Martin Luther, On the Councils and the Church

St. Bernard was an abbot for thirty-six years, during which time he founded one hundred and sixty monasteries of his order. Now, one knows what kind of monasteries the Cistercians have. At that time, perhaps, they may have been smaller, but today they are regular principalities. And I will say even more: at that time, that is, under the reign of the emperors Henry III, IV, and V, within the span of twenty years, four different princely monastic orders came into being—the Grandmontines, the Reformed Regular Canons, the Carthusians, and the Cistercians. And what do you suppose happened in the four hundred years since then? I truly believe that one could well say it rained and snowed monks—and it would be no wonder if there were no city or village today without a monastery or two, or at least a terminary or stationary……

The world wants to be fooled. If you wish to catch many robins and other birds, you must place an owl or a screech owl on the trap or lime-rod, and you will succeed. Similarly, when the devil wants to trap Christians, he must put on a cowl, or (as Christ calls it) a sour, hypocritical expression [Matt. 6:16]. Thus we stand in greater awe of such owls and screech owls than of the true suffering, blood, wounds, death, and resurrection, which we see and hear of in Christ, our Lord, endured because of our sin. So we fall, in throngs and with all our might, away from our Christian faith and into the new holiness, that is, into the devil’s trap and lime-rod. For we always must have something new. Christ’s death and resurrection, faith and love, are old and just ordinary things; that is why they must count for nothing, and so we must have new wheedlers (as St. Paul says). And this serves us right since our ears itch so much for something new that we can no longer endure the old and genuine truth, “that we accumulate,” that we weigh ourselves down with big piles of new teachings. That is just what has happened and will continue to happen. For the subsequent councils, especially the papal ones (for afterward they are almost all papal), did not merely refrain from condemning these new good works, but exalted them throughout the world far above the good old works, so that the pope canonized or elevated many saints from the monastic orders.

At first it was rather nice to look at—and still is—but in the end it becomes an abominable, monstrous thing, since everyone adds to it from day to day. Thus, the beginning of St. Francis’ order looked fine, but now it has become so crude that they even put cowls on the dead so that the dead might be saved in them. Isn’t it terrible to hear that? Well, that is the way it goes: if one starts to fall away from Christ and gets into the habit of falling, one can no longer stop…..That is what the new holiness does and must do because it wants to do better than the true, old Christian holiness, which does not fool like this, but remains constant and always exercises itself in faith, love, humility, discipline, patience, etc.; one sees in it nothing abominable, but only lovely, charming, peaceful, kind, and useful examples that please God and man. But the new holiness blusters with a peculiar, new demeanor to entice unsteady souls to itself. It makes a great ado, but there is nothing to it, as St. Peter writes [II Pet. 2:14–22].

Martin Luther, On the Councils and the Church, LW 41:126-27 (1539)

About Norm Fisher

Norm was raised in the UCC in Connecticut, and like many fell away from the church after high school. With this background he saw it primarily as a service organization. On the miracle of his first child he came back to the church. On moving to Texas a few years later he found a home in Lutheranism when he was invited to a confessional church a half-hour away by our new neighbors.

He is one of those people who found a like mind in computers while in Middle School and has been programming ever since. He's responsible for many websites, including the Book of Concord,, and several other sites.

He has served the church in various positions, including financial secretary, sunday school teacher, elder, PTF board member, and choir member.

More of his work can be found at


Martin Luther, On the Councils and the Church — 5 Comments

  1. “We way ourselves down with big piles of new teachings” like those of the LC-MS Commission on Constitutional Matters which recently reasoned that communing with a congregation isn’t taking part in the sacramental rites of that congregation.

    Does it really matter to much of the LC-MS if one is really taking part in the sacramental rites of those with a different expression of Christendom? According the Concordian, the Magazine of Concordia University Wisconsin, “Like Christendom itself, the CUW student body is both diverse and united: different expressions, same faith. 37% Lutheran combined, 23% Roman Catholic, 13% Christian/Christian general, 9% Non-denominational (Community), 7% Baptist.”

    Why aren’t we communing with one another if we are simply expressing the same faith, differently?

  2. “Different expressions, same faith” — that’d be a push even in the category “Lutheran combined” when you look at the actually different faiths confessed in those different expressions.

    Sounds like some Platonic mysticism to me, where external expressions are transient appearances that need to be made transparent by enlightened professors to the great unifying and unified ideas behind them.

    Thinking this to its logical conclusion, why not see also Judaism and Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism, as but different expressions of the same faith in the Supreme Great Being, ultimately unknowable as it may be?

    Luther detected a different spirit at work in Zwingli back in 1529 at Marburg. Since that spirit has not been cast out from all those church still revering Zwingli as their hero (among others and next to the like of Calvin and Wesley), we should do so too as far as their “different expressions” are concerned.

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