Vol. 7, Chapter IV (Cont’d) – A Critical Estimate of Luther’s Version


Luther’s version of the Bible is a wonderful monument of genius, learning, and piety, and may be regarded in a secondary sense as inspired. It was, from beginning to end, a labor of love and enthusiasm. While publishers and printers made fortunes, Luther never received or asked a copper for this greatest work of his life.

We must judge it from the times. A German translation from the original languages was a work of colossal magnitude if we consider the absence of good grammars, dictionaries, and concordances, the crude state of Greek and Hebrew scholarship, and of the German language, in the sixteenth century. Luther wrote to Amsdorf, Jan. 13, 1522, that he had undertaken a task beyond his power, that he now understood why no one had attempted it before in his own name, and that he would not venture on the Old Testament without the aid of his friends. He felt especially how difficult it was to make Job and the Hebrew prophets speak in barbarous German. He jocosely remarked that Job would have become more impatient at the blunders of his translators than at the long speeches of his “miserable comforters.”

As regards the text, it was in an unsettled condition. The science of textual criticism was not yet born, and the materials for it were not yet collected from the manuscripts, ancient versions, and patristic quotations. Luther had to use the first printed editions. He had no access to manuscripts, the most important of which were not even discovered or made available before the middle of the nineteenth century. Biblical geography and archaeology were in their infancy, and many names and phrases could not be understood at the time.

In view of these difficulties we need not be surprised at the large number of mistakes, inaccuracies, and inconsistencies in Luther’s version. They are most numerous in Job and the Prophets, who present, even to the advanced Hebrew scholars of our day, many unsolved problems of text and rendering. The English Version of 1611 had the great advantage of the labors of three generations of translators and revisers, and is therefore more accurate, and yet equally idiomatic.


The Original Text

The basis for Luther’s version of the Old Testament was the Massoretic text as published by Gerson Ben Mosheh at Brescia in 1494. He used also the Septuagint, the Vulgate of Jerome (although he disliked him exceedingly on account of his monkery), the Latin translations of the Dominican Sanctes Pagnini of Lucca (1527), and of the Franciscan Sebastian Münster (1534), the “Glossa ordinaria” (a favorite exegetical vade-mecum of Walafried Strabo from the ninth century), and Nicolaus Lyra (d. 1340), the chief of mediaeval commentators, who, besides the Fathers, consulted also the Jewish rabbis.

The basis for the New Testament was the second edition of Erasmus, published at Basel in Switzerland in 1519. His first edition of the Greek Testament had appeared in 1516, just one year before the Reformation. He derived the text from a few mediaeval MSS. The second edition, though much more correct than the first (“multo diligentius recognitum, emendatum,” etc.), is disfigured by a large number of typographical errors. He laid the foundation of the Textus Receptus, which was brought into its mature shape by R. Stephen, in his “royal edition” of 1550 (the basis of the English Textus Receptus), and by the Elzevirs in their editions of 1624 and 1633 (the basis of the Continental Textus Receptus), and which maintained the supremacy till Lachmann inaugurated the adoption of an older textual basis (1831).

Luther did not slavishly follow the Greek of Erasmus, and in many places conformed to the Latin Vulgate, which is based on an older text. He also omitted, even in his last edition, the famous interpolation of the heavenly witnesses in 1Jo_5:7, which Erasmus inserted in his third edition (1522) against his better judgment.


The German Rendering

The German language was divided into as many dialects as tribes and states, and none served as a bond of literary union. Saxons and Bavarians, Hanoverians and Swabians, could scarcely understand each other. Each author wrote in the dialect of his district, Zwingli in his Schwyzerduetsch. “I have so far read no book or letter,” says Luther in the preface to his version of the Pentateuch (1523), “in which the German language is properly handled. Nobody seems to care sufficiently for it; and every preacher thinks he has a right to change it at pleasure, and to invent new terms.” Scholars preferred to write in Latin, and when they attempted to use the mother tongue, as Reuchlin and Melanchthon did occasionally, they fell far below in ease and beauty of expression.

Luther brought harmony out of this confusion, and made the modern High German the common book language. He chose as the basis the Saxon dialect, which was used at the Saxon court and in diplomatic intercourse between the emperor and the estates, but was bureaucratic, stiff, heavy, involved, dragging, and unwieldy. He popularized and adapted it to theology and religion. He enriched it with the vocabulary of the German mystics, chroniclers, and poets. He gave it wings, and made it intelligible to the common people of all parts of Germany.

He adapted the words to the capacity of the Germans, often at the expense of accuracy. He cared more for the substance than the form. He turned the Hebrew shekel into a Silberling, the Greek drachma and Roman denarius into a German Groschen, the quadrans into a Heller, the Hebrew measures into Scheffel, Malter, Tonne, Centner, and the Roman centurion into a Hauptmann. He substituted even undeutsch (!) for barbarian in 1Co_14:11. Still greater liberties he allowed himself in the Apocrypha, to make them more easy and pleasant reading. He used popular alliterative phrases as Geld und Gut, Land und Leute, Rath und That, Stecken und Stab, Dornen und Disteln, matt und müde, gäng und gäbe. He avoided foreign terms which rushed in like a flood with the revival of learning, especially in proper names (as Melanchthon for Schwarzerd, Aurifaber for Goldschmid, Oecolampadius for Hausschein, Camerarius for Kammermeister). He enriched the vocabulary with such beautiful words as holdselig, Gottseligkeit.

Erasmus Alber, a contemporary of Luther, called him the German Cicero, who not only reformed religion, but also the German language.

Luther’s version is an idiomatic reproduction of the Bible in the very spirit of the Bible. It brings out the whole wealth, force, and beauty of the German language. It is the first German classic, as King James’s version is the first English classic. It anticipated the golden age of German literature as represented by Klopstock, Lessing, Herder, Goethe, Schiller, — all of them Protestants, and more or less indebted to the Luther-Bible for their style. The best authority in Teutonic philology pronounces his language to be the foundation of the new High German dialect on account of its purity and influence, and the Protestant dialect on account of its freedom which conquered even Roman Catholic authors.


The Protestant Spirit of Luther’s Version

Dr. Emser, one of the most learned opponents of the Reformation, singled out in Luther’s New Testament several hundred linguistic blunders and heretical falsifications. Many of them were silently corrected in later editions. He published, by order of Duke George of Saxony, a new translation (1527) for the purpose of correcting the errors of “Luther and other heretics.”

The charge that Luther adapted the translation to his theological opinions has become traditional in the Roman Church, and is repeated again and again by her controversialists and historians.

The same objection has been raised against the Authorized English Version.

In both cases, the charge has some foundation, but no more than the counter-charge which may be brought against Roman Catholic Versions.

The most important example of dogmatic influence in Luther’s version is the famous interpolation of the word alone in Rom_3:28 (allein durch den Glauben), by which he intended to emphasize his solifidian doctrine of justification, on the plea that the German idiom required the insertion for the sake of clearness. But he thereby brought Paul into direct verbal conflict with James, who says (Jam_2:24), “by works a man is justified, and not only by faith” (“nicht durch den Glauben allein”). It is well known that Luther deemed it impossible to harmonize the two apostles in this article, and characterized the Epistle of James as an “epistle of straw,” because it had no evangelical character (“keine evangelische Art”).

He therefore insisted on this insertion in spite of all outcry against it. His defense is very characteristic. “If your papist,” he says, “makes much useless fuss about the word sola, allein, tell him at once: Doctor Martin Luther will have it so, and says: Papist and donkey are one thing; sic volo, sic jubeo, sit pro ratione voluntas. For we do not want to be pupils and followers of the Papists, but their masters and judges.” Then he goes on in the style of foolish boasting against the Papists, imitating the language of St. Paul in dealing with his Judaizing opponents (2Co_11:22 sqq.): “Are they doctors? so am I. Are they learned? so am I. Are they preachers? so am I. Are they theologians? so am I. Are they disputators? so am I. Are they philosophers? so am I. Are they the writers of books? so am I. And I shall further boast: I can expound Psalms and Prophets; which they can not. I can translate; which they can not …. Therefore the word allein shall remain in my New Testament, and though all pope-donkeys (Papstesel) should get furious and foolish, they shall not turn it out.”

The Protestant and anti-Romish character of Luther’s New Testament is undeniable in his prefaces, his discrimination between chief books and less important books, his change of the traditional order, and his unfavorable judgments on James, Hebrews, and Revelation. It is still more apparent in his marginal notes, especially on the Pauline Epistles, where he emphasizes throughout the difference between the law and the gospel, and the doctrine of justification by faith alone; and on the Apocalypse, where he finds the papacy in the beast from the abyss (Rev_13:1-18), and in the Babylonian harlot (Rev_17:1-18). The anti-papal explanation of the Apocalypse became for a long time almost traditional in Protestant commentaries.

On the other hand, the Roman Catholic translators used the same liberty of marginal annotations and pictorial illustrations in favor of the doctrines and usages of their own church. Emser’s New Testament is full of anti-Lutheran glosses. In Rom_3:28, he protests on the margin against Luther’s allein, and says, “Paul by the words ‘without works of the law’ does not mean that man is saved by faith alone, without good works, but only without works of the law, that is, external circumcision and other Jewish ceremonies.” He therefore confines the “law” here to the ritual law, and “works” to Jewish works; while, according to the best modern commentators, Paul means the whole law, moral as well as ceremonial, and all works commanded by the law. And yet even in the same chapter and throughout the whole Epistle to the Romans, Emser copies verbatim Luther’s version for whole verses and sections; and where he departs from his language, it is generally for the worse.

The same may be said of the other two German Catholic Bibles of the age of the Reformation. They follow Luther’s language very closely within the limits of the Vulgate, and yet abuse him in the notes. Dr. Dietenberger adds his comments in smaller type after the chapters, and agrees with Emser’s interpretation of Rom_3:28. Dr. Eck’s German Bible has few notes, but a strongly anti-Protestant preface.

To be just, we must recognize the sectarian imperfections of Bible versions, arising partly from defective knowledge, partly from ingrained prejudices. A translation is an interpretation. Absolute reproduction is impossible in any work. A Jew will give a version of the Old Testament differing from that of a Christian, because they look upon it in a different light, — the one with his face turned backward, the other with his face turned forward. A Jew cannot understand the Old Testament till he becomes a Christian, and sees in it a prophecy and type of Christianity. No synagogue would use a Christian version, nor any church a Jewish version. So also the New Testament is rendered differently by scholars of the Greek, Latin, and Protestant churches. And even where they agree in words, there is a difference in the pervading spirit. They move, as it were, in a different atmosphere. A Roman Catholic version must be closely conformed to the Latin Vulgate, which the Council of Trent puts on an equal footing with the original text. A Protestant version is bound only by the original text, and breathes an air of freedom from traditional restraint. The Roman Church will never use Luther’s Version or King James’s Version, and could not do so without endangering her creed; nor will German Protestants use Emser’s and Eck’s Versions, or English Protestants the Douay Version. The Romanist must become evangelical before he can fully apprehend the free spirit of the gospel as revealed in the New Testament.

There is, however, a gradual progress in translation, which goes hand in hand with the progress of the understanding of the Bible. Jerome’s Vulgate is an advance upon the Itala, both in accuracy and Latinity; the Protestant Versions of the sixteenth century are an advance upon the Vulgate, in spirit and in idiomatic reproduction; the revisions of the nineteenth century are an advance upon the versions of the sixteenth, in philological and historical accuracy and consistency. A future generation will make a still nearer approach to the original text in its purity and integrity. If the Holy Spirit of God shall raise the Church to a higher plane of faith and love, and melt the antagonisms of human creeds into the one creed of Christ, then, and not before then, may we expect perfect versions of the oracles of God.


Notes. The Official Revision of the Luther-Bible, and the Anglo-American Revision of the Authorized English Bible

An official revision of Luther’s version was inaugurated, after long previous agitation and discussion, by the “Eisenach German Evangelical Church Conference,” in 1863, and published under the title: Die Bibel oder die ganze Heilige Schrift des Alten und Neuen Testaments nach der deutschen Uebersetzung D. Martin Luthers. Halle (Buchhandlung des Waisenhauses), 1883. It is called the Probebibel. The revised New Testament had been published several years before, and is printed by Dr. O. von Gebhardt together with the Greek text, in his Novum Testamentum Graece et Germanice, Leipzig, 1881.

The revision was prepared with extraordinary care, but in an ultra-conservative spirit, by a number of distinguished biblical scholars appointed by the ecclesiastical authorities of the German governments, eleven for the New Testament (Nitzsch, Twesten, Beyschlag, Riehm, Ahlfeld, Brueckner, Meyer, Niemann, Fronmueller, Schroeder, Koestlin), and over twenty for the Old Testament, including some who had also served in the New Testament company (Tholuck, Schlottmann, Riehm, Dillmann, Kleinert, Delitzsch, Bertheau, Duesterdieck, Kamphausen, Baur of Leipzig, Ahlfeld, Thenius, Kuebel, Kapff, Schroeder, Diestel, Grimm, Kuelin, Hoffmann, Clausen, Grill). Dorner, Moenckeberg, and Karl Frommann took a very active part as counsellors and promoters, the last (an eminent Germanist and Luther-scholar, but with strong archaic tastes) in the linguistic portion.

The work was very severely criticised by opposite schools for changing too much or too little, and was recommitted by the Eisenach Conference of 1886 for final action. The history of this revision is told in the preface and Introduction to the Probebibel, and in Grimm’s Geschichte der luth. Bibeluebersetzung, Jena, 1884, pp. 48-76.

The Anglo-American revision of the Authorized English Version of 1611 was set in motion by the Convocation of Canterbury, and carried out in fifteen years, between 1870 and 1885, by two committees, — one in England and one in the United States (each divided into two companies, — one for the Old Testament, one for the New, and each consisting of scholars of various Protestant denominations). Dr. Dorner, on his visit to America in 1873, desired to bring about a regular co-operation of the two revision movements, but it was found impracticable, and confined to private correspondence.

The two revisions are similar in spirit and aim; and as far as they run parallel, they agree in most of the improvements. Both aim to replace the old version in public and private use; but both depend for ultimate success on the verdict of the churches for which they were prepared. They passed through the same purgatory of hostile criticism both from conservative and progressive quarters. They mark a great progress of biblical scholarship, and the immense labor bestowed upon them can never be lost. The difference of the two arises from the difference of the two originals on which they are based, and its relation to the community.

The authorized German and English versions are equally idiomatic, classical, and popular; but the German is personal, and inseparable from the overawing influence of Luther, which forbids radical changes. The English is impersonal, and embodies the labors of three generations of biblical scholars from Tyndale to the forty-seven revisers of King James, — a circumstance which is favorable to new improvements in the same line. In Germany, where theology is cultivated as a science for a class, the interest in revision is confined to scholars; and German scholars, however independent and bold in theory, are very conservative and timid in practical questions. In England and America, where theology moves in close contact with the life of the churches, revision challenges the attention of the laity which claims the fruits of theological progress.

Hence the Anglo-American revision is much more thorough and complete. It embodies the results of the latest critical and exegetical learning. It involves a reconstruction of the original text, which the German Revision leaves almost untouched, as if all the pains-taking labors of critics since the days of Bengel and Griesbach down to Lachmann and Tischendorf (not to speak of the equally important labors of English scholars from Mill and Bentley to Westcott and Hort) had been in vain.

As to translation, the English Revision removes not only misleading errors, but corrects the far more numerous inaccuracies and inconsistencies in the minor details of grammar and vocabulary; while the German Revision is confined to the correction of acknowledged mistranslations. The German Revision of the New Testament numbers only about two hundred changes, the Anglo-American thirty-six thousand. The revised German New Testament is widely circulated; but of the provisional Probebibel, which embraces both Testaments, only five thousand copies were printed and sold by the Canstein Bibelanstalt at Halle (as I learned there from Dr. Kramer, July, 1886). Of the revised English New Testament, a million copies were ordered from the Oxford University Press before publication, and three million copies were sold in less than a year (1881). The text was telegraphed from New York to Chicago in advance of the arrival of the book. Over thirty reprints appeared in the United States. The Revised Old Testament excited less interest, but tens of thousands of copies were sold on the day of publication (1885), and several American editions were issued. The Bible, after all, is the most popular book In the world, and constantly increasing in power and influence, especially with the English-speaking race. (For particulars on the English Revision, see Schaff’s Companion to the Greek Testament and the English Version, New York, 3d ed., 1888, pp. 404 sqq., and the extensive Revision literature, pp. 371 sqq.)


64. Melanchthon’s Theology

See Literature in § 38. The 21st vol. of the “Corpus Reformatorum” (1106 fol. pages) is devoted to the various editions of Melanchthon’s Loci Theologici, and gives bibliographical lists (fol. 59 sqq.; 561 sqq.), and also an earlier outline from an unpublished MS. Comp. Carl Schmidt, Phil. Mel., pp. 64-75; and on Melanchthon’s doctrinal changes, Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, vol. 1. 261 sqq.

While Luther translated the New Testament on the Wartburg, Melanchthon prepared the first system of Protestant theology at Wittenberg. Both drew from the same fountain, and labored for the same end, but in different ways. Luther built up the Reformation among the people in the German tongue; Melanchthon gave it methodical shape for scholars by his Latin writings. The former worked in the quarries, and cut the rough blocks of granite; the latter constructed the blocks into a habitable building. Luther expressed a modest self-estimate, and a high estimate of his friend, when he said that his superiority was more “in the rhetorical way,” while Melanchthon was “a better logician and reasoner.”

Melanchthon finished his “Theological Common-Places or Ground-Thoughts (Loci Communes or Loci Theologici), in April, 1521, and sent the proof-sheets to Luther on the Wartburg. They appeared for the first time before the close of that year.

This book marks an epoch in the history of theology. It grew out of exegetical lectures on the Epistle to the Romans, the Magna Charta of the evangelical system. It is an exposition of the leading doctrines of sin and grace, repentance and salvation. It is clear, fresh, thoroughly biblical, and practical. Its main object is to show that man cannot be saved by works of the law or by his own merits, but only by the free grace of God in Christ as revealed in the gospel. It presents the living soul of divinity, in striking contrast to the dry bones of degenerate scholasticism with its endless theses, antitheses, definitions, divisions, and subdivisions.

The first edition was written in the interest of practical Christianity rather than scientific theology. It is meagre in the range of topics, and defective in execution. It is confined to anthropology and soteriology, and barely mentions the metaphysical doctrines of the Trinity and the incarnation, as transcendent mysteries to be adored rather than curiously discussed. It has a polemical hearing against the Romanists, in view of the recent condemnation of Luther by the Sorbonne. It also contains some crude and extreme opinions which the author afterwards abandoned. Altogether in its first shape it was an unripe production, though most remarkable if we consider the youth of the author, who was then only twenty-four years of age.

Melanchthon shared at first Luther’s antipathy to scholastic theology; but he learned to distinguish between pure and legitimate scholasticism and a barren formalism, as also between the Aristotelian philosophy itself and the skeleton of it which was worshiped as an idol in the universities at that time. He knew especially the value of Aristotle’s ethics, wrote a commentary on the same (1529), and made important original contributions to the science of Christian ethics in his Philosophiae Moralis Epitome (1535).

Under his improving hand, the Loci assumed in subsequent editions the proportions of a full, mature, and well-proportioned system, stated in calm, clear, dignified language, freed from polemics against the Sorbonne and contemptuous flings at the schoolmen and Fathers. He embraced in twenty-four chapters all the usual topics from God and the creation to the resurrection of the body, with a concluding chapter on Christian liberty. He approached the scholastic method, and even ventured, in opposition to the Anti-Trinitarians, on a new speculative proof of the Holy Trinity from psychological analogies. He never forsakes the scriptural basis, but occasionally quotes also the Fathers to show their supposed or real agreement with evangelical doctrines.

Melanchthon’s theology, like that of Luther, grew from step to step in the heat of controversy. Calvin’s Institutes came finished from his brain, like Minerva out of the head of Jupiter.

The Loci prepared the way for the Augsburg Confession (1530), in which Melanchthon gave to the leading doctrines official shape and symbolical authority for the Lutheran Church. But he did not stop there, and passed through several changes, which we must anticipate in order to form a proper estimate of that work.

The editions of his theological manual are divided into three classes: 1, those from 1521 to 1535; 2, those from 1535 to 1544; 3, those from 1544 to 1559. The edition of 1535 (dedicated to King Henry VIII. of England, and translated into German by Justus Jonas) was a thorough revision. This and the editions which followed embody, besides additions in matter and improvements in style, important modifications of his views on predestination and free will, on the real presence, and on justification by faith. He gave up necessitarianism for synergism, the corporeal presence in the eucharist for a spiritual real presence, and solifidianism for the necessity of good works. In the first and third article he made an approach to the Roman-Catholic system, in the second to Calvinism.

The changes were the result of his continued study of the Bible and the Fathers, and his personal conferences with Roman and Reformed divines at Augsburg and in the colloquies of Frankfort, Hagenau, Worms, and Ratisbon. He calls them elucidations of obscurities, moderations of extreme views, and sober second thoughts.

1. He denied at first, with Luther and Augustin, all freedom of the human will in spiritual things. He even held the Stoic doctrine of the necessary occurrence of all actions, bad as well as good, including the adultery of David and the treason of Judas as well as the conversion of Paul.

But on closer examination, and partly under the influence of Erasmus, he abandoned this stoic fatalism as a dangerous error, inconsistent with Christianity and morality. He taught instead a co-operation of the divine and human will in the work of conversion; thus anticipating Arminianism, and approaching the older semi-Pelagianism, but giving the initiative to divine grace. “God,” he said in 1535, “is not the cause of sin, and does not will sin; but the will of the Devil and the will of man are the causes of sin.” Human nature is radically, but not absolutely and hopelessly, corrupt; it can not without the aid of the Holy Spirit produce spiritual affections such as the fear and love of God, and true obedience; but it can accept or reject divine grace. God precedes, calls, moves, supports us; but we must follow, and not resist. Three causes concur in the conversion, — the word of God, the Holy Spirit, and the will of man. Melanchthon quotes from the Greek Fathers who lay great stress on human freedom, and he accepts Chrysostom’s sentence: “God draws the willing.”

He intimated this synergistic view in the eighteenth article of the altered Augsburg Confession, and in the German edition of the Apology of the Confession. But he continued to deny the meritoriousness of good works; and in the colloquy of Worms, 1557, he declined to condemn the doctrine of the slavery of the human will, because Luther had adhered to it to the end. He was willing to tolerate it as a theological opinion, although he himself had rejected it.

2. As to the Lord’s Supper, he first accepted Luther’s view under the impression that it was supported by the ancient Church. But in this he was shaken by Oecolampadius, who proved (1530) that the Fathers held different opinions, and that Augustin did not teach an oral manducation. After 1534 he virtually gave up for himself, though he would not condemn and exclude, the conception of a corporeal presence and oral manducation of the body and blood of Christ; and laid the main stress on the spiritual, yet real presence and communion with Christ.

He changed the tenth article of the Augsburg Confession in 1540, and made it acceptable to Reformed divines by omitting the anti-Zwinglian clause. But he never accepted the Zwinglian theory of a mere commemoration. His later eucharistic theory closely approached that of Calvin; while on the subject of predestination and free will he differed from him. Calvin, who had written a preface to the French translation of the Loci Theologici, expressed, in private letters, his surprise that so great a theologian could reject the Scripture doctrine of eternal predestination; yet they maintained an intimate friendship to the end, and proved that theological differences need not prevent religious harmony and fraternal fellowship.

3. Melanchthon never surrendered the doctrine of justification by faith; but he laid in his later years, in opposition to antinomian excesses, greater stress on the necessity of good works of faith, not indeed as a condition of salvation and in a sense of acquiring merit, but as an indispensable proof of the duty of obedience to the divine will.

These doctrinal changes gave rise to bitter controversies after Luther’s death, and were ultimately rejected in the Formula of Concord (1577), but revived again at a later period. Luther himself never adopted and never openly opposed them.

The Loci of Melanchthon met from the start with extraordinary favor. Edition after edition appeared in Wittenberg during the author’s lifetime, the last from his own hand in the year 1559, besides a number of contemporaneous reprints at Basel, Hagenau, Strassburg, Frankfurt, Leipzig, Halle, and many editions after his death.

Luther had an extravagant opinion of them, and even declared them worthy of a place in the Canon. He thought that his translation of the Bible, and Melanchthon’s Loci, were the best outfit of a theologian, and almost superseded all other books.

The Loci became the text-book of Lutheran theology in the universities, and took the place of Peter Lombard’s Sentences. Strigel and Chemnitz wrote commentaries on them. Leonhard Hutter likewise followed them, till he published a more orthodox compend (1610) which threw them into the shade and even out of use during the seventeenth century.

The theological manual of Melanchthon proved a great help to the Reformation. The Romanists felt its power. Emser called it a new Koran and a pest. In opposition to them, he and Eck wrote Loci Catholici.

Melanchthon’s Loci are the ablest theological work of the Lutheran Church in the sixteenth century. Calvin’s Institutes (1536) equal them in freshness and fervor, and surpass them in completeness, logical order, philosophical grasp, and classical finish.

It is remarkable that the first and greatest dogmatic systems of the Reformation proceeded from these two lay-theologians who were never ordained by human hands, but received the unction from on high. So the twelve apostles were not baptized by Christ with water, but with the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost.


65. Protestant Radicalism. Disturbances at Erfurt

I. Letters of Luther from May, 1521, to March, 1522, to Melanchthon, Link, Lange, Spalatin, etc., in De Wette, vol. II.

II. F. W. Kampschulte: Die Universitaet Erfurt in ihrem Verh. zu dem Humanismus und der Reformation. Trier, 1858. Second part, chs. III. and IV. pp. 106 sqq.

III. Biographies of Andreas Bodenstein von Carlstadt, by Fuesslin (1776), Jaeger (Stuttgart, 1856), Erbkam (in Herzogii, VII. 523 sqq.).

IV. Gieseler, IV. 61-65 (Am. ed.). Marheineke, chs. X. and XI. (I. 303 sqq.). Merle D’AuB., bk. IX. chs. 6-8. Koestlin, bk. IV. chs. 3 and 4 (I. 494 sqq.). Ranke, II. 7-26. Janssen, II. 204-227.

While Luther and Melanchthon laid a solid foundation for an evangelical church and evangelical theology, their work was endangered by the destructive zeal of friends who turned the reformation into a revolution. The best thing may be undone by being overdone. Freedom is a two-edged sword, and liable to the worst abuse as well as to the best use. Tares will grow up in every wheat-field, and they sometimes choke the wheat. But the work of destruction was overruled for the consolidation of the Reformation. Old rotten buildings had to be broken down before a new one could be constructed.

The Reformation during its first five years was a battle of words, not of deeds. It scattered the seeds of new institutions all over Germany, but the old forms and usages still remained. The new wine had not yet burst the old skin bottles. The Protestant soul dwelt in the Catholic body. The apostles after the day of Pentecost continued to visit the temple and the synagogue, and to observe circumcision, the sabbath, and other customs of the fathers, hoping for the conversion of all Israel, until they were cast out by the Jewish hierarchy. So the Protestants remained in external communion with the mother Church, attending Latin mass, bowing before the transubstantiated elements on the altar, praying the Ave Maria, worshiping saints, pictures, and crucifixes, making pilgrimages to holy shrines, observing the festivals of the Roman calendar, and conforming to the seven sacraments which accompanied them at every step of life from the cradle to the grave. The bishops were still in charge of their dioceses, and unmarried priests and deacons performed all the ecclesiastical functions. The convents were still occupied by monks and nuns, who went through their daily devotions and ascetic exercises. The outside looked just as before, while the inside had undergone a radical change.

This was the case even in Saxony and at Wittenberg, the nursery of the new state of things. Luther himself did not at first contemplate any outward change. He labored and hoped for a reformation of faith and doctrine within the Catholic Church, under the lead of the bishops, without a division, but he was now cast out by the highest authorities, and came gradually to see that he must build a new structure on the new foundation which he had laid by his writings and by the translation of the New Testament.

The negative part of these changes, especially the abolition of the mass and of monasticism, was made by advanced radicals among his disciples, who had more zeal than discretion, and mistook liberty for license.

While Luther was confined on the Wartburg, his followers were like children out of school, like soldiers without a captain. Some of them thought that he had stopped half way, and that they must complete what he had begun. They took the work of destruction and reconstruction into their own inexperienced and unskillful hands. Order gave way to confusion, and the Reformation was threatened with disastrous failure.

The first disturbances broke out at Erfurt in June, 1521, shortly after Luther’s triumphant passage through the town on his way to Worms. Two young priests were excommunicated for taking part in the enthusiastic demonstrations. This created the greatest indignation. Twelve hundred students, workmen, and ruffians attacked and demolished in a few days sixty houses of the priests, who escaped violence only by flight.

The magistrate looked quietly on, as if in league with the insurrection. Similar scenes of violence were repeated during the summer. The monks under the lead of the Augustinians, forgetting their vows, left the convents, laid aside the monastic dress, and took up their abode among the people to work for a living, or to become a burden to others, or to preach the new faith.

Luther saw in these proceedings the work of Satan, who was bringing shame and reproach on the gospel. He feared that many left the cloister for the same reason for which they had entered, namely, from love of the belly and carnal freedom.

During these troubles Crotus, the enthusiastic admirer of Luther, resigned the rectorship of the university, left Erfurt, and afterwards returned to the mother Church. The Peasants’ War of 1525 was another blow. Eobanus, the Latin poet who had greeted Luther on his entry, accepted a call to Nürnberg. The greatest celebrities left the city, or were disheartened, and died in poverty.

From this time dates the decay of the university, once the flourishing seat of humanism and patriotic aspirations. It never recovered its former prosperity.


66. The Revolution at Wittenberg. Carlstadt and the New Prophets

See Lit. in § 65.

In Wittenberg the same spirit of violence broke out under the lead of Luther’s older colleague, Andreas Carlstadt, known to us from his ill success at the Leipzig disputation. He was a man of considerable originality, learning, eloquence, zeal, and courage, but eccentric, radical, injudicious, ill-balanced, restless, and ambitious for leadership.

He taught at first the theology of mediaeval scholasticism, but became under Luther’s influence a strict Augustinian, and utterly denied the liberty of the human will.

He wrote the first critical work on the Canon of the Scriptures, and anticipated the biblical criticism of modern times. He weighed the historic evidence, discriminated between three orders of books as of first, second, and third dignity, putting the Hagiographa of the Old Testament and the seven Antilegomena of the New in the third order, and expressed doubts on the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch. He based his objections to the Antilegomena, not on dogmatic grounds, as Luther, but on the want of historical testimony; his opposition to the traditional Canon was itself traditional; he put ante-Nicene against post-Nicene tradition. This book on the Canon, however, was crude and premature, and passed out of sight.

He invented some curious and untenable interpretations of Scripture, e.g., of the words of institution of the Lord’s Supper. He referred the word “this,” not to the bread, but to the body of Christ, so as to mean: “I am now ready to offer this (body) as a sacrifice in death.” He did not, however, publish this view till 1524, and afterwards made common cause with Zwingli.

Carlstadt preached and wrote, during Luther’s absence, against celibacy, monastic vows, and the mass. At Christmas, 1521, he omitted in the service the most objectionable parts of the Canon of the mass, and the elevation of the host, and distributed both wine and bread to a large congregation. He announced at the same time that he would lay aside the priestly dress and other ceremonies. Two days afterwards he was engaged to the daughter of a poor nobleman in the presence of distinguished professors of the university, and on Jan. 20, 1522, he was married. He gave improper notoriety to this act by inviting the whole university and the magistrate, and by publishing a book in justification of it.

He was not, however, the first priest who openly burst the chains of celibacy. Bartholomaeus Bernhardi of Feldkirchen, a Wittenberg licentiate and newly elected Probst at Kemberg, and two other priests of less reputable character, had preceded him in 1521. Justus Jonas followed the example, and took a wife Feb. 10, 1522, to get rid of temptations to impurity (1Co_7:12). Luther approved of these marriages, but did not intend at that time to follow the example.

Carlstadt went further, and maintained that no priest without wife and children should receive an appointment (so he explained “must” in 1Ti_3:2); that it was sin to commune without the cup; and that the monastic vow of celibacy was not binding, at least not before the sixtieth year of age, chastity being a free gift of God, and not at man’s disposal. He introduced a new legalism instead of the old, in violation of the principle of evangelical liberty and charity.

He also denounced pictures and images as dumb idols, which were plainly forbidden in the second commandment, and should be burnt rather than tolerated in the house of God. He induced the town council to remove them from the parish church; but the populace anticipated the orderly removal, tore them down, hewed them to pieces, and burnt them. He assailed the fasts, and enjoined the people to eat meat and eggs on fast-days. He repudiated all titles and dignities, since Christ alone was our Master (Mat_23:8). He expressed contempt for theology and all human learning, because God had revealed the truth unto babes (Mat_11:25), and advised the students to take to agriculture, and earn their bread in the sweat of their face (Gen_3:19). He cast away his priestly and academic robes, put on a plain citizen’s dress, afterwards a peasant’s coat, and had himself called brother Andrew. He ran close to the border of communism. He also opposed the baptism of infants. He lost himself in the clouds of a confused mysticism and spiritualism, and appealed, like the Zwickau Prophets, to immediate inspirations.

In the beginning of November, 1521, thirty of the forty monks left the Augustinian convent of Wittenberg in a rather disorderly manner. One wished to engage in cabinet making, and to marry. The Augustinian monks held a congress at Wittenberg in January, 1522, and unanimously resolved, in accordance with Luther’s advice, to give liberty of leaving or remaining in the convent, but required in either case a life of active usefulness by mental or physical labor.

The most noted of these ex-monks was Gabriel Zwilling or Didymus, who preached in the parish church during Luther’s absence, and was esteemed by some as a second Luther. He fiercely attacked the mass, the adoration of the sacrament, and the whole system of monasticism as dangerous to salvation.

About Christmas, 1521, the revolutionary movement was reinforced by two fanatics from Zwickau, Nicolaus Storch, a weaver, and Marcus Thomä Stübner. The latter had previously studied with Melanchthon, and was hospitably entertained by him. A few weeks afterwards Thomas Münzer, a millennarian enthusiast and eloquent demagogue, who figures prominently in the Peasants’ War, appeared in Wittenberg for a short time. He had stirred up a religious excitement among the weavers of Zwickau in Saxony on the Bohemian frontier, perhaps in some connection with the Hussites or Bohemian Brethren, and organized the forces of a new dispensation by electing twelve apostles and seventy-two disciples. But the magistrate interfered, and the leaders had to leave.

These Zwickau Prophets, as they were called, agreed with Carlstadt in combining an inward mysticism with practical radicalism. They boasted of visions, dreams, and direct communications with God and the Angel Gabriel, disparaged the written word and regular ministry, rejected infant baptism, and predicted the overthrow of the existing order of things, and the near approach of a democratic millennium.

We may compare Carlstadt and the Zwickau Prophets with the Fifth Monarchy Men in the period of the English Commonwealth, who were likewise millennarian enthusiasts, and attempted, in opposition to Cromwell, to set up the “Kingdom of Jesus” or the fifth monarchy of Daniel.

Wittenberg was in a very critical condition. The magistrate was discordant and helpless. Amsdorf kept aloof. Melanchthon was embarrassed, and too modest and timid for leadership. He had no confidence in visions and dreams, but could not satisfactorily answer the objections to infant baptism, which the prophets declared useless because a foreign faith of parents or sponsors could not save the child. Luther got over this difficulty by assuming that the Holy Spirit wrought faith in the child.

The Elector was requested to interfere; but he dared not, as a layman, decide theological and ecclesiastical questions. He preferred to let things take their natural course, and trusted in the overruling providence of God. He believed in Gamaliel’s counsel, which is good enough in the preparatory and experimental stages of a new movement. His strength lay in a wise, cautious, peaceful diplomacy. But at this time valor was the better part of discretion.

The only man who could check the wild spirit of revolution, and save the ship of the Reformation, was Luther.


67. Luther Returns to Wittenberg

Walch, XV. 2374-2403. De Wette, II. 137 sqq.

Luther was informed of all these disturbances. He saw the necessity of some changes, but regretted the violence with which they had been made before public opinion was prepared, and he feared a re-action which radicalism is always likely to produce. The Latin mass as a sacrifice, with the adoration of the host, the monastic institution, the worship of saints, images and relics, processions and pilgrimages, and a large number of superstitious ceremonies, were incompatible with Protestant doctrines. Worship had sooner or later to be conducted in the vernacular tongue; the sacrifice of the mass must give way to a commemorative communion; the cup must be restored to the laity, and the right of marriage to the clergy. He acquiesced in these changes. But about clerical vestments, crucifixes, and external ceremonies, he was indifferent; nor did he object to the use of pictures, provided they were not made objects of worship. In such matters he asserted the right of Christian freedom, against coercion for or against them. As to the pretended revelations of the new prophets, he despised them, and maintained that an inspired prophet must either be ordinarily called by church authority, or prove his divine commission by miracles.

He first went to Wittenberg in disguise, and spent three days there in December, 1621. He stayed under the roof of Amsdorf, and dared not show himself in the convent or on the street.

When the disturbances increased, he felt it his duty to reappear openly on the arena of conflict. He saw from the Wartburg his own house burning, and hastened to extinguish the flames. The Elector feared for his safety, as the Edict of Worms was still in force, and the Diet of Nürnberg was approaching. He ordered him to remain in his concealment. Luther was all his life an advocate of strict submission to the civil magistrates in their own proper sphere; but on this occasion he set aside the considerations of prudence, and obeyed the higher law of God and his conscience. His reply to the Elector (whom he never met personally) bears noble testimony to his sublime faith in God’s all-ruling providence. It is dated Ash Wednesday (March 5, 1522), from Borne, south of Leipzig. He wrote in substance as follows: — 

“Grace and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, and my most humble service.

“Most illustrious, high-born Elector, most gracious Lord! I received the letter and warning of your Electoral Grace on Friday evening [Feb. 26], before my departure [March 1]. That your Electoral Grace is moved by the best intention, needs no assurance from me. I also mean well, but this is of no account …. If I were not certain that we have the pure gospel on our side, I would despair …. Your Grace knows, if not, I make known to you, that I have the gospel, not from men, but from heaven through our Lord Jesus Christ …. I write this to apprise you that I am on my way to Wittenberg under a far higher protection than that of the Elector; and I have no intention of asking your Grace’s support. Nay, I believe that I can offer your Highness better protection than your Highness can offer me. Did I think that I had to trust in the Elector, I should not come at all. The sword is powerless here. God alone must act without man’s interference. He who has most faith will be the most powerful protector. As I feel your Grace’s faith to be still weak, I can by no means recognize in you the man who is to protect and save me. Your Electoral Grace asks me, what you are to do under these circumstances? I answer, with all submission, Do nothing at all, but trust in God alone …. If your Grace had faith, you would behold the glory of God; but as you do not yet believe, you have not seen it. Let us love and glorify God forever. Amen.”

Being asked by the Elector to give his reasons for a return, he assigned, in a letter of March 7, from Wittenberg, three reasons: the urgent written request of the church at Wittenberg; the confusion in his flock; and his desire to prevent an imminent outbreak. “My second reason,” he wrote, “is that during my absence Satan has entered my sheepfold, and committed ravages which I can not repair by writing, but only by my personal presence and living word. My conscience would not allow me to delay longer; I was bound to disregard, not only your Highness’s disfavor, but the whole world’s wrath. It is my flock, the flock intrusted to me by God; they are my children in Christ. I could not hesitate a moment. I am bound to suffer death for them, and will cheerfully with God’s grace lay down my life for them, as Christ commands (Joh_10:12).”

Luther rode without fear through the territory of his violent enemy, Duke George of Saxony, who was then urging the Elector to severe measures against him and the Wittenbergers. He informed the Elector that he would pass through Leipzig, as he once went to Worms, though it should rain Duke Georges for nine days in succession, each fiercer than the original in Dresden.

He safely arrived in Wittenberg on Thursday evening, the 6th of March, full of faith and hope, and ready for a fight against his false friends.

On this journey he had on the 3d or 4th of March an interesting interview with two Swiss students, Kessler and Spengler, in the tavern of the Black Bear at Jena. We have an account of it from one of them, John Kessler of St. Gallen, who afterwards became a reformer of that city. It contrasts very favorably with his subsequent dealings with the Swiss, especially with Zwingli, which were clouded by prejudice, and embittered by intolerance. The episode was purely private, and had no influence upon the course of events; but it reveals a characteristic trait in this mighty man, who even in critical moments of intense earnestness did not lose his playful humor. We find the same combination of apparently opposite qualities when at Coburg he was watching the affairs of the Diet at Augsburg, and wrote a childlike letter to his little Hans. Such harmless humor is like the light of the sun breaking through dark clouds.

The two Swiss, who had studied at Basel, were attracted by the fame of Luther and Melanchthon, and traveled on foot to Wittenberg to hear them. They arrived at Jena after a terrible thunderstorm, fatigued and soaked through, and humbly sat down on a bench near the door of the guest-chamber, when they saw a Knight seated at a table, sword in hand, and the Hebrew Psalter before him. Luther recognized the Swiss by their dialect, kindly invited them to sit down at his side, and offered them a drink. He inquired whether Erasmus was still living in Basel, what he was doing, and what the people in Switzerland thought of Martin Luther. The students replied that some lauded him to the skies as a great reformer; others, especially the priests, denounced him as an intolerable heretic. During the conversation two traders came in; one took from his pocket Luther’s sermons on the Gospels and Epistles, and remarked that the writer must be either an angel from heaven or a devil from hell. At dinner Luther gave them a rare feast of reason and flow of soul. The astonished students suspected that the mysterious Knight was Ulrich von Hutten, when Luther, turning to the host, smilingly remarked, “Behold, I have become a nobleman over the night: these Swiss think that I am Hutten; you take me for Luther. The next thing will be that I am Marcolfus.” He gave his young friends good advice to study the biblical languages with Melanchthon, paid their bill, offered them first a glass of beer, but substituted for it a glass of wine, since the Swiss were not used to beer, and with a shake of the hand he begged them to remember him to Doctor Jerome Schurf, their countryman, at Wittenberg. When they wished to know the name of the sender of the salutation, he replied, “Simply tell him that he who is coming sends greeting, and he will understand it.”

When the students a few days afterwards arrived at Wittenberg, and called on Dr. Schurf to deliver the message from “him who is coming,” they were agreeably surprised to find Luther there with Melanchthon, Jonas, and Amsdorf. Luther greeted them heartily, and introduced them to Melanchthon, of whom he had spoken at Jena.

The same student has left us a description of Luther’s appearance at that time. He was no more the meager, emaciated monk as at the Leipzig disputation three years previously, but, as Kessler says, “somewhat stout, yet upright, bending backwards rather than stooping, with a face upturned to heaven, with deep dark eyes and eyebrows, twinkling and sparkling like stars, so that one could hardly look steadily at them.” These deep, dark eyes, full of strange fire, had struck Cardinal Cajetan at Augsburg, and Cardinal Aleander at Worms, as the eyes of a demon. They made the same impression on John Dantiscus, afterwards bishop of Culm and Ermeland, who on his return from Spain to Poland in 1523 saw Luther in Wittenberg; he reported that his “eyes were sharp, and had a certain terrible coruscation of lightning such as was seen now and then in demoniacs,” and adds that, “his features were like his books,” and “his speech violent and full of scorn.” But friends judged differently. Another student, Albert Burrer, who saw him after his return from the Wartburg, praises his mild, kindly countenance, his pleasant sonorous voice, his charming address, the piety of his words and acts, the power of his eloquence which moved every hearer not made of stone, and created a desire to hear him again and again.