It is the 25th of April 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I'm Dan van Voorhis.
The year was 1502
Today we remember the birth of Georg Major on this, the 25th of April in 1502. Now, there is a chance that you know about Georg Major. He was a decently big name in Lutheran Reformation controversies. I happen to know a surprisingly large number of people who take an interest in this 16th-century theologian. But I am going to bet that 99% of you don't know anything about him. Well, it's your lucky day. I will tell you the story of Georg Major: a guy who could not catch a break and found himself on the losing side of many important mid-century Reformation controversies. Uber Lutheran historian Robert Kolb has called Major the "reluctant controversialist."
Ok, so the basics first.
Georg Major was born in Magdeburg, Germany, on this day in 1502. In 1511 his family moved to Wittenberg and in 1521 enrolled at the University of Wittenberg. As is common with many college students, Major gravitated towards certain subjects and personalities. For Major, it was Philip Melanchthon's interest in humanism and the church fathers, as well as his irenic spirit, that drew him in. Major excelled at Wittenberg, graduated and became the rector of a Latin school in Magdeburg before being called back to Wittenberg in 1537, where he was the court preacher, earned his doctorate, and became a faculty member in 1544.
But then all hell broke loose. Luther died in 1546, giving the Emperor his best shot at crushing the rebellious Germans. This led to the Schmalkaldic War and the Emperors crushing the Saxons. The elector of Saxony, John Frederick, was imprisoned, and Maurice, a moderate who had not joined the Protestant Schmalkaldic League, became the new elector of Saxony.
So Major, a vocal critic of Charles V, moves back to Magdeburg until the heat subsided in Wittenberg. Major came back to Wittenberg in 1548 as Maurice, the new elector, was looking to appease Charles V but keep Lutheranism alive in his lands.
There are two main factions in Wittenberg. Essentially, they are the conservative and radical Lutherans. The conservatives took the side of Maurice, the new elector, in his desire to work out a compromise with the Emperor. These folks tended to line up with Melanchthon. The radicals looked to the memory of Luther and the fiery Matthias Flacius and Nickolas von Amsdorf. These radicals would accept no theological compromise with the Empire.
The radicals harassed Major for his approval of Maurice's conservative Leipzig Interim. You can look up the specifics, but it is an attempt at compromise that was unacceptable theologically to many, but Georg thought it best for the state. This would especially enrage Luther's old friend Amsdorf who would spend the next couple of years hounding Major and his theology.
The Leipzig Interim was one thing, but Major's attempt to explain good works and the Gospel would get him into even more trouble. Major had defended his statement that "good works were necessary to salvation." If you want, you can pause the show and answer that question yourself, are they?
On the one hand, the answer from Lutheran reformers would have been a definite "no." Wasn't this the battle with the Medieval church and the conception of being saved by faith alone?
Major defended himself at first. Like Melanchthon, such statements were imbued with a theological spirit invited in place of human perspective and psychology. From this perspective, good works do flow from salvation but do not depend on them. The rub is on the word "necessary." This would become known for posterity as the "Majoristic controversy," and it was explained decently in the 1577 Formula of Concord. Interestingly, Major later denied that he ever proclaimed such a thing.
Major hated that he kept getting trapped in controversies (despite them also being part of his own making). He lamented that his name was associated with specific ideas and factions. He was "Melanchthonian" to his core: intelligent, peace-seeking, and sometimes clueless of the radical faction in his party that would roast many of his statements. Ironically, later Major wanted to jump into a conversation on the Lord's Supper. A friend read his statement and told Major that he would trash the document and focus on something else if he loathed controversy.
Georg Major did just that. The Leipzig Interim and Majoristic controversy over the place of good works in salvation was enough controversy for one lifetime. Major died in 1574, just years before the final Lutheran theological settlement came in 1580. Born on this day in 1502, Georg Major was 71 years old.
The reading for today comes from W.H. Auden. This is his "Anthem."
Let us praise our Maker, with true passion extol Him.
Let the whole creation give out another sweetness,
Nicer in our nostrils, a novel fragrance
From cleansed occasions in accord together
As one feeling fabric, all flushed and intact
Phenomena and numbers announcing in one
Multitudinous ecumenical song
Their grand giveness of gratitude and joy,
Peaceable and plural, their positive truth
An authoritative This, an unthreatened Now
When in love and in laughter, each lives himself,
For united by His word cognition and power
System and order are a single glory
And the pattern is complex, their places safe.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 25th of April 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by Christopher Gillespie, whose favorite Majors include Georg, former West Virginia Quarterback Major Applewhite, and DC Supervillain Major Force. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis, six days away from season 3 and the new format! You can catch us here every day, and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.