish subtle shades of difference. No one was more faithful to Luther in the quarrels that troubled the church.

But Bugenhagen was not simply an echo chamber in which the ideas of Martin Luther could reverberate with a minimum of static interference. He was also a gifted organizer who translated the theology of Luther into the structures of congregational life—writing church orders, liturgies, and instructions for various church bodies throughout northern Germany from 1528 to 1544. He was the one Lutheran reformer who grasped the importance of institutions for the life of faith.

Two characteristics of Bugenhagen’s church orders deserve special mention. The first was his persistent attempt to give as much autonomy as possible to the local congregation; the second was his effort to provide for some supervision in the form of an office of superintendent. The superintendent was for Bugenhagen the evangelical equivalent of the Roman Catholic bishop. He was to oversee the pastors in his district to make certain that the doctrine they preached was “pure” and that the lives they lived conformed to the Gospel that they preached.

When Luther died in 1546, Bugenhagen gave his funeral address. He took the death of Luther hard and seemed to age more rapidly after that. Nevertheless he remained by his post, even when Wittenberg was besieged and fell to the emperor—although because Bugenhagen wished to remain at the university and in the city church, where he felt he was still needed, he adapted with what seemed to many other Lutherans disgraceful ease.

Bugenhagen died in April 1558 and was buried under the altar of the city church. He had been throughout his life Luther’s close friend and adviser. But Luther was more than his friend; he was his fate.

Johann Maier Eck (1486–1543)

Professor of theology at the University of Ingolstadt, Johann Eck was on good terms with Luther until the controversy over indulgences broke out. Eck’s attack on Luther’s theses especially galled the reformer, not only because Eck was an old friend, but also because he was—unlike those “perfidious Italians” who opposed reform—a fellow German.

A public debate was arranged in 1519 at the University of Leipzig, with Eck on one side and Luther (with fellow reformer Karlstadt) on the other. The scene was tense: Leipzig’s town council provided Eck with a bodyguard of 76 men, while Luther and Karlstadt arrived in town with 200 students armed with battle axes. Charges and countercharges flew in sharp repartee for 18 days.

The debate turned the focus of the controversy from indulgences to spiritual authority. Does the church have the right to issue indulgences? At last Duke George the Bearded, the patron of Leipzig who hosted the debate, called it to a halt.

The next year Eck helped procure Luther’s condemnation in the papal bull Exsurge Domine. In Luther’s public response, Against the Execrable Bull of Antichrist, he suspected as much, claiming that the papal document was “the progeny of that man of lies, dissimulation, errors, heresy, that monster Johann Eck. … Indeed, the style and the spittle all point to Eck.”

The pope appointed Eck as his special inquisitor to publish the document in the German areas of Franconia and Bavaria. But Eck met with considerable opposition. In Leipzig he had to hide for his life in a cloister; in Wittenberg his own works were burned by university students, along with canon law and the papal bull. Nevertheless for the rest of his life, Eck organized Catholic opposition to the Lutheran Reformation.

Phillipp Melancthon (1497–1560)

In a canny, though unfair, estimate of himself and his contemporaries, Luther once remarked: “Substance and words, Melancthon; words without substance, Erasmus; substance without words, Luther; neither substance nor words, Karlstadt.”

Luther’s high estimate of Melancthon seems justified, for he became the Reformation’s systematizer of Lutheran doctrine. Nevertheless their close friendship was not without difficulties.

Melancthon was born in Bretten in southwestern Germany, his family name was Schwartzert, and his father was an armorer for the elector. In accordance with the common practice of the humanists (who prized Greek and Latin learning, he translated his rather ordinary German name (meaning “black earth”) into the more elegant Greek word for the same thing: Melancthon.

In 1518 at the age of 21, the young Melancthon accepted the call to become professor of Greek at the University of Wittenberg. His interests were primarily literary; he went there with the intention of purifying the teaching of Aristotle from what he thought were the absurd opinions of the medieval Aristotelians.

However he soon came under the influence of Luther, who persuaded him to take up theology instead. Luther admired Melancthon’s vast classical erudition and his talent for careful and precise definition. Melancthon chose to remain a layman, though he did yield to Luther’s persistent urging to earn the first theological degree obtained at Wittenberg.

Melancthon was a shrewd and tireless scholar, a master of many subjects. At the same time, he was a bewildering combination of contradictory qualities. Although a gentle and irenic man who won not only respect but also firm friendship from his students, he could unleash a tempest to rage and crackle around the ears of a dullard who had spent the evening in a tavern rather than at his books. He displayed what Luther regarded as a naive trust in astrology and refused to accept a call to England because of a prophecy that he would die by drowning if he went on a sea voyage to the north.

In 1521 Melancthon published the first edition of his most important theological book, the Loci Communes (essentially “basic concepts”), a discussion of Lutheran theology and a manual of the fundamental principles of Luther’s thought. Melancthon did not attempt to walk his own independent way. And yet from the very beginning, there were differences.

For Luther, transformed Christians had no need of the law or of rule books to tell them what to do. A good tree bears good fruit automatically; one does not need to read a botany book to an apple tree to save it from possible confusion. Melancthon, on the other hand, was very wary of this situational approach, explaining in some detail the place of the law in making the Christian life holy. Also, in contrast to Luther’s insistence that Scripture has a center from which it must be understood, Melancthon quoted and used all Scripture as if it were of equal authority.

In later editions of Melancthon’s book these deviations from Luther became even more pronounced, and the philosophy of Aristotle regained a position of prominence. Luther, who insisted on a theology of the cross, opposed all philosophical theology. Melancthon, however, took up the tools of philosophy to ground, clarify, and order the biblical theology of Luther. Under him the scope of doctrines to be believed widened increasingly until they embraced the whole Bible understood in the light of the three ecumenical creeds and the teaching of Luther.

Luther’s idea that the Gospel is a message of divine judgment and grace, so clearly elucidated in the first edition of the Loci, became at least partially obscured. The Gospel became for Melancthon a system of truths that it is our duty to accept. Sound doctrine became one of the marks of the church. The church is composed of “those who hold pure doctrine and agree in it.”

Whatever their differences, the fates of the two men were inextricably bound together. Melancthon was Luther’s companion and coworker at the Leipzig disputation in 1519 and the Marburg Colloquy in 1529.

While Luther was an outlaw under the ban of the empire, Melancthon represented Lutherans at Augsburg and wrote the Augsburg Confession, one of the fundamental confessional documents of the Protestant Reformation. Though Luther was impatient with what he regarded as Melancthon’s diplomatic equivocations at Augsburg, he nevertheless approved of the Confession.

Melancthon’s theological development infuriated some of Luther’s other disciples, who attempted to drive a wedge between Luther and Melancthon. When Luther died, they sprang once more to the attack.

Melancthon faced them with a weary resignation. He had not wished to become a theologian in the first place. He was, after all, a professor of Greek and the classics. The whole world seemed to be seized with madness, and he prayed for deliverance from the “fury of the theologians.” On April 19, 1560, he died peacefully in his home in Wittenberg. CH

mag covers

Christian History’s 2015–2017 four-part Reformation series is available as a four-pack. This set includes issue #115 Luther Leads the Way; issue #118 The People’s Reformation; issue #120 Calvin, Councils, and Confessions; and issue#122 The Catholic Reformation. Get your set today. These also make good gifts.

By David C. Steinmetz and Paul Thigpen

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #115 in 2015]

David C. Steinmetz is Amos Ragan Kearns Distinguished Professor of the History of Christianity, emeritus, at Duke University. His entries on Staupitz, Bugenhagen, and Melancthon are adapted from his book Reformers in the Wings (Oxford University Press, 2001), pp. 15–22, 49–63. Paul Thigpen is editor of TAN Books. His entries on Frederick, Leo, and Eck are adapted from CH issue 34.
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