THE PROTESTANT REVOLUTION
16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. 17 For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”
(Romans 1:16-17, NIV)
Church history trivia question: Who nailed 151 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany on April 26, 1517? If you’re guessing Martin Luther, guess again. Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the Wittenberg Church door 6-months later on October 31, 1517. So who is this Protestant Reformer who beat Luther to the Wittenberg door by 6-months? His name doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue: Andreas Rudolph Bodenstein von Karlstadt.
So why in this celebration of the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses would we focus on someone other than Luther? Because many people know something about Martin Luther, but very few know of Andreas Karlstadt. This is his story.
Karlstadt, a son of Franconian nobiliy, was born in 1486. First educated in Erfurt then Cologne, Karlstadt received his doctorate in theology from the University of Wittenberg in 1510. After chairing the theology department for a year, he assumed the position of chancellor in 1511. In 1512 Karlstadt awarded Martin Luther his doctorate.
Karlstadt’s life changed when he pursued two additional doctorates in Rome. Being face to face with the rampant corruption of the Roman Catholic Church at that time, Karlstadt was outraged. After finishing his degrees, he returned to his teaching post in Wittenberg determined to do something. On September 16, 1516 Karlstadt wrote a series of 151 Theses expressing his dismay with corruption in the Roman Catholic Church. He nailed these papers to the Wittenberg Church door on April 26, 1517.
After Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the Wittenberg Church door 6 months later, he and Karlstadt found themselves on a collision course with the church hierarchy and ultimately the Pope. In 1520 Pope Leo X condemned their writings and threatened them with excommunication. Karlstadt and Luther refused to recant and so in 1521, the Pope excommunicated both of them.
Following the Edict of Worms, Luther’s life was threatened by the church hierarchy. He was saved thanks to Prince Frederick who seized Luther and hid him safely in Wartburg Castle. While Luther was hiding, Karlstadt continued his reform work in Wittenberg where on Christmas Day in 1521, he performed the first “reformed” Communion service. “He did not elevate the elements of Communion, wore secular clothing during the service, and purged all references to sacrifice from the traditional mass. He shouted rather than whispered the words of institution…in German instead of Latin, rejected confession as a prerequisite for Communion, and let the [participants] take both bread and wine on their own.” While the service reeked of heresy to devout Roman Catholics, for Karlstadt, it was only the beginning!
With his radical changes to the Communion service, Karlstadt and Luther parted company. Their future was sometimes rocky with Luther thinking that Karlstadt had gone too far and Karlstadt thinking that Luther had not gone far enough.
A further break with his Roman Catholic past, Karlstadt married on January 19, 1522 making him the first professor at Wittenburg University to marry. He gave up clerical dress in favor of wearing peasants’ clothing. He gave up his clerical title asking to be called “Brother Andreas.” He felt disillusioned with academia and renounced his three doctoral degrees. In 1523 he was called as pastor of the church in Orlamunde. He rejected infant baptism. He did away with church music and art (believing they violated biblical injunctions against idolatry). He denied the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, the literal physical presence of Christ in Communion, in favor of emphasizing the spiritual presence of Christ.
As you might guess, these radical reforms proved too much for Luther. “From spring 1524, Luther started to campaign against Karlstadt, denying his right to publish and preach without Luther’s authorization...Luther said that he was convinced that Karlstadt had revolutionary tendencies, despite the fact that Karlstadt had all along rejected violence in the name of religion…[including] the violence that led to the German Peasants’ War…When the Peasant War broke out, Karlstadt was threatened and wrote to Luther and asked for assistance. Luther took him in, and Karlstadt lived secretly in Luther's house for eight weeks. However, Karlstadt had to sign a pseudo retraction, titled ‘Apology by Dr. Andreas Karlstadt Regarding the False Charge of Insurrection Which has Unjustly Been Made Against Him.’…In March 1526, Luther’s wife became godmother to one of Karlstadt’s children, but Karlstadt then told her that an earlier infant had been allowed to die without baptism. [After that] Karlstadt was not allowed to preach or publish, and supported his family as a farmer and peddler near Wittenberg until 1529.”
Karlstadt is known for removing the Apocrypha from the Protestant Bible. He repudiated the intercession of saints and the Virgin Mary. He was quite literally an iconoclast preaching against images of Mary, saints, and religious symbols. He had support in this effort from Protestant reformers, Zwingli and Calvin. This movement against religious art led to iconoclastic riots in Zurich, Copenhagen, Munster, Geneva, Augsburg, Scotland, the Netherlands, Belgium, and parts of northern France. Having to escape from Saxony, Karlstadt served as a minister and university professor in Switzerland until his death from the plague on Christmas Eve 1541. Karlstadt’s legacy includes his influence on Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Mennonites, and Baptists.
And so on this Reformation Sunday, we give thanks for Andreas Rudolph Bodenstein von Karlstadt. We give thanks for the risks he took, quite literally putting his life on the line as a very real threat to the power and domination of the violently inflexible religious hierarchy. But like many heroes of the faith, Karlstadt was not perfect and made mistakes, most notably fanning the flames that destroyed centuries of priceless religious art. These images could have been removed from the churches without being destroyed. In other matters though, I believe that Karlstadt got significantly more right than he got wrong. On the whole, I find myself much more in Karlstadt’s camp than in Luther’s. While they were both important leaders of the Protestant Reformation, Luther was only willing to go so far such that Lutheran worship even today feels significantly more Roman Catholic than ours. Lutherans take Communion every week, whereas our branch of Protestantism shares Communion only four or five times a year. Whereas Luther’s church continued to practice infant baptism exclusively, we in the United Church of Christ accept and practice every form of baptism from infants to adults.
If he were alive today, what further reforms would Karlstadt favor? Would he nail 151 Theses on our church doors? I hope not. Certainly he would strongly condemn clergy sexual abuse in both Roman Catholic and Protestant churches. He would likely champion care for the poor who have inadequate opportunities and inadequate resources—including money, food, healthcare, housing, and education.
Let us then pay homage to Andreas Karlstadt, a rebel and a reformer, who was not content to go along and get along when he saw things that needed to change. May we know his courage and determination as we seek to reform and improve our church and our world in the 21st century. AMEN.
Written by Rev. Jimmy Only
October 29, 2017
The Congregational Church of Manhasset, New York (UCC)
Most merciful God, we thank you for the church universal, for the difference it has made in our lives and in the life of the world throughout the centuries. We thank you for reformers who risked their lives to bring your church closer to your Kingdom’s cause. Show us even today how we might reform our own church that we may serve you better. We know our world needs reforming, remaking, reworking too. Inspire us to do our part that our world might be more just and peaceful.
And now to you, O God, we lift our hearts in thanks and praise, through Jesus Christ our Lord we pray. AMEN.