Martin Luther and the Enthusiasts-Part II

Sacraments1In this second post on this topic we will examine the basic teachings of Andreas Karlstadt and Thomas Müntzer in the early 1520s (part 1 can be found here).  Both men challenged Luther’s teachings on the Word and Sacraments. These men rejected infant baptism, the doctrine of the bodily presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper, and the use of images in churches.  They both emphasized an inner, spiritual experience in the believer’s soul as the foundation for the Christian life.  On the other hand, Luther stressed the promise of God’s Word that comes from outside the individual in order to justify the believer.

Andreas Karlstadt’s emphasis on internal spiritual rebirth and self-mortification led to his primary use of Scripture as a divine guide for holy living.  He also borrowed a concept from late medieval German mysticism that reinforced his concentration on interior transformation.  The mystics taught that individuals needed to empty themselves of attachment to physical and temporal things and yield their souls completely to God through prayer and meditation.  In this manner, they could become progressively more spiritual and less sinful.  Karlstadt explained: “When God’s glory, honor, praise, will, and love rule in us with might, then ego, I-ness and everyone’s self or self-absorption must wither and become nothing.” [Karlstadt, The Meaning of the Term “Gelassenheit” and Where in Holy Scripture It is Found in The European Reformations: Sourcebook, 2nd ed.,  Ed. Carter Lindberg (Oxford, 2014), 53.]

While Karlstadt’s emphasis on mysticism put him at odds with Luther, the separation between the two men emerged concerning their teachings on the Lord’s Supper, liturgical reform, and the use of images in church.  In October 1524 Karlstadt published two treatises on the Lord’s Supper that rejected the teaching of Christ’s physical presence in the consecrated bread and wine. In so doing, he helped to instigate the Eucharistic controversy between those associated with the Reformation in Wittenberg and the early Swiss Reformers, especially Ulrich Zwingli.  Karlstadt taught that the worthy recipient of the Lord’s Supper must possess a fervent recollection of Christ’s passion and shedding of blood.  He asserted that Christ’s Words of Institution pointed toward the crucifixion of Christ’s body and shedding of His blood on Good Friday.  However, Christ did not intend thereby to make His physical body and blood present in the bread and wine.  Karlstadt wrote:

If Christ gave his body to the disciples in the bread, then Christ also gave his body in the bread for his disciples and further, will give his body in the future for all those to whom he should give his body today in the sacrament. But this is anti-Christian, for it would be as if to say that Christ was crucified and died for us in the bread [and] Christ shed his blood in the cup.  [Eucharistic Pamphlets of Bodenstein von Karlstadt, trans. Amy Nelson Burnett (Kirksville, MO, 2011), 149]

Now, believers should remember within their souls how Christ gave his life for them on the cross.  Karlstadt also pointed out that Greek (and Latin) grammar could not support the idea that the bread became or contained the body of Christ.  For this reason, Christians must look to Christ on the cross, not in the sacrament. [Amy Nelson Burnett, Karlstadt and the Origins of the Eucharistic Controversy (Oxford, 2011), 60-64.]

Thomas Müntzer expressed his beliefs in number of publications from 1521 to 1525. During this period he became an ardent critic of Luther and eventually led violent rebellion against the ‘ungodly’ in order to establish the kingdom of God on earth.   In 1521 Müntzer published his first major work, Prague Manifesto, which demonstrated his break with Luther.  He wrote that no priest, monk, or scholar had genuinely taught him about faith, the seven-fold gift of the Holy Spirit, and God’s true order of creation. Müntzer asserted that God’s eternal word cannot be merely a text that one reads or memorizes, but rather God must speak to the believer’s spirit continually.  He wrote: “I have heard from them about mere Scripture, which they have stolen from the Bible like murderers and thieves….For anyone who does not feel the spirit of Christ within him, or is not quite sure of having it, is not a member of Christ, but of the devil….” [Müntzer, Prague Manifesto in The European Reformations: Sourcebook, 86.] [Emphasis added]

In 1522 Müntzer wrote to Philip Melanchthon in friendly terms but also criticized the Wittenberg theologians.  He explained that Melanchthon and Luther worshipped a mute God and they did not recognize the coming judgment on the evil.  He exhorted them to listen to God’s speaking to them.  Müntzer also warned them against flattery of worldly rulers and exhorted them to more quickly enforce new practices on their congregations.  He concluded, “Should you wish I will back up all I have said from the Scriptures, from the order of creation, from experience, and from the clear word of God.  You delicate biblical scholars, do not hang back. I can do no other.” [Müntzer, Müntzer to Melanchthon in The European Reformations: Sourcebook, 87.]

Two years later, after Müntzer began to promote violence and rebellion, Luther wrote directly against him.  This caused Müntzer to publish a scathing attack on Luther and his colleagues at Wittenberg.  He accused them of unholy alliance with the princes and supporting the tyranny of the ungodly.  Referring to Luther as Dr. Liar and Father Pussyfoot, Müntzer asserted that Luther loved the soft, easy life in Wittenberg as opposed to the tribulation and suffering of the godly. Müntzer had combined his own apocalyptic vision of the triumph of the godly with the social and economic grievances of the peasants and the urban workers.  In his mind, Luther and his colleagues had allied with the evil princes and the devil against the godly. [Müntzer, Vindication and Refutation in The European Reformations: Sourcebook, 91.]

About Dr. Matthew Phillips

My name is C. Matthew Phillips and I am an Associate Professor of History at Concordia University, Nebraska. I completed my Ph.D. in medieval European history at Saint Louis University in 2006. My research has focused on medieval monasticism, preaching, devotion to the True Cross, and the Crusades. Additionally, I have interests in medieval and early modern European education and the writings and life of Martin Luther.


At Concordia I teach World Civilization I, World Civilization II, Europe Since 1914, Early and Medieval Christianity, Renaissance and Reformation, The Medieval Crusades, The History of Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union, and The Modern Middle East.


Comments

Martin Luther and the Enthusiasts-Part II — 6 Comments

  1. Be careful when dismissing the German mystics so easily. Luther was a big fan of the German mystics. He loved Johann Tauler and the Theologia Germanica. He also embraced and favorably quoted (the French mystic) Bernard of Clairvaux frequently. Luther did not disdain the inner experience of the mystics. Rather, he emphasized that this (and everything) must be based solely on God’s Word-Christ crucified. Luther himself had a “mystical” experience. My two cents.

  2. @Pastor Bill Metzger #1

    Pastor Metzger,

    Yes, Dr. Luther read and referenced approvingly German mystics in his early career. He also cited Bernard of Clairvaux approvingly in some places. I would not place Bernard’s work in the same category as the late medieval German mystics. Most often Luther cited Bernard’s emphasis on grace and faith for salvation. Luther also rejected the central teachings of late medieval German mystics as demonstrated by his rejection of Karlstadt. If you re-read the blog post, you will notice that Luther and Karlstadt emphasized different things. That’s the key to understanding the issue which you raised. Look for part III of this series next week on Luther’s response.

  3. Interesting to note that nearly every “mystical/enthusiast” movement that occurs in post-apostolic church history either leads to false doctrine or immoral practice.

  4. Thank you, Dr. Phillips. It’s a great article. I need to learn to keep the main thing the main thing!

  5. “Karlstadt also pointed out that Greek (and Latin) grammar could not support the idea that the bread became or contained the body of Christ.”

    I would love to see Luther’s refutation of this! Do you happen to have it?

  6. Pastor Metzger…This is dialogue similar to a classroom. I was hoping someone might raise that point.

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