Review of “Johannes Bugenhagen: Selected Writings”

Review of Johannes Bugenhagen: Selected Writings, 2 vols., ed. and trans. Kurt K. Hendel (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015), 1480 pp., $70.

Bugenhagen is one of those delightfully German names that Reformation enthusiasts know and love: he was the town pastor, in fact Luther’s own pastor, in Wittenberg, where a bust near the City Church honors his memory. He was a close friend of all the key players in the town and wrote some church orders for newly reformed evangelical communities. But beyond these few facts and warm regard, Bugenhagen—“the Pomeranian”—has remained hidden behind a cloud of unknowing in the English-speaking world. That is, until now.

This year, two massive volumes of Bugenhagen’s selected writings, translated into English, have finally been published, the longtime labor of love of Lutheran scholar and theologian Kurt Hendel. In so doing, Hendel has rectified a long and unjust absence of Bugenhagen from anglophone Reformation studies. Even the sixteenth century saw no translations of Bugenhagen, despite the popularity of many other continental writers.

And it turns out that Bugenhagen was by no means an insignificant figure or just a friendly town pastor with no wider reach. Hendel remarks that “it is defensible to assert that his contributions to the Wittenberg movement are exceeded only by those of Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon” (xi). Although he was in high demand for drafting church orders, even as far away as Denmark, Bugenhagen was also a theologian and an exegete, and his experience as a pastor found its way into treatises of the kind we would now call practical theology.

Accordingly, in these two volumes, Bugenhagen’s writings are organized into five parts. The first, “The Man and His Times,” includes historical reports, comments on current questions, and the sermon he delivered at Luther’s funeral. This last item is particularly moving. Bugenhagen goes into a long digression about some other fellow who’d suffered from amnesia before his death in order to distract himself and the parishioners from their inordinate grief over the loss of Luther, but he still has to stop periodically to exhort them—and himself—not to weep so much.

The second section is entitled simply “The Theologian.” Some of these writings are of a more polemical nature, targeted against the errors of Osiander and the Enthusiasts, for example. Some are personal letters to various dignitaries and friends on theological topics, including a duchess named Lady Anna. Others are more instructional in nature, about private confession, the Lord’s Supper, and the relationship between faith and works. A particularly long one entitled “Concerning the Christian Faith” works its way through a number of Lutheran doctrines, studded with little gems such as this one: “From this we surely see what a friendly heart Christ has toward us so that we might climb into the Father’s heart through Him and see how much He loves us so that He has given us such a Christ and given Him into death for our sake so that we might recognize the Father through Him and come to Him again through this recognition like poor, lost sheep” (299). It’s a beautiful image, climbing into the Father’s heart.

Also in this section, in his exposition of Psalm 29, Bugenhagen mounts a defense of infant baptism that those who take it for granted ought to spend some time with. Along the way he proposes a prayer that Christian parents can offer over their as-yet unborn children in the womb: “Thank you, dear heavenly Father, that you have blessed us with the fruit of our bodies. Dear LORD Jesus Christ, let this little child be yours, as you have said, ‘Let the little children come to me and do not prevent them, for to such belongs the realm of God.’ In response to this promise of yours we bring this child to you with our prayer. When it is born and comes into our hands we will also gladly bring and carry it to you in baptism” (411). Bugenhagen goes on to argue that when we bring children to Christ in baptism or prayer, we are truly bringing them as personally and truly to Christ as in the Gospel story. “For Christ is powerful, present, and real in His word and promise, in His sacrament, and in our prayer which we are commanded to pray, and, indeed, even in ourselves. Oh, this is an inexpressible grace of God” (411). Though Luther made a big deal of the real presence of Christ, I’ve never read him extending it to prayers and even loving parents, and it’s wonderful that Bugenhagen does so.

Part III considers Bugenhagen “The Exegete.” This rather short section includes his reflections on Psalm 1, the curiously titled “A beautiful revelation of the antichrist,” and a meditation on the priesthood of Christ based on Psalm 110. Hendel notes in the introduction that he has left out Bugenhagen’s long biblical commentaries, which could easily fill entire volumes themselves.

Part IV brings us to “The Pastor.” Most of these deal with monasticism and marriage. While we all know that the Reformation brought about a revolution in attitudes toward marital sexuality and celibacy, and laws regarding divorce, these treatises offer a glimpse into how evangelical pastors actually dealt with the everyday matters at hand. It’s easy, in the light of our own contemporary perspectives, to forget that the reformers were not simply validating intimacy over abstinence: Bugenhagen makes it very clear that the problem was that almost nobody was actually practicing abstinence, and so insulting the command of God to marry in the process, a double evil. Nevertheless, he and others still took the trouble to argue in defense of married clergy on biblical grounds.

Most illuminating in this regard is the treatise “Marriage Matters,” in which Bugenhagen advises how to handle cases of adultery and abandonment. His basic argument is that one who has ceased to function as a husband is not, in fact, a husband anymore. If he refuses to be a husband, then the law might as well recognize the fait accompli and give the wife her freedom to find a man who will be a true husband to her. And yet, Bugenhagen continually exhorts pastors and married couples alike to seek reconciliation whenever possible—again, as long as it’s the real thing and both parties are willing to mend their ways. One spouse suffering physical abuse at the hands of the other (and Bugenhagen is equal opportunity here: he must have known cases of wives beating husbands in addition to the more common reverse case) is not obligated by either God or the church to stay in the marriage. We tend to think that sympathy for such cases is a more recent development, but Bugenhagen proves otherwise.

The final section, on “The Church Organizer and Social Reformer,” includes but one document, “The Christian Order of the Honorable City of Braunschweig,” which is representative of the many such orders Bugenhagen wrote, contributed to, or inspired. Far from being a series of highly structured sections and sub-sections as we are used to seeing in our church constitutions today, Bugenhagen’s is more a narrative dealing with various items pertaining to church practice, undergirded by the theological rationale. (I can’t help but wonder if our own parish life would be improved by having theology written right into what tends to be a rather dry legal exposition.) Baptism comes first, with another defense of infant baptism and an argument for conducting the whole baptismal liturgy in German (as opposed to Latin). Most interestingly, this is followed directly by a section on midwives and their need for theological training so that they can comfort women in childbirth and if necessary baptize the infant. The next several parts deal with schools—a surprise to us but to Bugenhagen self-evident that churches should see to the education of local children. Only then do we get to preachers and superintendents, their salaries and their duties. This includes the details of what days pastors are expected to offer a service, when they are to preach on the Catechism, and special seasons and days. It is a very vivid reminder that preaching-teaching was of paramount importance to the reformers: the central business of the pastoral office. (It’s also hard to imagine contemporary preachers willingly offering this many sermons during a week—or contemporary parishioners willingly attending so many!) After that Bugenhagen takes up confession, the Supper, visitation of the sick and poor, marriage, the ban of public unrepentant sinners—including those who behave offensively during the sermon. A further long section explains why objects are no longer to be consecrated: because they are already good as created by God and need no further blessing by our intervention. There are many more fascinating details which will no doubt be as inspiring to pastors of the twenty-first century as they were to those of the sixteenth.

This collection of Bugenhagen’s writings is appropriately prefaced by Hendel’s biographical introduction to his life and work. While not as exciting as Luther’s—Hendel refers to Bugenhagen as “the reformer beyond the limelight”—Bugenhagen’s life was emblematic of the patient, careful, thoughtful institution-building that has to follow upon the charismatic explosiveness of a figure like Luther. Charisma and institution need not be enemies, whatever the sociologists may say; if they work hand in hand, they are mutually enriching as well as mutually correcting. We love Luther, but in some ways we can only do so because Bugenhagen was there to translate Luther into accessible congregational terms. Indeed, if nothing else, Lutheran pastors today will find in Bugenhagen an excellent model for doing exactly that: translating Luther for the people in the pews.

Overall, Hendel’s work is a great gift to Lutheran churches and scholars. Precisely because it is so important and timely, however, it is unfortunately necessary to register a note of dismay about the typographical production and editorial organization of the volumes themselves, which presumably is a fault to lay at the feet of Fortress, not Hendel. The covers and stitching of the book are appropriately beautiful. But the inside layout is amateurish in appearance. The line spacing and the font are reminiscent of college term papers, not an important work of scholarship (Times New Roman? seriously?). The Table of Contents is identical in both volumes, giving the perusing reader no clue as to which volume contains which documents. (For those who want to know, the dividing line is between the end of Part II and the beginning of Part III.) The texts themselves are peppered with indications like “[p. 9]” or “(p. 53),” but I could not find where we were informed what these page numbers refer to, or if there’s a difference between parentheses and brackets. Likewise, a great many paragraphs begin with something like: “[Right margin: True recognition of sins and repentance],” but again, there is no explanation about what these refer to in the layout of the original documents, and surely there was a more attractive and sensible way to incorporate these notations into the texts presented here that do not continually interrupt the flow of reading. While some of the documents include their year of original publication in the title or opening line, some do not. The reader therefore either has to search for the year on the first page or is left not knowing at all when a given text was written. Given that the documents are arranged topically rather than chronologically, the result is utter confusion as to what order Bugenhagen wrote them in and how they might relate to one another in his development as a theologian. Finally, after so many years of depending upon the excellent introductions to each of the writings in the Luther’s Works series, I felt keenly the lack of such introductions to each of Bugenhagen’s writings presented here. Each document would have been that much more accessible and interesting if we knew the circumstances of its composition. Bugenhagen has waited so long for this introduction to the English-speaking world; it wouldn’t have taken much more work to make these two volumes truly world-class, and it’s a shame that didn’t happen.

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