Bugenhagen’s Preface to His 1 Corinthians Commentary

Johann Bugenhagen (1485-1558), an early Lutheran pastor and theologian, published a commentary on 1 Corinthians in 1530. Interestingly, it deals only with the first four chapters–and these extensively. His treatment spans some 400 pages, and it reads like a series of classroom lectures, passionately given and full of biblical quotation and contemporary polemic. In fact, this is what Bugenhagen tells us in the preface: his commentary is part of the academic effort at reform, a striving for the souls of his students. This is my translation of the opening paragraph:

It is now two years since the plague advanced on our city.1 At that time our school migrated elsewhere, but Doctor Martin Luther and I remained here, in accordance with the office of sacred preaching committed to us. Almost sixty students (scholastici auditores) also remained, as meanwhile they heard Luther preaching and lecturing on sacred things, to whom I also was able to be a comfort against all scandal rising against the saving teaching of Christ. I began, in the course of my ordinary lecturing, to treat the first letter written by Saint Paul to the Corinthians, but more fully the first four chapters regarding the wisdom and justice of God against the wisdom and justice of the world, and the authority of Holy Scripture and apostolic teaching in the apostolic Church of Christ. (Commentarius in quatuor capita prioris epistolae ad Corinthios [Wittenberg, 1530], fol. 2r)

It might be that, in light of the spreading plague, Bugenhagen delivered his lectures, so to speak, in this written form rather than orally. (This is how Jänckens understood it in 1757.) Whatever the case, they certainly read like oral deliverances, full of address to the reader or listener, full of biblical quotations that appear and reappear, as if from memory, and full of passionate pastoral concern for the consciences of his students against what he perceived as the perversions of Roman Catholicism.

It is his choice of 1 Corinthians 1-4 that I find especially interesting (not least because I just completed a PhD thesis on the history of these chapters’ interpretation). Traditionally, these four chapters were regarded as dealing with teaching in the Church, and this is just what Bugenhagen picks up: a lecture series on this section is ideal for the reform effort because they treat the wisdom of God, the ‘authority of Holy Scripture’ and ‘apostolic teaching.’ A church that needs to rediscover and re-establish how it is to teach Christian truth should turn to 1 Corinthians 1-4 to find how to do so.

The black death came to Wittenberg on August 2, 1527 (see Luther’s Works 43: 115-16).