Zacharius Ursinus is not one of the most well-known people of the Reformation. Unfortunately, even some who read and hold to the Biblical truths taught in the Heidelberg Catechism do not know that he is one of its authors. This is partly due to the fact that Ursinus would rather have been left alone as a teacher and study theology in some hidden corner of the world. The other reason is that he is part of the second generation of the reformers. With the start of major movements in history, those who start the movement, or are at the beginning of the movement in history, are the most well-known. Ursinus is down the ladder in time from the beginning of the Reformation. He did not miss the beginning by much; yet he is far enough removed that he is not given much consideration. This is probably just the way he would have wanted it.
His Early Times
Ursinus was born on July 18, 1534, in Breslau of Silesia, a town in a province of Austria. When Ursinus was born, much had already happened in the Reformarion of the church. Ursinus’ birth followed the posting of the 95 theses by about seventeen years. The Ausburg Confession was already written (chiefly by one of his later instructors and friends, Philip Melanchthon), and King Henry VIII of England had declared his act of Supremacy which broke open the cracks between England, the Pope, and Roman Catholicism. When Ursinus was two years old, John Calvin would publish his first edition of The Institutes of the Christian Religion.
The Ursinus family lived within modest means. They were lower middle class in terms of the economics for the family. His father (Casper) was a tutor and, because of his work with their children, he came to know some of the prominent families of the city. This helped him secure a position as head of care for the poor in Breslau. He was also an assistant to Ambrosius Moiban, minister of St. Elisabeth Church in Breslau and one of the city’s reformers. It is reported that Ursinus’ mother died in 1542 when a plague struck Breslau and killed fifteen percent of the population. Ursinus’ grandmother, with whom he lived along with his sister and father, died in 1553 of another plague. In 1554, Ursinus became very sick and had to go to the mountains for recuperation.
The events of the early times of Ursinus’ life would have a lasting effect on him and his theology. First, his father was a tutor and, thus, educated. This allowed for Ursinus the beginnings of his education. Second, his father’s connections with the prominent families of Breslau allowed Ursinus to go to Wittenberg and study. The city council agreed to pay for his education with the understanding that he would come back and teach in their city. Third, death was a reality of everyday life. What is the one thing a person wants more than anything else when he faces death? Comfort. This may well be why the first question and answer to the Heidelberg Catechism is written the way it is when it states:
Question 1. What is your only comfort in life and death?
Answer: That I, with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Savior Jesus Christ; who, with his precious blood, has fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must be subservient to my salvation, and therefore, by his Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me heartily willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto him.1
Death was common in the sixteenth century for young and old alike. Knowing that nothing could separate one from the love of God through Jesus Christ was the best source of comfort a person could receive. The Roman Catholic Church had taught the people that they were outside of salvation if they were not part of her. But in this summary of God’s Word, comfort and none were to be found.
The fourth aspect of his early days related to death was his own sickness. Sickness and infirmity would seem to mark the rest of his life. Later in life, especially while teaching at Sapience College, Ursinus would use his health as a reason not to engage in theological debate or the polemics of the day.
Finally, Ursinus was under the teaching of Moiban, who had written a catechism. Moiban’s influence on Ursinus as a youngster was a source for Ursinus’ later development of the Heidelberg Catechism. Derk Visser, in his book Zacharius Ursinus: The Reluctant Reformer, writes,
Moiban’s catechism could easily be a source—even an important one—without being a literary source. In view of the oral method of rote learning-especially of catechetical instruction Ursinus may not have needed Moiban’s actual phraseology in front of him.2
After being taught by Moiban in Breslau, Ursinus was ready for further study; study that would take Ursinus out of his home town of Breslau and into the heart of the Reformation and Lutheranism. Ursinus went to Wittenberg at the age of sixteen. There he would study under Melanchthon. Melanchthon took notice and a lasting friendship was formed between the young student and the older Melanchthon.
Studying at Wittenberg was not a life of ease. Ursinus did not fit in well with the other students He saw them as rowdy and not serious students. In one of his letters, Ursinus wrote about his displeasure in the “morals and the way in which the people live among whom I must dwell.”3 While studying at Wittenberg, Ursinus had work to do on behalf of the Breslau City Council as a part of the agreement for paying for his education. He had to tutor Eleasar Schlaher, a son of a mine owner in Wittenberg with ties to the aristocracy of Breslau. While being optimistic of the tutoring opportunity, Ursinus found Eleasar to be of mediocre ability and more fond of entertainment than that of study. After three years of working with Eleasar and numerous letters to Johann Crato (the medical doctor to the city of Breslau and one of the men of Breslau who helped Ursinus receive payment for his schooling), Ursinus was able to convince Eleasar’s father that his son should study business.
Not only did Johann Crato help Ursinus get the funding he needed to attend the University at Wittenberg, he often wrote Ursinus asking him about theological issues of the day. This was the start of a friendship that would last the rest of their lives. Crato’s interest in theology began when he had studied under Martin Luther. Luther had recommended to Crato that he become a doctor. This was a very important change in Crato’s life, and also for the development of the Reformed Faith in Palatinate. Crato would later leave his position as Doctor of Breslau and become personal physician to emperors Ferdinand I and Maximilian II. In this position he would be part of the court, enabling him to influence the emperer when it came to theological positions.
The biggest impact of these seven years of the continuing education of Ursinus was not only that of studying under Melanchthon, but also being witness to the turmoil that went with theology at that time. Ursinus was a proficient student in many areas of study and took his studies very seriously. Ursinus lived with Melanchthon while studying and would learn much from his teacher. He would also deviate from Lutheranism on some points that would later be developed into the Reformed Faith.
Ursinus would also witness first hand the attacks of the Flacians against Melanchthon. They were attacks by Lutherans against Lutherans—those who were their brothers in the Lord. In the first generation of the Reformation there had been a time of quiet when Lutherans had to stick together against the Roman Catholics. When this was complete and the peace of Ausburg was set in place, the attacks against Melanchthon and his agreement with Calvin was at their highest.
In those days, no holds were barred in theological discussions. The polemics of the day were often personal. To knock down the character of a person was just as important as winning the theological point. Visser wrote, “Melanchthon felt the Flacians were less concerned with doctrine than with defeating Melanchthon, either to keep him in their camp or to have him isolated as a heretic.”4 These attacks shaped Ursinus to the point where he never wanted to be in the spotlight.
Visser believes that, “The real significance of Ursinus’ interest in these attacks on Melanchthon is the obvious fact that they exposed him to the variety of interpretations, to the nature of controversy, and to the methods of opponents.”5
After studying with Melanchthon for seven years, he went with him to a conference in Worms. Following the conference was a trip that would take Ursinus to the major centers of Reformation learning and the best of budding Reformed scholars. The trip took almost a year to complete. He went to Heidelberg, Strasburg, Basel, Lausanne, and Geneva. Ursinus received from Calvin a set of his signed works as a gift. He later passed through Lyons and Orleans. He stopped in Paris where he studied French and Hebrew. The last stop on his journey was to Zurich, Switzerland, where he became friends with such great Reformed theologians as Bullinger and Peter Martyr.
Back to Breslau: the Turning Point
In the fall of 1558, Breslau called for Ursinus to fulfill his duty to the city. After over seven years of training, it was time for him to go to work for his benefactors. The debates in Breslau about Lutheranism and the new Reformed teachings, however, were hot. It was back in his hometown where a turning point began into which path of theology Ursinus was going to travel.
Would he follow his growing convictions as taught by his teacher Melanchthon and reaffirmed in his recent travels, or would he fall to the pressures of those in Breslau and others out of a sense of duty to a city that had paid for his education? Which would he stand for avoidance of confrontation (which he hated), or conscience and his belief in what the Bible taught? Ursinus began teaching at the St. Elisabeth School—the same school where he was taught in his younger years. The student had returned as the teacher. He started by teaching Melanchthon’s catechism in short, concise statements-these were Ursinus’ Theses of 1558.
The Gnesio-Lutherans within the city soon began to gossip about Ursinus and his teachings, believing him to be sympathetic to Melanchthon’s teachings. Ursinus stopped partaking of the Lord’s Supper in the church as well. Visser states,
One can safely assume it was the ceremonies of mass that stirred Ursinus’ conscience and that made him examine the Scriptures and Fathers and finally decide to abstain from communion. Then to avoid being drawn into the controversies, he asked for a leave of absence to continue his studies.6
The leave of absence was granted. With some money provided by Crato, he left Breslau in April, 1560. Ursinus wrote his uncle: “I am well content to leave my country when it will not tolerate the confession of truth which I cannot in good conscience give up. If my excellent teacher Philip were still alive, I would go to him. But since he is dead, my mind is made up to turn to the Zurichers, who are in no great credit here, but whose fame stands so high with other churches that it cannot be obscured by our preachers. They are pious, learned, great men in whose company I am inclined henceforth to spend my life. As regards the rest, God will provide.”7
Ursinus visited the Swiss reformers rather than another German city. He would have been content to stay with them and study with them. The theological path seems to be settled, but his destination was unsettled. The last line of his letter to his uncle seems to be prophetic, “As regards the rest, God will provide.”
The Call to Heidelberg
Ursinus arrived in Zurich in October of 1569. Ursinus’ time in Zurich was short (about a year), but he made the most of his time there by studying under Peter Martyr and reading extensively. It appears that Martyr continued the refinement of Ursinus’ theology that began under the direction of Melanchthon.
During this time, conditions were volatile in the Palatinate. Frederick III wanted to continue to reform the churches of his region. His predecessor, OttoHenry, was unable to accomplish reformation because of political pressures; but the peace of Augsburg had become firmly established. Was it possible for another set of beliefs be put into play? The peace of Augsburg only recognized Lutheran and Catholic beliefs, but what of those who wanted to become something else?
Frederick III was filling the pulpits and positions with those of the Reformed persuasion. He did this by looking outside the Palatinate, bringing in international preachers and teachers. Frederick’s intention was to show that the change that was taking place within the Palatinate was not just a schismatic group within Germany, but that it stretched beyond the borders of Germany. It also gave some political cover for the movement because the Lutheran princes of Germany would not want to deal with all the different countries, regions, and cities that the preachers and teachers represented.
Fredrick III also wanted some of the best theologians of the day. He first called Peter Martyr back to the Palatinate. Martyr was raised in the Palatinate and also had given advice to Frederick’s predecessor, Otto-Henry. Martyr thought of himself too old to start a new work and recommended the twenty-seven year-old Ursinus to take up the cause and work in Heidelberg.
Ursinus received the call to go to Heidelberg. This would mean that he would have to go back to Germany-the place he had just left so he would not be part of a controversy. He realized the theological ground he stood upon would be attacked from all sides. The attacks in those days that were often hurled at him were two-fold: ad hominem—trying to bring down the person, or they would try to associate the person with an extreme segment of the movement—guilt by association, even if that association was ever so small. These were the attacks his beloved teacher, Melanchthon, went through, and if he went to Heidelberg, this is what he would have to face—not from within Heidelberg itself, but by Lutherans in other German regions.
Ursinus was well aware of this as he wrote, “Oh that I could remain hidden in a comer. I would give anything for shelter in some quiet village.” Knowing he would receive critique and questioning of his work made Ursinus search the Scriptures all the more diligently for the best answer. He was a Berean (Acts 17:11). The polemics of the time did not suit him.
Knowing all this, he still accepted the call of Fredrick the Pious to go to Heidelberg.
1. Ecumenical and Reformed Creeds and Confessions, Classroom Edition, (1991). Dyer, Mid-America Reformed Seminary, p. 37.
2. Zacharius Ursanis: The Reluctant Reformer, (1983). Derk Visser. New York, United Church Press, p. 35.
3. Ibid, pp. 54–55.
4. Ibid, p. 55.
5. Ibid, p. 56.
6. Ibid, p. 91.
7. Three Men Come to Heidelberg, (1963). Thea B. Van Halsema. Grand Rapids, Christian Reformed Publishing House, p. 15.
8. Portraits of Faithful Saints, (1999). Herman Hanko. Grandville, Reformed Free Publishing Association, p. 204.
Mr. Dave Vander Meer is the Administrator of Reformed Heritage Christian School in Kalamazoo, Michigan.