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Johann von Staupitz, Luther’s Father Confessor

We take our devotional reading from a few narrative letters imagined by Neal E. Snider in Sincerely, Luther. While these letters are fictional, they were researched and written from the theology, biography, and published writings of Luther’s life.

Devotional Reading

Letter 15

In the fall of 1512, I was formally received into the faculty of the University of Wittenberg. I was still an Augustinian monk and obligated to obey my superiors.

Johann von Staupitz was my superior, a man whom I loved dearly and respected deeply to the end of my days. I think that he never did quite understand me, my disquietude of spirit, and my struggle with the Church of Rome. But he was a good pastor to me. He must have thought that I had some ability, because it was he who bade me move in directions counter to my own intentions.

All I wanted to do from the day I entered that monastery was to be a simple monk and find peace with God. I was not allowed to do the first, and I never achieved the second, in spite of the religious practices prescribed for us monks.

Father Staupitz insisted that I become a priest, then a doctor of theology, and then he selected me to succeed him as lecturer in Bible at the University of Wittenberg.

It was Staupitz who selected me to be the preacher at the monastery in 1511, even before I began as a professor at that university.

After being received into the faculty, it was my responsibility to select the biblical topic on which I would lecture. I selected the Book of Psalms.

Before beginning my lectures, I had to make preparation. It was not until late summer 1513 that I began teaching. I lectured only two hours a week, sometimes three hours. I completed the first course on Psalms probably in the spring of 1515.

Why people ever bothered to keep my lecture notes on Psalms I’ll never know. They aren’t very good. Don’t bother reading them; I might be embarrassed. I think that I did improve some in my next lecture on the books of Romans and Hebrews. I’ll tell you a bit more about those lectures next time. Until then, keep the faith.

Letter 23

The Augustian monasteries, scattered throughout the German lands, convened triennially on the Third Sunday after Easter for mutual support and to conduct the business necessary for all organizations. A meeting of the Augustinians was scheduled for Heidelberg in April 1518. I was the district vicar, and because of that position I was expected to attend. My friends advised me against going to Heidelberg because what appeared to be an aborted attempt to challenge the indulgence traffic was alive and well. My life had been threatened because of my challenge. (Truth always arouses anger in this world, which is alienated from God. That alienation from God appears all too frequently even within the church, laity, and clergy included.) Nevertheless, I was intent on attending my duties as district vicar. Fortunately, I had a prince who provided me with letters of introduction and asked for my safe passage. Nevertheless, it seemed wise for me to travel in disguise. It took me ten days to walk from Wittenberg to Heidelberg.

The pope had directed the general of the Augustinian Order in Rome, Gabriel della Volta, to put a stop to my “heretical” posting. The general contacted my supervisor, Johann von Staupitz, to have me silenced. I have previously told you that Staupitz was a pastoral superior. Rather than rebuke me, he asked me to prepare a disputation (you may call it a dialogue, debate, or discussion) on the theological issues of sin, free will, and grace to be presented at Heidelberg, but he also asked me to refrain from controversial issues. By “controversial issues,” I understood him to mean indulgences. I completed my assignment by preparing forty theses for debate, twenty-eight on theological issues and twelve on issues of philosophy.

Letter 25

The furor raised by the publication of my Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences gave me gastric pain. I had wanted only to debate some issues about the pope’s authority to release people from purgatory by the purchase of indulgence letters. Well, frankly, the issues were a bit more extensive, but that was the main thrust of the Disputation. I had been charged with heresy, and Johann Tetzel, that infamous seller of indulgence letters, said that he would have me burned at the stake within several weeks. I knew that I must make a further response.

Early in 1518, even prior to going to Heidelberg, I had been working on a further explanation of the Ninety-Five Theses. I was ready to publish that explanation in February, but my bishop forbade it. When I returned from Heidelberg, I continued to work on the explanation; despite the prohibition of my bishop, I submitted the manuscript to a printer in April.

My superior, Father Staupitz, was under pressure from Rome to have me silenced. He asked me to write a conciliatory letter to the pope. In respect for my beloved vicar, I complied with his request and sent a letter along with the Explanations. I addressed the pope respectfully as “Most Blessed Father, Leo X.” In deference to the pope I wrote, “But you will deign, blessed Father, to hear the true case from me, though I am but an uncouth child.” I told the pope that it had not been my intention to have the theses published and spread among the common folks. I wrote, “Therefore I published a set of theses, inviting only the more learned to dispute with me if they wished.” I further explained that I was not proposing any new doctrine, but only deep personal concerns that needed theological discussion.

If you have interest in reading the Explanations, you have access to them in your own language.

Letter 39

My beloved father in the faith, Johann von Staupitz, resigned his position as vicar of the Augustinian order in Germany in the spring of 1520. I fear that his love for me, and his disquiet over my actions, may have led to his resignation. I loved that man until my dying day. And even afterwards.

Devotional reading adapted from Sincerely, Luther,  copyright © 2019 Neal E. Snider, published by Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved. Footnotes have been omitted. 

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