Whether watching a movie, reading a novel, or even studying history, we like to classify people as either good guys or bad guys. Rarely, though, does history make it that easy. The details surrounding historical figures, wars, and politics often get a bit messy. Johann von Staupitz, the influential mentor and superior to Martin Luther in his early monastic days, also defies such simple categorization. He was critical in Luther’s formative years, emphasizing forgiveness through Christ. Yet in the end, he remained in the camp opposite from Luther.
Staupitz’s impact on Luther’s spiritual development can hardly be overestimated. He was Luther’s counselor and confessor. He comforted the young Luther when he was afflicted by doubts and fears of God’s judgment and eternal election. Such fears would have seemed unusual for someone with his exemplary conduct in the monastic order’s way of life. Staupitz comforted Luther by pointing him to the sufferings of Christ and the cross for forgiveness. Also unusual at the time but vital for Luther’s development was Staupitz’s renewed emphasis on studying the Bible in monasteries under his supervision.
In spite of Luther’s objections, it was Staupitz who gave him the eventual platform for his Reformation by insisting Luther should become a doctor of theology and replace him at the University of Wittenberg. When Luther entered the indulgence controversy by posting the 95 Theses on October 31, 1517, he later implied that Staupitz had told him to pursue the issue when they met on August 6 of that same year. After all, Staupitz had been skeptical of such indulgences already at the beginning of 1517.
He supported Luther when he was being formally questioned in Augsburg in front of Cardinal Cajetan. Afterwards, he released Luther from his membership in the Augustinian order. He probably did this to free Luther up to pursue his concerns and to avoid being ordered by his superiors to turn against Luther. Perhaps expressing both encouragement and concern, Staupitz told Luther, “Remember, Friar, you began this in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” These words would stick with Luther.
Yet history doesn’t end there. As Western Christianity divided, Staupitz remained in the opposite camp as Luther. In his letters to Luther, he expressed concerns as to where the Reformation movement was going—how it was shaking the church and troubling weak souls. On the other hand, Luther wanted Staupitz to stick up for the truth more. Interestingly, some of Staupitz’s relatives were involved on the Reformation’s side, such as Stauptiz’s nephew, Nicholas von Amsdorf, and his sister, who was in the same group of nuns fleeing monastic life as Luther’s wife, Katherina von Bora.
Though submitting to the papacy, it appears Staupitz tried to avoid situations calling him to directly renounce or attack Luther’s theology. Meanwhile, his career had been crippled by his former association with Luther. He had even resigned from his high position in the Augustinian order. In his last letter to Luther before his death in 1524, he still expressed his love to Luther and that his faith in Christ was unchanged.
The life of Staupitz isn’t so easy to categorize, but it’s certainly one we can learn from. His positive influence on Luther is a bright spot showing how the Gospel was still around before the Reformation, though at times obscured. His enduring relationship with Luther is an example of mutual love and respect, even for those of a different viewpoint. Yes, history can often be knotty and messy, but somehow God always finds a way for his Gospel to come through—and that makes history all the more interesting!
Rev. Nicholas Proksch
River Heights Lutheran Church
East Grand Forks, MN
* Member, Board of Regents for Bethany Lutheran College & Seminary