I have been watching a series on empires across history, which dealt with the Roman, Egyptian, Persian empires, but also tackled King David’s kingdom, the impact of Martin Luther and other interesting takes on the theme of an “empire”. One thing that has struck me throughout the series is the sheer number of influential people that never really get credit for the impact they had on building the empire, and I believe it is something to consider today. Now, I am not referring to the “puppet masters” sitting behind a figurehead, but, rather, the people who were in the right place at the right time to point the empire builder in the right direction.
While there are a number of examples throughout history, the person I’d like to introduce is Johann von Staupitz. Staupitz was a theologian in the Augustinian order from 1485 until his death in Salzburg in 1524. He rose to the rank of Prior in his first posting, and by 1500 was a Doctor of Theology and elected as the Vicar general of the German Congregation of Augustinians. In 1502, he became the dean of the theology faculty at the University of Wittenberg, where he served until 1512. At the end of his life he joined the Benedictine order and became the Abbot of St. Peter’s in Salzburg, where his remains are interred to this day.
Looking at his resume, we see a successful Catholic theologian, who served the church faithfully in the early 1500s. His intersection with influence, however, happened in Erfurt, where, in 1506, he met the troubled monk, Martin Luther. Luther had a difficult life, frequently despairing of failing to live up to the expectations of his parents, particularly his father, Hans. It was Hans’ wish for Luther to become a lawyer and run the family business, but Luther had other plans and entered the monastic order against the wishes of his father and family, after losing 3 close friends to the Black Plague, however, and narrowly escaping death early in his life. Throughout his time as a monk both in Germany and in Rome, Luther continued to battle with the concept of how to live up to the expectations of God, remarking once, that, he exchanged one harsh father for a harsher one with higher standards. During his pilgrimage to Rome, he saw firsthand how the church had truly become a power and state of its own and was appalled at the selling of indulgences, and other such actions. He left Rome even more defeated, wondering how he could ever attain salvation when the church was so corrupt and when he was such a failure as a servant of God.
He was posted to Erfurt, where he met von Staupitz, who, recognizing the anguish of Luther determined to counsel him, and, as one writer remembers it, “occupy him so much by having him prepare to teach theology, that he will be able to sleep soundly, rather than entertain the long dark night of the soul each night. Von Staupitz’s assignment for the young monk was to designate him as a professor of theology. As he would prepare for his classes, Luther was drawn deeper and deeper into the scripture on which many considered him to be an expert. In the course of his studies, he discovered that the theology of his youth was insufficient to provide him, or anyone else, salvation. Upon realizing this, Luther began studying the word of God even more deeply, determined to understand and teach the concept of God’s grace and the free gift of salvation.
Luther went on to become the founder of Lutheranism, and kicked off the Reformation in the Catholic church. He was later branded a heretic and found von Staupitz one his stronger adversaries throughout the remainder of his life. Luther would go on to redefine grace, make the holy scriptures more accessible through their translation from Latin to German and through their distribution to the population. While Luther is a household name today, had it not been for the contribution of von Staupuitz, it is quite probable that this young monk would have continued to flounder in his faith, flailing about searching for meaning and, ultimately, justification by what he could offer God…not through God’s grace, freely given.
As you go through your day, consider from time to time, who might you be a von Staupitz to, and/or who is your von Staupitz. Have a great week.