Beckett: Luther’s Untimely Absence

At the close of the Edict of Worms on April 15, 1531, Emperor Charles V was determined to use his influence to call a council in order to resolve the theological disputes between the Papacy and the Lutheran reformers. However, the more dominant consideration was the possibility of the emperor using military force to wipe out the Lutherans. Fortunately, matters delayed military force due to several factours: military efforts were already opposing the Turks and the French; the Lutheran reformers had the political backing of John Frederick the Wise, who was eminently competent in theology and political affairs; and the Lutheran cause held popularity among the German peoples.

Thus, scheduling a council was the only option for the Papacy. Two factours challenged the consensus on the meeting place and availability of the council, however: (1) Pope Clement VII (1523-1534) would not allow, at the reformers’ request, the council to be free, that is, open for anyone in the Church to attend and therefore not left to biased papal interference; and (2) Luther’s health delayed the meeting time of the council even further. As Luther’s health began to fail, the reformers would find his death was not only untimely but also predicated the rise in controversy among Lutherans.

In anticipation of Luther’s death, both John Frederick and Luther predicted future misinterpretation of Luther’s written works from allies and foes alike. So, John Frederick had suggested Luther write a “last will and testament” on his theological expositions. Luther’s last will and testament is called the Schmalkald Articles, divided into three articles:

  1. The confession of the Trinity against antiquated heresies.
  2. The person and work of Christ as well as original sin, the bondage of the will, abuses of the Papacy, and biblical structure for Christian living in the home, church, and society.
  3. The Holy Spirit and His gift of faith given through the proclamation of the Word and the administration of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper as God’s “means” in coming to His children whom He dearly loves.

Luther died on February 18, 1556, and many theological disputes were left unsettled. Unfortunately, Luther’s writings and his last will and testament, in which his views are quite transparent, virtually did nothing to prevent discord among the Lutheran reformers.

The emperor’s political moves did not help matters for the reformers. Charles V  “had no conception whatsoever of what Luther’s call for reform of the central teachings of the church really meant. He knew only that he could not abide such challenges as Luther’s to public authority. If the pope’s authority could be challenged and frustrated, so could that of the emperor” (Arand, 171). Thus, Charles V’s motivation was political, not theological. His concern was solely for his own authority and not for the dignity and preservation of Christ’s Church.

Finally, Charles was able to gather the necessary resources to advance against the Lutherans—the Schmalkaldic League. (The Schmalkaldic League was a defensive alliance the Protestant territories formed to defend themselves against the Papacy. It held the “two swords theory,” which “divided authority and responsibility” between Church and State: “the church held the spiritual sword, overseeing religious and moral life while the state wielded the political sword, restraining the flesh in all of its forms” [Arand, 141]. The Papacy often ventured erroneously into secular and political affairs.) 

However, lest one misconstrues the emperor’s true target,  he was not warring against Lutheranism as a religion or an ideology. Instead, Charles V “singled out the two leading princes in the Protestant league of Smalcald, Elector John Frederick of Saxony and the Landgrave Philip of Hesse,” both of whom were ipso facto guilty of actual crimes. “Philip was guilty of bigamy,” which the emperor’s legal code of 1532 specifically forbade, and “John Frederick had used illegal force against the clerical foundation at Würzen and the episcopal chapter in Naumburg to extend the influence of the Reformation in those areas adjacent to or within his domains” (Arand, 173). Both Frederick and Philip had violated imperial law, and as such, Charles V had plausible cause to advance against them in such a manner. This was an astute political move on Charles’ part to damage the Lutheran reform. Still, however, Charles V sought other means to censor Lutheranism through his own reform.

In December 1548, the Leipzig Interim was held. It was at  this interim that some Lutheran reformers, such as the esteemed Philip Melanchthon, settled on compromises with the Papacy. The interim included settled compromises on confirmation, penance, marriage, ordination, extreme unction, and various matters of adiaphora such as festivals and masses for the dead.

It was at this interim, and the events that follow, where Luther’s death is realised as untimely and his absence as lamentable. Although they never called each other such terms, this led to the opposing parties of the Gnesio-Lutherans and the Philippists. (“[T]hose who remained faithful to Melanchthon tagged their critics with the label ‘Flacians’ [because Flacius opposed the Leipzig Interim]. …Those who shared [Luther’s] view called their opponents ‘adiaphorists'” [Arand, 184].) This division set the pattern for all the controversies  that would subsequently follow.

One large possible asset to perpetual discord among the reformers was that both parties revered Luther “as a special agent of God. All taught justification of the sinner in God’s sight by grace through faith in Christ” (Arand, 185). Because both sides strongly believed they held Luther’s original, genuine doctrinal beliefs, neither side was capable of wavering from their doctrinal stances, even if they were in error.

Ironically, then, Luther’s last will and testament did not achieve what it was intended for—the final, transparent say on certain doctrinal matters. This was not at the fault of Luther, but at the fault of the theologians who unwittingly opposed Luther whilst claiming to extrapolate their theology from him. As a result of the Leipzig Interim—no thanks to Charles V and his Schmalkald War—many controversies arose among Lutherans that required Luther’s presence.

One such controversy was the Majoristic controversy. Georg Major and his contemporary, Johannes Bugenhagen, advocated for the Leipzig Interim against Amsdorf and his contemporaries, Flacius and Gallus. Major and Bugenhagen contended for good works as necessary for salvation, whereas Amsdorf and company contended that, with Luther, good works are not necessary for salvation but are necessary for the neighbor.

Major did not help his position when he openly contradicted himself on several occasions, “insisting that he had always held that faith alone justifies,” whilst contending for “good works [as] necessary for the retention of salvation” (Arand, 192). Faith alone cannot justify whether (a) good works justify, or (b) good works “retain” salvation. In both cases, good works depend on the human individual and not on Christ alone, thus deposing justification by faith altogether.

One other such controversy was the Osiandrian controversy. Andreas Osiander was a Neo-Platonist (though he was ignorant of his Neo-Platonism) who taught that human beings receive Christ’s righteousness only in His divine nature over against the orthodox Lutheran view that human beings receive Christ’s righteousness by His obedience, not by one or another nature, which He reckons to us. In other words, Christ in both His natures reckons His righteousness to us by virtue of His obedience to God the Father.

Osiander’s major error was that he “failed to grasp Luther’s biblical way of defining reality in terms of relationships, based on the creative Word of God that establishes this reality… He failed to understand that for Luther the basis of reality rested on creative speaking (Gen. 1), on the Word of God” (Arand, 218-219). In other words, whereas Luther let the Word speak for itself, Osiander—and other erroneous heretics—sought to philosophise the Word.

The Majoristic and Osiandrian controversies are merely two among many that sprung up after Luther’s death. The Lutheran Reformation was not aptly prepared for Luther’s death. At no fault of Luther’s, his untimely death set into motion militaristic opposition, the unfortunate compromise of the Leipzig Interim, and the unbecoming controversies that subsequently followed. Fortunately, loyal theologians to Luther and the Scriptures resolved these matters in the Formula of Concord.


Arand, Charles P., Robert Kolb, and James A. Nestingen. The Lutheran Confessions: History and Theology of The Book of Concord. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close