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There’s Something about Flacius, By Martin J. Lohrmann

Review of Luka Ilić, Theologian of Sin and Grace: The Process of Radicalization in the Theology of Matthias Flacius Illyricus (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2014).

Theological reflection involves both content and style. It is an art and a science: scientific in the rigorous analysis of its truth claims; artistic in how theologians choose to communicate their ideas. St. Augustine studied this reality in On Christian Teaching, which begins, “There are two things on which all interpretation of scripture depends: the process of discovering what we need to learn, and the process of presenting what we have learnt.”[1]

This balance between content and communication is especially prominent in the life of Matthias Flacius Illyricus (1520–1575), one of the great minds of the second generation of Lutheran reformers. Flacius was a native of Croatia (Latin Illyria, hence the name “Illyricus”). As a young man, Flacius’s relative—a Franciscan scholar named Baldo Lupetino—encouraged him to study in Germany.[2] Flacius arrived in Wittenberg in 1541, in time to develop relationships with Luther and Melanchthon; the budding scholar was teaching Hebrew at the University of Wittenberg already in 1544.[3]

The following years, however, brought troubles like Luther’s death (1546), the Lutherans’ defeat in the Smalcaldic War (1547), and the Augsburg Interim (1548), which was an imperial religious policy aiming to force Lutherans back under Roman ecclesiastical rule. At that time, Melanchthon and others in Wittenberg attempted to preserve evangelical teaching and civil peace by working with authorities to craft more acceptable alternatives to the Interim. In recent studies, historians like Günther Wartenberg and Timothy Wengert have demonstrated how Melanchthon acted with theological integrity in that situation.[4]

Flacius’s reaction to the same events, however, began a process that author Luka Ilić has aptly described as radicalization. Viewing Melanchthon’s efforts as “a union of Christ and Belial,” Flacius became a leading voice in the adiaphoristic controversy that launched decades of conflict among Lutheran theologians.[5] This entrance into controversy using sharp eschatological categories laid a lasting foundation for Flacius’ radical statements of doctrines like original sin and for his skepticism about dialogue with other theological perspectives. By the early 1560s, Flacius had burned most of his bridges with leaders of both church and state.

As Ilić writes, “Flacius’ radicalization reached its full extent during this time period [the early 1560s]. Not only was he adamant about holding on to his theological positions by not showing any willingness to re-think or modify them but this rigidity also began to rapidly influence his personal and professional relationships in a negative manner. Through his statements and behavior he was polarizing an ever growing circle of people.”[6]

By studying Flacius’s life and work in terms of radicalization, Ilić has offered a helpful lens through which to examine not only what Flacius’ believed but to consider the equally theological issue of how he expressed himself. As the citation from Augustine above reminds us, theology involves both content and communication. In Flacius’s case, he combined deeply-held beliefs with uncompromising language, which resulted in personal alienation and the escalation of intra-Lutheran controversy. While one may agree or disagree with the content of Flacius’s teachings, the effects of his radical expressions are plain to see.

Without turning him into either a hero or a villain, the language of radicalization both accurately describes how people experienced Flacius in his time and suggests ways that we might continue to learn from him today. We notice, for instance, that radicalism itself includes modes of thought and communication that bring with it certain effects. On the positive side, radical views offer strong foundations for faith and can provide clarity when engaging complex issues. On the negative side, however, radicalism can lead to broken relationships, closed communities, and closed minds.

Both of these aspects are true for Flacius, as seen in the 1577 Formula of Concord that settled many of the controversies of Flacius’s time. The article on original sin, for instance, condemned Flacius’s most radical statements about original sin and human nature.[7] The Formula’s article on adiaphora, however, affirmed Flacius’s conviction that there are times to stand up and refuse to bend when the gospel is at stake.[8]

How does a person know the difference between an overstatement of conviction and a true call to stand firm? Instead of offering radical solutions, the Formula deviated from Flacius’s radicalism by offering believers a set of principles to use in their discernment: Christians who want to be faithful should avoid arousing God’s wrath, not violate love, not strengthen enemies of God’s word, and not offend the weak in faith.[9] With these diverse factors in mind, individual and communities have a variety of perspectives to consider when evaluating situations for the sake of the gospel, conscience, and the well-being of others.

Something about Flacius—namely, his radical beliefs and formulations—keeps Christians in that vital crucible of personal conviction and mutual accountability. The concept of radicalization allows us to appreciate Flacius’s work, while also confronting negative sides of his legacy like infighting and inflexibility. By presenting Flacius in this way, this book and its author have made strong contributions to Reformation history. This approach also provides a valuable reminder for how Christians engage theological and social issues today: radicalism is not the only way.

Martin J. Lohrmann is Assistant Professor of Lutheran Confessions and Heritage at Wartburg Theological Seminary, Dubuque, Iowa, and the author of Book of Harmony: Spirit and Service in the Lutheran Confessions.



[1] Augustine, On Christian Teaching, trans. R. H. P. Green (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 8.

[2] Luka Ilić, Theologian of Sin and Grace: The Process of Radicalization in the Theology of Matthias Flacius Illyricus by (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2014), 39.

[3] Ilić, 65.

[4] See Wartenberg and Wengert’s essays, respectively, in Politik und Bekenntnis: Die Reaktionen auf das Interim von 1548, eds. Irene Dingel and Günther Wartenberg (Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 2006).

[5] Ilić, 95. The “union of Christ and Belial” is a reference to II Corinthians 6:15. For more on the adiaphoristic controversy, see Charles P. Arand, Robert Kolb, and James A. Nestingen, The Lutheran Confessions: History and Theology of the Book of Concord (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012), 176-189.

[6] Ilić, 157.

[7] The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, edited by Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000) [hereafter BC], 531.1-532.3.

[8] BC 640.29.

[9] BC 640.25.

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