Martin Luther described Johann von Staupitz O.S.A. as his "father in God," and once said, "If it had not been for Dr. Staupitz, I should have sunk in hell."
Johann von Staupitz was the Augustinian superior and mentor of Martin Luther. He maintained contact with Martin Luther for the rest of his life, yet without leaving the Catholic Church himself. Staupitz was pious and kindly; in his care of individuals and in the pulpit he succeeded in communicating some of his religious fervour to others. As a religious superior, however, he was far too indulgent and indecisive, as his indecisive attitude and actions in the case of Martin Luther amply demonstrated.
Johann von Stauptiz was born near Leisnig, Germany in about the year 1460. He joined the Order of Saint Augustine, probably at Munich, already possessing a Master of Arts degree. In the year 1497, he moved to the Augustinian friary at Tübingen, where in 1498 he became leader of the Augustinian community - a very precipitate step, regardless of his considerable personal qualities. There on 29th October 1498 he commenced the biblical course and, on 10th January 1499 (a Iittle more than two months later), he began to deliver theological lectures on the Sentences of Peter Lombard.
Half a year of this qualified him for the Licentiate and a day later, in a step that made a farce of what in previous centuries had been the highest of hard-earned academic accolades, he was designated as a Doctor of Divinity. A generation later, Luther's defective, unmethodical, shallow, self-acquired theological training is more understandable in view of the superficial theological preparation of Staupitz, who in many ways was Luther's mentor. Staupitz was subsequently made leader of the Augustinian community at Munich, and in 1503 was elected Vicar-General of the observant congregation of the Augustinians in Germany. On a tour of visitation Staupitz became acquainted with Luther in the house (convento) of the Order at Erfurt.
Staupitz was grieved at the state of the church and the corruption within the arena of morals and of doctrine. He wrote with passion to correct these things, and also articles about the Christian faith and the love of Christ. Like many before him, he was not a reformer and did not desire to go beyond the duties that had been given to him by the church. However, his affections for people made him a helpful overseer of the convents and he took an interest in helping Martin Luther, the youthful and fearful friar. To judge Staupitz from Luther's subsequent remarks, he came nearer than anyone else to understanding the convoluted struggle that was taking place within Luther's soul. He consoled Martin, who was weak from the fasting and sacrifices that he undertook in a desire to compensate for his perceived personal evil. Staupitz bade Luther to turn from an endless consideration of his own sins, and instead to ponder the grace of God and of the redemption of humanity in the Blood of Christ. He also taught him the wisdom of waiting patiently for God's grace in prayer, and not to strive endlessly for a peace of soul through human effort. For this encouragement of his spirit Luther remained always grateful. Staupitz later admitted, however, that there had been depths to Luther's soul that he could not plumb.
In his earlier years, Staupitz had gone to school with Prince Frederick the Wise, who was the Elector (ruler) of Saxony. In the last years of the fifteenth century he began talks with the Augustinians about founding a university there. Elector Frederick would himself provide the buildings if the Augustinians would provide the core of professors. They agreed to do this and to increase their community in Wittenberg, eventually arranging that Staupitz, a member of a noble Saxon family and thus suited to working with the Elector, should be invited to come over from the Augustinian friary in Munich and take on the chair of Biblical Study at the university. Frederick set about building the university lecture halls and provided money both for new buildings for the friars and for his own property at the other end of the main street, the Castle (for his occasional visits from his permanent residence at Torgau) and the Castle Church, on whose doors not many years afterwards Martin Luther's ninety-five theses would immortalize.
In 1510 Luther, along with all other Augustinians in Erfurt, opposed the plan by Staupitz that later came to be called the "controversy of the German observantines." As an effort at reform of the weaker communities, Staupitz wanted the eight German Augustine observant houses (i.e., those observing the Rule of Augustine more strictly) to be more strongly united with the other Augustinian houses under his charge. Erfurt was an observantine house, and opposed the intention of Staupitz for fear that it would dilute the fervour or the progress of reform at Erfurt.
They agreed to do this and to increase their community in Wittenberg. They eventually arranged that Staupitz, a member of a noble Saxon family and thus suited to working with the Elector, should be invited to come over from the Augustinian friary in Munich and take on the chair of Biblical Study at the university. Frederick set about building the university lecture halls and provided money both for new buildings for the friars and for his own property at the other end of the main street, the Castle (for his occasional visits from his permanent residence at Torgau) and the Castle Church, on whose doors not many years afterwards Martin Luther's ninety-five theses would immortalize.As an effort at reform of the weaker communities, Staupitz wanted the eight particular German Augustine observant houses (i.e., those observing the Rule of Augustine more strictly) to be more strongly united with the other German Augustinian Observant houses under his charge. Erfurt was an observantine house, and opposed the intention of Staupitz for fear that it would dilute their fervour and progress for reform at Erfurt. Luther was one of two chosen to appeal their case to the Prior General, Giles of Viterbo O.S.A., in Rome. (For Augnet's page on Luther in Rome, click here.)
Giles of Viterbo osa not only impressed Martin Luther with his personality, but won him over to his own position of deferring any steps towards greater combined reform of certain houses of the Order if that would endanger the Order's unity. The whole observant issue lapsed in Germany once the Protestant Reformation happened, because two-thirds of the twenty-six observant houses of the Order in Germany closed because of internal or external factors - or both. Luther returned to Erfurt from Rome in April 1511 and, through a transfer he accepted, soon was living in the same Augustinian community as Staupitz. This happened when Luther accepted an invitation from Prince Frederick the Wise to a teaching position at the University of Wittenberg.
Image (above: The Augustinian friary at Wittenberg. The central tower contained a study where Martin Luther claimed that his theological breakthrough (his Turmerlebenis, or “tower experience”) happened. On the right side of the base of the tower is the Katherinenportal (the “Katherine door’) that Luther’s wife arranged to have inserted there. Luther lived here in his final years as an Augustinian friar, and continued afterwards to live here with his wife and children. It is now called the “Luther House,” and is part of a series of Lutheriana that was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1996.The Augustinian observantine houses of the region held a chapter at Cologne in May 1511, at which Luther was appointed as Sub-Prior (i.e., second in authority) and master of studies at the Augustinian community at Wittenberg. Most probably Staupitz had a hand in suggesting this invitation because, as will shortly be noted, Staupitz himself would soon desire a successor for himself at the University. Johann von Staupitz was the Vicar General of German Augustinian Observantine houses, of which the Augustinian community at the University of Wittenberg was one. At the time Luther was struggling with the need to confess completely everything he had ever done wrong, and at Wittenberg found Staupitz to be a patient, sympathetic and practical confessor.
Even so, Luther’s scruples exhausted Johann von Staupitz, as Luther strove remember every possible sin that his mind might be attempting to cover up. On at least one occasion, Luther confessed for six hours straight. He was filled with doubt. "I was myself more than once driven to the very depths of despair so that I wished I had never been created. Love God? I hated him!" One day in 1511 Staupitz told Luther that he was arranging for Luther to take a Doctorate in theology. Martin was incredulous. What, at the mere age of twenty-eight years?! That was something for a man of forty years or more. At the Erfurt friary, the recipients of the doctorate were nearer fifty. And how could he possibly add the work entailed to all his other tasks, now that he was sub-prior? Martin protested, "It will kill me." Not dissuaded, Staupitz retorted, "Ah well, the Lord has need of people in heaven. He has great need of assistants up there,’
Luther correctly sensed that Staupitz was determined upon this eventuality, however, for Staupitz had also arranged for Friar Karlstadt at Wittenberg to attain a doctorate early in life, and also young Friar Wenceslaus Link at Erfurt in 1511. He said that accelerated recept of the degree could be arranged if it were necessary for promotion to a higher academic position in a university. The urgency on the part of Staupitz was partly personal, although he thought that Luther had coped well with the challenge of succeeding in his various undertakings in the community and the university at Wittenberg. Luther received his Doctor's ring in a ceremony on 18th October 1512, whereupon Staupitz resigned the Chair of Theology at the university, and ensured that it was awarded to Martin Luther.
Image (above): Martin Luther. An den Christlichenn Adel deutscher Nation: von des Christlichen standes besserung. Durch yhn selbs gemehret vnd corrigirt. ("To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate.") Published in Wittenberg in 1520. Upon resigning from the University of Wittenberg in 1512, Staupitz moved back to southern Germany. He resided at Munich, Nuremberg, and Salzburg, except for some journeys to the Netherlands and Belgium. Staupitz would have been aware that the chapter of the observantines held in Gotha in May 1515 appointed Luther, at the age of thirty-one years, as the Augustinian Rural Vicar (i.e., a regional vicar to the role of Staupitz as the Observantine Vicar General for Germany) for the eleven Augustinian observant communities in Meissen and Thuringia. This appointment gave Luther supervisory responsibility over eleven Augustinian communities in his area. In a sense, it made him an "on the spot" sub-agent for Staupitz, who lived in southern Germany, as mentioned above.
In the years between 1517 and 1520, when matters in Luther's thought and life were building to a crescendo, Staupitz was a point of reference and a source of spiritual and psychological encouragement for Luther. For example, many scholars believe that even the famous ninety-five theses by Luther on indulgences and other issues were probably inspired and supported by Staupitz, with whom Luther had discussions during 1517 about their implications in theology. More than any other person, it was Staupitz who saved Luther from a complete nervous breakdown. All his life Luther recognised the sovereign role of Staupitz in his life. This is borne out by sentences written by Luther, such as: "If Dr Staupitz had not helped me out. . .I should have been swallowed up in hell"; "I cannot forget you or be ungrateful, for it was through you that the light of the Gospel began first to shine out of the darkness of my heart"; "He was my very first father in this teaching, and bore me in Christ."
On 3rd February 1518 the Pope charged the Augustinian Prior General in Rome to persuade Luther to retract his new views on theology that were being reported to Rome. This task of confronting Luther was delegated to Staupitz. What happened turned out to be the opposite of what Rome desired. Staupitz invited Luther to address in Heidelberg in April 1518 the chapter assembly of the German Observantine Augustinians. At what has since been called the "Disputation of Heidelberg," Luther gained his first supporters outside of Wittenberg, including Martin Bucer and Johannes Brenz.
In the years between 1517 and 1520, when matters in Luther's thought and life were building to a crescendo, Staupitz was a point of reference and a source of spiritual and psychological encouragement for Luther. For example, many scholars believe that even the famous ninety-five theses by Luther on indulgences and other issues were probably inspired and supported by Staupitz, with whom Luther had discussions during 1517 about their implications in theology. At this stage, Luther was seeking church reform, and as yet had no intention of severing ties with the Pope and the church. Staupitz replied to the Prior General by sending to Rome an explanation of the theses of Luther about indulgences. This led some in Rome to list Staupitz among the followers of Luther.
In reality the attitude of Staupitz was one of hesitation. He was partly suspicious and anxious, and partly encouraging. He still believed that the concern of Luther was limited only to a protest against abuses in practice and behaviour within the church. This sense of protest and a call for reform were strong throughout much of Germany and, in the theology expressed by Luther, Staupitz thought he saw the orientation of Saint Paul and Saint Augustine, and he gave support to this aspect of it. As a regional superior, he consciously sent student members of the observantine congregation of the Augustinian Order to study under Luther at the University of Wittenberg. Records show that, up until 1522, a hundred young members of the Order studied under Luther.
And once more, it was Staupitz who came to the aid of Luther. Staupitz rushed to Augsburg when on 12th October 1518 Cardinal Cajetan as the delegate of the Pope personally tried to convince Luther to withdraw his views because of their errors of theology. Staupitz was present when Luther refused to comply. He gave Luther a letter that, if he wished to use it, formally released Luther from his vows as an Augustinian friar, in case he needed to take a swift decision, for his own safety, to leave and go into hiding without referring to his superiors; without such a letter of permission Luther would by living outside of an Augustinian friary without permission have become a fugitivus (a “fugitive”), who could be arrested by civil authorities. Luther made no use of the letter, and was still preaching at Wittenberg in his Augustinian habit and living in its Augustinian friary (with the Augustinian Prior as the only other person remaining) in the winter of 1523 - 1524. After Augsburg in 1518, Staupitz accepted by now that the protest of Luther was aimed not only at church abuses but also at church doctrine, and began inexorably to lose whatever degree of attraction he possessed for Luther's theology. On 15th March 1520 the Prior General in Rome directly requested Staupitz to try to convince Luther not to publish new attacks on the church or on the practice of granting indulgences. Staupitz genuinely made the attempt, but was unsuccessful. In quick succession in August, October and November 1520 Luther published three titles that were to cast the die irrevocably for his splitting with the Catholic Church. Even before Luther had published these books, the Pope had declared forty of the propositions of Luther to be outside of Catholic teaching.
This happened in the papal bull, Exsurge Domine, of 15th June 1520. The die was now well and truly cast. Luther refused to withdraw his writings. In fact, he publicly re-stated them on 11th December 1520. He was then declared an outlaw by Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms on 17th-18th April 1521 as a result of his refusal to withdraw his statements. Luther was thus officially excluded from the church. Because his effort at mediation was incorrectly suspected as in fact being support for Luther, the Roman authorities had also in 1520 demanded a revocation by Johann von Staupitz.
He hesitated at first, because he knew there was really no need to revoke what he had never asserted, but finally declared that he recognised the Pope as his judge. In the declaration by Staupitz, Luther saw a defection from what Luther held. Staupitz saw himself in an impossible position. Rome wanted him to have Luther withdraw his statements, and Luther was never going to do that. Rome had accused Staupitz of error in theology, and Luther had accused him of orthodoxy! After this, Staupitz felt unable to cope any longer with the threatening situation. Two years previously at Augsburg, the encounter had reduced him to a state of panic when he released Luther from his vows. Now the affair had grown from a merely Saxon affair to one of European-wide concern. Polarisation was proceeding apace, and he found he could not go along with Luther's outright opposition to papal authority.
The formal excommunication of Luther was more than Staupitz could face. He decided to retire at the next triennial Chapter of the German Observantine Augustinians, which was not due until April 1521. By July 1520, however, he could bear the anxiety no longer; he convoked the Chapter early, and held it at Eisleben in the following month. And thus, at the Chapter of the German Observantine Augustinians held in Eislbaden on 28th August 1520 Staupitz resigned the office of Vicar General of the Observantine Augustinians houses in Germany. At that same time, Luther's three-year term as Staupitz's Rural Vicar to the eleven Augustinian observant communities in Meissen and Thuringia also expired. It suited Staupitz and the Observantines to have Luther not administratively involved at that moment because of the division his theological statements were generating. This change was also beneficial for Luther, who was certainly overburdened not only with work but with anxiety.
Although not the president of the University at Wittenberg, he had become in effect the person principally responsible for the reorganisation of the syllabus and the new appointments. Johann Lang was voted in to take over the office of Rural Vicar of the local eleven Augustinian Observantine Saxon friaries. Stauptiz next moved out of the Order of Saint Augustine. In 1522 he received a dispensation to transfer to the Order of Saint Benedict. On 22nd August 1522 he was appointed as the Benedictine Abbot of Saint Peter's in Salzburg. Towards the end of June 1522, Luther was horrified to hear that his old mentor had accepted the offer of the position of Abbot at the wealthy Benedictine Abbey of St Peter in Salzburg. Luther wanted to protest, and he wanted also to set the record straight about Wittenberg, since Staupitz had written to a friend deploring what was going on. Luther underlined how a battle was being fought and told Staupitz how an Augustinian prior at Antwerp, a recent graduate of Wittenberg, had been burnt at the stake. He had been lured to Brussels where the Inquisitor General was able to arrest and imprison him, and eventually to have him burnt, following on a repudiation of a recantation obtained by torture. "They are planning to burn me at the stake too." It was true that only the Elector and the temper of the common people stood between Luther and the stake.
The letter ended: ‘Farewell, my Father, and pray for me. Dr Jerome, Rector Amsdorf, and Philip send their greetings...Your son, Martin Luther." Martin was insisting on the relationship and the mutual loyalty. Staupitz replied months later, on 1st April 1524, in a was warm but guarded tone: ‘My love to you is unchanging, passing the love of women, always unbroken . . . But as I do not grasp all your ideas, I keep silence about them . . . It seems to me that you condemn many things which are merely indifferent. . . but we owe much to you, Martin, for having led us back from the husks which the swine did eat to the pastures of life and the words of salvation." Staupitz asked for a Master’s Degree at Wittenberg for the bearer of the letter, and it was granted. Staupitz died later in the year, on 28th December 1524, only two years after his investiture as a Benedictine Abbot.
Thus ended Luther’s most personal link with the Roman Church, the Church of his own vital years of development. How the relationship between Luther and Staupitz might have developed with the passage of further time is a topic of speculation. In contrast to Luther, Staupitz consciously remained within the Roman church. Even if he shared some premises of theology with Luther, Staupitz, as a member of a noble Saxon family, cut his ties neither with the social groups from which he originated nor with Rome. In his last letter to Luther on 1st April 1524, Staupitz implored him to remember the weak. "Do not denounce points of difference which can be held sincerely," he advised, adding, "We owe much to you, Martin."
Staupitz is remembered more for his involvement with Martin Luther than for his own achievements for the church. He was a herald of a desired Catholic Reformation, but not of the Protestant Reformation that Luther ignited. Everything that Staupitz is recorded as having said to comfort Luther in his anguish over predestination and his torments of conscience was fully Catholic teaching. The teaching of Staupitz on justification was also Catholic. Justification takes place through faith, operating in love. He rejected Luther's teaching on "fiducal faith." He also was totally Catholic in his teaching on human free will and the uncertainty of salvation, as well as in his devotion to Mary and love for the Church.
As far as the influence of the thought of Augustine of Hippo on Christian humanism was concerned, what was promoted by Luigi Marsigli O.S.A. at the Augustinian convento in Florence was also promoted in Germany by Johann von Staupitz O.S.A.. Staupitz presented a synthesis of the Gospel and Christian humanism that greatly influenced the Protestant Reformation. The efforts of Staupitz (and of others such as his fellow-Augustinian, Giles of Viterbo O.S.A.) constituted a Catholic Reformation that was not going to happen for another twenty painful years. In trying to realize his reform concepts within the constitutional framework of the Roman Catholic Church, Staupitz made an effort that proved to be too little and too late once Luther's more drastic steps broke out from within the boundaries of the Roman church.
Staupitz also failed even with his most modest plan of uniting the conventual and observantine branches of the Augustinian Order. This was because Augustinian religious life in Germany was seriously damaged by the far more fundamental upheaval of the Church and religion now known as the Protestant Reformation. Many other Augustinians, including the successor of Staupitz as Vicar General of the German Augustinian Observantines, accepted the doctrine of Luther. Partly as a result of this, the German provinces of the Order ceased to exist 1526. One German province was re-established 269 years later, in 1895. Today there is once again an Augustinian friary (convento) in Wittenberg.
Johann von Staupitz. A modern and succinct online biography. http://reformation500.csl.edu/bio/johann-von-staupitz