The Wittenberg University Team – Kittelson on Luther

Someone on the internet – I don’t remember whom it was or on what platform – suggested that I read James M. Kittelson’s book, Luther the Reformer: The Story of the Man and His Career. As someone who teaches a “Reformation” class every other year or so, it never hurts to read in the area. I’ve been meaning for some time to get to know Luther a little better, and so I took this recommendation and read the book.

Kittelson’s book was a nice read, and very accessible. It could be read profitably by undergraduate students or someone with an undergraduate degree. And Kittelson does a good job of weaving together biographical narrative and theological explanation.

I found a number of his passages especially interesting and informative. The first that I want to share with you is below, and it deals with the relevant faculty at Wittenberg in the early reformational period.

James M. Kittelson, Luther the Reformer: The Story of the Man and His Career (Fortress, 2003), 184–6. Bold is mine.
[Luther] began to build a team that would labor with him at reform for the remainder of his life.

The first step in this process had occurred well before the Diet of Worms and the exile to the Wartburg. Through his first lectures on the Psalms and then on Romans, he had gradually begun to convince his colleagues of the truth of what came to be known as the “Wittenberg Theology.” An age that was enamored of schools of thought had found a new one. With its emphasis on the Scriptures, this school had appeal far beyond the boundaries of Electoral Saxony. It spread through the humanist circles in Basel, Nuremberg, Strasbourg, and elsewhere.

The actors in this first phase comprised and unlikely team. First there was Carlstadt, who was several years Luther’s senior by virtue of his tenure as a professor at Wittenberg. He was a thoroughly scholastic theologian, one who usually thought in terms of systems, theses, and their logical consequences. Well before the Leipzig Debate in mid-1519, he joined the developing struggle with the argument that only the Scriptures were authoritative in matters of faith. It was also he who led the movement in Wittenberg to apply Luther’s basic ideas to practical matters such as the Mass, monastic vows, the marriage of clergy, and the care of the poor.

By contrast, during these early years there was also the figure of Melanchthon. He was much younger than Luther and was a student of the ancient languages rather than a theologian. He was also less decisive when it came to the immediate application of doctrine to daily practice. He did participate in the first Evangelical Lord’s Supper, in which university students received both the bread and the wine. But these students were technically part of the clergy, and he left it to Carlstadt to extend the practice to the laity. Melanchthon’s first important contribution was rather to help Luther understand just how far he had come theologically. It was also Melanchthon who in 1521 initially put Luther’s theology in systematic for with his Commonplaces of Evangelical Theology or Loci Communes.

John Bugenhagen, who arrived while Luther was still at the Wartburg, proved to be a particularly important member of the team. He had encountered Luther’s writings as a schoolteacher and was, like Melanchthon, trained in the liberal arts and the ancient languages. His first reading of On the Babylonian Captivity, where Luther reduced the number of sacraments to two and radically altered their character, made him think of Luther as the greatest heretic of all time. However, with more thought he came to declare, “The entire world is blind, for this man is the only one who sees the truth.” With Melanchthon he assisted in the translation and retranslation of the Bible. He also became one of the chief reformers of northern Germany, one who was “loaned” to various territories and even to the king of Denmark. But Luther valued him most because Bugenhagen became the man to whom he turned daily to confess his own sins.
This section was interesting to me most of all because of Bugenhagen. I’m sure it shows how much of an amateur I am when it comes to Luther studies, but if I had ever heard of Bugenhagen previously then I retained none of the information. So it was interesting for me to meet this member of the team for what seemed like (and may have been) the first time.

Expect more on Luther from Kittelson in future posts.



Matthew Frost said…
Someday, as the result of long-suffering and unsung work, my confessions and church history professor plans to produce a volume on Bugenhagen. Until then, he makes sure his students know about him! A man of crucial importance to the practical unity of the Evangelical churches.
I will eagerly await such a work. Make sure it reaches me when it becomes available!
Chris Donato said…
Same for me on Bugenhagen, and I didn't consider myself that under-read!

Thanks for sharing this.

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