Nikolaus Selnecker

by Souksamay Phetsanghane

Nikolaus SelneckerNikolaus Selnecker (1530-1592)

Nikolaus Selnecker was born on December 5 or 6, 1530, in Hersbruck1. His father moved him and his family to Nuernberg while he was still a child. Selnecker was a gifted organist and played organ at Nuernberg at the age of 122. At 19, he was going to study theology at Wittenberg, but he was ambushed by a tramp named Schlappenhauer, shot and almost killed. He was bedridden for about a year and never fully recovered3. His father also was a close friend of Melanchthon, so when he finally got to Wittenberg in 1550, he lived with Melanchthon4. After he finished his studies at the university, he got a call as third court chaplain in Dresden to Elector August of Saxony. He was there seven years, but then was driven out by the Crypto-Calvinists5. He became a professor at Jena with its Philippist faculty. So when they fell out of favor, so did Selnecker by association. Elector August took him back and made him professor of theology at Leipzig, pastor of St. Thomas Kirche6, and area superintendent7. He stayed there until the elector died and his son, Christian I, took over. Christian I reinstalled Crypto-Calvinism and Selnecker was forced to leave in 1589 on account of his constant attack on them. He went to Hildesheim and became the superintendent there for two years. After Christian I died in 1591 and Lutheranism was reestablished in Saxony, he was called back. He died shortly after he returned to Leipzig on Trinity Sunday May 24, 1592.

His doctrine has come into question over the years on account of his passivity and gentle nature. When he was studying with Melanchthon, he showed his mentor’s characteristics. After Melanchthon died, he was attacked by the Philippists as an apostle of Flacius and by the Gnesio-Lutherans as a friend of the suspicious Wittenberger8. He was weak in doctrine early in his career9. During his trials in life and deeper study of God’s Word, he later became sounder in his doctrine. When Elector August wanted to unite the Lutherans in his land, he called together Selnecker and other theologians. Selnecker emerged as a leading force in the talks and told the Elector to send for Andreae to advise them in church unity. The Elector also followed Selnecker’s advice and summoned Chemnitz, Chytraeus, Musculus, and Koerner to Torgau. The Torgau Book, or Formula of Concord was complied during these meetings. Chemnitz, Andreae, and Selnecker were the main editors and revisers of book before it was finally published in 1580.

In addition to his help with the Formula of Concord, Selnecker is remembered as a prolific author and hymn writer. His great work of systematic theology was Institutio religionis christianae, first published in 1573. He also wrote some 150 hymns during his lifetime10.

Selnecker was a man who never lost the irenic spirit of Melanchthon, the desire to appease everyone. This fact undoubtedly led to his troubles with people. He did at times not say things in his writings that may conflict with the Crypto-Calvinists, but he still did not agree with them11. Nevertheless he was also a man who was trying to stay the middle course during this volatile time of Lutheranism12. He was clinging to God’s Word and that alone. Georg Mylius, a Wittenberg professor, had this to say about him at his funeral, “He was not a weathervane or a rubberneck on the doctrine of the Christian religion, nor was he a reed, which the wind blows here and there, nor a man in impressible clothing, who would let himself be moved to all changes in religious matters for the sake of lordly favor and worldly glory, but he has remained true and faithful to a simply known and confessed truth during his lifetime and continues till his death.”13

  • Buszin, Walter E. “Selnecker, Nikolaus,” The Encyclopedia of the Lutheran Church. Vol. III. Philadelphia, PN: Fortress Press, 1965. P.2155-2156
  • Diberlius, Dr. Franz. “Selnecker,” Realencyklopaedie fuer protestantiliche Theologie und Kirche. Ed. III. P.184-191.
  • Jungkuntz, Theodore R. Formulators of the Formula of Concord. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1977. P.89-109
  • Preus, Robert. The Theology of Post-Reformation Lutheranism. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1970. P.49-50
  • Schaller, R.E. “Concord Has Its Formula,” CLC Journal of Theology vol. 41, num. 3.
  • Spaeth, Prof. Adolph. “Selnecker,” The Lutheran Cyclopedia. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1899. P.438
  • 1. Dec. 6 is the Festival of St. Nikolaus, hence his name. He was either born on the 5th and baptized on the 6th, or born on the 6th.
  • 2. He was so gifted that the emperor of Austria had planned to kidnap him after a performance and take him back to Austria, but Nikolaus’s father found this out and hid his son on that day.
  • 3. He was described as, “Fast keinen Tag in seinem Beruf ganz gesund.” (He was entirely health for almost no day in his office.)
  • 4. David Chytraeus, another future contributor to the Formula of Concord, was just moving out of Melanchthon’s house when Selnecker came there.
  • 5. The Crypto-Calvinists or Philippists thought that this friend of Melanchthon would help them fit Luther’s teachings in line with Calvin’s, but Selnecker stayed true to God’s Word.
  • 6. This is the same church that Bach would work for in the 17th century. Selnecker actually started the Thomanerchor that Bach later made famous.
  • 7. A superintendent was like a bishop or circuit pastor today.
  • 8. Diberlius, Dr. Franz. Realencyklopaedie fuer protestantiliche Theologie und Kirche. Ed. III. “Selnecker,” P.187
  • 9. When he went back to Wittenberg to get his doctorate in theology, he engaged in some debates that made Chemnitz and Andreae suspicious of him.
  • 10. Two of his hymns are in Christian Worship, “Ach bleib bei uns,” (Lord Jesus Christ, with us abide, 541) and “Ich dank dir, lieber Herre,” (Let me be yours forever, 596).
  • 11. His two controversies with them at Leipzig attest to this fact.
  • 12. Chemnitz, Andreae, and the other formulators were also in this middle group of Lutherans between the Crypto-Calvinists and Gnesio-Lutherans.
  • 13. Diberlius. Realencyklopaedie. P.187