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§ 44. Address to the German Nobility.


An den christlichen Adel deutscher Nation: von des christlichen Standes Besserung. In Walch’s ed., X. 296 sqq.; Erl. ed., XXI. 274–360; Weimar ed., VI. 404. Köstlin (in his shorter biography of Luther, p. 197 New York ed.) gives a facsimile of the title-page of the second edition. Dr. Karl Benrath of Bonn published a separate ed., with introduction and notes, as No. 4 of the "Schriften des Vereins für Reformationsgeschichte." Halle, 1886 (114 pages).


"The time for silence is gone, and the time for speaking has come." With these words (based on Eccles. 3:7) of the dedicatory preface to Amsdorf, Luther introduces his address, to his most Serene and Mighty Imperial Majesty, and to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, respecting a Reformation of the Christian Estate." The preface is dated on the Eve of St. John the Baptist (June 23), 1520; the book was hastily completed July 20,237237    On that date he informed Wencislaus Link: "Editur noster libellus in Papam de reformanda ecclesia vernaculus, ad universam nobilitatem Germaniae, qui summe offensurus est Romam .... Vale, et ora pro me." De Wette, I. 470. and before Aug. 18 no less than four thousand copies—an enormous number for those days—were published, and a new edition called for, besides reprints which soon appeared in Leipzig and Strassburg.

The book is a most stirring appeal to the German nobles, who, through Hutten and Sickingen, had recently offered their armed assistance to Luther. He calls upon them to take the much-needed Reformation of the Church into their own hands; not, indeed, by force of arms, but by legal means, in the fear of God, and in reliance upon his strength. The bishops and clergy refused to do their duty; hence the laity must come to the front of the battle for the purity and liberty of the Church.

Luther exposes without mercy the tyranny of the Pope, whose government, he says, "agrees with the government of the apostles as well as Lucifer with Christ, hell with heaven, night with day; and yet he calls himself Christ’s Vicar, and the Successor of Peter."

The book is divided into three parts: —


1. In the first part, Luther pulls down what he calls the three walls of Jericho, which the papacy had erected in self-defense against any reformation; namely, the exclusion of the laity from all control, the exclusive claim to interpret the Scriptures, and the exclusive claim to call a Council.

Under the first head, he brings out clearly and strongly, in opposition to priestcraft, the fundamental Protestant principle of the general priesthood of all baptized Christians. He attacks the distinction of two estates, one spiritual, consisting of Pope, bishops, priests, and monks; and one temporal, consisting of princes, lords, artificers, and peasants. There is only one body, under Christ the Head. All Christians belong to the spiritual estate. Baptism, gospel and faith,—these alone make spiritual and Christian people.238238    "Was aus der Taufe gekrochen ist, das mag sich rühmen, dass es schon Priester, Bischof, und Papst geweihet sei." We are consecrated priests by baptism; we are a royal priesthood, kings and priests before God (1 Pet. 2:9; Rev. 5:10). The only difference, then, between clergy and laity, is one of office and function, not of estate.

Luther represents here the ministerial office as the creature of the congregation; while at a later period, warned by democratic excesses, and the unfitness of most of the congregations of that age for a popular form of government, he laid greater stress upon the importance of the ministry as an institution of Christ. This idea of the general priesthood necessarily led to the emancipation of the laity from priestly control, and their participation in the affairs of the Church, although this has been but very imperfectly carried out in Protestant state churches. It destroyed the distinction between higher (clerical and monastic), and lower morality; it gave sanctity to the natural relations, duties, and virtues; it elevated the family as equal in dignity to virginity; it promoted general intelligence, and sharpened the sense of individual responsibility to the Church. But to the same source may be traced also the undue interference of kings, princes, and magistrates in ecclesiastical matters, and that degrading dependence of many Protestant establishments upon the secular power. Kingcraft and priestcraft are two opposite extremes, equally opposed to the spirit of Christianity. Luther, and especially Melanchthon, bitterly complained, in their later years, of the abuse of the episcopal power assumed by the magistrate, and the avarice of princes in the misappropriation of ecclesiastical property.

The principle of the general priesthood of the laity found its political and civil counterpart in the American principle of the general kingship of men, as expressed in the Declaration of Independence, that "all men are born free and equal."

2. In the second part, Luther chastises the worldly pomp of the Pope and the cardinals, their insatiable greed, and exactions under false pretenses.

3. In the third part, he deals with practical suggestions. He urges sweeping reforms in twenty-seven articles, to be effected either by the civil magistrate, or by a general council of ministers and laymen.

He recommends the abolition of the annates, of the worldly pomp and idolatrous homage paid to the Pope (as kissing his feet), and of his whole temporal power, so that he should be hereafter merely a spiritual ruler, with no power over the emperor except to anoint and crown him, as a bishop crowns a king, as Samuel crowned Saul and David.

He strongly demands the abrogation of enforced clerical celibacy, which destroys instead of promoting chastity, and is the cause of untold misery. Clergymen should be allowed to marry, or not to marry, according to their gift and sense of duty.

Masses for the dead should be abolished, since they have become a solemn mockery, and devices for getting money, thus exciting the anger of God.

Processions, saints’ days, and most of the public festivals, except Sunday, should be abrogated, since holy days have become most unholy by drinking, gambling, and idling.

Monasteries should be reduced in number, and converted into schools, with freedom to enter and to leave without binding vows.

Certain punishments of the Canon law should cease, especially the interdict which silences God’s word and service,—a greater sin than to kill twenty Popes at once.

Fasts should be voluntary and optional; for whilst at Rome they laugh at fasts, they let us abroad eat oil which they would not think fit for greasing their boots, and then sell us the liberty of eating butter and other things; whereas the apostle says that the gospel has given us liberty in all such matters (1 Cor. 10:25 sq.).

He also would forbid all begging in Christendom; each town should support its own poor, and not allow strange beggars to come in, whether pilgrims or mendicant monks; it is not right that one should work that another may be idle, and live ill that another may live well, but "if any would not work, neither should he eat" (2 Thess. 3:10).

He counsels a reduction of the clerical force, and the prohibition of pluralities. "As for the fraternities, together with indulgences, letters of indulgence, dispensations, masses, and all such things, let them all be drowned and abolished."

He recommends (Art. 24) to do justice to, and make peace with, the Bohemians; for Hus and Jerome of Prague were unjustly burnt, in violation of the safe-conduct promised by the Pope and the Emperor. Heretics should be overcome with books, not with fire; else, the hangmen would be the most learned doctors in the world, and there would be no need of study."

In Art. 25, Luther urges a sound reformation of the universities, which had become "schools of Greek fashion" and "heathenish manners" (2 Macc. 4:12, 13), and are, full of dissolute living." He is unjustly severe upon Aristotle, whom he calls a "dead, blind, accursed, proud, knavish heathen teacher." His logic, rhetoric, and poetic might be, retained; but his physics, metaphysics, ethics, and the book "Of the Soul" (which teaches that the soul dies with the body) ought to be banished, and the study of the languages, mathematics, history, and especially of the Holy Scriptures, cultivated instead. "Nothing is more devilishly mischievous," he says, "than an unreformed university." He would also have the Canon law banished, of which there is "nothing good but the name," and which is no better than "waste paper."

He does not spare national vices. He justly rebukes the extravagance in dress, the usury, and especially the intemperance in eating and drinking, for which, he says, "we Germans have an ill reputation in foreign countries, as our special vice, and which has become so common, and gained so much the upper hand, that sermons avail nothing." (His frequent protest against the "Saufteufel" of the Germans, as he calls their love of drink, is still unheeded. In temperance the Southern nations of Europe are far ahead of those of the North.)

In conclusion, he expresses the expectation that he will be condemned upon earth. "My greatest care and fear is, lest my cause be not condemned by men; by which I should know for certain that it does not please God. Therefore let them freely go to work, Pope, bishop, priest, monk, or doctor: they are the true people to persecute the truth, as they have always done. May God grant us all a Christian understanding, and especially to the Christian nobility of the German nation true spiritual courage, to do what is best for our unhappy Church. Amen."


The book was a firebrand thrown into the headquarters of the papal church. It anticipated a reply to the papal bull, and prepared the public mind for it. It went right to the heart of the Germans, in their own language wielded with a force as never before, and gave increased weight to the hundred grievances of long standing against Rome. But it alarmed some of his best friends. They condemned or regretted his biting severity.239239    "Omnes ferme [fere] in me damnant mordacitatem," he says in letter to Link, Aug. 19, 1520. Staupitz tried at the eleventh hour to prevent the publication, and soon afterwards (Aug. 23, 1520) resigned his position as general vicar of the Angustinians, and retired to Salzburg, feeling himself unequal to the conflict. John Lange called the book a "blast for assault, atrocious and ferocious." Some feared that it might lead to a religious war. Melanchthon could not approve the violence, but dared not to check the spirit of the new Elijah. Luther defended himself by referring to the example of Paul and the prophets: it was necessary to be severe in order to get a hearing; he felt sure that he was not moved by desire for glory or money or pleasure, and disclaimed the intention of stirring up sedition and war; he only wished to clear the way for a free general council; he was perhaps the forerunner of Master Philippus in fighting Ahab and the prophets of Baal after the example of Elijah (1 Kings 18).240240    See his letters to John Lange (Aug. 18, 1520) and to Wenceslaus Link (Aug. 19) in De Wette, I. 477-479.


NOTES.


The following extracts give a fair idea of Luther’s polemic against the Pope in this remarkable book: —


"The custom of kissing the Pope’s feet must cease. It is an un-Christian, or rather an anti-Christian example, that a poor sinful man should suffer his feet to be kissed by one who is a hundred times better than he. If it is done in honor of his power, why does he not do it to others in honor of their holiness? Compare them together: Christ and the Pope. Christ washed his disciples’ feet, and dried them, and the disciples never washed his. The Pope, pretending to be higher than Christ, inverts this, and considers it a great favor to let us kiss his feet: whereas if any one wished to do so, he ought to do his utmost to prevent them, as St. Paul and Barnabas would not suffer themselves to be worshiped as gods by the men at Lystra, saying, ’We also are men of like passions with you’ (Acts 14:14 seq.). But our flatterers have brought things to such a pitch, that they have set up an idol for us, until no one regards God with such fear, or honors him with such reverence, as they do the Pope. This they can suffer, but not that the Pope’s glory should be diminished a single hairsbreadth. Now, if they were Christians, and preferred God’s honor to their own, the Pope would never be willing to have God’s honor despised, and his own exalted; nor would he allow any to honor him, until he found that God’s honor was again exalted above his own.

"It is of a piece with this revolting pride, that the Pope is not satisfied with riding on horseback or in a carriage, but, though he be hale and strong, is carried by men like an idol in unheard-of pomp. I ask you, how does this Lucifer-like pride agree with the example of Christ, who went on foot, as did also all his apostles? Where has there been a king who lived in such worldly pomp as he does, who professes to be the head of all whose duty it is to despise and flee from all worldly pomp—I mean, of all Christians? Not that this need concern us for his own sake, but that we have good reason to fear God’s wrath, if we flatter such pride, and do not show our discontent. It is enough that the Pope should be so mad and foolish, but it is too much that we should sanction and approve it."

After enumerating all the abuses to which the Pope and his Canon law give sanction, and which he upholds with his usurped authority, Luther addresses him in this impassioned style: —

"Dost thou hear this, O Pope! not the most holy, but the most sinful? Would that God would hurl thy chair headlong from heaven, and cast it down into the abyss of hell! Who gave you the power to exalt yourself above God? to break and to loose what he has commanded? to teach Christians, more especially Germans, who are of noble nature, and are famed in all histories for uprightness and truth, to be false, unfaithful, perjured, treacherous, and wicked? God has commanded to keep faith and observe oaths even with enemies: you dare to cancel his command, laying it down in your heretical, antichristian decretals, that you have power to do so; and through your mouth and your pen Satan lies as he never lied before, teaching you to twist and pervert the Scriptures according to your own arbitrary will. O Lord Christ! look down upon this, let thy day of judgment come and destroy the Devil’s lair at Rome. Behold him of whom St. Paul spoke (2 Thess. 2:3, 4), that he should exalt himself above thee, and sit in thy Church, showing himself as God—the man of sin and the child of damnation .... The Pope treads God’s commandments under foot, and exalts his own: if this is not Antichrist, I do not know what it is."

Janssen (II. 100) calls Luther’s "Address to the German Nobility" "das eigentliche Kriegsmanifest der Lutherisch-Huttenschen Revolutionspartei," and "ein Signal zum gewaltsamen Angriff." But the book nowhere counsels war; and in the letter to Link he says expressly: "nec hoc a me agitur, ut seditionem moveam, sed ut concilio generali libertatem asseram"(De Wette, I. 479). Janssen quotes (p. 103) a very vehement passage from Luther’s contemporaneous postscript to a book of Prierias which he republished (De juridica et irrefragabili veritate Romanae Ecclesiae Romanique Pontificis), expressing a wish that the Emperor, kings, and princes would make a bloody end to Pope and cardinals and the whole rabble of the Romish Sodom. But this extreme and isolated passage is set aside by his repeated declarations against carnal warfare, and was provoked by the astounding assertions of Prierias, the master of the papal palace, that the Pope was the infallible judge of all controversies, the head of all spiritual, the father of all secular princes, the head of the Church and of the whole universe (caput totius orbis universi). Against such blasphemy Luther breaks out in these words: "Mihi vero videtur, si sic pergat furor Romanistarum, nullum reliquum esse remedium, quam ut imperator, reges et principes vi et armis accincti aggrediantur has pestes orbis terrarum, remque non jam verbis, sed ferro decernant .... Si fures furca, si latrones gladio, si haereticos igne plectimus, cur non magis hos magistros perditionis, hos cardinales, hos papas et totam istam romanae Sodomae colluviem, quae ecclesiam Dei sine fine corrumpit, omnibus armis impetimus, et manus nostras in sanguine eorum lavamus? tanquam a communi et omnium periculosissimo incendio nos nostrosque liberaturi." Erl. ed., Opera Latina, II. 107. He means a national resistance under the guidance of the Emperor and rightful rulers.



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