Guide Reformers in the Wings: From Geiler von Kaysersberg to Theodore Beza

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The preacher cannot be an instrument of reform if he restricts himself to the delivery of learned and—from the standpoint of the common people at least—generally incomprehensible essays in Latin. If the use of secular literature will assist the preacher in the performance of his task, then secular literature should be gratefully received and gladly used.

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But above all the sermon must be simple. Geiler preached an optimistic sermon, anticipating the beginning of a great reform movement within the diocese. The results of the synod, however, fell far below expectations. But at least a start had been made, however feeble and faltering.

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The new bishop lost no time in aligning himself with the forces of reform in the diocese. Like the humanist reformers before him, he was convinced that the fundamental reforms to be undertaken were in the area of moral and ecclesiastical discipline, not in the area of doctrine. The ideal of a bishop, which Geiler had preached about from the pulpit of the cathedral, Bishop Wilhelm conscientiously struggled to incarnate in his own person. The Catholic reform movement bore surprisingly little fruit. This was due in part to the strength of the forces opposing reform, including a large number of the canons of the cathedral.

It may also have been partly due to the nonpolemical and peace-loving nature of the bishop, who was reluctant to provoke discord and could be convinced on occasion that inconvenient reforms could be postponed to a more convenient season. After all, there were many other concerns that bore heavily on the mind of the bishop, including his political activities as an adviser and ambassador for the emperor and the archbishop of Mainz.

Similarly, Andreas Bodenstein von Carlstadt, who had been forced by Luther to a re-study of the theology of Augustine, dedicated his commentary on Augustine to Staupitz. Unlike Luther, whose father was in the copper mining industry, Staupitz belonged to the Saxon nobility and numbered among his childhood friends Frederick the Wise, the future elector of Saxony.

Apparently he took his vows as a member of the Order of the Hermits of Saint Augustine in the cloister at Munich. He also preached a series of learned sermons on Job, which have survived and are the oldest writings from his hand. Staupitz certainly held Thomas in great esteem and quoted him copiously in his sermons on Job. But his thought was represented by his disciple, Wendelin Steinbach. He had hardly settled into the routine of his new responsibility as a theological professor when he was summoned to assume an additional responsibility as the vicar-general of the Reformed Congregation of the Hermits of Saint Augustine.

The Observants insisted on a strict adherence to the rule of the order; the Conventuals took a rather more relaxed and liberal view of the rule. The Observants did not secede from the order, but they did gain a high degree of independence within it. In cooperation with Giles of Viterbo, the general of the Augustinian order, Staupitz attempted to reform the Augustinian order in Germany by merging the Reformed Congregation with the Conventuals of the Saxon province. The German legate, Cardinal Carvajal, issued a bull authorizing the merger of the two groups, which were to meet jointly to elect a common superior.

Since the stipulations of the bull had not been met, the Saxon province and the Reformed Congregation were not in fact merged by meeting separately and electing Staupitz vicar-general and provincial. They simply shared a common superior.

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  7. Even as an interim strategy this move failed to assuage the elements in the Reformed Congregation that were opposed to the proposed merger. The Observants in Saxony were afraid that Staupitz would some day be replaced by a Conventual superior. The Observants, who were part of the Reformed Congregation but who lived in one of the other provinces in Germany, resented coming under the control of the Saxon provincial. And in any case the Observants were worried that a merger with the Conventuals would force them to surrender their hard-won independence from the control of the general of the order and to compromise their rigorous loyalty to a strict interpretation of the rule.

    Reformers in the Wings : From Geiler von Kaysersberg to Theodore Beza

    Since Staupitz was busy in his administrative activities as vicar-general and provincial, 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. Martin Luther had already been appointed to the University of Wittenberg to teach ethics on the faculty of arts.

    As Luther later recounted the story, he opposed the suggestion that he become a theologian with a long list of excuses, only to have them all wittily countered by Staupitz, who was not to be thwarted in this matter. During the early years at Wittenberg, while Staupitz was still a professor on the theological faculty, Luther had sought Staupitz out as his confessor and spiritual adviser. 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 and to understand and embrace a more Augustinian view of grace and predestination.

    Even the most hardened sinners, if they will only try, can love God supremely and their neighbors as themselves. God created human beings to praise him. Unlike the nominalists, Staupitz was convinced that the consequences of the fall were nothing short of cataclysmic.


    The problem is not that sinners have lost sight of the demand of God that is laid on them or are slothful and unwilling to make use of their ability to obey the will of God. If that were so, then moral education and exhortation could awaken sinners to their predicament and enable them to assume their responsibilities towards God and the neighbor. The problem is, rather, that the human will is the prisoner of its own self-love and cannot release itself from that bondage.

    This misdirected love has worked havoc in the human soul. On the contrary, sinners are not only unable to earn merits, they are even, as Augustine had rightly argued, unable to act virtuously. When the nominalists urged sinners to do their very best and assured them that God would reward their very best with his grace, they were reading a sentence of death over the human race.

    Fallen men and women cannot love God supremely even if they try—and there is no reason to be sanguine about the possibility that they will try. The key to the human predicament is found in the doctrine of election. For nominalists like Biel election was nothing more than the response of God to foreseen human behavior. Human salvation begins with and rests at every point on the act of divine election. His conviction in this matter did not rest on any illusions about the merit of the elect or the stability of their faith11 but was based rather on his conviction that God will be faithful to his decree of election.

    The evidences were traditional, and they were recommended by Biel as well. Yet Luther found help in these remedies when they were applied by Staupitz as he had not found help in them before. Perhaps the reason for this is to be sought not in the evidences themselves but rather in the theological context in which they occur.

    Biel divided the work of Jesus Christ into what he called the work of hope and the work of justice. Biel tried to balance these two works in order to keep the Christian in the middle of the road that leads to the heavenly Jerusalem, oscillating between hope and fear. But since the work of hope lay largely in the past for Biel, the work of justice tended to overbalance it and to hold the center of the stage. Staupitz, on the other hand, had very little to say about the work of Christ as judge. The work of hope was expanded for him from the past into the present.

    Rather, he laid heavy emphasis in his theology on the advent of Christ in grace. Grace is not an impersonal power or habit of love, though in his early thought he could speak of it in these terms. Life in the present is lived out of the boundless resources of the indwelling Christ, who provides at every moment all the Christian needs in order to persevere.

    Because in his union with Christ the Christian has access to all the unlimited resources of grace, Staupitz could not be anxious about the impending judgment of God. After Staupitz was relieved of his responsibility as professor of Bible at Wittenberg, he was able to devote his time to the duties of visitation that his high position in the order imposed on him. He found special satisfaction in visiting Nuremberg, where his preaching was favorably received and where he became the leader of a sodality composed of many of the leading citizens of Nuremberg.

    Some of the sermons Staupitz preached at Nuremberg and elsewhere were reworked for publication. The Latin edition of this work was translated into German by his good friend Christoph Scheurl. Even when Luther was summoned to appear before Cardinal Cajetan, Staupitz joined him in Augsburg and attempted to mediate the dispute.

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    As soon as it became clear to Staupitz that the dispute could not be mediated and that Luther was in danger of arrest, he released Luther from his vows to the order so that Luther could act with greater freedom. After Augsburg, Luther and Staupitz corresponded and even saw each other again in Saxony. But Staupitz was frightened by the turn of events and even fearful for his own safety. Although he acknowledged his great debt to Staupitz, he urged him to forsake his service to Cardinal Lang and his loyalty to the pope for the sake of Christ.

    However, he also made it clear that he was not in complete sympathy with the direction 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. His body was buried in the Benedictine monastery in Salzburg. The theology of Johannes von Staupitz is important, not simply for the intellectual stimulus it provided for Martin Luther but as evidence of one late medieval attempt at theological reform.

    Staupitz attempted to reform the proclamation of the church by making the praise and glory of God, rather than the pastoral needs of his listeners, the central motif of this thought. The initiator of this policy was in large measure Emperor Charles V. The religious controversy that divided Germany only served to weaken the position of Charles and to strengthen that of his opponent, Francis I, the king of France.

    They were convinced that if Charles succeeded in crushing the power of the Protestant League of Schmalkalden, the resulting victory would upset the delicate balance in Germany between imperial and electoral power.

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    Any weakening of the Protestant princes would mean a weakening of the Catholic princes as well. The emperor would be the only real victor in such circumstances. The Catholic electors therefore supported Charles in his attempts to reach an understanding with the Protestant princes, in the hope that a reconciliation would curtail the extension of imperial power. The second step toward this goal was to be a conference at Nuremberg to which the pope was not invited. Farnese was able, nevertheless, to get the emperor to agree that the pope would be represented at any future religious conference held in Germany. At the same time intelligence reports from the East indicated that the Turks had begun a buildup in their military preparations.

    Faced with the prospect of war on two fronts, the emperor was forced to act swiftly and decisively. With so few in attendance the delegates were unable to discuss common religious problems fruitfully and so disbanded without tackling the issues they had been convened to discuss.

    Campeggio, a renowned canon lawyer, was empowered only to serve as an observer. He was not empowered to give papal approval to any of the doctrinal formulations made at the conference. Each particular item of procedure—the matter of voting, the number and order of speakers—was discussed in great detail and decided on with painstaking care. Johann Eck and Melanchthon opened the debate with a discussion of the articles of the Augsburg Confession.

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    4. Johann Gropper and Martin Bucer were engaged in composing a series of articles of their own to be used in debate by the other delegates. It is understood both as pardon and as the power of divine love that transforms sinners and makes them pleasing to God.