Remembering the Mothers of the Reformation

“It is the duty of every Christian to espouse the cause of the faith, to understand and defend it, and to denounce every error.” – Martin Luther

Martin Luther’s doctrine of the priesthood of all believers reverberated against the three “paper walls” of the Roman papacy in his treatise To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation in 1520. Luther criticized the pope and the “Romanists” for dividing the church into the “spiritual estate” and the “temporal estate,” which had resulted in abuses of power.

Instead, Luther redefined the priestly estate:

“All Christians are truly of the spiritual estate, and there is no difference among them except that of office. … This is because we all have one baptism, one gospel, one faith, and are all Christians alike; for baptism, gospel, and faith alone make us spiritual and a Christian people.”

“We are all consecrated priests through baptism. … For whoever comes out of the water of baptism can boast that he is already a consecrated priest, bishop, and pope.”

This was a fool’s doctrine. But, as God spoke through Sarah to Abraham and through an ass to his master, the prophet Balaam, how much more so could God speak “through a righteous man against the pope?” he asked.

But could this priestly ministry even extend to women?

Let’s look at the work of three women who broke the boundaries of their society by speaking out boldly through print, and how they appropriated Luther’s doctrine of the priesthood of all believers to defend their speaking.

Argula von Grumbach

About 260 miles south of Luther’s Wittenberg, a noblewoman named Argula converted from Catholicism reading Luther’s work. She corresponded directly with him throughout the remainder of her life and was one of the few visitors Luther allowed to see him when he was seeking protection in the Coburg castle.

Remarkably, Argula became the first female lobbyist of the Reformation. She even attempted to arbitrate between Lutherans and Zwinglians at the Diet of Augsburg in 1530, arranging a meeting between Melanchthon and Martin Bucer. Her Reformation résumé was truly spectacular, especially for a woman at the time. But perhaps more impressive were her public writings.

Argula was the first female pamphleteer of the Reformation, and her letter to the University of Ingolstadt in 1523 also made her the first female best-seller, going through 14 editions. This letter to the university officials, which included Johann Eck—Luther’s main opponent—was bold, to say the least. In it, she challenged the very people who days prior had arrested university student Arsacius Seehofer for possessing Protestant books and who had forced him to recant his newfound faith or die.

Argula was the first woman to apply Luther’s doctrine of the priesthood of all believers for herself and thereby for other women. This doctrine became her apologia for reproving those in the “spiritual estate.”

She began her letter:

I find there is a text in Matthew 10 which runs: “Whoever confesses me before another I too will confess before my heavenly Father.” And Luke 9: “Whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, I too will be ashamed of when I come in my majesty,” etc. Words like these, coming from the very mouth of God, are always before my eyes. For they exclude neither woman nor man. And this is why I am compelled as a Christian to write to you. For Ezekiel 33 says: “If you see your brother sin, reprove him, or I will require his blood at your hands.”

Argula came to her recipients on equal ground as a Christian. As a Christian, she beseeched and exhorted the Ingolstadt theologians, even requesting that she appear before them in public, speaking and discussing these spiritual matters with them in German: “What I have written to you is no woman’s chit-chat, but the word of God; and [I write] as a member of the Christian Church, against which the gates of Hell cannot prevail.”

Argula at one time had remained silent, but now she believed there was too much at stake for the gospel to not speak.

However I suppressed my inclinations; heavy of heart, I did nothing. Because Paul says in 1 Timothy 2: “The women should keep silence, and should not speak in church.” But now that I cannot see any man who is up to it, who is either willing or able to speak, I am constrained by the saying: “Whoever confesses me,” as I said above. And I claim for myself Isaiah 3: “I will send children to be their princes; and women, or those who are womanish, shall rule over them.”

About a month after she wrote her first letter and under the threat of death as a result, Argula wrote an open letter to the city council of Ingolstadt defending her motives for writing.

Therefore call to mind the vow which you made to God at baptism, which states: “I believe, and renounce all the pomp and illusions of the Devil.” If we believe and trust in God as best we can, that is, if we confess him (and he will empower us to do this), then he will also confess us, as he says in Matthew 10. Therefore to be a Christian means to resist as best we can those who would condemn the word of God; not with weapons, though, but rather with the word of God.

What doctor [of theology] could be so learned that his vow is worth more than mine? The Spirit of God is promised to me as much as to him. As God says in Joel 2: “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and daughters will prophesy.”

Like Luther, she saw herself as a fool. However, it was in being a fool that God’s power would be most greatly manifested. Argula borrowed Luther’s lesser to greater arguments and applied them to herself: As Luther was to the pope and Romanists, so Argula was to the theologians. In her last published writing, she gives the same analogy we find in Luther’s treatise. Like Luther, she sees herself as Balaam’s ass, but perhaps even more so than Luther for she is a woman and a layperson.

So let your anger not enflame
Should God raise women up again
To punish your too high disdain.
Awesome for you God’s visitation
Plagued solely by a group of women!

… Just learn from Balaam’s ass, my good, Johannes of Lanzhut.

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Source: Christianity Today