Urbanus Rhegius – Preparing Reformed Pastors
Urban Rhegius (1489-1541) held up the papal bull that threatened Martin Luther with excommunication. As cathedral preacher in Augsburg, he had the duty to read it from the pulpit. It was one of his first official tasks since he had taken office a few months earlier.
He had obtained the important position thanks to a friend, for which he had felt very grateful. But this papal bull was not easy to hold, let alone to read. He fulfilled his duty, but kept pondering the matter in his heart. After a year of study and reflection, he wrote a polemical pamphlet in which he argued the real danger was in the bull, not in Luther's writings.
He obviously encountered opposition. Though not officially dismissed from his post, he returned briefly to Langenargen, his home town. He later moved to the Tyrol, where he served as preacher until 1523, when the Augsburg city council called him back to preach at the Carmelite Church of St. Anna.
At St. Anna, Rhegius was free to follow his convictions. Times were changing, so much that, in 1525, he could hold the first Protestant Lord’s Supper in Augsburg. He was also able to get married in a public, well-attended ceremony that didn’t raise too many eyebrows. His wife was 20-year old Anna Weissbrucker, the well-educated daughter of a reformed-minded merchant. Anna shared her husband’s passion for biblical languages and is today considered a Hebraist in her own merits. The couple had eleven children, four sons and seven daughters.
Rhegius had already been a prolific writer. He had been proclaimed poet laureate of the empire while he was still completing his studies. Later, during his very first year in Augsburg, he had written two treatises on the dignity of priesthood and pastoral care, largely drawing on his experience as son of a priest.
His second stay in Augsburg saw a proliferation of his works, including a defense of Protestant doctrines against those who accused them of being new. Unlike our generation, 16th-century people still valued the old and proven and were suspicious of novelties. Rhegius, as most Reformers, was able to point at the ancient roots of Protestant theology, which went back to the Apostle Paul and the church fathers.
Rhegius’s second work was a treatise for the consolation of the sick and dying, which became a best-seller (published in ninety editions and in ten languages).
He also wrote on a variety of important issues of his day. During the 1525 Peasants’ Revolt, he pretty much took the same position as Luther, emphasizing the distinction between the two kingdoms (spiritual and material) and the freedom of the Christian regardless of his or her social status. With this in mind, he reminded serfs to obey their masters while exhorting masters to act in love.
Another pressing issue, particularly in Augsburg, was the presence of Anabaptist communities, attracting followers with promises of a purer religion (separate from the established church) and with claims of possessing the knowledge of the date of Christ’s return. What Rhegius found mostly distressing was the Anabaptists’ falsification of the gospel into a religion of works. In their view, the preaching of the pure gospel which Luther had strongly promoted was not working, since the churches were still full of sinners. Like Luther, Rhegius believed that Christians on earth are still both just and sinful and that perfection will only come in the final glory.
Reforming Northern Germany
Rhegius’s influence spread beyond Augsburg. At the imperial diet of 1530, he was actively involved in the composition of the Augsburg Confession and persuaded his good friend Philip I, Landgrave of Hesse, to sign it. He was also involved in discussions related to the various Protestant interpretations of the Lord’s Supper, where he retained a neutral position. To him, justification by faith alone was crucial. In other matters, he was confident that Protestants could find a compromise.
During the same diet, he had an interesting debate with a rabbi from Prague on the exegesis of Isaiah 53 and Daniel 7. Even if the rabbi never changed his mind, Rhegius demonstrated a profound knowledge not only of Hebrew Scriptures, but also of rabbinic texts and Jewish anti-Christian works. Like Luther and many other Christians of his day, Rhegius had pinned the Jews’ reticence to embrace Christianity on the church’s failure to preach the true gospel. Consequently, he was disappointed when the spreading of the evangelical message didn’t cause a massive conversion of Jews. Unlike Luther, however, he remained hopeful and encouraged toleration of Jewish communities.
Around the end of the Augsburg Diet, Duke Ernst of Lüneburg, a signer of the confession, invited Rhegius to move to Northern Germany, where the Reformation needed to be organized. Rhegius accepted, and moved with his family to the town of Celle in Lüneburg. On the way there, he stopped in Coburg to meet Luther for the first time.
In Lüneburg, Rhegius found himself working as a superintendent, with the specific task of turning medieval monks into Protestant pastors. His writings reflected his discussions with these monks.
The title of his most influential work at this time says it all: How to Speak Cautiously and without Giving Offense about the Chief Articles of Christian Doctrine. Published in Latin in 1535 and in German in 1536, it became his second best-seller and is often considered his greatest contribution to the Reformation.
The popularity of the book shows its necessity. It wasn’t enough for professors to write theological explanations. Young pastors, as well as monks adjusting to the Reformation, needed a fellow pastor who could come alongside them and offer simple and practical suggestions. Rhegius had walked in the new pastors’ shoes and had encountered the same challenges. He had seen falsifications of the gospel message (including antinomianism) and had faced many accusations.
To refute the seemingly undying charges of novelty, he exhorted preachers to read a chapter from the Hebrew Old Testament every day, comparing it with its mentions in the Greek New Testament, thus letting the New Testament interpret the Old. He also recommended reading the church fathers. This was a practice he followed faithfully. In fact, he compiled a large collection of patristic citations, which was only found after his death.
He took his task of superintendent seriously, visiting the churches in his large area, corresponding with pastors, and writing church orders for the main congregations of Lüneburg and Hanover. He also accompanied Duke Ernst to meetings of the Protestant Schmalkald League and signed Luther's Schmalkald Articles. His travels continued until 1540, when he returned home ill and never recovered. He died on May 27, 1541. His works were collected by his wife and their son Ernst and published in two large volumes.