An den christlichen Adel deutscher Nation: von des christlichen Standes Besserung. In Walch’s ed., X. 296 sqq.; Erl. ed., XXI. 274-360; Weimar ed., VI. 404. Koestlin (in his shorter biography of Luther, p. 197 New York ed.) gives a facsimile of the title-page of the second edition. Dr. Karl Benrath of Bonn published a separate ed., with introduction and notes, as No. 4 of the “Schriften des Vereins fuer Reformationsgeschichte.” Halle, 1886 (114 pages).
“The time for silence is gone, and the time for speaking has come.” With these words (based on Ecc_3:7) of the dedicatory preface to Amsdorf, Luther introduces his address, “to his most Serene and Mighty Imperial Majesty, and to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, respecting a Reformation of the Christian Estate.” The preface is dated on the Eve of St. John the Baptist (June 23), 1520; the book was hastily completed July 20, and before Aug. 18 no less than four thousand copies — an enormous number for those days — were published, and a new edition called for, besides reprints which soon appeared in Leipzig and Strassburg.
The book is a most stirring appeal to the German nobles, who, through Hutten and Sickingen, had recently offered their armed assistance to Luther. He calls upon them to take the much-needed Reformation of the Church into their own hands; not, indeed, by force of arms, but by legal means, in the fear of God, and in reliance upon his strength. The bishops and clergy refused to do their duty; hence the laity must come to the front of the battle for the purity and liberty of the Church.
Luther exposes without mercy the tyranny of the Pope, whose government, he says, “agrees with the government of the apostles as well as Lucifer with Christ, hell with heaven, night with day; and yet he calls himself Christ’s Vicar, and the Successor of Peter.”
The book is divided into three parts: —
1. In the first part, Luther pulls down what he calls the three walls of Jericho, which the papacy had erected in self-defense against any reformation; namely, the exclusion of the laity from all control, the exclusive claim to interpret the Scriptures, and the exclusive claim to call a Council.
Under the first head, he brings out clearly and strongly, in opposition to priestcraft, the fundamental Protestant principle of the general priesthood of all baptized Christians. He attacks the distinction of two estates, one spiritual, consisting of Pope, bishops, priests, and monks; and one temporal, consisting of princes, lords, artificers, and peasants. There is only one body, under Christ the Head. All Christians belong to the spiritual estate. Baptism, gospel and faith, — these alone make spiritual and Christian people. We are consecrated priests by baptism; we are a royal priesthood, kings and priests before God (1Pe_2:9; Rev_5:10). The only difference, then, between clergy and laity, is one of office and function, not of estate.
Luther represents here the ministerial office as the creature of the congregation; while at a later period, warned by democratic excesses, and the unfitness of most of the congregations of that age for a popular form of government, he laid greater stress upon the importance of the ministry as an institution of Christ. This idea of the general priesthood necessarily led to the emancipation of the laity from priestly control, and their participation in the affairs of the Church, although this has been but very imperfectly carried out in Protestant state churches. It destroyed the distinction between higher (clerical and monastic), and lower morality; it gave sanctity to the natural relations, duties, and virtues; it elevated the family as equal in dignity to virginity; it promoted general intelligence, and sharpened the sense of individual responsibility to the Church. But to the same source may be traced also the undue interference of kings, princes, and magistrates in ecclesiastical matters, and that degrading dependence of many Protestant establishments upon the secular power. Kingcraft and priestcraft are two opposite extremes, equally opposed to the spirit of Christianity. Luther, and especially Melanchthon, bitterly complained, in their later years, of the abuse of the episcopal power assumed by the magistrate, and the avarice of princes in the misappropriation of ecclesiastical property.
The principle of the general priesthood of the laity found its political and civil counterpart in the American principle of the general kingship of men, as expressed in the Declaration of Independence, that “all men are born free and equal.”
2. In the second part, Luther chastises the worldly pomp of the Pope and the cardinals, their insatiable greed, and exactions under false pretenses.
3. In the third part, he deals with practical suggestions. He urges sweeping reforms in twenty-seven articles, to be effected either by the civil magistrate, or by a general council of ministers and laymen.
He recommends the abolition of the annates, of the worldly pomp and idolatrous homage paid to the Pope (as kissing his feet), and of his whole temporal power, so that he should be hereafter merely a spiritual ruler, with no power over the emperor except to anoint and crown him, as a bishop crowns a king, as Samuel crowned Saul and David.
He strongly demands the abrogation of enforced clerical celibacy, which destroys instead of promoting chastity, and is the cause of untold misery. Clergymen should be allowed to marry, or not to marry, according to their gift and sense of duty.
Masses for the dead should be abolished, since they have become a solemn mockery, and devices for getting money, thus exciting the anger of God.
Processions, saints’ days, and most of the public festivals, except Sunday, should be abrogated, since holy days have become most unholy by drinking, gambling, and idling.
Monasteries should be reduced in number, and converted into schools, with freedom to enter and to leave without binding vows.
Certain punishments of the Canon law should cease, especially the interdict which silences God’s word and service, — a greater sin than to kill twenty Popes at once.
Fasts should be voluntary and optional; for whilst at Rome they laugh at fasts, they let us abroad eat oil which they would not think fit for greasing their boots, and then sell us the liberty of eating butter and other things; whereas the apostle says that the gospel has given us liberty in all such matters (1Co_10:25 sq.).
He also would forbid all begging in Christendom; each town should support its own poor, and not allow strange beggars to come in, whether pilgrims or mendicant monks; it is not right that one should work that another may be idle, and live ill that another may live well, but “if any would not work, neither should he eat” (2Th_3:10).
He counsels a reduction of the clerical force, and the prohibition of pluralities. “As for the fraternities, together with indulgences, letters of indulgence, dispensations, masses, and all such things, let them all be drowned and abolished.”
He recommends (Art. 24) to do justice to, and make peace with, the Bohemians; for Hus and Jerome of Prague were unjustly burnt, in violation of the safe-conduct promised by the Pope and the Emperor. Heretics should be overcome with books, not with fire; else, the hangmen would be the most learned doctors in the world, and there would be no need of study.”
In Art. 25, Luther urges a sound reformation of the universities, which had become “schools of Greek fashion” and “heathenish manners” (2 Macc. 4:12, 13), and are, full of dissolute living.” He is unjustly severe upon Aristotle, whom he calls a “dead, blind, accursed, proud, knavish heathen teacher.” His logic, rhetoric, and poetic might be, retained; but his physics, metaphysics, ethics, and the book “Of the Soul” (which teaches that the soul dies with the body) ought to be banished, and the study of the languages, mathematics, history, and especially of the Holy Scriptures, cultivated instead. “Nothing is more devilishly mischievous,” he says, “than an unreformed university.” He would also have the Canon law banished, of which there is “nothing good but the name,” and which is no better than “waste paper.”
He does not spare national vices. He justly rebukes the extravagance in dress, the usury, and especially the intemperance in eating and drinking, for which, he says, “we Germans have an ill reputation in foreign countries, as our special vice, and which has become so common, and gained so much the upper hand, that sermons avail nothing.” (His frequent protest against the “Saufteufel” of the Germans, as he calls their love of drink, is still unheeded. In temperance the Southern nations of Europe are far ahead of those of the North.)
In conclusion, he expresses the expectation that he will be condemned upon earth. “My greatest care and fear is, lest my cause be not condemned by men; by which I should know for certain that it does not please God. Therefore let them freely go to work, Pope, bishop, priest, monk, or doctor: they are the true people to persecute the truth, as they have always done. May God grant us all a Christian understanding, and especially to the Christian nobility of the German nation true spiritual courage, to do what is best for our unhappy Church. Amen.”
The book was a firebrand thrown into the headquarters of the papal church. It anticipated a reply to the papal bull, and prepared the public mind for it. It went right to the heart of the Germans, in their own language wielded with a force as never before, and gave increased weight to the hundred grievances of long standing against Rome. But it alarmed some of his best friends. They condemned or regretted his biting severity. Staupitz tried at the eleventh hour to prevent the publication, and soon afterwards (Aug. 23, 1520) resigned his position as general vicar of the Angustinians, and retired to Salzburg, feeling himself unequal to the conflict. John Lange called the book a “blast for assault, atrocious and ferocious.” Some feared that it might lead to a religious war. Melanchthon could not approve the violence, but dared not to check the spirit of the new Elijah. Luther defended himself by referring to the example of Paul and the prophets: it was necessary to be severe in order to get a hearing; he felt sure that he was not moved by desire for glory or money or pleasure, and disclaimed the intention of stirring up sedition and war; he only wished to clear the way for a free general council; he was perhaps the forerunner of Master Philippus in fighting Ahab and the prophets of Baal after the example of Elijah (1Ki_18:1-46).
The following extracts give a fair idea of Luther’s polemic against the Pope in this remarkable book: —
“The custom of kissing the Pope’s feet must cease. It is an un-Christian, or rather an anti-Christian example, that a poor sinful man should suffer his feet to be kissed by one who is a hundred times better than he. If it is done in honor of his power, why does he not do it to others in honor of their holiness? Compare them together: Christ and the Pope. Christ washed his disciples’ feet, and dried them, and the disciples never washed his. The Pope, pretending to be higher than Christ, inverts this, and considers it a great favor to let us kiss his feet: whereas if any one wished to do so, he ought to do his utmost to prevent them, as St. Paul and Barnabas would not suffer themselves to be worshiped as gods by the men at Lystra, saying, ‘We also are men of like passions with you’ (Act_14:14 seq.). But our flatterers have brought things to such a pitch, that they have set up an idol for us, until no one regards God with such fear, or honors him with such reverence, as they do the Pope. This they can suffer, but not that the Pope’s glory should be diminished a single hairsbreadth. Now, if they were Christians, and preferred God’s honor to their own, the Pope would never be willing to have God’s honor despised, and his own exalted; nor would he allow any to honor him, until he found that God’s honor was again exalted above his own.
“It is of a piece with this revolting pride, that the Pope is not satisfied with riding on horseback or in a carriage, but, though he be hale and strong, is carried by men like an idol in unheard-of pomp. I ask you, how does this Lucifer-like pride agree with the example of Christ, who went on foot, as did also all his apostles? Where has there been a king who lived in such worldly pomp as he does, who professes to be the head of all whose duty it is to despise and flee from all worldly pomp — I mean, of all Christians? Not that this need concern us for his own sake, but that we have good reason to fear God’s wrath, if we flatter such pride, and do not show our discontent. It is enough that the Pope should be so mad and foolish, but it is too much that we should sanction and approve it.”
After enumerating all the abuses to which the Pope and his Canon law give sanction, and which he upholds with his usurped authority, Luther addresses him in this impassioned style: —
“Dost thou hear this, O Pope! not the most holy, but the most sinful? Would that God would hurl thy chair headlong from heaven, and cast it down into the abyss of hell! Who gave you the power to exalt yourself above God? to break and to loose what he has commanded? to teach Christians, more especially Germans, who are of noble nature, and are famed in all histories for uprightness and truth, to be false, unfaithful, perjured, treacherous, and wicked? God has commanded to keep faith and observe oaths even with enemies: you dare to cancel his command, laying it down in your heretical, antichristian decretals, that you have power to do so; and through your mouth and your pen Satan lies as he never lied before, teaching you to twist and pervert the Scriptures according to your own arbitrary will. O Lord Christ! look down upon this, let thy day of judgment come and destroy the Devil’s lair at Rome. Behold him of whom St. Paul spoke (2Th_2:3, 2Th_2:4), that he should exalt himself above thee, and sit in thy Church, showing himself as God — the man of sin and the child of damnation …. The Pope treads God’s commandments under foot, and exalts his own: if this is not Antichrist, I do not know what it is.”
Janssen (II. 100) calls Luther’s “Address to the German Nobility” “das eigentliche Kriegsmanifest der Lutherisch-Huttenschen Revolutionspartei,” and “ein Signal zum gewaltsamen Angriff.” But the book nowhere counsels war; and in the letter to Link he says expressly: “nec hoc a me agitur, ut seditionem moveam, sed ut concilio generali libertatem asseram” (De Wette, I. 479). Janssen quotes (p. 103) a very vehement passage from Luther’s contemporaneous postscript to a book of Prierias which he republished (De juridica et irrefragabili veritate Romanae Ecclesiae Romanique Pontificis), expressing a wish that the Emperor, kings, and princes would make a bloody end to Pope and cardinals and the whole rabble of the Romish Sodom. But this extreme and isolated passage is set aside by his repeated declarations against carnal warfare, and was provoked by the astounding assertions of Prierias, the master of the papal palace, that the Pope was the infallible judge of all controversies, the head of all spiritual, the father of all secular princes, the head of the Church and of the whole universe (caput totius orbis universi). Against such blasphemy Luther breaks out in these words: “Mihi vero videtur, si sic pergat furor Romanistarum, nullum reliquum esse remedium, quam ut imperator, reges et principes vi et armis accincti aggrediantur has pestes orbis terrarum, remque non jam verbis, sed ferro decernant …. Si fures furca, si latrones gladio, si haereticos igne plectimus, cur non magis hos magistros perditionis, hos cardinales, hos papas et totam istam romanae Sodomae colluviem, quae ecclesiam Dei sine fine corrumpit, omnibus armis impetimus, et manus nostras in sanguine eorum lavamus? tanquam a communi et omnium periculosissimo incendio nos nostrosque liberaturi.” Erl. ed., Opera Latina, II. 107. He means a national resistance under the guidance of the Emperor and rightful rulers.
45. The Babylonian Captivity of the Church. October, 1520
De Captivitate Babylonica Ecclesiae Praeludium D. Martini Lutheri. Wittenb. 1520. Erl. ed. Opera Lat., vol. V. 13-118; German translation (Von der Babylonischen Gefaengniss, etc.) by an unknown author, 1520, reprinted in Walch, XIX. 5-153, and in 0. v. Gerlach, IV. 65-199; the Lat. original again in the Weimar ed., vol. V. An English translation by Buchheim in First Principles of the Reformation (London, 1883), pp. 141-245.
In closing the “Address to the Nobility,” Luther announces: “I have another song still to sing concerning Rome. If they wish to hear it, I will sing it to them, and sing with all my might. Do you understand, my friend Rome, what I mean?”
This new song, or second war-trumpet, was the book on the, “Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” published in the beginning of October, 1520. He calls it a “prelude,” as if the real battle were yet to come. He intended it for scholars and the clergy, and therefore wrote in Latin. It is a polemical, theological work of far-reaching consequences, cutting one of the roots of Romanism, and looking towards a new type of Christian life and worship. He attacks the sacramental system of the Roman Church, by which she accompanies and controls the life of the Christian from the cradle to the grave, and brings every important act and event under the power of the priest. This system he represents as a captivity, and Rome as the modern Babylon. Yet he was very far from undervaluing the importance and benefit of the sacrament; and as far as the doctrine of baptism and the eucharist is concerned, he agreed better with the Catholic than with the Zwinglian view.
Luther begins by thanking his Romish opponents for promoting his theological education. “Two years ago,” he says, “I wrote about indulgences when I was still involved in superstitious respect for the tyranny of Rome; but now I have learned, by the kind aid of Prierias and the friars, that indulgences are nothing but wicked devices of the flatterers of Rome. Afterwards Eck and Emser instructed me concerning the primacy of the Pope. While I denied the divine right, I still admitted the human right; but after reading the super-subtle subtilties of those coxcombs in defense of their idol, I became convinced that the papacy is the kingdom of Babylon and the power of Nimrod the mighty hunter. Now a learned professor of Leipzig writes against me on the sacrament in both kinds, and is about to do still greater wonders. He says that it was neither commanded nor decreed, whether by Christ or the apostles, that both kinds should be administered to the laity.”
1. Luther first discusses the sacrament of the Holy Communion, and opposes three errors as a threefold bondage; namely, the withdrawal of the cup from the laity, the doctrine of transubstantiation, and the sacrifice of the mass.
(a) As regards the withdrawal of the cup, he refutes the flimsy arguments of Alveld, and proves from the accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Paul, that the whole sacrament was intended for the laity as well as the clergy, according to the command, “Drink ye all of this.” Each writer attaches the mark of universality to the cup, not to the bread, as if the Spirit foresaw the (Bohemian) schism. The blood of Christ was shed for all for the remission of sins. If the laymen have the thing, why should they be refused the sign which is much less than the thing itself? The Church has no more right to take away the cup from the laity than the bread. The Romanists are the heretics and schismatics in this case, and not the Bohemians and the Greeks who take their stand on the manifest teaching of the Word of God. “I conclude, then, that to deny reception in both kinds to the laity is an act of impiety and tyranny, and one not in the power of any angel, much less of any Pope or council whatsoever.” … “The sacrament does not belong to the priests, but to all; nor are the priests lords, but servants, whose duty it is to give both kinds to those who seek them, as often as they seek them.” … “Since the Bishop of Rome has ceased to be a bishop, and has become a tyrant, I fear absolutely none of his decrees; for I know that neither he, nor even a general council, has authority to establish new articles of faith.”
(b) The doctrine of transubstantiation is a milder bondage, and might be held alongside with the other and more natural view of the real presence, which leaves the elements unchanged. It is well known that Luther was to the end of life a firm believer in the real presence, and oral manducation of the very body and blood of Christ by unworthy as well as worthy communicants (of course, with opposite effects). He denied a miraculous change of the substance of the elements, but maintained the co-existence of the body and blood in, with, and under bread and wine, both being real, the one invisible and the other visible. In this book he claims toleration for both theories, with a personal preference for the latter. “Christians are at liberty, without peril to their salvation, to imagine, think, or believe in either of the two ways, since here there is no necessity of faith.” … “I will not listen to those, or make the slightest account of them, who will cry out that this doctrine is Wiclifite, Hussite, heretical, and opposed to the decisions of the Church.” The Scripture does not say that the elements are transubstantiated: Paul calls them real bread and real wine, just as the cup was real. Moreover, Christ speaks (figuratively), “This cup is the new covenant in my blood,” meaning his blood contained in the cup. Transubstantiation is a scholastic or Aristotelian figment of the twelfth century. “Why should Christ not be able to include his body within the substance of bread, as well as within the accidents? Fire and iron, two different substances, are so mingled in red-hot iron, that in every part of it are both fire and iron. Why may not the glorious body of Christ much more be in every part of the substance of the bread?” Common people do not understand the difference between substance and accidents, nor argue about it, but “believe with simple faith that the body and blood of Christ are truly contained in the elements.” So also the incarnation does not require a transubstantiation of the human nature, that so the Godhead may be contained beneath the accidents of the human nature; “but each nature is entire, and we can say with truth, This man is God; this God is man.”
(c) The sacrifice of the mass: that is, the offering to God of the very body and blood of Christ by the hands of the priest when he pronounces the words of institution; in other words, an actual repetition of the atoning sacrifice of the cross, only in an unbloody manner. This institution is the very heart of Roman-Catholic (and Greek-Catholic) worship. Luther attacks it as the third bondage, and the most impious of all. He feels the difficulty, and perhaps impossibility, of a task which involves an entire revolution of public worship. “At this day,” he says, “there is no belief in the Church more generally received, or more firmly held, than that the mass is a good work and a sacrifice. This abuse has brought in an infinite flood of other abuses, until faith in the sacrament has been utterly lost, and they have made this divine sacrament a mere subject of traffic, huckstering, and money-getting contracts; and the entire maintenance of priests and monks depends upon these things.” He goes back to the simplicity of the primitive institution of the Lord’s Supper, which is a thankful commemoration of the atoning death of Christ, with a blessing attached to it, namely, the forgiveness of sins, to be appropriated by faith. The substance of this sacrament is promise and faith. It is a gift of God to man, not a gift of man to God. It is, like baptism, to be received, and not to be given. The Romanists have changed it into a good work of man and an opus operatum, by which they imagine to please God; and have surrounded it with so many prayers, signs, vestments, gestures, and ceremonies, that the original meaning is obscured. “They make God no longer the bestower of good gifts on us, but the receiver of ours. Alas for such impiety!” He proves from the ancient Church that the offering of the eucharist, as the name indicates, was originally a thank-offering of the gifts of the communicants for the benefit of the poor. The true sacrifice which we are to offer to God is our thanks, our possessions, and our whole person. He also objects to the use of the Latin language in the mass, and demands the vernacular.
2. The sacrament of Baptism. Luther thanks God that this sacrament has been preserved uninjured, and kept from “the foul and impious monstrosities of avarice and superstition.” He agrees essentially with the Roman doctrine, and considers baptism as a means of regeneration; while Zwingli and Calvin regarded it merely as a sign and seal of preceding regeneration and church-membership. He even makes more of it than the Romanists, and opposes the prevailing view of St. Jerome, that penitence is a second plank of refuge after shipwreck. Instead of relying on priestly absolution, it is better to go back to the remission of sins secured in baptism. “When we rise out of our sins, and exercise penitence, we are simply reverting to the efficacy of baptism and to faith in it, whence we had fallen; and we return to the promise then made to us, but which we had abandoned through our sin. For the truth of the promise once made always abides, and is ready to stretch out the hand and receive us when we return.”
As to the mode of baptism, he gives here, as elsewhere, his preference to immersion, which then still prevailed in England and in some parts of the Continent, and which was not a point of dispute either between Romanists and Protestants, or between Protestants and Anabaptists; while on the question of infant-baptism the Anabaptists differed from both. “Baptism,” he says, “is that dipping into water whence it takes its name. For, in Greek to baptize signifies to dip, and baptism is a dipping.” “Baptism signifies two things, — death and resurrection; that is, full and complete justification. When the minister dips the child into the water, this signifies death; when he draws him out again, this signifies life. Thus Paul explains the matter (Rom_6:4) …. I could wish that the baptized should be totally immersed, according to the meaning of the word and the signification of the mystery; not that I think it necessary to do so, but that it would be well that so complete and perfect a thing as baptism should also be completely and perfectly expressed in the sign.”
Luther’s view of baptismal regeneration seems to be inconsistent with his chief doctrine of justification by faith alone. He says, “It is not baptism which justifies any man, or is of any advantage; but faith in that word of promise to which baptism is added: for this justifies and fulfills the meaning of baptism. For faith is the submerging of the old man, and the emerging of the new man.” But how does this apply to baptized infants, who can not be said to have faith in any proper sense of the term, though they have undoubtedly the capacity of faith? Luther here brings in the vicarious faith of the parents or the Church. But he suggests also the idea that faith is produced in the children, through baptism, on the ground of their religious receptivity.
3. Lastly, Luther attacks the traditional number of the sacraments. He allows “only two sacraments in the Church of God, Baptism and Bread; since it is in these alone that we see both a sign divinely instituted, and a promise of remission of sins.” In some sense he retains also the sacrament of Penance, as a way and means of return to baptism.
The rest of the seven Roman sacraments — confirmation, marriage, ordination, and extreme unction — he rejects because they can not be proved from Scripture, and are not commanded by Christ.
Matrimony has existed from the beginning of the world, and belongs to all mankind. Why, then, should it be called a sacrament? Paul calls it a “mystery,” but not a sacrament, as translated in the Vulgate (Ep. 5:32); or rather he speaks there of the union of Christ and the Church, which is reflected in matrimony as in a sort of allegory. But the Pope has restricted this universal human institution by rigorous impediments derived from spiritual affinity and legal relationship. He forbids it to the clergy, and claims the power to annull rightful marriages, even against the will of one of the parties. “Learn, then, in this one matter of matrimony, into what an unhappy and hopeless state of confusion, hindrance, entanglement, and peril all things that are done in the Church have been brought by the pestilent and impious traditions of men! There is no hope of a remedy, unless we do away with all the laws of men, call back the gospel of liberty, and judge and rule all things according to it alone.”
Luther closes with these words: “I hear a report that fresh bulls and papal curses are being, prepared against me, by which I am urged to recant, or else to be declared a heretic. If this is true, I wish this little book to be a part of my future recantation, that they may not complain that their tyranny has puffed itself up in vain. I shall also shortly publish, Christ being my helper, such a recantation as the See of Rome has never yet seen or heard, thus abundantly testifying my obedience in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
“‘Hostis Herodes impie,
Christum venire quid times?
Non arripit mortalia
Qui regna dat coelestia.’”
46. Christian Freedom. — Luther’s Last Letter to the Pope. October, 1520
Von der Freiheit eines Christenmenschen, Wittenberg, 1520; often reprinted separately, and in the collected works of Luther. See Walch, XIX. 1206 sqq.; Erl. ed., XXVII. 173-200 (from the first ed.); Gerlach’s ed. V. 5-46. The Latin edition, De Libertate Christiana, was finished a little later, and has some additions; see Erl. ed. Opera Lat., IV. 206-255. Luther’s letter to the Pope in Latin and German is printed also in De Wette, I. 497-515. English version of the tract and the letter by Buchheim, l.c. 95-137.
Although Rome had already condemned Luther, the papal delegate Miltitz still entertained the hope of a peaceful settlement. He had extracted from Luther the promise to write to the Pope. He had a final interview with him and Melanchthon at Lichtenberg (now Lichtenburg, in the district of Torgau), in the convent of St. Antony, Oct. 11, 1520, a few days after Luther had seen the bull of excommunication. It was agreed that Luther should write a book, and a letter in Latin and German to Leo X., and assure him that he had never attacked his person, and that Dr. Eck was responsible for the whole trouble. The book was to be finished in twelve days, but dated back to Sept. 6 in order to avoid the appearance of being occasioned by the Pope’s bull.
This is the origin of two of the most remarkable productions of Luther, — his little book on “Christian Freedom,” and a dedicatory letter to Leo X.
The beautiful tract on “Christian Freedom” is a pearl among Luther’s writings. It presents a striking contrast to his polemic treatises against Rome, which were intended to break down the tyranny of popery. And yet it is a positive complement to them, and quite as necessary for a full understanding of his position. While opposing the Pope’s tyranny, Luther was far from advocating the opposite extreme of license. He was thoroughly imbued with the spirit of the Epistle to the Galatians, which protests against both extremes, and inspired the keynote to Luther’s Tract. He shows wherein true liberty consists. He means liberty according to the gospel; liberty in Christ, not from Christ; and offers this as a basis for reconciliation. He presents here a popular summary of Christian life. He keeps free from all polemics, and writes in the best spirit of that practical mysticism which connected him with Staupitz and Tauler.
The leading idea is: The Christian is the lord of all, and subject to none, by virtue of faith; he is the servant of all, and subject to every one, by virtue of love. Faith and love constitute the Christian: the one binds him to God, the other to his fellow-man. The idea is derived from St. Paul, who says, “Though I was free from all men, I brought myself under bondage to all, that I might gain the more” (1Co_9:19); and “Owe no man any thing, save to love one another” (Rom_13:8). It was carried out by Christ, who was Lord of all things, yet born of a woman, born under the law that he might redeem them who were under the law (Gal_4:4); who was at once in the form of God, and in the form of a servant (Phi_2:6, Phi_2:7). The Christian life is an imitation of the life of Christ, — a favorite idea of the mediaeval mystics.
Man is made free by faith, which alone justifies; but it manifests itself in love, and all good works. The person must first be good before good works can be done, and good works proceed from a good person; as Christ says, “A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit” (Mat_7:18). The fruit does not bear the tree, nor does the tree grow on the fruit; but the tree bears the fruit, and the fruit grows on the tree. So it is in all handicrafts. A good or bad house does not make a good or bad builder, but the good or bad builder makes a good or bad house. Such is the case with the works of men. Such as the man himself is, whether in faith or in unbelief, such is his work; good if it is done in faith, bad if in unbelief. Faith, as it makes man a believer, so also it makes his works good; but works do not make a believing man, nor a justified man. We do not reject works; nay, we commend them, and teach them in the highest degree. It is not on their own account that we condemn them, but on account of the perverse notion of seeking justification by them. “From faith flow forth love and joy in the Lord; and from love, a cheerful, willing, free spirit, disposed to serve our neighbor voluntarily, without taking any account of gratitude or ingratitude, praise or blame, gain or loss. Its object is not to lay men under obligations; nor does it distinguish between friends and enemies, or look to gratitude or ingratitude; but most freely and willingly it spends itself and its goods, whether it loses them through ingratitude, or gains good-will. For thus did its Father, distributing all things to all men abundantly and freely, making his sun to rise upon the just and the unjust. Thus, too, the child does and endures nothing except from the free joy with which it delights through Christ in God, the giver of such great gifts.” …
“Who, then, can comprehend the riches and glory of the Christian life? It can do all things, has all things, and is in want of nothing; is lord over sin, death, and hell, and, at the same time, is the obedient and useful servant of all. But alas! it is at this day unknown throughout the world; it is neither preached nor sought after, so that we are quite ignorant about our own name, why we are and are called Christians. We are certainly called so from Christ, who is not absent, but dwells among us, provided we believe in him; and are reciprocally and mutually one the Christ of the other, doing to our neighbor as Christ does to us. But now, in the doctrine of men, we are taught only to seek after merits, rewards, and things which are already ours; and we have made of Christ a task-master far more severe than Moses.” …
“We conclude, then, that a Christian man does not live in and for himself, but in Christ and in his neighbor, or else is no Christian; in Christ by faith, in his neighbor by love. By faith he is carried upwards above himself to God, and by love he descends below himself to his neighbor, still always abiding in God and his love; as Christ says, ‘Verily I say unto you, hereafter ye shall see the heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man’” (Joh_1:51).
In the Latin text Luther adds some excellent remarks against those who misunderstand and distort spiritual liberty, turn it into an occasion of carnal license, and show their freedom by their contempt of ceremonies, traditions, and human laws. St. Paul teaches us to walk in the middle path, condemning either extreme, and saying, “Let not him that eateth despise him that eateth not; and let not him that eateth not judge him that eateth” (Rom_14:3). We must resist the hardened and obstinate ceremonialists, as Paul resisted the Judaizers who would compel Titus to be circumcised; and we must spare the weak who are not yet able to apprehend the liberty of faith. We must fight against the wolves, but on behalf of the sheep, not against the sheep.
This Irenicon must meet with the approval of every true Christian, whether Catholic or Protestant. It breathes the spirit of a genuine disciple of St. Paul. It is full of heroic faith and childlike simplicity. It takes rank with the best books of Luther, and rises far above the angry controversies of his age, during which he composed it, in the full possession of the positive truth and peace of the religion of Christ.
Luther sent the book to Pope Leo X., who was too worldly-minded a man to appreciate it; and accompanied the same with a most singular and undiplomatic, yet powerful polemic letter, which, if the Pope ever read it, must have filled him with mingled feelings of indignation and disgust. In his first letter to the Pope (1518), Luther had thrown himself at his feet as an obedient son of the vicar of Christ; in his second letter (1519), he still had addressed him as a humble subject, yet refusing to recant his conscientious convictions: in his third and last letter he addressed him as an equal, speaking to him with great respect for his personal character (even beyond his deserts), but denouncing in the severest terms the Roman See, and comparing him to a lamb among wolves, and to Daniel in the den of lions. The Popes, he says, are vicars of Christ because Christ is absent from Rome. Miltitz and the Augustinian brethren, who urged him to write an apologetic letter to Leo, must have been sorely disappointed; for it destroyed all prospects of reconciliation, if they had not been destroyed already.
After some complimentary words about Leo, and protesting that he had never spoken disrespectfully of his person, Luther goes on to say, —
“The Church of Rome, formerly the most holy of all churches, has become the most lawless den of thieves, the most shameless of all brothels, the very kingdom of sin, death, and hell; so that not even Antichrist, if he were to come, could devise any addition to its wickedness.
“Meanwhile you, Leo, are sitting like a lamb in the midst of wolves, like Daniel in the midst of lions, and, with Ezekiel, you dwell among scorpions. What opposition can you alone make to these monstrous evils? Take to yourself three or four of the most learned and best of the cardinals. What are these among so many? You would all perish by poison, before you could undertake to decide on a remedy. It is all over with the court of Rome: the wrath of God has come upon her to the uttermost. She hates Councils, she dreads to be reformed, she cannot restrain the madness of her impiety; she fills up the sentence passed on her mother, of whom it is said, ‘We would have healed Babylon, but she is not healed; let us forsake her.’ It had been your duty, and that of your cardinals, to apply a remedy to these evils; but this gout laughs at the physician’s hand, and the chariot does not obey the reins. Under the influence of these feelings I have always grieved that you, most excellent Leo, who were worthy of a better age, have been made pontiff in this. For the Roman court is not worthy of you and those like you, but of Satan himself, who in truth is more the ruler in that Babylon than you are.
“Oh, would that, having laid aside that glory which your most abandoned enemies declare to be yours, you were living rather in the office of a private priest, or on your paternal inheritance! In that glory none are worthy to glory, except the race of Iscariot, the children of perdition. For what happens in your court, Leo, except that, the more wicked and execrable any man is, the more prosperously he can use your name and authority for the ruin of the property and souls of men, for the multiplication of crimes, for the oppression of faith and truth, and of the whole Church of God? O Leo! in reality most unfortunate, and sitting on a most perilous throne: verily I tell you the truth, because I wish you well; for if Bernard felt compassion for his Anastasius at a time when the Roman See, though even then most corrupt, was as yet ruling with better hope than now, why should not we lament, to whom so much additional corruption and ruin has happened in three hundred years?
Is it not true that there is nothing under the vast heavens more corrupt, more pestilential, more hateful, than the court of Rome? She incomparably surpasses the impiety of the Turks, so that in very truth she, who was formerly the gate of heaven, is now a sort of open mouth of hell, and such a mouth as, under the urgent wrath of God, can not be blocked up; one course alone being left to us wretched men, — to call back and save some few, if we can, from that Roman gulf.
“Behold, Leo my father, with what purpose and on what principle it is that I have stormed against that seat of pestilence. I am so far from having felt any rage against your person, that I even hoped to gain favor with you and to aid in your welfare, by striking actively and vigorously at that your prison, nay, your hell. For, whatever the efforts of all intellects can contrive against the confusion of that impious court will be advantageous to you and to your welfare, and to many others with you. Those who do harm to her are doing your work; those who in every way abhor her are glorifying Christ; in short, those are Christians who are not Romans ….
“In fine, that I may not approach your Holiness empty-handed, I bring with me this little book, published under your name, as a good omen of the establishment of peace and of good hope. By this you may perceive in what pursuits I should prefer and be able to occupy myself to more profit, if I were allowed, or had been hitherto allowed, by your impious flatterers. It is a small book, if you look to the paper; but, unless I mistake, it is a summary of the Christian life put together in small compass, if you apprehend its meaning. I, in my poverty, have no other present to make you; nor do you need any thing else than to be enriched by a spiritual gift. I commend myself to your Holiness, whom may the Lord Jesus preserve for ever. Amen.
“Wittenberg, 6th September, 1520.”