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 15: The German Prophet
‘To my dearest Katherine Luther, mistress of the house, . . ., Wittenberg: Personal. Grace and peace in Christ! Dear Katie. . .I have received all your letters . . . I got the picture of Lenchen (Magdalen). At first I didn’t recognise the little minx, she looked so dark. I think it would be all right if you stopped breast feeding, gradually, so that at first you leave out one feed a day, then two, until finally it stops completely.’ Luther said he got this advice from a friend who called recently, and went on: "Tell Mr Christian that in all my life I haven’t seen worse glasses than those which arrived with his letter. I couldn’t see a thing through them . . .The Emperor still delays at Innsbruck, the priests are conspiring and there is foul play. . . The messenger won’t wait longer. Greetings, kisses, hugs and regards to all and everyone as fits. 5 June in the morning, 1530, Martin Luther.’
The letters poured forth from Luther, once again the frustrated ‘General’ at the Castle — frustrated by his distance from events. He commonly added a letter to Katie to each batch of his other letters, while the messenger waited. The Emperor finally arrived at Augsburg in the fourth week in June. Letters and memoranda flew to and fro between Luther and the Elector, Melancthon, Spalatin and Justus Jonas. It was a time of jockeying for position. The Emperor’s previous official visit to Germany nine years earlier had ended in the outlawing of Luther; now he seemed to be inviting Luther’s associates to present their case.
Melancthon was busy with negotiations, re-casting his ever newly polished commonplaces, turning them now into an Apology’ and finally into a ‘Confession’ to be presented to the Emperor. On 15 May, Luther received a copy from the Elector for his comment. He sent it back the same day by return messenger as requested: ‘I have read through Master Philip’s Apologia which pleases me very much; I know of nothing which needs to be corrected or changed, nor would this be appropriate since I cannot step so softly and gently.’ Melancthon’s style he knew well, and he had seen the great majority of the sentences themselves in one form or another, in previous documents. But was it really feasible to do business with the papists? That was what worried Luther. He had already prepared his own text for Augsburg and it was even now printing at Wittenberg.
As soon as he had settled in at the Coburg he began to write a piece for the clerics and theologians assembling for the Imperial Diet. In letters to friends he told of a literary programme he had set himself for the duration of his stay: he would work on the Prophets, stemming from the still continuing work of translating the whole Old Testament, he would do commentaries on some of his favourite Psalms, and he would work on Aesop — this would fulfil a long cherished ambition to bring out an edition of Aesop’s fables, which he eventually did. The jackdaws in the trees outside had set his mind off again in that direction. He spun tales to his correspondents about their bird Diet, and their war on the crops. But the first ten days were very largely occupied with his Exhortation to all Clergy assembled at Augsburg. He had soon completed twenty thousand words and sent it off to Wittenberg for printing.
It was a rumbustious farrago, mixing his usual bombast with sharp insights and practical proposals. In the opening sections he laughed at the way in which the theme of faith and works had now been taken up so widely by all preachers — ‘they slyly leave their sermon book under the bench and whatever else the shouting in the pulpit used to be about, and they begin to preach to us again on faith and good works, about which one never used to hear or know anything’. Yet, he complained, nothing much else seemed to have changed — if they did not learn their lesson, another Muntzer would arise, and more violence supervene. Then he turned to the accustomed list of items in the Catholic tradition which he had been denouncing in the last ten years, that remained largely unreformed: Indulgences and special confessional arrangements, the ‘sale of Masses’, private Masses, and the teaching that Mass was a sacrifice and a good work, the Ban, the faithful confined to one kind at Communion, celibate priests — on the latter he was his usual eloquent self and included a reference to the fact that the Pope, Clement VII, had been born out of wedlock, and another reference to the mistresses of Cardinal Albrecht.
Then he came to a series of ‘Offers’ to the Church authorities: (1) ‘Allow us to teach the Gospel freely. . . Do not persecute and resist that which you cannot do and are all the same supposed to do and which others want to do for you. . . (2) Luther and his followers would continue to work without any expectation of payment from the established Church authorities. (3) Bishops and priests should be allowed to remain in possession of their property and to be recognised as ‘princes and lords.’ He summed up as a fourth point: ‘You could restore the episcopal jurisdiction again, as long as you left us free to preach the Gospel. For my part, I will readily give help and counsel so that you may have something of the episcopal office after all.’ Luther was granting favours, not soliciting them.
This was as far as he was ever to go in compromise, and he was reluctant and worried at the prospect of agreement. Melancthon was busy all his life trying to patch a detailed doctrinal agreement together. But Luther felt he could never really trust the ecclesiastical authorities. And he was concerned about the practicalities of what was being talked about. The Christian faith was expressed in human terms, earthen vessels, in public worship, in gestures, words and music, and these were important. Luther claimed with some justification that the reformers celebrated the liturgy with greater reverence than the papal Church; Mass at Wittenberg still looked Catholic in many ways. The ‘Host’, the consecrated bread was still ‘elevated’, lifted up for all to see — other reformers had omitted this for some years. Luther was always trying to stretch beyond mere rites, to the liturgical expression of the Gospel, to an occasion for the recognition of Christ and his message. In his youth he felt irretrievably hampered by the Church’s insistence that to offer Mass was to do something ‘meritorious’. But eucharistic worship remained central to his theology. He wanted it to be a free act of worship and thanksgiving.
In his text for Augsburg, Luther went on to a great list of actions, gestures and symbols, which he found either unacceptable, or only acceptable as a kind of cultural decoration, or possibly welcome but not to be imposed — the Freedom of the Word was the great thing. And yet he was increasingly aware of what he considered abuse of that freedom by preachers who ignored all tradition and relied on a purely personal spiritual understanding of the New Testament. In all his writing at this time there was a reaching out to distinguish acceptable norms in the received tradition, and a wish not to discard what had assisted faith. While at the Coburg he wrote a long ‘pastoral’ text on the Eucharist, encouraging Christians to go frequently to communion. First in his Augsburg list comes a list of thirty-seven unacceptable things: (1) Indulgences . . . (10) Masses at Four Weeks. (11) Soul baths. (12) Venerations of Saints some of whom were never born. . . (14) Mary made a common idol with countless services. (15) Butter letters. (16) Countless relics, with fraud . . . (29) Sacrament of Marriage. (30) Sacrament of priesthood. (31) Sacrament of Confirmation.
Then comes a list of lesser things ‘beyond necessity, purely as a special service to God, which is contrary to faith. . . Tonsures, chasubles, albs. . . altar cloths, lights. . . bells, holy water, holy salt, incense’, and a further list of ambivalent things: ‘veiling of statues, keeping fasts (except for the clergy), Litany of the Saints, Hymns to Mary of an evening, Confession torture, Palm swallowing, Passion sermons eight hours long, Consecrating the fire, . . . St Martin’s Goose. . . three Christmas Masses, Oats on St Stephen’s Day, St. John’s draught’. These were by no means all bad in themselves, but should not be imposed.
Some of these have declined which I did not want to see decline, but which can easily come back again. Among them the very best to remain are the fine Latin songs, for particular seasons, although they have been almost drowned out by the new saint-songs . . . If these things had been left as child’s play for youth . . . as one must give children dolls, puppets, hobbyhorses, then they would confuse no conscience. But that we old fools march around in bishops’ hats and with clerical pageantry and take it not only seriously but as an article of faith, so that it must be a sin and must torment the conscience of anyone who does not venerate such child’s play — that is the devil himself.
Working long hours on the translation of the Old Testament and suffering from severe headache, exhaustion and depression, he could not summon up much comment for the messenger waiting to return to the Elector with Melancthon’s Apologia. He had written to Philip on 12 May: ‘I am suffering from a ringing, or rather thundering in my head — I nearly passed out.’ In spite of it, he punned: ‘My head (Caput) has become a Chapter (Capitulum} and will soon be a paragraph, and then a bare sentence . . . Satan so crushed me that I had to get out of my room and look for company.’ He was fortunate to have Veit Dietrich with him, and his nephew Cyriac Kaufman. Dietrich was a major help with preparing his texts. He was also beginning to collect a file of Luther’s passing comments, which would become the first of the famous series of ‘Table Talk’; and he wrote letters to Katie, telling her how her husband was.
Luther wrote to his son’s tutor, Jerome Weller, now living with the family, and suffering like Luther from depression.
Whenever this temptation comes to you, don’t argue with the devil and don’t dwell on the lethal thoughts . Don’t be alone. . . Joke and play some game with my wife and others. . .go into company or drink more. . . We are soon defeated if we try too hard not to sin. So when the devil says ‘Do not drink’ answer him: ‘I shall drink, and right freely, just because you tell me not to!’
And Luther laughed at advisers, medical and spiritual: ‘Whatever one does in the world is wrong. . . One physician advises me to bathe my feet at bedtime, another before dinner, a third in the morning, a fourth at noon . . . So it is in other things: if I speak I am thought turbulent, if I keep silence I am thought to spit on the cross. Then Mr Wiseacre comes along and hits the poor beast on the rump.’
The Elector was the first sovereign to arrive at Augsburg. He and his advisers waited for news of the Emperor, who had reached Innsbruck early in May and delayed there for lengthy consultation with advisers from Church and state. Campeggio was there, his mind still abuzz with the troubles of the Emperor’s aunt, Queen of England, now dismissed by Henry VIII who was threatening fearful things if the Pope did not give him a divorce. Delay was the best answer, play for time, when no solution could be seen. Campeggio advised the Emperor to delay the Diet. He was worried that Charles was going to temporise with the Reformers, or to strengthen his political position and weaken the papacy again. Luther’s old debating partner was also there, Johann Eck, with a list of 404 reasons why the Reformers were heretics. Eck had been working hard at pastoral work in several parishes around Ingolstadt, and had become a devoted Reformer within the established Church — he had always granted Luther’s thesis against Indulgences, but reform should keep within the bounds of established canonical and papal norms. He had written numerous Latin works and had engaged with Zwingli in a disputation in Switzerland.
To encourage Elector John and his theologians Luther sent encouraging letters to Augsburg, including one strongly supportive to the Elector, assuring him that time was not heavy on his hands as the Elector had feared it might be (what might not happen if Luther were bored ?), and that they were comfortable and well fed at the Coburg. He recalled the solid achievements which were now to be seen in Ernestine Saxony, the results of the Visitation, of the preaching of a theology of faith and the circulation of the Little Catechism, and the German New Testament: ‘The young people, both boys and girls, grow up so well instructed in the Catechism and the Scriptures that I am deeply moved when I see that young boys and girls can pray, believe, and speak more of God and Christ than they ever could in the monasteries, foundations, and schools of bygone days, or even of our day. Truly your Elector Grace’s territory is a beautiful paradise . . .’ On the same day that he wrote to the Elector, he wrote a second German letter to Landgrave Philip to keep him on the correct doctrinal lines in the coming Diet — the letter ended with Luther’s byline ‘From the Wilderness’.
At the end of May, copies of his Exhortation to the Clergy at Augsburg arrived at the Coburg; by 2 June they were selling fast at Augsburg itself. On 5 June, after the messenger had left for Wittenberg with his letter, including the one for Katie, another messenger arrived with sad news. His father had died. Luther had been writing a letter to Melancthon and now added: ‘We die many times before we die once for all. I succeed now in the legacy of the name, and I am almost the oldest Luther in my family. . . Since I am now too sad, I am writing no more; for it is right and God-pleasing for me, as a son, to mourn such a father. . .’ For twenty-four hours, all his emotions were turned to this personal grief. It was the end of an epoch for Luther. Standing apart from affairs at the Coburg, he digested it easily. A long day and night’s sorrow and he was through with it. Death had always been a central theme; now it became more familiar still. Two weeks later, Veit Dietrich wrote to Katie to describe how he took it. The news had come in a letter from Hans Reinecke (Luther’s boyhood friend with whom he travelled to his first boarding school at Magdeburg):
Looking at Reinecke’s letter he says to me: ‘So my father is dead!’ Then he hurriedly took his Psalter, went into his room, and wept so much that the next day he had a headache. Since that time he has not betrayed any further emotion . . . You did something very good when you sent the picture of Magdalen to Doctor Luther, for the picture helps him to forget many troubling thoughts. He has pinned it upon a wall opposite the table in the room where we eat.
That was a letter dated 19 June. On the same date, Luther wrote again to Jerome Weller, and he wrote also to four-year-old Hans himself: ‘I am pleased to hear that you are doing well in your lessons, and that you are praying well. Go on like this, my son, and when I return home I shall bring you a nice present from the fair.’ It was a relief to turn aside from an argument he was having with Melancthon and Spalatin, who seemed to be keeping him short of information and made him fear the worst. He sent Hans a story of a garden full of things gold and silver, little coats, ponies, saddles, reins, apples, pears, cherries, yellow and blue plums, with many children playing in it. He had asked the owner if his own child might join in and ‘eat such fine apples and pears, and ride on these pretty ponies and play with these children’, and the reply was yes, ‘if he too likes to pray, study and be good, he too may enter the garden, and also Lippius [Melancthon] and Jost [Jonas]. They would get ‘whistles, drums, lutes and would dance and shoot with little crossbows; and Aunt Lena could go too.’ Luther’s fantasies were not all honor, anger and despair. ‘Works’ and rewards were also apparently acceptable for four-year-olds.
At Augsburg the atmosphere grew more tense and the jockeying more active as the Emperor arrived at Munich and then started out on the final leg for Augsburg. Rulers and representatives from five states and two towns, also two princes had been persuaded by Elector John to sign the now very long text of Melancthon’s Confession. It was in two distinct parts. In the first part, the essentials of the Christian religion were set down in a way which it was hoped all at the Diet would agree to; the second part referred to matters in dispute. Justification by faith was treated moderately in the first part; Melancthon presented it in a way that did not necessarily contradict traditional Catholic teaching — even though it put sacramental practice into a less ‘legal’ and obligatory context. The headings of the matters in dispute were: on both kinds in communion; the marriage of priests; the Mass; Confession (both these last two were also listed under matters in agreement); Fasts and pious Conventions; monastic vows; the authority of the Church. It was a text that had been long in the making, well thought out and carefully constructed: so much so that it became the confessional document of the subsequent ‘Lutheran Church’, and was still being discussed in detail on its recent 450th anniversary.
Meanwhile, Luther was ill and in an increasing state of emotional turmoil. What was going on at Augsburg? Nobody sent him any news; there must be dirty work. He wrote angrily like a sulky child and said he would not write to them if they did not write to him.
Eventually a packet of letters arrived, together with the latest text of the Confession. The Emperor had entered Augsburg on the eve of Corpus Christi, 15 June, and had immediately summoned those rulers who had signed the Protest at Speyer, and ordered their preachers to cease public preaching in the imperial town. But this was not acceptable to the ‘Protestants’. Eventually, it was agreed that neither reformed preachers nor papal preachers should give sermons; the Emperor would appoint the preachers at his own public worship. It was a bad start. The Elector was annoyed. but there was some sympathy for the withdrawn and still youthful looking Emperor. ‘The Emperor greets Elector John in quite a friendly way and I wish our party would be more courteous,’ wrote the sensitive Philip Melancthon to Luther. The letters began to flow again from the Coburg, with extended explanations about the rights and wrongs of the long ‘silence’, together with emphatic abjurations from Luther that there was to be no retreat by the Reformers: ‘For me more than enough has been conceded in this Apologia [now the Confession]. . . Day and night I am occupied with this matter, considering it, turning it round, debating it and searching the whole Scripture.’ His desperation of mind and body were poured out: ‘It seems that that demon, which till now has beaten me with fists, has given up as if broken by your prayers) . . . instead another one has followed which will wear down my body . . . I would rather tolerate this torture of the flesh than that executioner of the spirit.’ And the devil ‘will have no peace until he has gobbled me up. All right, if he eats me, he shall eat a laxative (God willing) which will make his bowels and his anus too tight for him.’
Melancthon spoke in a letter to Luther of how he followed Luther’s originating authority. But Luther objected in a pernickety and prickly, academic way, that if his name was going to be used he would handle the matter by himself. Melancthon was trying to give credit where due. The opportunity with which he was now presented could hardly have been greater. Luther was gripped with frustration at the lack of verve and the absence of imaginative criticism in Melancthon’s text. He could not leave Philip alone. ‘The outcome of this case tortures you because you cannot comprehend it. But if you could comprehend it, then I would not wish to be a partner in this cause, much less its originator. God has placed this case into a certain paragraph which you don’t have in your rhetoric, nor in your philosophy. This is entitled "Faith" . . .’ and on Luther went, line after line of rhetoric to teach Melancthon once again about faith and the incomprehensible nature of God. ‘I wish an opportunity would present itself to me to come to you. . . God’s grace be with you and with you all. Amen.’ And then a PS — he had not replied properly about the details of what they should be willing to concede: ‘I am willing to concede all things if only the Gospel alone is permitted to remain free with us. What is contrary to the Gospel, however, I cannot concede. What else should I answer?’
Then news came that the Confession had been read to the Emperor in an official assembly of the Diet, not exactly a plenary assembly, but two hundred were present in the Emperor’s chapel. Campeggio was beside himself at this outrage. For the Reformers it was a milestone. A formal reading of their credal statement at an Imperial Diet. On hearing about it, Luther relented. To Conrad Cordatus and Nicholas Hausmann he wrote triumphant letters on 6 July: ‘I am tremendously pleased to have lived to this moment when Christ has been publicly proclaimed by his staunch confessors in such a great assembly by means of this really most beautiful confession’, and ‘Our confession (which our Philip prepared) has been, publicly read by Dr Christian [Beyer, Saxon Chancellor], right in the palace of the Emperor . . .There is no one in this whole Diet whom our friends praise more highly for his peacefulness than the Emperor himself. . . all are filled with affection and applause. . .’ He had heard from Jonas that he had studied the Emperor’s face during the reading of the Confession and there was a certain humanitas in it. To Melancthon himself, two days earlier before he had heard the great news, although grumbling about some of it, Luther had written: ‘Yesterday I re-read your whole Apologia, and I am tremendously pleased with it.’
But what was to be the result of the reading? Luther continued to worry that no good would come of it and his own desk was littered with texts of further pamphlets criticising the un-reformed Church. He was anxious about the absence in the Confession of sufficient criticism, and he was worried that unacceptable concessions would be made to the papal representatives, impressed by Melancthon’s text and wishing to end disunity. Cardinal Cajetan, still a power in Rome, had always assented, like Eck, to much of the criticism of Indulgences and of corruption. He was not alone in the Roman Curia, or among churchmen generally, in this stance.
Some of the bishops and papal representatives at the Diet were impressed by Melancthon’s piece, and assented to the reasonableness of the demands for Communion under both kinds and for the abandonment of clerical celibacy. But they were few and were unable to force discussion of the real issues, as distinct from negotiations on a political basis. In the end they had to choose between the Freedom of the new movements and the canonical Tradition embodied in Rome. The theological and disciplinary matters at issue were never argued out. The momentum, ideological, political and economic of the papal Church, and increasingly now of the new Protestant movements dominated the scene. The result was polarisation of the two positions and the rapid institutionalisation of ‘Protestantism’. In the twentieth century the two positions, roughly of the ‘Gospel’ and of the ‘Church’, have been partially reconciled within the Church of England and other reformed Churches. At the extremes the papal Church itself has still not entirely shed the mantle of imperial Rome; and the Gospel fundamentalists and evangelicals still sometimes lack ascertainable norms, and appropriate symbolic and sacramental channels of communication. Both extremes find spiritual authority difficult to handle, tending to lapse either into authoritarianism or indifference. Until 1530 these contradictions and difficulties had been kept either out of sight or under repression for a very long time. They now broke out uncontrollably. The will to reconciliation was lacking in the majority on both sides, in spite of a minority which worked hard for it.
‘Let your Majesty be well advised . . . not to promise or concede to them anything whatever, because you would then enter a labyrinth from which you could never emerge any more, and so they would have gained their will. But. . . extirpate these heresies, proceeding against them with order and system, . . . using, you your temporal arms and I the spiritual, and thus zealously punish them as is right. . . and show yourself the true and undoubted successor of Charlemagne amongst whose other greatest undertakings there still resounds the fame of the conquest he made of the Saxons. . .’ Campeggio replied in this way before the Emperor at the session following that at which Melancthon’s text had been read. Although he did request a theological examination of Melancthon’s text, it was perfectly clear that Campeggio intended a mere formal refutation of it. No genuine examination was intended of the Reformer’s careful survey of theology and Church conventions. Campeggio was sure it was essentially ‘heretical’. The substantive theological issues were in fact treated as a function of the great ecclesiastical Structure — or to put to it as its defenders essentially understood it: the papal Church had an absolute right and duty to suppress all fundamental criticism of its own divinely instituted authority. Any radical questioning of current theological and disciplinary norms clearly implied such criticism.
The Emperor agreed. But, at least he argued with the Pope and his representatives, they should call a Council to settle these matters formally. They should call one, also because the German nation had for so long been demanding such a ‘Free Council’ to right all the grievances under which it laboured. In any case, it was the only possible way to solve the disagreements. He was unable to impose a solution because, he said, in a letter to the Pope: ‘The Protestants are more unyielding and more obstinate than ever — while the Catholics are generally lukewarm and but little inclined to lend a hand in the forcible conversion of those who have fallen away . . . the welfare of Christendom absolutely requires a Council.’ The Emperor requested a designated place and date for it, concluding that he ‘submitted in advance to the decision of the Vicar of Christ’. It was to be fifteen years before the Council was to open at Trent under Pope Clement VII’s successor. Clement himself was terrified at the prospect and always intended to avoid calling a Council. It might undermine the authority of the Pope.
The meetings at Augsburg multiplied over the following two and a half months The Electors, their deputies the theologians, the Emperor’s men, the Roman Curia’s men, the ambassadors and assistants from all over Europe met in small groups and big groups. The Reformers had their own sub-plot. Neither the Swiss reformers inspired by Zwingli, nor Strassburg (together with Constance, Memmingen and Lindau) agreed with all of Melancthon’s text. The latter four cities sent in their own version (Confessio Tetrapolitana) of the true understanding of the Gospel. To the horror of the curialists the Emperor allowed even this to be read out half officially in a committee though he had previously declined the statement of Zwingli’s group Negotiations took place. Melancthon gave a little. The papal group appeared, after all, to be willing to talk. But the Emperor always intended the conversion of the Protestants, if necessary by force. And the papal party always wanted their bishops and it was never likely that they could be conscientiously obeyed by the Reformers. But for six or seven weeks the discussions flowed. To Luther’s intense concern substantial ground was conceded at one stage by both sides. On 15 July, Luther wrote a joint letter to Jonas, Spalatin, Melancthon and Agricola: ‘You will have to hear "fathers, fathers, fathers, church, church, church, usage, custom". Moreover you will hear nothing taken from Scripture . Based on these norms the Emperor will pronounce a verdict against you . . . Our case has been made and beyond this you will not accomplish anything better. To Campeggio’s boasts that he has the power to grant dispensations I reply with Amsdorf’s words: "I shit on the legate and his lord’s dispensations" . Home, home! Gruboc [Coburg — backwards]. 15 July. Martin Luther. D.’
The Emperor eventually gave his official assent to the official Confutation of Melancthon’s text, refusing to accept replies to it. On 22 September he issued an imperial Edict at a plenary meeting. It demanded that the Reforming sovereigns (the ‘Protestants’ as the Emperor called them elsewhere — the ‘protesters’ at Speyer) conform with traditional norms (reference was made to sancta fide et religione Christiana — Ecclesia Chtristiana) giving a deadline of six months. The implication was that thereafter the Reforming sovereigns would be legally out of order and might be proceeded against if they had not conformed. An attempt to take the sting out of this was made by referring to the summoning of a Council which the Emperor would request from the Pope to remove abuses and other burdens. The Reforming sovereigns were also to assist the Emperor in ‘coercing’ and ‘punishing’ the Anabaptists, which seemed to mean roughly all the Reformers to the left of Luther.
The Edict was clearly unacceptable to the Reformers. The Elector obtained dismissal papers and left abruptly the following day. His son (and designated successor) young Duke John Frederick had left ten days previously without a final audience with the Emperor. There was now a kind of stalemate, but a dangerous one. The Turks were no longer threatening in the east. The Emperor had made a political treaty with the Pope. He was free then to raise an army in Europe should he decide to try to impose his will. Some of the pro-papal German sovereigns at Augsburg immediately formed an alliance with the Emperor to defend the Empire and the faith. Discussion of this serious international situation by the Elector and his advisers began immediately and culminated in a conference at the electoral court at Torgau, as soon as they arrived back.
The flow of letters to and from the Coburg had continued unabated. Messengers going north were given notes to Katie— ‘My dear Katie: This messenger called here in haste. . . I have not had any throbbing in my head since St Lawrence day’ (10 August). Again: ‘To my dear lord, Frau Katherine Luther at Wittenberg Personal . . . Greet Aunt Lehne . . . Here we are eating bunches of ripe grapes even though outside it has been very wet this month. God be with you all. Amen. >From the wilderness, 15 August 1530 Martin Luther.’
Luther was also writing a commentary on Psalm 118 and his mind kept turning to the plain chant as it had gone from side to side of the choir in the old days. The music went on round his mind, and he chalked up the Psalm with its melody on the walls. Then he found another theme from the evening office, using Psalm 4, ‘In peace I will lie down and sleep’, and it spoke to him of a welcome end to life, which might perhaps come sooner rather than later. Disillusion, ill-health and great weariness beckoned to death. Luther’s fantasy was no longer of a death at the hands of the State, instructed by the Church, but of a natural death. Instead of the ideas about life being better in his own little corner in the Friary, now it was a looking forward to release from all the public palaver and problems. And the music kept running in his head. From the Coburg he wrote to Louis Senfl, chief conductor and composer at the Bavarian court, to send him a copy of that musical text: ‘In peace I will lie down and sleep. . .’ For this tenor melody has delighted me from youth on, and does so even more now that I ‘understand’ the words. I have never seen the antiphon arranged for more voices. I do not wish, however, to impose on you the work of arranging; rather I assume that you may have available an arrangement from some other source. Indeed I hope that the end of my life is at hand; the world hates me and cannot bear me, and I, in turn, loathe and detest the world; therefore may the best and most faithful shepherd take my soul to him. Forgive my temerity and verbosity. Extend respectful greetings to your whole choir on my behalf.
On 24 September, Luther wrote to his wife that he hoped to be home in fourteen days’ time. It took longer. The Electoral party arrived from Augsburg in no great hurry, on 1 October. They all reached Torgau and the Electoral court by the last week in October. There they held a brief conference on international affairs. Should the Emperor bring military force to bear on the Reforming States, the lawyers had thought up arguments to persuade Luther to sanction military defence. The political bind turned tighter still. It was put to him that armed resistance to the Emperor would be right if the Emperor were to disregard his own imperial laws. Luther put down his distressing conclusions in his long post-Augsburg piece, ‘Warning to his Dear German People by Martin Luther’. By the end of the month during the Conference at Torgau, he was able to reply succinctly to the hypothesis put to him. Theoretically his position was unchanged — one should always obey the secular law. Practically, however, his position was transformed. Ex-Chancellor Bruck had persuaded him that it was part of the secular law that one might resist the imperial authority in some circumstances.
A piece of paper has been presented to us from which we see what the Doctors of Law are concluding with regard to the question: In what situations may one resist governing authority? If then this issue has been settled by these Doctors of Law or experts in this way, and we certainly are in those situations in which one may resist the governing authority. . .we are unable to oppose . . . if in this instance it is necessary to fight back, even if the Emperor himself attacks, or whoever else may do so in his name. . . That until now we have taught absolutely not to resist the governing authority was due to the fact that we did not know that the governing authority’s law itself grants the right to do so; we have of course always diligently taught that this law must be obeyed.
It was a kind of surrender for Luther. No longer could he commend the idealistic and Christ-like non-violence which he had preached to the peasants, and to everyone who wanted to oppose the Emperor. The theory had not changed — one should obey the laws, in the kingdom of this world one had to submit to its ways. But practically it was a volte-face. The text of his ‘Warning’ to the German people mirrored the anguish. Justus Jonas in a letter to him from Augsburg had referred to Luther as ‘the German prophet’. The ascription pleased Luther, and made this text easier to do. But its inner contradictions were clear on the surface. The situation had become unthinkable. Loyalty to the young Emperor had been part of an almost romantic idealisation of him:
‘One of two things will happen: either a war or a rebellion. . .we are speaking now as in a dream’ — a dream, because never had Luther thought of himself as an enabler, even less a promoter of rebellion. It was a new identity and the dream more like a nightmare. But his prophetic task could not be evaded, and what he had to say was honest enough: ‘They [the Emperor’s supporters] cannot take it for granted that no one will attack them just because we [Luther] wrote and taught so emphatically not to resort to rebellion . . .’ He began to speak with a radical ambivalence, and what he said could be interpreted variously: ‘If now the masses should reject our teaching against rebellion, especially if they were provoked by such a godless outrage and wanton war . . .’ then his message was that he could not hold them back, that his teaching against rebellion would not be so emphatically promulgated as before, and that people should not accept any order to join the Emperor’s army since such an army would he fighting directly against the things of God. He remembered the Peasants’ War: ‘I will surely hold my pen in check and keep silent and not intervene as I did in the last uprising. I will let matters take their course even though not a bishop, priest or monk survives and I myself also die.’ But this writing itself was a kind of ‘intervention’ before it all happened, an intervention in the other direction: ‘I will not reprove those who defend themselves . . . I will accept their action and let it pass as self-defence . . . Not that I wish to incite anyone on to such self-defence, or to justify it’. Ambivalence hung over the text.
Then he went on to outline the outrageous happenings at Augsburg, and to indulge in the kind of language the delicate Melancthon so detested: ‘They thought that when they brought the Emperor in person to Germany, all would be frightened and say "Gracious Lords, what is your wish?" When they proved mistaken and the Elector of Saxony was the very first to make his appearance, my heavens, they dirtied their breeches in their terror.’ Then his text turned to his old opponent Johann Eck: ‘Dr Eck . .. declared openly within the hearing of our people that if the Emperor had followed the resolution arrived at in Bologna and attacked the Lutherans with the sword. . . then the problem would have been solved. Many of our opponents were astonished when our Confession was read and admitted that it was the simple truth and could not be refuted by Scripture. On the other hand, when their confutation was read, they hung their heads and admitted with their expressions that it was a flimsy and empty thing compared with our confession.’ But, in fact, said Luther, it was not a confutation — ‘Their well-grounded confutation has not yet been brought to light. It is perhaps still slumbering with old Tannhauser in the Venusberg’, the legendary mountain of sensual delight. Later in the piece, Luther let fly about the debauchery in Rome and set down some of the more unsavoury pieces of gossip. If people took up arms for the Emperor, they would be defending this kind of thing: ‘You would burden yourselves with the chastity of pope and cardinals . . . a special type of chastity transcending the common spiritual kind . . . about which they tested as though it were a game of cards. . . I am not lying. Whoever has been in Rome knows that conditions are unfortunately worse than anyone can say or believe by means of a Bull . . . they decided that a cardinal should not keep as many boys in the future. However, Pope Leo commanded that this be deleted; otherwise it would have been spread through the whole world how openly and shamelessly the Pope and the cardinals in Rome practise sodomy.
As well as listing their vices, including murdering and betraying each other, Luther turned once again to describing the well-known examples of their doctrinal errors: ‘They put that noble child Mary right into the place of Christ. They fashioned Christ into a judge and thus devised a tyrant for anguished consciences, so that all comfort and confidence was transferred from Christ to Mary, and then everyone turned from Christ to his particular Saint. Can anyone deny this? Are not books extant — specially those of the shabby Barefoot Friars and of the Preaching Friars — which teem with idolatries, such as the Marialia, Stellaria, Rosaria, Coronaria. These books of special devotions were indeed still in use, and remained so in many parts of the Roman Catholic Church until the present day.
He described how much better things were now. People ‘know how to believe, to live, to pray, to suffer, and to die’. If the Emperor’s troops came and turned things round again: ‘You will have to help burn all the German books, New Testaments, psalters, prayer books, hymnals, and to keep everyone ignorant about the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Creed . . . baptism, the sacrament, faith, government, matrimony, or the Gospel. You will have to help keep everyone from knowing Christian Liberty . . . from placing their trust in Christ and deriving comfort from him.’ For all of that was nonexistent. Luther spoilt his case here by exaggeration.
He wound up: ‘I swear again that I do not wish to incite or spur anyone to war or rebellion or even self-defence, but solely to peace. . . if the papists. . . insist on war. . . May their blood be on their heads!’
The Saxon prophet summed it up in a piece called The Keys (1530): ‘We know pretty well that the Romans do not consider us Germans to be human beings, but empty shells and shadows. . .they think that when a cardinal lets wind, the Germans believe a new article of faith is born.’ The official text of the Imperial Edict at Augsburg only reached Luther in the spring of 1531. He tore off a further blistering text which came out shortly after the ‘Warning’ It was entitled Commentary on the Alleged Imperial Edict. Near the end, he looked back to the Bohemian founder of the schismatic Church in the Czech lands, in an acceptance of a popular idea of Luther as the fulfilment of a prophecy: ‘St. John Huss prophesied of me when he wrote from his prison in Bohemia "They will roast a goose now (because ‘Huss’ means goose) but after a hundred years they will hear a swan sing and him they will endure." And that is the way it will be, if God wills.’