January / February 1995 The Turmoil Following the Death of Luther
From the January / February 1995 issue of The Concordia Lutheran
The Turmoil Following The Death Of Luther
Luther was dead! On the 18th of February 1546, in the early morning hours (about 3 o’clock), Dr. Martin Luther had breathed his last breath–having reaffirmed his faith and the doctrine which he had preached, and having committed his soul into the hands of the “Lord God of Truth” who had redeemed him. He had traveled from Wittenberg to Eisleben to do what he could to settle a legal dispute between two brothers (the Counts of Mansfeld). He had felt ill when he reached Eisleben and, after the dispute had been amicably settled, he became very ill and died shortly thereafter while he was yet in Eisleben– the very town in which he had been born and baptized almost 63 years earlier.
Elector John Frederick of Saxony, John the Magnanimous, wanted Luther’s body returned to Wittenberg and buried there. It took about 4 days for the solemn procession carrying the body of Luther to reach Wittenberg. The final funeral service was held in the Castle Church on the door of which, thirty years previous, Luther had posted his ninety-five theses. His body was laid to rest in that same church building, near the pulpit from which he had so often proclaimed the pure teachings of God’s Word which had become so unfamiliar to a world held in the spiritual stranglehold of the Great Antichrist, the Roman Papacy.
Luther’s work here on earth was finished. His course was run–but it is impossible to estimate the tremendous effect of his writings through which, by God’s grace, he once again brought back the pure teachings of the Bible to the common people who were blindly staggering about in self-righteousness, saint-worship, and superstition. Yet, after Luther’s death, true Evangelical Lutheranism faltered and almost became extinct. Only some coals of genuine Lutheranism flickered here and there among the regular clergy in small congregations. Most of the popular and influential theologians showed their true colors, became liberal in there theology and permitted rationalism to find fertile soil in their teaching. Some Lutheran churches returned to Catholicism; others embraced Calvinistic and Reformed teachings. The real decay began at the top–among the professors, theologians, and religious leaders. To understand the turmoil of this dark period, the names and items on the following list may prove helpful:
Wittenberg University–Where Luther taught for about 34 years and had been dean of the Theological Faculty; looked to for Scriptural teaching and guidance by pastors and people throughout Germany.
Elector John Frederick–Elector of Saxony from 1532–1547; friend and protector of Luther, and a faithful confessor of the pure teachings of God’s word; was imprisoned and exiled by Charles V, two years after Luther’s death, because he would not accept the Augsburg Interim.
Smalcald League–A league of faithful Lutheran princes (Dukes and Electors) who pledged their support and military strength to defend Lutheran churches from being overthrown by Papal forces.
Maurice (Moritz), Duke of Saxony–Son of Duke Henry who was a staunch supporter of the Reformation and a member of the Smalcald League; became ruler over ducal Saxony (1541) when he was only 20 years old; turned traitor after Luther’s death and helped Charles V defeat the Smalcald League in the Smalcaldic War (1548); became elector of Saxony after John Frederich was arrested & imprisoned by Charles V; turned against the emperor four years later at Innsbruck & forced him to sign the Treaty of Passau; died the next year in battle at the age of 32.
King Charles V (b.1500; d.1558)–Elected Regent over the Holy Roman Empire at the age of 19; presided over the Council at Worms (1521) where he declared Luther to be an outlaw whom anyone could kill on sight; was also present at the Council at Augsburg (1530) when the Augsburg Confession was read; was always a staunch Romanist but his treatment of the Lutherans was often conditioned by his political needs when he had to depend on military support from the German princes in his wars against the Turk and Francis I, King of France; was hindered by the powerful Smalcald League, while Luther was yet alive, from forcing the Lutherans to reunite with the Romanists.
The Augsburg Interim–A tentative injunction or mandate forced upon the Lutheran churches in Germany requiring them to reembrace most of the teachings and practices of the Roman Church; was established in 1548 at Augsburg after Charles V had crushed the Smalcald League and imprisoned Elector John Frederich; was accepted under duress by most of the German princes.
The Leipsig Interim–A modification of the Augsburg Interim by Moritz who made it the law in Saxony; accepted by the theologians at the University of Wittenberg; compromised the doctrine of Justification by Faith; pledged Lutheran pastors to obey the Pope and bishops; reinstated Roman ceremonies and laws.
The Treaty of Passau–Forced upon Charles V by Duke/Elector Moritz of Saxony in 1552; put an end to the Augsburg and Leipsig Interims; provided religious liberty for the Lutheran governments throughout Germany.
Melanchthon, Philip (b.1497; d.1560)–Faithful friend of Luther as long as Luther was alive; preached at Luther’s funeral in Wittenberg; professor at the University of Wittenberg from 1518 to the end of his life; wrote the Augsburg Confession and the Apology; was an expert in Hebrew and Greek; taught chiefly theology but also taught the classics and medicine; was second only to Luther in the university and sometimes outstripped Luther in popularity; wrote a book on Christian doctrine called Loci Communes; persisted (after Luther’s death) in compromising on the Doctrines of Free Will and the Real Presence; taught that good works are necessary to salvation; approved of the Augsburg and Leipsig Interims.
August, Elector of Saxony–Brother of Moritz whom he succeeded in 1453; a staunch defender of conservative Lutheranism; encouraged and financially supported the writing of the Formula of Concord and the publishing of the Book of Concord of 1580.
The Counter Reformation–A movement by the papists (beginning a year before Luther’s death) with the Council of Trent; an attempt to lessen the effect of the Reformation on the Church of Rome; a re-definition of Roman catholic doctrines in opposition to Lutheran teaching; a re-concentration of power in the Papacy; a re-establishment of forceful methods to suppress opponents (Inquisition); a concerted effort toward moral reforms among the clergy.
The Formula of Concord–The last of the Lutheran Confessions in the Book of Concord of 1580; helped to bring about unity among those Lutherans who, during the turbulent period following Luther’s death, wanted to remain faithful to the pure teachings of God’s Word.
The great blessings of the Reformation were almost lost during the years following Luther’s death. Only two years later, as a direct result of Duke Moritz’s joining forces with Charles V, over 500 Lutheran pastors (mostly in southern Germany) had to leave their churches because they were not willing to compromise the Word of God with the teachings of Roman Catholicism. Charles V, having conquered most of Germany, proceeded to enforce upon the princes and their governmental jurisdictions throughout Germany the Augsburg Interim as a temporary agreement in religious matters until the next General Council should make it permanent. The Leipsig Interim, a modification of the Augsburg Interim, was established by Moritz, as law in Saxony with the approval of Melanchthon and influential members of the Theological Faculty at the University of Wittenberg. Thousands of faithful pastors, together with their families, suffered much on account of these Interims. And, of course, thousands of congregations suffered likewise because they lacked the regular and consistent nurturing from the pure Word of God. The Treaty of Passau brought about a semblance of peace to the German states but still made it difficult for many to confess the Word of God in its full truth and purity.
The Wittenberg Theological Faculty which, toward the end of Luther’s life, had already begun to forsake its respected position as a bulwark of conservative Lutheranism, now yielded to a liberal attitude toward the Romanists on the one hand and toward the Reformed theologians (Calvinists, etc.) on the other. Unionism and compromise simply became the order of the day and grave errors in doctrine were being taught. Only by God’s grace did the pure teachings of God’s Word survive through the unity brought about by the Formula of Concord.
The efforts of the Roman Papacy in the so-called Counter Reformation also forced many Lutherans to compromise their faith out of fear, or made it easier for them to return to the Roman Catholic Church because they thought that Catholicism was taking a turn for the better which, of course, was not the case.
As secular history often repeats itself, so also in the area of Church History. As there is nothing new under the sun as far as human nature is concerned, we find a reflection of the turbulent times after Luther’s death mirrored also in the history of the Lutheran Church in America. The Lutheran pastors who came to this country in the 1600s and settled on the Eastern seacoast were pledged to the Augsburg Confession and their congregations were bound by it. Gradually, however, they became less and less concerned about purity of doctrine and through the popularity of Pietism, Rationalism, and sectarianism (unionism) in the 1700s and 1800s, the Confessions set forth in the Book of Concord of 1580 became empty forms to most Lutherans. Once in a while confessional Lutheranism came to the fore among the early Lutherans in the eastern part of our country only to be pushed again into the background. Synods, conferences, and congregations generally discouraged confessional loyalty, and the Lutheran Confessions were even omitted from their constitutions. Lutheranism, in the early days of our nation, was, in general, a lukewarm mixture of the teachings of Scripture with Reformed doctrines.
It wasn’t until the arrival of the Saxons in Perry County, Missouri (1839), that the Word of God, by God’s grace once again began to be taught and upheld in America in its full truth and purity. The Missouri Synod was founded. In time, orthodox Lutheran congregations, parochial schools, colleges and seminaries began to spring up throughout the United States. Other orthodox synods, (WELS, Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, and ELS, Evangelical Lutheran Synod, Norwegian) joined with the Missouri Synod in the Synodical Conference. True Scriptural doctrine and practice remained with the Missouri Synod only for about the first one hundred years and the WELS and ELS soon began to follow in the footsteps of heterodox Missouri.
As during the period after Luther’s death, decay began at the top, so it was that, after Dr. Walther and subsequent fathers of the Missouri Synod, having served the Lord faithfully, were received into their eternal rest, theologians arose who were not satisfied with “historic Lutheranism” as it was set forth ever so plainly in the Brief Statement of 1932 and especially as far as its position on UNIONISM was concerned. Compromise on the verbal inspiration of Scripture and man’s free will in spiritual matters found its way into union documents. Influential pastors, professors, and synodical officials were tolerated throughout the synod in spite of their false teachings both in doctrine and practice. In the name of “academic freedom” professors played free and loose with what was plainly taught in the Bible. A Scriptural engagement was no longer regarded as tantamount to marriage in the sight of God; the virgin birth of Christ was called into question; a permanent consubstantiation (of sorts) in the Lord’s Supper was taught; objective justification was denounced; the days of creation were stretched into long eons of time; Adam and Eve were no longer regarded as people; the doctrine of original sin in general was watered down and minimized; Law and Gospel were no longer properly distinguished and anti-nomanism reared its head; unionistic services were practiced and participation in the popular ecumenical movement with Romanistic and sectarian churches was promoted; bake sales, suppers, bazaars, fairs, raffles and other money-making schemes were no longer discouraged but were endorsed by district presidents and popularized by local pastors through ladies aids, Walther leagues, and men’s clubs; the instruction of children and adults prior to confirmation was scrunched to only a few days or weeks; memorizing Luther’s Small Catechism and Bible passages was discouraged or reduced to a bare minimum. So-called conservative pastors and professors remained in heterodox synods, claiming to be “fighting for the Truth from within” (an unScriptural notion) while being the most obvious belly-servers (Romans 16:17,18) and doing more harm than good for our Savior and for His precious Kingdom. Wave after wave of students, ignorant of the pure truths of God’s Word, came forth from seminaries in St. Louis, Springfield, Ft. Wayne, and Thiensville, were called to serve congregations and led souls entrusted to their care with lukewarm drivel to spiritual starvation.
Today, many young students are becoming more and more afflicted with professor-itis and author-itis. They are eager to be called doctor or professor, and to have written a book or two. They think that being a common pastor is beneath the dignity of their scholarly talents–even though Scripture makes the Pastoral Office in the local congregation the highest office in the Christian Church.
It used to be that seminary professors had spent many years as pastors before becoming professors, and this was wholesome for the church and for those studying for the ministry–but this is no longer so! NOT “oratio, meditatio, tentatio facit theologorum” (prayer, meditation, and experience makes the theologian) BUT popularatio, belly-servatio, and pride-alotsio which places its own wisdom above what is plainly taught in Scripture.
Today, meetings between Lutherans and Romanists have been carried on with glowing reports. As sly and deceitful as were the efforts of the Counter Reformation, the present Pope with his benign appearance and conduct, and with his strong position on morals, has made many liberal Lutherans feel that their differences with the Roman Catholics are minimal. And their attitude is the same toward those who assume a conservative stance (eg. against abortion) in Calvinistic and Reformed circles. Joint communion services, rallies, and various activities feature participation with such obvious false teachers, and confessional Lutheranism is garbaged.
It is true that the turmoil which took place after the death of Luther could also take place in our own little Conference. And it will indeed take place AS SOON AS our people are no longer eager to hear, to learn, to confess, and to follow as much of God’s Word in its full truth and purity as they possibly can and to continue in that Word. It will indeed take place AS SOON AS any one of our pastors follows the inclination of his own sinful flesh to exalt himself–putting his own knowledge, wisdom, reason, and understanding above God’s Word, and being too lazy or fearful to teach and to preach the Word of God “in season and out of season,” and to spend and to be spent in the work of his high office and calling, to labor among his people, instructing them THOROUGHLY in the Scriptures and admonishing them in the fear of God–watching for the souls of his people “as they that must give account.”
It is because pastors lose sight of these important duties of their offices and let them sink into obscurity behind more popular demands and pressures that a morbid decay sets into the very vitals of a congregation. How many Lutheran pastors have spent an entire lifetime in the pastoral office and have not once instructed their people in the great Confessions of the Lutheran Church through which the Lord, by His grace alone, preserved the true Evangelical Lutheran Church from the poison tentacles of the Roman Antichrist and from the deceitful snares of sectarian rationalism? For how many pastors is their golf game more important that their diligent reading, studying, teaching and preaching of God’s Word? Is it no wonder that Church Discipline, according to Matthew 18, is simply a thing of the past in most Lutheran churches throughout our land and that Synodical discipline which makes sure that “we all speak the same thing and that there be no divisions among us,” I Cor. 1:10, is simply unheard of! Woe, woe unto those pastors who do not properly shepherd the sheep which God has entrusted to their care, take proper Scriptural heed unto all their needs, and defend them against the wolves which seek to destroy the flock! O, dear readers and members of our Conference, if we do not learn from history, we study history in vain!
We don’t need a Luther, a Walther, a Pieper, a Hoenikee, or a Koren. By God’s grace we have their writings! What we do NEED is MEN! Dedicated MEN! MEN WHO ARE NOT AFRAID FOR THEMSELVES OR ASHAMED OF THE LORD JESUS AND WHAT IS PLAINLY SET FORTH IN HIS WORD! MEN who are not blown about by every wind of doctrine but who are thoroughly instructed in the Scriptures ALONE; MEN who are “steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord,” knowing that their labor is not in vain in the Lord! Let us pray earnestly for such MEN!
And to those pastors, professors, and theologians who are TRULY conservative in the large, lax, lukewarm bodies of modern Lutheranism, we say, “Come with us and we will do you good!” Don’t continue in footsteps of the liberal Lutherans who, after the death of Luther, declared in effect, “For the sake of outward peace and unity it is important to exercise brotherly love and to compromise on what we believe and teach–to give in a little here and there (especially in the area of unionism) and continue to fight against error from within.” The Bible permits of no such compromise or toleration of error. Jesus says, “He that is not with Me is against Me,” Matthew 12:30, and St. Paul writes, “Charity (brotherly love) rejoiceth NOT in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the Truth,” I Cor. 13:6. “Come out from among them and be ye separate, saith the Lord,” II Cor. 6:17, for God says, “I am against the prophets that use their tongues and say He saith,” Jer. 23:31. “They that are such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ but their own bellies, and with good words and fair speeches deceive the hearts of the simple,” Rom. 16:18.