Vol. 7, Chapter II (Cont’d) – Luther and Staupitz


I. The mystic writings of Staupitz have been republished in part by Knaake in Johannis Staupitii Opera. Potsdam, 1867, vol. I. His “Nachfolge Christi” was first published in 1515; his book “Von der Liebe Gottes” (especially esteemed by Luther) in 1518, and passed through several editions; republ. by Liesching, Stuttgart, 1862. His last work “Von, dem heiligen rechten christlichen Glauben,” appeared after his death, 1525, and is directed against Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith without works. His twenty-four letters have been published by Kolde: Die Deutsche Augustiner Congregation und Johann von Staupitz. Gotha, 1879, p. 435 sqq.

II. On Luther and Staupitz: Grimm: De Joh. Staupitio ejusque in sacr. instaur. meritis, in Illgen’s “Zeitschrift fuer Hist. Theol.,” 1837 (VII, 74-79). Ullmann: Die Reformatoren vor der Reformation, vol. II., 256-284 (very good, see there the older literature). Doellinger: Die Reformation, I., 153-155. Kahnis: Deutsche Reformat., I., 150 sqq. Albr. Ritschl: Die Lehre v. der Rechtfertigung und Versoehnung, 2d ed., I., 124-129 (on Staupitz’s theology). Mallet: in Herzog,2 XIV., 648-653. Paul Zeller: Staupitz. Seine relig. dogmat. Anschauungen und dogmengesch. Stellung, in the “Theol. Studien und Kritiken,” 1879. Ludwig Keller: Johann von Staupitz, und das Waldenserthum, in the “Historische Taschenbuch,” ed. by W. Maurenbrecher, Leipzig, 1885, p. 117-167; also his Johann von Staupitz und die Anfaenge der Reformation, Leipzig, 1888. Dr. Keller connects Staupitz with the Waldenses and Anabaptists, but without proof. Kolde: Joh. von Staup. ein Waldenser und Wiedertaeufer, in Brieger’s “Zeitschrift fuer Kirchengesch.” Gotha, 1885, p. 426-447. Dieckhoff: Die Theol. des Joh. v. Staup., Leipz., 1887.

Illustration, John von Staupitz

From the portrait in St. Peter’s Convent at Salzburg.

In this state of mental and moral agony, Luther was comforted by an old monk of the convent (the teacher of the novices) who reminded him of the article on the forgiveness of sins in the Apostles’ Creed, of Paul’s word that the sinner is justified by grace through faith, and of an incidental remark of St. Bernard (in a Sermon on the Canticles) to the same effect.

His best friend and wisest counsellor was Johann von Staupitz, Doctor of Divinity and Vicar-General of the Augustinian convents in Germany. Staupitz was a Saxon nobleman, of fine mind, generous heart, considerable biblical and scholastic learning, and deep piety, highly esteemed wherever known, and used in important missions by the Elector Frederick of Saxony. He belonged to the school of practical mysticism or Catholic pietism, which is best represented by Tauler and Thomas a Kempis. He cared more for the inner spiritual life than outward forms and observances, and trusted in the merits of Christ rather than in good works of his own, as the solid ground of comfort and peace. The love of God and the imitation of Christ were the ruling ideas of his theology and piety. In his most popular book, On the Love of God, he describes that love as the inmost being of God, which makes everything lovely, and should make us love Him above all things; but this love man cannot learn from man, nor from the law which only brings us to a knowledge of sin, nor from the letter of the Scripture which kills, but from the Holy Spirit who reveals God’s love in Christ to our hearts and fills it with the holy flame of gratitude and consecration. “The law,” he says in substance, “makes known the disease, but cannot heal. But the spirit is hid beneath the letter; the old law is pregnant with Christ who gives us grace to love God above all things. To those who find the spirit and are led to Christ by the law, the Scriptures become a source of edification and comfort. The Jews saw and heard and handled Christ, but they had him not in their heart, and therefore they were doubly guilty. And so are those who carry Christ only on their lips. The chief thing is to have him in our heart. The knowledge of the Christian faith and the love to God are gifts of pure grace beyond our art and ability, and beyond our works and merits.”

Staupitz was Luther’s spiritual father, and “first caused the light of the gospel to shine in the darkness of his heart.” He directed him from his sins to the merits of Christ, from the law to the cross, from works to faith, from scholasticism to the study of the Scriptures, of St. Augustin, and Tauler. He taught him that true repentance consists not in self-imposed penances and punishments, but in a change of heart and must proceed from the contemplation of Christ’s sacrifice, in which the secret of God’s eternal will was revealed. He also prophetically assured him that God would overrule these trials and temptations for his future usefulness in the church.

He encouraged Luther to enter the priesthood (1507), and brought him to Wittenberg; he induced him to take the degree of Doctor of Divinity, and to preach. He stirred him up against popery, and protected him in the transactions with Cardinal Cajetan. He was greeted by Scheurl in 1518 as the one who would lead the people of Israel out of captivity.

But when Luther broke with Rome, and Rome with Luther, the friendship cooled down. Staupitz held fast to the unity of the Catholic Church and was intimidated and repelled by the excesses of the Reformation. In a letter of April 1, 1524, he begs Luther’s pardon for his long silence and significantly says in conclusion: “May Christ help us to live according to his gospel which now resounds in our ears and which many carry on their lips; for I see that countless persons abuse the gospel for the freedom of the flesh. Having been the precursor of the holy evangelical doctrine, I trust that my entreaties may have some effect upon thee.” The sermons which he preached at Salzburg since 1522 breathe the same spirit and urge Catholic orthodoxy and obedience. His last book, published after his death (1525) under the title, “Of the holy true Christian Faith,” is a virtual protest against Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone and a plea for a practical Christianity which shows itself in good works. He contrasts the two doctrines in these words: “The fools say, he who believes in Christ., needs no works; the Truth says, whosoever will be my disciple, let him follow Me; and whosoever will follow Me, let him deny himself and carry my cross day by day; and whosoever loves Me, keeps my commandments …. The evil spirit suggests to carnal Christians the doctrine that man is justified without works, and appeals to Paul. But Paul only excluded works of the law which proceed from fear and selfishness, while in all his epistles he commends as necessary to salvation such works as are done in obedience to God’s commandments, in faith and love. Christ fulfilled the taw, the fools would abolish the law; Paul praises the law as holy and good, the fools scold and abuse it as evil because they walk according to the flesh and have not the mind of the Spirit.”

Staupitz withdrew from the conflict, resigned his position, 1520, left his order by papal dispensation, became abbot of the Benedictine Convent of St. Peter in Salzburg and died Dec. 28, 1524) in the bosom of the Catholic church which he never intended to leave. He was evangelical, without being a Protestant. He cared little for Romanism, less for Lutheranism, all for practical Christianity. His relation to the Reformation resembles that of Erasmus with this difference, that he helped to prepare the way for it in the sphere of discipline and piety, Erasmus in the sphere of scholarship and illumination. Both were men of mediation and transition; they beheld from afar the land of promise, but did not enter it.


23. The Victory of Justifying Faith

(Comp. § 7.)

The secret of Luther’s power and influence lies in his heroic faith. It delivered him from the chaos and torment of ascetic self-mortification and self-condemnation, gave him rest and peace, and made him a lordly freeman in Christ, and yet an obedient servant of Christ. This faith breathes through all his writings, dominated his acts, sustained him in his conflicts and remained his shield and anchor till the hour of death. This faith was born in the convent at Erfurt, called into public action at Wittenberg, and made him a Reformer of the Church.

By the aid of Staupitz and the old monk, but especially by the continued study of Paul’s Epistles, be was gradually brought to the conviction that the sinner is justified by faith alone, without works of law. He experienced this truth in his heart long before he understood it in all its bearings. He found in it that peace of conscience which he had sought in vain by his monkish exercises. He pondered day and night over the meaning of “the righteousness of God” (Rom_1:17), and thought that it is the righteous punishment of sinners; but toward the close of his convent life he came to the conclusion that it is the righteousness which God freely gives in Christ to those who believe in him. Righteousness is not to be acquired by man through his own exertions and merits; it is complete and perfect in Christ, and all the sinner has to do is to accept it from Him as a free gift. Justification is that judicial act of God whereby he acquits the sinner of guilt and clothes him with the righteousness of Christ on the sole condition of personal faith which apprehends and appropriates Christ and shows its life and power by good works, as a good tree bringing forth good fruits. For faith in Luther’s system is far more than a mere assent of the mind to the authority of the church: it is a hearty trust and full surrender of the whole man to Christ; it lives and moves in Christ as its element, and is constantly obeying his will and following his example. It is only in connection with this deeper conception of faith that his doctrine of justification can be appreciated. Disconnected from it, it is a pernicious error.

The Pauline doctrine of justification as set forth in the Epistles to the Romans and Galatians, had never before been clearly and fully understood, not even by Augustin and Bernard, who confound justification with sanctification. Herein lies the difference between the Catholic and the Protestant conception. In the Catholic system justification (δικαίωσις) is a gradual process conditioned by faith and good works; in the Protestant system it is a single act of God, followed by sanctification. It is based upon the merits of Christ, conditioned by faith, and manifested by good works.

This experience acted like a new revelation on Luther. It shed light upon the whole Bible and made it to him a book of life and comfort. He felt relieved of the terrible load of guilt by an act of free grace. He was led out of the dark prison house of self-inflicted penance into the daylight and fresh air of God’s redeeming love. Justification broke the fetters of legalistic slavery, and filled him with the joy and peace of the state of adoption; it opened to him the very gates of heaven.

Henceforth the doctrine of justification by faith alone was for him to the end of life the sum and substance of the gospel, the heart of theology, the central truth of Christianity, the article of the standing or falling church. By this standard he measured every other doctrine and the value of every book of the Bible. Hence his enthusiasm for Paul, and his dislike of James, whom he could not reconcile with his favorite apostle. He gave disproportion to solifidianism and presented it sometimes in most unguarded language, which seemed to justify antinomian conclusions; but he corrected himself, he expressly condemned antinomianism, and insisted on good works and a holy life as a necessary manifestation of faith. And it must not be forgotten that the same charge of favoring antinomianism was made against Paul, who rejects it with pious horror: “Let it never be!”

Thus the monastic and ascetic life of Luther was a preparatory school for his evangelical faith. It served the office of the Mosaic law which, by bringing the knowledge of sin and guilt, leads as a tutor to Christ (Rom_3:20; Gal_3:24). The law convicted, condemned, and killed him; the gospel comforted, justified, and made him alive. The law enslaved him, the gospel set him free. He had trembled like a slave; now he rejoiced as a son in his father’s house. Through the discipline of the law he died to the law, that he might live unto God (Gal_2:19).

In one word, Luther passed through the experience of Paul. He understood him better than any mediaeval schoolman or ancient father. His commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians is still one of the best, for its sympathetic grasp of the contrast between law and gospel, between spiritual slavery and spiritual freedom.

Luther held this conviction without dreaming that it conflicted with the traditional creed and piety of the church. He was brought to it step by step. The old views and practices ran along side with it, and for several years he continued to be a sincere and devout Catholic. It was only the war with Tetzel and its consequences that forced him into the position of a Reformer and emancipated him from his old connections.


24. Luther Ordained to the Priesthood

In the second year of his monastic life and when he was still in a state of perplexity, Luther was ordained to the priesthood, and on May 2, 1507, he said his first mass. This was a great event in the life of a priest. He was so overwhelmed by the solemnity of offering the tremendous sacrifice for the living and the dead that he nearly fainted at the altar.

His father had come with several friends to witness the solemnity and brought him a present of twenty guilders. He was not yet satisfied with the monastic vows. “Have you not read in Holy Writ,” he said to the brethren at the entertainment given to the young priest, “that a man must honor father and mother?” And when he was reminded, that his son was called to the convent by a voice from heaven, he answered: “Would to God, it were no spirit of the devil.” He was not fully reconciled to his son till after he had acquired fame and entered the married state.

Luther performed the duties of the new dignity with conscientious fidelity. He read mass every morning, and invoked during the week twenty-one particular saints whom he had chosen as his helpers, three on each day.

But he was soon to be called to a larger field of influence.


25. Luther in Rome

“Roma qua nihil possis visere majus.” — (Horace.)

“Vivere qui sancte vultis, discedite Roma.

Omnia hic ecce licent, non licet esse probum.”

“Wer christlich leben will und Rein,

Der zieh am Rom und bleib daheim.

Hie mag man thun was man nur will,

Allein fromm sein gilt hier nicht viel.”

(Old poetry quoted by Luther, in Walch, XXII., 2372.)

“Prächtiger, als wir in unserum Norden,

Wohnt der Bettler an der Engelspforten,

Denn er sieht das ewig einz’ge Rom:

Ihn umgibt der Schönheit Glanzgewimmel,

Und ein zweiter Himmel in den Himmel

Steigt Sancte Peter’s wundersamer Dom.

Aber Rom in allem seinem Glanze

Ist ein Grab nur der Vergangenheit,

Leben duftet nur die frische Pflanze,

Die die grüne Stunde streut.” — (Schiller.)

An interesting episode in the history of Luther’s training for the Reformation was his visit to Rome. It made a deep impression on his mind, and became effective, not immediately, but several years afterward through the recollection of what he had seen and heard, as a good Catholic, in the metropolis of Christendom.

In the autumn of the year 1510, after his removal to Wittenberg, but before his graduation as doctor of divinity, Luther was sent to Rome in the interest of his order and at the suggestion of Staupitz, who wished to bring about a disciplinary reform and closer union of the Augustinian convents in Germany, but met with factious opposition.

In company with another monk and a lay brother, as the custom was, he traveled on foot, from convent to convent, spent four weeks in Rome in the Augustinian convent of Maria del popolo, and returned to Wittenberg in the following spring. The whole journey must have occupied several months. It was the longest journey he ever made, and at the same time, his pilgrimage to the shrines of the holy apostles where he wished to make a general confession of all his sins and to secure the most efficient absolution.

We do not know whether he accomplished the object of his mission. He left no information about his route, whether he passed through Switzerland or through the Tyrol, nor about the sublime scenery of the Alps and the lovely scenery of Italy. The beauties of nature made little or no impression upon the Reformers, and were not properly appreciated before the close of the eighteenth century. Zwingli and Calvin lived on the banks of Swiss lakes and in view of the Swiss Alps, but never allude to them; they were absorbed in theology and religion.

In his later writings and Table-Talk, Luther left some interesting reminiscences of his journey. He spoke of the fine climate and fertility of Italy, the temperance of the Italians contrasted with the intemperate Germans, also of their shrewdness, craftiness, and of the pride with which they looked down upon the “stupid Germans” and “German beasts,” as semi-barbarians; he praised the hospitals and charitable institutions in Florence; but he was greatly disappointed with the state of religion in Rome, which he found just the reverse of what he had expected.

Rome was at that time filled with enthusiasm for the renaissance of classical literature and art, but indifferent to religion. Julius II., who sat in Peter’s chair from 1503 to 1513, bent his energies on the aggrandizement of the secular dominion of the papacy by means of an unscrupulous diplomacy and bloody wars, founded the Vatican Museum, and liberally encouraged the great architects and painters of his age in their immortal works of art. The building of the new church of St. Peter with its colossal cupola had begun under the direction of Bramante; the pencil of Michael Angelo was adorning the Sixtine chapel in the adjoining Vatican Palace with the pictures of the Prophets, Sibyls, and the last judgment; and the youthful genius of Raphael conceived his inimitable Madonna, with the Christ-child in her arms, and was transforming the chambers of the Vatican into galleries of undying beauty. These were the wonders of the new Italian art; but they had as little interest for the German monk as the temples and statues of classical Athens had for the Apostle Paul.

When Luther came in sight of the eternal city he fell upon the earth, raised his hands and exclaimed, “Hail to thee, holy, Rome! Thrice holy for the blood of martyrs shed here.” He passed the colossal ruins of heathen Rome and the gorgeous palaces of Christian Rome. But he ran, “like a crazy saint,” through all the churches and crypts and catacombs with an unquestioning faith in the legendary traditions about the relics and miracles of martyrs. He wished that his parents were dead that he might help them out of purgatory by reading mass in the most holy place, according to the saying: “Blessed is the mother whose son celebrates mass on Saturday in St. John of the Lateran.” He ascended on bended knees the twenty-eight steps of the famous Scala Santa (said to have been transported from the Judgment Hall of Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem), that he might secure the indulgence attached to this ascetic performance since the days of Pope Leo IV. in 850, but at every step the word of the Scripture sounded as a significant protest in his ear: “The just shall live by faith” (Rom_1:17).

Thus at the very height of his mediaeval devotion he doubted its efficacy in giving peace to the troubled conscience. This doubt was strengthened by what he saw around him. He was favorably struck, indeed, with the business administration and police regulations of the papal court, but shocked by the unbelief, levity and immorality of the clergy. Money and luxurious living seemed to have replaced apostolic poverty and self-denial. He saw nothing but worldly splendor at the court of Pope Julius II., who had just returned from the sanguinary siege of a town conducted by him in person. He afterward thundered against him as a man of blood. He heard of the fearful crimes of Pope Alexander VI. and his family, which were hardly known and believed in Germany, but freely spoken of as undoubted facts in the fresh remembrance of all Romans. While he was reading one mass, a Roman priest would finish seven. He was urged to hurry up (passa, passa!), and to “send her Son home to our Lady.” He heard priests, when consecrating the elements, repeat in Latin the words: “Bread thou art, and bread thou shalt remain; wine thou art, and wine thou shalt remain.” The term “a good Christian” (buon Christiano) meant “a fool.” He was told that “if there was a hell, Rome was built on it,” and that this state of things must soon end in a collapse.

He received the impression that “Rome, once the holiest city, was now the worst.” He compared it to Jerusalem as described by the prophets. All these sad experiences did not shake his faith in the Roman church and hierarchy, so unworthily represented, as the Jewish hierarchy was at the time of Christ; but they returned to his mind afterward with double force and gave ease and comfort to his conscience when he attacked and abused popery as “an institution of the devil.”

Hence he often declared that he would not have missed “seeing Rome for a hundred thousand florins; for I might have felt some apprehension that I had done injustice to the Pope; but as we see, so we speak.”

Six years after his visit the building of St. Peter’s Dome by means of the proceeds from papal indulgences furnished the occasion for the outbreak of that war which ended with an irrevocable separation from Rome.

In the Pitti Gallery of Florence there is a famous picture of Giorgione which represents an unknown monk with strongly Teutonic features and brilliant eyes, seated between two Italians, playing on a small organ and looking dreamily to one side. This central figure has recently been identified by some connoisseurs as a portrait of Luther taken at Florence a few months before the death of Giorgione in 1511. The identity is open to doubt, but the resemblance is striking.


26. The University of Wittenberg

Grohmann: Annalen der Universitaet zu Wittenberg, 1802, 2 vols. Muther: Die Wittenberger Universitaets und Facultatsstudien v. Jahr 1508. Halle, 1867. K. Schmidt: Wittenberg unter Kurfuerst Friedrich dem Weisen. Erlangen, 1877. Juergens: II, 151 sqq. and 182 sqq. (very thorough). Koestlin, I., 90 sqq. Kolde: Friedrich der Weise und die Anfaenge der Reformation, Erlangen, 1881; and his Leben Luther’s, 1884, I., 67 sqq.

Illustration, Wittenberg

From an old engraving.

In the year 1502 Frederick III., surnamed the Wise, Elector of Saxony (b. 1463, d. 1525), distinguished among the princes of the sixteenth century for his intelligence, wisdom, piety, and in cautious protection of the Reformation, founded from his limited means a new University at Wittenberg, under the patronage of the Virgin Mary and St. Augustin. The theological faculty was dedicated to the Apostle Paul, and on the anniversary of his conversion at Damascus a mass was to be celebrated and a sermon preached in the presence of the rector and the senate.

Frederick was a devout Catholic, a zealous collector of relics, a believer in papal indulgences, a pilgrim to the holy land; but at the same time a friend of liberal learning, a protector of the person of Luther and of the new theology of the University of Wittenberg, which he called his daughter, and which be favored to the extent of his power. Shortly before his death he signified the acceptance of the evangelical faith by taking the communion in both kinds from Spalatin, his chaplain, counsellor and biographer, and mediator between him and Luther. He was unmarried and left no legitimate heir. His brother, John the Constant (1525-1532), and his nephew, John Frederick the Magnanimous (1532-1547), both firm Protestants, succeeded him; but the latter was deprived of the electoral dignity and part of his possessions by his victorious cousin Moritz, Duke of Saxony, after the battle of Muehlberg (1547). The successors of Moritz were the chief defenders of Lutheranism in Germany till Augustus I. (1694-1733) sold the faith of his ancestors for the royal crown of Poland and became a Roman Catholic.

Wittenberg was a poor and badly built town of about three thousand inhabitants in a dull, sandy, sterile plain on the banks of the Elbe, and owes its fame entirely to the fact that it became the nursery of the Reformation theology. Luther says that it lay at the extreme boundary of civilization, a few steps from barbarism, and speaks of its citizens as wanting in culture, courtesy and kindness. He felt at times strongly tempted to leave it. Melanchthon who came from the fertile Palatinate, complained that he could get nothing fit to eat at Wittenberg. Myconius, Luther’s friend, describes the houses as “small, old, ugly, low, wooden.” Even the electoral castle is a very unsightly structure. The Elector laughed when Dr. Pollich first proposed the town as the seat of the new university. But Wittenberg was one of his two residences (the other being Torgau), had a new castle-church with considerable endowments and provision for ten thousand masses per annum and an Augustinian convent which could furnish a part of the teaching force, and thus cheapen the expenses of the institution.

The university was opened October 18, 1502. The organization was intrusted to Dr. Pollich, the first rector, who on account of his extensive learning was called “lux mundi,” and who had accompanied the Elector on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem (1493), and to Staupitz, the first Dean of the theological faculty, who fixed his eye at once upon his friend Luther as a suitable professor of theology.

Wittenberg had powerful rivals in the neighboring, older and better endowed Universities of Erfurt and Leipzig, but soon overshadowed them by the new theology. The principal professors were members of the Augustinian order, most of them from Tübingen and Erfurt. The number of students was four hundred and sixteen in the first semester, then declined to fifty-five in 1505, partly in consequence of the pestilence, began to rise again in 1507, and when Luther and Melanchthon stood on the summit of their fame, they attracted thousands of pupils from all countries of Europe. Melanchthon heard at times eleven languages spoken at his hospitable table.


27. Luther as Professor till 1517

Illustration, The “Luther-House”

(previously the Augustinian Convent), before its recent restoration. It contains the Luther-Museum.

Luther was suddenly called by Staupitz from the Augustinian Convent of Erfurt to that of Wittenberg with the expectation of becoming at the same time a lecturer in the university. He arrived there in October, 1508, was called back to Erfurt in autumn, 1509, was sent to Rome in behalf of his order, 1510, returned to Wittenberg, 1511, and continued there till a few days before his death, 1546.

He lived in the convent, even after his marriage. His plain study, bed-room and lecture-hall are still shown in the “Lutherhaus.” The lowliness of his work-shop forms a sublime contrast to the grandeur of his work. From their humble dwellings Luther and Melanchthon exerted a mightier influence than the contemporary popes and kings from their gorgeous palaces.

Luther combined the threefold office of sub-prior, preacher and professor. He preached both in his convent and in the town-church, sometimes daily for a week, sometimes thrice in one day, during Lent in 1517 twice everyday. He was supported by the convent. As professor he took no fees from the students and received only a salary of one hundred guilders, which after his marriage was raised by the Elector John to two hundred guilders.

He first lectured on scholastic philosophy and explained the Aristotelian dialectics and physics. But he soon passed through the three grades of bachelor, licentiate, and doctor of divinity (October 18th and 19th, 1512), and henceforth devoted himself exclusively to the sacred science which was much more congenial to his taste. Staupitz urged him into these academic dignities, and the Elector who had been favorably impressed with one of his sermons, offered to pay the expenses (fifty guilders) for the acquisition of the doctorate. Afterward in seasons of trouble Luther often took comfort from the title and office of his doctorate of divinity and his solemn oath to defend with all his might the Holy Scriptures against all errors. He justified the burning of the Pope’s Bull in the same way. But the oath of ordination and of the doctor of theology implied also obedience to the Roman church (ecclesiae Romanae obedientiam) and her defence against all heresies condemned by her.

With the year 1512 his academic teaching began in earnest and continued till 1546, at first in outward harmony with the Roman church, but afterward in open opposition to it.

He was well equipped for his position, according to the advantages of his age, but, very poorly, according to modern requirements, as far as technical knowledge is concerned. Although a doctor of divinity, he relied for several years almost exclusively on the Latin version of the Scriptures. Very few professors knew Greek, and still less, Hebrew. Luther had acquired a superficial idea of Hebrew at Erfurt from Reuchlin’s Rudimenta Hebraica. The Greek he learned at Wittenberg, we do not know exactly when, mostly from books and from his colleagues, Johann Lange and Melanchthon. As late as Feb. 18th, 1518, he asked Lange, “the Greek,” a question about the difference between ἀνάθημα and ἀνάθεμα, and confessed that he could not draw the Greek letters. His herculean labor in translating the Bible forced him into a closer familiarity with the original languages, though he never attained to mastery. As a scholar he remained inferior to Reuchlin or Erasmus or Melanchthon, but as a genius he was their superior, and as a master of his native German he had no equal in all Germany. Moreover, he turned his knowledge to the best advantage, and always seized the strong point in controversy. He studied with all his might and often neglected eating and sleeping.

Luther opened his theological teaching with David and Paul, who became the pillars of his theology. The Psalms and the Epistles to the Romans and Galatians remained his favorite books. His academic labors as a commentator extended over thirty-three years, from 1513 to 1546, his labors as a reformer embraced only twenty-nine years, from 1517 to 1546. Beginning with the Psalms, 1513, he ended with Genesis, November 17th, 1545, three months before his death.

His first lectures on the Psalms are still extant and have recently been published from the manuscript in Wolfenbüttel. They are exegetically worthless, but theologically important as his first attempt to extract a deeper spiritual meaning from the Psalms. He took Jerome’s Psalter as the textual basis; the few Hebrew etymologies are all derived from Jerome, Augustin (who knew no Hebrew), and Reuchlin’s Lexicon. He followed closely the mediaeval method of interpretation which distinguished four different senses, and neglected the grammatical and historical interpretation. Thus Jerusalem means literally or historically the city in Palestine, allegorically the good, tropologically virtue, anagogically reward; Babylon means literally the city or empire of Babylon, allegorically the evil, tropologically vice, anagogically punishment. Then again one word may have four bad and four good senses, according as it is understood literally or figuratively. Sometimes he distinguished six senses. He emphasized the prophetic character of the Psalms, and found Christ and his work everywhere. He had no sympathy with the method of Nicolaus Lyra to understand the Psalter from the times of the writer. Afterward he learned to appreciate him. He followed Augustin, the Glossa ordinaria, and especially the Quincuplex Psalterium of Faber Stapulensis (Paris, 1508 and 1513). He far surpassed himself in his later comments on the Psalms. It was only by degrees that he emancipated himself from the traditional exegesis, and approached the only sound and safe method of grammatico-historical interpretation of Scripture from the natural meaning of the words, the situation of the writer and the analogy of his teaching, viewed in the light of the Scriptures as a whole. He never gave up altogether the scholalistic and allegorizing method of utilizing exegesis for dogmatic and devotional purposes, but he assigned it a subordinate place. “Allegories,” he said, “may be used to teach the ignorant common people, who need to have the same thing impressed in various forms.” He measured the Scriptures by his favorite doctrine of justification by faith, and hence depreciated important books, especially the Epistle of James and the Apocalypse. But when his dogmatic conviction required it, he laid too much stress on the letter, as in the eucharistic controversy.

From the Psalms he proceeded to the Epistles of Paul. Here be had an opportunity to expound his ideas of sin and grace, the difference between the letter and the spirit, between the law and the gospel, and to answer the great practical question, how a sinner may be justified before a holy God and obtain pardon and peace. He first lectured on Romans and explained the difference between the righteousness of faith and the righteousness of works. He never published a work on Romans except a preface which contains a masterly description of faith. His lectures on Galatians he began October 27th, 1516, and resumed them repeatedly. They appeared first in Latin, September, 1519, and in a revised edition, 1523, with a preface of Melanchthon. They are the most popular and effective of his commentaries, and were often published in different languages. John Bunyan was greatly benefited by them. Their chief value is that they bring us into living contact with the central idea of the epistle, namely, evangelical freedom in Christ, which he reproduced and adapted in the very spirit of Paul. Luther always had a special preference for this anti-Judaic Epistle and called it his sweetheart or his wife.

These exegetical lectures made a deep impression. They were thoroughly evangelical, without being anti-catholic. They reached the heart and conscience as well as the head. They substituted a living theology clothed with flesh and blood for the skeleton theology of scholasticism. They were delivered with the energy of intense conviction and the freshness of personal experience. The genius of the lecturer flashed from his deep dark eyes which seem to have struck every observer. “This monk,” said Dr. Pollich, “will revolutionize the whole scholastic teaching.” Christopher Scheurl commended Luther to the friendship of Dr. Eck (his later opponent) in January, 1517, as “a divine who explained the epistles of the man of Tarsus with wonderful genius.” Melanchthon afterward expressed a general judgment when he said that Christ and the Apostles were brought out again as from the darkness and filth of prison.


28. Luther and Mysticism. The Theologia Germanica

In 1516 Luther read the sermons of Tauler, the mystic revival preacher of Strassburg (who died in 1361), and discovered the remarkable book called “German Theology,” which he ascribed to Tauler, but which is of a little later date from a priest and custos of the Deutsch-Herrn Haus of Frankfort, and a member of the association called “Friends of God.” It resembles the famous work of Thomas a Kempis in exhibiting Christian piety as an humble imitation of the life of Christ on earth, but goes beyond it, almost to the very verge of pantheism, by teaching in the strongest terms the annihilation of self-will and the absorption of the soul in God. Without being polemical, it represents by its intense inwardness a striking contrast to the then prevailing practice of religion as a mechanical and monotonous round of outward acts and observances.

Luther published a part of this book from an imperfect manuscript, December, 1516, and from a complete copy, in 1518, with a brief preface of his own. He praises it as rich and overprecious in divine wisdom, though poor and unadorned in words and human wisdom. He places it next to the Bible and St. Augustin in its teaching about God, Christ, man, and all things, and says in conclusion that “the German divines are doubtless the best divines.”

There are various types of mysticism, orthodox and heretical, speculative and practical. Luther came in contact with the practical and catholic type through Staupitz and the writings of St. Augustin, St. Bernard, and Tauler. It deepened and spiritualized his piety and left permanent traces on his theology. The Lutheran church, like the Catholic, always had room for mystic tendencies. But mysticism alone could not satisfy him, especially after the Reformation began in earnest. It was too passive and sentimental and shrunk from conflict. It was a theology of feeling rather than of action. Luther was a born fighter, and waxed stronger and stronger in battle. His theology is biblical, with such mystic elements as the Bible itself contains.


29. The Penitential Psalms. The Eve of the Reformation

The first original work which Luther published was a German exposition of the seven Penitential Psalms, 1517. It was a fit introduction to the reformatory Theses which enjoin the true evangelical repentance. In this exposition he sets forth the doctrines of sin and grace and the comfort of the gospel for the understanding of the common people. It shows him first in the light of a popular author, and had a wide circulation.

Luther was now approaching the prime of manhood. He was the shining light of the young university, and his fame began to spread through Germany. But he stood not alone. He had valuable friends and co-workers such as Dr. Wenzeslaus Link, the prior of the convent, and John Lange, who had a rare knowledge of Greek. Carlstadt also, his senior colleague, was at that time in full sympathy with him. Nicolaus von Amsdorf, of the same age with Luther, was one of his most faithful adherents, but more influential in the pulpit than in the chair. Christoph Scheurl, Professor of jurisprudence, was likewise intimate with Luther. Nor must we forget Georg Spalatin, who did not belong to the university, but had great influence upon it as chaplain and secretary of the Elector Frederick, and acted as friendly mediator between him and Luther. The most effective aid the Reformer received, in 1518, in the person of Melanchthon.

The working forces of the Reformation were thus fully prepared and ready for action. The scholastic philosophy and theology were undermined, and a biblical, evangelical theology ruled in Wittenberg. It was a significant coincidence, that the first edition of the Greek Testament was published by Erasmus in 1516, just a year before the Reformation.

Luther had as yet no idea of reforming the Catholic church, and still less of separating from it. All the roots of his life and piety were in the historic church, and he considered himself a good Catholic even in 1517, and was so in fact. He still devoutly prayed to the Virgin Mary from the pulpit; he did not doubt the intercession of saints in heaven for the sinners on earth; he celebrated mass with full belief in the repetition of the sacrifice on the cross and the miracle of transubstantiation; he regarded the Hussites as “sinful heretics” for breaking away from the unity of the church and the papacy which offered a bulwark against sectarian division.

But by the leading of Providence he became innocently and reluctantly a Reformer. A series of events carried him irresistibly from step to step, and forced him far beyond his original intentions. Had he foreseen the separation, he would have shrunk from it in horror. He was as much the child of his age as its father, and the times molded him before he molded the times. This is the case with all men of Providence: they are led by a divine hand while they are leading their fellow-men.



The works of Luther written before the 95 Theses (reprinted in the Weimar ed., I. 1-238, III., IV.) are as follows: Commentary on the Psalms; a number of sermons; Tractatus de his, qui ad ecclesias confugiunt (an investigation of the right of asylum; first printed 1517, anonymously, then under Luther’s name, 1520, at Landshut; but of doubtful genuineness); Sermo praescriptus praeposito in Litzka, 1512 (a Latin sermon prepared for his friend, the Provost Georg Mascov of Leitzkau in Brandenburg); several Latin Sermons from 1514-1517; Quaestio de viribus et voluntate hominis sine gratia disputata, 1516; Preface to his first edition of “German Theology,” 1516; The seven Penitential Psalms, 1517; Disputatio contra scholasticam theologiam, 1517. The last are 97 theses against the philosophy of Aristotle, of whom he said, that he would hold him to be a devil if he had not had flesh. These theses were published in September, 1517, and were followed in October by the 95 Theses against the traffic in Indulgences.

The earliest letters of Luther, from April 22, 1507, to Oct. 31, 1517, are addressed to Braun (vicar at Eisenach), Spalatin (chaplain of the Elector Frederick), Lohr (prior of the Augustinian Convent at Erfurt), John Lange, Scheurl, and others. They are printed in Latin in Loescher’s Reformations-Acta, vol. I. 795-846; in De Wette’s edition of Luther’s Briefe, I. 1-64; German translation in Walch, vol. XXI. The last of these ante-Reformation letters is directed to Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz, and dated from the day of the publication of the Theses, Oct. 31, 1517 (DeWette I. 67-70). The letters begin with the name of “Jesus.”