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HISTORICAL INTRODUCTION

 

BY THE TRANSLATOR

 

THE Treatise before us was discovered by Luther, who first brought it into notice by an Edition of it which he published in 1516. A Second Edition, which came out two years later, he introduced with the following Preface:—

“We read that St. Paul, though he was of a weak and contemptible presence, yet wrote weighty and powerful letters, and he boasts of himself that his ‘speech is not with enticing words of man’s device,’ but ‘full of the riches of all knowledge and wisdom.’ And if we consider the wondrous ways of God, it is clear, that He hath never chosen mighty and eloquent preachers to speak His word, but as it is written: ‘Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings hast thou perfected praise,’ Ps. 8:2. And again, ‘For wisdom opened the mouth of the dumb, and made the tongues of them that cannot speak eloquent,’ Wisdom 10:21. Again, He blameth such as are high‑minded and are offended at these simple ones. Consilium inopis, etc. ‘Ye have made a mock at the counsel of the poor, because he putteth his trust in the Lord,’ Ps. 14:6.

“This I say because I will have every one warned who readeth this little book, that he should not take offence, to his own hurt, at its bad German, or its crabbed and uncouth words. For this noble book, though it be poor and rude in words, is so much the richer and more precious in knowledge and divine wisdom. And I will say, though it be boasting of myself and ‘I speak as a fool,’ that next to the Bible and St. Augustine, no book hath ever come into my hands, whence I have learnt, or would wish to learn more of what God, and Christ, and man and all things are; and now I first find the truth of what certain of the learned have said in scorn of us theologians of Wittemberg, that we would be thought to put forward new things, as though there had never been men elsewhere and before our time. Yea, verily, there have been men, but God’s wrath, provoked by our sins, hath not judged us worthy to see and hear them; for it is well known that for a long time past such things have not been treated of in our universities; nay, it has gone so far, that the Holy Word of God is not only laid on the shelf, but is almost mouldered away with dust and moths. Let as many as will, read this little book, and then say whether Theology is a new or an old thing among us; for this book is not new. But if they say as before, that we are but German theologians, we will not deny it. I thank God, that I have heard and found my God in the German tongue, as neither I nor they have yet found Him in the Latin, Greek, or Hebrew tongue. God grant that this book may be spread abroad, then we shall find that the German theologians are without doubt the best theologians.

(Signed, without date,)

“Dr. MARTIN LUTHER,

AUGUSTINIAN of Wittemberg.”

 

These words of Luther will probably be considered to form a sufficient justification for an attempt to present the Theologia Germanica in an English dress. When Luther sent it forth, its effort to revive the consciousness of spiritual life was received with enthusiasm by his fellow‑countrymen, in whom that life was then breaking with volcanic energy through the clods of formalism and hypocrisy, with which the Romish Church had sought to stifle its fires. No fewer than seventeen editions of the work appeared during the lifetime of Luther. Up to the present day, it has continued to be a favourite handbook of devotion in Germany, where it has passed through certainly as many as sixty Editions, and it has also been widely circulated in France and the Netherlands, by means of Latin, French, and Flemish translations.

To the question, who was the author of a book which has exerted so great an influence? no answer can be given, all the various endeavours to discover him having proved fruitless. Till within the last few years, Luther was our sole authority for the text of the work, but, about 1850, a manuscript of it was discovered at Wurtzburg, by Professor Reuss, the librarian of the University there, which has since been published verbatim by Professor Pfeiffer of Prague. This Manuscript dates from 1497; consequently it is somewhat older than Luther’s time, and it also contains some passages not found in his editions. As, upon careful comparison, it seemed to the translator indisputably superior to the best modern editions based upon Luther’s, it has been selected as the groundwork of the present translation, merely correcting from the former, one or two passages which appeared to contain errors of the press, or more likely of the transcriber’s pen. The passages not found in Luther’s edition are here enclosed between brackets.

As has been stated, the author of the Theologia Germanica is unknown; but it is evident from his whole cast of thought, as well as from a Preface attached to the Wurtzburg Manuscript, that he belonged to a class of men who sprang up in Southern Germany at the beginning of the fourteenth century, and who were distinguished for their earnest piety and their practical belief in the presence of the Spirit of God with all Christians, laity as well as clergy.

These men had fallen upon evil times. Their age was not indeed one of those periods in which the vigour of the nobler powers of the soul is enfeebled by the abundance of material prosperity and physical enjoyment, nor yet one of those in which they are utterly crushed out under the hoof of oppression and misery; but it was an age in which conflicting elements were wildly struggling for the mastery. The highest spiritual and temporal authorities were at deadly strife with each other and among themselves; and in their contests, there were few provinces or towns that did not repeatedly suffer the horrors of war. The desolation caused by its ravages was however speedily repaired during the intervals of peace, by the extraordinary energy which the German nation displayed in that bloom of its manhood; so that times of deep misery and great prosperity rapidly alternated with each other. But on the whole, during the first half of this century, the sense of the calamities, which were continually recurring, predominated over the recollection of the calmer years, which were barely sufficient to allow breathing time between the successive waves that threatened to overwhelm social order and happiness.

The unquestioning faith and honest enthusiasm which had prompted the Crusades, no longer burnt with the same fierce ardour, for the unhappy issue of those sacred enterprises, and the scandalous worldly ambition of the heads of the Church, had moderated its fervour and saddened the hearts of true believers. Yet the one Catholic, Christian creed still held an undivided and very real sovereignty over men’s minds, and the supremacy of the Church in things spiritual was never questioned, though many were beginning to feel that it was needful for the State to have an independent authority in things temporal, and the question was warmly agitated how much of the spiritual authority resided in the Pope and how much in the bishops and doctors of the Church. But in whichever way the dispute between these rival claims might be adjusted, the reverence for the office of the clergy remained unimpaired. The case was very different with the reverence for their persons, which had fallen to a very low ebb, owing to the worldliness and immorality of their lives. This again was much encouraged by the conduct of the Popes, who, in their zeal to establish worldly dominion, made ecclesiastical appointments rather with a view to gain political adherents, or to acquire wealth by the sale of benefices, than with a regard to the fitness of the men selected, or the welfare of the people committed to their charge.

On the whole, it was an age of faith, though by no means of a blind, unreasoning taking things for granted. On the contrary, the evidences of extreme activity of mind meet us on every hand, in the monuments of its literature, architecture, and invention. A few facts strikingly illustrate the divergent tendencies of thought and public opinion. Thus we may remember, how it was currently reported that the profligate Pope Boniface VIII. was privately an unbeliever, even deriding the idea of the immortality of the soul, at the very time when he was maintaining against Philip the Fair, the right of the Pope to sit, as Christ’s representative, in judgment on the living and the dead, and to take the sword of temporal power out of the hands of those who misused it.33    Neander’s “Kirchengeschichte,” Band 6, S. 15, 20. This work and Schmitz’s “Johannes Tauler von Strasburg,” are the authorities for most of the facts here mentioned. Whether this accusation was true or not, it is a remarkable sign of the times that it should have been widely believed.

Some years later, and when the increased corruptness of the clergy, after the removal of the Papal Court to Avignon, provoked still louder complaints, we see the religious and patriotic Emperor, Louis IV., accusing John XXII. of heresy, in a public assembly held in the square of St. Peter’s at Rome, and setting up another Pope “in order to please the Roman people.” But though the new Pope was every way fitted, by his unblemished character and ascetic manners, to gain a hold on public esteem, we see that the Emperor could not maintain him against the legitimately elected Pope, who, from his seat at Avignon, had power to harass the Emperor so greatly with his interdicts, that the latter, finding all efforts at conciliation fruitless, would have bought peace by unconditional submission, had not the Estates of the Empire refused to yield to such humiliation. Yet we find this very Pope obliged to yield and retract his opinions on a point of dogmatic theology. He had in a certain treatise propounded the opinion that the souls of the pious would not be admitted to the immediate vision of the Deity until after the day of judgment. The King of France, in 1333, called an assembly of Prelates and theologians at his palace at Vincennes, where he invited them to discuss before him the two questions, whether the souls of departed saints would be admitted to an immediate vision of the Deity before the resurrection; and whether, if so, their vision would be of the same or of a different kind after the Judgment Day? The theological faculty having come to conclusions differing in some respects from those of the Pope, the King threatened the latter with the stake as a heretic, unless he retracted; and John XXII. issued a bull, declaring that what he had said or written, ought only to be received in so far as it agreed with the Catholic Faith, the Church and Holy Scripture. No circumstance, perhaps, offers a more remarkable spectacle to us in its contrast with the spirit of our own times. At the present moment, when the Pope could not sit for a day in safety on his temporal throne without the defence of French or Austrian bayonets, we can scarcely conceive an Emperor of France or Austria taking upon himself to convene an assembly of Catholic theologians, and the latter pronouncing a censure on the dogmas propounded by the Head of the Church! It would be hard to say whether the Sovereigns of the present day would be more amused by the absurdity of devoting their time to such discussions, or the consciences of good Catholics more shocked at the presumption of such a verdict.

Still it must not be forgotten that the importance of religious affairs in that age must not be ascribed too exclusively to earnestness about religion itself, for the ecclesiastical interest predominated over the purely religious. The Pope and the Emperor represented the two great antagonistic powers, spiritual and temporal, the rivalry between which absorbed into itself all the political and social questions that could then be agitated. The question of allegiance to the Pope or the Emperor was like the contest between royalism and republicanism; the Ghibelline called himself a patriot, and was called by his adversary, the Guelf, a worldly man or even an infidel, while he retorted by calling the Guelf a betrayer of his country, and an enemy of national liberties.

We cannot help seeing, however, that in those days both princes and people, wicked as their lives often were, did really believe in the Christian religion, and that while much of the mythological and much of the formalistic element mingled in their zeal for outward observances, there was also much thoroughly sincere enthusiasm among them. But both the two great powers oppressed the people, which looked alternately to the one side or the other for emancipation from the particular grievances felt to be most galling at any given moment or place. In the frightful moral and physical condition of society, it was no wonder that a despair of Providence should have begun to attack some minds, which led to materialistic scepticism, while others sought for help on the path of wild speculation. The latter appears to have been the case with the Beghards or “Brothers and Sisters of the Free Spirit,” who attempted to institute a reform by withdrawing the people altogether from the influence of the clergy, but whose followers after a time too often fell into the vices of the priests from whom they had separated themselves. In 1317, we find the Bishop of Ochsenstein complaining that Alsace was filled with these Beghards, who appear to have been a kind of antinomian pantheists, teaching that the Spirit is bound by no law, and annihilating the distinction between the Creator and the creature. Both in their excellences and defects they remind us of the modern “German Catholics,” and of some, too, of the recent Protestant schools in Germany. There seems to have been no party of professed unbelievers, but that some individuals were such in word as well as deed, appears from what Ruysbroch of Brussels,44    As quoted by Neander. Kirchengeschichte, B. 6, S. 769. (1300-1330) says of those “who live in mortal sin, not troubling themselves about God or His grace, but thinking virtue sheer nonsense, and the spiritual life hypocrisy or delusion; and hearing with disgust all mention of God or virtue, for they are persuaded that there is no such thing as God, or Heaven, or Hell; for they acknowledge nothing but what is palpable to the senses.”

The early part of the fourteenth century saw Germany divided for nine years between the rival claims of two Emperors, Frederick of Austria, supported by Pope John XXII. and a faction in Germany, and Louis of Bavaria, whose cause was espoused by a majority of the princes of the Empire, as that of the defender of the dignity and independence of the State, and the champion of reform within the Church. The death of Frederick, in 1322, left Louis the undisputed Emperor, as far as nearly all his subjects were concerned, and he would fain have purchased peace with the Pope on any reasonable terms, that he might apply himself to the internal improvement of his dominions; but John XXII. was implacable, and continued to wage against him and his adherents a deadly warfare, not closed until his successor Charles IV. submitted to all the papal demands, and to every indignity imposed upon him.

One of the most fearful consequences of the enmity between John XXII. and Louis of Bavaria, to the unfortunate subjects of the latter, was the Interdict under which his dominions were laid in 1324, and from which some places, distinguished for their loyalty to the Emperor, were not relieved for six‑and-twenty years. Louis, indeed, desired his subjects to pay no regard to the bull of excommunication, and most of the laity, especially of the larger towns, would gladly have obeyed him in spite of the Pope; but the greater part of the bishops and clergy held with their spiritual head, and thus the inhabitants of Strasburg, Nuremberg, and other cities, where the civil authorities sided with the Emperor, and the clergy with the Pope, were left year after year without any religious privileges; for public worship ceased, and all the business of life went on without the benedictions of the Church, no rite being allowed but baptism and extreme unction.

After this had lasted sixteen years, the Emperor, wishing to relieve the anguished consciences of his people, issued, in conjunction with the Princes of the Empire, a great manifesto to all Christendom, refuting the Pope’s accusations against him, maintaining that he who had been legally chosen by the Electors was, in virtue thereof, the rightful Emperor, and had received his dignity from God, and proclaiming that all who denied this were guilty of high treason; that therefore none should be allowed any longer to observe the Interdict, and all who should continue to do so, whether communities or individuals, should be deprived of every civil and ecclesiastical right and privilege. This courageous edict found a response in the heart of the nation, and public opinion continually declared itself more strongly on the side of the Emperor. Yet on the whole it rather increased the general anarchy; for in many places the priests and monks were steadfast in their allegiance to the Pope, and, refusing to administer public service, were altogether banished from the towns, and the churches and convents closed. In Strasburg, for instance, where the regular clergy had long since ceased to perform religious rites, the Dominicans and Franciscans had continued to preach and perform mass; but now they too, frightened by the Edict, which placed them in direct opposition to the Pope, dared no longer to disregard the renewed sentence of excommunication hanging over them, and refusing to read mass, were expelled by the Town Council. Many of these banished clergy wandered about in great distress, with difficulty finding refuge among the scattered rural population, and the sufferings they endured proved the sincerity of their conscientious scruples. Some few, either from worldly motives, or out of pity for the people, remained at their posts. The former indeed throve by the miseries of their fellow‑creatures, driving a usurious trade in the famine of spiritual consolation; for it is upon record, that in time of pestilence, the price of shrift has been as much as sixty florins!

The spectacle of such discord between the clergy and the laity was something unspeakably shocking to the Christian world in that age, and the energetic proceedings of the magistracy must have utterly staggered the faith of many. Of all the events that were stirring up men’s passions and energies, none was more calculated to move their souls to the very centre, than to find themselves compelled to stand up in arms against those whom they had been wont to bow down before, and to reverence as the source of those spiritual blessings, for the sake of which they were now driven in desperation to take this awful step.

To these political and religious dissensions were added, in process of time, other miseries. After it had been preceded by earthquakes, hurricanes and famine, the Black Death broke out, spreading terror and desolation through Southern Europe. Men saw in these frightful calamities the judgments of God, but looked in vain for any to show them a way of deliverance and escape. Some believed that the last day was approaching; some, remembering an old prophecy, looked with hope for the return of the Great Emperor Frederick II. to restore justice and peace in the world, to punish the wicked clergy, and help the poor and oppressed flock to their rights. Others traversed the country in processions, scourging themselves and praying with a loud voice, in order to atone for their sins and appease God’s anger, and inveighing against man’s unbelief, which had called down God’s wrath upon the earth; while some thought to do God service, by wreaking vengeance on the people which had slain the Lord, and thousands of wretched Jews perished in the flames kindled by frantic terror. “All things worked together to deepen the sense of the corruptness of the Church, to lead men’s thoughts onwards from their physical to their spiritual wants, to awaken reflection on the judgments of God, and to fix their eyes on the indications of the future,’’55    Neander, Kircshengeschichte, B. 6, S. 728. so that John of Winterthur was probably not alone in applying to his own times what St. Paul says of the perils of the latter days.

In these chaotic times, and in the countries where the storms raged most fiercely, there were some who sought that peace which could not be found on earth, in intercourse with a higher world. Destitute of help and comfort and guidance from man, they took refuge in God, and finding that to them He had proved “a present help in time of trouble,” “as the shadow of a great rock in a weary land,” they tried to bring their fellow‑men to believe and partake in a life raised above the troubles of this world. They desired to show them that that Eternal life and enduring peace which Christ had promised to His disciples, was, of a truth, to be found by the Way which He had pointed out,—by a living union with Him and the Father who had sent Him.

With this aim, like-minded men and women joined themselves together, that by communion of heart and mutual counsel they might strengthen each other in their common efforts to revive the spiritual life of those around them. The Association they founded was kept secret, lest through misconception of their principles, they might fall under suspicion of heresy, and the Inquisition should put a stop to their labours; but they desired to keep themselves aloof from every thing that savoured of heresy or disorder. On the contrary, they carefully observed all the precepts of the Church, and carried their obedience so far that many of their number were among the priests who were banished for obeying the Pope, when the Emperor ordered them to disregard the Interdict. They assumed the appellation of “Friends of God” (Gottesfreunde), and, in the course of a few years, their associations extended along the Rhine provinces from Basle to Cologne, and eastwards through Swabia, Bavaria, and Franconia. Strasburg, Constance, Nuremberg and Nordlingen were among their chief seats. Their distinguishing doctrines were self‑renunciation,—the complete giving‑up of self‑will to the will of God;—the continuous activity of the Spirit of God in all believers, and the intimate union possible between God and man;—the worthlessness of all religion based upon fear or the hope of reward;—and the essential equality of the laity and clergy, though, for the sake of order and discipline, the organization of the Church was necessary. They often appealed to the declaration of Christ (John 15:15), “Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth; but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you;” and from this they probably derived their name of “Friends of God.” Their mode of action was simply personal, for they made no attempt to gain political and hierarchical power, but exerted all their influence by means of preaching, writing and social intercourse. The Association counted among its members priests, monks, and laity, without distinction of rank or sex. Its leaders stood likewise in close connection with several convents, especially those of Engenthal, and Maria-Medingen near Nuremberg, presided over by the sisters Christina and Margaret Ebner, much of whose correspondence is still extant. Agnes, the widow of King Andrew of Hungary, and various knights and burghers, are also named as belonging to it.

Foremost among the leaders of this party should be mentioned the celebrated Tauler, a Dominican monk of Strasburg, who spent his life in preaching and teaching up and down the country from Strasburg to Cologne, and whose influence is to this day active among his countrymen by means of his admirable sermons, which are still widely read. At the time of the Interdict he wrote a noble appeal to the clergy not to forsake their flocks, maintaining that if the Emperor had sinned, the blame lay with him only, not with his wretched subjects, so that it was a crying shame to visit his guilt upon the innocent people, but that their unjust oppression would be recompensed to them by God hereafter. He acted up to his own principles, and when the Black Death was raging in Strasburg, where it carried off 16,000 victims, he was unwearied in his efforts to administer aid and consolation to the sick and dying.

Much of Tauler’s religious fervour and light he himself attributed to the instructions of a layman, his friend. It is now known from contemporary records that this was Nicholas of Basle, a citizen of that Free town and a secret Waldensian. Little is known of his life beyond the fact that he was intimately connected with many of the heads of this party, and was resorted to by them for guidance and help; for, being under suspicion of heresy, he had to conceal all his movements from the Inquisition. He succeeded, however, in carrying on his labours and eluding his enemies, until he reached an advanced age; but at length, venturing alone and unprotected into France, he was taken, and burnt at Vienne in 1382. Another friend of Tauler’s, and like him an eloquent and powerful preacher, whose sermons are still read with delight, was Henry Suso, a Dominican monk, belonging to a knightly family in Swabia.

One of the leaders of the “Friends of God,” Nicholas of Strasburg, was in 1326 appointed by John XXII. nuncio, with the oversight of the Dominican order throughout Germany, and dedicated to that Pope an Essay of great learning and ability, refuting the prevalent interpretations of Scripture, which referred the coming of Antichrist and the Judgment day to the immediate future. Thus we see that the “Friends of God” were not confined to one political party, and this likewise appears from the history of another celebrated member of this sect, Henry of Nordlingen, a priest of Constance, who, like Suso, was banished for his adherence to the Pope. One of the most remarkable men of this sect was a layman and married, Rulman Merswin, belonging to a high family at Strasburg. He appears to have been led to a religious life by the influence of Tauler, who was his confessor. He is the author of several mystical works which, he says, he wrote “to do good to his fellow creatures,” but he contributed perhaps still more largely to their benefit by his activity in charitable works, for he established one hospital and seems to have had the oversight of others also. He likewise gave largely to churches and convents, but is best known by having founded a house for the Knights of St. John in Strasburg. The characteristic doctrines of the “Friends of God” have already been indicated. That they should not have fallen into some exaggerations was scarcely possible, but where they have done so, it may generally be traced to the influence of the monastic life to which most of them were dedicated, and to the perplexities of their age.

The book before us was probably written somewhere about 1350, since it refers to Tauler as already well known. It was the practice of the “Friends of God” to conceal their names as much as possible when they wrote, lest a desire for fame should mingle with their endeavours to be useful. This is probably the reason why we have no indication of its authorship beyond a preface, which the Wurtzburg Manuscript possesses in common with that which was in Luther’s hands, and from which it appears that the writer “was of the Teutonic order, a priest and a warden in the house of the Teutonic order in Frankfort.” A translation of this Preface is prefixed to the present volume. Till the discovery of the Wurtzburg Manuscript, it was supposed that this Preface was from Luther’s hand, who merely embodied in it the tradition which he had received from some source unknown to us; and hence, some, disregarding its authority, have ascribed the Theologia Germanica to Tauler, whose style it resembles so much that it might be taken for his work, but for the reference to him already mentioned. Since, however, the antiquity of the Preface is now proved, we must be content with the information which it affords us, unless any further discoveries among old manuscripts should throw fresh light upon the subject.

Should this attempt to introduce the writings of the “Friends of God” in England awaken an interest in them and their works, the Translator proposes to follow up the present volume with an account of Tauler and selections from his writings; believing that the study of these German theologians, who were already called old in Luther’s age, would furnish the best antidote to what of mischief English readers may have derived from German theology, falsely so called.

 

Manchester, February 1854.


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