. . . by depreciating the Epistle of St. James as an epistle of straw, that contained nothing of the Gospel in it, and which an apostle could not have written, since it attributes to works a merit which they did not possess.
Continuing Luther Begins the Reformation in Germany,
our selection from Life of Luther by Jean-M.-Vincent Audin published in 1839. The selection is presented in 4 installments, each one 5 minutes long.
Previously in Luther Begins the Reformation in Germany.
But what are we to understand by the Bible? The question was a difficult one to solve even at the beginning of the Reformation, when Luther, in his preface to the translation of the Bible, laid down a difference between the canonical books by preferring the gospel of St. John to the three other evangelists; by depreciating the Epistle of St. James as an epistle of straw, that contained nothing of the Gospel in it, and which an apostle could not have written, since it attributes to works a merit which they did not possess. It was in the Bible that Luther discovered these two great truths of salvation, which he revealed to the world at the beginning of his apostleship — the slavery of man’s will, and the impeccability of the believer.
It is said in Exodus, chapter ix, that God hardened the heart of Pharaoh. It was questioned whether these words were to be construed literally. This Erasmus rightly denied, and it roused the doctor’s wrath. Luther, in his reply, furiously attacks the fools who, calling reason to their aid, dare call for an account from God why he condemns or predestines to damnation innocent beings before they have even seen the light. Truly, Luther, in the eyes of all God’s creatures, must appear a prodigy of daring when he ventures to maintain that no one can reach heaven unless he adopts the slavery of the human will. And it is not merely by the spirit of disputation, but by settled conviction, that he defends this most odious of all ideas. He lived and died teaching that horrible doctrine, which the most illustrious of his disciples–among others, Melanchthon and Matthew Albert of Reutlingen — condemned. “How rich is the Christian!” repeated Luther; “even though he wished it, he cannot forfeit heaven by any stain; believe, then, and be assured of your salvation: God in eternity cannot escape you. Believe, and you shall be saved: repentance, confession, satisfaction, good works, all these are useless for salvation; it is sufficient to have faith.”
Is not this a fearful error–a desolating doctrine? If you demonstrate to Luther its danger or absurdity, he replies that you blaspheme the Spirit of light. Neither attempt to prove to him that he is mistaken; he will tell you that you offend God. No, no, my brother, you will never convince me that the Holy Spirit is confined to Wittenberg any more than to your person.
Not content with maledictions, Luther then turns himself to prophecy; he announces that his doctrine, which proceeds from heaven, will gain, one by one, all the kingdoms of the world. He says of Zwingli’s explanation of the eucharist, “I am not afraid of this fanatical interpretation lasting long.” On the other hand Zwingli predicted that the Swiss creed would be handed down from generation to generation, crossing the Elbe and the Rhine. Prophet against prophet, if success be the test of truth, Luther will inevitably have to yield in this point.
The Reformation, which at first was entirely a religious phenomenon, soon assumed a political character; it could not fail to do so. When people began to exclaim, like Luther, on the house-tops: “The Emperor Charles V ought not to be supported longer; let him and the Pope be knocked on the head;” that “he is an excited madman, a bloodhound, who must be killed with pikes and clubs,” how could civil society continue subject to authority? It was natural that the monk’s virulent writings against the bishops’ spiritual power should be reduced by the subjects of the ecclesiastical superiors into a political theory. When he proclaimed that the yoke of priests and monks must be shaken off, we might expect that this wild appeal would be directed against the tithes which the people paid to the prelates and the abbots. The Saxon’s doctrine being based wholly on the holy Scriptures, the peasant considered himself authorized in virtue of their text to break violently with his lord; hence that long war between the cottage and the castle. This it was that made Erasmus write sorrowfully to Luther: “You see that we are now reaping the fruits of what you sowed. You will not acknowledge the rebels; but they acknowledge you, and they know only too well that many of your disciples, who clothed themselves in the mantle of the Gospel, have been the instigators of this bloody rebellion. In your pamphlet against the peasants, you in vain endeavor to justify yourself. It is you who have raised the storm by your publications against the monks and the prelates, and you say that you fight for gospel liberty, and against the tyranny of the great! From the moment that you began your tragedy I foresaw the end of it.”
That civil war, in which Germany had to mourn the loss of more than a hundred thousand of her children, was the consequence of Luther’s preaching. It is fortunate that, through the efforts of a Catholic prince, Duke George of Saxony, it was speedily brought to an end. Had it lasted but a few years longer, of all the ancient monuments with which Germany was filled, not a single vestige would have remained. Karlstadt might then have sat upon their ruins, and sung, with his Bible in his hand, the downfall of the images. The iconoclast’s theories, all drawn from the Word of God, held their ground in spite of Luther, and dealt a fatal blow to the arts.
Julius Koestlin begins here.
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