Alongside Johannes Bugenhagen, Johannes Brenz takes his place as a leading church administrator in the first generation of the Protestant Reformation who was responsible for the start of reform in numerous German lands. He became a leading defender of Lutheran Eucharistic doctrine against the Swiss, especially through his articulation of the doctrine of the ubiquity of Christ, an advocate for religious toleration, and a supporter of secular authority over religious matters. His most lasting contribution was a church order that would influence church polity in Germany until the twentieth century.
Born June 24, 1499 in the southern German imperial city of Weil, he was the son of a mayor and he eventually matriculated at Heidelberg in 1514. There, he came under the influence of the humanist Johannes Oecolampadius, with whom he later departed theologically. At this early stage, though, Oecolampadius instilled in him a commitment to humanist study. It was in April 1518 that Brenz would hear Luther’s famous theses at the Heidelberg Disputation, and he was soon won over to the early reform movement.
In 1522, presumably after the completion of his studies at Heidelberg, Brenz was named preacher at St. Michael’s in the Franconian city of Schwäbisch-Hall. The churches in the territory were as yet unreformed, and it took the majority of his twenty-six year tenure to bring those reform efforts to completion. By 1525, he had instituted a Protestant church order in the city churches, but did not begin reforms in the rural churches until 1540. It was only with the imposition of a 1543 church order that the entire territory was won over to the Protestant side. As part of this process, he also wrote one of the first Lutheran catechisms, which he published in 1527 and saw reprinted in over 500 edition.
While his administrative efforts were spent on the city of Schwäbisch-Hall, Brenz began to contribute more broadly to the Protestant movement on a number of different fronts. In summer of 1525, shortly after the Peasants’ War, Brenz wrote a pamphlet urging princes to show leniency toward the peasants, in no small part because the existing system of government effectively gave rise to their grievances. By late 1525, however, a new debate had started within the Protestant party concerning the doctrine of the Eucharist. Brenz’s old teacher, Oecolampadius, had along with Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli rejected Luther’s view of the Real Presence, but Brenz came to his defense very early in the controversy. He published the Syngramma Suevicum, an influential Lutheran definition of the Eucharist, and he also supported the Lutheran party at the 1529 Marburg Colloquy that dissolved on the same topic.
Brenz’s political opinions would grow more at odds with the Wittenberg party in time. He attended the 1530 Diet of Augsburg with Margrave George of Brandenburg-Ansbach, to whom he had become a trusted advisor in the immediate years preceding. The Margrave conscripted Brenz to help bring about reform in Brandenburg-Ansbach and Nuremberg. In 1533, Brenz published a church order for the two cities. He also advised them against joining the League of Schmalkald due to his belief that the imperial territories owed obedience to the emperor, a position Luther and other Wittenbergers had abandoned in the wake of Charles V’s rejection of the Augsburg Confession. Brenz also disagreed with Luther’s opinion on capital punishment for religious reasons. He had written a treatise on the topic in 1528, and he would continue defending the position despite opposition from other reformers.
During his time at Schwäbisch-Hall, Brenz had also cooperated in the reforms of Württemburg. Duke Ulrich of Württemburg had asked Brenz for help reforming his churches, and by 1536 they had collaborated on a Protestant church order for the duchy. Brenz would also help the duke establish a Lutheran presence at the University of Tübingen, where the reformer resided from 1537 to 1538. This relationship would prove auspicious for Brenz in 1548, when he was forced to flee Schwäbisch-Hall because of his unwillingness to accept the Augsburg Interim enforced on the Empire by Charles V. Brenz made his way to Württemburg, and shortly thereafter became advisor to Ulrich’s successor, Duke Christopher. In 1551, he led the drafting of the Confessio Virtembergica, which served as the duchy’s answer to the first sessions of the Roman Council of Trent. Brenz was still unable to take an official position in the church due to his rejection of Interim, but that changed when Moritz of Saxony, the Albertine duke, rebelled against Charles V in 1552. The successful Protestant uprising paved the way for Ulrich to name Brenz provost of the Stuttgart Collegiate Church, the most prominent ecclesiastical post in Württemburg, where he would remain until his death on September 11, 1570.
During this latter period of his career, Brenz left two enduring imprints on the Lutheran churches emerging out of the Protestant Reformation. The first came as a result of his long tenured defense of Luther’s view of the Eucharist. He took up the task anew in 1556 against Swiss Eucharistic practices and began to develop the lines of thought Luther laid out regarding the omnipresence of Christ. Brenz published his conclusions in the 1561 treatise, De personali unione duarum naturarum in Christo, where he set forth the influential position concerning the ubiquity of Christ’s human nature according to its union with the divine nature. The second great contribution he made came in the form of a 1559 church order entitled simply “The Great Church Order” (Grosse Kirchenordnung). He had begun the work as early as 1551, and after publication it would influence German church organization until the twentieth century. His view of church polity set up two parallel church councils administering different aspects of church governance, and they were represented by a superintendent who would oversee the territory’s pastors and congregations. While these were his most influential publications, Brenz left a total of 517 writings that remain largely unedited, including substantial biblical commentaries based on his sermons that continued to be read three centuries later.