Martin Luther and the Enthusiasts-Part III

durer_lamb_707x981This third post on this topic will focus on Dr. Luther’s response to the Enthusiasts and how this response shaped the Lutheran Confessions. Martin Luther responded initially to both men’s teachings with letters.  In July 1524 he published an open letter to the princes of Saxony, Frederick the Wise and John (the Steadfast).  As was Luther’s practice, he identified the spirit (devil) behind false teachers and attacked it in his writing.  He recognized (and rejected) Müntzer’s emphasis on hearing God’s voice directly in one’s soul through mystical experiences.  Dr. Luther explained how his own doctrine rested on Holy Scripture and not a new revelation of the spirit.  He noted the irony that those who believed that true believers must hear God’s voice directly still taught others through preaching and writing.  Ultimately, Luther saw the demonic agenda behind Müntzer’s teaching:

Hence we recognize and judge this spirit as having as his purpose the     invalidating of the Scriptures and the oral Word of God, and doing away with the sacrament of the altar and of baptism.  He would force us into a spirit wherein we should tempt God with our own works and free will, and take over his work, while we set time, place, and measure for God when he wants to deal with  us. [“Letter to the Princes of Saxony,” LW 40:55]

Additionally, Luther contrasted Müntzer’s behavior and teaching with that of Christ, the apostles, and his own life.  For Luther, true preachers use God’s Word to overthrow the devil and not force. [LW 40: 49-59 = entire letter]

In December 1524 Luther sent a letter to Christians in Strasbourg regarding Karlstadt’s teachings.  He explained that Karlstadt had rejected a proper understanding of the sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper) and the use of images.  However, Luther described how Karlstadt emphasized Christ as the example for imitation before Christ as a gift of God for salvation.  According to Luther, Karlstadt reversed this order and thus disturbed anxious consciences greatly. [“Letter to the Christians at Strassburg,” LW 40:65-71]

These letters served as forerunners to one of Luther’s longest and most significant works, Against the Heavenly Prophets in the Matter of Images and the Sacraments (1525).  Since this work is quite long (LW 40:79-223), we can only give a short summary with an emphasis on a few passages.  Overall Dr. Luther asserted the objective authority of God’s Word against the subjective nature of the Enthusiasts’ teachings.  He demonstrated that the Enthusiasts reversed how God chose to work through his Word.  For Luther, God works through the outward to bring about a change in the inward.  Additionally, God gives faith in Christ as a gift before any actions or fruits of sanctification can appear.  Luther wrote:

Now when God sends forth his holy gospel he deals with us in a twofold manner, first outwardly, then inwardly.  Outwardly he deals with us through the oral word of the gospel and through material signs, that is, baptism and the sacrament of the altar. Inwardly he deals with us through the Holy Spirit, faith, and other gifts. But whatever their measure or order the outward factors should and must precede. God has determined to give the inward to no one except through the outward. [LW 40:146]

He then explained how Karlstadt reversed the order of inward faith and living outwardly as a Christian.  The mortification of the flesh comes after the gift of faith received through the preached Word or the outward signs.  For Luther, the reversal of this order is demonic.

In Against the Heavenly Prophets Dr. Luther also presented a thorough refutation of Karlstadt’s faulty understanding of the Lord’s Supper.  He lamented Karlstadt’s focus on the inward meditation upon Christ’s passion as a source of salvation. Karlstadt rejected the physical presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper.  However, he emphasized heartfelt remembrance of Christ’s passion as a means for spiritual transformation.  Luther called his teaching a fantasy that rejected the outward Word and its benefits.  In order to refute Karlstadt Luther explained:

We treat forgiveness of sins in two ways. First, how it is achieved and   won. Second, how it is distributed and given to us.  Christ has achieved it on the cross, it is true.  But he has not distributed or given it on the cross.  He has not won it in the supper or sacrament.  There he has distributed and given it through the Word, as also through the gospel, where it is preached. [LW 40:213-14]

Dr. Luther incorporated his teachings on the relationship between God’s Word and the Holy Spirit into the Large Catechism.  In his explanation of the third article of the Apostle’s Creed Luther stated that no one could have faith in Christ unless the Holy Spirit had preached the gospel to that person.  Even though Christ has finished the work of redemption, God must instigate the preaching of His Word so that the Holy Spirit might apply it to believers.  The Holy Spirit does this through the Christian church which Luther identified as “the mother that begets and bears every Christian through the Word of God,” (LC. II.38-42).

In the 1530s Martin Luther also addressed how the Spirit works through the Word in the Smalcald Articles.  While explaining confession and absolution, Luther emphasized how the Holy Spirit works through the spoken Word in opposition to the Enthusiasts, who believed they received the Spirit without the external Word.  He identified Thomas Müntzer and the papacy here specifically as examples of Enthusiasts.  Luther pointed out that the devil diverted Adam and Eve from God’s external Word to their own form of presumptive spirituality. (SA. III.8.3-6)

Dr Luther then contrasted the Enthusiasts’ teachings on ‘receiving the spirit’ with how salvation truly comes to believers.   He asserted that faith comes through the external Word connected to baptism or preaching.   For example, Cornelius and other Gentiles had faith in the coming Messiah and received the Spirit as Peter preached to them prior to baptism. (Acts 10)  Luther summarized this article with a warning against enthusiasm, that is, trusting in the internal word.  In fact, he identified it as the source of all false teachings, including the papacy and Islam.  Based on these observations Luther advised:

Therefore, we ought and must constantly maintain this point, that God     does not wish to deal with us otherwise than through the spoken Word   and the Sacraments. It is the devil himself whatsoever is extolled as Spirit without the Word and Sacraments.(http://bookofconcord.org/smalcald.php#part3.8.10)

 

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.


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