About the Commemoration
Johannes Bugenhagen was born 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. After Martin Luther’s death, Bugenhagen took care of Luther’s widow and children. In 1558 Bugenhagen died and was buried in the City Church in Wittenberg.
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 (or Norbertine) 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.
Excerpts from Northwood Lutherans.
See also: Johannes Bugenhagen
From Johannes Bugenhagen
We should rejoice with our dear father Luther that he left and departed from us to the Lord Christ in the highest apostolic and prophetic office in which he faithfully accomplished what he was commanded. For with Christ are the holy patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and many to whom he preached the Gospel, all the holy angels, and Lazarus in the bosom of Abraham, that is, in the eternal joy of all believers. We will experience what this interim period until the Day of Judgment is like, as Paul says in Philippians 1: “I desire to depart and to be with Christ”; and as Stephen also says in Acts: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit”; and Jesus to the thief: “Today you will be with Me in paradise.” For there is no doubt, just as the spirit of Christ was in the hands of the Father until the resurrection on Easter, since He said: “Father, into Your hands I commend My spirit,” etc., so will our spirits be in the hands of Christ until our resurrection. For that is the meaning of the words of Lazarus: “But now he is comforted while you are tormented.” Our dear father Dr. Martin Luther has now attained what he often desired. And if he were to return to us again now, he would reprimand our mourning and faint-heartedness with the word of Christ from John 16: “If you loved Me you would rejoice because I go to the Father, and you would not begrudge Me this eternal rest and joy.” Christ has conquered death for us. Why, then, are we afraid? The death of the body is for us a beginning of life eternal through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who has become for us a noble, precious sacrifice. I still remember that when our honorable, dear father, Dr. Martin Luther, saw several depart sweetly in the confession of Christ, he said: “May God grant me that I may also depart so sweetly in the bosom of Christ and that the body may not be tormented with lengthy pains of death. But may God’s will be done.”
Devotional reading and prayer are from Treasury of Daily Prayer (2014 printing), page 1290 © 2008 Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved.
Almighty and everlasting God, Your Son called the twelve to be His apostles and sent out the seventy-two to preach and to heal. You continue to send out faithful pastors to feed the people of God with the holy food of the Gospel and the Sacraments. We give You thanks for providing Martin Luther with a faithful pastor and confessor in Johannes Bugenhagen and for his care of Luther’s widow and children. May we all be blessed to have such pastors to take care of our needs in body and soul; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Concordia Publishing House