October 12, 2017

The Wittenberg 5

Stephen Nichols
The Wittenberg 5


If you’ve ever read Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, you realize that he was looking for a debate. He wanted to discuss the Roman Catholic Church’s practice of selling indulgences. And he actually got that debate: it happened in the chapel of St. Mary’s Church with the faculty of the University of Wittenberg and his fellow monks at the Augustinian monastery.

It’s important to note the participation of those faculty members and fellow monks. Sometimes, we think of Luther as a lone Reformer, a hero who made the Reformation happen. And to a certain extent that’s true. But there’s also a sense in which Luther was not alone, that he had associates, including from the university and from his monastery. And we need to pay attention to them as well. The most important of these associates I call the Wittenberg Five—the fifth one being Luther himself.

The first of the Wittenberg Five is Nicolaus von Amsdorf. Amsdorf was born in the same year as Luther, 1483, in Torgau. In 1502, he was among the first entering class at the University of Wittenberg. By 1511, he was appointed professor of theology. In 1524, he moved on to Magdeburg, and at the end of his life he was in Eisenach. He was installed as a bishop in 1542, and he held that post until his death in 1565. Amsdorf was with Luther when he posted the Ninety-Five Theses and at the Diet of Worms. He even helped Luther get the church established in Wittenberg.

The second of the Wittenberg Five is Justus Jonas. Jonas was born in 1493 and died in 1555. He, like Luther, studied at Erfurt. He was there from 1506 to 1510, so his time there overlapped with Luther’s. And also, like Luther, he went from Erfurt to study at Wittenberg; he studied biblical studies and theology from 1511 to 1514. Afterward, he went back to Erfurt and was there as a professor until 1521. Jonas went with Luther to the Leipzig debate, and there he was convinced of the truths of the Reformation. He went with Luther to Worms in 1521 and afterward decided to leave Erfurt and come to Wittenberg. From 1521 to 1524, he was at Wittenberg with Luther and then later he went to Halle. Jonas was actually with Luther at the time of his death, and he would record some of the last moments of Luther’s life.

The third of the Wittenberg Five is Johannes Bugenhagen. Luther called him “Doctor Pomeranus.” Luther considered Bugenhagen his pastor. He was born in 1485, so he was actually two years younger than Luther. He was born in Poland, and he died in Wittenberg in 1558 and he’s buried at the Castle Church. When he read Luther’s On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, he said, “The whole world is blind. This man alone sees the truth.”

The fourth of the Wittenberg Five is Philip Melanchthon. He was Luther’s successor, the one who is most closely associated with Luther. We’ll have to reserve an entire episode just for Melanchthon since he’s so crucial, not only in Luther’s life but in developments after Luther’s death.

So, that’s the Wittenberg Five—Nicolaus von Amsdorf, Justus Jonas, Johannes Bugenhagen, Philip Melanchthon, and the man himself, Martin Luther.