The work On the Councils and the Churches is intimately related to the Smalcald Articles. Both of these writings originated as a result of the proposal to hold a general council of the Church to settle the questions that Protestantism had raised.
As early as 1520, Luther had urged the assembly of a general council for the reformation of the Church and had declared that if the pope were unwilling to call such a council, the secular authorities should do so. His Open Letter to the Christian Nobility is an argument for the calling of a council and a suggested program for its action. In 1524 the project was taken up by the German diet, then meeting at Nuremberg. It demanded that the pope call “a general, free, and universal council of Christendom,” to be held as quickly as possible “at a suitable place in Germany.” The purpose of the council was to settle the difficulties arising out of the Lutheran movement and, at the same time, to remove the abuses complained of in the Gravamina of the German Nation, presented at Worms and reiterated at Nuremberg. From that time forward the plan was never entirely dropped. It appears in the proceedings of one diet after another. It was espoused by the emperor and pressed by him as a necessary means for restoring peace within the Church and remedying the evils that were apparent in the Church’s life.
The proposal was not kindly received at Rome. The memory of the reformcouncils of the fifteenth century and of what they had done to the papacy was too fresh in men’s minds. Clement VII (1523-34) opposed it with all the devious arts of Medicean diplomacy and during his lifetime, nothing was done toward the assembling of a council. His successor, Paul III (1534-49), was unable to resist the emperor’s demand, which was becoming more insistent. At the time of his accession, he publicly declared his intention to call a council. It did not actually assemble until 1545, at Trent, but for ten years before that, talk of the council was in the air and desultory preparations were being made for it.
The first call for the council was issued in June, 1536. It was appointed to meet in Mantua in May, 1537. At the same time, the pope appointed a commission of cardinals to report on conditions in the Roman Church and propose measures of reform. f145 This action by the pope compelled Luther and his associates to define their position toward the council. As late as 1530, in the Preface to the Augsburg Confession, they had declared their willingness to “make appearance and defend their cause” before such a council, and the Peace of Nuremberg, in 1532, between the imperial authorities and the Smalcald League, had been arranged to run until a council should be held. As the situation was developing, however, it was becoming more and more apparent that in such a council the Protestant cause would not have a real hearing, and that the kind of reformation which Luther and his followers desired would not be accomplished by it.
More than a year before the call for the council went out, Paul III had begun to sound out the German Protestants. In February, 1535, he had commissioned Paul Vergerius, papal nuncio to Germany, to seek assurance of their participation. His replies were unsatisfactory and in December the Smalcald League, representing the Lutheran princes and cities, laid down four conditions for their entrance into the council. It must be a free council, not a papal council; the Protestants must be invited to it as full participants, not as heretics; its decisions must be based on the authority of the Scriptures, not of the pope; it must be held in Germany, if at all possible. These conditions were entirely unacceptable at Rome.
It was in these circumstances that the Smalcald Articles were prepared.
Luther was their author, but they present the view of Christian truth and of the state of the Church which his party held when the council was imminent. They were composed in December, 1536, and signed by Jonas, Cruciger, Bugenhagen, Amsdorf, Melanchthon, John Agricola, and Spalatin. They were never actually adopted by the Smalcald League, but were published by Luther in 1538.
Meanwhile, the project for a council had run into other difficulties, chiefly created by the hostility between Charles V and the King of France. In April, 1537, one month before the council was to have met, the date was postponed until November 1, 1537. Later it was postponed still farther, until May 1, 1538, and the meeting-place was changed from Mantua to Vicenza, but on that date the emperor and the French king were at war and the meeting was impossible. Finally (May 21, 1539), the council was indefinitely postponed.
It was during this time of uncertainty about the holding of the council and about the things that such a council would be likely to do, that the treatise On the Councils and the Churches was written. The composition may have been begun as early as September, 1538. It was continued, at intervals, during the following months, and completed in March, 1539. It may have been in print as early as May of that year, but was certainly published before August. It was inevitable that it should have many points of contact with the Smalcald Articles, to which, indeed, it is the best and most authoritative commentary. It is also closely connected with a whole group of minor writings of the same period.
This treatise deserves a place in any edition of Luther’s selected works. It stands in this edition as the representative work of the old Luther. In it he appears as the disillusioned reformer. All the hopes for a reformation of the Church, such as he had envisioned in 1520, have disappeared. The thing is not going to come to pass. Nevertheless, the fight for a pure Church is not to be given up. The disillusioned reformer is not the discouraged reformer.
His courage is as high, his position just as uncompromising, as in the days when he hoped that the Roman church could be reformed. Nevertheless, there is a certain crabbedness and testiness in this writing that is not found in the best of his earlier books and tracts, though in violence of expression it is surpassed by some of his still later works. It is the work of a man who has lived for years with illness as a constant companion.
The work is interesting as showing the extent of Luther’s knowledge of the Church’s past. It contains repeated references to his sources of knowledge.
They are Eusebius’ Ecc1esiastical History, which he used in Rufinus’ Latin translation, with that author’s supplements; Cassiodorus’ Historia tripartita, which consisted of translated excerpts from the histories of Theodoret, Socrates, and Sozomen; and the Canon Law. To these were added the then newly published, two-volume work of Peter Crabbe, issued in 1538 under the title Concilia omnia. It was the most comprehensive collection of material bearing upon the councils to which he had access, and he quotes it frequently. He also cites, though with much criticism, Platina’s Lives of the Pope(Historia de vitis pontificum, written between 1471 and 1481).
The work falls into three parts. Part 1 argues the thesis that the Church cannot be reformed according to the councils and the fathers. Part discusses the functions of councils, what they can and what they cannot do.
The discussion takes a broad scope. Luther takes up the first four ecumenical councils, — Nicaea (325), Constantinople (381), Ephesus (431), and Chalcedon (451), — and the Council of Jerusalem in apostolic days. He examines the records of their proceedings with a view to determining what they actually did, and what of their acts had purely temporary and what had permanent significance. He concludes that their powers are limited to defending the faith of the Church against new errors, and that they have no authority to set up new articles of faith. Incidentally he discusses the heresies that caused the holding of the councils, and runs occasionally into long digressions on matters indirectly connected with the main issues. Apart from the revelation of his historical knowledge and the keenness of his historical criticism, this section has deep interest as an exposition of Luther’s own Christology.
Part 3 deals with the question, “What is the Church and what are the marks by which it is known?” This was not a new subject for Luther. He had discussed it as early as 1519, and his answer to the question is substantially the same as that which he had given twenty years before, in his debate with John Eck at Leipzig and in his tract, The Papacy at Rome. Here, however, Luther treats the “marks” of the Church in a broader way than in any of his other writings. Instead of the three marks usually named — the preached Word and the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper — he enumerates seven, adding the public forgiveness of sins (“ the office of the keys”), the office of the ministry, public worship and persecution. It is this third part of the work that has the greatest permanent significance.
The text of the treatise is found in Weimar Ed. L, 509-653; Erlangen Ed. 25:219-338; Erlangen Ed., 2 25:278-448; Berlin Ed., 2:1-172; St. Louis Ed., 16:1247 ff. The translation is from the text of Weimar Ed.
Literature. The most valuable commentaries on this treatise are the Introduction to it and to the Smalcald Articles in Weimar Ed. L, 160 ff, 488ff.KOSTLIN-KAWERAU, Luther, 2:404ff andKOSTLIN, Luther’s Theology (English translation by HAY). A summary of the argument in MACKINNON, Luther, 4, (1930), 132ff.
On special points,SCHAEFER, L. als Kirchen historiker, is invaluable.
CHARLES M. JACOBS MOUNT AIRY PHILADELPHIA