On with the Reformation!, circa 1550: the under-appreciated Matthias Flacius Illyricus

01 Nov

A couple more re-cycled posts to do after Reformation day.  As I argued yesterday, it was not Luther and the Lutherans who left the Holy Christian and Apostolic Church.  Rome, however, was unconvinced, and did not take the “defection” (from their perspective) lying down.  For this All Saint’s Day, it does us well to remember that in 1550 the Emperor’s Roman Catholic armies, in concert with the Pope’s wishes, indeed attempted to eliminate, through all the political and military might they could muster, the Lutheran resistance to Roman Catholic impositions on their worship (the life-giving doctrine of Luther was next!).  This was surely an unjust invasion, and this was a just war of resistance by any measure

“Remember the Alamo” some say.  For Christians everywhere, I say: Remember Magdeburg… (see here for more reflection on these things in a modern context).  Here is the post, from last year:

Flacius, at Madgeburg, 1550 (essentially): Give us the liberty to preach the Gospel in its purity or give us death!

Flacius, at Madgeburg, 1550 (essentially): Give us the liberty to preach the Gospel in its purity or give us death!

This past week, the excellent Lutheran talk radio program Issues ETC. (see programs from Oct. 2013 here) had some excellent guests discussing some of the excellent Lutheran theologians of the past 500 or so years.

I wish they would have had at least one more guest on to discuss one more Lutheran theologian: namely Oliver K. Olsen discussing the great Croatian Reformer Matthias Flacius Illyricus.

Flacius, who ended up going too far on his doctrine of original sin (saying that sin had become, in the fall, a part of man’s essential nature*), nevertheless seems to be a man who is quite underappreciated given his many accomplishments.

Here is a summary of Olsen’s first book on Flacius (the second will be released within the coming year by Lutheran Press, which, in full disclosure, my pastor founded), first published in 2002 and held in hundreds of academic libraries throughout the world:

“Probably more than any other second-generation Lutheran reformer, Matthias Flacius Illyricus (1520 – 1575) has remained in relative obscurity, not because of some sort of barely discernable footprint upon the 16th century, but because of the implications of both his seminal and massive contributions to the field of Lutheran hermeneutics, church history, and liturgical theology that continue to challenge the received historical narrative of the era. Whether or not such academic neglect can be attributed to the Istrian (Croatian) origin of Flacius, or simply to a more common interest in the more well-known German and Swiss reformers, Dr. Oliver K. Olson’s Matthias Flacius and the Survival of Luther’s Reform fills this long-unoccupied void—especially in the English language—and thus brings to modern students of the Reformation a long-needed fresh perspective. Olson’s work not only brings to light a pivotal figure in the developments of the Reformation, but does so with a method that draws the reader into the period, using a multitude of sources—many reproduced graphically—that normally are not found in such a volume. The narrative—more a series of vignettes than one laborious chapter of minutia after another—introduces the myriad of social, political, racial, and theological circumstances that were 16th century Europe, and in so doing, constantly raises fresh and intriguing questions about key events and documents that the next generation of researchers in the field will be challenged to answer. Copious bibliographies not only of sources and literature for the study of Flacius, but for the Reformation in general make this volume an invaluable resource: Especially in this time of instant access to resources all over the world via the internet. It is nothing less than a roadmap through a highly complex array of people, places and events to which both the student and the scholar will refer again and again.” (end summary)

Click on the book to see an excellent review on

Click on the book to see an excellent review on

I have read the book and it is one of the best history books I have ever read (I would estimate there is almost one picture or illustration on each page of this 400 or so page book).  Here are a few key quotes from that book having to do with the Roman Catholic siege of Magdeburg, Germany in 1550-1551.  The first is contained in the picture below.

Flacius on the Magdeburg siege: “If you are a Christian you really have to recognize Christ’s cause and not allows yourself to be used foolishly, so that you slaughter Christians as if you were asked to slaughter swine or sheep” (quoted in Olsen, 178)

Flacius on the Magdeburg siege: “If you are a Christian you really have to recognize Christ’s cause and not allows yourself to be used foolishly, so that you slaughter Christians as if you were asked to slaughter swine or sheep” (quoted in Olsen, 178)

For Flacius, now was a time to stand for Christ against Belial.  He minced no words regarding men like Melanchton and Bugenhagen (who had been Luther’s pastor), regarding their caving into the demands of the Emperor to still Flacius’ and the Magdeburgers’ voices.  He spoke of their past resistance to Rome, and how the tune they sung had changed:

“But [back] then they still had a prince who said the same war was persecution.  And since they were in the same danger with him, they, too, said it was persecution.  But now, after they, with their beautiful adiaphorism have reconciled the whore and the beast, and have a lord who says it is not persecution, they, too, say it is not persecution.  Now they are writing a secret confession, because the lord wants it so.  They are theologians very obedient to the government.” (quoted in Olsen, 203)

Melanchton’s retort was in part something like this: “What good could one expect from a man who dared to say that one should keep the respect of princes by means of fear and sedition?”

But Flacius made a distinction between sedition and religious resistance:

“Therefore, when worldly people cry that in such a matter one must be obedient to the government, the leaders should answer, one must obey God rather than man.  And if they say, the Romans are coming, the preachers should say, one must fear those who can destroy both body and soul more than those who destroy the body alone…They should also warn all people most vigorously to steadfastness in the acknowledged truth, but they should never advise sedition.” (quoted in Olsen, 218)

In addition to preserving the Reformation by defending the right of Magdeburg to continue to preach the pure word of God, which is the estimation of even secular historians (see Olsen 216, 217), Flacius did much more.  Being a highly educated bibliophile, he sought out and republished all kinds of rare works through his extensive network (he was a bookseller) that might otherwise have been lost today (including some of Dante’s key work).  Increasingly recognized as one of the key figures in modern history/historiography (“Collation is the mother of truth”), he also spearheaded efforts to produce the first multi-volume church history (the Magdeburg Centuries, which had the intent to “revision catholicity”, showing from history the pedigree of the Lutheran claims to be a true church).  Finally, he wrote what is considered a classic of Scriptural interpretation: his Clavis Scripturae Sacrae seu de Sermone Sacrarum literarum (1567) literally “the key to sacred scripture or a discourse concerning the language of the sacred writings” (get an updated version of it here).  Here, he argued that “The Holy Spirit is at the same time the author and the interpreter of Scripture”. 

This is an important topic for today that I will say a bit more about tomorrow. [NOTE: this will not be a re-cyled post tomorrow – the post is here if you would like to see it]


*That said, do you note any problems with, for example, this bit about Flacius culled from his Wikipedia entry?: “Affirming the natural inability of man, he adopted a position on sin as not being an accident of human nature, but involved in its substance, since The Fall of Man. Holding to a strong view of what Calvinists later called total depravity, Flacius insisted that human nature was entirely transformed by original sin, human beings were transformed from goodness and almost wholly corrupted with evil, making them kin to the Devil in his view, so that within them, without divine assistance, there lies no power even to cooperate with the Gospel when they hear it preached. Human acts of piety are valueless in themselves, and humans are entirely dependent on the grace of God for salvation. Those that agreed with him on this point, for example, Cyriacus Spangenberg, were termed Flaccians. Resisting ecclesiastical censure, he left Jena (Feb. 1562) to found an academy at Regensburg.” (bold mine)

Flacius pic from Wikipedia ; The siege of Magdeburg:

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Posted by on November 1, 2014 in Uncategorized


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