April 20th — Johannes Bugenhagen


A Short Synopsis of Bugenhagen’s Life

On April 20, 1558 Johannes Bugenhagen was born to eternal life. His earthly life began on June 24, 1485 in the Hanseatic city of Wollin in Pomerania. Bugenhagen’s father was a member of the town council and made sure that Johannes was given an especially good education. In 1502 he began his studies at the university in Greifswald where he came in contact with the growing Humanist movement, but did not pursue theological studies. In 1504 Bugenhagen was called to serve as a teacher and rector of the municipal Latin school in Treptow on the Rega. In the following year he was called serve simultaneously as lector (lecturer) for the canons of the Premonstratensian Abbey of Belbuk outside of the city. The abbot not only headed the abbey, but was the patron of the congregation and the school in Treptow. He was to give the canons an introductory course in Holy Scripture with an emphasis on Paul’s Pastoral Epistles and the Psalms. His reputation as a scholar grew and spread. In 1509 Bugenhagen was ordained a priest and began preaching (it is worth noting that his sermons in Wittenberg sometimes lasted three hours).

In 1517 Bugenhagen traveled throughout Pomerania gathering documents in order to write the first history of the Duchy of Pomerania. This enterprise was commissioned by Duke Bogislav X. Bugenhagen was thus connected with the past and then the future of his Pomeranian homeland.

In 1520 Bugenhagen comes to agree with Luther (after initial rejection of the reformer’s writings), being impressed especially by the Babylonian Captivity of the Church.

In 1521 Bugenhagen traveled to Wittenberg to study theology. While Luther was at the Diet at Worms, Melanchthon suggested that Bugenhagen fill in for the absent Reformer by lecturing on the Psalms. So began the career of Johannes Bugenhagen as a leader of the Lutheran Reformation.

In 1522, Bugenhagen married his wife, Walpurga

With the help of Luther, Bugenhagen was called as Pastor of the city church (St. Mary’s) in Wittenberg in 1523. He thus became Luther’s confessor. About the same time he became involved in publishing Luther’s New Testament in Low German. His scholarship led to a paid appointment as a lecturer in exegesis at the Wittenberg University. Bugenhagen began his work on his later very influential Passion History at this time.

Bugenhagen is the first Lutheran theologian to take issue with Zwingli’s teachings on the Sacrament of the Altar with his Sendbrief wider den neuen Irrtum in 1525. In the meantime Bugenhagen had received calls from various Hanseatic cities to be their pastor. Bugenhagen also begins what became one of his great accomplishments, the organization of the Lutheran churches in Northern Germany and Scandinavia. He writes theological arguments for the introduction of the Reformation and then works out church orders which will shape church structure and practice for centuries.

Bugenhagen always remained the pastor at heart. When the plague hit Wittenberg in 1527, the university and scholars fled the city. Luther and Bugenhagen remained to minister to the flock. After years of lecturing, Bugenhagen was given a doctorate in theology in 1533. The following year he works on publishing the entire Bible in Low German. In the meantime, a grassroots Reformation had been developing in Bugenhagen’s homeland, Pomerania. Just as he was made a professor at the university in Wittenberg in 1535, the request came from Pomerania for a church order for the duchy and a visitation or inspection tour. Although he was offered the office of bishop of Pomerania, he remained pastor and professor in Wittenberg.

From 1537 to 1539, Bugenhagen undertook the task of reforming the church in the realm of Christian III of Denmark which included Schleswig-Holstein and Norway at the time.

During the Smalcald war, Bugenhagen remained in Wittenberg while others fled. He even continued to preach during the occupation of the city by imperial troops in 1547.

In 1558 Bugenhagen died and was buried in the City Church in Wittenberg.

Bugenhagen’s Signifcance

There are several areas in which Bugenhagen still shapes the life of the Lutheran Church. Bugenhagen chose a harp as his seal because of his love of music. Our Lutheran liturgies still contain some of the music he wrote for the divine service.

The Lutheran understanding of the Lord’s Supper and the accompanying piety are due in a great part to the efforts and influence of Dr. Pomeranus. He recognized the danger in Zwingli’s teaching and sounded the warning trumpet. It has been shown that it was pastors who were taught and trained by Bugenhagen who took up the struggle against the Crypto-Calvinists. While it is disputed that Bugenhagen was himself a Premonstratensian (Norbertine, for us Northeast Wisconsin types) canon. His close association with the order is, however, evident. This background would account for his liturgical interests. His preservation of traditional vestments and practices at Wittenberg scandalized Martin Bucer during the discussions which led to the Wittenberg Concord which was incorporated into the FC. His alertness to the dangers of Sacramentarianism might also be traced back to Premonstratensian sensibilities since Norbert of Xanten took on Tanchelm in Antwerp.

The organization and spread of the Reformation among the North German cities and principalities as well as in Scandinavia was aided by several gifts which Bugenhagen brought to the task. Being the son of a Hanseatic merchant gave him insight into the independent-mindedness of the Low German culture which prevailed around the Baltic Sea. It is that same culture which gave rise to what we know as Anglo-Saxon law. It took a skilled theologian to convince learned bourgeois leaders of the veracity of the Lutheran teaching on justification. It also took someone who spoke the lingua franca of the Baltic: Mittelniederdeutsch (Middle Low German). Mittelniederdeutsch was the language of contracts not only in Northern Germany, but throughout Scandinavia and even into Russia and within some quarters of London. The common Gothic syntax and grammar made it the koine of the region.

The work on the Passion History became a part of Lutheran piety and Lenten liturgical practice.

It was the heart of a pastor who heard the confessions of Luther, of nobles, of peasants, and servant girls. It was the heart of a pastor which would not falter before pestilence or war. While we might not want to emulate three-hour sermons, Bugenhagen’s attention to Holy Writ, the liturgy, music, and especially to the Sacrament of the Altar should serve to inspire 21st century Lutheran pastors to faithfulness in preaching and careful administration of the Sacraments.


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