Johann von Staupitz

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During his time as Luther’s supervisor in the Augustinian order, Johann von Staupitz had a direct influence upon his spiritual and theological development and Luther later attributed much to his former monastic superior. It was Staupitz who heard Luther’s confessions, served as his spiritual advisor during the spiritual struggles of his early career, and eventually directed him to channel his prodigious intellect and personal scrupulosity into his teaching at Wittenberg. It was also Staupitz who would impress upon Luther an Augustinian understanding of sin and grace that contributed to his criticisms and rejection of the Nominalist view of salvation.

His birth date unknown, Staupitz came from noble stock in the Saxon town of Motterwitz, where he counted as a childhood friend the future prince of Electoral Saxony and patron of the Reformation, Frederick the Wise. He received his education in liberal arts at Thomistic strongholds in Leipzig and Cologne, arriving in Cologne in 1482 and earning his master of arts in 1489. Sometime shortly thereafter, he took monastic orders with the Hermits of St. Augustine at their cloister in Munich. In 1497, he left Munich to continue his theological studies at Tübingen, earning his doctor’s degree by 1500.

Staupitz’s education at Tübingen exposed him to the more fashionable Nominalist teachings of the day. Noted Nominalist Gabriel Biel had taught earlier at Tübingen, and his pupil, Wendelin Steinbach, remained there when Staupitz arrived. The Nominalist views he learned did not lead the young Augustinian back to his Thomistic roots, nor to embrace the via moderna, but instead to the namesake of his order: Augustine of Hippo. While Nominalists made election contingent upon the foreknowledge of God, which merely saw in advance the obedience of sinners doing what was in them and accordingly dispenses grace to them (facientibus quod in se est, Deus non denegat gratiam), Staupitz aligned election with an Augustinian notion of predestination. God initiates salvation by first dispensing his grace, then justifies the sinner according to the grace given. It was this Augustinian understanding of sin and grace that Staupitz would impress upon Luther during their time together and would help shape Luther’s early theological development.

Staupitz became Luther’s superior when he was named vicar-general of the Reformed Congregation of the Hermits of St. Augustinian in Germany in 1503. After graduating from Tübingen, Staupitz served from 1500 to 1502 as prior at the Munich cloister where he took orders, but his longtime friend, Frederick the Wise, called him in 1502 to serve as professor of Bible and dean of the theology faculty at the newly founded university in Wittenberg. The Augustinian prior accepted, but within a year he was named vicar-general of the reformed Augustinians. In the later Middle Ages, many religious orders were divided between Observants and Conventuals; the former sought a strict reform according to the order’s rule, while the latter resisted such stern disciplinary measures. The Reformed Congregation was a confederation of Observant houses throughout Germany, including Luther’s Black Monastery in Erfurt, and it was constituted under direct supervision of the pope, not the Augustinian general in Rome.

When Staupitz was chosen vicar-general, he hatched a plot to reform the Augustinian orders throughout Saxony by uniting the Reformed Congregation with the Saxon Conventuals in 1507. He received approval from the papal legate to Germany, Cardinal Carvajal, through a 1510 papal bull. Upon hearing of the bull, however, seven of the 29 Observant houses in the reformed congregation opposed the measure. This eventually led the Erfurt cloister to send two representatives to Rome to appeal the decision, one of which was Luther himself. While the decision in Rome favored Staupitz (and as a consequence led to tension between Luther, who later came to support Staupitz, and his Erfurt brothers, who continued their opposition), the vicar-general eventually tabled the merger in 1512 because of stiff resistance.

These affairs led to another unintended contribution of Staupitz to the outbreak of the Protestant Reformation: he chose Luther to replace him as professor of Bible at Wittenberg in 1512. The relationship between Staupitz and Luther began as early as 1507, when Staupitz sent Luther to Wittenberg to lecture in his place the next year and earn his bachelor of Bible. He would serve as Luther’s confessor and spiritual advisor for a decade, leading to his suggestion that Luther earn his doctor’s degree in theology and become a professor. Staupitz had been taxed by his teaching and administrative responsibilities and he needed someone to succeed him in the chair at Wittenberg. Luther would receive his doctor’s degree in an October 1512 ceremony and two days later take Staupitz’s post as professor of Bible.

With the attempted reform of the Saxon order and his professorship at Wittenberg behind him, Staupitz devoted the remainder of his tenure as vicar-general to visitation and preaching. He was especially well-received at Nuremberg, where a famous circle of disciples formed using the name Sodalitas Staupitziana. The group included several members who would become significant figures after the onset of the Reformation: Lazarus Spengler, the future councilman and reformer of Nuremberg; Albrecht Dürer, the famous painter; and Christoph Scheurl, a humanist who remained Catholic, but was still prominent in the administration of affairs in Nuremberg. The group later changed the name of its sodality to Martinianer, reflecting Luther’s influence.

Staupitz’s relationship with Luther continued well into the controversy over indulgences. It was Staupitz who accompanied Luther during his October 1518 interview with Cardinal (Tomasso de Vio) Cajetan, mediating between the two and urging Luther to submit to authority. When Luther would not, Staupitz absolved him of his monastic vows, freeing him from the supervision of the Augustinian order to purse his theological reforms. Nonetheless, Luther’s 1518 Resolutiones, an explanation of the 95 Theses that he deemed congruent with the thought of his mentor Staupitz, included a letter to his vicar-general requesting that Pope Leo X consider the treatise favorably. In subsequent years, Staupitz began distancing himself from Luther’s reforms. He eventually resigned his post with the Reformed Congregation at a 1520 chapter meeting in Eisleben to take a position as court preacher and advisor to Cardinal Lang in Salzburg. A year later, he would receive a papal exemption to cut ties with the Augustinian Hermits and join the Benedictines, soon becoming abbot at the house in Salzburg.

Contact between Luther and Staupitz waned in the succeeding years. Luther sent a 1523 letter to his former superior, criticizing him for taking the post in Salzburg, as well as for remaining loyal to the pope and in service to a cardinal. Staupitz replied later, taking issue with the direction the Reformation had turned, both in its theological positions and in the conduct of its adherents. Soon after composing the response, he would die on December 28, 1524, and was buried at the Benedictine monastery in Salzburg. Though Staupitz never left Rome for the Reformation, his writings raised enough suspicion during the Counter Reformation that they were placed on the Index of Prohibited Books in 1559.

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