September 20, 1523 is a date not found in any Reformation timeline I have seen. In fact, if the opponents of the Reformation at the University of Ingolstadt would have had their way, that date, the events surrounding a letter they received, and its female author, whom they called a “female devil,” would be lost to obscurity.
For why is it necessary to remember the “silly bag” who took on, by herself, the formidable powers of the University of Ingolstadt, an institution whose pro-chancellor was none other than the famous John Eck, Martin Luther’s main opponent?
But thanks be to God, Argula von Grumbach’s open letter to the rector and council of the university was not lost. In fact, it was published and went through fourteen editions in less than two months! Argula’s importance and contributions are many, but suffice it to say Argula is the first fruit among women of the Reformation for whom God’s Word came alive and as a result wrote about and defended it.
From orphan to reformer
Argula von Stauff was born into Bavarian nobility near the end of the fifteenth-century. She was brought up in a family that valued religion and education, with her father giving her an expensive Koberger Bible in German at the young age of ten. In her letter to the university, she writes that it was not her lack of interest or inability to read that kept her from reading this Bible. Rather, Franciscan advisers told her that to read it would “lead her astray.” Ironically, they were the ones who led her astray.
Argula’s life was on the fast track for nobility and luxury. As a teenager, she served on Queen Kunigunde’s court in Munich as a lady-in-waiting. But tragedy soon struck: her parents succumbed to the plague of 1509, leaving her orphaned; and in 1516 her uncle and guardian was beheaded. By the time she married Friedrich von Grumbach, which was most likely an arranged marriage, she was no longer a young woman. She joined him in Dietfurt, where Friedrich served as the town’s administrator.
We are not sure when Argula was first exposed to the new reforming ideas, but by the time she wrote her letter in 1523, she had read the Bible, including Luther’s translation of the New Testament, as well as a considerable amount of reforming works from Wittenberg. What is more remarkable about Argula, perhaps, are her many contacts with reformers and those with reforming views. She corresponded with Luther; Philip Melanchthon; a vicar at the cathedral of Zeilitzheim named Jacob Pfeffer; Paul Speratus, who was both a scholar and cathedral preacher; reformer Andreas Osiander in Nuremberg, who will appear again soon in her story; Spalatin, the court chaplain to Frederick the Wise; and possibly Johann Eberlin von Gunzburg, as her writings suggest. Argula also kept herself and others well informed of news relating to the Reformation, even sending word to Luther in 1522 about new persecutions in the Netherlands.
Recant or die
All of these factors—the Word of God read and memorized, the reading and immersing in Reformation works and ideas and thereby reading Scripture in light of them, the many correspondences with reformers and the like, and staying informed of Reformation happenings—culminated to a tipping point in late 1523 when a young man by the name of Arsacius Seehofer was forced to recant his reforming views or die at the stake.
The University of Ingolstadt was not a safe place for those who agreed with Luther. In 1520, one of its professors, George Hauer, insisted that the university forcibly put an end to the reforming ideas and, if needed, its proponents. Then there was Eck, the person who is credited with making the university a bulwark for the traditional Catholic faith. In March of 1522, the same year that Luther’s translation of the New Testament was published, the Munich court issued a mandate against the receiving and promulgating of Luther’s teachings, providing the perfect artillery for leaders like Eck and Hauer to take decisive action.
Seehofer was an eighteen-year-old student who came to Ingolstadt after spending time in Wittenberg, attending lectures by Luther and Melanchthon and reading their books. Undoubtedly, he came to the university with enthusiasm for these new teachings and with prominent Reformation books in tow. But after a strong warning from the university in Christmas of 1522, Seehofer was arrested after a house search resulted in damaging evidence.
Seehofer was given the option to recant and be confined to a monastery or die. The university provided seventeen summaries of his errors, the first of these being: “That faith alone is sufficient for our justification.” Student protests broke out, which resulted in more arrests, and on September 7, 1523, a tearful Seehofer under pressure denied all of Luther’s teachings.
For Argula, who had been keeping up with news about persecutions, this event hit close to home, practically in her backyard, and she felt compelled by the Lord to do something.
Taking her four young children with her, she traveled to Nuremberg to meet with none other than the reformer Osiander. Unfortunately, we have no record of what was said during her visit, but it is certain that Osiander served as her advisor, most likely encouraging her to write a letter. It also would not be all that surprising if their conversations shaped and informed some of the content of her letter, especially given the speed with which she wrote it on the same day she arrived home from her visit with him.
In the rest of this article, I want to look briefly at three major themes found in Argula’s letter to the university. I then will conclude with a couple of ways we can retrieve Argula today.
The Supremacy of God’s WordThe first and most significant theme of Argula’s letter is the primacy of God’s Word. Click To Tweet
Argula’s letter is not a defense of Seehofer per se but primarily a defense of God’s Word. She perceptively understands that these persecutions are reflective of a battle over God’s Word. There are those who are for God’s Word (like Luther and Melanchthon) and those who oppose it.
How in God’s name can you and your university expect to prevail, when you deploy such foolish violence against the word of God; when you force someone to hold the holy Gospel in their hands for the very purpose of denying it, as you did in the case of Arsacius Seehofer (emphasis added).
Her method is to allow Scripture to defend itself. She begins by abruptly diving into the sacred text, her first words being a quotation of John 12. What follows is a letter consisting of her quoting, exegeting, and applying God’s Word and tying it all together at the end with a benediction.
God’s Word is so central to Argula that she gives seventy Scripture references in this one letter. I like what Peter Matheson has to say about her in his book Arugla Von Grumbach: A Woman’s Voice in the Reformation: “She walks around the scriptural texts as if in her garden, her treasure-chamber. ‘I find this text,’ she often says; ‘I have it’; ‘I see it.’ She is at home in Scripture.” Argula puts her opponents to shame by her unwavering confidence in and knowledge of Scripture. Listen to her boldness as she fights for sola Scriptura:
But where the word of God is concerned neither Pope, Emperor nor princes—as Acts 4 and 5 make so clear—have any jurisdiction.
I have no doubt about it: God will surely preserve his holy and blessed word. As he has hitherto declared; has done in the Old and New Testament, still does, and will continue to do.
No one has a right to exercise sovereignty over the word of God. Yes, no human being, whoever he be, can rule over it. For the word of God alone—without which nothing was made—should and must rule.
If one could enforce faith, why weren’t all unbelievers given instructions to believe long ago? The difficulty is that it is the word of God which has to teach us, not flesh and blood.
Unlike Seehofer, who denied the reformational teachings, Argula insists that she could not deny them, for it would be to deny God’s very Word:
For my part, I have to confess, in the name of God and by my soul’s salvation, that if I were to deny Luther and Melanchthon’s writing I would be denying God and his word, which may God forfend [prevent] for ever. Amen.
And even if Luther himself were to revoke his own teachings, “that would not worry me,” she said. “I do not build on his, mine, or any person’s understanding, but on the true rock, Christ himself, which the builders have rejected.”
Argula writes her letter with authority not because she has any authority on her own, but because she believes in the authoritative supremacy of God’s Word which she stands behind and defends. She thus ends her letter by asserting this authority in God’s Word:
A second theme that flows from her reading of Scripture is that she reads the current events apocalyptically. There is an “eschatological urgency” in her letter. She quotes freely from the prophets and confidently applies judgment prophecies to the university leaders, the state, the pope, and even the Catholic Church with the hope that they will repent.
The pot burns; and truly you and your university will never extinguish it. And neither the Pope with his decretals, nor Aristotle, who has never been a Christian, nor you yourselves can manage it. You may imagine that you can defy God, cast down his prophets and apostles from heaven, and banish them from the world. This shall not happen (Arugula applying Jer. 1:11-13; 77).
How are the lawmakers and their representatives to endure if they invent laws out of their own heads and not from the counsel and the word of God? In my view the Lord is referring to them in Matthew 15: “O you hypocrites! You have made the command of God vain because of your impositions”.
I cry out with the prophet Jeremiah, chapter 22: “Earth, earth, earth! Hear the word of the Lord.”
Argula also sees her role within an eschatological framework. From the very beginning of her letter, she defends her speaking out while congruently defending God’s Word. She is like a prophetess who comes proclaiming the Word of the Lord.
This leads to a third theme: a defense of women—and thereby herself—for speaking out.
Compelled as a woman, compelled as a Christian
The foundational reason for Argula’s speaking out is Matthew 10:32: “So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.”
This verse has so captured Argula’s heart and conscience that it is the most quoted verse in this letter and in all her letters combined (a total of twenty-two times). If Argula were to have a life verse, this would be it. She begins her letter quoting Matthew 10:32 and Luke 9:26 together, thus providing a framework for justifying her outspoken role. She boldly exclaims:
Words like these, coming from the very mouth of God, are always before my eyes. For they exclude neither woman nor man. And this is why I am compelled as a Christian to write to you (emphasis added).
Notice how she carefully employs the word “Christian” in the sentence above. Argula writes to them not merely as a woman or a layperson but as a Christian. In Christ, men and women stand shoulder-to-shoulder as children of God and recipients of his Word and, thereby, Jesus’ commands. They are to correct and reprove one another. By using the category Christian, in essence she is appealing to the “in Christ” reality and is thus asking for a proper hearing.
Silence is not a viable option for Argula. The Word of God has so compelled her that not to speak would be to sin against God. Midway through her letter she describes a situation where she had remained silent and such silence left her distraught: “However I suppressed my inclinations; heavy of heart, I did nothing.”
Why? “Because Paul says in 1 Tim 2: ‘The women should keep silence, and should not speak in the church.’”
“But now,” she continues, “I cannot see any man who is up to it, who is either willing or able to speak.” These words are indicative of an emergency situation. If there is no good man to defend God’s Word and Seehofer, then she believes Scripture makes a provision for her. For Argula, these matters are of life and death importance.
Once again Matthew 10:32 is brought to the forefront as her reason for speaking. This command is then supported by a litany of other verses, most of which are prophetic (Ps 8:2; Isa 3:4,12; 29:24; 54:13; Jer 31:34; Ezek 20:23ff; Matt 16:17; Luke 10:21; John 6:54; and 1 Cor 12:3).
Argula held this belief—that Scripture was on her side and thus gave her the authority to reprove her opponents and challenge them to a debate.
A disputation is easily won when one argues with force, not Scripture. As far as I can see that means that the hangman is accounted the most learned. It’s easy to see, though, that the devil has helped to arrange this fine hullabaloo. God will not put up with your ways much longer.
Are you not ashamed that [Seehofer] had to deny all the writing of Martin, who put the New Testament into German, simply following the text? That means that the holy Gospel and the Epistles and the story of the Apostles and so on are all dismissed by you as heresy. It seems as if there is no hope of a proper discussion with you.
I am not ashamed to appear before you, and to speak with you gentlemen, for I too can ask questions and read in German. …God grant that I may speak with you in the presence of our three princes and of the whole community.
The Aftermath of the Letter
Unfortunately for Argula, not only was she a layperson, even worse she was a woman. This meant that her words had no value; they were static in the ears of the recipients. To her male opponents, the authority of Scripture meant nothing where a woman was concerned.
They ridiculed her and went on a smear campaign. Hauer called her a “shameless whore,” “arrogant devil,” “heretical b*,” and “wretched and pathetic daughter of Eve” during a December 8 sermon. Argula’s husband lost his post at Dietfurt, and the family was forced to leave.
But perhaps the worst punishment was that they did not give her the honor of any type of response. She wrote seven public letters total to various leaders, which were printed and distributed. Not one was answered. Even Luther, who praised Argula privately, made no mention of her letter when he finally wrote his response to the university leaders regarding the Seehofer case.
The only public answer she received to her first and most important letter to the university was a letter written by an anonymous Ingolstadt student in the form of slam poetry. The poem was an attempt to destroy her character and morale. The poem was evil and crude, even including lyrics such as, “Are you on heat, perhaps, for this eighteen-year-old chap?”
Argula’s last printed work was a response to this anonymous letter, giving a first try at poetry. Had the two been judged on their slam poetry (think of that: a Reformation slam poetry contest!), she probably would not have won. Her poem was too long (556 lines!) and she had not yet mastered the craft. However, history shows Argula to have come out on top. She maintains the themes outlined above: unwavering confidence in Scripture, faithful obedience to Christ and his commands, and urgency that the times spoken of by the prophets were at hand. “In my weakness God will be my spirit’s strength, to his glory.”
Retrieving Argula for Today
Argula’s public writing career may have lasted only one year, but she was the first female published author of the Reformation. Her letter to the university was a bestseller. She was a pioneer for women in pamphleteering. It is said that around 29,000 of her pamphlets were distributed on the eve of the Peasant’s War (53-54)! And I have not even touched on her role as lobbyist, preacher, and mediator over the Eucharist controversy at Augsburg. Nor have I told of her advice to Luther to marry, which he follows less than a year later, or her influence over women regarding the Reformation. If nothing else, I hope this article whets your appetite to learn more about Argula.
To conclude, there are three ways we must retrieve Argula for today.
First, we need another Reformation today. In mainline Protestantism, the gospel has been buried in the crypts along with its bishops, deans, and priests. The Reformation in the denominations where it once started is dead. Just look at the percentage change in membership in the three most liberal mainline denominations: From 2000-2010, the Episcopal Church lost 15.7 percent of its membership, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America lost 18.2 percent, and the Presbyterian Church USA lost 21.9 percent!
It is not their method but their message that is the cause for this decay. What is being preached from their pulpits and taught from their seminaries is not the gospel of Jesus Christ, nor is it Scripture. Argula’s letter to the university, fraught with its life-and-death urgency, should incite in us the same kind of urgency for today. Argula compels us to speak and take action on behalf of the gospel, where lives are at stake. Her words wake us up from our sleep of complacency and pull back the drapes so that we can see there’s a war waging outside and that God has called each of us, as his children, to join in. We need Argula’s boldness and unwavering belief in the power of Scripture, and we need to follow her example in confronting whoever preaches a false gospel.
Second, in Argula we are reminded of God’s great reversal of worldly statuses. In Scripture, Argula finds a God who chooses and anoints the last born, the least, and the weakest. Argula prophetically understands her role as a great reversal. She, the unschooled, self-taught, degree-less woman, is the one who is wise whereas the powerful, learned men are the fools.
Matheson writes, “Especially in these last days, when God’s Spirit is being lavishly poured out upon all flesh, what might normally be seen by men as ‘women’s chit-chat’ becomes the vehicle of the very word of God. All normal categories have been turned upside down.”
Therefore, Argula serves as a reminder to us that God can take the least likely person and use him or her for his glory. God has used the mouths of murderers, concubines, foreigners, slaves, men, women, youth, and even a donkey to proclaim his Word in salvation history. Jesus even tells the Pharisees in Luke 19 that if his disciples keep quiet, then the “stones will cry out” (v. 40). God uses whomever and whatever he will to make sure people hear the gospel of Jesus Christ. You and I are not out of the reach of God’s ability to redeem and use for his glory and for the proclamation of his gospel.
Last, Argula’s witness should compel us to raise up and train women to defend Scripture inside and outside the church as she once did. We know from Scripture and church history that God calls and uses women to communicate the gospel. Whatever one’s views on what ministry looks like for women does not undermine the fact that God indeed uses women for gospel ministry.
Given the dire situation of our denominations—not to mention our world—we need to engage as many women as possible in gospel ministry. It’s imperative! This situation is a matter of life and death. As Reformation Christians living 500 years later, we should encourage God-called women to receive the same theological training as our men so that they, too, can properly defend the holy gospel of our Lord.