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.
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.