Tuesday, 29 August 2017


About the same time Luther sent his letter and “Resolutions to the 95 Theses” to Pope Leo X in 1518, he also wrote to John Staupitz. Luther once famously declared, “If it had not been for Dr Staupitz, I should have sunk into hell.” He also wrote, “I was excommunicated three times, first by Staupitz, second by the pope, and third by the emperor.” Who is John Staupitz? Why should he invite both Luther’s admiration and slight aversion? Why did Luther think it was important to send him this letter?

Staupitz was born near Leisnig, Germany. His date of birth remains uncertain. He received his early education in Leipzig and Cologne. Soon after he earned his master of arts in 1489, he took monastic orders with the Hermits of St Augustine in Munich. In 1497, he left to continue his studies at Tubingen, earning his doctorate by 1500. In 1502, he was called to serve as professor of Bible and dean of the theology faculty at the newly founded university in Wittenberg. In 1503, he was appointed the vicar-general of the Reformed Congregation of the Hermits of St Augustine in Germany. Luther joined the University of Wittenberg as a student in 1508. Being an Augustinian, Luther thus came under the supervision of Staupitz, his superior.

Their friendship blossomed sufficiently for Staupitz to entrust Luther as a representative to the papal bull of 1510. He later suggested that Luther earn his doctorate in theology with a view that Luther would succeed him as professor of the Bible. Luther received his doctorate in October 1512 and two days later replaced Staupitz as professor of Bible at the university. Throughout those years and subsequently, Staupitz served as Luther’s confessor and spiritual advisor, thus resulting in Luther calling him his “most beloved father in Christ.”

It should be noted that criticism of indulgences begun long before Luther’s 95 Theses. Staupitz, together with Luther and Wenceslaus Linck, had spoken up publicly against it. They, in fact, composed a text called Treatise on Indulgences which Luther “edited”. When Luther was summoned to an interview with Cardinal Cajetan in October 1518 over the 95 Theses, Staupitz accompanied Luther. When Luther would not submit to the authority issued by Cajetan, Staupitz absolved Luther of his monastic vows, thus freeing him from the Augustinian order. The letter below would have been definitely written either concurrently or soon after Luther’s letter to Pope Leo X but before his being absolved from the Augustinian order.

Staupitz distanced himself somewhat from Luther in subsequent years, due in part to what he saw was the dangerous direction of the Reformation and its adherents. He resigned from the Augustinian order in 1521 and joined the Benedictines in Salzburg.  He died on 28 December 1524. Though he never left the Roman Catholic Church, his writings raised enough suspicion during the Counter Reformation that they were placed on the Index of Prohibited Books in 1559.

Despite the eventual “fall-out” between them before Staupitz’s death, Luther’s indebtedness to and respect for Staupitz are clear from the letter below. It reminds us that even though Luther had inadvertently taken on the world without his intention to do so, he was not alone. He would not have withstood the onslaught of his enemies if not for comrades like Staupitz. It is revealing how Staupitz had influenced him and moved him closer to a clearer understanding of the meaning of true penitence – not by indulgences, but true repentance. As in his letter to Pope Leo X, he draws attention to the fact that all he wanted was for a “disputation” on the 95 Theses and disavows his intention to usurp the authority of the Pope.



To his Reverend and Dear Father JOHN STAUPITZ, Professor of Sacred Theology, Vicar of the Augustinian Order, Brother Martin Luther, his pupil, sendeth greeting.

I remember, dear Father, that once, among those pleasant and wholesome talks of thine, with which the Lord Jesus ofttimes gives me wondrous consolation, the word poenitentia was mentioned, We were moved with pity for many consciences, and for those tormentors who teach, with rules innumerable and unbearable, what they call a modus confitendi. Then we heard thee say as with a voice from heaven, that there is no true penitence which does not begin with love of righteousness and of God, and that this love, which others think to be the end and the completion of penitence, is rather its beginning.

This word of thine stuck in me like a sharp arrow of the mighty, and from that time forth I began to compare it with the texts of Scripture which teach penitence. Lo, there began a joyous game! The words frollicked with me everywhere! They laughed and gamboled around this saying. Before that there was scarcely a word in all the Scriptures more bitter to me than “penitence,” though I was busy making pretences to God and trying to produce a forced, feigned love; but now there is no word which has for me a sweeter or more pleasing sound than “penitence.” For God’s commands are sweet, when we find that they are to be read not in books alone, but: in the wounds of our sweet Savior.

After this it came about that, by the grace of the learned men who dutifully teach us Greek and Hebrew, I learned that this word is in Greek metanoia and is derived from meta and noun, i.e., post and mentem, so that poenitentia or metanoia is a “coming to one’s senses,” and is a knowledge of one’s own evil, gained after punishment has been accepted and error acknowledged; and this cannot possibly happen without a change in our heart and our love. All this answers so aptly to the theology of Paul, that nothing, at least in my judgment, can so aptly illustrate St. Paul.

Then I went on and saw that metanoia can be derived, though not without violence, not only from post and mentem, but also from trans and mentem, so that metanoia signifies a changing of the mind and heart, because it seemed to indicate not only a change of the heart, but also a manner of changing it, i.e., the grace of God. For that “passing over of the mind, which is true repentance, is of very frequent mention in the Scriptures. Christ has displayed the true significance of that old word “Passover”; and long before the Passover, Abraham was a type of it, when he was called a “pilgrim,” i.e., a “Hebrew,” that is to say, one, who “passed over” into Mesopotamia, as the Doctor of Bourgos learnedly explains. With this accords, too, the title of the Psalm in which Jeduthun, i.e., “the pilgrim,” is introduced as the singer.

Depending on these things, I ventured to think those men false teachers who ascribed so much to works of penitence that they left us scarcely anything of penitence itself except trivial satisfactions and laborious confession, because, forsooth, they had derived their idea from the Latin words poenitentiam agere, which indicate an action, rather than a change of heart, and are in no way an equivalent for the Greek metanoia. While this thought was boiling in my mind, suddenly new trumpets of indulgences and bugles of remissions began to peal and to bray all about us; but they were not intended to arouse us to keen eagerness for battle. In a word, the doctrine of true penitence was passed by, and they presumed to praise not even that poorest part of penitence which is called “satisfaction,” but the remission of that poorest part of penitence; and they praised it so highly that such praise was never heard before. Then, too, they taught impious and false and heretical doctrines with such authority (I wished to say “with such assurance”) that he who even muttered anything to the contrary under his breath, would straightway be consigned to the flames as a heretic, and condemned to eternal malediction.

Unable to meet their rage half-way, I determined to enter a modest dissent, and to call their teaching into question, relying on the opinion of all the doctors and of the whole Church, that to render satisfaction is better than to secure the remission of satisfaction, i.e., to buy indulgences. Nor is there anybody who ever taught otherwise. Therefore, I published my Disputation; in other words, I brought upon my head all the curses, high, middle and low, which these lovers of money (I should say “of souls”) are able to send or to have sent upon me. For these most courteous men, armed, as they are, with very dense acumen, since they cannot deny what I have said, now pretend that in my Disputation I have spoken against the power of the Supreme Pontiff.

That is the reason, Reverend Father, why I now regretfully come out in public. For I have ever been a lover of my corner, and prefer to look upon the beauteous passing show of the great minds of our age, rather than to be looked upon and laughed at. But I see that the bean must appear among the cabbages, and the black must be put with the white, for the sake of seemliness and loveliness.

I ask, therefore, that thou wilt take this foolish work of mine and forward it, if possible, to the most Excellent Pontiff, Leo X, where it may plead my cause against the designs of those who hate me. Not that I wish thee to share my danger! Nay, I wish this to be done at my peril only. Christ will see whether what I have said is His or my own; and without His permission there is not a word in the Supreme Pontiff’s tongue, nor is the heart of the king in his own hand. He is the Judge whose verdict I await from the Roman See.

As for those threatening friends of mine, I have no answer for them but that word of Reuchlin’s — “He who is poor fears nothing; he has nothing to lose.” Fortune I neither have nor desire; if I have had reputation and honor, he who destroys them is always at work; there remains only one poor body, weak and wearied with constant hardships, and if by force or wile they do away with that (as a service to God), they will but make me poorer by perhaps an hour or two of life. Enough for me is the most sweet Savior and Redeemer, my Lord Jesus Christ, to Whom I shall always sing my song; if any one is unwilling to sing with me, what is that to me? Let him howl, if he likes, by himself.

The Lord Jesus keep thee eternally, my gracious Father!

Wittenberg, Day of the Holy Trinity, MDXVIII.

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