§ 123. Luther at the Coburg. Luther’s Letters from Coburg, April 18 to Oct. 4, 1530, in De Wette, IV. 1–182. Melanchthon’s Letters to Luther from Augsburg, in the second volume of the "Corpus Reform."
Zitzlaff (Archidiaconus in Wittenberg): Luther auf der Koburg, Wittenberg, 1882 (175 pages). Köstlin, M. L., II. 198 sqq.
During the Diet of Augsburg, from April till October, 1530, Luther was an honorable prisoner in the electoral castle of Coburg.988 From that watch-tower on the frontier of Saxony and Bavaria, he exerted a powerful influence, by his letters, upon Melanchthon and the Lutheran confessors at the Diet. His sojourn there is a striking parallel to his ten months’ sojourn at the Wartburg, and forms the last romantic chapter in his eventful life. He was still under the anathema of the Pope and the ban of the empire, and could not safely appear at Augsburg. Moreover, his prince had reason to fear that by his uncompromising attitude he might hinder rather than promote the work of reconciliation and peace. But he wished to keep him near enough for consultation and advice. A message from Augsburg reached Coburg in about four days.
Luther arrived at Coburg, with the Elector and the Wittenberg divines, on April 15, 1530. In the night of the 22d he was conveyed to the fortified castle on the hill, and ordered to remain there for an indefinite time. No reason was given, but he could easily suspect it. He spent the first day in enjoying the prospect of the country, and examining the prince’s building (Fürstenbau) which was assigned him. His sitting-room is still shown. "I have the largest apartment, which overlooks the whole fortress, and I have the keys to all the rooms." He had with him his amanuensis Veit Dietrich, a favorite student, and his nephew Cyriac Kaufmann, a young student from Mansfeld. He let his beard grow again, as he had done on the Wartburg. He was well taken care of at the expense of the Elector, and enjoyed the vacation as well as he could with a heavy load of work and care on his mind. He received more visitors than he liked. About thirty persons were stationed in the castle.
"Dearest Philip," he wrote to Melanchthon, April 23, "we have at last reached our Sinai; but we shall make a Sion of this Sinai, and here I shall build three tabernacles, one to the Psalms, one to the Prophets, and one to Aesop .... It is a very attractive place, and just made for study; only your absence grieves me. My whole heart and soul are stirred and incensed against the Turks and Mohammed, when I see this intolerable raging of the Devil. Therefore I shall pray and cry to God, nor rest until I know that my cry is heard in heaven. The sad condition of our German empire distresses you more." Then he describes to him his residence in the "empire of birds." In other letters he humorously speaks of the cries of the ravens and jackdaws in the forest, and compares them to a troop of kings and grandees, schoolmen and sophists, holding Diet, sending their mandates through the air, and arranging a crusade against the fields of wheat and barley, hoping for heroic deeds and grand victories. He could hear all the sophists and papists chattering around him from early morning, and was delighted to see how valiantly these knights of the Diet strutted about and wiped their bills, but he hoped that before long they would be spitted on a hedge-stake. He was glad to hear the first nightingale, even as early as April. With such innocent sports of his fancy he tried to chase away the anxious cares which weighed upon him. It is from this retreat that he wrote that charming letter to his boy Hans, describing a beautiful garden full of goodly apples, pears, and plums, and merry children on little horses with golden bridles and silver saddles, and promising him and his playmates a fine fairing if he prayed, and learned his lessons.989
Joy and grief, life and death, are closely joined in this changing world. On the 5th of June, Luther received the sad news of the pious death of his father, which occurred at Mansfeld, May 29. When he first heard of his sickness, he wrote to him from Wittenberg, Feb. 15, 1530: "It would be a great joy to me if only you and my mother could come to us. My Kate, and all, pray for it with tears. We would do our best to make you comfortable." At the report of his end he said to Dietrich, "So my father, too, is dead," took his Psalter, and retired to his room. On the same day he wrote to Melanchthon that all he was, or possessed, he had received from God through his beloved father.
He suffered much from "buzzing and dizziness" in his head, and a tendency to fainting, so as to be prevented for several weeks from reading and writing. He did not know whether to attribute the illness to the Coburg hospitality, or to his old enemy. He had the same experience at the Wartburg. Dietrich traced it to Satan, since Luther was very careful of his diet.
Nevertheless, he accomplished a great deal of work. As soon as his box of books arrived, he resumed his translation of the Bible, begun on the Wartburg, hoping to finish the Prophets, and dictated to Dietrich a commentary on the first twenty-five Psalms. He also explained his favorite 118th Psalm, and wrote 118:17 on the wall of his room, with the tune for chanting, —
"Non moriar, sed vivam, et narrabo opera Domini." By way of mental recreation he translated thirteen of Aesop’s fables, to adapt them for youth and common people, since "they set forth in pleasing colors of fiction excellent lessons of wise and peaceful living among bad people in this wicked world." He rendered them in the simplest language, and expressed the morals in apt German proverbs.990
The Diet at Augsburg occupied his constant attention. He was the power behind the throne. He wrote in May a public "Admonition to the Clergy assembled at the Diet," reminding them of the chief scandals, warning them against severe measures, lest they provoke a new rebellion, and promising the quiet possession of all their worldly possessions and dignities, if they would only leave the gospel free. He published a series of tracts, as so many rounds of musketry, against Romish errors and abuses.
He kept up a lively correspondence with Melanchthon, Jonas, Spalatin, Link, Hausmann, Brenz, Agricola, Weller, Chancellor Brück, Cardinal Albrecht, the Elector John, the Landgrave Philip, and others, not forgetting his "liebe Kethe, Herr Frau Katherin Lutherin zu Wittenberg." He dated his letters "from the region of the birds" (ex volucrum regno), "from the Diet of the jackdaws" (ex comitiis Monedu, larum seu Monedulanensibus), or "from the desert" (ex eremo, aus der Einöde). Melanchthon and the Elector kept him informed of the proceedings at Augsburg, asked his advice about every important step, and submitted to him the draught of the Confession. He approved of it, though he would have liked it much stronger. He opposed every compromise in doctrine, and exhorted the confessors to stand by the gospel, without fear of consequences.
His heroic faith, the moving power and crowning glory of his life, shines with wonderful luster in these letters. The greater the danger, the stronger his courage. He devoted his best hours to prayer. His "Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott," was written before this time,991but fitly expresses his fearless trust in God at this important crisis, when Melanchthon trembled. "Let the matter be ever so great," he wrote to him (June 27), "great also is He who has begun and who conducts it; for it is not our work .... ’Cast thy burthen upon the Lord; the Lord is nigh unto all them that call upon Him.’ Does He say that to the wind, or does He throw his words before beasts? ... It is your worldly wisdom that torments you, and not theology. As if you, with your useless cares, could accomplish any thing! What more can the Devil do than strangle us? I conjure you, who in all other matters are so ready to fight, to fight against yourself as your greatest enemy." In another letter he well describes the difference between himself and his friend in regard to cares and temptations. "In private affairs I am the weaker, you the stronger combatant; but in public affairs it is just the reverse (if, indeed, any contest can be called private which is waged between me and Satan): for you take but small account of your life, while you tremble for the public cause; whereas I am easy and hopeful about the latter, knowing as I do for certain that it is just and true, and the cause of Christ and God Himself. Hence I am as a careless spectator, and unmindful of these threatening and furious papists. If we fall, Christ falls with us, the Ruler of the world. I would rather fall with Christ than stand with the Emperor. Therefore I exhort you, in the name of Christ, not to despise the promises and the comfort of God, who says, ’Cast all your cares upon the Lord. Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.’ I know the weakness of our faith; but all the more let us pray, ’Lord, increase our faith.’ "
In a remarkable letter to Chancellor Brück (Aug. 5), he expresses his confidence that God can not and will not forsake the cause of the evangelicals, since it is His own cause. "It is His doctrine, it is His Word. Therefore it is certain that He will hear our prayers, yea, He has already prepared His help, for he says, ’Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? Yea, these may forget, yet will not I forget thee" (Isa. 49:15). In the same letter he says, "I have lately seen two wonders: the first, when looking out of the window, I saw the stars of heaven and the whole beautiful vault of God, but no pillars, and yet the heavens did not collapse, and the vault still stands fast. The second wonder: I saw great thick clouds hanging over us, so heavy as to be like unto a great lake, but no ground on which they rested; yet they did not fall on us, but, after greeting us with a gloomy countenance, they passed away, and over them appeared the luminous rainbow .... Comfort Master Philip and all the rest. May Christ comfort and sustain our gracious Elector. To Christ be all the praise and thanks forever. Amen."
Urbanus Rhegius, the Reformer of Braunschweig-Lüneburg, on his way from Augsburg to Celle, called on Luther, for the first and last time, and spent a day with him at Coburg. It was "the happiest day" of his life, and made a lasting impression on him, which he thus expressed in a letter: "I judge, no one can hate Luther who knows him. His books reveal his genius; but if you would see him face to face, and hear him speak on divine things with apostolic spirit, you would say, the living reality surpasses the fame. Luther is too great to be judged by every wiseacre. I, too, have written books, but compared with him I am a mere pupil. He is an elect instrument of the Holy Ghost. He is a theologus for the whole world."
Bucer also paid him a visit at Coburg (Sept. 25), and sought to induce him, if possible, to a more friendly attitude towards the Zwinglians and Strassburgers. He succeeded at least so far as to make him hopeful of a future reconciliation. It was the beginning of those union efforts which resulted in the Wittenburg Concordia, but failed at last. Bucer received the impression from this visit, that Luther was a man "who truly feared God, and sought sincerely the glory of God."
There can be no doubt about this. Luther feared God, and nothing else. He sought the glory of Christ, and cared nothing for the riches and pleasures of the world. At Coburg, Luther was in the full vigor of manhood,—forty-six years of age,—and at the height of his fame and power. With the Augsburg Confession his work was substantially completed. His followers were now an organized church with a confession of faith, a form of worship and government, and no longer dependent upon his personal efforts. He lived and labored fifteen years longer, completing the translation of the Bible,—the greatest work of his life, preaching, teaching, and writing; but his physical strength began to decline, his infirmities increased, he often complained of lassitude and uselessness, and longed for rest after his herculean labors. Some of his later acts, as the unfortunate complicity with the bigamy affair of Philip of Hesse, and his furious attacks upon Papists and Sacramentarians, obscured his fame, and only remind us of the imperfections which adhere to the greatest and best of men.
Here, therefore, is the proper place to attempt an estimate of his public character, and services to the church and the world.
§ 124. Luther’s Public Character, and Position in History. In 1883 the four hundredth anniversary of Luther’s birth was celebrated with enthusiasm throughout Protestant Christendom by innumerable addresses and sermons setting forth his various merits as a man and a German, as a husband and father, as a preacher, catechist, and hymnist, as a Bible translator and expositor, as a reformer and founder of a church, as a champion of the sacred rights of conscience, and originator of a mighty movement of religious and civil liberty which spread over Europe and across the Atlantic to the shores of the Pacific. The story of his life was repeated in learned and popular biographies, in different tongues, and enacted on the stage in the principal cities of Germany.992 Not only Lutherans, but Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Episcopalians, Methodists, Baptists, Unitarians, united in these tributes to the Reformer. The Academy of Music in New York could not hold the thousands who crowded the building to attend the Luther-celebration arranged by the Evangelical Alliance in behalf of the leading Protestant denominations of America.993
Such testimony has never been borne to a mortal man. The Zwingli-celebration of the year 1884 had a similar character, and extended over many countries in both hemispheres, but would probably not have been thought of without the preceding Luther-celebration.
And indeed Luther has exerted, and still exerts, a spiritual power inferior only to that of the sacred writers. St. Angustin’s influence extends wider, embracing the Roman Catholic church as well as the Protestant; but he never reached the heart of the common people. Luther is the only one among the Reformers whose name was adopted, though against his protest, as the designation and watchword by the church which he founded. He gave to his people, in their own vernacular, what no man did before or since, three fundamental books of religion,—the Bible, a hymn-book, and a catechism. He forced even his German enemies to imitate his language in poetry and prose. So strong is the hold which his Bible version has upon the church of his name, that it is next to impossible to change and adapt it to modern learning and taste, although he himself kept revising and improving it as long as he lived.994
Luther was the German of the Germans, and the most vigorous type of the faults as well as the virtues of his nation.995 He is the apostle of Protestant Germany, fully as much as Boniface is the apostle of Roman Catholic Germany, and surpasses him vastly in genius and learning. Boniface, though an Anglo-Saxon by birth, was more a Roman than a German; while in Luther the Christian and the German were one, and joined in opposition to papal Rome. All schools of Lutheran divines appeal to his authority: the extreme orthodox, who out-Luther Luther in devotion to the letter; the moderate or middle party, who adhere only to the substance of his teaching; and the rationalists, who reject his creed, but regard him as the standard-bearer of the freedom of private judgment and dissent from all authority.996
His real strength lies in his German writings, which created the modern High-German book-language, and went right to the heart of the people. His greatest production is a translation,—the German Bible. Italians, Spaniards, and Frenchmen, who knew him only from his Latin books, received a very feeble idea of his power, and could not understand the secret of his influence.997 The contemptuous judgments of Pope Leo, Cardinal Cajetan, Aleander, and Emperor Charles, echo the sentiments of their nations, and re-appear again and again among modern writers of the Latin races and the Romish faith.
Nevertheless, Martin Luther’s influence extends far beyond the limits of his native land. He belongs to the church and the world.
Luther has written his own biography, as well as the early history of the German Reformation, in his numerous letters, without a thought of their publication. He lays himself open before the world without reservation. He was the frankest and most outspoken of men, and swayed by the impulse of the moment, without regard to logical consistency or fear of consequences. His faults as well as his virtues lay on the surface of his German works. He infused into them his intense personality to a degree which hardly finds a parallel except in the Epistles of the Apostle Paul.
He knew himself very well. A high sense of his calling and a deep sense of personal unworthiness are inseparably combined in his self-estimate. He was conscious of his prophetic and apostolic mission in republishing the primitive gospel for the German people; and yet he wrote to his wife not to be concerned about him, for God could make a dozen Luthers at any time. In his last will and testament (Jan. 6, 1542) he calls himself "a man well known in heaven, on earth, and in hell," but also "a poor, miserable, unworthy sinner," to whom "God, the Father of all mercies, has intrusted the gospel of His dear Son, and made him a teacher of His truth in spite of the Pope, the Emperor, and the Devil." He signs himself, in that characteristic document, "God’s notary and witness in His gospel." One of his last words was, "We are beggars." And in the preface of the first collected edition of his works, he expresses a wish that they might all perish, and God’s Word alone be read.
Luther was a genuine man of the people, rooted and grounded in rustic soil, but looking boldly and trustingly to heaven with the everlasting gospel in his hand. He was a plebeian, without a drop of patrician blood, and never ashamed of his lowly origin. But what king or emperor or pope of his age could compare with him in intellectual and moral force? He was endowed with an overwhelming genius and indomitable energy, with fiery temper and strong passions, with irresistible eloquence, native wit, and harmless humor, absolutely honest and disinterested, strong in faith, fervent in prayer, and wholly devoted to Christ and His gospel. Many of his wise, quaint, and witty sayings have passed into popular proverbs; and no German writer is more frequently named and quoted than Luther.
Like all great men, he harbored in his mind colossal contrasts, and burst through the trammels of logic. He was a giant in public, and a child in his family; the boldest reformer, yet a conservative churchman; the eulogist of reason as the handmaid of religion, and the abuser of reason as the mistress of the Devil; the champion of the freedom of the spirit, and yet a slave of the letter; an intense hater of popery to the last, and yet an admirer of the Catholic Church, and himself a pope within his own church.998
Yet there was a unity in this apparent contradiction. He was a seeker of the righteousness of works and peace of conscience as a Catholic monk, and he was a finder of the righteousness of faith as an evangelical reformer; just as the idea and pursuit of righteousness is the connecting link between the Jewish Saul and the Christian Paul. It was the same engine, but reversed. In separating from papal catholicism, Luther remained attached to Christian catholicism; and his churchly instincts were never suppressed, but only suspended to re-assert themselves with new and greater force after the revolutionary excesses of the Reformation.
His history naturally divides itself into three periods: the Roman-Catholic and monastic period, till 1517; the Protestant and progressive period, till 1525; the churchly, conservative, and reactionary period, till 1546. But he never gave up his devotion to the free gospel, and his hatred of the Pope as the veritable Antichrist.999
Luther’s greatness is not that of a polished work of art, but of an Alpine mountain with towering peaks, rough granite blocks, bracing air, fresh fountains, and green meadows. His polemical books rush along like thunderstorms or turbid mountain torrents. He knew his violent temper, but never took the trouble to restrain it; and his last books against the Papists, the Zwinglians, and the Jews, are his worst, and exceed any thing that is known in the history of theological polemics. In his little tract against the Romish Duke Henry of Brunswick,1000 the word Devil occurs no less than a hundred and forty-six times.1001 At last he could not pray without cursing, as he confessed himself.1002 He calls his mastery of the vocabulary of abuse his rhetoric. "Do not think," he wrote to Spalatin, "that the gospel can he advanced without tumult, trouble, and uproar. You cannot make a pen of a sword. The Word of God is a sword; it is war, overthrow, trouble, destruction, poison; it meets the children of Ephraim, as Amos says, like a bear on the road, or like a lioness in the wood."1003 We may admit that the club and sledge-hammer of this Protestant Hercules were necessary for the semi-barbarous Germans of his day. Providence used his violent temper as an instrument for the destruction of the greatest spiritual tyranny which the world ever saw. Yet his best friends were shocked and grieved at his rude personalities, and condemnatory judgments of such men as Erasmus, Zwingli, and Oecolampadius, not to speak of his Romish adversaries. Nothing shows more clearly the great distance which separates him from the apostles and evangelists.
But, with all his faults, he is the greatest man that Germany produced, and one of the very greatest in history. Melanchthon, who knew him best, and suffered most from his imperious temper, called him the Elijah of Protestantism, and compared him to the Apostle Paul.1004 And indeed, in his religious experience and theological standpoint, he strongly resembles the Apostle of the Gentiles,—though at a considerable distance,—more strongly than any schoolman or father. He roused by his trumpet voice the church from her slumber; he broke the yoke of papal tyranny; he reconquered Christian freedom; he re-opened the fountain of God’s holy Word to all the people, and directed the Christians to Christ, their only Master.
This is his crowning merit and his enduring monument.
Augustin, Luther, Calvin. The men who, next to the Apostles, have exerted and still exert through their writings the greatest influence in the Christian Church, as leaders of theological thought, are St. Augustin, Martin Luther, and John Calvin: all pupils of Paul, inspired by his doctrines of sin and grace, filled with the idea that God alone is great, equally eminent for purity of character, abundance in labors, and whole-souled consecration to the service of Christ, their common Lord and Saviour; and yet as different from each other as an African, a German, and a Frenchman can be. Next to them I would place an Englishman, John Wesley, who, as to abundance of useful labor in winning souls to Christ, is the most apostolic man that Great Britain has produced.
Augustin commands the respect and gratitude of the Catholic as well as the Protestant world. He is, among the three the profoundest in thought, and the sweetest in spirit; free from bitterness and coarseness, even in his severest polemics; yet advocating a system of exclusiveness which justifies coercion and persecution of heretics and schismatics. He identified the visible catholic church of his day with the kingdom of God on earth, and furnished the program of mediaeval Catholicism, though he has little to say about the papacy, and protested, in the Pelagian controversy, against the position of one Pope, while he accepted the decision of another. All three were fighters, but against different foes and with different weapons. Augustin contended for the catholic church against heretical sects, and for authority against false freedom; Luther and Calvin fought for evangelical dissent from the overwhelming power of Rome, and for rational freedom against tyrannical authority. Luther was the fiercest and roughest fighter of the three; but he alone had the Teutonic gift of humor which is always associated with a kindly nature, and extracts the sting out of his irony and sarcasm. His bark was far worse than his bite. He advised to drown the Pope and his cardinals in the Tiber; and yet he would have helped to save their lives after the destruction of their office. He wrote a letter of comfort to Tetzel on his death-bed, and protested against the burning of heretics.