George Malcolm Stephenson.

The conservative character of Martin Luther online

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hood extended by Zwingli, remarking that
"Yours is a different spirit from ours."

In pronouncing judgment on Luther's con-
duct at the conference, it must be kept in
mind that he was as fully alive to the desir-


ability of union as was the Swiss reformer.
But union at the expense of God's Word and
his own conscience was too great a price to
pay. During the progress of the conference
he wrote to his wife that, although he could
not count the Sacramentarians, as he called
Zwingli and his followers, as brethren, he
wished to live at peace and on good terms with
them. Five years later he wrote to the land-
grave as follows: "Now your Grace knows
how anxious I have always been for unity,
having been much tried by such dissension,
knowing how injurious it is to Christ's king-
dom, and that the pope would have been
humbled long ago had your Grace managed
to carry through the much-desired negotia-
tions with Bucer and his friends. And even
yet I am ready to concede all that I can with
a clear conscience, but I fancy that even
among the foreign [Swiss] preachers there are
few who adhere to Biicer, and both parties
will perhaps later decry both one and the

"Nothing could be dearer to my heart
than an enduring concord, but if its founda-


tion be brittle and precarious, then peace is
at an end."

In conclusion it may be permitted to ap-
propriate the verdicts of three liberal his-
torians, all of whom reject Luther's doctrine
of the sacrament of the Lord's Supper.

Professor Harnack writes: "Had Luther
yielded in the question of the Eucharist, the
result would have been the formation of
ecclesiastical and political combinations,
which, in all probability, would have been
more disastrous for the German Refor-
mation than its isolation, for the hands
that were held out to Luther — Carlstadt,
Schwenkfeld, Zwingli, etc. — and which to all
appearance could not be grasped simply on
account of the doctrine of the Eucharist,
were by no means pure hands. Great po-
litical plans, and dangerous forms of uncer-
tainty as to what evangelical faith is, would
have obtained the rights of citizenship in
the German Reformation. Under these cir-
cumstances the doctrine of the Eucharist
constituted a salutary restraint. In its lit-
eral import what Luther asserted was not
correct; but it had its ultimate source in the


purpose of the strong, unique man to main-
tain his cause in its purity, as it had pre-
sented itself to him, and to let nothing for-
eign be forced upon him; it sprang from the
well-grounded doubt as to whether these peo-
ple had not another spirit. In the choice of
the means he committed an error; in the
matter itself, so far as what was in question
was the averting of premature unions, he was
probably in the right."

These are the words of Professor Vedder,
who calls Luther a consistent bigot to the
last: "And, in fairness to Luther, it must be
added that he had a strong reason, quite
convincing to his own mind, against the alli-
ance proposed, or any alliance. He had
actually persuaded himself that a Protestant
league would lead to bloodshed rather than
prevent it; although the avowed purpose of
the union was purely defensive, and no party
was to be pledged to anything, unless some
member were attacked on account of reli-
gion. It is possible, of course, that a strong
Protestant league might, in some future con-
tingency, have been persuaded to engage in a
policy of aggression, but under all the cir-


cumstances Luther's idea seems entirely ab-
surd and without foundation. Nevertheless,
we must grant him sincerity and consistency
in this attitude."

Professor Ranke, referring to the refusal of
the Lutherans to form political alliances
against the emperor and Catholic princes at
Marburg and in the years immediately fol-
lowing, offers the following observations:
"It is very easy to repeat the censure that
has so often been thrown upon this decision.
It was certainly not the part of political

"But never was a course of action more
purely conscientious, more regardless of per-
sonal consequences, more grand and mag-

"These noble men saw the enemy ap-
proach; they heard his threats; they were
under no illusion as to his views; they were
almost persuaded that he would attempt the
worst against them.

"They had an opportunity of forming a
league against him which would shake
Europe, at the head of which they might op-
pose a formidable resistance to his projects of


universal domination, and make an appeal to
fortune ; but they would not — they disdained
the attempt.

"Not out of fear or mistrust of their own
strength and valor; — these are considera-
tions unknown to souls like theirs. They
were withheld by the power of Religion

" First, because they would not mix up the
defence of the faith with interests foreign to
it, nor allow themselves to be hurried into
things which they could not foresee.

"Secondly, they would defend no faith but
that which they themselves held; they
would have feared to commit a sin if they
connected themselves with those who dif-
fered from them; — on one point only, it is
true, but that one of the highest importance.

"Lastly, they doubted their right to resist
their sovereign and head, and to trouble the
long-established order of the empire.

" Thus, in the midst of the jarring interests
of the world, they took up a position coun-
selled only by their God and their own con-
sciences, and there they calmly awaited the
danger. ' For God is faithful and true,' says


Luther, 'and will not forsake us.' He quotes
the words of Isaiah, ' Be ye still and ye shall
be holpen.'

"Unquestionably this is not prudent, but
it is great."

The Augsburg Confession

It remains to consider the most important
document of the Reformation: the Augs-
burg Confession. In this connection we are
concerned with it as perhaps the most strik-
ing and conclusive evidence of the conserva-
tive character of the German Reformation
and of its founder. At the Marburg Collo-
quy Luther spurned all efforts at compro-
mise with the radical reformatory movement
in the face of the strongest kind of pressure ;
at the diet of Augsburg, the following year,
his authorized representatives omitted no
word or act to emphasize how much Luther-
anism had in common with Catholicism.

After the diet of Worms Luther was le-
gally an outlaw, but circumstances prevented
the emperor from enforcing the edict.
Charles V was a loyal Catholic and was
greatly alarmed at the rapid spread of heresy
in his extensive dominions; but he felt it


incumbent upon him to settle the problems
of more immediate concern before proceeding
in real earnest against the heretics. At the
beginning of the year 1530 he decided that
that time had come. The young man who
had granted a hearing to the friar of Witten-
berg in 1521, shortly after his election to the
imperial office, was now the most powerful
sovereign in Europe. He had subdued his
turbulent subjects in Spain; he had emerged
victorious in the wars with his most ambi-
tious and powerful rival, Francis I, king of
France; he had settled his political disputes
with the pope, and was about to receive at
his hands the crown of Charlemagne upon
taking the oath to defend the pope, the
Roman Church, and all their possessions,
dignities, and rights; Italy was at his feet;
everything was favorable to a settlement in

In January, 1530, Charles issued an invita-
tion from Bologna, where the coronation was
shortly to take place, summoning the elec-
tors, princes, and all the estates of the empire
to meet at Augsburg on the 8th of April,
The conciliatory language of the summons


indicates that the emperor hoped for a peace-
ful settlement; but, failing in that, he was
ready to resort to force. The object of the
diet was to solve the religious problem, and
to prepare for war against the Turks, who
were thundering at the very doors of Chris-
tendom. The estates were assured that
"every man's judgment, view and opinion
should be heard, understood and considered,
in love and kindness, in order to bring and
unite them into a single Christian truth, so as
to dispose of everything that had not been
rightly explained or treated, on both sides:
that a single true religion may be accepted
and held by us all, and, as we all live and
serve under one Christ, so we may live in one
fellowship, Church and unity."

The Protestant princes accepted the invi-
tation, with what hopes for harmony and co-
operation it is difficult to say. The elector
of Saxony commanded the Wittenberg theo-
logians to draw up a statement of their reli-
gious opinions in order that the estates might
have something definite before them. Luther
desired to be present at the diet, but, as he
was under the imperial ban, the elector re-


fused to allow him to accompany the party
further than the castle of Coburg. If diplo-
matic language could effect a union, the
selection of Philip Melanchthon to present
the Protestant cause and to accompany the
elector was indeed happy. The Augsburg
Confession is essentially the product of
Luther, although the matrix which embalms
the jewels of the Lutheran faith was cer-
tainly not the product of his rugged and
sometimes uncouth pen. Luther not only
approved the Confession, although the final
form was probably somewhat more conserva-
tive in phraseology than he wished, but he
also kept in close touch at all times with the
proceedings at Augsburg.

Undeniably the situation of Protestantism
was critical. Melanchthon worked under
the most trying circumstances, and had it
not been for the firm and cheering letters
from Luther, which bolstered up his irreso-
lute and timid will, the outcome of the diet
might have been disastrous. Luther's firm-
ness at Marburg is frequently mistaken for
intolerance and bigotry by liberal Protestant
historians, but they are all but unanimous in


approving his conduct at Coburg, Conser-
vatism and cowardice were not synonyms
with Luther.

On June 27th he wrote to Melanchthon:
"From the bottom of my heart I am inimical
to those worrying cares which are taking the
very heart out of you and gaining the upper
hand. It is not the magnitude of the cause,
but the weakness of our faith which is at
fault; for things were much worse in John
Huss's days than in ours. And even were
the gospel in as great danger now as then, is
not He who has begun the good work greater
than the work itself, for it is not our affair?
Why then make a martyr of yourself? If the
cause be not a righteous one, then let us
repudiate it; but if it be, why make God a
liar in not believing His wonderful promises,
when He commands us to be of good cheer
and cast all our care upon Him, for He shall
sustain us?"

Two days later he writes: "I have re-
ceived your Apology, and wonder at your
asking how far one may yield to the Pa-
pists. For my part I think too much has
been conceded. If they do not accept it,


what more can we do? I ponder this busi-
ness night and day, looking at it from all
sides, searching the Scriptures, and the
longer I contemplate it the more I am con-
vinced of the sure foundation on which our
teaching rests, and therefore am becoming
more courageous, so that, if God will, not a
word shall be withdrawn, come what may.

. . . May God so increase your faith
that the devil and the whole world may be
powerless against you. Let us comfort our-
selves with the faith of others if we have
none ourselves. For some have faith, else
there would be no Church on earth; and
Christ would have ceased to dwell with us.
For if we are not the Church, or a part of it,
where is it? Are the Dukes of Bavaria, or
the Pope, or the Sultan the Church? If we
have not God's word, who then has it? I
pray without ceasing that Christ may be
with you. Amen!"

That the final form of the Confession, as
read before the diet, was acceptable to
Luther, may be seen in the letter, under date
of July 9th, to Justus Jonas, who was present
at the occasion: "There can never be entire


unanimity in doctrine. For how can one
reconcile Christ and Belial? Perhaps the
marriage of the priests and the Sacrament in
both kinds may be left an open question, but
this is after all only a 'perhaps.' Still, I
hope that the religious question may be de-
ferred, and meantime a world-wide peace be
established. If by Christ's blessing this be
achieved, then much has been accomplished
at this Diet.

"First, and greatest of all, Christ has been
publicly proclaimed through our glorious
Confession, so that the great ones of the
earth cannot boast that we have fled and
were afraid to confess our faith. Only I
grudge you the privilege of being present at
the reading of this grand Confession."

On the 25th of June — a great day in Luth-
eran annals — the Augsburg Confession was
read. So moderate was its tone that even
the Romanists were surprised. Yet the doc-
ument was not colorless. Professor Har-
nack, who criticizes its scholastic arrange-
ment and deplores its diplomatic approaches
to the old Church and the way it treats the
Zwinglians as naughty children, does not


deny that at the most important points "it
struck the nail on the head." Although not
originally intended for that purpose, the
Confession was admirably suited to become
a Church "constitution" or a creed. Like
the Constitution of the United States, it
constituted a framework of principles upon
which might be reared a superstructure
suited to the conditions of a given time or
place. Throughout the whole document
there is a constant appeal to the authority of
Scripture. An incident at the diet illustrates
this very well. When the duke of Bavaria
was informed by Eck that he could refute the
Lutheran opinions, not with the Scriptures,
but with the fathers, he replied: "I am to
understand, then, that the Lutherans are
within the Scriptures, and we Catholics on
the outside?"

The Augsburg Confession is divided into
three parts: (1) The preface to the emperor;
(2) twenty-two chief articles of faith taught
in the Lutheran churches; and (3) seven
articles in which are enumerated the abuses

The preface cannot be interpreted in any


Other way than as a straightforward assertion
that the Lutherans sincerely desired union,
if reconciliation was possible. "Wherefore,
in obedience to Your Imperial Majesty's
wishes, we offer, in this matter of religion,
the Confession of our preachers and of our-
selves, showing what manner of doctrine
from the Holy Scriptures and the pure Word
of God has been up to this time set forth in
our lands, dukedoms, dominions and cities,
and taught in our churches. And if the
other Electors, Princes and Estates of the
Empire will present similar writings, to wit,
in Latin and German, according to the said
Imperial proposition, giving their opinions in
this matter of religion, here before Your Im-
perial Majesty, our most clement Lord, we,
with the Princes and friends aforesaid, are
prepared to confer amicably concerning all
possible ways and means, so far as may be
honorably done, that we may come together,
and, the matter between us on both sides
being peacefully discussed without offensive
strife, the dissension, by God's help, may be
done away and be brought back to one true
and accordant religion; for as we all serve


and do battle under one Christ, we ought to
confess the one Christ, and so, after the
tenor of Your Imperial Majesty's Edict,
everything be conducted according to the
truth of God, which, with most fervent pray-
ers, we entreat of God.

"In the event, therefore, that the dif-
ferences between us and the other parties in
the matter of religion cannot be amicably
and in charity settled here before Your Im-
perial Majesty, we offer this in all obedience,
abundantly prepared to join the issue and to
defend the cause in such a general, free,
Christian Council, for the convening of
which there has always been accordant ac-
tion and agreement of votes in all the Im-
perial Diets held during Your Majesty's
reign, on the part of the Electors, Princes,
and other Estates of the Empire. To this
General Council, and at the same time to
Your Imperial Majesty, we have made ap-
peal in this greatest and gravest of matters
even before this in due manner and form of
law. To this appeal, both to Your Imperial
Majesty and to a Council, we still adhere,
neither do we intend, nor would it be possi-


ble for us, to relinquish it by this or any
other document, unless the matter between
us and the other side, according to the tenor
of the latest Imperial citation, can be amica-
bly settled and brought to Christian concord,
of which this also is our solemn and public

The very first article ratifies the decree of
the Council of Nicaea which asserts the his-
toric doctrine of the Trinity, and it con-
demns all the heresies which in times past
have sprung up against it.

The doctrine of original sin is strongly em-
phasized, and it is asserted without qualifica-
tion that man cannot be justified before God
by his own strength, merit or works, but
solely for Christ's sake through faith, which
may be obtained by the Word of God and
the sacraments.

Regarding the doctrine of the Church, it is
properly the congregation of the saints and
true believers, in which the Gospel is rightly
taught and the sacraments rightly adminis-
tered; but it is not necessary that human
traditions, rites or ceremonies, instituted by
men, should be everywhere alike. In order


to show that they were not breaking away
from the sacramental side of religion, the
Lutherans affirmed the validity of the sacra-
ments administered by evil men, that is,
that the personal character of the priest has
no relation with the validity of his sacra-
mental acts.

Although the existence of the seven sacra-
ments is not specifically denied, only two are
mentioned: baptism and the Lord's Supper,
The statement on the Eucharist is as con-
servative as it could be made, asserting
"that the Body and Blood of Christ are
truly present, and are distributed to those
who eat in the Supper of the Lord," and re-
fraining from a denial of transubstantiation.
The sacraments were ordained, not to be
marks of profession among men, but rather
to be signs and testimonies of the will of God
toward us, instituted to awaken and confirm
faith in those who use them. "They there-
fore condemn those who teach that the Sac-
raments justify by the outward act, and do
not teach that, in the use of the Sacraments,
faith which believes that sins are forgiven, is


With regard to confession thie document
declares that auricular confession is unne-
cessary — not essential — but that private ab-
solution ought to be retained.

"Of Rites and Usages in the Church, they
teach, that those ought to be observed which
may be observed without sin, and which are
profitable unto tranquillity and good order in
the Church, as particular holydays, festivals,
and the like.

"Nevertheless, concerning such things, let
men be admonished that consciences are not
to be burdened, as though such observance
was necessary to salvation. They are ad-
monished also that human traditions insti-
tuted to propitiate God, to merit grace and
to make satisfaction for sins, are opposed to
the Gospel and the doctrine of faith. Where-
fore vows and traditions concerning meats
and days, etc., instituted to merit grace and
to make satisfaction for sins, are useless and
contrary to the Gospel."

In order to show that their teachings do
not destroy the state or the family, but espe-
cially require their preservation as ordinances
of God, . . . "they teach . . . that


it is right for Christians to bear civil office,
to sit as judges, to determine matters by the
Imperial and other existing laws, to award
just punishments, to engage in just wars, to
serve as soldiers, to make legal contracts, to
hold property, to make oath when required
by the magistrates, to marry, to be given in

"They condemn the Anabaptists who for-
bid these civil offices to Christians. They
condemn also those who do not place the
perfection of the Gospel in the fear of God
and in faith, but in forsaking civil offices;
for the Gospel teaches an eternal righteous-
ness of the heart."

The worship of saints is condemned, since
"Scripture teaches not the invocation of
saints, or to ask help of the saints, since it
sets before us Christ, as the only Mediator,
Propitiation, High-Priest and Intercessor.
He is to be prayed to, and hath promised
that He will hear our prayer. . . ."

"This is about the Sum of our Doctrine, in
which, as can be seen, there is nothing that
varies from the Scriptures, or from the
Church Catholic, or from the Church of


Rome as known from Its writers. This being
the case, they judge harshly who insist that
our teachers be regarded as heretics. The
disagreement, however, is on certain Abuses,
which have crept into the Church without
rightful authority. And even in these, if
there were some difference, there should be
proper lenity on the part of bishops to bear
with us by reason of the Confession which we
have now drawn up; because even the Can-
ons are not so severe as to demand the same
rites everywhere, neither, at any time, have
the rites of all churches been the same; al-
though, among us, in large part, the ancient
rites are diligently observed. For it is a
false and malicious charge that all the cere-
monies, all the things instituted of old, are
abolished in our churches. But it has been
a common complaint that some Abuses were
connected with the ordinary rites. These,
inasmuch as they could not be approved with
a good conscience, have to some extent been

It is hardly necessary to add that this sec-
ond part of the Confession is merely a state-
ment of the things which are taught in the


churches and a repudiation of some of the
teachings of the more radical Protestants and
of the abuses which have crept into the
Roman Church. In the third part an at-
tempt is made to enumerate and explain the
abuses which have been removed. It is an
apology for, or a justification of, what the re-
formers had done. Melanchthon confined
himself strictly to this purpose, and denied
himself (what probably would have been a
pleasure to Luther) the temptation to launch
a virulent attack on the flagrant corruption
and abuses of Romanism.

The laity are given both kinds in the
Lord's Supper because the usage has the
commandment of Christ and is hallowed by
the practice of the early Christians. "This
usage has long remained in the Church, nor Is
it known when, or by whose authority, It
was changed."

The marriage of priests is permitted in or-
der to avoid the greater evils of incontinence.
Furthermore it is evident that In the ancient
Church priests were married men, for Paul
says that a bishop should be the husband of
one wife.


Regarding the mass, all the usual cere-
monies are retained, save that the parts sung
in Latin are interspersed here and there with
German hymns, which have been added to
teach the people. The mass is not to be used
for profit, not to be multiplied, and not to be
used as a sacrifice.

Confession is not abolished, and the people
are most carefully taught concerning the
faith and assurance of absolution; but an
enumeration of sins is unnecessary, for it is
impossible to recount all sins. "If no sins
were forgiven, except those that are re-
counted, consciences could never find peace;
for very many sins they neither see, nor can

Fasts and the observation of traditions are
left to the will and conscience of each individ-
ual, but such observances are not necessary
acts of worship. Every Christian ought to
"exercise and subdue himself with bodily re-

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Online LibraryGeorge Malcolm StephensonThe conservative character of Martin Luther → online text (page 6 of 7)