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Thomas Nipperdey on Luther versus Müntzer’s Concepts of a Person, August 24th 1985

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Rereading the now dated Thomas Nipperdey’s Reformation, Revolution, Utopia, (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1975), I came across a few notes I had written back on August 24th 1985. The book is in German.

Thomas Nipperdey, Müntzer vs. Luther

The position of Luther is not only a religious debate, to which different religious stances become established.  It can also be seen in all orientations: what makes Marxists or Freudians dogmatic? What makes a scientist open or un-open to a new and necessary paradigm that replaces the one s/he has been working in?

Some Lutherans have, of course, gotten into dogmatism as well. But isn’t the key here to unlocking a psychological-sociological stance, which could really help above and beyond a religious debate? In other words, Marxists, Freudians, scientists, face the same kind of problems that Luther and the Reformation faced. I believe that dogmatism derives from teachings that are caught in a world of their own disconnected from their relevant experience, thus producing the anxiety that fixes on the teaching so stringently. If the experience, from which the teachings were derived, was there; then the teachings could be presented in many different words and ways.

According to Nipperdey, Müntzer sees the person as subjectively substantial, while Luther sees the person as relationally oriented in trust, relationality brought about by words of promise spoken to the person. Thus that God sees the person as righteous justifies the person in Luther’s eyes, while for Müntzer that does not change the person substantially. Luther’s emblem or seal is the heart under the cross; while Müntzer’s is the heart with a sword thrust through it.

Here a slightly different issue of mine comes to my mind: the distinction between words spoken by a person and an evasive self behind the words. I remember the time in counseling when I could feel myself behind my words, like a solid, substantial self. Müntzer seems to refer to this aspect of a person and declares the words and orientation just “nebulous,” just a smokescreen, just a cover for the real person, not yet come to themselves. But perhaps Müntzer does not understand or has a blind-spot for how orientation and relationality is a part of the reality of a person.

In our new curriculum at Hamma School of Theology at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio, this same discussion came up: whether the person per se or the words were more the issue. The psychologists emphasized the person per se, the theologians, the words and issues. See “The Discussion with Ben Johnson.” [I’ll have to find this reference in my diaries.]

To translate a sentence from Nipperdey: “Müntzer does not look at the word that establishes the relationship with and for the believer, but at the substantial and relevantly pertaining, inner nature itself” (page 55).

At Hamma a whole debate ensued about supervisory training, those briefly trained by the psychologists like James St. Claire, i.e., trained to monitor process and ministry. One group at Hamma thought that there were no objective criteria for those who were trained. The other argued that there were valid inter-subjective criteria. Because these criteria were elusively subjective, opponents did not see those who were trained as having valid credentials. This was the position of Fred Wentz, who took a stand against St. Claire.

Nipperdey analyzes the theology of Müntzer versus that of Luther. Müntzer wants subjectivity to be substantial and quite tangible. [He can tell a believer from a non-believer and purge the latter if necessary.] He wants subjectivity to be graded and to correspond with an increasing intensity of a person’s faith. Paradoxically, this approach to subjectivity kicks over into an increasing objectivity. Much like in mysticism and Pietism, a believer was asked to give an account of the different and manifold internal conditions and thus the stage of their faith journey, to which they had arrived. That point of view made having faith something discernible and even outwardly observable. “The claim of having earnest belief objectifies itself into a law about the gradations or the steps of faith: from a description of the misery and despair that preceded the beginning of faith, a law develops that makes misery [and suffering] a precondition of faith” (page 55). “In the place of the Lutheran invisible hope and anticipation [of the promise], a reflection on the inner life and the consciousness of how much spirit and grace was substantially possessed, [became important]; and in place of a personal category, an objective, although subjectively intended, but actually, an objective category, comes into play” (page 55). Thus “the experience of faith does not place the person into a new relationship, but it takes the character of a substantial change of the person….” (page 55). This substantial change of having more or less spirit and grace corresponds to a graded increase in faith. Nipperdey concludes that Müntzer’s justification thereby “falls into a new and far more massive objectivity, which corresponds to his substantial concept of the person” (page 56).[1]

When I was writing a paper on Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, a view point like Müntzer’s made me believe that a theology corresponded to a particular spiritual place in the life journey of a person so that one could be determined by the other. Nipperday puts this belief into words: “Therefore a life allows one to make retroactive conclusions about someone’s faith” (page 56). I think that belief made me feel that a life could determine what theology someone could achieve. (See my Bonhoeffer paper!) [I also need to find that reference again, a long paper I wrote analyzing his unfinished book on ethics.]


What makes this note important to me is the ascending stages of rapture that I find in Luther’s “Freedom of the Christian.” I’m wondering how I can keep the raptured ascent from becoming objectifications of steps from spiritual nobility to priesthood to Christ and up into God. Perhaps that the ascent in faith is at one and the same time a descent in love can be a safe-guard against such spiritual objectifications. I try to define persons relationally as well in terms of being before God, before others, before the self, and before the world, that is, in the four coram-relationships. I know that Luther levels hierarchies and thus I present the stages of ascent and descent always in tension with one another. What’s more faith and love are both pure gifts of grace, for which Jesus Christ alone receives the credit.

While I was typing these notes, Kierkegaard’s existential stages of the life of a person came to my mind, which he names the aesthetic, ethical, and religious stages, which a person goes through on the way to an authentic self. He envisions these three modes of existence and theorizes leaping from one sphere of existence into the next. I have to give some thought to how his existentialism might relate to my theorization about the ascent through the stages of spiritual nobility. It is obvious right away that my stages, which take place in the opposition or in the dialectic of faith and love, all seem to be religious. I have to give Kierkegaard more thought, especially because his existentialism needs to be integrated with a more sociological philosophy as well.


[1]Luther presents his position quite clearly: Justification lies Extra nos, without us, in Christ. “Therefore a Christian is not formally righteous; [s/he] is not righteous according to substance or quality — I use these words for instruction sake. [S/he] is righteous according to [his or her] relation to something.” (Luther’s Works, the Weimar Edition, Vol. 40.II, pages 352 f.)


Written by peterkrey

November 2, 2009 at 10:16 pm

Posted in Theology

One Response

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  1. Clint Thongchanh

    January 16, 2010 at 10:05 am

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