Seeing Suffering Anew
Anna Marie Johnson

Among the many things that Lutheran reformers attempted to change during the Reformation was how Christians understood and experienced suffering. In this ambitious book, Ronald Rittgers explores how these new understandings were advanced and—at least in some cases—took root.  “Consolation literature” (that is, writings that addressed the experience of suffering) forms the bulk of sources used in this study, complemented by a broad sampling of other relevant writings such as Luther’s biblical lectures and treatises, instructions for pastoral care in the church ordinances of new evangelical churches, and writings by lay Christians who had absorbed and appropriated an evangelical ethos of suffering. The volume is meticulously researched and brings to light many sources found only in archives. An appendix of primary sources lists more than a hundred writings, and endnotes comprise about 120 pages of the text.

Rittgers marshals this impressive array of evidence to establish the centrality of suffering in the theology and piety of the German Reformation. Evangelical authors agreed that suffering was not salvific, as it was in late medieval theology. Instead, they regarded it as a salutary experience that should be embraced and endured. Several different reasons for suffering were cited by these authors, some from late medieval traditions and others from the new, evangelical theology. But their aims were profoundly practical; through numerous means evangelical leaders encouraged ministries of verbal solace to those who suffered in order to comfort them and strengthen their faith. Rittgers also raises some larger questions, for example, about power and control in the implementation of the Reformation. The finding that theologians were much more concerned about consolation than social discipline challenges the prevailing interpretation of confessionalization in Reformation history. This is an important finding and one that calls for more research along these lines.

Rittgersbook While Rittgers focuses primarily on the theological and practical shifts that originated in Wittenberg, he begins with a thorough, three-chapter introduction to suffering in the Western Christian tradition. This careful prelude builds the case that there were many continuities between late medieval and Reformation initiatives, in addition to some important differences. The first of these three chapters describes the pastoral care that clergy were to provide to parishioners, especially to those in distress. The Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 attempted to mold priests into prudent and discerning doctors of souls. Many new pastoral manuals were produced in an effort to assist priests in carrying out this mission. These manuals instructed clergy to help believers embrace suffering by viewing it as an opportunity to make satisfaction for their sins and to become more like Christ and the saints.

Chapters 2 and 3 both delve further into late medieval conventions by examining forms of literature and piety beyond clerical instruction. First Rittgers surveys the long tradition of consolation literature, which extends back to ancient sources both pagan and Christian. These texts attempted to make sense of human suffering and provide encouragement to those in the midst of it. A common theme in Christian versions of these writings was the idea that suffering was an instrument of God’s discipline, used to prepare God’s chosen people for entrance into heaven because it made satisfaction for sin and fostered virtue. Chapter 3 mines the literature of late medieval mystics to show the unique perspectives these thinkers brought to the matter of suffering. For the mystics, suffering not only atoned for sin and fostered virtue, but also enabled spiritual union with God. Suffering, then, became “the most noble thing on earth, the pinnacle of Christian discipleship, and the most reliable—indeed, the only—path to union with God” (64). This mystical emphasis converged with the immense popularity of passion piety to reinforce the idea that Christ’s suffering sanctifies the human experience of suffering.

Chapters 4 and beyond elucidate how German reformers both appropriated and attempted to reform the theology and practice of suffering that they inherited. Rittgers devotes two chapters to Luther’s dealings with the subject, emphasizing that Luther kept suffering central to Christian life yet changed its meaning and role. Luther rejected the late medieval belief that human suffering made satisfaction for sin, arguing that no human work could earn religious merit. Yet Luther did regard suffering as a necessary and beneficial experience for faith, in large part because it stripped believers of confidence in their own works and forced them to exercise trust in God. Luther’s theology of the cross went further than previous theologies by claiming that, on the cross, Christ was abandoned by God and suffered the full depths of the human condition. Yet because the cross is offensive to human reason, only faith can grasp the hidden goodness in this act and in humanity’s continued suffering.

Beginning in chapter 6, Rittgers looks beyond Luther to evangelical consolation literature written by various authors from 1521 to 1531. The theme of suffering was prominent in writings by Luther’s followers, who gave multiple ways in which suffering could work for good. Early evangelicals adopted some beliefs about the benefits of suffering from the late Middle Ages: suffering conformed one to Christ, increased longing for heaven, and gave testimony to one’s election. They also adopted Luther’s belief that suffering tested and strengthened faith. In addition, the influence of the theology of the cross is seen in repeated references to God’s hidden work and to Christ suffering with believers.

Chapter 7 explores how new beliefs about suffering were taken up in evangelical church ordinances. In contrast to late medieval pastoral manuals, the new church ordinances gave sustained attention to suffering. Most editions of these ordinances included instruction on pastoral ministry to the sick and dying, which directed pastors to visit the sick, to explain an evangelical view of suffering, and to offer the sacraments. Early evangelical authors thought that teaching an evangelical approach to suffering was an important step toward making Europe more genuinely Christian. This project posed a special challenge since evangelicals had removed many of the practices that Christians had used to cope with suffering, especially recourse to the protection of the saints. In place of praying to saints, evangelicals instructed believers to imitate saints’ lives, especially their suffering.

Chapters 8 and 9 chart the increased production of consolation literature by evangelicals in the mid- to late-sixteenth century, as well as the evolution of its emphases. Rittgers argues that these later works increasingly saw suffering as a divine punishment, although they did not assume this was true in every case, and they continued to offer multiple explanations for suffering. Later evangelical authors agreed that spiritual despair was the worst form of suffering and that one should prepare for spiritual battles by meditating on scripture. This idea incorporated a late medieval trope of the “spiritual knight,” which became more popular in the sixteenth century as evangelicals struggled to compensate for the loss of the saints as a devotional resource. Evangelicals also assigned functions to angels that had been performed by saints, especially protection and comfort. Finally, the later sixteenth century saw the increased use of mystics, who in the 1520s had been negatively associated with radical reformers. Evangelicals’ appeals to the mystics helped bolster their argument that their reforms were really a recovery of the best of historical Christianity. It also led to increased emphasis on believers’ union with Christ and Christ’s suffering with humanity.

The final chapter attempts to gauge the impact this wealth of literature had on lay Christians. Past research on Lutheran clergy has often emphasized the resistance and misunderstandings they encountered as they tried to implement reforms, but Rittgers argues that at least some lay Christians grasped this new theology of suffering and integrated it into their own outlook and practices. Private letters, family chronicles, diaries, private devotional works, and autobiographies contain numerous examples of lay people who emphatically eschewed late medieval ways of coping with suffering and instead fashioned creative ways to meet suffering with their newly-reformed faith. The most prevalent evidence of a new Lutheran disposition toward suffering is seen in cases where laypeople actively worked to console themselves and each other with the promises of the gospel. In one case, parishioners arranged a vigorous lay ministry of consolation for their pastor, who was grief-stricken, ill, and despondent. Rittgers acknowledges the challenges and limits of gauging the reception of this literature, but the examples he cites here are instructive.

The author presents his project as a contribution to the history of pastoral care, but in this case pastoral care must be understood in the broadest possible sense, encompassing theological foundations, institutional priorities, education, and preaching, in addition to personal conversations. This book fills a vast hole in the research with diverse examples of how sixteenth-century Protestants approached suffering. The numerous perspectives Rittgers engages in this volume make it a rich resource that offers a front-row seat to the vitality and complexity of early modern Christianity.


Anna Marie Johnson is assistant professor of Reformation church history at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois.

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