Luther: A Life by John M. Todd
John M. Todd is the author of a number of books, including Reformation, and John Wesley and the Catholic Church. Luther: A Life was published in 1982 by The Crossroad Publishing Company. This book was prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.
Chapter 12: In Command
22 February 1522. To my most gracious Lord, Duke Frederick, Elector of Saxony. Personal. Jesus. Grace and joy from God the Father on the acquisition of a new relic! I put this greeting in place of my usual assurances of respect. For many years Your Grace has been acquiring relics from every land, but God has now heard Your Grace’s request and has sent Your Grace without cost or effort a whole cross, together with nails, spears, and scourges. I say again: grace and joy from God on the acquisition of a new relic!
Your Grace should not be terrified by it; stretch out your arms confidently and let the nails go deep. Be glad and thankful. . .Do not be depressed for things have not yet come to such a pass as Satan wishes. Your Grace should have a little confidence in me, fool though I am. . .I hope Your Grace will take this letter in good part. I am in such haste that my pen has had to gallop, and I have no time for more. God willing, I shall soon be there. But Your Grace must not assume responsibility on my behalf.
Your Grace’s humble servant Martin Luther.
The Elector was stunned. Luther coming back to Wittenberg, to add to all the other troubles there, the Friary half empty, a radically altered liturgy celebrated from time to time in the churches, violence in the streets, and other towns affected. A man was sent on horseback immediately with a note to the Elector’s Office at Eisenach, to take a message up to the Wartburg, telling Luther to remain hidden, at least for a little longer yet. But the note also asked Luther’s advice as to what to do about the disturbances in Wittenberg – disturbances which had escalated greatly and had led Duke George the Elector’s cousin at Leipzig in the neighbouring Albertine Saxony to make an official complaint at the Imperial Offices at Nuremberg about lawlessness at Wittenberg and elsewhere in Ernestine Saxony — a complaint which in its turn brought an official message to the Elector, implying reprimand. The authorities were on edge.
But Luther was not to be put off. The Elector had allowed for that; if Luther insisted on travelling, then he must have an official escort, Michael von Strassen, Head of Tax Collection in the south of the Electorate. By 5 March, Luther was at Borna, at von Strassen’s house. He had spent the previous night at the Black Bear pub, at Jena. Two surprised Swiss students asked the landlord who the knight was that sat reading Hebrew in the bar lounge, and were told it was Luther — at first they refused to believe it, and said it must surely be Ulrich von Hutten, the knight poet. At Borna, Luther sat down to write again to the Elector: ‘To the Most Serene, Noble Sovereign and Lord, Frederick, Duke of Saxony . . . I take the liberty of supposing, on the basis of Your Electoral Grace’s letter that Your Electoral Grace was somewhat offended by that part of my letter in which I wrote that Your Electoral Grace should be wise.’ Luther said he was not trying to sneer and that he ‘had a thoroughly unaffected love and affection’ for the Elector. His attempt at initiating the Elector more deeply into the theology of the cross by encouraging him to identify himself with his crucified Lord, was undoubtedly genuine; but the trio in his words stemmed surely from enjoyment of his prophetic office!
The new letter was a long one, trying to explain how Luther saw things and what attitude the Elector should take. As usual it grew apocalyptic and confident, even dictatorial, as it went on. And this could not be construed as mere bluff. Luther’s letter to the Archbishop of Mainz about his new Indulgence project had produced a remarkable surrender in the form of a cringing letter from Cardinal Albrecht, and a mealy-mouthed letter from Capito (until recently of Basle), now Chancellor at his court. Whether genuine or not, Albrecht’s surrender indicated clearly the muscle which Luther was now able to exert.
Luther explained to the Elector that the situation was indeed serious and, ‘even (Your Electoral Grace will excuse my foolish words) if it should rain Duke Georges for nine days and every Duke were nine times as furious as this one’, he, Luther would still have to come and attend to the situation in Wittenberg. Luther was now sailing on the winds of practico-spiritual confidence and continued, referring to Duke George: ‘He takes my Lord Christ to be a man of straw. My Lord and I can suffer that for a while. . I have more than once prayed and wept for Duke George. I shall pray and weep once more and then cease forever.’ When Luther said ‘wept’, he meant it. Emotions of all kinds were now easily surfacing. The Elector was begged to take part in the praying. But Luther then went on to the main purpose of the letter, to tell the Elector that it was not his responsibility, and he was not to worry if any ill befell Luther. It was all very well to have an escort, but ‘I am going to Wittenberg under a far higher protection than the Elector’s. I have no intention of asking Your Electoral Grace for protection. Indeed, I think I shall protect Your Electoral Grace more than you are able to protect me.’ The next sentence allowed Luther’s sense of Saxon humour and his own special obstinacy to come through: ‘If I thought Your Electoral Grace could and would protect me, I should not go.’ But it was serious too, because: The sword ought not and cannot help a matter of this kind. He who believes the most, can protect the most. And since I have the impression that Your Electoral Grace is still quite weak in faith, I can by no means regard Your Electoral Grace as the man to protect and save me.’ Luther remained consciously human, while emphasising the spiritual reality he believed to be at the heart of what was happening. It was difficult to win any argument with such a man. He continued: ‘Since Your Electoral Grace wished to know what to do in this matter and thinks that you have done too little, I humbly answer that Your Electoral Grace has already done far too much and should do nothing at all. God will not and cannot tolerate your worrying and bustling, or mine. . .’ It went on with an explicit statement that if Luther was arrested by imperial agents, and killed, the Elector was in no way to blame. The Elector should always obey imperial authority: ‘No one should overthrow or resist authority.’ The letter ended with a word of confidence, and a note of personal mystical assurance:
I have written this letter in haste so that Your Electoral Grace may not be disturbed at hearing of my arrival in Wittenberg. . .I must be everyone’s consoler and do no harm to anyone. It is someone other than Duke George whom I have to consider. He knows me rather well, and I have some real knowledge of him too . . . Written at Borna, in the house of the official escort, 5 March.
Luther was returning to a strange and certainly changed Wittenberg. To his delight the Town Council had issued a revolutionary Ordinance of the City of Wittenberg (24 January 1522), ordering the surrender of various Church revenues and some plate, including the funds of as many as twenty-one sodalities, much of it spent on social evenings and the like. These monies were now combined to form a ‘Common Chest’ from which funds were provided for the poor, the aged, the orphaned, and for loans to poor workers and for dowries to poor girls at four per cent. The ‘Common Chest’ was an actual piece of well-made furniture, and with its prescribed number of locks whose keys were held by specified officials representing various strata of society, it was to become a veritable symbol of the social and economic changes as it was set up in town after town in the coming decades.
The Town Council also formally approved the liturgical changes already made and, prompted by Karlstadt, even required the removal of some of the side altars in the Wittenberg Parish Church, as savouring of idolatry. Luther did not like this. He began to see a spirit of doctrinaire intolerance entering into the way the religious changes were imposed. There seemed to be an authoritarian, not to say legalistic spirit, behind the changes which was giving him furiously to think. Was his envisioned new world of Gospel freedom to be turned into another version of the old canonical world where everything was either obligatory or forbidden? More frightening still, the very ‘freedom’ itself was being pre-empted. Self-selected visionaries from the town of Zwickau had arrived in Wittenberg, claiming inspiration direct from the Holy Spirit. They had impressed Melancthon, who wrote to the Wartburg asking Luther’s advice about them. It was these things, combined with a strong plea in the message from the Wittenbergers, that convinced Luther he should return.
So much had happened in the twelve weeks since he had visited Wittenberg. Karlstadt had celebrated Mass on Christmas Day omitting references to ‘sacrifice’ in the liturgical text and given communion in both kinds, he himself wearing lay clothes and no vestments. In his sermon he declared that sacramental confession was unnecessary. The populace were told to take the bread and the wine from the altar themselves with their own hands — and much was made of the breaking of the tabu against this. Further, he had said that learning and priest lore were unnecessary; faith alone gave one the freedom of God’s House and access to all the knowledge that one needed. It was the provocative, autocratic and divisive way in which it all seemed to have been done that disturbed Luther so much. The students in holiday mood sang secular songs in the church, and began to harass the older priests in the Wittenberg churches as they said Mass. Luther hated this kind of disorder, just as he expressed his great regret that the friars who had walked out of the Friary, had done it without due order and apparently without even the kind of human exchanges to be expected on a decision virtually to break up the community.
One of the details of Karlstadt’s reforms that he was sure was wrong was the wholesale removal and sometimes destruction of visual and aural accompaniments to worship. Paintings and statues long beloved by many, had been widely defaced, broken or carried off with callous violence, and musical instruments had been submitted to the same fate, on the grounds that the Spirit spoke direct to man, and man should commune direct with God. ‘All the pictures on earth put together cannot give you one tiny sigh towards God,’ wrote Karlstadt. The sheer insensitivity displayed was an affront to people. The philistine application of a Commandment (’You shall not make images or worship them’) from the Jewish writings, the Old Testament, was for Luther a failure to understand the ‘Freedom’ of the Word, which released one from slavish obedience to the Letter of the Law. The Bible was Good News not a book of precedents.
Karlstadt had often been a thorn in Luther’s flesh once he began to support him in 1518 — this was not the first time he had in some sense gone further than Luther. But Karlstadt’s commitment was not easily shaken. He had refused to compromise, as others had done, when his name had been added to the first Bull of Excommunication in 1520. He had aggressively refused to have any truck with friends and relations who tried to persuade him to recant and not to continue to share with Luther the liability to capital punishment for heresy. To welcome such martyrdom fitted very well with Karlstadt’s special addiction to ‘resignation, abandonment’ to God’s will.
It was all such a mixture of good and bad. Karlstadt had gone out into the country early in January and got engaged to be married to a sixteen-year-old girl, and later in the month held a great celebration of the wedding itself. Luther was partly worried but also expressed himself as pleased with this and said he knew the girl’s family, in a letter from the Wartburg — his middle-aged colleague would be delivered from the ‘unclean’ troubles of the celibate. Luther did not at first join in the sneering when people said the old Archdeacon and Dean had now become a ‘Fisher of Women’. Another good thing was that the Prior Wencelas Link, who was also Vicar General, had held a General Chapter of the Augustinians and endorsed the action of those who had left, saying friars need no longer consider themselves bound absolutely by their vows. It was true, in Karlstadt’s favour, that in the autumn of 1521 it was actually the layman Melancthon who was all for pressing forward and led the way in taking both bread and wine while Karlstadt was counselling moderation and circumspection. But there was no good burking the fact that Karlstadt had never been a good communicator, and had consistently shown poor practical judgement. Few people found him easy to work with, and early In 1521, in spite of his strongly expressed wish to be appointed to the vacant post of Provost of the Cathedral, he had been passed over in favour of Justus Jonas. Now he was showing himself completely in favour of the three visionaries who visited Wittenberg from Zwickau after Christmas, talking of their divine inspirations.
Of these three men, one was an old pupil of Melancthon’s and had read Karlstadt’s works, and another was a weaver; all three had been influenced by the religious revolutionary Thomas Muntzer, recently preacher at Zwickau but expelled from the town for fomenting violent unrest — another of the disturbances in the Elector’s domains. Luther, unlike his colleagues at Wittenberg, was in little doubt about these men. He had written in reply to amazed queries from Melancthon: ‘Do not listen if they speak of the glorified Jesus, unless you have first heard of the crucified Jesus. . .’ and much more in the same vein. Luther was already finding that he had to provide exactly that service of distinguishing between authentic and inauthentic interpretation of the Gospel, which he had found so unacceptable in the hands of the Roman authorities. The rub, of course, was how such a service was provided, and what were its norms. For the moment, Luther was simply providing a private service to a colleague and there was nothing to worry about in that. His norms in the present case, while thoroughly orthodox in relation to the general consensus, were also in some ways not far from the same German mysticism which was at work among the visionaries themselves, typical as they were of a chronic spontaneous eruption of apocalyptic and individualistic reaction to the directive legalisms of the official Church. ‘You should enquire,’ directed Luther, ‘whether they have suffered spiritual distress and the divine birth, death and hell.’ If they claimed only that their experiences were all pleasant and quiet, then they did not have the sign of the Son of Man. Had they been ‘called’, he asked, and was there any ‘sign’ of that calling?
Through January and February the Elector had become seriously worried about the situation. Prolonged discussions had been going on between his officials and the Town Council at Wittenberg since early winter. Finally, the Council offered a moratorium on further change and a request to Karlstadt to cease preaching or at least to leave Luther’s pulpit in the parish church. But the Elector continued to insist that none of the changes already made had his assent. They were all ultra vires, and while discussions about reform were in order, illegal actions should not be taken. The townspeople, bewildered about how to proceed, sent an earnest plea to Luther asking him to return.
This was the immediate cause of Luther’s decision to go back to Wittenberg. He had intended returning at Easter in any case, not least in order to be close to Melancthon for the polishing of the translation of the New Testament. Now the letter from the Town Council beckoned imperiously to his inner spirit. The lead he had given over the last five or six years had elicited action. But something that began to sound like chaos had ensued, and that was the very last thing he wanted.
Luther’s letter, written at Borna on his way back, was with the Elector within half a day. Somehow the Elector had to regularise his own position, constitutionally, in regard to the return of Luther, outlaw and excommunicate. So he made a distinction, between approving and merely tolerating, the same distinction, roughly, as he had made over the Town Council’s initiatives. Luther had said that the Elector was not to take responsibility for his return. Very well then, let Luther write him a public letter expressing this sentiment in objective terms, giving his reasons for returning, and showing that he knew he was going against the Elector’s wishes.
Luther was back in Wittenberg, at the Friary, on Friday, 7 March. The lawyer, Jerome Schurff, was with him immediately, with the Elector’s request for a letter. The proposed content fitted exactly with Luther’s own views and his own understanding of the situation, so he duly wrote it, giving his reasons for returning and stating specifically: ‘I know that my coming to reside in Your Electoral Grace’s city is without Your Electoral Grace’s knowledge or consent’ and saying that he realised the danger for the Elector and for himself ‘banned and condemned by papal and Imperial law as I am, and expecting death at any moment’. But the reasons he indicated were for him irrefutable: 1. ‘1 am called by the whole congregation at Wittenberg in a letter filled with urgent begging and pleading.’ 2. There were serious troubles at Wittenberg, which required closer attention than was possible by mail. Luther was the cause of the trouble, so Luther must return. ‘I have to deal with them personally via mouth and ear.’ 3. ‘I am rather afraid that there will be a real rebellion in the German territories.’ In this situation, he simply had to come back. The ‘gospel is excellently received by the common people, but they receive it in a fleshly sense; that is, they know that it is true but do not want to use it correctly.’ With a reference to Karlstadt, he said, ‘Those who should calm such rebellion only aid it.’ He had to come and set right the ill-judged enthusiasm and superficial destructiveness. ‘Therefore I could not take human matters into consideration.’ A postscript said the Elector could send Luther back an amended version of the letter for him to sign, if it was not exactly as required. Spalatin did redraft the letter, and before the end of the month the rewritten version had been signed and delivered to the Saxon delegation at Nuremberg, and by them to the Imperial Executive permanently residing there.
As soon as Schurff had gone, Luther’s room was filled with people through Friday and Saturday telling him what was happening. The pleasure of seeing Melancthon and Amsdorf again, and of being home, was overriden by the urgency to find out what was really going on and deciding how best to respond to it.
On Sunday morning all Wittenberg pressed into the parish church and Father Luther, once again shaven and clothed in his Augustinian habit, went up into the pulpit. He began quietly, intensely, with a theme very familiar but leading in a quite unexpected direction: ‘The summons of death comes to us all, and no one can die for another. Everyone must fight his own battle with death by himself. . .’ They were thrilled to hear his voice again and within moments he had them in the palm of his hand. Yes, they could envisage that terrible moment of death very well, with a priest bawling religious texts into the poor dying man’s ear. At that moment Luther would be no help to them, he was saying. So they needed to be well prepared. His sermon was becoming a catechism — were they well prepared? He said he thought that they knew not to rely on ‘works’, and to be sure that God had sent his Son to save them. But there was a third requirement, and here came Luther’s analysis of what had gone wrong at Wittenberg. It was the absence of love.
‘Without love, faith is nothing’, as St Paul says: ‘If I had the tongues of angels and could speak of the highest things on faith and have not love, I am nothing. And here, my dear friends, have you not grievously failed? I see no signs of love among you.’ Luther had soon understood what was wrong when he heard Melancthon’s and Amsdorf’s tales, and the complaints and affirmations of Karlstadt and Zwilling — it was the old trouble, all talk, and no real inner commitment, and none of the Christlike charity which alone enabled man to cope with life. St Paul’s great teaching on Faith had simply been transformed into another superficial formula to be mouthed: ‘You have a great deal to say of the doctrine of love and faith . . . no wonder: a donkey can almost intone the lessons and why should you not be able to repeat the doctrines and formulas?’ And then Fr Luther was heard to be saying something that looked, superficially, like a complete contradiction of his usual theme — he wanted concrete evidence of their faith: ‘Dear friends, the kingdom of God — and we are that kingdom — does not consist in talk or words but in activity, in deeds, in works and exercises . . . a faith without love is not enough rather it is no faith at all.
Now he was well launched, and the sermon went on for another twenty minutes or half an hour shaming them. As well as love, patience was needed. They had been moving much too fast on the superficial level because ‘there are still brothers and sisters on the other side who belong to us and must be won — I would not have gone so far as you have done, if I had been here. The cause is good but there has been too much haste. . . There are some who can run, others must walk, still others can hardly creep.’ Luther asked for public order and inner faith to go hand in hand: ‘If you had called upon God . . . and had obtained the aid of the authorities, one could be certain that it had come from God . . . if the unreformed Mass was not such an evil thing, I would introduce it again.
He was irritated, indeed angry. They should have communicated with him before launching into action, ‘whereas not the slightest communication was sent to me’. He said they should watch the difference between ‘must’ and ‘free’ and were not to make a ‘must’ out of free, things such as fasting or not fasting. They were not to start telling people they must eat meat on a Friday against their conscience, ‘It looks to me as if all the misery which we have begun to heap upon the papists will fall upon us. Therefore I could no longer stay away, but was compelled to come and say these things to you.’
Luther came down from the pulpit and people felt they were back on some kind of a known road. Their Pastor was in control again, their revered Doctor of Theology, their Friar, their Father Martin Luther. For the next seven days, Luther went into the pulpit and spoke to those who could find the time from their daily work together with a fair number of students, university men, priests, as well as many women, and, crucially, his colleagues in the Faculty of Theology. Luther himself was finding something like a realisation of a role, that now fitted perfectly. By the end of the second sermon he was well into his stride. He took his own experience as an example of how to achieve things through the Spirit:
I simply taught, preached and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything. Had I desired to foment trouble, I could have brought great bloodshed upon Germany. . . But what would it have been? Mere fool’s play.
On the Tuesday, Luther turned to the monks and nuns, and again conservatively. They ought not to leave their Orders just because others were leaving. They had the right to marry, and indeed the duty to do so if they could not remain celibate. But if they were to leave their communities it should be done in decent order and after careful thought and prayer. Then he turned to the matter of the statues — they were a matter of indifference, so long of course as they were not worshipped. He would like them to be largely abolished simply because people thought they did a good work when they ‘have brought so many silver images into the churches’. But it should not be done by violence, ‘and you rush, create an uproar, break down altars, and overthrow statues! Do you really believe you can abolish altars in this way?’ Luther was careful not to name Karlstadt, but it was clear that an important aspect of the sermons was what amounted to direct criticism of his academic colleague’s activities.
Luther reserved his most scathing remarks for the new attitude to the ‘Blessed Sacrament’, the eucharistic bread, an attitude which in effect, he said, involved merely an inverse of the old rules and the erection of mere anti-tabus, instead of a genuine conversion. The Roman Canon Law, still in force, had all sorts of superstitious regulations about the consecrated bread, that it was not to be touched by anyone other than a priest, that if one of the breads was dropped various purificatory rules had to be performed; now instead of simply lifting the rules, on the contrary, they almost compel everyone to touch the Sacrament, with a kind of compulsive hysteria, as far removed from the Gospel as the Roman rules themselves, though in the opposite direction. As they heard this, many in the congregation remembered Karlstadt’s admonition on Christmas Day in the castle church that everyone should go and take the Sacrament both the bread and the wine with their own hands. The criticism of Karlstadt was quite specific, and Luther became sarcastic.
If you want to show that you are good Christians by handling the sacrament and boast of it before the world, then Herod and Pilate are the chief and best Christians, since it seems to me that they really handled the body of Christ when they had him nailed to the cross and put to death . . . No, my dear friends, the kingdom of God does not consist in outward things, which can be touched or perceived, but in faith.
They might take the sacrament with their hands or not, it made no difference. Luther was exasperated with the absurdity of the situation: ‘. . . Even a sow could be a Christian, for she has a big enough snout to receive the sacrament outwardly’, if that was the only criterion for being a Christian.
What upset Luther most was to realise that he now seemed to have enemies not only among the followers of the old theology, the papists, but among his own reforming colleagues. He became dictatorial: ‘No new practices should be introduced, unless the gospel has first been thoroughly preached and understood.’ Then came a strong personal note, revealing how bitterly he felt he had been let down: ‘If you are not going to follow me . . . no one need drive me from you — I shall leave unasked . . . you have gone so far that people are saying: "At Wittenberg there are very good Christians, for they take the sacrament in their hands and grasp the cup, and then they go to their booze and swill themselves full" . . . I may say that of all my enemies who have opposed me up to this time none have brought so much grief as you.’ ‘Grief’ was a way of signalling his frustrations and misery. His colleagues, less perceptive and less able than he, were becoming a new ‘enemy’ and he took refuge in a sarcasm he could handle so brutally. In his hopes for a Christian order, free of corruption, in his vision of a new world he had forgotten perhaps the warning he gave to his fellow friar when he was Vicar General: ‘Why then do you imagine that you are among friends?. . . The Rule of Christ is in the midst of his enemies.’ Later he recognised the tact only too clearly, and would soon be polarising his colleagues to the left of him as part of the devil’s plans for upsetting him and the reforms. He was bewildered and dejected. ‘You have the true gospel and the pure Word of God, but no one as yet has given his goods to the poor. . .Nobody extends a helping hand to another, nobody seriously considers the other person, but everyone looks out for himself and his own gain, insists on his own way, and lets everything else go hang.’
In Luther’s final sermon on the second Sunday, he spoke about ‘Confession’. His unique approach was in evidence again. They might have expected him to brush it aside as part of the Roman bag of tricks. But with his special form of rhetoric he swiped to left and to right and defended the extreme centre:
I refuse to go to confession simply because the Pope has commanded it and insists upon it. For I wish him to keep his hands off confession and not make of it a compulsion or command, which he has not the power to do. Nevertheless, I will allow no man to take private confession away from me, and I would not give it up for all the treasures in the world, since I know what comfort and strength it has given me. No one knows what it can do for him except one who has struggled often and long with the devil. Yes, the devil would have killed me long ago if confession had not sustained me. For there are many doubtful matters which a man cannot resolve or find the answer to by himself, and so he takes his brother aside and tells him his trouble . . . We must have many absolutions, so that we may strengthen our timid consciences and despairing hearts against the devil and against God . . . I will not let private confession be taken from me. But I will not have anybody forced to it.
It had been an extraordinary week. A Swiss student, Albert Bucer , at Wittenberg wrote home:
On 6 March, Martin Luther returned to Wittenberg on horseback . . . He came to settle the trouble stirred up by the extremely violent sermons of Karlstadt and Zwilling, for they had no regard for weak consciences which Luther no less than Paul would feed on milk until they grow strong. He preaches daily on the Ten Commandments. As far as one can tell from his face the man is kind, gentle and cheerful. His voice is sweet and sonorous so that I am struck by the sweet speaking of the man. Everyone, even though not Saxon, who hears him once, desires to hear him again, such tenacious hooks does he fix in the minds of his listeners.
Jerome Schurff wrote to the Elector of ‘the great gladness and rejoicing here both among the learned and the unlearned. . .showing us the errors into which we have been led . . . Even Gabriel Zwilling has agreed that he went too far.’
With the second Sunday over, the situation in hand again, students quietened, the congregation reassured, priests and academics also reassured and feeling that Luther knew where he was taking them — it was possible to relax with Philip Melancthon and Amsdorf over some of the Wittenberg beer to which Luther had referred in the second sermon. It was a strange sensation for him, once again of a new freedom. He had experienced a ‘new’ freedom twice before, once when he understood that he no longer had to try to measure up to God, but that God would do all, then again when he arrived at the Wartburg, free of many things. Now the very Church authority itself seemed almost to have disappeared. Certainly at Wittenberg they were their own masters for the moment.
But the freedom had dimensions to it both welcome and unwelcome. Luther was free to be arrested, at any time. Nothing at all now stood between him and the law officers of both Church and State. But as the days and weeks went by, the situation which had gradually been showing its profile during the last months at the Wartburg began to clarify. The authorities, like Luther himself, were frightened about the general unrest and the danger of an uprising. They were actually afraid to arrest Luther. The arrest itself might miscarry; much worse it might spark off an uprising. Luther’s ever present fear of death which accompanied him after leaving the Wartburg, did not go away, but it did lessen. Then there was the freedom also to be attacked by the words and actions of his own colleagues. If he had opportunities now for reforming activity which began to look almost incredible, he was also vulnerable in a new and unlimited way.
He was soon embroiled in a hundred problems and being asked to pronounce on everything from reasonable interest rates for loans to the future of the Teutonic Order of Knights, from detailed arrangements for the Common Chest in the town of Leisnig to the order of the Church services, not to speak of theology, Scripture and the rest. Writings of every kind began to flow importunately out again to the printers. The return to apparent normality was partly deceptive. Friars were leaving the Augustinians almost daily, and within a few months it was impossible to continue with the common recitation of the Office, the readings at meals, or any semblance of regular community life — the life which had formed Luther, given him his love of psalm and plain chant, scripture and prayer, of theology and preaching. But, meanwhile, the Wittenberg life went on, and the letters to Spalatin started up again:
Mr George Spalatin, evangelist at Lochau. . . On my Patmos I translated the whole New Testament. Philip and I have now begun to polish the whole thing. . . We shall use your service sometimes for finding a right word. But give us simple words, not those of court or castle, for this book should be famous for its simplicity . . . please tell us the names and colours of the gems that are mentioned in Revelation 21.
At present I am working on a little tract on gospel-style eucharistic communion entitled On Receiving Both Kinds. Even if this should bring me a lot of trouble, I am not afraid of it. Christ lives, and for his sake we not only have to be a strong fragrance which will cause death for some and life for others, but we may even have to be put to death.
Farewell and greet all at court. From Wittenberg, 30 March 1522 Martin Luther
During April a preaching tour was decided on for Luther, through some of the principal towns of the electorate. On 30 April, Luther left for Eilenberg, Torgau, Borna, Altenberg, and as far as Zwickau, eighty miles south of Wittenberg. He preached on Marriage, the Lay Vocation, faith and love, the other current themes. It was an encouraging experience. People wanted to listen to him. It was a test of his public viability, both with the people at large and in respect of the Elector and the bishops. Although the local Bishop ran a confirmation and a visitation in the district in competition with Luther — Luther duly denounced the confirmation, a man-made sacrament — no attempt was made to arrest or hinder him. The Elector was relieved to have someone holding a middle line between the extremism and violence which were now associated with Karlstadt on the one hand, and the purely reactionary papal and imperial stances on the other. Luther preached all the time against extremism, whether civil or ecclesiastical, to right or to left, but above all it was a gospel freshly sited; he emphasised the life of the layman and marriage. What after all, in the end, was the difference between a priest and a layman? — they were both men. This came out in a particularly sarcastic piece on the objection to lay people touching the Blessed Sacrament, an objection which lasted in the Catholic Church until the 1970s. ‘The angry papists write . . . that people have received the sacrament with "lay hands". What do you think of that? Isn’t that marvellous? Lay hands indeed! . . . Now if I were to ask them with what kinds of mouths they themselves receive the sacrament at Easter, whether they receive it with a lay mouth or with a priestly mouth, perhaps they would say their mouths just then were the mouths of angels or bishops.’ Luther was demythologising theology.
After the preaching tour, the balmier days of a festive and welcoming Wittenberg seemed almost to be back. ‘Grace and Peace. My Spalatin: Aurogallus asks that, if possible, he be honoured with some venison for his wedding. As you know, he deserves it, and he is far from being the most insignificant member of our University.’ Professor Aurogallus, or Goldhann, had been the final satisfactory choice for the chair in Hebrew. And there was a letter to Spalatin begging leniency for a poor man caught poaching in the Elector’s waters.
The publications were flowing again. A Little Prayer Book was intended for personal use, to take the place of many similar works which, however, were ‘puffed up with promises of Indulgences.’ These, often with a title such as The Garden of the Soul were popular, and Luther’s prayer book had some of the same prayers in it, but none of the effusive invocations to Mary and the Saints, and without the spiritual profit motive built in. With the traditional prayers went also some woodcuts showing incidents from the Bible. It romped through many editions.
On the polemical front, Luther had a sharp analysis of the sexual life and morals of the clergy in Against the Spiritual Estate of the Pope and the Bishops falsely so-called. It came out in the summer of 1522.
Bishops receive the greater part of all their annual interest rates in almost all religious foundations from nothing but the priests’ mistresses. Whoever wants to keep a little mistress must give one guilder a year to the bishop. There is a proverb among them: ‘Chaste priests are not liked by the Bishop — indeed they are his enemies.’ . . . To top it all, if a priest’s maid stumbles over a dishpan and breaks in two, so that one part of her must be carried to baptism, the interest rate increases beyond the annual guilder.
He waxed eloquent about the nuns who did not have true vocation to celibacy — and the monks: ‘Unless she is in a high and unusual state of grace a young woman can do without a man as little as she can do without eating, drinking, sleeping or other natural requirements. Nor can a man do without a woman. . .Nature does not cease to do its work when there is voluntary chastity . To put it bluntly, seed. . .if it does not flow into flesh will flow into the shirt.’
The ex-friars were getting married, and nuns were leaving their convents when they could. There was no sign that Fr Luther thought his praise of marriage might apply to himself. He had no mistress, and had always kept his distance from younger unrelated women. The texts flowed, The Persons related by Consanguinity and Affinity who are Forbidden to marry by Scripture (1522), The Estate of Marriage (1522), An Exhortation to the Knights of the Teutonic Order that they lay aside False Chastity and assume True Wedlock (1523), That Parents should neither compel nor hinder the Marriage of their Children and That Children should not become engaged without their Parents’ Consent (1524). And other texts: Letter of Consolation to all who Suffer Persecution (1522), Temporal Authority: to what extent it should be obeyed (1523), covering a wide range of the responsibilities of the state, Ordinance of a Common Chest (1523), That Jesus Christ was born a Jew (1523), a defence of the teaching that Jesus was the promised ‘Messiah’ of the Jews, To all Christians in Worms (1523), Concerning the Ministry (1523), Trade and Usuary (1524), stricter than some earlier medieval theories but not in practice greatly different (and he sent a letter to the Saxon Chancellor, Gregory Bruck on the same topic), To the Councillors of all Cities in Germany that they establish and maintain Christian Schools (1525), How God rescued an Honourable Nun ( 1524), the story of an escape from a convent, A Christian Letter of Consolation to the People of Miltenberg (1524).
Just as in the old days, there was a letter to Staupitz. Towards the end of June, Luther was horrified to hear that his old mentor had accepted the offer of the position of Abbot at a wealthy Benedictine abbey, St Peter’s, in Salzburg. He wanted to protest, and he wanted also to set the record straight about Wittenberg, since Staupitz had written to a friend deploring what was going on. Luther underlined how a battle was being fought and told Staupitz how an Augustinian prior at Antwerp, a recent graduate of Wittenberg, had been burnt at the stake. He had been lured to Brussels where the Inquisitor General was able to arrest and imprison him, and eventually to have him burnt, following on a repudiation of a recantation obtained by torture. ‘They are planning to burn me at the stake too.’ It was true that only the Elector and the temper of the common people stood between Luther and the stake. A fundamental uncertainty, an absence of any ultimate legal protection, always lay threateningly over Luther. The letter ended: ‘Farewell, my Father, and pray for me. Dr Jerome, Rector Amsdorf, and Philip send their greetings . . . Your son, Martin Luther.’ Martin was insisting on the relationship and the mutual loyalty. Staupitz, in his reply months later from his southern hideout, was warm but guarded: ‘My love to you is unchanging, passing the love of women, always unbroken . . . But as I do not grasp all your ideas, I keep silence about them . . . It seems to me that you condemn many things which are merely indifferent. . . but we owe much to you, Martin, for having led us back from the husks which the swine did eat to the pastures of life and the words of salvation.’ Staupitz asked for a Master’s Degree at Wittenberg for the bearer of the letter, and it was granted. Staupitz died later in the year and so ended Luther’s most personal link with the papal Church, the Church of his own vital years of development.
The Luther case remained a very large thorn in the flesh of the Establishment. In Ernestine Saxony Church property was being taken over by reformers and local political authority. The case had to be on the agenda again at the next Imperial Diet at Nuremberg. And once again the papal Legate had to be heard. But there had been great changes at Rome. While Luther was at the Wartburg, Pope Leo X died. A growing, reforming party at Rome found themselves linked with another party which wished to ensure the best possible links with the new Emperor. A case was put forward, and triumphed, for the election as Pope of a Netherlander who had been the tutor of Charles Habsburg before he was elected Emperor. Adrian of Utrecht was a pious, devoted man, influenced by the Brothers of the Common Life, but also strongly orthodox in his theology. Charles had recently appointed him Bishop of Tortosa and his Viceroy in Spain. It was August 1522 before this man from the Netherlands, Adrian VI, arrived in Rome, the last non-Italian Pope until Pope John Paul II.
Adrian VI came with high ambitions to reform the Church, and especially to reform the whole Roman administration. But he lacked any understanding of the art of the possible, and he lacked the genius which can sometimes turn the impossible into achievement. Certainly the least likely way to achieve a successful reform of the financial system of the largest organisation in the world, was by a head-on refusal to perform the normal tasks of its head. Adrian had decided that he would cease to issue the normal offices, privileges and the like just as they were requested in return of cash payments. As a result, it was not many weeks before the Cardinals in the Curia were coming to warn him of impending bankruptcy. His reforming tactics had perforce to be suspended. Then, for the changes in structure and procedure that he wished to make, they could find no one suitable to draft the necessary decrees. However, while running up against a high blank wall at home, the new Pope was able to do something in the international sphere.
‘We know that many disgraceful things have happened in this Holy See for many years now, such as abuses in spiritual matters, surfeit of financial demands, and everything used perversely. . . it is hardly surprising if the disease has gone from the head to the members, from the chief bishops to the other lower prelates. We have, all, that is the ecclesiastical prelates, failed, every one of us, and there was not one who did anything good for long.’ And so to promises of reform. These words were part of the text which the papal Legate, Francesco Chieregato, was obliged to read out at the Diet of Nuremberg on 3 January 1523. But this went along with the usual demands for contributions to the defence of Europe against the infidel Turk, and for suppression of heresy, above all of the heretic Luther, who the Pope was surprised to hear was still free and threatening the public peace.
Again a pope had misjudged the situation. The German representatives at the Diet were not impressed by the Roman demands for repression of heresy until the abuses associated with Rome herself had been removed — not just admitted, regretted and deplored. They had heard reform plans a hundred times before and were inclined to jeer at the admission of guilt. The only people they knew to do any actual reforming were Luther and his friends — not that they wished to share in his heresy. Then there were other important things happening in Germany just now. The knights were on the rampage; eventually von Sickingen and his followers were defeated by the troops of the Archbishop of Trier in May, and von Sickingen killed. In any case, the Legate to Nuremberg had a cool reception, at times aggressively cool.
A vast list of complaints, Centum Gravamina, with the usual request for a Free Council in German speaking lands was put forward — with full detail, including such things as interference in marriages, in people’s diet, limitation of times when marriage may be solemnised, the preaching of Indulgences, financially burdensome interference also in the affairs of local dioceses, and so on, many pages of matters fully itemised. Until these things were put right, until a Council should be held, the imperial Estates merely ordered the Gospel to continue to be preached in its orthodox understanding, and nothing new to be published unless it had first been approved. That was as far as they would go towards suppressing Luther. Their words, of course, could be variously interpreted. When the Elector drew Luther’s attention to the text, Luther said that while he realised that ‘my harsh writing has been and still is distasteful to and opposed by many of my friends and enemies, including your Electoral Grace’ yet he had never in any way stirred up rebellion or revolution, and indeed had written against them, and had written only to promote the Word. He would gladly refrain from any further harsh writing. But if the Word was attacked, and if Luther was attacked, he must defend them. And since the Mandate of the Diet said only the true Gospel must be preached, he must be allowed to defend it too.
The Roman authorities seemed to be unaware that, with every month, further reforming initiatives were surfacing all over the German speaking lands, not to speak of the rest of northern Europe. They were unable to envisage a situation where the Holy See was not the major power in the land where matters of religion were concerned. And even those few people of great imagination who were well able to imagine such a thing, were not able to see how they should proceed. Too few and too late in the coming two decades, several did try to respond, particularly to Melancthon who had a continuous project of an Agreed Statement, his Loci Communes, an attempt at a summary of the central themes of Christianity as understood by the Wittenberg theologians, set out in such a way that papal theologians might be likely to read them sympathetically.
Melancthon always realised that Luther’s rumbustious concern with the dynamic of faith, with preaching the Gospel, with a lived and announced theology must arouse opposition, and gladly as he accepted Luther’s sincerity and indeed the importance of a Gospel enunciated without compromise, yet he considered it was necessary also to have a conceptual summary of what was believed, which could enable the different viewpoints to come together in what we call today Agreed Statements. But there was little motivation for reconciliation among the majority of leaders on the two sides (and very soon more than two sides, because the reformers began to differ fiercely among themselves), who soon became polarised and set in confrontation.
Later in 1523, Adrian VI died. The cardinals had had enough of reform, turned back to traditional Florentine stock and chose another Medici, a cousin of Pope Leo X. Cardinal Giulio de Medici was elected on 18 November 1523, and took the name Clement VII. To a further German Diet at Nuremberg he sent his most experienced Cardinal, Campeggio — made Bishop of Salisbury that year for diplomatic service in England. But the Nurembergers had moved sharply forward with reforming activities. Communion in both kinds had been demanded by the congregations the previous year, and other changes were afoot. The Legate decided not to enter the town with the usual triumphal progress, due by protocol to a papal legate — it might be considered provocative. He simply rode into the town, though well accompanied by notables, and all on the finest horses and in fine clothes. The new Diet was no more disposed to accede to the Roman demand to have the Edict of the Diet of Worms executed than the previous Diet. There was still indeed a majority of representatives, conservative and more or less unsympathetic to religious change as such, or to any change opposed by Pope and Emperor. But when it came to demands on them from Rome, national feeling and resentment of ecclesiastical privilege, and of Rome, was the overriding sentiment. However, Cardinal Campeggio was a seasoned and persevering diplomat, and was able, subsequent to the Diet, to gain a definite advantage by gathering together the rulers unsympathetic to the reformers and getting them to sign a text forming the League of Ratisbon (7 July 1524), which was to promote reform of the Church within the papal tradition. Religious polarisation was becoming explicitly political.
But something more important was already beginning in Germany. Bands of peasants, armed and on the move, were taking over control of part of the Black Forest in the south-west, by the middle of August. For the next nine months the attention of an increasing number of rulers was to be taken up with the peasant uprisings. At the same time the civil government in an increasing number of towns acquiesced in religious changes. The water was coming to the boil haphazardly in Zurich, in Strassburg, and eastwards across Germany to Saxony and northwards to the Netherlands and Denmark. The ceaseless flood of books and pamphlets from Wittenberg was added to increasingly from authors and presses in other towns. The flood was encouraged by the fact that Luther always disowned any wish to impose a universal style or any norms other than those of Scripture and, while always willing to advise, his advice often included the suggestion that people should work things out themselves as appropriate locally. ‘I am not your Pastor . . .turn away from Luther and Karlstadt to Christ.’ But one writing of Luther’s was everywhere influential, and outshone all others, in the vast numbers sold, perhaps 10,000 a year for several years running. This was the text of the norm itself, the New Testament in Luther’s German translation.
The first edition of Luther’s New Testament had been published in Wittenberg in September 1522. A translation based for the first time on the Greek (Erasmus’s text) rather than on the Latin which Jerome had produced from the original Greek over a thousand years earlier, it was creating a fresh awareness of the Christian Gospel. People read, or heard read, quite different and longer passages than those they were used to hearing in church in the annual liturgical cycle. And they received them in a more or less secular setting, outside the church — or in the church in reformed and less formal services. A fresh awareness of their own German language was being promoted — and the domination, incidentally, of Saxon high German assured. A new vocabulary, a new language, was being provided for people’s expectations, hopes, disenchantments, their loves and hates.
After 1522, this work of translation developed into the greatly ambitious task of the translation of the whole vast Hebrew text of the Old Testament, a million and a half words. The translation committee met once a week in Wittenberg for the next decade and worked so hard that they published the opening section (The Pentateuch) in 1523, and much more again in 1524.
This work lay at the heart of numerous activities concerned with education and communication. The Wittenberg schools were opened up after being closed during the troubles of the winter 1521-2. Luther plunged into detailed advice here, and eventually published books of guide-lines and encouragement to Town Councils. If they spent one guilder on the defence tax against the Turks, they should spend a hundred on schools. He expressed his own view of the importance of education to his old poet friend Eobanus in March 1523, in a letter which takes us into the Renaissance world of the humanists: ‘I do not intend that young people should give up poetry and rhetoric. . . it is through these studies, as through nothing else, that people are really well prepared for grasping sacred truths, as well as for handling them skilfully and successfully.’ He looked back longingly to the time when he read more poetry than he did now, and remembered the time when he bought his own copies of the Odyssey and the Iliad.
Poetry was ever circling round his mind; the music of the liturgy was in his blood. At Wittenberg, Luther continued to approve of the traditional Latin liturgy, shorn only of the references to sacrifice and other prayers and phrases which implied that to attend Mass was a ‘good work’, earning spiritual merit. While reformers in other towns were springing up and beginning to experiment with translated texts, Luther himself went very slowly. Requests kept coming to him for new forms, and gradually he started jotting things down, using his own knowledge and love of music to make a German liturgy which was truly German and not just a wooden transposition from the Latin. He kept the old chants, and used the Saxon folk tradition.
He published Concerning Public Worship and Order of Mass and Communion for the Church at Wittenberg in 1523. Meanwhile, he had instituted a weekday service at which Psalms were sung, the Bible read and a sermon preached to replace the weekday Masses which Karlstadt had cancelled, a cancellation he agreed with.
In the same year, Luther wrote words and music for a ballad-type hymn to commemorate two Augustinians, Heinrich Vries and Johann Esch, who had been burnt at the stake for preaching Luther’s teaching. Starting with the traditional opening line for a ballad — ‘A new song here shall be begun’ — it went on:
The Lord God help our singing
He showed the wonders of his hands
And continued thus for twelve nine-line verses of rough but singable Saxon, with such sequences as:
Oh, they sang sweet, and they sang sour
The next hymn known to us is from Luther’s own gruelling inner life, written to a vigorous tune and starting: ‘Dear Christians let us now rejoice.’ It went on with material straight from Luther’s own personal troubles such as ‘Forlorn and lost in death I lay. A captive to the devil . . . My good works were worthless quite . . . my will hated God’s judging light . . . To hell I fast was sinking. . . Then God was sorry on his throne. . .’ God the Father sends his Son, Jesus, to put things right, and Jesus says ‘Hold thou by me, thy matters I will settle, etc.’
Once started there was no stopping him, and Luther found yet another identity as poet and composer, and the principal originator of a whole new tradition of German church liturgy, rooted in the existing musical culture, and destined to reach its marvellous climax at Leipzig in the work of Johann Sebastian Bach. The penitential Psalm, ‘Out of the Depths’, one of his favourites, and the hymn to the Holy Spirit, ‘Come Holy Ghost’, were among the first he did. Eventually, the demands became so insistent for a complete chanted Mass in German, that he sent for the Elector’s court musicians, Conrad Rupsch and Johann Walter, and had them with him for three weeks in the late summer of 1525. Together they adapted the plain chant melodies with great care from the Latin to German. Others had made similar attempts, in Switzerland and not far away in Allstedt where Muntzer achieved some happy liturgical forms, which were used until they were suppressed in the 1530s by the Elector’s visitors in favour of Luther’s versions.
By the winter of 1523-4, Luther’s personal situation had become anomalous. He was still wearing his Augustinian habit, but the Priory was empty. It was two years since he had disavowed any canonical alliance, though wishing to remain essentially a ‘religious’. But the habit had become an empty symbol, and one day, recognising the facts, he laid it aside and never wore it again. He sat down and wrote to the Elector: ‘I am now living in this monastery alone except for the Prior (not counting some who were exiled by the enemies of the Gospel whom we lodge here temporarily out of Christian love). The Prior expects to leave soon, and in any case I cannot endure the daily moaning of the people whom I must remind to pay their rents’, the income from which originally used to help keep up the monastery. ‘Therefore we are inclined to relinquish and hand over the monastery, with all its property to Your Electoral Grace.’ Luther suggested that perhaps he could live on in the sick bay. As ever, the Elector did not like to act precipitately. He simply let Luther stay where he was and said nothing about the way the monastery was used by ex-monks and ex-nuns, as a staging post back to the ordinary world. Luther and the Prior stayed on, knowing that the Elector was not likely to ask them to move.
If things were relatively quiet on the right wing, Luther continued to feel threatened from the left, distantly by Zwingli and others in Switzerland and the south-west, but notably by ex-Dean Karlstadt. The latter, thoroughly censored by Luther both as to his sermons and his books which he could not get published, had relinquished his office of Dean of the Faculty of Theology but continued to be a lecturer in receipt of a salary from the University. However, he was seldom seen In Wittenberg, having taken his bride to his parish of Orlamunde, where, calling himself Brother Andrew, he cultivated the Glebe land in peasant’s clothes and invited Muntzer to come to join the commune and help with the work. The Vicar originally appointed by Karlstadt to look after the parish had to give way to him. The University missed Karlstadt’s lectures.
Luther wrote to Spalatin on 14 January 1524: ‘Karlstadt behaves as usual. He has had his material published by a newly founded publishing house in Jena, and so it is rumoured will bring out eighteen more books.’ Two months later, complaining about Karlstadt’s destruction of statues, vestments, etc., Luther wrote, ‘In the name of the University we shall call him back. . . to his office of the Word’. He was to be arraigned before his University colleagues. ‘Satan is setting up a sect among us at yet another place and this sect supports neither the papists nor us . . . They boast they are moved by pure spirits.’ Enemies to the left, enemies to the right. Only Luther and the Elector were in the middle. Politically and ecclesiastically, that is how it seemed to be working out. Luther warned the Elector in July that Muntzer and his followers were threatening violence against the State. They referred to the Bible as Bible-babble-Babel and relied on direct spiritual inspiration.
In August Luther made a tour through Thuringia, and went to Orlamunde, almost as on an official visitation. There was a mixed reception from Karlstadt whose writings, not as numerous as Luther’s but numerous enough, were now openly opposing both Luther and the traditional Church on sacramental theology; and a mixed reception from some of his congregation. Luther and Karlstadt had a discussion at the famous Black Bear pub at Jena where Luther had been mistaken for Hutten by the Swiss students. It was a sad encounter. Luther was aggressive to his tiresome old colleague. Finally, he challenged Karlstadt to a public debate and threw him the conventional golden coin as a formal sign. At an earlier stage, Karlstadt had promised to return to his duties at Wittenberg. But he never did so. In July he had resigned from being Archdeacon at the castle church. Later, in 1524, he was exiled from Saxony by the Elector who was worried about the general unrest that always seemed to go along with Karlstadt’s preaching, as distinct from Luther’s —Wittenberg remained quiet and disciplined since Luther’s return. Karlstadt took refuge in Strassburg and from there and elsewhere Luther received queries from people worried by teaching which radically reinterpreted sacramental religion. Finally, Luther took to his pen and wrote a full-scale piece – Against the Heavenly Prophets in the Matter of Images and Sacraments, a piece that continually returned to ‘Brother Andrew in his felt hat’. Luther’s anger and frustration had found a new target: ‘There has been a change in the weather. I had almost relaxed and thought the matter was finished; but then it suddenly starts up again, and it is for me as the wise man says: ‘When man finishes, he must begin again."’ So ran the first paragraph of this 45,000-word piece. Among the arguments and invective were some interesting things. Karlstadt had accused Luther of being responsible to some extent for his expulsion from Saxony. Luther wrote:
I have had no dealings with the Elector of Saxony about Karlstadt. For that matter I have in my whole life never spoken one word with this prince, nor heard him speak, nor have I ever seen his face, except in Worms before the Emperor when I was being examined for the second tune. It is true that I have often communicated with him in writing through Spalatin and especially insisted that the Allstedtian spirit be suppressed.
But he had spoken with my young lord, Duke John Frederick — that I admit — and pointed out Dr Karlstadt’s wantonness and arrogance. However, since ‘the spirit’ burns with such blinding intensity, I will here recount the reasons, some of which indeed are not known to the princes of Saxony, why I am happy that Dr Karlstadt is out of the country. And in so far as my entreaties are effectual, he shall not return again, and would again have to leave were he to be found here, unless he became another Andrew [German: ein ander Andres], which God grant. God willing, I will fawn before no princes. But much less will I suffer that the rebellious and the disobedient among the masses are to be led to despise temporal authority.
Luther recounted Karlstadt’s obstinacy, his failure to return to Wittenberg and the interview at the inn: ‘He turned to me, snapped his fingers and said "You are nothing to me."’ The long years of seeing Luther usurp his leadership at Wittenberg were too much for Karlstadt, and the quarrel had become bitter and personal. Luther was not going to spare him:
What do you think now? Is it not a fine new spiritual humility? Wearing a felt hat and a grey garb, not wanting to be called doctor, but Brother Andrew and dear neighbour, as another peasant, subject to the magistrate of Orlamunde and obedient as an ordinary citizen. Thus with self-chosen humility and servility, which God does not command, he wants to be seen and praised as a remarkable Christian, as though Christian behaviour consisted in such external hocus-pocus. At the same time he strives and runs counter to duty, honour, obedience, and . . . the right of the reigning prince. . .which God has instituted.
Then Luther turned to the theology. One main theme was that: ‘The Pope commands what is to be done; Dr Karlstadt what is not to be done’; while Luther alone insisted on freedom. Another was an attack on Karlstadt’s rejection of the sacraments of baptism and the eucharist as traditionally understood. Karlstadt, said Luther, rejected the true meaning of Scripture on the effectiveness of the sacraments, and instead said: ‘The Spirit, the Spirit, the Spirit must do this inwardly. Dear Peter, I beg you put your glasses on your nose, or blow your nose a bit, to make your head lighter and the brain clearer.’
These ‘heavenly prophets’ and all his enemies on the left Luther referred to collectively by the term Schwarmerei. It means the ‘enthusiasm’ or ‘fanaticism’ of a visionary and is derived from the word ‘swarm. Luther thought of these subjective followers of the Spirit as fluttering about without purpose, ‘blown about by every wind of doctrine’ as St Paul put it.
Luther published his piece at the turn of the year 1524-5. He was beginning to feel dejected and persecuted again. His enemies on the left were beginning to accuse him of being a conservative, with nicknames like Master Pussyfoot and Mr Easychair. On the right his old papist enemy, Emser (The Goat), called him the Archbishop of Wittenberg. But, worst of all, Erasmus had attacked him. In September 1524 he had come out with a full-scale attack on a central item in Luther’s theology under the title The Freedom of the Will.
In April, Luther had heard rumours that Erasmus was finally coming down against him and tried to forestall him with one of his awkward letters, just the kind of thing greatly to irritate the old scholar: ‘I have been silent long enough, excellent Erasmus. For although I was expecting you, as the greater and older man, to break the silence, since I have waited so long in vain, I think charity now compels me to take the initiative.’ Then Luther immediately attacked him: ‘You have behaved most peculiarly towards us in order that your relationship with my enemies, the papists, should be unimpaired and safe . . . you have not been given the courage . . . that you could openly fight these monsters around us.’ But it was only too clear that the real purpose of the letter was to try to pressure Erasmus into not writing against Luther who defended himself against Erasmus’s usual complaint of his violence: ‘I myself am easily provoked and have often been prodded into writing sharply’, but only against those who were obstinate he said weakly. Finally came an excruciatingly patronising wish that ‘a disposition which is worthy of your fame would be given to you by the Lord’, and at last a straight plea: ‘Do not give comfort to my enemies and join their ranks . . . do not publish booklets against me.’ They should ‘bear one another’s burdens. Pardon my lack of eloquence . . .’
It was a jumpy letter. Luther did not understand how Erasmus could be in good faith, and was not able to find a wavelength on which to speak to the great scholar whom for eight years now he had believed to be fundamentally mistaken in his theology. How was it possible, Luther asked himself, for Erasmus to compromise with an evidently inadequate theology and not to break with an institution so riddled with corruption as the papacy.
On his side, Erasmus deeply regretted Luther’s violent and intemperate language. Encouraged by numerous people, including the Pope and the King of England, to vindicate his own scholarship and his own status, often itself suspect, and to dissociate himself from Luther, he finally discerned an item central to Luther’s theology which seemed to him obviously mistaken. It was the matter of common sense to Erasmus that man’s will was free. Luther’s use of dialectic (‘man is totally free. . . man is absolutely bound’) to reach the existential affirmation that it was only through grace that man could take the smallest step at all towards anything spiritually good, enunciated with Luther’s dogmatism, seemed to be an attack on the whole civilised Christian tradition of good letters: devoted, refined and peaceful. Erasmus never retreated from frequent statements of agreement with Luther’s denunciation of the corruption in the Church and especially at Rome. But he believed in reform from within, and through the normal channels.
Erasmus’s attack might have left Luther beginning to feel utterly isolated, but the thought did not occur to him. The way of the Word was a way of suffering and persecution, and, like Karlstadt and Erasmus themselves, he drew strength and courage from the idea. However, the strains were beginning to tell again.
There was an emptiness just now at the heart of his life. People saw it and began to fill it with the rumour that he was going to marry. There were ex-nuns living at the Priory, looking for husbands. Luther denied any such intention. He was completely taken up with all the battles which he had to fight. And it looked to him like the end of the world anyhow. Every few weeks came news of more peasant uprisings.