Here We Stand

Day 29

Johannes Bugenhagen


The Administrative Pastor

By Betsy Howard

Lucas Cranach the Younger’s “Der Weinberg des Herrn” (1569) on display at St. Mary’s Church in Wittenberg, Germany, depicts the Wittenberg Reformers laboring side by side as farmers on a hillside, tending the growing shoots and harvesting the crops. Although their labor is hard, the work of these co-laboring Reformers is decidedly fruitful.

Alongside the renowned Martin Luther and the erudite Philip Melanchthon and many others, Johannes Bugenhagen, pastor of St. Mary’s Church, wears a light-colored robe while he hoes the earth. While not nearly as famous or prolific as Luther and Melanchthon, Bugenhagen worked steadily alongside them, both at St. Mary’s and later at the University of Wittenberg.

Fourfold Reformer

Though principally a pastor, Johannes Bugenhagen — also known as Johannes Pomeranius — served the Reformation in what Kurt Hendel condenses into four distinct roles: a theologian, an exegete, a pastor, and a social reformer and church organizer (Johannes Bugenhagen, xi).

As a theologian, Bugenhagen was largely self-taught; he had little formal theological training, but he read extensively from Scripture and the patristic fathers. With particular facility in Latin, Bugenhagen eventually received a doctorate in theology from the University of Wittenberg and held a lectureship in theology there. Exegetically, Bugenhagen is perhaps best remembered for his 1524 commentary on the Psalms, though he also produced commentaries on Jeremiah and Matthew and a translation of the Bible into Low German.

Since Bugenhagen’s primary vocation was that of parish pastor of St. Mary’s Church in Wittenberg for three decades, much of his daily work was pastoral in nature. Of all of his roles, however, Bugenhagen seemed particularly adept at structuring young Reformation churches and the urban life surrounding them.

Managing a Movement

Bugenhagen’s skill at constructing new ecclesiastical organizations for parishes, cities, and regions joining the Reformation was, in fact, more than just a role for him; Walter Ruccius describes Bugenhagen’s administrative work as one of two particular gifts. Alongside a fierce “loyalty to what he conceived to be the truth,” writes Ruccius, Bugenhagen had “the gift of order” (John Bugenhagen Pomeranus, 3). Bugenhagen used his “gift of order” to create robust social and governing structures for new Reformation communities.

In particular, Bugenhagen’s Kirchenordnungen, or “Church Orders,” detail the interdependence between political bodies and local churches and the organization within individual churches. The ability to share and modify these civic and ecclesial structures efficiently was key to the rapid spread of the Reformation first in Germany and then in Scandinavia.

As a theologically minded man with exceptional organizational capacities, Bugenhagen served the Reformation most profoundly by means of the intensely practical structures he engineered and implemented. While the routines of the Kirchenordungen may seem bizarre to our modern conceptions of church-and-state relationships, Bugenhagen’s work testifies to the value of administrative gifts to spread the gospel.

Friendship with Luther

In the midst of the writing, organizing, designing, and traveling, Bugenhagen maintained close relationships with the Wittenberg Reformers as their friend and pastor. He was especially close with Luther. Bugenhagen married Luther and Katherina von Bora, baptized their children, and served as Luther’s confessor.

When Bugenhagen gave the sermon at Luther’s funeral on February 22, 1546, therefore, he feared that he would “not be able to utter a word because of his tears.” And after thanking God for Luther’s boldness to challenge corruption in the Roman Catholic Church even in the face of “persecution and slander,” Bugenhagen prayed, “Protect your poor Christendom. . . . Preserve in your church faithful and good preachers” (“A Christian Sermon”).

Vineyard Polemics

As Bugenhagen prayed for faithfulness and endurance in the work of preaching, so Cranach’s “Der Weinberg des Herrn” depicts the Wittenberg Reformers as a group of evangelists and preachers at work together to tend and grow the church into maturity for Christ’s sake.

Nonetheless both the rhetoric of Bugenhagen and Cranach’s depictions of the church also tend to be highly polemical. On the other side of the hill in “Der Weinberg,” Cranach depicts the Roman church authorities wantonly destroying vines, burning crops, and filling wells with rocks. And Bugenhagen’s descriptions of the Roman church are the verbal equivalent of Cranach’s painting: in Luther’s funeral sermon, Bugenhagen complains against “the impudent, atrocious, great blasphemies of the adversaries and the obdurate priests and monks” and the “grievous pope,” while he invokes apocalyptic languages to compare the Church of Rome to Babylon.

But the attack in Cranach’s altarpiece and Bugenhagen’s rhetoric do point to what is at stake in the Reformation and the apocalyptic urgency that the Reformers felt: the church is a vineyard that belongs to Jesus. If Christ were to return suddenly to signal the end of time, an event Bugenhagen was convinced would happen soon, Bugenhagen had every intention to be found hard at work “in the vineyard of the Lord” alongside his Wittenberg companions.

(PhD, University of Minnesota) is an assistant professor of literature at Bethlehem College & Seminary in Minneapolis, MN. Her research includes literary forms of grieving and serialized genres, and her recent articles have appeared in Religion and the Arts and Victorian Poetry.