- Christian Magistrate and Territorial Church: Johannes Brenz and the German Reformation
James Estes's meticulous study of Johannes Brenz is a revised edition of his 1982 book, Christian Magistrate and State Church: The Reforming Career of Johannes Brenz (University of Toronto Press). In his preface he explains that since the early 1980s extensive scholarship on Brenz, new critical editions and translations of key writings (some of them Estes's work), and fresh insights have prompted him to engage in substantial rewriting, although his conclusion remains the same: that Brenz was a major contributor to the German Reformation for his development of the consistorial system, the institutional foundation for the reformed territorial church in Germany.
Johannes Brenz (1499-1570), born in the tiny free imperial city of Weil der Stadt, was like many others an admirer of Erasmian humanism who became a follower of Luther. In 1522 he became city preacher in the free imperial city of Schwäbisch Hall adjoining the duchy of Württemberg and led the reform of that city and the adjacent countryside. He also drew up a church order for Margrave George of Brandenburg-Anspach in collaboration with the city of Nürnberg, and helped Duke Ulrich of Württemburg and his son Christopher implement the Reformation in their duchy. Thus Brenz had experience collaborating with both city magistrates and territorial princes.
Estes traces the development of Brenz's thought from his early years to his mature thinking, as he encountered the challenges of bringing reformed Christianity to a complex and changing political setting. His work in Schwäbish Hall was permanently interrupted by the Augsburg Interim that followed the emperor's 1547 defeat of the Schmalkaldic League, but that work became the basis for his reform in Württemberg, where he enjoyed his most fruitful collaboration with Duke Christopher. In both the city and the duchy, Brenz's task was to design a system that allowed for oversight of the religious life of the state, under magisterial supervision.
A major question facing adherents of the Reformation thus was the relationship between the church and secular authority. Biblical teaching reflects a world in which rulers were pagan; Paul in Romans 13 urges submission to such rulers, whose role is to maintain the peace by punishing those who offend against it. Because Protestant reformers relied on secular rulers to support the introduction of reformed preaching and worship in their territories, they strove to develop an expanded role for secular authority that was simultaneously true to scripture and appropriate for their circumstances. The early Brenz argued that secular rulers' enforcement of true doctrine and worship was consistent with their [End Page 359] duty to keep the peace, since false doctrine and blasphemous distortions of the sacraments such as the mass endangered public order. In later years, Brenz dropped this argument in favour of an enhanced understanding of a ruler's mandate to exercise a sacred trust, which included the spiritual as well as physical welfare of the people. The result was the Christian magistrate and territorial church.
The institutional basis for such a church was an elaborate blend of clergy and lay authorities working together to supervise parishes through regular visitation. The committee to which the visitors reported was itself responsible to the consistory, an administrative body that was in charge of clerical appointments as well as financial support for the church. The consistory in turn was responsible to the magistrate. Brenz's hope was that the system would provide for doctrinal and liturgical consistency, as well as uphold the morality of the laity and clergy. Estes allows that he was not entirely successful, especially in enforcing laws against drunkenness, blasphemy, and sexual licence; the public was simply unwilling to support systematic discipline. Nonetheless, the consistory system remained in effect until the early twentieth century.
Brenz's career is notable for other reasons; for example, he remained true to the early Luther's demand that Christians suffer persecution rather than resist tyranny by force, a position Luther himself modified...