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§ 86. Changes in the Views on the Ministry. Departure from the Episcopal Succession. Luther ordains a Deacon, and consecrates a Bishop.


The Reformers unanimously rejected the sacerdotal character of the Christian ministry (except in a spiritual sense), and hence also the idea of a literal altar and sacrifice. No priest, no sacrifice. "Priest" is an abridgment of "presbyter,"699699    Milton, in his discontent with the Presbyterians and zeal for independency, said, "Presbyter is priest writ large." and "Presbyter" is equivalent to "elder." It does not mean sacerdos in the New Testament, nor among the earliest ecclesiastical writers before Tertullian and Cyprian.700700    The exceptional designation of the Christian prophets as "highpriests" (ἀρχιερεῖς, in the Didaché, ch. XIII. 3, is probably figurative. See Schaff, The Oldest Church Manual, p. 206 sq. Moreover, in Scripture usage "presbyter" and "bishop" are terms for one and the same office (as also in the Epistle of Clement of Rome, and the recently discovered "Teaching of the Twelve Apostles".701701    See Schaff, l.c. p. 74 sq., and 211. This fact (conceded by Jerome and Chrysostom and the best modern scholars) was made the basis for presbyterian ordination in those Lutheran and Reformed churches which abolished episcopacy.702702    See the passage in the Appendix to Luther’s Articles of Smalcald, quoted above on p. 517, note 2.

In the place of a graded hierarchy, the Reformers taught the parity of ministers; and in the place of a special priesthood, offering the very body and blood of Christ, a general priesthood of believers, offering the sacrifices of prayer and praise for the one sacrifice offered for all time to come. Luther derived the lay-priesthood from baptism as an anointing by the Holy Spirit and an incorporation into Christ. "A layman with the Scriptures," he said, "is more to be believed than pope and council without the Scriptures."703703    Comp. § 44, p. 207, and Melanchthon in his Apology of the Augsb. Conf., arts. XIII. and XXIV.

Nevertheless, he maintained, in opposition to the democratic radicalism of Carlstadt and the fanatical spiritualism of the Zwickau prophets, the necessity of a ministry, as a matter of order and expediency; and so far he asserted its divine origin. Every public teacher must be called of God through the Church, or prove his extraordinary call by miracles. And so the Augsburg Confession declares that "no man shall publicly teach in the church, or administer the sacraments, without a regular call."704704    Art. XIV.

But what constitutes a regular call? Luther at first took the ground of congregational independency in his writings to the Bohemian Brethren (1523), and advocated the right of a Christian congregation to call, to elect, and to depose its own minister.705705    In the address De instituendis ministris, to the magistrate and people of Prag, and in his tract "Dass eine christliche Versammlung oder Gemeinde Recht und Macht habe, alle Lehrer zu urtheilen und Lehrer zu berufen, ein- und abzusetzen." (Erl. ed., XXII. 140 sqq.; and Walch, X. 1795 sqq.) He meant, of course, a congregation of true believers, not a mixed multitude of nominal professors. In cases of necessity, which knows no law, he would allow any one who has the gift, to pray and sing, to teach and preach; and refers to the congregation of Corinth, and to Stephen, Philip, and Apollos, who preached without a commission from the apostles. In a conflagration everybody runs to lend a helping hand, to save the town. But, in ordinary cases, no one should be a teacher unless called and elected by the congregation. Even Paul did not elect elders without the concurrence of the people. The bishops of our days are no bishops, but idols. They neglect preaching, their chief duty, leaving it to chaplains and monks: they confirm and consecrate bells, altars, and churches, which is a self-invented business, neither Christian nor episcopal. They are baby-bishops.706706    "Es sind verkehrt, verblendete Larven, und rechte Kinderbischöfe." The last word of his German tract to the Bohemians. Erl. ed., XXII. 151.

But congregations of pure Christians, capable of self-government, could not be found in Germany at that time, and are impossible in state churches where churchmanship and citizenship coincide. Luther abandoned this democratic idea after the Peasants’ War, and called on the arm of the govern-ment for protection against the excesses of the popular will.

In the first years of the Reformation the congregations were supplied by Romish ex-priests and monks. But who was to ordain the new preachers educated at Wittenberg? The bishops of Saxony (Naumburg-Zeiz, Meissen, and Merseburg) remained loyal to their master in Rome; and there was no other ordaining power according to law. Luther might have derived the succession from two bishops of Prussia,—Georg von Polenz, bishop of Samland, and Erhard von Queis, bishop of Pomesania,—who accepted the Reformation, and afterwards surrendered their episcopal rights to Duke Albrecht as the summus episcopus (1525).707707    The conversion and attempted reformation of Archbishop Herrmann of Cologne occurred much later, in 1543. But he did not wish to go outside of Saxony, and hated the whole hierarchy of pope and bishop as a human invention and spiritual tyranny. He congratulated the bishop of Samland that he, as by a miracle of grace, had been delivered from the mouth of Satan; while all other bishops raged like madmen against the reviving gospel, although he hoped that there were some timid Nicodemuses among them.708708    In the preface to his commentary on Deuteronomy, which he dedicated to the bishop of Samland, 1525 (Erl. ed. of Opera Latina, XIII. 6): "Non enim te laudamus, sed insigne illud miraculum gratiae Dei extollimus, quam in te valere, regnare et triumphare videmus et audimus cum gaudio ut ... te unicum et solum inter omnes episcopi orbis elegerit Dominus et liberaverit ex ore Satanae quod dilatavit sicut infernum et devorat omnes. Nihil enim videmus in ceteris episcopis (quanquam esse inter eos sperem aliquot Nicodemos) nisi quod subversis caesare et regibus ac principibus fremunt et insaniunt contra resurgens vel potius oriens evangelion, ut denuo impleant illud Psalmi secundi," etc. Comp. his letter to Spalatin, Feb. 1, 1524, and to Briesmann, July 4, 1524, in De Wette, II. 474 and 525 sqq.

With these views, and the conviction of his own divine authority to reform the church, he felt no reluctance to take the episcopal prerogative into his hands. He acted to the end of his life as an irregular or extraordinary bishop and pope in partibus Protestantium, being consulted by princes, magistrates, theologians, and people of all sorts.

He set the first example of a Presbyterian ordination by laying hands on his amanuensis, Georg Rörer (Rorarius), and making him deacon at Wittenberg, May 14, 1525. Rörer is favorably known by his assistance in the Bible Version and the first edition of Luther’s works. He died as librarian of the University of Jena, 1557. Melanchthon justified the act on the ground that the bishops neglected their duty.709709    Corp. Ref., I. 765. Comp. Seckendorf, Hist. Lutheranismi, vol. II. 29.

But Luther ventured even to consecrate a bishop, or a superintendent; as John Wesley did two hundred and fifty years afterwards in the interest of his followers in the United States. When the bishopric of Naumburg became vacant, the chapter, backed by the Roman-Catholic minority of the nobility and people, regularly elected Julius von Pflug, one of the ablest, purest, and mildest opponents of the Reformation. This choice displeased the Protestants. The Elector John Frederick, by an illegal use of power, confiscated the property of the diocese, and appointed a counter-bishop in the person of Nicolaus von Amsdorf, Luther’s most devoted friend, who was unmarried and a nobleman, and at that time superintendent at Magdeburg. The consecration took place on June 20, 1542, in the dome of Naumburg, in the presence of the Elector, the Protestant clergy, and a congregation of about five thousand people. Luther preached the sermon, and performed the consecration with the assistance of three superintendents (Medler, Spalatin, and Stein) and an abbot, by the laying-on of hands, and prayer.710710    See an account of the consecration in Seckendorf, III. 391 sqq.; Köstlin, II. 561 sqq.; Janssen, III. 483-492. Janssen describes the sickening details of the violence, intrigues, and robberies connected with the Protestantizing and secularizing of the three Saxon bishoprics. This bold and defiant act created great sensation and indignation, and required a public defense, which he prepared at the request of the Elector.711711    Exempel, einen rechten christlichen Bischof zu weihen, 1542. Erl. ed., XXVI. 77-108; Walch, XVII. 122. He begins with the characteristic sentence: "Wir armen Ketzer haben abermal eine grosse Sünde begangen wider die höllische unchristliche Kirche des allerhöllischten Vaters, des Papstes, dass wir einen Bischof im Stift Naumburg ordinirt und eingeweihet haben, ohne allen Chresem [Chrisma, Salböl], auch ohne Butter, Schmalz, Speck, Teer, Schmeer, Weihrauch, Kohlen und was derselben grossen Heiligkeit mehr ist: dazu wider ihren Willen; doch nicht ohne ihr Wissen." Comp. also his letter to Jacob Probst, March 26, 1546 (De Wette, V. 451), where he calls this consecration "audax facinus et plenissimum odio, invidia at indignatione." He used the strongest language against popery and episcopacy to overawe the opposition, and to make it contemptible. He even boasts of having made a bishop without chrism, butter, and incense. "I cannot repent," he says, "of such a great and horrible sin, nor expect absolution for it." He assigns, among the reasons for setting aside the election of a Catholic bishop, that God had in the first three commandments, as by a thunder-stroke of judgment, forever condemned to hell the chapter of Naumburg, together with the pope, cardinals, and all their régime, for breaking those commandments by their idolatry and false worship. Christians are forbidden, on pain of eternal damnation, to hear and tolerate them. They must flee a false prophet, preacher, or bishop, and regard a popish bishop as no bishop at all, but as a wolf, yea, as a devil.712712    " ... gezwungen durch Gottes Gebot, sich von ihm zu sondern, und ihn für keinen Bischof, sondern für einen Wolf, ja für einen Teufel zu halten." Erl. ed., p. 80. "And what does the most hellish father in his hellish Church? Does he not depose all bishops, abbots, priests, whom he finds heretics or apostates from his idolatry? ... Yea, he interferes even with secular and domestic government, deposes emperors, kings, princes, separates man and wife, dissolves marriage, abolishes obedience, duty, and oath, simply for disobedience to his audacious devilish decretals and accursed bulls." But, as the holy Virgin sings in her Magnificat, "the Lord hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, and hath put down princes from their thrones" (Luke 1:51, 52) and as St. Peter writes, "Deus superbis resistit" (1 Pet. 5:5). The proud and haughty, whether he be pope, emperor, king, prince, nobleman, citizen, or peasant, will be humbled, and come to a bitter end. The chapter of Naumburg elected a bishop who would have been bound by obedience to the pope to persecute the gospel, "to worship the devil," and to let the pope, the archbishop of Mainz, and their courtiers rule and ruin at pleasure. The papists have been playing this game for more than twenty years. It is high time to stop it. He who rules in heaven and also here in our hearts turns the wise into fools, and "taketh the wise in their craftiness" (1 Cor. 3:19).

This is the spirit and language of this apologetic Tract. It was followed by a still fiercer attack upon popery as an invention of the Devil" (1545).

Amsdorf was forced upon the chapter and the people by the Elector, but lost his bishopric in the Smalcaldian War (1547), took a leading and ultra-Lutheran part in the bitter theological controversies which followed, and died at Eisenach, 1565, in his eighty-second year. His ephemeral episcopate was, of course, a mere superintendency.

Several of Luther’s friends and pupils were appointed superintendents; as Lauterbach at Pirna (d. 1569); Heidenreich, or Heiderich, at Torgau (d. 1572), who with Mathesius, Dietrich, Weller, and others, preserved his "table spice" (condimenta mensae), as they called his familiar conversations.

The appointment of these superintendents was in the hands of the prince as summus episcopus over his territory. The congregations had not even the power of electing their own pastors.713713    "Die Gemeinde," says Friedberg, l.c., p. 61, "tritt bei dieser Organisation ganz zurück. Sie ist der ’Pöbel,’ der unter der Zucht des Wortes und der Polizei des Kirchenregimentes steht … Eine Mitwirkung an der Handhabung der Kirchenzucht findet sich nur in den Kirchenordnungen, wo reformirte Einflüsse bemerkbar sind."

In the cities the magistrate assumed the episcopal power, and appointed the superintendents.

The further development of the episcopal, territorial, and collegial system in the Lutheran Church lies beyond our limits.



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