blip : Blog of Isaac & Jason :

a different kind of Thomist

August 24th, 2007 by isaac · 2 Comments

Thomas Münzter. I know he’s one of the bad guys, but I can’t help myself. I’m devouring anything I can get my hands on in English (because I can’t read German, which would be very helpful) about this infamous and usually demonized figure from the Reformation. Why is he attractive?

Well, maybe it’s important to first ask: to whom is he attractive? And it’s quite safe to say that Martin Luther is not attracted to Müntzer—or, it’s probably better to say that Luther can’t help but be preoccupied with Müntzer and the threat he poses to the Lutheran reformation. So it’s a negative attraction. And Luther is never one to miss an opportunity to say terrible things about people with whom he disagrees: “Well, whoever has seen Müntzer may say that he has seen the devil himself in his greatest wrath” (Luther quoted in Eric W. Gritsch, “Thomas Müntzer and Luther: A Tragedy of Errors,” p. 77, in Hillerbrand (1988), Radical Tendencies in the Reformation).

While Luther and many others couldn’t (and can’t) bear Müntzer, there are many who looked (and look) to him as the true bearer of the Reformation gospel. As Hans-Jürgen Goertz puts it in his biography of Müntzer, “Responses to Müntzer are characterized by fascination and repulsion” (Thomas Müntzer: Apocalyptic Mystic and Revolutionary, 1993, p. xiii). Thomas recognized the repulsion and acceptance of his contemporaries and offered an interpretation: “to the little band of the poor and needy [my name] has the sweet savour of life, while to those who pursue the pleasures of the flesh it is a gruesome abomination presaging their speedy downfall.”

While this may be an exaggerated dichotomy, it is quite true that Münzter proved to be a preacher and pastor of the common person, the peasant. Even John Agricola’s Lutheran propaganda pamphlet that sought to blockade Müntzer’s revolutionary path has this observation of Thomas: “One thing pleased me about Müntzer, that from the beginning he sided with the ordinary man, and not with the bigwigs” (quoted in Goertz 1993, p. 9).

In May of 1520, Thomas Müntzer accepted an offer to serve as preacher in Zwickau (first at St. Mary’s, then transfered to St. Catherine’s). The town saw much economic growth in the late Middle Ages due to an increase cloth-making to meet the population increase, and the nearby Schneeberg silver mine which opened sometime in the late fifteen century (p. 56). But as is the case with an economic boom, it creates social differentiation—wealth and prosperity create classes: “Riches created poverty” (p. 57). Tom Scott, a social and economic historian, describes the changing city in which Thomas found himself: “Alongside the richer masters there were ranged many more poorly paid journeymen clothmakers, hired wage-labourers who made up an early industrial proletariat, gathered into their own fraternity” (Thomas Münzter: Theology and Revolution in the German Reformation (1989), p. 21).

And in this millieu, Thomas discovered the piety of the peasants. “Many of the parishoners seem to have cultivated a form of piety which expressed their socio-economic predicament: it identified suffering—material as well as spiritual—as the precondition of faith, and stressed the mystical illumination of unturtored folk” (Scott 1989, p. 21). Spiritual authority belonged with the people, not with the trained clerics. God’s voice doesn’t flow from the Catholic and Lutheran priests. Rather, it comes from the people, the peasants, the ones who know the suffering of Jesus. From the pulpit at St. Catherine’s, Thomas Müntzer proclaimed an anti-clerical and subversive message: “the laity must become our prelates and pastors” (quoted in Goertz 1993, p. 65; cf. Goertz, “Karlstadt, Müntzer, and the Reformation of the Commoners, 1521-1525,” (2007, p. 26) in Roth and Stayer, A Companion to Anabaptism and Spiritualism, 1521-1700, pp. 1-44).

Thomas’ theology is a “lived theology”—viva theologia—rooted in the piety of the people, not the learned authority of the priests and pastors: “The phantom Church of external authority is rejected” (Peter Matheson, “Thomas Müntzer’s Marginal Comments on Tertullian,” Journal of Theological Studies April 1990, p. 78). Where Luther’s theology of the Word needed the controlled mediation of authorized priests, Thomas claims to worship “not a mute but a speaking God,” a God who speaks in the abyss of every soul: “all of them shall have revelations” (Müntzer, The Prague Manifesto, quoted in Goertz 2007, p. 25).

Thomas Müntzer is the real theologian of “the priesthood of all believers,” not Luther. For Martin Luther “priesthood of all believers” did not mean that the laity had authority of the Word. Rather, preachers must be “properly appointed”—it’s still a matter of “office and calling” (see Siegfried Hoyer, “Lay Preaching and Radicalism in the Early Reformation,” in Hillerbrand 1988, pp. 85-98). For Luther, writes Hoyer, “Preaching as an office demanded not only special talents but also public confirmation” (89). And this office could not include women. Luther writes,

Women are experts at household affairs and can talk about them in sweet and lovely voices surpassing even Cicero, the most eloquent of orators…but when they leave the household to speak about public affairs nothing much comes of it. For even though they may have words aplenty, they lack expertise and understanding, which makes them talk silly and confused nonsense. (quoted in Hoyer, p. 89)

For Luther priesthood is still highly regulated. Not so for Müntzer. For him, it’s truly a priesthood of all believers—included untrained men and women. Hoyer makes this clear: “Müntzer not only promoted lay preaching, but also publicly proclaimed it as an alternative to the work of ordained priests. By initiated and supporting it from the pulpit, he went farther than any of the other reformers whose views are presented here” (90).

Thomas Müntzer is attractive to the people on the streets since he develops a spiritual theology that makes Catholic and Lutheran clerics unnecessary for the mediation of God’s Word. Thomas shakes up the ground underneath the structures of religious authority by making the people, the common people, the locus of spiritual power. And this disruption of religious authority can’t help but have social repercussions—leveling the religious landscape plays out on the economic and social strata as well. Learning from Müntzer, Peter Matheson makes the connection between reformation Christianity and society very clear: “authentic Christianity is an insurrectionary faith, a standing provocation to the conventional values of society” (Matheson, “Christianity as Insurrection,” Scottish Journal of Theology 44:2 (1991), p. 325).

Of course Luther and the princes, the people with power, can’t learn from Müntzer. For them, Thomas will always be “a gruesome abomination.” But for the lowly, for those who fear God and not creatures, Müntzer makes God alive—and God’s word is living and active for all, striking like a sword at the foundations of every authority that stands in the way of God’s kingdom come. As Matheson puts it (320),

When Catholics and humanists and Lutherans were joining hands to celebrate State power, just as it was gathering momentum in any case, Muntzer urged reverence for God alone, and put his trust in peasants, miners, artisans, and ‘crude folk’, as he called them.

Tags: theology

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Stravo Lukos // Nov 17, 2007 at 5:00 pm

    Once in awhile, history is written by rational folk. This is one such time.

  • 2 doug fritzsche // Mar 11, 2009 at 1:37 pm

    Thanks for the illuminating discussion. It is interesting how Muntzer’s views have been followed in so many prominent threads—liberation theology, aspects of socialism, reading scripture as a whole with the guidance of the holy spirit. You could stretch and suggest that the stewardship as opposed to dominion views of creation stem from some of the logic he used. I guess it shows that losing in battle doesn’t mean you are wrong, just that you have to wait for historical rehabilitation. I suppose sensibilities are different today and violent means of recapturing of creation are no longer considered Christian. But after reading Luther’s bloodthirsty response, I’m left wondering what part of scripture these guys believed. The times?