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Martin Luther’s Treatises and Essays

Summary and Keywords

The treatise or essay has played a key role in the transmission of ideas in the Western intellectual tradition and the Church in particular. Generally shorter than a book or monograph, the treatise attempts to examine a topic in a manner that is thorough yet avoids systematic treatment. The tone of the treatise usually avoids polemics and favors instead a more dispassionate treatment of its subject. In the middle ages, treatises in scholastic theology often became highly abstract and lifeless, focusing more on logical precision designed to appeal to the mind (intellectus). Entreaties to the heart (affectus) were often suspect because they were thought to lack intellectual rigor. Martin Luther’s “rhetoric of faith” results in a different view of the form of the treatise. Luther’s theological revolution centered on justification by grace through faith alone meant that theology was no longer aimed at only the mind. The whole person, mind and heart (intellectus and affectus), was now the proper object of instruction and persuasion. Luther stresses that faith, or pistis in the New Testament sense, involves a trust that encompasses thinking and feeling. Accordingly, Luther’s treatises and essays often exhibit this new rhetoric. The tone is often warm and embracing but certainly not to the exclusion of the mind. Evidence of this can be seen in five treatises he composes in the crucial year of 1520. This is the period just before he is excommunicated. To say the least, his future is highly uncertain. It is not surprising that he turns to the genre of the treatise as a format well suited to his program of reform. The Freedom of a Christian, The Treatise on Good Works, On the Papacy in Rome, To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, and The Babylonian Captivity of the Church are the result. Together they comprise a radical proposal for change that envisions a Church grounded in God’s Word and sacraments from which springs forth a people freed to love and serve their neighbors in all of their callings.

Keywords: callings, faith, freedom, genre, justification, sacraments, theology, treatise, Martin Luther

The Treatises of Martin Luther

As many scholars have noted, Martin Luther comes to us in a dizzying array of literary forms. His collected works include commentaries, catechetical writings, sermons, treatises and essays, letters, polemics, disputations, pamphlets, and hymns.1 The sheer breadth of his work can lead to misconceptions about Luther as an author.

Because he did not write a more systematic theology like Philip Melanchthon’s Loci Communes or John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, it is tempting to suggest that Luther was primarily an “occasional” writer in the sense that his works reflect a specific context to which he was responding. Of course, this is true. As any teacher of Luther’s theology will be sure to stress, it is important to know when and why he wrote a particular piece. For example, his writings on the sacraments mirror the concerns of his opposition. The early Luther is wrestling with a late medieval theology that put too much emphasis on a power residing in the physical element itself. Later on, Luther will have to combat what he believed was the subjectivism of the Anabaptists, who refused to see much value in the material elements. So the occasion does matter for Luther, but there is a tendency to simply see him in reaction.

At times, Luther could be an angry firebrand locked in combat with innumerable foes. To the delight and consternation of countless readers, his polemical writings are full of vitriol and sarcasm. One can almost sense the heat rising from the page. Here the emphasis on context is brought to its extreme limits. It is as if Luther’s opponents actually define him and his theology. Take away the enemy and the battle stalls. A Luther without opposition is an empty shell.

There is also another side to Luther, the pastoral reformer who seeks to comfort anxious consciences with the soothing balm of the Gospel. One can see this Luther in his sermons, hymns, letters, and prayers. And, of course, Luther did find in Christ a peace beyond all understanding and sought to communicate this to women who suffered miscarriages, to fellow monks troubled by anxiety, and to parishioners who listen to his sermons in Wittenberg’s city church.

Finally, it should be noted that Luther had a reflective side. He was equally concerned to explain his new theology. His radical understanding of justification reoriented the faith and practice of the late medieval Church. This entailed a form of communication—the treatise—that is one step removed from polemics and pastoral care. To be sure, this type of criticism is messy. After all, Luther can move within one paragraph from biting mockery to words of heartfelt consolation—and all within the context of what might be termed a “treatise”! Therefore, it will be important to define what it means to say something is a treatise and recognize that the boundaries between it and other literary forms in Luther’s writings is fluid but not without definition.

This article will begin by examining the nature of a treatise, being careful to locate it within the historical tradition so familiar to Luther. Then we will look at how Luther’s view on the purpose of theology actually leads him to change the character of a treatise. Finally, we will look at how he employs the genre of treatise within his reformatory program. Our focus, of course, cannot involve an analysis of every treatise that Luther wrote. That would go far beyond the limits of this article. Instead we will look at how he used this genre in the critical year of 1520. As we shall see, Luther finds the treatise especially well-suited to the monumental task of reshaping a Church and culture consistent with the central truth of justification by faith.

The Treatise and Essay

What exactly is a treatise or essay? It might be helpful to define them by reference to length and method. In other words, a treatise takes an extended look at a subject, examining it from several angles, often with reference to competing points of view.2 For our purposes, a treatise deals with a topic at length but it does not aspire to be comprehensive or systematic. By these criteria, the above-mentioned Loci Communes of Melanchthon is not a treatise but rather a book or monograph. The same goes for Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion.

A distinction can also be made between a treatise and polemical literature. The former recognizes opposition but is not necessarily defined by it. For the latter, the refutation of the opponent is the chief object of the work. For example, the infamous “Against Hanswurst” (1541) is a classical example of polemic while “The Freedom of a Christian” (1520) is not. The latter work contains polemical material but is largely free of the anger and disgust that Luther sometimes displays. The lines are admittedly fuzzy. Perhaps we are dealing more with a sensibility. But it is helpful to recognize that Luther often wrote reflectively, in addition to his polemical and pastoral work.

Luther and the Tradition

Luther himself is influenced by a wide range of writers. His education included the classical writings of Aristotle and Cicero, both of whom used the form of the treatise to express themselves. During his time as a student at the University of Erfurt, he came to know the writings of William of Ockham and those influenced by him.3 He was also deeply affected by the mystical tradition and authors such as Bernard of Clairvaux and Johannes Tauler.4 Humanism also made a significant mark on Luther.5 Finally, as an Augustinian monk, Luther read the treatises of his order’s namesake.6 There are regular references throughout the reformer’s writings to Augustine’s treatises On Nature and Grace and The Spirit and the Letter. As we shall see, when the time was right Luther would make full use of this literary form to treat issues that needed fuller development than that afforded by sermons and commentaries.

It will be helpful to look in more detail at these fields of thought—primarily scholasticism but also mysticism and humanism—and ascertain their influence on Luther’s own treatises. The focus will be on the period closer to the Reformation, the high and late middle ages.

For scholastic theology, the treatise was often highly structured. The author of an essay attempted to speak especially to the mind of readers. There was an emphasis on logic and an avoidance of any reference to the subjective concerns of the writer or his audience. Imagination and creativity were suspect. Novelty implied a lack of rigor and precision.7 A favorite form of writers was the syllogism, which emphasized logical deduction from first principles. (All men must die. Socrates is a man. Therefore Socrates must die.) Two of the best-known theologians of the period, Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus, employed it frequently to advance their arguments.8 As Alister McGrath notes, “Scholasticism was concerned with the rational justification of Christian belief and, in particular, demonstrating the inherent rationality of theology.”9

This spirit of scholasticism bleeds into succeeding generations of theologians as well. While guarding against the notion that the late medieval period was one of “disintegration,” the work of some theologians continues to display a focus on the intellect.10 To cite one example, let’s look at Thomas Bradwardine’s treatise The Cause of God against the Pelagians (1344).11 Bradwardine was an English theologian and a staunch defender of Augustine’s teachings on grace and predestination. In this writing, he sets out to refute the “Pelagians” who oppose the Augustinian tradition. He provides seven reasons given by his opponents to defend the idea of human merit earning favor with God. He proceeds to refute each one with care, citing authorities that include the Bible, John Chrysostom, and above all, Augustine. The tone throughout is careful and the discussion well defined. The reader is largely being given information to process. The attraction is rational and rooted in an appeal to tradition. Bradwardine, true to the spirit of the scholastic treatise, is really asking his audience: How can you not be convinced by this orderly and logically consistent argument?

While Luther’s opinions of scholasticism were largely negative, he was more positively influenced by medieval mysticism.12 Mysticism has been defined as “the dimension of Christian belief and practice that contains the preparation for, the consciousness of, and the consequences of direct contact with God in this life.”13 The mystics do not deny as much as transcend the more abstract categories of the scholastics. Often the goal is to experience or even see God (visio Dei). Luther valued much in this tradition, professing, for example, great respect for Tauler’s sermons, but he finally parted from mysticism on theological grounds. He rejected the belief of many mystics that there resided in the soul a spark of goodness which made possible a union with God.14 For Luther, faith alone is the basis for our relationship with God.

Finally, as we consider the nature of Luther’s treatises we must consider the important role of the humanist tradition. While it might be difficult to say that Luther was a humanist, he certainly benefited from many of the tools made available through the studia humanitatis.15 Humanists advocated a study of the Bible and other classical texts as a means for renewing the faith lives of Christians and for the promotion of civic virtue.16 Luther would make use of Erasmus’s Greek edition of the New Testament to craft his own German translation. Furthermore, the revival of the liberal arts also stimulated an emphasis on the importance of good communication. As Robert Rosin has pointed out, “man does not live by syllogistic logic alone.”17 In other words, the scholastic emphasis on logic and dialectic would give way to a new appreciation for rhetoric and poetry. In particular, rhetoric, which “sought to persuade through well-constructed discourse,” was coveted by Luther as he put new stress on the oral proclamation of the Gospel and the need for present-tense discourse that would address the heart as well as the mind.18

Writing for the Head and the Heart

Luther was never one to intellectualize faith, that is, make it solely an affair of the mind. Such a conception of faith lacks urgency and conjures up the solitary scholar preoccupied with her books in a study. Where Luther was concerned a better setting would be that of a battleground where human beings are caught in a life and death struggle between Christ and Satan. For him faith involves being caught up in an eschatological conflict between God and the host of powers opposing God. Inevitably, this means the heart is drawn into the battle as well. In other words, he knows no artificial separation between thoughts and emotions (intellectus and affectus). The whole person is drawn into the fight.

The Swedish Luther scholar Birgit Stolt makes clear that there has long been a tendency to separate feeling from thinking.19 The latter is associated with the mind while the former is associated with the heart. Such a view, of course, is unbiblical. The heart is not just the seat of the emotions but in fact the center of all human faculties, including that of thinking. An example might be cited in Luke 8:15 and the parable of the sower where Jesus says: “But as for that in the good soil, these are the ones who, when they hear the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patient endurance” (emphasis added). As E. C. Blackman notes, “the widely-held distinction between mind as a seat of thinking and heart as a seat of feeling … is alien from the meaning these terms carry in the Bible.”20

Luther operates in a similar vein. He refuses to make a distinction between thinking and feeling. His rediscovery of the Gospel is not something that simply happens in his head. That would make faith a matter only of the intellect. Rather he moves back toward the original Pauline understanding of faith as pistis or trust. In other the words, it is an experience that encompasses the mind and emotions (intellectus and affectus). We can even say it is a matter of the heart as long as this is understood in a biblical way as already outlined.

This understanding of faith needs to be seasoned with an eschatological outlook. As Heiko Oberman has made clear, Luther viewed himself as living in the last days.21 The very revelation of the Gospel of justification was a sign that the end was near. The fury that Luther faced from opponents was to be expected. Satan, after all, becomes more active when his kingdom is under assault. Luther harbored no view that what he was doing was going to bring in God’s kingdom. Rather, he saw himself as being caught up in a larger battle between God and the devil. Therefore, it was urgent in preaching and teaching to convey the truth about justification by faith as such proclamation was the vehicle for the Holy Spirit to raise up believers in Christ.

A similar kind of existential appropriation of faith (by the heart in the biblical sense) is underlined in Luther’s Preface to the German Writings (1539).22 In this text, Luther provides guidance on the ingredients needed to make a real theologian. The triadic formula involves prayer (oratio), meditation (meditatio), and temptation (tentatio). The entire process is made possible by the Holy Spirit and involves movement from a humility that puts human reason in its proper place to a penetrating meditation on Scripture that leads to an encounter with the devil, who is an ardent enemy of God’s word. The whole process has the possibility of making one a “real theologian.” As Oswald Bayer notes, Luther is in rebellion against a method of doing theology that sees it as “the highest science, the science of principles, indeed, the science of a single principle—the divine which moves everything but which itself is not moved.”23 This does nothing but make the entire theological enterprise arid and abstract. In other words, the faith being cultivated is solely one confined within the intellectus. Again, Bayer: “He (Luther) maintains that the knowledge about God, in fact knowing God himself, is something that is eminently going to occur within time. He thus understands theology not as learning based on principles but as learning that takes place within history and experience.”24

The implications of all this for Luther’s treatises and essays are significant. It might be said that Luther develops a special “rhetoric of faith.”25 While he appreciates and appropriates the skills of logic and dialectics in his treatises, he is not interested in writing simply for the mind. Dialectics are helpful because of the way they provide evidence to make a case. But rhetoric’s task is to move and persuade. Thus, we see a significant difference from the scholastic method. A God who in these last days justifies the ungodly has reshaped the entire task. This demands a new way of speaking. Teaching and preaching can no longer be neatly divided. In some ways, Luther is always preaching, which gives even his treatises a certain “oral” quality.26

Even his more reflective work will employ a language aimed at the intellectus and affectus, the mind and the emotions. Luther’s differences (and he was also indebted to him in many ways) with William of Ockham and other scholastic thinkers are not only theological. He is also disappointed in the way their theology tends to stay within the realm of principles and not penetrate to matters of the heart.27 So he can say that Ockham was a fine dialectician but deficient in rhetoric.28 We now turn to some of Luther’s treatises and see how their style represents a distinctive break with the scholastic way of writing a theological essay.

A Prelude to Luther’s Treatises

Luther, of course, did not begin his calling as a reformer by writing treatises. Once he received his doctorate in 1512 from the University of Wittenberg, he commenced on a lifetime path of lecturing and commenting on the books of the Bible. Save for correspondence and sermons, almost all of his early works from 1512 to 1515 are in the form of commentaries on the books of Psalms (1513‒1515), Romans (1515‒1516), and Galatians (1516‒1517). Seeds of Luther’s transformation can be seen in these works. But a new way of thinking appears to be more evident by 1517 and the Disputation against Scholastic Theology. Here Luther employs the medieval device of disputation in order to fire a broadside against the domination of theology by an Aristotelian framework. The problem is not Aristotle himself. According to Luther, the great philosopher wrote many things worthy of study, including his Logic and Metaphysics (though he was disturbed the latter excluded God). The problem comes when Aristotle’s anthropology is grafted onto theology.29 The idea that good works make a good person collides dramatically with Luther’s new view that God through faith is what makes a person “good,” or better, justified.

The Disputation is followed by his protest against indulgences in October 1517. Unlike the Disputation, the dispute here is about a church practice that reflects an understanding of the God‒human relationship as being based on merit. And now Luther is swept out onto a much grander stage. No longer will his words attach little notice. And he will use all means possible to get his message out. It is not an accident that in the mold made at his time of death his fingers are curled as if grasping a pen. Luther wrote in every conceivable literary form available to a 16th-century author with the exception of the dialogue. Some of his most prominent writings came in the form of treatises. A veritable explosion occurs in 1520 with the publication of The Treatise on Good Works, On the Papacy in Rome, To the Christian Nobility, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, and The Freedom of a Christian.

The Year of the Treatise: 1520

It is hard to single out one year in Luther’s life as definitive. But 1520 certainly rises close to the top of the list. The break with Rome is seemingly inevitable. By April 1521, he will have made his dramatic appearance at the Diet of Worms. This was immediately followed by nine months of enforced exile in the Wartburg. Knowing well the fate of heretics, 1520 becomes a theological crucible for Luther. It is his opportunity to declare the many ways he feels the Church needs to be reformed. And it is also his chance to clarify what he means by evangelical freedom. Some were saying Luther was simply a libertine who was out to undermine morality. While Luther penned over sixteen treatises in this period, we will refer to five that exhibit his new style.30

The Freedom of a Christian

The Freedom of a Christian, the last essay penned by Luther in that fateful year, stands out as a model treatise for several reasons. Luther wrote it in Latin and German, indicating his desire to reach a wide audience of academics and laypeople. Also it is one of the few places where Luther actually attempts to encapsulate his teachings in one writing. A comparable document might be the Large Catechism but even that work is more a collection of sermons than a tightly argued case for the faith. As he says in his introductory letter to Pope Leo X: “Regarding its size, the book is small; however, unless I am mistaken, it contains a summary of the entire Christian life—provided you grasp its meaning.”31 Second, we have the opportunity here to see Luther using his skills as a rhetorician. His desire here is clearly aimed at not only providing a summary of his theology (which seems aimed at the intellectus) but he also seeks to move his readers emotionally. This is not merely a description of what Christian freedom looks like. Rather it is a declaration of the reader’s freedom in Christ.

Luther signals his intentions to move the hearts of his readers early. He makes clear that faith is not to be simply listed among the “virtues.” That is, it is not only a matter of intellectual assent but instead a fundamental orientation toward life involving the trust of the heart.32 Further, he makes clear that tentatio is a vital component of faith: “A person must experience the strength faith provides in the midst of trials and misfortune. Otherwise, it is not possible to write well about faith or to understand what has been written about it.”33 Next, notice how Luther draws the reader into the discussion by referring to his own difficulties with faith: “Although I cannot boast of my own abundance of faith, and I also know quite well how short my own supply is, nevertheless I hope I have gained at least a drop of faith—though I grant that I have been surrounded by great and various temptations.”34

Here, in the first two paragraphs, Luther has made some significant moves that distinguish his approach from much of the previous generations of academic theology. He has made clear that faith is not a matter of the intellect but rather an existential involvement of the whole self in a trusting relationship with God. And he has made significant reference to his own experience, signaling to the reader that this Christian freedom is not easy. We are invited to follow him on the path, having been advised the way is difficult and the guide is personally acquainted with faith’s struggles. Only then does he introduce the famous antitheses of the treatise: “A Christian is lord of all, completely free of everything. A Christian is a servant, completely attentive to the needs of all.”35

Luther’s essay will go on to explain the essence of Christian freedom. The Word of God, understood preeminently as the death and resurrection of Christ, liberates us from the demonic triad of sin, death, and the devil. Most significant is his discussion of the three fruits of faith—it honors God, frees from the law, and joins us to Christ. It is the third fruit—the royal marriage with Christ—where Luther’s rhetoric highlights how faith involves our affections. And here a contrast with one of his theological mentors, Johann Staupitz is appropriate.36

Staupitz, of course, was Luther’s confessor in the monastery. He is the one who encouraged him to pursue his doctoral studies and played a crucial role in his spiritual development. Staupitz pointed Luther to the wounds of Christ in the midst of his doubt and temptation in the cloister.37 Staupitz also wrote about the “Marriage of Christ and the Christian” in his treatise Eternal Predestination and its Execution in Time. This section is a careful explanation of how Christ’s benefits to the Church are analogous to a marriage. The language at times can be moving. Stressing the unity of Christ and the Church, Staupitz posits Christ saying the following: “I accept you as Mine, I accept you as my concern, I accept you into Myself.” Staupitz also says Christ’s atonement is effectual because of his assumption of human nature and that his death underlines the unity Christians are to have with one another.38

How different, however, is Luther’s explanation of the “joyous exchange” in the freedom of a Christian! The language is much more personal and Staupitz’s talk of Christ and the “Church” gives way to Luther’s Christ and his “bride.” Moreover, the description of the exchange is more graphic. Christ takes on our sin as if it were his very own. Our sin even sends him to hell. Further, Luther swaps the term “bride” for “whore.”39 He marvels that Christ would marry a harlot and in so doing purifies her by completely destroying (Luther says “swallows”) her sin.40 Oberman makes clear that Staupitz is hardly a conventional scholastic theologian. His work is not arid and trapped in dialectics. Through him ran many theological strains including mysticism and Augustinianism. And yet when we compare his views on the joyous exchange with that of Luther we see significant rhetorical (and theological) differences.

It is not surprising at the end of the first section of The Freedom of a Christian that Luther will be led to exclaim: “What person’s heart, upon hearing such things, will not rejoice greatly and grow so tender that he will love Christ in a way not possible by the observance of works or laws? Who will have the power to harm or frighten such a heart?”41 For Luther, the message of justification by faith is not only a matter for the mind. As this entire treatise makes clear, the target is the heart and living relationship with Christ.

The second part of The Freedom of a Christian focuses on how the love we receive from Christ is passed on to the neighbor. God’s love never comes to us in the abstract. Rather, we always receive it in the midst of our various callings.42 Here Luther makes clear to his critics that he is not an antinomian promoting some sort of moral anarchy. Only when Christ frees us does the neighbor come into clear focus. This is a love that drives us deep into the lives of others. Luther even suggests there is a joyous exchange between neighbors that is patterned after Christ:

The good we receive from Christ flows from us toward those who have need of it. As a result, I should lay before God my faith and righteousness so that they may cover and intercede for the sins of my neighbor. I take these sins upon myself, and labor and serve in them, as if they were my very own. This is exactly what Christ did for us. This is true and sincere love and the rule of a Christian life.43

Overall, the tone of The Freedom of a Christian is conciliatory. While Luther is clearly impatient with those who attempt to manage divine love by contributing their own works, he refrains from polemical excess. There is no mention of the sacraments or the sole authority of Scripture. Even the papacy is seen more as the victim of a scheming curia than a fruit of false teaching. However, by 1520, Luther does see plenty of things in the Church in need of correction. He steps lightly in The Freedom of a Christian. Some of his other treatises of 1520 have a different character.

Treatise on Good Works

The other essay that bookends (on the front end) the five treatises of 1520 is Luther’s Treatise on Good Works. It is written in German without apology. As he says in his dedication to the piece: “And although I know full well and hear every day that many people think little of me and say that only write little pamphlets and sermons in German for the uneducated laity, I do not let that stop me. Would to God that in my lifetime I had, to my fullest ability, helped one layman to be better!”44 It was produced at the behest of the Saxon court councilor George Spalatin, who was long acquainted with Luther.

The intended audience indicates the treatise is for those who are confused by the moral meaning of justification by faith alone. It is the same question that has plagued the Church’s teaching on faith and grace since the time of the New Testament. The apostle Paul wrestled with the same issue in Romans 6:1: “What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?” Luther meets the challenge directly by saying that the correct understanding of good works can be found in the Ten Commandments. In saying this, Luther wants to be clear what “good works” actually entail. He is challenging the emphasis put on fasting, prayers, and pilgrimages so familiar to the late medieval world. He appeals to the example of Christ who tells the rich young ruler seeking eternal life: “If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments” (Matt. 19:17).

Luther’s exposition entails a lengthy examination of the first three commandments, the ones concerning our relationship with God. Faith is the fulfillment of the first commandment because it puts all trust in God alone. A faith that trusts God is then led to keep God’s name holy by praise and proclamation. This naturally leads to worship, the real meaning of keeping the Sabbath day holy. From the foundation laid by these three commandments, we are imprinted with “faith, trust, confidence, hope and love of God.”45 And we are now ready to engage the world.

The explanation of commandments 4‒10 is actually the groundwork for Luther’s new understanding of vocation. All Christians are now called in their various stations of life. These commandments instruct believers how to live out their lives as spouses, parents, servants, citizens and church members. Instead of trying to undermine the morality of his age, Luther is actually trying to invest it with new energy.

If you ask further whether they consider it a good work when a man works at his trade, walks, stands, eats, drinks, sleeps, and does all kinds of works for the nourishment of body or for the common welfare, and whether they believe God is well pleased with them, you will find that they say no, and they define good works so narrowly that they are made to consist only of praying in church, fasting, and almsgiving.46

As Steven Ozment noted, Luther’s understanding of vocation ennobles lay life.47 The late medieval Church said only clergy, monks, and nuns had callings and thereby implicitly devalued earthly life. The Treatise on Good Works flips that notion on its head. Luther is claiming in the commandments that a life rooted in faith means we are called to be responsible to and for our neighbors.

On the Papacy in Rome

After Luther debated John Eck in Leipzig in 1519, it became clear that his protest was no longer directly only at the practice of selling indulgences. His public disputation with Eck forced him to acknowledge that the real issue was the authority of the Church. Eck and others argued that the pope, as the vicar of Christ on earth, ruled by divine right. Luther denied this claim, saying the pope had only human authority and therefore was susceptible to error. True authority was to be found in the Scriptures alone.

In the spring of 1520, a Franciscan monk from Leipzig named Augustine Alveld published a tract in Latin defending the traditional point of view. It was called On the Apostolic See. Luther did not feel the argument was worthy of his own reply and he instructed a secretary to respond to Alveld. However, a short time later Alveld came out with a similar essay, this time printed in German and dedicated to the citizens of Leipzig. This was too much for Luther. In this war for the hearts and minds of the German people, he feels he cannot afford to let this argument go unanswered: “If he [Alveld] had not put his apelike book into German to poison poor laymen, he would have been much too insignificant for me to bother with.”48

Essentially, Alveld makes two arguments in defense of his viewpoint. First, he says by reason alone one can deduce that every human community needs a leader to oversee it. Second, he claims that both Bible and church tradition point to Peter and his successors as the heads of the Christian Church. Luther is dubious of the first claim because it rests on natural reason: “Therefore the attempt to guard or to base God’s order upon reason, unless previously it has been grounded in and illumined by faith, is the same as if I wanted to illumine the sun with a dark lantern or use a reed as the foundation for a rock.”49 As to the second point, Luther tirelessly pours scorn on the idea that Christ’s command to Peter in Matthew 16:18‒19 (“You are a rock on this rock I will build my church”) establishes the papacy. It is rather Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ that is the essence of the Church.50

Luther makes clear in On the Papacy in Rome that the essence of the Christian Church does not rest on a Roman foundation: “Not Rome or this or that place, but baptism, the sacrament, and the gospel are the signs by which the existence of the church in world can be noticed externally … Rome or papal power are not signs of Christendom, for this kind of power does not make a Christian, as baptism and the gospel do.”51 For an early 16th-century Christian, these words are startling and revolutionary. This treatise is nothing less than a full-scale assault on an ecclesiastical arrangement widely recognized in the West for over a millennium.

To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation

In this work, Luther turns his attention to the temporal realm and its relationship to the spiritual realm. He also offers a sharp critique of papal authority coupled with a call for a council of the Church. The essay concludes with an extended list of concerns or gravamina (grievances) that Germans had long held against Rome.

Luther addresses the treatise to Emperor Charles V and also to members of the German nobility. In this crucial year, Luther was drawing the attention of the administrative class that surrounded the courts of dukes, princes, and other political leaders in northern Germany. In particular, Ulrich von Hutten, who was a knight and scholar, was interested in providing assistance. Von Hutten even offered to come to his aid militarily, but Luther was never interested in any type of armed defense of his cause.52 But he does want to make a strong case for reform of the Christian faith. He knows his audience is weary of interference from Rome, the greed of ecclesiastical officials, and the general over-involvement of the Church in everyday life.

Luther leaves little doubt that he sees himself within the framework of an eschatological faith. As he reminds Charles, “we must realize that we are not dealing with men, but with the princes of hell.”53 He suggests the Romanists have erected three walls that need to be torn down and he draws a parallel between his task and that of Joshua as he stood before Jericho.54 The first wall is the idea that the spiritual power is above the temporal. Luther responds with what we have termed the rhetoric of faith. Baptism levels all the artificial distinctions that have been made by the Church: “For whoever comes out of the water of baptism can boast that he is already a consecrated priest, bishop and pope.”55 There is no essential distinction, says Luther, between the laity and clergy. Accordingly, the so-called “indelible character” imposed in ordination is a complete fabrication.56 These are radical words that would shake the foundations of Christendom.

The other two walls deal with the claim that only the pope can interpret Scripture and the refusal to have a council summoned by anyone else other than Rome. Luther refutes the former by underlining the responsibility of the whole community to read and study the Bible.57 And Luther suggests the falling of the first two walls causes the third to collapse. If the whole Christian community is called to the priesthood, then that also entails caring for one another and the Church as a whole. Therefore the claim of an exclusive papal right to call a counsel runs contrary to the clear words of Scripture.58

The second part of the essay is a detailed list of concerns about how the Church has interfered imperiously with the temporal realm. Even Duke George, prince of ducal Saxony and an angry foe of Luther, admitted that many of these charges had merit.

The Babylonian Captivity of the Church

The last of the five treatises we are considering from 1520 is Luther’s attempt to reinvigorate and reconfigure the sacramental life of the Church. As many have noted, the Church was a sacramental institution. The grace needed for salvation was not an abstract concept. It was mediated in a tangible way via the seven sacraments as mandated by the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215.

The title of the treatise is intentionally provocative and it has an eschatological edge. As the Babylonians held the Jews in captivity, so the Church in Rome is imprisoning true Christians and the sacraments. In other words, only an act of God can lead to liberation. Unlike the other major treatises, this one was written in Latin, as his audience was the leadership of the Church and the academic community. The immediate context was another work by Augustine Alveld, who had earlier provoked On the Papacy in Rome. This time Alveld wrote a tract defending Holy Communion in one kind, that is, the practice of offering only the bread to the laity while the priest alone consumed the wine on behalf of the whole community.

The Babylonian Captivity of the Church is a careful consideration of the seven sacraments. Most of the treatise is devoted to a consideration of the Lord’s Supper and Baptism. These are the two sacraments that Luther retains, making clear that Baptism needs to be considered as a life-long event, allowing him to fold penance into it. The other four sacraments are rejected because they either lack a material sign such as bread, wine and water or there is an absence of a command of Christ to perform them. At the heart of the treatise, however, is what we have called the rhetoric of faith. Luther’s theological revolution will not be complete until he has applied his new understanding of justification to the traditional view of the sacraments.

Luther views justification by faith as a powerful Word that delivers on its promises. He has some beautiful passages in the treatise that underline the link between promise and faith:

From this you will see that nothing else is needed for a worthy holding of mass than a faith that relies confidently on this promise, believes Christ to be true in these words of his, and does not doubt that these infinite blessings have been bestowed upon it. Hard on this faith there follows a sweet stirring of the heart, whereby the spirit of man is enlarged and enriched … so that he is drawn to Christ, that gracious and bounteous testator, and made a thoroughly new and different man.59

As this passage indicates, for Luther the Lord’s Supper is akin to a last will and testament: “A testament, therefore, involves first the death of the testator, and second the promise of an inheritance and the naming of an heir.”60 As we know, in legal circumstances the words of the testator accomplish what they say. They actually put into effect the transfer of money and property. Thus, Luther is able to conclude: “If the mass is a promise, as has been said, then access to it is to be gained, not with any works, or powers, or merits of one’s own, but by faith alone. For where there is the Word of the promising God, there must necessarily be the faith of the accepting man.”61

This understanding of God’s word as a powerful promise completely reorients the medieval understanding of the Mass. No longer is the Mass seen as a sacrifice offered to God. Now at the heart of the Lord’s Supper is a promising Word that delivers faith, life, and salvation. Too much attention is focused on the nature of the change (Luther does not dispute the actual body and blood of Christ are distributed) and the employment of Aristotelian categories (transubstantiation) to describe how Christ is present.62 What is crucial is the way the element is joined to the Word in way that undergirds the promise.

Baptism, too, shares in Luther’s rhetoric of faith. Once again, the promise is central. He is impatient with those who impart a special power to the water.63 The Word of promise needs to be redirected to the recipient of the sacrament for the rest of her life: “For just as the truth of this divine promise, once pronounced over us continues until death, so our faith in it ought never to cease, but be nourished and strengthened until death.”64 But water is important too, for it is not a false sign. In fact, it points to “actual death and resurrection,” which is not be understood “allegorically as the death of sin and the life of grace.”65 Luther believes the Church has made a huge mistake when it points to penance as the remedy for sin committed after baptism. This inevitably weakens baptism by consigning it to the mists of infancy.

The reaction to The Babylonian Captivity of the Church demonstrates its incendiary character. His accusers held it up as proof of heresy during Luther’s trial at Worms less than a year later. Henry VIII, later excommunicated himself, is moved to write his The Assertion of Seven Sacraments against Martin Luther and thereby earned the title “Defender of the Faith” from the pope. It was banned in neighboring ducal Saxony and regarded by Erasmus as the treatise that would make reconciliation between Luther and Rome impossible.66


The power of these five treatises of 1520 can hardly be overestimated. They set the course for the future of Luther’s reform movement. His desire was a Christian community established not by the authority of Rome but based on a dynamic understanding of Word and sacrament. This powerful Word of promise frees people for lives of love and service in this world. Taken as a whole, these five writings encompass and develop this core vision. They also illustrate how Luther used the genre of the treatise to explain his ideas. Seasoned with his rhetoric of faith, they provide an excellent summary of Luther’s theological revolution while also emboldening the faith of readers. They are writings, as Stolt has said, that affect both the mind and the heart (intellectus and affectus).67 Luther was not only seeking to win arguments in disputations. In addition, he wanted to raise up Christians who looked to Christ alone as their consolation and as the foundation of their faith.

Review of the Literature

The Luther renaissance of the 20th century ushered in a new understanding of Luther’s conception of the power of God’s Word. In traditional language, the Word is “efficacious.” In other words, it does what it says rather than point to something outside of itself. The German scholar, Gerhard Ebeling, has done the classic work in this area. Many others have followed with few being more effective in English than Gerhard Forde.

Implicit in an understanding of a powerful Word is a perspective on rhetoric. Here there has been less development in Luther studies, but a few books do point the way for future work. Theo Hobson’s The Rhetorical Word: Protestant Theology and the Rhetoric of Authority contains a fine analysis of Luther’s rhetoric as found in the Bondage of the Will (1525) and his later Commentary on Galatians (1535). Neil R. Leroux uses rhetorical criticism to analyze the reformer’s Invocavit sermons from 1522. And Harold Ristau looks at the rhetoric aimed at the devil in Luther’s Against the Heavenly Prophets (1525). Mention should also be made of Peter Matheson’s Rhetoric of the Reformation. Promising as well are essays by Mary Jane Haemig on Luther’s preaching and teaching and Anna Vind on Luther’s polemics. Readers of this article will also recognize the significant influence of Birgit Stolt.

The literature on the five treatises of 1520 is immense. Attention should be given to Reinhold Rieger’s work on The Freedom of a Christian. Thomas Kaufmann has exhaustively examined To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation. As for Luther’s Treatise on Good Works, a new translation by Scott H. Hendrix with introduction is very helpful. All of the works mentioned in this section can be found in the list for further reading.

Further Reading

Bayer, Oswald. Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation. Translated by Thomas H. Trapp. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008.Find this resource:

    Ebeling, Gerhard. “Word of God and Hermeneutics.” In Word and Faith, 311–331. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1963.Find this resource:

      Forde, Gerhard O. A More Radical Gospel. Edited by Mark C. Mattes and Steven D. Paulsen. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004.Find this resource:

        Haemig, Mary Jane. “The Influence of the Genres of Exegetical Instruction, Preaching and Catechesis on Luther.” In The Oxford Handbook of Martin Luther’s Theology. Edited by Robert Kolb, Irene Dingel, and Lubomír Batka, 449–461. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.Find this resource:

          Hamm, Berndt. The Early Luther: Stages in a Reformation Reorientation. Translated by Martin J. Lohrmann. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014.Find this resource:

            Hobson, Theo. The Rhetorical Word: Protestant Theology and the Rhetoric of Authority. Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate, 2002.Find this resource:

              Kaufmann, Thomas. An den christlichen Adel deutscher Nation von des christlichen Standes Besserung. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2014.Find this resource:

                Kolb, Robert. Martin Luther: Confessor of the Faith. New York: Oxford, 2009.Find this resource:

                  Köpf, Ulrich. “Monastische Traditionen bei Martin Luther.” In Luther—Zwischen den Zeiten. Edited by Christoph Markschies and Miichael Trowitzsch, 17–35. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 1999.Find this resource:

                    Leroux, Neil R. Luther’s Rhetoric: Strategies and Style from the Invocavit Sermons. St. Louis, MO: Concordia, 2002.Find this resource:

                      Lüpke, Johannes von. “Luther’s Use of Language.” In The Oxford Handbook of Martin Luther’s Theology. Edited by Robert Kolb, Irene Dingel, and Lubomír Batka, 143–155. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.Find this resource:

                        Luther, Martin. The Freedom of a Christian. Edited and translated by Mark D. Tranvik. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2008.Find this resource:

                          Luther, Martin. Treatise on Good Works. Edited and translated by Scott H. Hendrix. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012.Find this resource:

                            Matheson, Peter. The Rhetoric of the Reformation. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1998.Find this resource:

                              Rieger, Reinhold. Von der Freiheit eines Christenmenschen: De libertate christiana. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2007.Find this resource:

                                Ristau, Harold. Understanding Martin Luther’s Demonological Rhetoric in His Treatise against the Heavenly Prophets (1525). Lewiston, NY: Edward Mellen, 2010.Find this resource:

                                  Rosin, Robert. “Humanism, Luther, and the Wittenberg Reformation.” In The Oxford Handbook of Martin Luther’s Theology. Edited by Robert Kolb, Irene Dingel, and Lubomír Batka, 91–104. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.Find this resource:

                                    Stolt, Birgit. “Luther’s Faith of the Heart: Experience, Emotion and Reason.” In The Global Luther. Edited by Christine Helmer, 131–150. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009.Find this resource:

                                      Vind, Anna. “Luther’s Thought Assumed Form in Polemics.” In The Oxford Handbook of Martin Luther’s Theology. Edited by Robert Kolb, Irene Dingel, and Lubomír Batka, 471–480. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.Find this resource:


                                        (1.) Bernhard Lohse, Martin Luther: An Introduction to His Life and Work, trans. Robert C. Schultz (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986), 97–138.

                                        (2.) See also “Treatise,” in A Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, ed. J. A. Cuddon (Chichester, U.K.: John Wiley, 2013), 738.

                                        (3.) Martin Brecht, Martin Luther: His Road to Reformation, trans. James Schaaf (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985), 90–98.

                                        (4.) Bernt Hamm, The Early Luther: Stages in a Reformation Reorientation, trans. Martin J. Lohrmann (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), 190–232.

                                        (5.) Robert Rosin, “Humanism, Luther, and the Wittenberg Reformation,” in The Oxford Handbook of Martin Luther’s Theology (hereinafter cited as OHMLT), eds. Robert Kolb, Irene Dingel, and L’Ubomir Batka (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 91–104.

                                        (6.) Robert Kolb, Martin Luther: Confessor of the Faith (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 35–37.

                                        (7.) Ralph W. Buechler, “Treatise,” in Encyclopedia of the Essay, ed. Tracy Chevalier (London: Fitzroy Dearborn, 1997), 1802–1803.

                                        (8.) Maurice De Wulf, An Introduction to Scholastic Philosophy, Medieval and Modern, trans. P. Coffey (New York: Dover, 1956), 28.

                                        (9.) Alister E. McGrath, “Scholasticism,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation (hereinafter cited as OER), 4 vols., ed. Hans J. Hillerbrand (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 4:18.

                                        (10.) Heiko A. Oberman, Forerunners of the Reformation. The Shape of Late Medieval Thought (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966), 32–49.

                                        (11.) Ibid., 165–174.

                                        (12.) McGrath, “Scholasticism,” OER 4:19.

                                        (13.) Bernard McGinn, “Mysticism,” OER 3:119.

                                        (14.) Steven E. Ozment, The Age of Reform (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1980), 243.

                                        (15.) Rosin, “Humanism,” OHMLT, 101.

                                        (16.) James Michael Weiss, “Humanism,” OER 2:265.

                                        (17.) Rosin, “Humanism,” OHMLT, 95.

                                        (18.) Ibid. See also Johannes von Lüpke, “Luther’s Use of Language,” OHMLT, 150.

                                        (19.) Birgit Stolt, “Luther’s Faith of the Heart: Experience, Emotion and Reason,” in The Global Luther, ed. Christine Helmer (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009), 131–150.

                                        (20.) E. C. Blackman, “Mind,” in A Theological Word Book of the Bible, ed. Alan Richardson (New York: Macmillan, 1950), 144–146.

                                        (21.) Heiko A. Oberman, Luther: Man between God and the Devil, trans. Eileen Walliser-Schwarzbart (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1982). See also Gerhard O. Forde, A More Radical Gospel, eds. Mark C. Mattes and Steven D. Paulsen (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 17–32.

                                        (22.) Preface to the German Writings (1539), LW 34:283–288; WA 50:657–661.

                                        (23.) Oswald Bayer, Martin Luther’s Theology. A Contemporary Interpretation, trans. Thomas H. Trapp (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), 31.

                                        (25.) See especially Peter Matheson, The Rhetoric of the Reformation (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1998), 111–131.

                                        (26.) Hans-Martin Barth, The Theology of Martin Luther: A Critical Assessment, trans. Linda M. Maloney (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013), 415.

                                        (27.) Lüpke, “Luther’s Use of Language,” OHMLT, 149.

                                        (28.) Lewis W. Spitz, “Headwaters of the Reformation,” in Luther and the Dawn of the Modern Era, ed. Heiko A. Oberman (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1974), 105. WA Tr, 137, 338.

                                        (29.) Barth, Theology of Luther, 401–402.

                                        (30.) William R. Estep, Renaissance and Reformation (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986), 128.

                                        (31.) The Freedom of a Christian (1520), WA 7:48–49. Translation from the original Latin text are mine. See also The Freedom of a Christian, ed. and trans. Mark D. Tranvik (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2008).

                                        (32.) WA 7:49.

                                        (33.) WA 7:49.

                                        (34.) WA 7:49.

                                        (35.) WA 7:49.

                                        (36.) Hamm, The Early Luther, 210–214.

                                        (37.) Kolb, Confessor, 39–40.

                                        (38.) Oberman, Forerunners, 188.

                                        (39.) Freedom (1520), WA 7:55.

                                        (40.) WA 7:55.

                                        (41.) WA 7:59; emphasis added.

                                        (42.) See Mark D. Tranvik, Martin Luther and the Called Life (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2016).

                                        (43.) Freedom (1520), WA 7:69.

                                        (44.) Treatise on Good Works (1520), LW 44:22; WA 6:203.

                                        (45.) LW 44:60; WA 6:233–234.

                                        (46.) LW 44:24; WA 6:205.

                                        (47.) Ozment, The Age of Reform, 396.

                                        (48.) On the Papacy in Rome (1520), LW 39:103; WA 6:323.

                                        (49.) LW 39:63; WA 6:291.

                                        (50.) LW 39:86–87; WA 6:309–310.

                                        (51.) LW 39: 86–87; WA 6:301.

                                        (52.) Scott Hendrix, Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015), 95.

                                        (53.) To the Christian Nobility (1520), LW 44:125; WA 6:406.

                                        (54.) LW 44:127; WA 6:407.

                                        (55.) LW 44:129; WA 6:408.

                                        (56.) LW 44:129; WA 6:408.

                                        (57.) LW 44:134; WA 6:411–412.

                                        (58.) LW 44:136; WA 6:413.

                                        (59.) The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520), LW 36:40; WA 6:515.

                                        (60.) LW 36:38; WA 6:513.

                                        (61.) LW 36:38–39; WA 6:514.

                                        (62.) LW 36:28–35; WA 6:508–512.

                                        (63.) LW 36:64; WA 6:531.

                                        (64.) LW 36:59; WA 6:528.

                                        (65.) LW 36:67–68; WA 6:534.

                                        (66.) Walther Von Loewenich, Martin Luther: The Man and His Work, trans. Lawrence W. Denef (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1986), 176–177.

                                        (67.) Stolt, “Luther’s Faith,” 12.