Johannes Bugenhagen was one of the most influential colleagues of Martin Luther. He was born in Pomerania, attended the University of Greifswald for two years, and served as rector of the Latin school in Treptow and as lecturer at the Premonstratensian cloister of Belbug. He was also ordained in 1509. Impacted by humanism, he was interested in contemporary biblical and theological scholarship and became acquainted with Luther’s early writings, particularly the Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520). He immediately recognized the revolutionary nature of this work but initially considered Luther’s critique of the church’s sacerdotal and sacramental systems to be heretical. After carefully studying the Reformer’s proposals, however, he changed his mind completely.
Bugenhagen, therefore, decided to leave Pomerania in 1521 and study with Luther. His timing was unfortunate, however, since Luther was absent from Wittenberg for eleven months after Bugenhagen’s arrival because of his appearance before the Diet of Worms and his exile at the Wartburg. However, Bugenhagen came to the attention of Melanchthon who quickly recognized the Pomeranian’s Latin expertise, intimate acquaintance with Scripture, and pedagogical skills. Melanchthon, therefore, encouraged Bugenhagen to offer private lectures, particularly on the Psalms, and welcomed his participation in the nascent reform movement. Luther shared Melanchthon’s positive impression when he returned to Wittenberg in March 1522. Therefore, in 1523 he recommended to St. Mary’s congregation that they call Bugenhagen as their pastor, which they did. Luther also had a practical motive for making the recommendation. He wanted his new colleague to be able to support a family since Bugenhagen had married Walpurga in 1522. His pastoral call marks the beginning of Bugenhagen’s leadership role in the Wittenberg reformation. He contributed much to this crucial movement.
Modeling effective pastoral and episcopal ministry was one important contribution. As the pastor of the city church, Bugenhagen served the Wittenberg community by preaching, celebrating the sacraments, and offering spiritual counsel. After his appointment as general superintendent of Electoral Saxony in 1533, his ministry reached beyond Wittenberg as he cared pastorally for the clergy of the region, provided organizational leadership to the churches, and served as a liaison between the Electors and the ecclesiastical communities.
Significantly, Bugenhagen was also Luther’s pastor for more than two decades. Luther was a man of deep faith, a brilliant theologian, a persistent witness of Christ, and a fearless critic of the church. He also experienced profound spiritual struggles. Bugenhagen replaced Johannes von Staupitz as Luther’s chief spiritual counselor, and he inspired Luther’s deep trust and appreciation as he shared words of guidance, critique, support, and assurance of God’s radical love and grace in Jesus Christ. Bugenhagen’s pastoral care clearly strengthened Luther for his challenging spiritual journey and reforming work.
Bugenhagen also emerged as a leading theologian of the Lutheran Reformation. While he was not awarded the doctorate until 1533, he lectured at the Leucorea throughout his reforming ministry and was both a teaching and publishing scholar. The interpretation of Scripture was his scholarly interest, and he published a substantial number of biblical commentaries, the most popular of which was his Psalms commentary. Commentaries on the minor letters of Paul, Romans, Matthew, Jeremiah, and Jonah were also among his diverse publications. His harmony of the Gospel passion narratives became a highly influential and popular spiritual resource. He was also a member of the team of scholars who assisted Luther in the translation of the Old Testament, and he facilitated the publication of the New Testament (1524) and the whole Bible (1533) in Low German
Bugenhagen also produced many treatises that addressed central Reformation themes. His theological interests focused especially on the doctrine of justification, the proper relationship between faith and works, the affirmation of infant baptism, and the defense of Christ’s real presence in the sacrament. In his treatises, he addressed the theological positions and practices of the Roman Church but also of other reformers, including Huldreich Zwingli, Martin Bucer, and representatives of the Radical Reformation. Although he was not an innovative theologian, he was an effective articulator and apologist of sixteenth-century evangelical theology.
Bugenhagen‘s organizational contributions to the Reformation movement in northern Germany and parts of Scandinavia have been widely recognized. He manifested keen organizational skills, was able to speak and write Low German, and supervised the establishment of the newly emerging evangelical communities. His organizational travels brought him to Braunschweig, Hamburg, Lübeck, Pomerania, Denmark, Schleswig-Holstein, Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel, and Hildesheim. Wherever he went, he preached in the churches, met with local reforming pastors and encouraged their work, responded to opponents, consulted with and served as mediator between ecclesiastical and political leaders, and wrote or supervised the production of church orders that became the legal foundations of the evangelical churches.
While he clarified evangelical theology with care, Bugenhagen was flexible regarding adiaphora and addressed local contexts with creativity and pastoral sensitivity. His orders, therefore, also became models for other evangelical orders throughout Germany. Bugenhagen’s church orders were divided into three major sections. The first section provided precise directions and theological justification for the reform of the liturgical and sacramental life of the church. The second section, which was often called a school order, gave careful instructions regarding the organization and curricula of elementary vernacular schools for girls and boys and of secondary Latin schools and small universities, called lectoria, where academically gifted boys and young men could prepare for service in church and society. The third section was an order of the common chest or of the poor chest that provided guidelines for the collection and distribution of funds that would enable evangelical communities to maintain ecclesiastical, educational, and social welfare institutions; pay the salaries of ecclesiastical and educational personnel; and support the poor. With his advocacy of universal education and the care of the poor, Bugenhagen also made practical and crucial contributions as a social reformer. His theology of faith active in love informed his social consciousness.
Johannes Bugenhagen was an integral member of the collegium of Wittenberg reformers who contributed much to the reform movement led by Martin Luther. He could very well be an admirable model for current pastoral leaders who seek to serve a community of faith that strives to be a public church.