A Laymen’s Commentary on the Smalcald Articles: Preface

Note: This is the third series of posts providing commentary on the Book of Concord adapted from my Lutheran Essentials Class Notes.  I pray they are edifying and aid in the reading of the Book of Concord.  Scriptural citations are inspired by the Reader’s Edition to the Book of Concord.  The quotes from the Book of Concord are from the Book of Concord website.  You can find the first series on the Large Catechism here and the second series on the Augsburg Confession here.

After the Diet of Augsburg in 1530, the Lutheran princes formed the Smalcaldic League to defend themselves from assaults from the Holy Roman Emperor.  Much turmoil covered this era, but also much growth in Martin Luther’s own writings and those who followed him. It was hoped that a General Council of the church would be held to settle all differences once and for all.

The Smalcald Articles are written by Martin Luther in 1537 for presentation at a General Council as well as to serve as his last will and testament, as we will read in the his preface.  The Smalcald Articles is primarily Luther’s work with Luther’s colleague Phillip Melancthon writing the related Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope (which we will treat next). The Smalcald League formally adopted the Treatise but never ratified the Smalcald Articles.  However, both were incorporated into the Book of Concord owing to their clear proclamation of doctrine.

The General Council did eventually occur in Trent in 1545 but it served to solidify the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church and condemn the Reformers.  To this day it can be said that the Council of Trent is when the Catholic Church officially became the Roman Catholic Church.  Martin Chemnitz (one of the authors of the Formula of Concord and compiler of the Book of Concord) wrote the definitive refutation of this Council in his epic work The Examination of the Council of Trent.


1] Since Pope Paul III convoked a Council last year, to assemble at Mantua about Whitsuntide, and afterwards transferred it from Mantua, so that it is not yet known where he will or can fix it, and we on our part either had to expect that we would be summoned also to the Council or [to fear that we would] be condemned unsummoned, I was directed to compile and collect the articles of our doctrine [in order that it might be plain] in case of deliberation as to what and how far we would be both willing and able to yield to the Papists, and in what points we intended to persevere and abide to the end.

2] I have accordingly compiled these articles and presented them to our side. They have also been accepted and unanimously confessed by our side, and it has been resolved that, in case the Pope with his adherents should ever be so bold as seriously and in good faith, without lying and cheating, to hold a truly free [legitimate] Christian Council (as, indeed, he would be in duty bound to do), they be publicly delivered in order to set forth the Confession of our Faith.

3] But though the Romish court is so dreadfully afraid of a free Christian Council, and shuns the light so shamefully, that it has [entirely] removed, even from those who are on its side, the hope that it will ever permit a free Council, much less that it will itself hold one, whereat, as is just, they [many Papists] are greatly offended and have no little trouble on that account [are disgusted with this negligence of the Pope], since they notice thereby that the Pope would rather see all Christendom perish and all souls damned than suffer either himself or his adherents to be reformed even a little, and his [their] tyranny to be limited, nevertheless I have determined meanwhile to publish these articles in plain print, so that, should I die before there would be a Council (as I fully expect and hope, because the knaves who flee the light and shun the day take such wretched pains to delay and hinder the Council), those who live and remain after me may have my testimony and confession to produce, in addition to the Confession which I have issued previously, whereby up to this time I have abided, and, by God’s grace, will abide.

Pope Paul III (1468-1549) became pope in 1534 and eventually called the Council of Trent as the long desired General Council.  The Council of Mantua, the previous attempt to Trent, was supposed to take place on May 23, 1537.  It is this Council that Luther is writing for. However, the Council had been deferred before and Luther presciently predicts it will be delayed again.  Pastors, theologians, and laymen on both sides of the debate were distressed by the lack of a council.  It had been called for even in the earliest days of the Reformation.

At this time in his life, Luther is suffering from heart trouble and kidney stones.  While he will live until 1546, he thinks he is dying while he writes the Smalcald Articles. Thus he does not expect to make it to the council but wishes to present this confession as his own.

4] For what shall I say? How shall I complain? I am still living, writing, preaching, and lecturing daily; [and] yet there are found such spiteful men, not only among the adversaries, but also false brethren that profess to be on our side, as dare to cite my writings and doctrine directly against myself, and let me look on and listen, although they know well that I teach otherwise, and as wish to adorn their venom with my labor, and under my name to [deceive and] mislead the poor people. [Good God!] Alas! what first will happen when I am dead?

5] Indeed, I ought to reply to everything while I am still living. But, again, how can I alone stop all the mouths of the devil? especially of those (as they all are poisoned) who will not hear or notice what we write, but solely exercise themselves with all diligence how they may most shamefully pervert and corrupt our word in every letter. These I let the devil answer, or at last Gods wrath, as they deserve. 6] I often think of the good Gerson, who doubts whether anything good should be [written and] published. If it is not done, many souls are neglected who could be delivered; but if it is done, the devil is there with malignant, villainous tongues without number which envenom and pervert everything, so that nevertheless the fruit [the usefulness of the writings] is prevented. 7] Yet what they gain thereby is manifest. For while they have lied so shamefully against us and by means of lies wished to retain the people, God has constantly advanced His work, and been making their following ever smaller and ours greater, and by their lies has caused and still causes them to be brought to shame.

Luther also had a second reason to write this.  People were using his words against his clearly stated positions, even to his face.  He references Jean Charlier de Gerson (1363-1429), who previously had written against the scholastics and corruption in the clergy.  Luther takes heart in the fact that more and more people are being swayed to correct doctrine in spite of these lies.

8] I must tell a story. There was a doctor sent here to Wittenberg from France, who said publicly before us that his king was sure and more than sure, that among us there is no church, no magistrate, no married life, but all live promiscuously as cattle, and each one does as he pleases. 9] Imagine now, how will those who by their writings have instilled such gross lies into the king and other countries as the pure truth, look at us on that day before the judgment-seat of Christ? Christ, the Lord and Judge of us all, knows well that they lie and have [always] lied, His sentence they in turn, must hear; that I know certainly. God convert to repentance those who can be converted! Regarding the rest it will be said, Woe, and, alas! eternally.

The lies about the Reformers were so bad that they were charged with all sorts of nonsense such as abolishing all law.  Luther prays for the repentance of those who slander him, but then also points the Law at them to show them where they will end up if they do not.  For all must stand before God at the end to give an accounting of their deeds (2 Corinthians 5:1-10).

10] But to return to the subject. I verily desire to see a truly Christian Council [assembled some time], in order that many matters and persons might be helped. Not that we need it, for our churches are now, through God’s grace, so enlightened and equipped with the pure Word and right use of the Sacraments, with knowledge of the various callings and of right works, that we on our part ask for no Council, and on such points have nothing better to hope or expect from a Council. But we see in the bishoprics everywhere so many parishes vacant and desolate that one’s heart would break, and yet neither the bishops nor canons care how the poor people live or die, for whom nevertheless Christ has died, and who are not permitted to hear Him speak with them as the true Shepherd with His sheep. 11] This causes me to shudder and fear that at some time He may send a council of angels upon Germany utterly destroying us, like Sodom and Gomorrah, because we so wantonly mock Him with the Council.

12] Besides such necessary ecclesiastical affairs, there would be also in the political estate innumerable matters of great importance to improve. There is the disagreement between the princes and the states; usury and avarice have burst in like a flood, and have become lawful [are defended with a show of right]; wantonness, lewdness, extravagance in dress, gluttony, gambling, idle display, with all kinds of bad habits and wickedness, insubordination of subjects, of domestics and laborers, of every trade, also the exactions [and most exorbitant selling prices] of the peasants (and who can enumerate all?) have so increased that they cannot be rectified by ten Councils and twenty Diets. 13] If such chief matters of the spiritual and worldly estates as are contrary to God would be considered in the Council, they would have all hands so full that the child’s play and absurdity of long gowns [official insignia], large tonsures, broad cinctures [or sashes], bishops’ or cardinals’ hats or maces, and like jugglery would in the mean time be forgotten. If we first had performed God’s command and order in the spiritual and secular estate, we would find time enough to reform food, clothing, tonsures, and surplices. But if we want to swallow such camels, and, instead, strain at gnats, let the beams stand and judge the motes, we also might indeed be satisfied with the Council.

14] Therefore I have presented few articles; for we have without this so many commands of God to observe in the Church, the state, and the family that we can never fulfil them. What, then, is the use, or what does it profit that many decrees and statutes thereon are made in the Council, especially when these chief matters commanded of God are neither regarded nor observed? Just as though He were bound to honor our jugglery as a reward of our treading His solemn commandments under foot. But our sins weigh upon us and cause God not to be gracious to us; for we do not repent, and, besides, wish to defend every abomination.

Back to the point, Luther would really like to see a Council for multiple reasons.  However, the Reformers don’t really need it as they have the Gospel. Rather this is Council is necessary for the rest of the church, to call them to repent.  The council will also be good to set in order temporal affairs.

However, the clergy of the church were abusing their authority as shepherds both inside and outside of the church.  In doing so they denied the people the voice of the Good Shepherd (John 10:1-21).  Luther fears that this apostasy combined with the mockery of a council will bring about another episode like Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:1-19:29).

All of these problems had been ignored by the Church.  Rather there was so much bickering in the church over trivial things such as minor points regarding priests should dress, that more important things had been neglected (Matthew 7:1-6, Matthew 23).  This is why Luther has condensed everything down to a few articles.  There is already so much to do that there is not much point in making it a lengthy discussion.  This is a call to repentance.

15] O Lord Jesus Christ, do Thou Thyself convoke a Council, and deliver Thy servants by Thy glorious advent! The Pope and his adherents are done for; they will have none of Thee. Do Thou, then, help us, who are poor and needy, who sigh to Thee, and beseech Thee earnestly, according to the grace which Thou hast given us, through Thy Holy Ghost, who liveth and reigneth with Thee and the Father, blessed forever. Amen.

This is an honest prayer by Luther.  The Lord does truly hold His own Council as He sits on His Holy Throne in Heaven. Christ will come again as Judge.  He helps those who call on Him.  We pray this also with Luther, that evil and false doctrine would be crushed and that the Lord would preserve His Church (Romans 8:18-30, Romans 12:3-8, Titus 2).

1 Lord, keep us steadfast in Your Word;
Curb those who by deceit or sword
Would wrest the kingdom from Your Son
And bring to naught all He has done.

2 Lord Jesus Christ, Your pow’r make known,
For You are Lord of lords alone;
Defend Your holy Church that we
May sing your praise eternally.

3 O Comforter of priceless worth,
Send peace and unity on earth;
Support us in our final strife
And lead us out of death to life.

(LSB 655)

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