Wittenberg Local Alternatives To Luther

The Reformation at Wittenberg in the early 1520s centered on three very different dynamic and charismatic individuals: Martin Luther, Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt, and Thomas Müntzer. With his public profile, Luther was by far the most visible and well-known representative of the reforming movement in Germany. Yet his ideas did not find universal acceptance, even within Wittenberg itself. Luther was seen as much too conservative by Karlstadt and Müntzer, both of whom urged him to adopt far more radical reforming programs.

While Luther was in hiding in Wartburg Castle, Karlstadt began to assume leadership of the emerging reformation at Wittenberg. He had his own strong views on how the Bible was to be interpreted, and he applied these with enthusiasm. They were not, however, the same as Luther's. On Christmas Day 1521, Karlstad preached in a simple robe rather than the normal elaborate clerical dress, purged any references to a sacrifice from the text of the mass, read Christ's words of institution in German rather than Latin, and distributed both the bread and the wine to all present. The next month Karlstadt set out an agenda for even more radical reforms. All religious images were to be smashed. Did not the Old Testament forbid images altogether? Music was to be abolished altogether from churches. "Better one heart-felt prayer than a thousand cantatas of the Psalms."

This bold act of defiance alarmed Luther. On leaving the Wartburg, Luther urged caution and assumed personal direction of the reforms at Wittenberg. Many of Karlstadt's proposals were blocked with immediate effect. The issue of biblical interpretation suddenly became a source of public tension and disagreement. For Karlstadt, the Old Testament prohibited the use of religious images; Christians should therefore avoid them and destroy any that remained in churches. Luther, however, argued that such Old Testament regulations were not binding under the new covenant of grace.4

Karlstadt was deeply alienated by what he saw as Luther's lack of vision and nerve. He left Wittenberg and became the pastor of Orla-münde, where he was able to continue a program of radical reform, including the abolition of infant baptism as unbiblical.5 Alarmed, Luther tried to prevent such ideas from spreading. A meeting with Karlstadt at the Black Bear Tavern in Jena failed to resolve their differences. Luther appealed to the congregation to resist Karlstadt's radical measures, but was rebuffed. They liked their new pastor and were quite happy with the direction in which he was leading them. Karlstadt subsequently moved on to Switzerland, where he developed a still more radical approach to the reform of the church.

Karlstadt regarded Luther as a compromiser, someone who had begun to reform the church but held back once things got under way.

There was a need for principled consistency, in Karlstadt's view, rather than compromising half-measures. His criticism of Luther's failure of theological nerve would reverberate throughout many other movements within Protestantism, which would see Luther as lacking the courage and integrity to follow his ideas through to their conclusions. Luther dismissed these more radical reformers as fanatics, but they were merely consistently following through on his own ideas and methods and reaching conclusions and outcomes that he personally found unacceptable.6

Thomas Müntzer also posed a significant challenge to Luther. Always a cautious figure, Luther was prepared to collaborate with authorities in order to secure support for his local reformation. Müntzer saw this as unbiblical, a failure to bring about the much-needed social and political reformation of society that he regarded as integral to any reformation worthy of the name. Where Luther tended to see the reformation primarily as a matter of ideas, Müntzer saw it as biblically legitimated social action. Citing the prophet Hosea, Müntzer declared that "God gave the princes and lords to the world in his anger, and intends to take them away again." Power would then be given to the "common people."7

These ideas would play a critical role in bringing about the Peasants' War of 1525.8 Müntzer led the peasants at the Battle of Frankenhausen, at which they were massacred. He himself was captured and beheaded. Where Müntzer saw rebellion of the peasants against their masters as something legitimated by the Bible, Luther saw such a revolt as a metaphysical rebellion against a divinely ordained social structure, also legitimated by the Bible. It is well known that Luther's early optimism about the ability of Herr Omnes—his term for the German people—to interpret the Bible was severely challenged by the events of the Peasants' War.

Much, of course, could be gained through a detailed analysis and comparison of the reforming programs of Luther, Karlstadt, and Müntzer. Yet the most fundamental point is simply this: they were strikingly different. There was no single Wittenberg reforming program, no single approach to biblical interpretation and application. The fact that Luther's particular vision of reform ultimately triumphed at Wittenberg seems to the historian to be not a fundamental theological necessity but rather a matter of historical contingency, reflecting the dynamics of power and political expediency.9 This outcome of happenstance cannot be regarded as constitutive or definitive of Protestant identity, but as representing one outcome of the many reforming agendas and programs of this formative period.

More interestingly, careful analysis of the reception of Luther's doctrine of justification by faith suggests that it was often misunderstood by the laity.10 Luther's call to return to the Bible was often interpreted morally. The idea of the "pure gospel" led many laypeople to see the Bible as a source of instruction on behavior that was pleasing to God, or as the "law of God" illustrating how the will of God was to manifest itself in the life of human communities.11 This conclusion led many to an understanding of the Christian life as a quest for obedience to a law-giving God, which is some considerable conceptual distance from what Luther intended by his doctrine of justification by faith. In fact, it could be argued that this interpretation of the Bible represented a reversion to a biblical moralism that was characteristic of much medieval spirituality and led away from—rather than toward—Luther's fundamental doctrine of justification by faith.

The diversity of reforming visions becomes even clearer when we turn to consider an alternative vision of the reform of the church that was gathering pace in eastern Switzerland around the same time.

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