Category Archives: Covenant theology

The Eve of the Reformation: Staupitz

As noted several times already on this blog, this year we’re celebrating the 500th birthday of the Reformation.  Today I want to look at a figure from the period right before the Reformation:  Johann von Staupitz.  I first became interested in Staupitz because of his portrayal in the 2003 movie, Luther.  Bruno Ganz warmly played the part of Staupitz and gave the impression that he was influential in Luther’s life, but also flawed in some ways.  As it turns out, this is not far off the mark.

Johann von Staupitz (1460/69-1524) was Martin Luther’s spiritual father, his mentor.  Without a doubt, Staupitz left his mark on Luther.  While Staupitz himself never broke with the papal Catholic church, he surely did have a hand in the Reformation ignited by his spiritual son Martin Luther.

The Life of Staupitz

There is some uncertainty about his exact birth date — it was sometime between 1460 and 1469.  His family were German nobility and so study was within his reach.  He obtained a bachelor’s degree in 1485 and then went on to a master’s degree right afterwards.  By 1500, he had obtained a doctorate from the university of Tubingen.  At some point in his university years, he took vows and became a member of the Order of the Hermits of Saint Augustine.  This was a highly educated Catholic order which emphasized many of the key teachings of Augustine.

Staupitz quickly distinguished himself as an Augustinian monk.  While serving as a prior in Tubingen, he preached 34 sermons on the book of Job.  While they were appreciated by those who heard (and have thus been preserved), Staupitz himself felt that “he had afflicted Job with a worse plague than boils.”  Despite his humble self-assessment, Staupitz was becoming recognized as a careful expositor of the Bible.

In 1502, he was appointed to be the first professor of biblical studies and the dean of the faculty of theology at the University of Wittenberg.  However, because of his growing responsibilities amongst the Augustinians, he spent limited time in Wittenberg and only lectured occasionally.  Much of his time was taken up with travelling and preaching in other places.  For example, in 1516, he was in Nuremburg where he preached a series of Advent sermons.  These became a little book on predestination, first published in Latin, and then later translated into German.

Staupitz and Luther knew each other already in 1511.  Luther was drawn to Staupitz — in fact, Staupitz became his father confessor.  As such, Staupitz tried to help Luther with his spiritual struggles.  In 1511, it was Staupitz who urged Luther to become a doctor and preacher of the Augustinians.  The following year, after Luther achieved that goal, Staupitz vacated his position at the University of Wittenberg and had Luther succeed him.

In 1518, he began hearing reports about his successor in Wittenberg.  Staupitz had mixed feelings about what Luther was saying, writing, and doing.  Some of Luther’s concerns resonated with him, but Luther also frightened him somewhat with his boldness.  When it became clear that Luther was in danger of being arrested, Staupitz made the strategic move of releasing him from his vows to the Augustinian order.  This gave Luther more freedom to speak and act.  After this, Staupitz and Luther would only meet one more time, but they continued to exchange letters.

The papal Church put enormous pressure on Staupitz to bring Luther to his senses.  The pressure was applied through the General of the Augustinian order.  Eventually, in 1520-21, Staupitz resigned his position within the order and even left it altogether.  He became a Benedictine monk instead, trying to retire to a peaceful life within a monastery.  When Luther heard of this, he wrote to Staupitz and rebuked him for his cowardice.  Staupitz replied with a letter in which he reaffirmed his love for Luther, but also insisted that he could not break with the papacy.

He became sick in the spring of 1524 and, after languishing throughout that year, died on December 28.  He died as a member in good standing of the Roman Catholic Church, but one always under suspicion.  In fact, in 1559, the writings of Staupitz were put on “the index,” the Roman Catholic list of banned books.  One might say that this makes Johann von Staupitz an honorary Protestant.

The Theology of Staupitz

When we look at his theology, we start to see that even in the late medieval period, there were theologians who were almost getting the gospel right.  Because of his work in biblical studies, Staupitz was on the right track, even if he still missed some key elements.  His theology was erroneous in maintaining the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.  He believed that the Virgin Mary was born without original sin.  He held to some unhealthy and unbiblical mysticism.  He still spoke of the mass as a sacrifice.  Yet he was getting closer to the truth than almost anyone before him.  I’ll briefly mention his doctrine of the covenant, his view of human nature, the doctrine of election, and justification.

Staupitz taught a doctrine of the covenant in which God not only establishes the conditions, but also meets those conditions.  God does that through Jesus Christ and his redemptive work.  Everything in this covenant is offered to the elect unconditionally.  Unlike many medieval theologians before him, Staupitz taught a covenant of grace where the faithfulness and grace of God were strongly emphasized.

When it came to human nature, Staupitz had a dim view.  He rejected the Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism of other medieval theologians.  After the fall into sin, the will of man is in bondage.  Man is a prisoner of himself and of self-love.  Therefore, fallen man cannot do what is pleasing to God.  Staupitz wrote, “…man’s nature is incapable of knowing or wanting or doing good.  For this barren man God is sheer fear.”

The biblical doctrine of election also comes out in Staupitz’s theology.  Many medieval theologians taught that election is based on the foreseen behaviour of individual human beings.  Not Staupitz.  Rather, for him, election is based on God’s sovereign good pleasure.

On justification, Staupitz was almost there.  He did not see justification as a process, but as an event.  But whereas many medieval theologians confused justification and sanctification (hence describing it as a process), Staupitz confused the events of justification and regeneration.  In the event of justification, he said, God becomes pleasing and desirable to man.  It happens by the grace of God and through faith, but justification is not a legal event where God the Judge declares the sinner to be righteous.  Instead, Staupitz viewed justification in more relational terms.  Whereas fallen sinners are enslaved to self-love, through justification sinners are freed to love Christ.  In our Reformed theological terms, we would say that this happens in the event of initial regeneration.

Conclusion

There can be no question that Staupitz influenced Luther in his theology, perhaps more than any other individual.  But it’s also important to realize that God worked through Staupitz to put Luther right where he needed to be:  at the University of Wittenberg.  When Luther was under attack, Staupitz was one of the instrumental forces protecting him.  Luther therefore owed a lot to Staupitz, not only personally and theologically, but also academically and strategically.  This friend and ally was weak in some ways, but without him, there could have been no Reformation.  For this reason, the Lutheran Church honours him with his own day on their Calendar of Saints (November 8).  We Reformed do not follow such a calendar, but we can and still should praise God for what he did through this man.


Now Available: I Will Be Your God (Korean Edition)

i-will-be-your-god-korean

Thanks to translator Rev. Son Jungwon, “I Will Be Your God”: An Easy Introduction to the Covenant of Grace is now available in Korean.  You can find details here.   The original English edition can be found at the ILPB website here.


Personal Responsibility

klaasschilder

Does calling for personal responsibility make one into an Arminian?  Some Reformed people have real trouble with holding people accountable for the spiritual choices they make.  Some get uncomfortable when Reformed preachers make a distinct call to faith and repentance.  They feel that this somehow undermines God’s sovereignty.  After all, if God wants to save someone, he will do so in his own time and in his own way.  Calling for people to respond with repentance and faith seems to say that human beings may be trying to do something contrary to God’s purposes.  In fact, once I was even told by a Reformed church member that the Heidelberg Catechism is Arminian when it says that justification is mine, “if only I accept this gift with a believing heart” (QA 60).  Apparently, the Catechism is also Arminian when it says that forgiveness belongs to believers, “as often as they by true faith accept the promise of the gospel” (QA 84).  Some folks really stumble over that word “accept.”  How can that be Reformed?

Leaving aside any popular misunderstandings of what constitutes Arminianism, can we speak about the need for all of us to personally accept God’s gospel promises?  Does an acknowledgement of human responsibility add up to a denial of divine sovereignty?  Or, to put it another way, does divine sovereignty mean that we are mere puppets on a string or perhaps pre-programmed robots who can only follow the Programmer’s wishes?  These are important questions and they’ve been wrestled with many times throughout church history.

One path we might take in exploring these questions could take us back to Klaas Schilder (see here for a short bio).  Personal responsibility in the covenant of grace was one of Schilder’s emphases.  Against the background of others who placed everything under the umbrella of divine sovereignty, Schilder sought to drive home the reality of the covenant as a relationship between God and his people, a relationship where human beings are treated as completely responsible for how they respond to divine overtures.

A good summary of Schilder’s approach can be found in the essay of S.A. Strauss in the book Always Obedient: Essays on the Teachings of Dr. Klaas Schilder (yes, as noted before, an infelicitous title).  Strauss noted that Schilder was contending with the covenant views of two theologians in particular:  Abraham Kuyper and Karl Barth.  Writes Strauss:

Schilder observed the same weakness in both schools of thought, even though this weakness arose from different motives.  With regard to the doctrine of the covenant, both reasoned so strongly from the perspective of the eternal decrees of God that man’s responsibility in the covenant was underemphasized.  In contrast, this responsibility was a basic motive in Schilder’s theology: in the covenant God treats man as a responsible being and confronts him with the choice of “all or nothing,” for God or against him!  Schilder therefore did everything in his power always to define the covenant in such a way that justice was done to man’s responsibility. (Always Obedient, 21)

Schilder’s point of departure in this approach was not God’s inscrutable eternal decrees, but his dealings with humanity in history.  God’s decrees are certainly behind all he does, but what is accessible to us and what we experience are his dealings here and now.

There are consequences that follow from this and one of the most marked is going to be found in preaching.  Reformed preaching which acknowledges this reality is not going to allow for or encourage passivity amongst God’s people.  Covenant preaching of this sort will not countenance fatalism.  Strauss elaborates:

…it is Schilder’s view that true “covenant preaching presents the strongest appeal to human responsibility.  This is why such preaching is also so tremendously serious, and revealing…comforting, but destroying all excuses for idleness [maar het stuksnijding van alle duivels-oorkussens].”  Such covenant preaching is a prohibition against imagining going to hell while being on the way to heaven, and it is a prevention against imagining going to heaven while being on the way to hell. (Always Obedient, 25)

Taking Schilder’s approach means that a Reformed preacher is not going to be soft on human responsibility.  In fact, you should expect a preacher who has learned covenant theology from Schilder to emphasize this rather strongly.

What about baptism?  Where does that fit in here?  Strauss explains that Schilder taught that all who are baptized receive a concrete address from God, “a message that God proclaims to everyone who is baptized, personally:  if you believe, you will be saved.” (28-29).  However, if a baptized covenant member rejects God’s overtures in unbelief, such a person will come under God’s covenant wrath and curses.  Greater blessings and promises imply greater responsibility and accountability.  Strauss concludes about what Schilder wanted to emphasize most strongly:

…that the covenant should never be allowed to lead to a false sense of security.  People of the covenant may never think that salvation is already theirs because they have received the promise.  The promises of the covenant are not predictions; they imply demands…

This is, then, the great and lasting signifance of what Schilder taught us about the covenant.  When God establishes his covenant with human persons, he treats them as responsible beings.  As Schilder characteristically put it, the covenant stands or falls by its rule “all or nothing.”  (Always Obedient, 30-31)

The fact of the matter is that no one, least of all covenant members, can use God’s sovereignty to evade their personal responsibility to repent and believe the gospel.  In fact, to do so would be to give in to a Satanic way of thinking.  Satan wants people to stand idly by and be passive before God — because passivity before God always means plenty of activity that pleases the evil one.

So is it Arminian to insist on human responsibility?  If it is, then not only am I guilty, but so is Klaas Schilder.  Of course, the Protestant Reformed allege exactly that.  Followers of Herman Hoeksema, most notably David Engelsma, have insisted that we are essentially Arminians because we hold to the view that there are conditions in the covenant of grace.  This is not the time to enter into a full rebuttal of that view.  Only let me say that their position is the result of viewing everything, and especially the covenant, through the lens of election.  Everything has to fit in a neat system that we humans can comprehend.  Against that, I acknowledge God’s full and complete sovereignty in our salvation in line with everything in the Canons of Dort, but at the same time I stress the human responsibility to repent and believe found in the Heidelberg Catechism and elsewhere.  That is a responsibility far more weighty for those who have been included by God in the covenant of grace.  In the covenant, God treats us as responsible creatures and, as such, calls each one of us to repent from sins and accept the gospel promises in true faith.


Available as an E-Book: “I Will Be Your God”

I Will Be Your God Cover

ILPB has released “I Will Be Your God”: An Easy Introduction to the Covenant of Grace as an E-book.  You can order it here.


Now Available: “I Will Be Your God”: An Easy Introduction to the Covenant of Grace

I Will Be Your God Cover

ILPB has just released this little volume (79 pages), originally based on some sermons that I preached at the Providence Canadian Reformed Church in Hamilton.  The impetus behind preaching those sermons — and revising them for publication — were the questions that many were asking about the differences between our Reformed churches and others who might be classified as “New Calvinist.”  One of the most important differences that we have with many of those churches is the doctrine of the covenant of grace.  This doctrine is not peripheral or insignificant — it is an essential part of the fabric of Reformed theology and practice.  Disposing of this doctrine or even just minimizing it has enormous consequences.  Unfortunately, many treatments of covenant theology are inaccessible to regular church members with no advanced training in theology.  I wanted to put this doctrine in the simplest possible terms, so that even older children would be able to understand it.  I’m thankful that ILPB was willing to publish it.  I pray that “I Will Be Your God” will help Reformed church members to understand clearly what we believe, why we believe it, and the huge difference it makes in our lives.  You can purchase your copy here.