Johannes Brenz

by Andrew Hussman

Johannes BrenzJohannes Brenz (1499-1570)

Johannes Brenz may not be the first name that comes to mind when you think about the fathers of the Reformation like Luther and Melanchthon. Many Lutherans have never even heard of him before. Yet this Lutheran father played an important part in spreading the Reformation and nurturing its growth. His sound preaching and doctrine established confessional Lutheranism in southwestern Germany, and he was an effective church organizer and administrator. He was an excellent theologian whose biblical commentaries received praise from Luther himself. He carried burdensome crosses for his Savior, but nevertheless remained firm in his faith and trusted in his Lord. We as Lutherans would greatly benefit from studying his life and works.

Johannes Brenz was born on June 24, 1499, in the town of Weil der Stadt, which is near Stuttgart in the present day province of Baden-Württemberg. His father was the mayor of the town, and both his parents saw to it that their children received a proper education (Johannes was the oldest of three sons). He was an eager student and would frequently wake up in the middle of the night to study, although this would result in sleep depravation later in his life. He attended school in Weil der Stadt and nearby Vaihingen, and in 1514 he began his education at the University of Heidelberg. There he met several men who also took part in the Reformation, including Johannes Oecolampadius and Martin Bucer. He received a Bachelor's degree in philosophy in 1516 and a Master's degree in theology in 1518. Luther made a lasting impression on the teenage Brenz and his friends when he came to Heidelberg for his disputation in 1518. He remained at Heidelberg for a few more years as a lecturer on philosophy and the Gospel of Matthew. He was known for his splendid exegesis, yet he was put under investigation in 1522 because his lectures contained Lutheran teachings. Fortunately, Brenz accepted a call a few weeks later to be the pastor at St. Michael's Church in Hall in Swabia.

It was not long until Brenz started establishing the Reformation in Hall. He attacked the cult of the saints and the idea that mass was a sacrifice. He also abolished the festival of Corpus Christi, which was not in agreement with the Lutheran doctrine of the sacrament. He transformed a Franciscan monastery into a school and in 1526 wrote the first Lutheran catechism for the instruction of the young, which became very popular.

However, this period did not go without its trials. Brenz criticized the Peasants' Revolt in 1525 and, when they surrounded the city, had to convince them not to attack. There were also problems with the Zwinglians over the sacrament of the Lord's Supper. Brenz and other Württemberg theologians wrote the Syngramma Suevicum, which attacked his former teacher Oecolampadius and defended the doctrine of the real presence of Christ's body and blood in the Lord's Supper. He was on Luther's side in the talks with the Zwinglians at the Marburg Colloquy in 1529.

In 1530 he married Margaret Gräter, who bore him six children. He continued to spread the Reformation to the cities of Württemberg when, in 1536, Duke Ulrich of Württemberg called him as an advisor and asked him to create church regulations for his province. He also asked him to reform the structure and teaching at the University of Tübingen, which Brenz successfully did in 1537.

The year 1546 was the beginning of a long period of trial and testing for Johannes Brenz. It began with Luther's death on February 18. Brenz grieved the loss of his close friend and role model and dedicated his Commentary on Galatians to him. At the end of the same year, Emperor Charles V, recently victorious over the Schmalkald League, entered Hall and searched through all his possessions and writings. Brenz had to leave behind his family and immediately fled, although he was able to return several weeks later. But his stay was brief, for soon the Augsburg Interim appeared, and it was especially enforced in southern Germany. It was meant by the emperor to unify Protestants and Catholics, but it in fact forced Protestants to readopt Catholic teaching and practices. When Brenz's opinion of the Interim became known (he called it the Interitus, or "ruin"), the imperial chancellor Granvelle demanded his surrender and put a price on his head. On the eve of his 49th birthday, Brenz received a note warning him to flee as quickly as he could and barely escaped the emperor's soldiers. He fled to Duke Ulrich, who protected him in his castle under a pseudonym. Brenz eventually went to Basel in Switzerland via Strasbourg. But when he heard the news of his wife's death, he returned to Stuttgart to look after his children. However, when he was discovered by the emperor's spies, he hid in a townsman's attic for 14 days. As the story goes, he survived on only a loaf of bread and the single egg that a hen laid for him each day. In 1550 Brenz came out of hiding and married Catherine Isemann, the daughter of his former colleague at Hall, Johann Isemann. She gave him 12 children.

After Duke Ulrich's death, his son Duke Christoph had Brenz create the Confessio Virtembergica, which he and several others presented to the Council of Trent in 1552. Although the Council of Trent rejected this confession, it was formally adopted by the Württemberg church in 1559 at the Synod of Stuttgart. During his time as Duke Christoph’s advisor he became the head pastor at Stuttgart and therefore of all the Württemberg churches. He also contended with the main controversies of the time. In 1551 he took part in the Osiandric controversy over the doctrine of justification. In 1552 his Confessio was attacked by the Dominican Peter de Soto, to which Brenz responded with his Apologia Confessionis. He also dealt with the Schwenkfeldians and Anabaptists, and even Melanchthon ridiculed his Confessio as absurd. In the 1560s he defended his teaching on the personal union of Christ's two natures and on his real presence in the Lord's Supper against Reformed theologians such as Heinrich Bullinger and Theodore Beza.

At the end of 1569 Brenz suffered a stroke and was confined to bed. By August of 1570 he developed a fever and knew his end was near. On August 31 he received the Lord's Supper with his family and friends one last time and read his will to them, in which he thanked God for giving him life in the time when Luther revealed the light of the gospel again. Johannes Brenz departed for eternal life on September 11, 1570, and at his request was buried beneath the pulpit of the church in Stuttgart, where a flagstone marks his grave today.

Johannes Brenz was indeed a devoted reformer in the Lutheran church whose unwavering trust in God throughout all his tribulations serves as an example which we would do well to model. Brenz understood that God had given him crosses to bear, but he did not view them as a burden. Instead he saw them as an opportunity to glorify Christ and suffer for his name. He wrote to his friend Veit Dietrich on August 7, 1548, "The Son of God said, 'Whoever wishes to be my disciple must take up his cross.' Therefore, since I have no doubt that both you and I are disciples of the Son of God, we must not sorrowfully endure the crosses that have been laid upon us. ... Thus it pleased God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ to make us low with him, if we are to also reign with him."1

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  • 1. (Author’s translation), Pressel, 280