St. Thomas Evangelical Lutheran Church

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Bloomington, Indiana 47401

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Meditation for Second Wednesday in Lent (February 17, 2016)

Liturgical Color: Purple

Reverend Doctor Lyle E. McKee


Argula von Brumbach

The celebration of the 500th year following the Reformation begins this coming October. Did you hear that the pope is planning to join in the ecumenical service in Sweden that will launch the year's observance? Pretty cool. In any case, as we approach this Reformation milestone, we consider during Lent a contingent without which a full consideration of the work of the reformers can no longer considered to be complete—the women of the Reformation. We do so with a view to how these women show forth Christ and carry their own crosses for the sake of Christ and the Church.

We turn today to Argula von Grumbach, an interesting character with an interesting name. I keep wanting to say "arugula," but no, it's Argula. One of the articles I read is entitled, "You Wouldn't Want to Argue with Argula." You'll see why as you learn more. She is characterized as a fire-cracker, a rebellious trouble-maker, and a faithful confessor. She was clearly a powerful woman who didn't let the common morays of her day affect her conviction-based engagement with people and issues.

In 1492, the year of Columbus' voyage of supposed new world discovery, Argula von Stauff was born Argula into the Old World. Her knowledge of Scripture and conviction of truth compelled her to stand courageously against university leaders, city councils, and noblemen. She became the first Protestant woman writer and effectively harnessed the printing press to publish pamphlets for her cause.

The von Stauff family had the privilege of being independent lords in Bavaria, Germany accountable only to the Emperor. Argula was taught to read early. She became an ardent student of scripture, and eventually met many of the leaders of the German Reformation.

While still in her teens Argula suffered a series of tragedies that undoubtedly sent her to the Scriptures to find comfort and strength. In 1509 when she was 17 years old, both of her parents died of the plague. Her uncle and later her guardian, was executed for his political activities in 1516. That same year Argula married Friedrich von Grumbach; they had four children.

Friedrich remained a Roman Catholic, and this caused problems in the marriage. In one of her writings Argula sighed, "May God teach me to understand how I should act towards my man." Her commitments to biblically-based Reformation insights continued nonetheless.

Argula is perhaps best known for her support of a young man who was persecuted because of his religious views. In March 1522, the Bavarian Court at Münich issued a mandate against the reception of Lutheran ideas, and Arsacius Seehofer, having studied under Philip Melanchthon, carried those ideas with him to the University at Ingolstadt in Bavaria, where he attended as a student and stayed on after graduation to teach, introducing Reformation ideas into his lectures. Ingolstadt's most notable faculty member was none other than John Eck -- the erstwhile academic foe and capable prosecutor of Luther. This was no place to espouse the controversial concepts from Wittenberg, and in December, 1522 Arsacius was arrested, forced to renounce Luther's teachings and confined in a local monastery.

Argula was outraged by such persecution and on September 20, 1523 sent a long letter to the Rector and Council of Ingolstadt University challenging them to show what heresy there was in any of Arsacius' reforming views. She urged the university to follow the Scriptures, not Roman traditions.

That a woman would have the audacity to address the university leaders of the day was shocking. But even more astonishing were her wisdom, logic, and use of Scriptures. Argula wrote that, though a woman, she was compelled to speak out and challenge the university's actions. Men had remained silent in the case, but she could not allow the Gospel to remain stifled. In Matthew 10:32, Jesus said "Whoever confesses me before men, him I also will confess before my father who is in heaven. But whoever denies me before men, him I will also deny before my father who is in heaven." Argula felt that under God she had no choice. She must speak: "How in God's name can you and your university expect to prevail, when you deploy such foolish violence against the word of God; when you force someone to hold the Holy Gospel in their hands for the very purpose of denying it, as you did in the case of Arsacius Seehofer?"

In her letter Argula cited over 80 Scriptures. She concluded her letter with the words: "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. Against the Roman, however, they do prevail. Just look at that Church! How is it to prevail against the gates of hell? God give us grace, that we all may be saved, and may (God) rule us according to his will. Now may his grace carry the day."

Argula's letter was briefly circulated in manuscript, then it was printed as a pamphlet. It became a quick and notable sensation. Within two months it went through fourteen editions. The Ingolstadt theologians were furious at the attack and wanted "the silly bag tamed." Some actions were taken against the family, but many supported her. One reformer, Balthasar Hubmaier, preacher in nearby Regensburg at the time, wrote that Argula von Stauff "knows more of the divine Word than all of the red hats (canon lawyers and cardinals) ever saw or could conceive of." He compared Argula to heroic women in the Bible. Though her letter angered many, the University of Ingolstadt did not think it worthy to answer the woman's attack, and she never received a direct reply.

Interestingly, In 1530 Argula traveled to Coburg to meet with Martin Luther, who had earlier written her encouraging letters. She then went on to the convention in Augsburg, where she arranged a meeting between Melanchthon and Bucer to try to settle their differences over the Lord's Supper.

Argula spoke boldly for the supremacy of Scriptures and the priesthood of all believers (including women). She sought an open discussion in the language of the people between lay people and theological leaders on the Bible's teaching on morality, law, and politics. As she wrote in her letter to the University of Ingolstadt: "The Lord says, John 12, 'I am the light that has come into the world'. . . . It is my heartfelt wish that this light should dwell in all of us and shine upon all callous and blinded hearts. Amen.

Of her, Martin Luther reported to Spalatin, "I am sending you the letters of Argula von Grumbach, Christ's disciple, that you may see how the angels rejoice over a single daughter of Adam, converted and made into a daughter of God."

To a friend, Luther wrote of Argula: "The Duke of Bavaria rages above measure, killing, crushing and persecuting the gospel with all his might. That most noble woman, Argula von Stauffer, is there making a valiant fight with great spirit, boldness of speech and knowledge of Christ. She deserves that all pray for Christ's victory in her . . . . She alone, among these monsters, carries on with firm faith, though, she admits, not without inner trembling. She is a singular instrument of Christ. I commend her to you, that Christ through this infirm vessel may confound the mighty and those who glory in their strength."

She was passionate and frank. Here is a bit from her letter to the faculty at Ingolstadt: "What have Luther and Melanchthon taught save the Word of God? You have condemned them. You have not refuted them."

Argula von Grumbach's writings were distributed and read, as widespread as Luther's own. The fourteen editions of her letter to Ingolstadt was a bestseller, with one estimate of 29,000 copies in circulation. Had she been a man, the past centuries would likely have recognized her as one of the important personalities of the German Reformation.

Further treatises follow, all were written within a year. After 1524, Argula von Grumbach never publishes another word. A lot of truth lies therefore in the cover sheet of her first printed treatise, the letter to the University of Ingolstadt. A single woman stands there alone, bible in hand, opposite a large number of male scholars at Ingolstadt.

Some time ago, however, the Bavarian church named a trust after this courageous supporter of the Reformation. It is the goal of the Argula von Grumbach-trust to support equality between women and men in the church, as well as the debate of gender issues in the context of society and the church. A belated acknowledgement of a courageous woman.

In this context of Lent, we note that this noblewoman was the first woman to publicly campaign for the Reformation - and she took a great risk in the cause of the gospel. She acknowledges those risks in her writing. And, in fact, reactions caused considerable hardship for her husband and family. He was dismissed from his position, whom I suppose was thought to have exerted less than the requisite control over his wife.

Nonetheless, Argula stands as a witness to courageous public affirmation of the priesthood of all believers as a foundational principal for spiritual and full equality, the compelling power of the gospel and the primacy of the gospel, and the rights and Christian duties of all persons, specifically women, to speech and action. Hers was a scripture-based emancipation, and her example no doubt influenced many. She was a theologian with a public voice, with all of the risks that entailed at the time, multiplied by her gender.

I close with her affirmation of the cross she bore: "I am prepared to lose everything-even life and limb. May God stand by me! Of myself I can do nothing but sin....I had intended to keep my writing private; now I see that God wishes to have it made public. That I am now abused for this is a good indication that it is of God." (An open letter)

 

 

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