Luther’s declaration of emancipation from the spiritual pre-eminence of the Church of Rome, which, said he, “is proven solely by the empty papal decretals of the last four hundred years, and against which there stands the testimony of the authentic history of eleven hundred years, the text of Holy Scripture, and the decree of the Nicene Council,” appeared in print in the spring of 1519. FC55 It was in the form of e counter-thesis FC56 to Eck’s specious and celebrated “Thirteenth Thesis.” It culminated in the Leipzig Disputation in July.
Before another summer had passed, this Disputation bore marvelous and unlooked-for fruits. In a series of epochal pamphlets, written in part for the clergy, and in part for the newly awakened laity, Luther with remarkable rapidity developed his new and scriptural teaching on the nature of the Church, on the duties of the state, on the essence of the sacraments, and on the inner life of the individual Christian.
The tractates of 1520, to which that on “The Papacy at Rome” belongs, like most of Luther’s writings, were drawn forth from him in large defensively, under provocation from the other side, or by the exigencies of the occasion. His correspondence FC57 during the first half of 1520 reveals them as a result (with fresh causes arising) of the stir at Leipzig.
Said Luther (February, 1520), “You cannot make a pen out of a sword: the Word of God is a sword. I was unwilling to be forced to come forward in public; and the more unwilling I am, the more I am drawn into the contest.” Widely and eagerly read, these piquant publications made Luther the awakener, the developer, and, as Harnack declares, the spiritual center of the reformatory thought that was now rising to a crisis.
Fortunate it was, that the infancy of modern printing and the birth of Luther were contemporary, and that Luther turned to the printing press to such an extent in that critical period, that in the single year under discussion the number of printed German works was doubled.
Our little book of June 26, 1520, is the earliest of his writings to present a full outline of his teaching on the nature of the ChristianChurch. Driven by an antagonist, to whom his work is a reply, to write FC58 in German for the laity, Luther gives them a dear and fundamental insight into this burning subject. His teachings “which he had just one year before maintained at the Leipzig Disputation are here unfolded, followed to their logical conclusions and dearly presented.” FC59 This flying counter-attack against the “famous Romanist at Leipzig” thus becomes, in the judgment of Kostlin, FC60 “one of the most important of his general doctrinal treatises of that period.”
Luther’s reply was written in short order during the last two weeks in May.
FC61 It came about in this wise: Eck at the Disputation had driven Luther to declare that belief in the divine supremacy of Rome was not necessary to salvation. Following this, in fall, a Franciscan friar, Augustine von Alveld, had risen to attack Luther and glorify the papacy, having received an appointment from Adolf, the Bishop of Merseburg (who had posted the inhibition on the Leipzig churches against the Disputation), FC62 to write against the Reformer. Alveid’s work, justifying the divine right of the Apostolic Chair, to all learned men, appeared early in May, FC63 in the Latinlanguage, in a first edition full of errors, followed quickly by a second edition. FC64 Alveld attempted to cut Luther to pieces with “seven words,” of which the first was recta ratio ; the second, canonica scriptura ; the third, veracientia (gained through the Churchteachers and scholastics) ; the fourth, pietas sacr a; the fifth, sanus intellectus ; the sixth, simplex et pudica sapientia ; the seventh, pura et integra scientia .
On Alveld’s miserable jumble, in which the Reformer is alluded to as a “heretic,” “lunatic,” “wolf,” Luther was not willing to waste any time (despite a threatening letter from Alveld); but jotted down some points for John Lonicer, FC65 who on June 1st published a sharp expose FC66 of the Leipzig Romanist’s weaknesses. FC67 Although the monastic authorities at Leipzig, fearing Luther, now attempted to suppress Alveld, that worthy at once came out FC68 with a new work FC69 on the same theme and this time in the German language. FC70 It stirred Luther’s blood. “If the jackanapes had not issued his little book in German to poison the defenseless laity,” he said, “I would have looked on it as too small a matter to take up.” As it was, with great rapidity he wrote his “The Papacy at Rome against the Celebrated Romanist at Leipzig.” Going to press in May, the book was completed on the 26th of June. The twelve known editions are all quartos and range in size from twenty-two to thirty-two leaves. The first FC71 two editions were printed by Melchior Lotther in Wittenberg; one by Peypus in Nuremberg; two by Silvan Otmar in Augsburg; one by George Nadler in Augsburg; one by Adam Petri in Basel and one by Andrew Exatander. FC72 Incidentally Luther handles the “Alveld Ass” FC73 and the Roman cause without gloves, but in substance he explains to the laymen what Christianity really is, FC74 i.e., unfolds to them the essence of the ChristianChurch. FC75 In doing so he takes advanced ground for civil and religiousliberty. The traditional mediaeval idea of universal monarchy is dealt a heavy blow. Neither in CivilGovernment nor in the Church is there need of a single monarchical head. “The Roman Empire governed itself for a long time, and very well, without the one head, and many other countries in the world did the same. How does the Swiss Confederacy govern itself at present?”
Against the modern demand that the Church shall socialize itself, that it shall organize as the public center in a community of the people’s civic life, that it shall enter the nation’s political activities for moral uplift, and that ministers should become what Luther would call “preachers of dreams in material communities,” our book places itself on record. FC76 Against the widespread demand that Christianity should get together into one world-wide visible ecclesiastical order, Luther’s words are peremptory. He declares that the one true Church is already a spiritual community composed of all the believers in Christ upon earth, that it is not a bodily assembly, but “an assembly of the hearts in one faith,” that the true Church is “a spiritual thing, and not anything external or outward,” that “external unity is not the fulfillment of a divinecommandment,” and that those who emphasize the externalization of the Church into one visible or national order “are in reality Jews.” FC77 Luther refers to those without the unity of the RomanChurch as still within the true Church. “For the Muscovites, Russians, Greeks, Bohemians, and many other great peoples in the world, all these believe as we do, baptize as we do, preach as we do, live as we do.”
But if Luther attacks the supremacy of outer organization in the Church, he no less forcibly disputes the supremacy of man’s own inner thinking, his reasoning, in theology. He defines human reason as “our ability which is drawn from experience in temporal things” and declares it ridiculous to place this ability on a level with the divinelaw. FC78 He compares the man who uses his reason to defend God’s law with the man who in the thick of battle would use his bare hand and head to protect his helmet and sword.
He insists that Scripture is the supreme and only rule of faith, FC79 and ridicules the Romanists who inject their reason into the Scriptures, “making out of them what they wish, as though they were a nose of wax to be pulled around at will.”
As might be supposed, Luther’s book, thus set against external unity of human ecclesiastical organization, and against the inner rule of human thinking, is equally strong against the human visualization of divineworship. He argues against those who “turn spiritual edification into outward show”, and those who chiefly apply the name Church to an assembly in which “the external rites are in use, such as chanting, reading, vestments; and the name ‘spiritual estate’ is given to the members of the holy orders, not on account of their faith (which perhaps they do not have), but because they have been consecrated with an external anointing, wear distinctive dress, make special prayers and do special works, have their places in the choir, and seem to attend to all such external matters of worship.” FC80 The fallacy of the argument that because the Old Testament was a type of the New, therefore the material types of the Old Testament must be reproduced in the New, is exposed by him. FC81 The open and fearless opposition to the popedom at Rome, which already had appeared in the Diet at Augsburg in 1518, and, more circumspectly, in the Leipzig Disputation in 1519, is very free FC82 in this booklet to the laity of 1520, and is preliminary to the more intense antagonism which will appear in “The Babylonian Captivity.” At Leipzig, Eck had laid emphasis on the Scripture passage, “Feed my sheep,” and both this passage FC83 and the one of Matthew 16:18 (“Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church”) are explained by Luther for the laity. He charges the popes with having forsaken the faith, with living under the power of Satan, and with being themselves heretical. FC84 This tractate applies doctrine to existing institutions, and makes the truth clear to the laity. We see in it the power of Luther in stirring the popular mind. We do not regard the coarse invectives of Luther (which many cultured men of today seem to cite with outward horror — and inner enjoyment) as a mark of low peasant birth, or of crudeness of breeding, but as the language of a great leader who, in desperate struggle with the powers that be, knew how to attach himself to the mind of his age in such way as to influence it. How noble and great is his own remark at the close of this booklet on others’ allusion to himself in print! “Whoever will, let him freely slander and condemn my person and my life. It is already forgiven him. God has given me a glad and fearless spirit, which they shall not embitter for me, I trust, not in all eternity.”
Luther, in this pamphlet, insists that none are to be regarded as heretics simply because they are not under the Pope; and that the Pope’s decrees, to stand, must endure the test of Scripture. Luther wrote in May. In June he told Spalatin that if the Pope did not reform, he would appeal to the Emperor and the German nobility. Within another month that appeal appeared.
The men of Leipzig feared the work of Luther, and the rector of the University had pled for mercy. Luther replied that Leipzig deserved to be placed in the pillory, FC85 that he had no desire to make sport of the city and its university, but was pressed into it by the bombast of the Romanist who boasted that he was a “public teacher of the whole Holy Scripture at Leipzig”; and by the fact that Alveld had dedicated his work to the city and its Council. Aireld answered Lonicer and Luther bitterly, but Luther replied no more. THEODORE E. SCHMAUK.