500 Years On #1: The most influential Reformer you’ve never heard of, by Peter Matheson

Peter Matheson leads off a series in Candour marking 500 years since the Reformation.  Peter served as Professor of Church History at Knox Theological Hall and still resides in the Dunedin area.

Everyone’s heard of Luther and Calvin. But the Reformation was a movement, not a one man gang, and a very varied movement at that. There were women Reformers, like Katherine Zell in Strassburg and the aristocratic Argula von Grumbach. And there were radical Reformers, who thought power had gone to Luther’s head and he was acting like a new Pope.

Thomas Müntzer was a lively, highly controversial Reformer. He ended up minus his head after the defeat of the peasant rebellion in 1525.  Traditionalists wiped him off the slate as a blood-thirsty fanatic.  But two recent biographies and a lot of recent research give the lie to that.  For a while Communists went to the other extreme and hailed him as the people’s Reformer, who genially anticipated modern Socialism.  That, too, is nonsense.

He really deserves to be taken seriously as a conscientious pastor, a fascinating bible interpreter, and a social reformer. His translation of the Communion Service into the language of his little congregation at Allstedt, German not Latin, long preceded Luther’s. His hymns are beautiful and some are still sung today.  He was a mystic, who believed we have to ‘burrow into ourselves’, like a fish diving from the surface of the water into the dark depths.  This mysticism was not some airy-fairy, elitist stuff.  On the contrary he was suspicious of intellectuals and academics. Ordinary folk, the peasants and miners and artisans, men and women, he believed, were called by God to follow the ‘bitter Christ’. Not just the upper crust. Everyone should come to their own personal, authentic faith.  In other words you can’t stay on the surface of things. Suffering is part of life. To understand a prophet like Jeremiah, or an apostle like Paul you have to be touched by the Spirit in the same way as they were. Second-hand faith, just quoting biblical texts, gets you nowhere.

He was distrustful, as we are today, of the close link between church and state.

Preachers and princes, he said, conspired to keep folk under their thumb, they were like a great heap of eels and snakes copulating together. (That’s the language of the sixteenth century for you!) He had a feel too for God’s spirit reaching out way beyond Christendom. Among the Turks and the Jews, too, God’s elect were to be found.

In contemporary Germany there is a lot of interest in what one major exhibition calls “Luther’s unloved Brothers”.  In the swirl of controversy, of fierce denunciation of rivals tolerance tended to go out the window.  Understandably. People were excited and excitable about the truth of the Gospel in a way our yes and no generation has lost sight of. But 500 years later we have the privilege of listening to all sides and taking what really grabs us. We probably love the insights of the early Luther but shudder at his later rants against Papists and Jews. We’d probably find Thomas Müntzer pretty demanding if he were our minister, but be encouraged by the way he opened us up spiritually. I’ve spent years researching and translating him and am still stirred to the depths by him.  You may never  have heard of  this  Reformer  but  my hunch  is  that  he has important  things  to say to us.

The Hewitson Library has books on Thomas Muntzer and his works for those who wish to explore his story further including Peter Matheson’s Collected Works of Thomas Muntzer