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date: 21 August 2017

Martin Luther in the Age of Confessionalization

Summary and Keywords

Luther was a point of reference in all three of the confessional cultures during the confessional age, though this was not something he had intended. His theological “self-fashioning” was not meant to secure, canonize, or stabilize his own works or his biography. Rather, he believed, and was convinced, that the hidden God rules in a strange way. He hides himself in the course of the world and realizes what we would have liked to realizes. Apart from this theological viewpoint, historiographic differentiation is needed: Luther had different impacts on each of the three confessions. Furthermore, one also has to differentiate between a deep impact and the unintended effects of Luther’s thinking. Luther was an extremely polarizing figure. From the beginning, he underwent a heroization and a diabolization by his contemporaries. Apart from this black-and-white reception of his person, it was, and still is, extremely difficult to analyze Luther, his work and medial effects. Historians have always been fixated on Luther: he was the one and only founder of Protestantism. His biography became a stereotype of writing and was an important element of Protestant (or anti-Protestant) identity politics. For some Protestants, his biography became identical with the history of salvation (Heilsgeschichte). For his enemies, his biography was identical with the history of the devil.

In all historical fields, one has to differentiate between the different groups and people who protected or attacked Luther or shared his ideas. The history of Luther can only be written as a shared history with conflict and concordances: the so-called Anabaptists, for example, shared Luther’s antihierarchical ideal of Christian community, although on the other hand “they” were strongly opposed toward his theology and person. Luther or example, had conflicts with the humanists and with Erasmus especially; he argued about the Lord’s Supper with Zwingli, he criticized the Fuggers because of their financial transactions in an early capitalist society; and, last but not least, he was in conflict with the Roman Church. The legitimization of different pictures of Luther always depends upon the perspectives of the posterity: either Luther was intolerant against spiritualists, Anabaptists, or peasants who were willing to resort to violence; or he was defended by humanists like Sebastian Castellio for defending religious tolerance. During his lifetime Luther was an extremely polarizing figure. Hundreds of pro-Lutheran and polemical anti-Lutheran leaflets or texts were published. The many literary forms of parody, satire, caricature, the grotesque, and the absurd were cultivated during the confessional age. Luther’s biography was often used by Lutheran theologians as an instrument of heroization and identity politics in public discourse.

Historically, one can differentiate between the time before and after Luther. The political and religious unity of the Holy Roman Empire was strongly disturbed, if not broken, through the Reformation. The end of the Universalist dreams of universal powers like theology and politics (pope and emperor) were some of the central preconditions for political, cultural, and theological differentiation of Europe. Religious differentiation was one of the unintended effects of theology and the interpretation of the scripture. Decades after Luther’s death, the Holy Roman Empire slowly and surprisingly turned into a poly-, multi- and interconfessional society.

Keywords: Ernst Troeltsch, polyconfessionalism, parody, satire, caricature, identity politics, confessionalization, Luther’s heroization, Luther’s diabolization

Definition of the Confessional Age

The confessional age as a key concept of European history was invented by Ernst Troeltsch.1 It describes the political, cultural, and religious situation as polarization and interplay between the confessional powers of Protestant, Catholic, and reformed societies in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Luther himself remained an important point of reference in all three of the confessional cultures—but he would not make himself a point of reference for future times: he saw history as God’s mummery. Therefore, Luther recommended that everybody live in full responsibility for himself and for society as if there were no God and as if everybody would have to save and govern himself.2 This is God’s masquerade. He hides himself in the course of the world and realizes what we would rather like to realize.3 Luther’s theological “self-fashioning” is not a way to secure, canonize, or stabilize his own works or his own biography for future or, if possible at all, for eternity. Rather, it is the belief that the hidden God rules in a strange way.

To understand Luther’s (not God’s) impact on later times, historiographic differentiation is needed: Luther had a different impact on each of the three confessions. Furthermore, one also has to differentiate between the impact of his life and the unintended effects of his thinking for the future. Luther was an extremely polarizing figure. From the beginning, he underwent a heroization and a diabolization through his contemporaries. The heroization was not caused by Luther’s own wish of self-fashioning—although he occasionally emphasized how much time it cost him to liberate himself from the old system of the Catholic Church. Depicting Luther as a hero was the praxis of painters like Hans Holbein and Lucas Cranach. They visualized him as the new Hercules. The portrait of Luther became an absolutist representation of him as the person who changed almost everything. In the eyes of his supporters he was the one who founded a new era, especially after his conflict about the indulgence in 1517. A cult of his person emerged during his lifetime. The admiration of Luther was supported by image politics aimed to establish simulacra of his face outliving the time (Lucas Cranach). His followers identified him as a postfiguration of the suffering Christ at the Diet of Worms (Passion Doctor Martin Luthers). On the other hand, in an anti-Lutheran leaflet he was depicted as the devil’s bagpipe.

Roman Catholics like Johannes Cochläus started with the diabolization of Luther. He was believed to be the precursor of the Antichrist, driven by greed for money and in fact a clandestine moslem (Deventer Endechrist, 1524). The Saxon theologian Peter Sylvius believed him to be the son of the devil. The perfect union between Luther and Lucifer occurred in Eisleben during Carnival (Luthers und Lutzbers [Lucifgers] einträchtige Vereinigung). Cochläus compared Luther’s public appearance with a seven-headed beast (cf. Apc 17,3), a Barrabas who would extinguish the sacraments and destroy all religious rituals and negating all commandments, the worst heretic who ever lived. On the other hand, the so-called left wing of the Reformation declared him a clandestine papist or even worse a new pope. There are different signals of distance toward Lutheran theology. Reformed theologians like Zwingli, for example, were on his side from the beginning. The conflict about the Lord’s Supper led to an early differentiation between Lutheran and reformed churches. This conflict was not only a struggle about Luther’s authority, it became a crisis for the emerging Protestant churches. The humanists only called Luther martinus noster early on. By around 1525, many of them had realized differences, especially after the conflict between Erasmus and Luther.4

Luther’s Significance within the Confessional Age

Luther remained an important point of reference until at least the end of the confessional age in the 17th century, when the historian Veit Ludwig von Seckendorff understood the Reformation retrospectively as Luther’s critic of the Old Church, and his preaching and the building of the New Church. Luther often was monocausally depicted as the one and only theologian who caused the Reformation and the beginning confessional age. Seckendorff, for example, spared Zwingli and Calvin when he depicted the Protestant churches.5 The Luther-centric fixation of historians was common. This overlooks the political and theological affinity between the Protestant confessions. For example, there is a deep theological accordance between Calvin’s Institutio and the Catechism of Luther, and—as already mentioned—Zwingli also shared Luther’s theology until the conflict about the Lord’s Supper. In all fields, one has to differentiate between the direct impact of Luther and his theology and the unintended effects of his work. Often, one can only see traces of his person and ideas in later times. Often it is difficult to postulate a direct connection between his person and later times.

Luther was not the only reason for the Reformation and its later effects. This has led to the historical concepts that there was not one single Reformation but various reformations, or a temps des Réformes from the 14th century until the middle of the 17th century. It is no longer controversial that Luther played a specific and important role within these transformations: he was the “product” of former reforms and at the same time he himself framed the transformation through his unique work. He soon lost his initial influence and authority within the early differentiations between different social groups of the Reformation: the Anabaptists, with the beginnings of an antihierarchical ideal of Christian community; the conflict with the humanists and especially Erasmus; the conflict about the Lord’s Supper with Zwingli and others; and the conflict with the Fuggers about their financial transactions in an early capitalist society; and, last but not least, the conflict with the Roman Church. Polemics against the pope connected theological and financial aspects: For example, the pope as Antichrist and swallower of money tried to corrupt Luther as a propagandistic song of the Reformation sung.

Luther’s Self-Understanding

According to his self-understanding, Luther was a prophet. Supporters depicted him as holy, for example, during his trip to the Diet of Worms (Myconius), which was narrated like Acts of the Saints. The biography of Luther6 became a stereotype of writing and also his composition of music. His biography was identical with the history of salvation (Heilsgeschichte), at least in the eyes of Johann Walther, the most significant composer after Luther’s death. His life can be divided into four pieces: the regime of the pope, Luther’s struggle against it, the process of the Reformation, and finally warnings addressed toward Luther’s supporters. An early Luther biography was written by John Mathesius, a student of Luther who later became a pastor. His seventeen sermons about Luther’s life became a book of edification and pious contemplation for Luther’s supporters.

Luther’s enemies believed that he was a false prophet and unholy monk. They used (as Luther did against them) literary and rhetorical strategies to dehumanize enemies. Luther’s life was the best paradigm for the life and death of an unholy person, which can only be narrated as an anti-legend. He was not only an ordinary heretic but a heretic who was a better, stronger, more dynamic performer than all the other heretics of the past. With this critique, his critics also invented a dynamic of negation that generated more publicity for Luther. At the beginning of the confessional age, Luther could be depicted positively as Elia, Moses, or David or negatively as the great destructor of occidental Christianity. John Bugenhagen’s funeral sermon called the deceased Luther an angel flying through the skies proclaiming an eternal gospel.

Genres of Understanding of Luther: Leaflet, Song, Polemics, and Drama

Luther’s intolerance of spiritualists, Anabaptists, and peasants who were willing to resort to violence was often mentioned. On the other hand, Luther was defended by humanists like Sebastian Castellio, who referred to Luther as an explicit example of religious tolerance in his own conflict with Calvin. Other humanists condemned Luther—the best known one was the Neolatinist Simon Lemnius, who ridiculed Luther and his marriage with Katharina of Bora in a stylish and obscene pamphlet called Monachopornomachia. Even during his lifetime Luther was an extremely polarizing figure. Pro-Lutheran and polemical anti-Lutheran leaflets or texts such as Thomas Murner’s Von dem großen lutherischen Narren were published with direct (counter-)reference to his person. Eleven leaflets were produced in the first third of the 16th century alone. Luther was praised for his discovery of the German language and a new theology: Hans Sachs wrote Die Wittenbergisch Nachtigall, Martin Rinckart published the Reformation drama Der Eißlebische Christliche Ritter (1613), depicting Luther as miles christianus who has a predestined place in the (confessional) history of salvation. The literary value of Rinckart’s Reformation drama should not be overestimated.

The Lutheran author Erasmus Alberus composed a pro-Lutheran song with the title Ein Newes lied. Von dem heilgen Man Gottes unserm lieben Vater Doctor Martin Luther in Gott verschieden.7 Humanists wrote the Karsthans, a dialogue that mixes as satire theological, sociological, and cultural topics.

On the contrary, the Franciscan theologian Johann Nas mocked the differences among different Protestant parties. He compared them to doctors making an anatomical section of Luther’s corpse. His leaflet Anatomia Lutheri, which was published in 1568 and in 1582, shows Erasmus Sacerius, a supporter of Melanchthon, drinking the blood of Luther; and Cyriakus Spangenberg, a supporter of Matthias Flacius, eating the toes of Luther like a cannibal because of love. Calvin uses a spear like Longinus’s to perforate Luther’s body and Zwingli cuts off Luther’s arm with an axe. Flacius licks a certain part of the body. Nas used a picture that was already published by the Jesuit Vitus Jacobäus. In both cases, the Luther figure is only present as a corpse (like later the corpse in The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulip by Rembrandt, 1632). Obviously, this reference to Luther has to be differentiated from his indirect impact on later times.

Luther as Communicator and Object or Scandal of Communication

The “medium is the message” suggests the overwhelming success of Luther’s early medial practices.8 Luther in fact is theologian and communicator—but the medial effects of his person and the medial a priori of this author are not directly and constantly centered around his person or his theology.

Therefore, one always has to reflect and differentiate between the fiction and facts of history, between simulation, illusion, and taking the history seriously. Luther in the Age of Confessionalization is also the fact of fiction. The many literary forms of parody, satire, caricature, the grotesque, and the absurd were cultivated during the confessional age. They still allow conclusions concerning the historical background. The literary techniques aimed to make enemies look ridiculous. The lutherisch Strebkatz, an allegory of the Lutheran fight against the pope, mocked Catholic theologians by identifying them with seven animals: Emser as ram, Murner as cat, Lemp as dog, Hochstraten as king of the rats, Cochläus as snail, Eck as pig, and Faber as wolf.

It is not a miracle that Luther, right from the beginning, became a scandal—especially for Roman Catholic theologians. He caused revolution and blasphemy. In the eyes of his enemies he was responsible for the dead in the Peasants War of 1525—although Luther was strongly opposed to violence and feared its uncontrollable dynamic already in his conflict with Jerome Emser. To defend Luther, the Lutheran Reformation propaganda against Catholic propaganda invented the story of the incombustible Luther: The house of a pastor in the small city of Artern, south of Mansfeld, was consumed by fire in 1634. Only a copper engraved picture of Luther was preserved. It stayed unharmed, buried deep in the ashes. The report of this miracle is again a baroque legend that shows the Luther fashioning of that time directly related to a cult of his person. Baroque theologians like Johannes Müller, a pastor in Hamburg, was convinced that Luther was perfectly illuminated—only the exact date of his illumination could not be determined exactly. Müller is one example for confessional poetry that often had the purpose of propaganda, mission, and conversion. This kind of confessional literature was made for use and often not aesthetically relevant. Pamphlets and books were part of a larger literary system that propagated and spread the ideas and opinions of Luther. The Word as shibboleth became a weapon in the conflict within the early modern society.9 It cannot be limited to the theological sphere.

The biography of Luther was often used by Lutheran theologians as an instrument of heroization in public discourse: his first pilgrimage to Rome and his disappointment, the conflict of indulgence in 1517, his appearance at the Diet of Worms, and the translation of the New Testament at the Wartburg after his kidnapping. The centenary and the bicentenary of the indulgence conflict soon became occasions to celebrate the unique significance of Luther’s work as reformer. At the same time it was also a way to celebrate their own connection to Luther, which often became a question of power. The transformation of Luther’s person and work through the jubilees is its own field of research: the memorial culture began in the 16th century. Martin Rinckart’s above-mentioned Reformation drama, which was published four years before the jubilee, also belongs in this context. Rinckart (1586–1649) puts Luther in the center of the struggle as a confessionalist theologian. Luther is a Christian knight. He is the holy George who fought against the dragon. Dramatically, Rinckart achieved a regional stabilization of confessional identity with a strong reprobation of the reformed confession.

Luther and the Jubilees

The year 1617 held the first jubilee, which was celebrated empire-wide. Originally, Protestant universities had invented jubilees to celebrate their own foundings. This model was transferred from the academic into the political and clerical sphere. The initiative to celebrate the centenary was an idea of the University of Wittenberg, Luther’s academic institution. October 31 became the most important date for the memorial culture of the Reformation as it is linked to the publication date of Luther’s 95 theses. Two politicians in particular are responsible for transferring the jubilee into the public sphere: the Lutheran elector John George of Saxony and the reformed Elector Frederic of Palatine. The difference between “authentic” Lutheran theology, represented through Electoral Saxony, and the Reformed Electoral Palatine Court became a question of power and legitimacy, because both electorals claimed Luther for their political purposes: John George of Saxony as the “true” defender of Lutheranism and Frederic of Palatine as a politician of reformed confession who would be able to create a political and theological union within the empire for all. The idea of the jubilee was successful empire-wide. It was augmented through new jubilees like the 1630 jubilee of the Confessio Augustana, the Peace of Augsburg in 1655, and so on. The jubilees were multimedial manifestations of an “all” integrating confessional culture (see Thomas Kaufmann)—and they became public events with more or less theological background. They served as self-confirmation and self-stabilization of the Reformation and the Christian faith. Last but not least, the cities where Luther live or died also became places of adoration and admiration and all kinds of memorial culture, for example, Mansfeld, the place of his infancy; Eisleben, the city of birth and death; the Wartburg where Luther translated the New Testament; and Wittenberg as the place of “Luther’s” university.

Luther, Catholic Confession, Charles V

The first encounter between the Roman Catholic Church and the emerging Protestant churches occurred when an unknown monk was accused of being a heretic. Later development showed that the Roman Catholic Church had to enter in a process of reform, which culminated in the Council of Trent. The Catholic renovation or reform often relied on the Protestant model of optimizing education at schools and universities (Petrus Canisius). The times had changed: the small and particular movement of the new faith forced the Catholic mainline Church into a situation of reduced significance. The Roman Catholics became a particular church and their head, the pope, became a particular ruler, although still insisting on his universal significance. The “real” universal meaning of the church was now proclaimed through the newly emerging Protestant communities who trusted in the power of the Word of God and his universal meaning for all believers.

This reflection brings attention to the unintended effects of the Reformation: in the beginning it was the clash of two or three universal powers: theology and politics, an unknown monk and the powerful emperor Charles V and the pope between theology and politics. Later, all of the three parties involved in the conflict had to realize that they all lost their earlier claimed universal power. For all three, it was the end of the intended universal programs and plans: the pope lost his influence, Charles V could not realize his universal dreams of an all Catholic Europe, and Luther slowly had to realize that his discovery of the universal Word of God would not quickly change everything for all believers. Charles V did not have the power to unite his empire under the idea of himself as the sacerdos Christi. The pope was no longer accepted as vicarius Christi. The political and religious unity of the Holy Roman Empire was strongly disturbed if not broken. The end of the universalist dreams of the universal powers like theology and politics (pope and emperor) was one of the central preconditions for political, cultural, and theological differentiation of Europe (Heinz Schilling). The Lutheran Reformation is not the one and only cause of the early modern invention of freedom and, in the long run, theological, social and political pluralism. Therefore it has to be underlined that Luther in the confessional age, depicted as hero or as beast, is not the one and only prefiguration of modern times: the one who justifies the development of the modern world until now. Irrefutable, the confessional age is characterized through broken hegemonies: with the religious peace of Augsburg in 1555, the religious unity of the empire declined. The power within the empire unwillingly was transferred from the emperor to the electors who began to develop the early modern state with a legitimization of their political actions through new theories of sovereignty (Bodin). Charles V could not stabilize his power once and for all, but war forced him into a bipolar politics of order between Spain and the German line of the Hapsburgs.

The biggest loss of power happened to the pope and the papacy. Luther and his contemporaries always aimed at that goal. Lutheranism did not achieve its goal of totally destroying the papacy as propagated in hundreds of writings, pamphlets, and political action. Still, the Catholic Church claimed and indeed, often executed universal significance. This universal institution also aimed to represent herself through new architecture like the Peters Place in Rome built by Bernini (1598–1680). Once again, the Eternal City, Rome, was fashioned as the center of the Christian world—but without really representing the whole Christian world any more. The theological and/or propagandistic image of the pope as Antichrist, as Luther and some of his followers depicted him, was one of the reasons the papacy was weakened but not the only one.


The rhetorical and (factual) weakening of other confessions occurred not only between Catholics and Protestants but also within the Protestant Party: namely, the former reformed theologian Samuel Huber (1547–1624), for example, criticized the “Calvinistic Antichrist” and “converted” to Orthodox Lutheranism for a while. Conflicts with local authorities like Aegidius Hunnius at the University of Wittenberg lead to his exclusion from the Orthodox faculty. Theologians like Huber had multiple confessional affiliations since he believed in the universal justification of all people.

Although Luther remained an authority and point of reference, theologians cultivated multiple identities. Vice versa, like Samuel Huber, Victorin Strigel (1524–1569) first was a “gnesiolutheran” and later a “Calvinist” professor in Heidelberg. They were ambiguous about a non-hermeneutical Luther cult—and they were not always willing to contribute to hierarchical identity politics. A broader analysis of theological and humanist networks during the age of confession is still a desideratum to illuminate interconfessional relations beyond Luther’s heroization and diabolization.

Inner-Lutheran Conflicts and Stabilization: Interpretation of Scripture

The conflicts that arose after Luther’s death were a sign that his theology could not be repeated exactly the same way as Luther had conceptualized it. In most of these cases, the participants of these five conflicts understood and felt themselves to be students of Luther:10 The biggest crisis of Lutheran theology was the interim conflict about the revitalization of Catholic rites: Flacius was of the opinion the case of confession adiaphora (neutral ethic values) do not exist. The second controversy focused on whether good works are necessary for the believer. Third, the conflict with the Antinomians concerned the third use of the law and how this ethical interpretation of the Bible is useful for Christians.11 Fourth, the synergistic controversy disagreed about the causes that lead Christians to faith: are they three (like word, holy spirit, and will) or are they fewer? And fifth was the conflict about Osiander’s theology. Osiander understood justification as an imputative act in the sense that Christ’s godly nature authentically lives in the believers. Osianders argued with the doctrine of the Trinity. He did not argue with a strong Christology but preferred the doctrine of Trinity. He was specifically “modern” in doing so. He thought that believers were characterized by an essential justice. The Formula of Concord (1580) tried to end the conflicts by establishing a confessional base that was intended to serve all.

Patterns of differentiation concerning Luther’s theology led to a theological pluralization. These traces cannot be overlooked. The post-Lutheran theology is mainly a confessional culture of unity or uniformity. Efforts were made to establish a non-pluralistic conception of theology. That was also necessary for the canonization of Luther’s theology and the teaching in schools and universities. The new reception of Aristotle and the early modern school philosophy were allies in establishing a confessional culture within Protestant theology and, as the example of Martin Chemnitz shows, in opposition to the Council of Trent.12 Chemnitz not only secured Lutherans’ teachings against the new rise of Catholicism, he also analyzed Christology with the instruments of Aristotelian philosophy.13 Aristotelian Lutherans like Johann Gerhard aimed at a hermeneutical renewal of the interpretation of scripture: a new “repetition” of Luthers sola scriptura with philological and/or Aristotelian tools. He interpreted the Book of Genesis, translating Hebrew into Latin. Salomon Glassius as a student of Gerhard, more exact than his teacher, brought the knowledge of Hebrew to perfection. He focused (and reduced?) his understanding of theology, especially to philology. Reformed theologians like Andreas Hyperius (1511–1564) and Johann Heinrich Hottinger (1620–1667) interpreted the scripture with regard to the Hebrew and rabbinic traditions of interpretation. Reformed and Lutheran interpreters of the scripture preferred the literal sense of the Bible in interconfessonial accordance. The so-called Orthodox Lutheran theology is not as monolithic as one might think at first glance.14

The Case of Silesia

The German nation was colorful. In each region the tone was different because of various social, cultural, and political patterns, depending on different circumstances and persons involved. Silesia, to name only one example, was a region without a university, and from 1526 onward it was under the control of the emperor with a Catholic territorial sovereign. The Silesian students had to migrate to various places like Switzerland, Heidelberg, Leipzig, or Wittenberg for education. Many encounters and exchanges with theologians of the reformed confession took place, for example, with the Calvinist theologians as representatives of the so-called Second Reformation. The exchange led to multi- or interconfessional perspectives.

Returning back to their home region of Silesia, these students were neither narrow minded nor dogmatic. The slow transformation in Silesia to the new Protestant belief was only possible with the cooperation of the Catholic authorities. At the same time, Silesia became a center of Humanism (and Socinianism). This created a poly-, trans- or postconfessional situation already at the beginning or the middle of the 16th century (Klaus Garber).15 Humanists and reformed authors avoided dogmatic determination and doctrinarism. They became tired of the anti-Calvinistic invectives of Lutheran confessional cultures who tried to stabilize Luther’s legitimacy for the future. These non-dogmatic or post-confessional authors were only dogmatic in their skeptical belief that nobody should argue dogmatically.

Luther and Literature in the Confessional Age

Luther had an afterlife beyond his own self: his ideas had an extreme impact on the sociocultural and political history of later times, especially his understanding of the word of God and its universal significance for all people. His writings and the translation of the Bible into German were widespread. The imagined community of the Lutherans was not a nationalist fixation in Germany but was also propagated in other European territories. The impression of Luther as the leading figure of the Lutheran confessional cultures, or at least as the point of reference, began to blur slowly. It never disappeared completely: Johann Valentin Andreae, for example, invented the fictitious person Christian Rosenkreutz. The third book of the series with the title Chymische Hochzeit des Christian Rosencreutz (1616) was an obscure tale or allegory that described seven days in the life of the protagonist in an autobiographical style. His duty was to protect the castle of the king as a doorkeeper. The name and symbol Christian Rosencreutz is based upon the family emblem of Andreae. The fictitious figure itself serves as poetical transfiguration and hybridization of antique natural philosophers, Paracelsus and Martin Luther.16 Luther’s “confessional identity” was never unambiguous and it began to blur.

One also has to keep in mind that Orthodox Protestant theology was not only Aristotelian philosophy.17 The literary and poetic impact that Luther had on later times cannot be underestimated,18 especially given his translation of the Hebrew and Greek Testaments into German, which he managed together with his colleagues in Wittenberg. Luther for centuries was known for his theoretical and practical analysis of language. His rhetorical concept of sermo humilis gave rhetorical orientation to generations of Protestant preachers. Luther later became one of the leading figures of baroque language patriotism: defender, developer, and user of the German language (this German-centric view was not always modified by intercultural perspectives). The Lutheran confession cannot be reduced to its doctrinal manifestations at Lutheran universities. Poetics, rhetoric, romances, and lyric became important agents of change not only within the Lutheran confession.19 Daniel Caspar of Lohenstein heroic Arminius-Romance (11689), for example, transformed and united Luther’s theological conception of providence with Catholic conceptions of merit. The ruler in this romance is no longer characterized by conventional baroque heroism: he evolves into a sentimental prince who shares the wounds and tears of his people.20

It is noteworthy that religious lyric seldom uses confessional polemics, which were more or less characteristic of Luther’s songs.21 Daniel von Czepko (1605–1660), Catharina Regina von Greiffenberg (1633–1694), and Sigmund of Birken aimed at interconfessional readers.22 Greiffenberg praised the Catholic author Friedrich Spee (1591–1635) for his work “Jesuiterische Büchlein Troz=Nachtigall” as a document of personal piety. Vice versa, she was proud to be acknowledged by a Catholic reading public. Interconfessional activities included Andreas Gryphius’s (1616–1664) translations of the neolatin poems of Jacob Bidermann (1578–1639) and Jakob Balde (1604–1668)—both Jesuits (the latter professor of rhetoric and Quintilian expert).23 The confessional dedifferentiation can also be traced to the Protestant Georg Philipp Harsdörffer (1607–1658). The polymath translated John of the Cross (1542–1591) and Theresa of Avila (1515–1582) from the Spanish for the dogmatic and lyric work of the Lutheran city Preacher Johann Michael Dilherr and his work Göttliche Liebesflamme. Polemical leaflets lost their significance in the 17th century although they never disappeared completely. The conversion (or confession change) of Angelus Silesius (1624–1677) from the Protestant to the Catholic Church was discussed controversially by Protestants.24 Silesius attacked Protestant dogmatism (with Luther as Lucifer) and criticized the reprobation of mystic theology through the Protestant Church.

There are many ways of analyzing Luther’s impact and cultural effects on later times. But one always has to keep in mind that one person cannot be the one and only prefiguration and legitimization of the future. This is also the case with the above-mentioned Reformation drama or Bible drama, which became an important literary genre in the 17th century. Luther’s preface to the books of Judith and Tobias recommend theater because of the old Jewish spiritual theater. He assumed that the Greeks with their comedies and tragedies probably adopted the idea of theater from the Jewish people. He recommended the stage to Protestants for pedagogical and didactical reasons. The Bible was later brought to stage in the confessional age:25 again not a unique Lutheran specialty but also common in the theater of the Jesuits, the Benedicts, and the Calvinists, who understood the Bible drama as a drama of struggle (Theodor Beza, Abraham sacrifiant). Another branch of Luther’s reception was the so-called economy literature, which often referred to the Small Catechism and the respective texts of the New Testament such as the domestic codes (Col. 3,18–25; Eph. 5,22–6,9).


The many effects of Luther’s impact cannot be disregarded. He was not the only person who could have been the singular prefiguration and legitimization of the confessional age. But still, especially in this age, he remains an important point of reference, a leading figure, and he left traces. He became one of the springs of cultural, social, and theological change; and his published works entered into a process of canonization as if he were a church father.26 The central motive for his activities and his work was not self-preservation but the theological belief that life happens as vita passiva.27 The highly active fight against Roman Catholics, humanists like Erasmus, and against misunderstanding within his own circle did not originate from a desire to augment timeless subjectivity or to preserve oneself. Luther as a singular event can only be explained through the singularity of a given situation in a certain time and the new discovery of the word of God. Luther’s “success” cannot be understood without this theological concern, and it cannot be understood without the Reformation movement: his supporters, his fellow workers, and the institutional background of Wittenberg University and other academic places. The rebellion against the pope and his sovereign power exerted within the Corpus Christianorum finally led to a further differentiation: Luther’s not only theological but political alliance with the rulers, the nobility, and lay Christians led to a new and particular confessional church, the Protestants. The religious differentiation was one of the unintended effects of theology and the interpretation of the scripture. It also “caused” a political differentiation of Christianity when an international system of equal particular states originated (Heinz Schilling). It was not only the Lutheran, but also the reformed or Calvinist churches (the Netherlands, Switzerland) and the Anglican Church in England that framed a new institutional, social, and political differentiation within the Holy Roman Empire. In general, this meant a regionalization and territorialization of power, of organization, and of administration by all confessional parties. The Protestant territorial churches extended their competences and power toward activities that belonged to the state: the stabilization of social discipline; welfare for the old, sick and poor; control of marriages; and the organization of schools, universities, and education. The territorial sovereignty of the Church as Church governance often utilized religion for social or political goals. In the long run, the Reformation meant an increase of tolerance in a political sense as well—but this belonged to the unintended effects of Luther’s thinking, because he could only think in theological terms of the tolerance of God who forgives the godless. Political or ideological pluralism in the modern sense of the word did not belong to Luther’s core ideas. It was a slow process of juristification and codification until the Westfalian Peace could be established.28 Only decades after Luther’s death, the Holy Roman Empire slowly and surprisingly turned into a poly-, multi- and interconfessional society. The Thirty Years’ War finally ended with a separation of religion and politics and an era of peace.

Further Reading

Blum, Daniela. Multikonfessionalität im Alltag. Speyer zwischen politischem Frieden und Bekenntnisernst 1555–1618. Münster, Germany: Aschendorff Verlag, 2015.Find this resource:

Hill, Kat. Baptism, Brotherhood, and Belief in Reformation Germany. Anabaptism and Lutheranism, 1525–1585. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.Find this resource:

Jakobs, Béatrice. Conversio im Zeitalter von Reformation und Konfessionalisierung. Écrit de conversion als neue literarische Form. Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 2015.Find this resource:

Jörgensen, Bent. Konfessionelle Selbst- und Fremdbezeichnungen. Zur Terminologie der Religionsparteien im 16. Jahrhundert. Berlin: de Gruyter Oldenbourg, 2014.Find this resource:

Jürgens, Henning P., ed. Streitkultur und Öffentlichkeit im konfessionellen Zeitalter. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2013.Find this resource:

Kirchner, Thomas. Katholiken, Lutheraner und Reformierte in Aachen 1555–1618. Konfessionskulturen im Zusammenspiel. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2015.Find this resource:

Klueting, Harm. Das konfessionelle Zeitalter. Europa zwischen Mittelalter und Moderne, Kirchengeschichte und allgemeine Geschichte. Darmstadt, Germany: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2007.Find this resource:

Macha, Jürgen. Der konfessionelle Faktor in der deutschen Sprachgeschichte der Frühen Neuzeit. Würzburg, Germany: Ergon-Verlag, 2014.Find this resource:

Oelke, Harry. Die Konfessionsbildung des 16. Jahrhunderts im Spiegel illustrierter Flugblätter. Berlin: de Gruyter, 1992.Find this resource:

Pietsch, Andreas, ed. Konfessionelle Ambiguität. Uneindeutigkeit und Verstellung als religiöse Praxis in der Frühen Neuzeit. Gütersloh, Germany: Gütersloher Verlags-Haus, 2013.Find this resource:

Reinhard, Wolfgang, and Heinz Schilling, eds. Die katholische Konfessionalisierung. Wissenschaftliches Symposion der Gesellschaft zur Herausgabe des Corpus Catholicorum und des Vereins für Reformationsgeschichte 1993. Münster, Germany: Aschendorff, 1995.Find this resource:

Rublack, Hans-Christoph, ed. Die lutherische Konfessionalisierung in Deutschland. Wissenschaftliches Symposion des Vereins für Reformationsgeschichte 1988. Gütersloh, Germany: Mohn, 1992.Find this resource:

Schilling, Heinz, ed. Die reformierte Konfessionalisierung in Deutschland—das Problem der „Zweiten Reformation.“ Wissenschaftliches Symposion des Vereins für Reformationsgeschichte 1985. Gütersloh, Germany: Mohn, 1986.Find this resource:

Schilling, Heinz, ed. Der Reformator Martin Luther 2017. Eine wissenschaftliche und gedenkpolitische Bestandsaufnahme. Berlin: de Gruyter/Oldenbourg, 2014.Find this resource:

Selderhuis, Herman J., Martin Leiner, and Volker Leppin, eds. Calvinismus in den Auseinandersetzungen des frühen konfessionellen Zeitalters. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2013.Find this resource:

Walter, Peter, and Günther Wassilowsky, eds. Das Konzil von Trient und die katholische Konfessionskultur (1563–2013). Wissenschaftliches Symposium aus Anlass des 450. Jahrestages des Abschlusses des Konzils von Trient, Freiburg im Breisgau 18.-21. September 2013. Münster, Germany: Aschendorffsche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 2016.Find this resource:

Wendebourg, Dorothea. Sister Reformations II. Reformation and Ethics in Germany and in England. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2014.Find this resource:

Zeeden, Ernst Walter. Das Zeitalter der Glaubenskämpfe 1555–1648. München, Germany: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1973.Find this resource:


(1.) Ernst Troeltsch, Die Bedeutung des Protestantismus für die Entstehung der modernen Welt, in HZ 97, 1906, 1–66; revised Version 1911, newly edited in E. Troeltsch, GA, Bd. 8, 2001.

(2.) WA 15:373,1–4.

(3.) WA 15:373,5–17.

(4.) Leif Grane, Martinus Noster. Luther in the German Reform Movement, 1518–1521 (Mainz, Germany: Zabern, 1994).

(5.) Veit Ludwig von Seckendorff, Commentarius historicus et apologeticus de Lutheranismo, sive de reformatione religionis ductu D. Martini Lutheri […] (Frankfurt: Gleditsch, 1688–1692).

(6.) For the latest biography see Lyndal Roper, Der Mensch Martin Luther—Die Biographie (Frankfurt: S. Fischer, 2016).

(7.) Philipp Wackernagel, Das deutsche Kirchenlied, Bd. 3 (Hildesheim, Germany: Olms, 1990), 896f.

(8.) Andrew Pettegree, Brand Luther. 1517, Printing, and the Making of the Reformation (New York: Penguin, 2015).

(9.) Jens Wolff, “Art. Wort Gottes,” in Das Luther-Lexikon, eds. Volker Leppin and Gury Schneider-Ludorff (Regensburg, Germany: Bückle und Böhm, 2014), 774–778.

(10.) Irene Dingel, Memoria—theologische Synthese—Autoritätenkonflikt. Die Rezeption Luthers und Melanchthons in der Schülergeneration (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2016).

(11.) Martin Luther, “Contra Antinomos I = Thesen für die erste Disputation gegen die Antinomer (1537),” in Martin Luther, Lateinisch-Deutsche Studienausgabe, Bd. II, Christusglaube und Rechtfertigung, ed. Johannes Schilling and trans. Jens Wolff (Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 2006), 447–459.

(12.) Martin Chemnitz, Examen Decretorum Concilii Tridentini (Frankfurt: Feierabend, 1590).

(13.) Martin Chemnitz, De duabus naturis in Christo: De hypostatica earum unione: De communicatione idiomatum […] (Wittenberg, Germany: Berger; Schürer; Gormann, 1610).

(14.) Johann Anselm Steiger, Philologia Sacra. Zur Exegese der Heiligen Schrift im Protestantismus des 16. bis 18. Jahrhunderts (Neukirchen-Vluyn, Germany: Neukirchener Verlagsgesellschaft, 2011). Ders. Torbjörn Johansson and Robert Kolb, eds., Hermeneutica Sacra. Studien zur Auslegung der Heiligen Schrift im 16. und 17. Jahrhundert/Studies of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture in the 16th and 17th Century (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2010).

(15.) Cf. Klaus Garber, Literatur und Kultur im Europa der frühen Neuzeit (München, Germany: Fink, 2008).

(16.) Martin Brecht, Johann Valentin Andreae 1586–1654 (Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck&Ruprecht, 2008).

(17.) Cf. Paul Althaus, Die Prinzipen der deutschen reformierten Dogmatik im Zeitalter der aristotelischen Scholastik (Darmstadt, Germany: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft), 1967 (EA 1914). Herman J. Selderhuis, A Companion to Reformed Orthodoxy (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2013).

(18.) Albert Meier, ed., Die Literatur des17. Jahrhunderts (München, Germany: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1999); and Norbert Mecklenburg, Der Prophet der Deutschen. Martin Luther im Spiegel der Literatur (Stuttgart: Metzler, 2016).

(19.) Volkhard Wels, Manifestationen des Geistes. Frömmigkeit, Spiritualismus und Dichtung in der Frühen Neuzeit (Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck&Ruprecht, 2014).

(20.) Cf. Thomas Borgstedt, Reichsidee und Liebesethik. Eine Rekonstruktion des Lohensteinschen Arminiusromans (Tübingen, Germany: Niemeyer, 1992), 57.

(21.) Irmgard Scheitler, Das geistliche Lied im deutschen Barock (Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 1982).

(22.) Sigmund von Birken, Anhang zu Todes-Gedanken und Todten-Andenken. Emblemata, Erklärungen und Andachtlieder zu Johann Michael Dilherrs Emblematischer Hand- und ReisePostill, Teil I: Texte. Teil II: Apparate und Kommentare. Sigmund von Birken. Werke und Korrespondenz, Bd. 7/I+7/II, ed. Klaus Garber/Ferdinand van Ingen/Hartmut Laufhütte/Johann Anselm Steiger (Berlin, 2012).

(23.) Thorsten Burkard and Wilhelm Kühlmann, eds., Jacob Balde im kulturellen Kontext seiner Epoche. Zur 400. Wiederkehr seines Geburtstages (Regensburg, Germany: Schnell & Steiner, 2006).

(24.) Johannes Scheffler, Gründliche Vrsachen und Motiven, warumb er von dem Lutherthumb abgetreten/und sich zu der Catholischen Kirchen bekennet hat (Olmütz, Germany: Hradetzckin, 1653).

(25.) Wolfram Washof, Die Bibel auf der Bühne. Exempelfiguren und protestantische Theologie im lateinischen und deutschen Bibeldrama der Reformationszeit (Münster, Germany: Rhema-Verlag, 2007).

(26.) Stefan Michel, Die Kanonisierung der Werke Martin Luthers im 16. Jahrhundert (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2016).

(27.) Philipp Stoellger, Passivität aus Passion. Zur Problemgeschichte einer “categoria non grata” (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2010).

(28.) Martin Heckel, Martin Luthers Reformation und das Recht. Die Entwicklung der Theologie Luthers und ihre Auswirkung auf das Recht unter den Rahmenbedingungen der Reichsreform und der Territorialstaatsbildung im Kampf mit Rom und den “Schwärmern” (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2016).