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Thomas Muntzer. Revolutionar an Ende der Zeiten--Erne Biographie.

Thomas Muntzer. Revolutionar an Ende der Zeiten--Erne Biographie.By Hans-Jurgen Goertz. Munich: C. H. Beck. 2015. Pp. 352.

This biography is the most convincing interpretation of Thomas Muntzer now available. It is an enlargement and revision of Thomas Muntzer: Mystiker. Apokalyptiker. Revolutiondr, published by Beck in 1989 and appearing in English translation as Thomas Muntzer: Apocalyptic Mystic and Revolutionary in 1993 with T&T Clark, Edinburgh.

The present text, however, is thoroughly revised, with small additions and stylistic changes, paragraph by paragraph. The most important additions (or revisions) come with the incorporation of scholarship by Ulrich Bubenheimer on the period before Muntzer's trip to Prague in 1521, and by Siegfried Brauer on Muntzer's ministry in Allstedt, in 1523-1524. Oddly, the title of this latest edition is not a particularly good articulation of Goertz's overall interpretation, which he has maintained since 1989 and which is best expressed in the title of the 1993 English translation. For Goertz, from the Prague Epistle of November 1521 (which he has renamed, following Gunter Vogler in altering the older conventional designation, "Prague Manifesto") to his death in May 1525, Muntzer maintained a consistent message. Throughout this period he was at once an apocalyptic mystic and a revolutionary, although the mounting social unrest of the early German Reformation led him from revolutionary principles to revolutionary practice. In this way Goertz rejects the view of earlier Lutheran church historians that Muntzer abandoned his original mystical message to become a revolutionary in the Peasants' War. Goertz also challenges the view of post-World War II German Marxists that in his last year Muntzer concluded that he must first transform external political and social conditions as a precondition for the inward religious renewal of his followers.

This insistence on the essential consistency of Muntzer's ideas and actions from 1521 to 1525 is convincing, and deserves to become the consensus of post-Cold War Muntzer scholarship. Methodologically, it combines close analysis of Muntzer's rather sparse writings with a precise examination of his career as a reformer in Saxony and Thuringia. The distortions of Muntzer interpretation by earlier church historians have often resulted from their producing intellectual history or historical theology from his writings without careful attention to the context and background in which each of his writings appeared. Goertz puts Muntzer's writings carefully into their context--this was a strength of his 1989 biography and it is done even more successfully in this revision. This version of Muntzer's biography stresses the important insight of Ulrich Bubenheimer that Muntzer began to go his own way theologically in 1521 as the result of his controversy with his fellow pastor in Zwickau, Johannes Sylvius Egranus. Goertz also is correct in minimizing the importance of Taborite apocalypticism or of an independent role of the "Zwickau Prophets" in Muntzer's Zwickau ministry.

This interpretation of Muntzer is basically sympathetic. Muntzer does, indeed, stand out as an early Reformation leader who got into a remarkable number of quarrels with his fellow reformers. Leaving aside his refusal to defer to the authority of Luther, his career is marked by ruptures with Johann Lang in Erfurt and Lorenz Susse in Nordhausen, as well as with Egranus in Zwickau. However, as Goertz shows, Muntzer worked harmoniously with Simon Haferitz in Allstedt and Heinrich Pfeiffer in Muhlhausen, both of whom had preceded him as preachers of the Reformation in those localities. Goertz is right to take seriously Muntzer's "mystical" soteriology of internal purgation leading to personal regeneration, and to underscore it as the basis of his career as a reformer. The sermons of Johannes Tauler are mentioned most frequently as the source of Muntzer's theology, but Goertz also notes the influence of Meister Eckhardt, Heinrich Seuse, and the Theologia Deutsch. Nevertheless, Goertz makes an important concession on this central point: "Muntzer was not a particularly faithful pupil of German mysticism. As intensively as he read mystical writings, he absorbed only what illuminated his situation and was useful to him. He altered and exchanged much for biblical texts and metaphors, if he could strengthen his persuasive power in this way" (225).

One of the contextual blind spots of this book is that Goertz avoids contrasting Muntzer's theology with the contending theology of Luther. We can read in this book what Muntzer had to say about the theology of Luther and Melanchthon, with the implied admission that what we are reading is polemics, but we are not introduced to the "real" theology of Luther and Melanchthon in 1523-1524. Understandably, this is a scholarly minefield that Goertz prefers to avoid--Luther had his own debt to Tauler and the Theologia Deutsch, and it can be contended that there was a mystical element to his Christian Libert]/ of 1520. So did Luther and Muntzer misunderstand each other, as E. Gordon Rupp, who wrote about both, once contended? One thing is certain: neither side expended effort at sympathetic understanding of the other. Goertz shows that, at the beginning of his Allstedt ministry, Muntzer minimized his theological differences with the Wittenberg theologians for tactical reasons.

What Goertz establishes successfully is that Muntzer's soteriology of purgation and regeneration was central to his career as a reformer from 1521 onward, and that he owed it to his distinctive appropriation of the medieval German mystical tradition.

Goertz repeatedly shows Muntzer contrasting this internal soteriology with what he represents as Luther's external biblicism, his contrast of his "bitter faith" with Luther's sweet and easy reception of what is written in the Bible--his contrast of his "speaking God" with the dumb God of those who merely study Scripture. Goertz accurately describes this, as well as Muntzer's cautions about attributing authority to "dreams and visions." What does not come out as clearly as it might in Goertz's book is the fact that Muntzer, like the other "Spiritualists" of the German Reformation, filled his Spritualism with biblical content--and, in Muntzer's case, a biblical content different from that of the other Reformation Spiritualists. From the time that he read Tertullian writing against Marcion, Muntzer concluded that the luminaries of his time, Luther and Erasmus, as well as Egranus, were all, to some extent, Marcionites. They were insufficiently aware of what Muntzer regarded as a fact: that the Old Testament ranked equally with the New as a witness to the Spirit of God. This had deleterious consequences for Muntzer's rhetoric about slaying the enemies of God--after all, the Book of Joshua was a celebration of the holy genocide of the Israelites against the Canaanites. Sixteenth-century contemporaries, in this respect like Gordon Rupp, remarked that the authority Muntzer attributed to the testimony of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament interfered with Muntzer's ability to properly know the mind of Christ. This characteristic of Muntzer's theology appears only at the margins of Goertz's biography.

Goertz insists, as he did in the 1989 book, that Muntzer's mysticism was an "apocalyptic mysticism." There is a scholarly consensus, following Bernhard McGinn, that the category "apocalypticism" applies to religious figures who stress God's direction of history from Creation to the Last Days. Certainly Muntzer, like most Reformation figures, was very aware of God's direction of the course of history, leading in his theology to a sort of democratic theocracy--"the people will be free, and God alone will be their ruler." This came out with special clarity in Muntzer's sermon on Daniel 2 to the Saxon princes in July 1524. In the margins of his presentation Goertz concedes that Muntzer's was an immanent apocalypticism, much less focused on the Day of Judgment than Luther's transcendent apocalypticism. Elsewhere Goertz writes that Muntzer never specified "when the earthly kingdom of God will be transformed into a heavenly kingdom." (2) Emmett McLaughlin observes very plausibly that "Muntzer gave no indication that he believed [the end of the world] was imminent." (3)

Goertz insists that Muntzer was a "revolutionary." Peter Blickle seems to have established this usage in Western scholarly writing with his well-received Revolution of 1525 (1975), a book about the German Peasants' War. People talked about "Revolutions" from the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688 onward; and the term took on a special meaning after the French Revolution of 1789 established itself as the archetypal "Revolution." In my view Goertz has improved his presentation in this new edition by translating "Revolution" into Muntzer's own language as "fugliche Emporung" (justified uprising). In his first publication circulated from Allstedt, Open Letter to his Brothers in Stolberg, Muntzer warned against "unjustified rebellion." Obviously, Muntzer believed that there was a situation that justified Christian believers in using force against persons in authority (fugliche Emporung). When doing so, they did God's will; rebellion (Aufruhr) was axiomatically against the will of God.

It is almost certainly impossible to write a "definitive" study of Thomas Muntzer that does full justice to the contours of his thought and the circumstances of his career as a reformer, while doing equal justice to the ideas and circumstances of his many opponents (not all of whom simply misunderstood or abused him). That said, the present book is the best we have.

JAMES M. STAYER Queen's University
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Author:Stayer, James M.
Publication:Mennonite Quarterly Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2016
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