George Malcolm Stephenson.

The conservative character of Martin Luther online

. (page 5 of 7)
Online LibraryGeorge Malcolm StephensonThe conservative character of Martin Luther → online text (page 5 of 7)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


with his own eyes the destruction which had
already been wrought, and returned with the
most gloomy forebodings of what was yet to
come. Germany was face to face with an-
archy.

Luther, the apostle of reform, could not
afford to allow his name to be used in con-
nection with revolutions^'' Disregarding all
personal considerations, lie made one mighty
effort to disentangle the religious reforma-
tion from civil war and anarchy. Irrespec-
tive of whether or not he saw, as we now see,



?



THE PEASANTS' REVOLT 97

that much of the peasant program was pre-
mature and impossible of realization at that
stage of social development, he cannot justly
be criticised for ranging himself on the side
of law and order. No Modern government
worthy of the name has ever admitted the
right of its subjects to resort to arms in order
to resist its duly constituted authorities. It
may be set down as a fundamental fact that
Luther's face was set as firm as steel against
the use of force to effect reform, and a careful
examination of his whole body of writings
and speeches will prove it. He may have
been inconsistent at times — what great man
is not? — but he was never an opportunist.

It has been asserted that after his return to
Wittenberg from his speaking campaign he
prudently waited a few days, until the cause
of the peasants was obviously hopeless, be-
fore publicly taking his stand on the side of
the authorities. Had Luther been that kind
of a man he would have waited until the tide
had turned. The statement can be dis-
proved in the simplest possible manner. It
was less than three days after he had aban-
doned his journey that he wrote his tract



98 CHARACTER OF MARTIN LUTHER

"Against the murdering and thieving hordes
of Peasants," in which he condemns sav-
agely and without qualification the uprising.
It was written when the hour was darkest,
when it seemed that only the most extreme
measures would avail. If the tide had turned
and the cause was hopeless, what man would
have jeopardized his popularity and good
name among the peasants by launching
against them the most scathing and violent
pamphlet he ever wrote? Would he have
exhorted the princes to "stab, smite, destroy
here, as you can"?

The peasants, said Luther, deserved death
for three reasons: (1) They had broken
their oath of fealty; (2) they had resorted
to rioting and plundering; and (3) they had
covered their sins with the name of the Gos-
pel. In no way did Luther desire an uncon-
trolled rising of the people. It was the duty
of the prince and ruler in his own territory to
protect his subjects against wrongs, whether
inflicted by the pope, merchants, or nobles.

The only justification for the unpre-
cedented harshness of Luther's pamphlet
against the peasants (if, indeed, it can be



THE PEASANTS' REVOLT 99

justified) is the instinctive horror he always
felt for sudden breaks with the past and espe-
cially the resort to force. He probably felt
that the situation called for the sharpest
weapon he could forge; that anarchy must
be dealt a death blow in order to rescue soci-
ety and to save the Reformation. Luther
always drew a sharp line of demarcation be-
tween spiritual and secular authority, and
he ever insisted that it was the duty of the
Christian subject to be obedient to the secu-
lar authority unless the men charged with its
enforcement were manifestly in the wrong.

In his "Address to the Christian Nobility"
he lays down the Modern principle that
every person living within the boundaries of
a state is subject to its laws. He emphatic-
ally rejects the Medieval idea of a state
within the state, which the strong rulers of
the later Middle i\ges and of the early I\Iod-
ern Era sought to erase from the minds of
their subjects. ''Forasmuch as the tem-
poral power has been ordained by God for
the punishment of the bad and the protection
of the good, therefore we must let it do its
duty throughout the whole Christian body,



100 CHARACTER OF MARTIN LUTHER

without respect of persons, whether it strikes
popes, bishops, priests, monks, nuns, or
whoever it may be." As usual he invokes
the authority of Scripture for his statement.
St. Paul says: "Let every soul be subject to
the higher powers." Also St. Peter: "Sub-
mit yourselves to every ordinance of man for
the Lord's sake."

It must not be forgotten, however, that in
the document just quoted Luther made a
stirring appeal for reform to be effected by
the established organs of society; but if those
who have been entrusted with the adminis-
tration of their offices are remiss in their
duties and disregard their oaths, they may be
called to account and even dismissed from
office — a fundamental principle of Modern
constitutional law.

If the state is a part of the Divine economy
for man, Luther accepted the logic of the
situation and held that it is the right and
duty of the government to wage war in de-
fence of its subjects and its own integrity.
In such a war the subjects are bound to offer
their estates and lives and to conduct the
war so as to bring the adversary into subjec-



THE PEASANTS' REVOLT 101

tion, without, however, resorting to undue
severity and cruelty.

We shall not stray far from the truth in
assessing Luther's part in the peasants' re-
volt if we single out the controlling motive of
his life molded in the statue at Worms,
which represents him armed only with a
Bible. "There is no passage in Scripture,"
he wrote to Melanchthon from the Wart-
burg, "where we are commanded to despise
those in authority, but rather to honor and
pray for them."

Luther leaned heavily on the secular arm,
not only from choice, but from necessity.
His unshaken determination to stand by the
ruling powers almost overwhelmed him in
the fateful year of the Peasants' Revolt. As
it was, the insurrection had a disastrous
effect upon the conservative reformation.
Nothing that Luther could do would ever
dispel from the minds of the peasants the
conviction that the man whose gospel prom-
ised so much for them was anything but a
traitor to their cause. Even the princes,
many of them, abandoned the evangelical
movement, which they believed concealed



102 CHARACTER OF MARTIN LUTHER

in its bosom the dagger of revolt. Germany
divided against itself; the hope of a national
Church was destroyed in the conflagration.
But Luther, although robbed of some of his
hopefulness, never abandoned his conviction
that in the long run the shield of faith would
withstand the fiery darts of the wicked.

After the outbreak of the prophets at
Wittenberg, says Professor Emerton, "it be-
came perhaps the most important and dis-
tinctly the most difificult problem of the
Lutheran party to show to the world its con-
servative and constructive side, without
withdrawing for a moment from its original
position of hostility to the papal system."



CHAPTER VI
The Marburg Colloquy

The historian writes in the sand; and
every age writes its own history. The docu-
ments of the past — the historian's material —
reflect the letter but not the spirit of the age
in which they were written. The supreme,
and perhaps impossible, aim of the historian
should be to breathe into the lifeless pages
which record the words of the world's great
men their inmost thoughts, conflicting emo-
tions, the obstacles which loom up before
them, the personal seasoning, and, in short,
all those elements summed up in the term
the "psychology of the age."

The student of the Era of the Protestant
Reformation approaches his subject with a
perspective which enables him to levy a more
accurate assessment of values. Herein he
possesses an undoubted advantage over the
men who were the instruments of destiny,
and to whom the future was a closed book.

103



104 CHARACTER OF MARTIN LUTHER

But in proportion to the degree in which his
age differs in the spirit and conditions of that
age, his judgment of men may be uncharit-
able and erratic. The citizens of a nation
which has demonstrated the practical appli-
cation of the truth that all men are created
equal instinctively sympathize with the Ger-
man peasants, whose demands in their
essence breathed that spirit. In Luther's
attitude we see reflected the harsh, unreason-
able spirit of a time forever past. The dis-
criminating mind of Professor Emerton,
however, sensed the true meaning of his ac-
tion when he wrote :

"Luther's perfectly sound instinct had
shown him from the first that the German
people were not to be carried away by any
abstractions of democracy. Nor, on the
other hand, was there any hope of reviving
the ancient authority of the emperor. Luth-
er's appeal to the German nobility was based
on the fact that whatever political virtue
there was in Germany was to be found in its
princes, and the response of the princes
proved them equal to the emergency. The
call to defend the new religion involved also



THE MARBURG COLLOQUY 105

the prospect of complete deliverance from all
imperial control.

"The full meaning of the Lutheran move-
ment is, of course, far clearer to us than it
could have been to anyone in the year 1520,
and yet as early as 1525 every one of the
points of view just indicated had been clearly
recognized by every thoughtful observer.
The tendencies were plain ; the question was,
how soon and how far would tendencies de-
velop into facts?"

In a period when society is fluid abstrac-
tions precipitate into the concrete. Ideas
become real: individuals personify move-
ments. Lutheranism, Zwinglianism, and
Calvinism suggest more than men ; they are
institutions — civilizations if you please. The
personality is there, but it has been poured
into a mold. Leadership is much more than
a response to the Zeitgeist, but it can never
be disassociated from it.

The religious movements in the several
countries of Europe had many things in com-
mon, but they were profoundly affected by
the personality of the leaders and the condi-
tions peculiar to each country. The basic



106 CHARACTER OF MARTIN LUTHER

principles of Calvinism took form in Calvin's
legal mind, but Calvinism carried a distinct
flavor in France and Scotland and in the New
England wilderness.

In Germany Lutheranism and Zwinglian-
ism jostled each other. Having much in
common, they shaded off into each other;
but the differences were fundamental. They
remain fundamental to this day, when the
men and environments which gave birth to
them have long since passed away.

Huldreich Zwingli, the Swiss reformer, was
born on New Year's day, 1484, being thus a
few weeks younger than Luther. Although
there are points of similarity between the
two men, their differences are so elemental
that it is hardly a stretch of the truth to say
that about the only thing they had in com-
mon was enmity to the Roman Church.
Luther became a reformer in spite of himself;
he spoke the plain truth at the diet of
Worms, when he said: "Here I stand. I
can do no other." He spoke throughout his
whole life as one who could not help it. His
terrible struggle with the problem of sin and
redemption had cut deep lines in his char-



THE MARBURG COLLOQUY 107

acter. The bonds of historic Christianity
held him fast. The thing he sought to avoid
above all else was an abrupt break with the
past. Only the compelling sense of respon-
sibility could jar him loose from the old
moorings.

Zwingli approached Christian truth
through the side-door of humanism. The
mysticism of the Gospel of John and of the
Epistles of Paul in his mind were blended in
a background far different from Luther's.
Zwingli was the scientist; Luther was the
mystic. Science and reason bowed to Luth-
er's Bible; Zwingli's Bible yielded its truth
upon the application of a more Modern
exegesis. Luther's rather arrogant state-
ment that Zwingli was of "another spirit"
was essentially correct. Zwingli was incapa-
ble of taking in Luther's conception of an un-
broken doctrinal connection with the past.
Luther favored the retention of everything
not contrary to Scripture, while Zwingli
would retain nothing not expressly com-
manded by Scripture. Luther's catalogue of
"non-essentials" meant little to Zwingli, and
his list of "essentials" was radically cur-



108 CHARACTER OF MARTIN LUTHER

tailed. The meaning of all this is that the
Zwinglian movement was radical, while the
Lutheran was conservative.

The greatest obstacle to the union of the
German and Swiss movements was doctrinal
divergence; but another circumstance must
be taken into account. Zwingli's political
philosophy was quite different from that of
the German reformer. Luther fought shy
of political and social problems. Zwingli
was a statesman, who believed that religious
reform should be carried on the wings of
political action. He was a republican who
had imbibed the spirit of a self-governing
community, and he had none of Luther's
ingrained respect for authority. Luther
never favored schemes of aggressive warfare
to propagate his gospel, but Zwingli's mind
was full of political combinations, and his
life came to an end on the field of battle,
whither he had marched with his followers.
It can readily be understood that Zwingli's
political activity was distasteful to Luther,
who read into it a mistrust of spiritual forces.

Luther had heard of Zwingli and his work,
but they had never crossed swords until



THE MARBURG COLLOQUY 109

1526, when they entered into a public con-
troversy over the doctrine of the Lord's Sup-
per. Luther had already acquired a distrust
of his opponent as an ally of the radical
Carlstadt. Public discussion carried on at
long range seldom promotes harmony, and
in this case the upshot of it all was to con-
firm the respective parties in their opinions
and to reveal the utter hopelessness of a
solution by compromise.

In his explanation of the Third Article of
the Apostles' Creed Luther made plain his
conception of the way of salvation. "I be-
lieve that I cannot by my own reason or
strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord, or
come unto him; but the Holy Ghost has
called me through the Gospel, enlightened
me by his gifts, and sanctified and preserved
me in the true faith; in like manner as he
calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the
whole Christian Church on earth, and pre-
serves it in union with Jesus Christ in the
true faith; in which Christian Church he
daily forgives abundantly all my sins, and
the sins of all believers, and will raise up me
and all the dead at the last day, and will



110 CHARACTER OF MARTLN LUTHER

grant everlasting life to me and to all who be-
lieve in Christ. This is most certainly true."

Luther believed in the total depravity of
human nature and in the absolute hopeless-
ness of man to obtain salvation by his own
efforts. Free will without the grace of God
is able to do nothing but sin. Now since
man cannot by his own efforts attain unto
eternal salvation and lead a Godly life, it
follows that it is only through the grace of
God manifested in the atonement of the
Saviour. God would have all men to be
saved, and freely and without price extends
his grace to all, but he has appointed certain
external and visible means through which it
may be received. The means of grace are
the Word of God and the holy sacraments.

Luther, as we have seen, rejected the sac-
ramental system of the Roman Church, re-
taining only those "outward signs of inward
grace" expressly instituted by the Saviour
himself, as recorded in the writings of the
New Testament. In the "Babylonian Cap-
tivity" he retained the sacraments of bap-
tism, the Lord's Supper, and penance, but in



THE MARBURG COLLOQUY 111

the two Catechisms published in the year
1529 he retained only the first two.

Luther's slavish adherence to the literal
words of the Bible led him far away from the
old Church, but he could not travel to the
end of the road with Zwingli and those of
like mind who found no half-way station be-
tween Rome and reason. Luther's doctrine
of the "real presence" of the body and blood
of Christ in the bread and wine is fully as
difficult, if not more so, for the mind of the
rationalist to apprehend as is the Catholic
doctrine of transubstantiation, that the
"substance" of the bread and wine through
the consecration of the priest are changed
into the body and blood of Christ, while the
"accidents" of taste, color, and form remain.
Luther, who accepted without question all
the miracles recorded in the Bible, found no
stumblingblock in the doctrine that "It is
the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus
Christ, in and under the bread and wine
which we Christians are commanded by the
Word of God to eat and drink." "Why
should not Christ," he asks, "include his
body in the substance of the bread just as



112 CHARACTER OF MARTIN LUTHER

well as in the accidents? The two sub-
stances of fire and iron are so mingled in the
heated iron that every part is both fire and
iron. Why could not much rather Christ's
body be thus contained in every part of the
substance of the bread?" To make a dis-
tinction between the substance and form,
and to say that one changes while the other
remains, was to Luther an absurd juggling
with words, a mere philosophical quibble un-
warranted by the words of Scripture.

As to the efficacy of the sacrament Luther
and the Romanists were not so far apart, but
their views certainly did not coincide. They
were one on the point that by partaking of
the sacrament the soul receives food, which
nourishes and strengthens the new man; but
Luther laid more emphasis on the subjective
attitude of the communicant. He denied
that the sacrament becomes efficacious in its
being celebrated, regardless of the attitude
of the individual. He did not, however,
make the presence of Christ in the elements
dependent upon the faith of the communi-
cant.

Luther, as we have observed, had a pro-



THE MARBURG COLLOQUY US

found contempt for human reason in matters
of faith. His defense of the real presence is
not concerned with explanations how it is
possible; he is more concerned to deny that
transubstantiation is the necessary explana-
tion of that presence. He accepted the lit-
eral meaning of the words "This is my body "
and "This is my blood," and had no patience
with those who gave them a figurative inter-
pretation, as did Zwingli.

The intellectual honesty of the man is
shown in a letter to the Christians of Strass-
burg, of December 14, 1524: "I freely con-
fess that if Carlstadt or any other could have
convinced me five years ago that there was
nothing in the sacrament but mere bread and
wine, he would have done me a great service.
I was sorely tempted on this point and wres-
tled with myself and tried to believe that it
was so, for I saw that thereby I could give
the hardest rap to the papacy. I read treat-
ises by two men who wrote more ably in de-
fence of the theory than has Dr. Carlstadt
and who did not so torture the Word to their
own imaginations. But I am bound; I can-
not believe as they do ; the text is too power-



114 CHARACTER OF MARTIN LUTHER

ful for me and will not let itself be wrenched
from the plain sense by argument.

"And if any one could prove to-day that
the sacrament were mere bread and wine, he
would not much anger me if he was only rea-
sonable. (Alas! I am too much inclined that
way myself when I feel the old Adam.) But
Dr. Carlstadt's ranting only confirms me in
the opposite opinion."

Christendom for centuries has been di-
vided into sects. Mankind craves religious,
political, and social creeds. The denial of
a creed sometimes affirms another. The
period of the Reformation was a time when
men demanded a statement of religious
principles. This was especially true of the
rulers. It was important that the reformers
should clear their skirts of political heresies,
and to this end they were either called upon
or felt it necessary to formulate statements of
their religious principles, in order to avoid
friction with political authorities.

The Swiss movement as typified in Zwingli
flowed in an entirely different channel from
that of the German Reformation, partly be-
cause of institutional differences rooted in



THE MARBURG COLLOQUY 115

national traits and partly because of the
character of their leaders. Zwingli could not
accept Luther's doctrine of the total de-
pravity of human nature, and his mind was
unable to follow Luther's Biblical exegesis
and mystical conception of the Eucharist.
He rejected altogether the doctrine of the
real presence. The celebration of the Lord's
Supper was a great memorial, in which the
partakers confessed their belief in the sacri-
fice of the Son of God. According to Zwingli,
neither the words of Scripture nor the neces-
sity of man required the belief that Christ
was corporeally present in the bread and wine.
God deals with men without visible and ex-
ternal means. Luther detected in this the
spirit of the Anabaptists, who taught that
God enlightens without the external Word.

The verbal warfare over the nature of the
sacrament was distasteful and alarming to
Philip, landgrave of Hesse, who deplored
factional strife among the Protestants. He
attached no such importance to the issue.
It was of far greater importance to empha-
size the matters held in common, not the
least of which was enmity to the papacy and



116 CHARACTER OF MARTIN LUTHER

the emperor. His mind was occupied with
plans for a defensive league of Protestant
princes against the encroachments of the
Catholic rulers. For this reason he invited
the men who had been hurling epithets at
each other to a conference at Marburg, to
meet on October 1, 1529.

Zwingli accepted the invitation with avid-
ity, not because he expected to yield one jot
or tittle on the question of the sacrament, but
because he believed in the possibility of com-
ing to some sort of an understanding which
would make possible closer co-operation be-
tween the factions. He would waive certain
points in favor of political expediency.

Luther was skeptical of the whole business.
Political considerations did not appeal to
him at all. He had written to the elector of
Saxony that there was no necessity for a
Protestant league. " Do not, therefore, pro-
ceed with this league, for it will only incite
the opponents to form one also, and possibly
to take measures for self-protection and de-
fence, which otherwise they would not have
thought of. Moreover it is to be feared —
nay, rather, it is almost certain — that



THE MARBURG COLLOQUY 117

wherever that turbulent young Landgrave
has started a league he will discover good rea-
sons for not only acting on the defensive, but
for resorting to aggression as he did a year
ago." By forming an alliance with the
"Zwinglians who are fighting against God
and the sacrament as the most inveterate
enemies of the Divine Word, ... we
are taking all their ungodliness on our own
shoulders and making ourselves participa-
tors therein."

In accepting the invitation of the land-
grave Luther wrote that, while the desire for
unity and peace was laudable, he had little
hope that the parties could "see eye to eye"
regarding the sacrament. "They might
have written us long ago, saying how they
wished peace, or could still do so, for I cannot
yield to them, being convinced that our cause
is right and theirs wrong. Therefore pray
consider whether this Marburg conference
will do good or harm; for if they do not
yield we shall part without fruit, and our
meeting, as well as your Grace's outlay and
trouble, will have been in vain. And then
they will boast, and load us with reproach, as



118 CHARACTER OF MARTIN LUTHER

is their wont, so things will be worse than
ever. ... If this spirit of union should
result in bloodshed, such action is within its
nature, as was seen in Franz von Sickingen,
Carlstadt, and Miinzer; and there, too, we
were blameless."

Luther entered the colloquy more to
oblige the landgrave of Hesse and the elector
of Saxony than out of hope for union. Luth-
er's mind was settled when he arrived at
Marburg. Was it out of fear that the essen-
tial nature of their differences might for one
brief moment vanish from his mind that he
wrote with a piece of chalk on the table be-
fore him, THIS IS MY BODY.? Did it sig-
nify that it was not a question of yielding his
own opinion, but something far more serious:
compromising the Word of God? Luther
not only was adamant in refusing to conceal
their differences by verbal camouflage, but
declined to grasp the right hand of brother-


1 2 3 5 7

Online LibraryGeorge Malcolm StephensonThe conservative character of Martin Luther → online text (page 5 of 7)