Thursday, November 15, 2012

Prelude: Stuck inside of Mobile

But deep inside my heart
I know I can't escape
Oh Mama, can this really be the end--
To be stuck inside of Mobile
With the Memphis blues again?

  - "Stuck inside of Mobile," by Bob Dylan

Wartburg Castle
The year 1521 found Martin Luther "stuck inside of Wartburg with the Wittenberg blues."

After taking a dramatic stand for the gospel at the Diet of Worms, Luther left for Wittenberg on Friday, April 26, guarded by twenty horsemen. That weekend while en route he visited a relative, wrote a few letters, and preached. In one of the letters, to his friend Lucas Cranach, he confided that he was going to be hidden for his safety in an undisclosed location. On Monday, a party of bowmen on horseback, sent out from Frederick the Wise, accosted Luther's group and "kidnapped" the reformer. They took a circuitous route to throw off any possible pursuers and eventually arrived at the castle of Wartburg, overlooking the walled city of Eisenach.

There, in a small, modest room, with only the company of his guards, Martin Luther found himself in exile. It would be his home away from home for nearly a year.

Despite a deep spirit of melancholy, incessant loneliness, idleness and physical discomfort from bouts with constipation ("My arse has gone bad," he wrote to a friend), Luther's stay at the castle proved remarkably productive. He produced hearty polemical writings such as his response to James Latomus from the University of Louvain, who had written an attack on Luther's teaching in 1520. Luther refined his positions on the practices of the Church as well. He wrote a treatise on monastic vows. He wrote about confession and whether the pope had the power to regulate it. He wrote about the "misuse of the mass." In written arguments and by letter, he railed against practices surrounding relics and indulgences being promoted by Albrecht of Mainz.

He also did what he could to continue his pastoral work, which he considered essential. Luther produced a collection of sermons to be published in German, his "Church Postil." He intended for ministers to read these to their congregations on the various Sundays of the liturgical year. The eloquent yet simple sermons are among Luther's most beloved writings and they give clear testimony to his heart as a pastor: that people might come to know the preciousness of faith in Christ as he had. In light of its use of the German language, its focus on Christ and evangelical teaching, and its introduction to the Gospels setting forth his view of the gospel and gospel preaching, Martin Brecht notes: "In a certain sense the postil was the prelude to the even greater work of the Wartburg period, the translation of the New Testament" (Brecht, Martin Luther 1521-1532, Loc. 375).

It only took Luther eleven weeks to produce the first draft of his shining achievement at the Wartburg: his German New Testament. Upon his return to Wittenberg in March 1522 he began revising it with the counsel of other scholars and tools unavailable to him while in confinement. It was printed in September 1522. Martin Brecht describes its character:
Through his work in producing polemic and devotional literature in the preceding years, Luther's command of the German language had improved extraordinarily, and his interest in nuanced rendering of biblical expressions may have been of great help to him. The Bible spoke clearly and directly to Luther in the situations of his own life, and he did what he could to transmit that to others. He conceived of the gospel more as an oral message than as a literary text, and this was why his translation took on a spoken character that is picked up by the ear. This led him to select forceful words, succinct expressions, and simple declarative sentences. 
- Brecht, Martin Luther 1521-1532, Loc. 877)
Even in the scholarly work of translation, Luther's pastoral impulses reigned.

Wittenberg, 1536

Meanwhile, in Wittenberg...
While all this work was being accomplished in quiet solitude at the Wartburg, sounds of contention and disorder began emanating from Wittenberg. To this point, Luther's controversial stances had not changed the actual practices of the people much. However, the teachings had opened a door. It wasn't long before others came barging through it.

Three who took leadership in his absence were especially prominent.
  • His colleague, Andreas Karlstadt, from whom Martin had received his doctorate, and who had enthusiastically embraced Luther's evangelical teachings, began preaching and actively agitating for actual reforms. Karlstadt began asserting, for example, not only that people should be given the wine as well as the bread in communion, but that people were sinning if they only received the bread. 
  • Beginning in September, private masses were held in the home of another of Luther's compatriots, Philip Melanchthon, in which both the bread and chalice were given. 
  • Another colleague, Gabriel Zwilling, also took to the pulpit and likewise railed against the common practices of private masses, venerating the host, and forbidding the cup to the laity. At one point, masses ceased in the Augustinian monastery while tense discussions were held to work matters out.

However, alterations to the mass, pivotal as they were, were only one aspect of the dramatic changes Wittenbergers sought. Bainton tersely lists what was happening in the town during that portentous year:
Then during his absence in 1521 and 1522 one innovation followed another with disconcerting rapidity. Priests married, monks married, nuns married. Nuns and monks even married each other. The tonsured permitted their hair to grow. The wine in the mass was given to the laity, and they were suffered to take the elements into their own hands. Priests celebrated the sacrament without vestments, in plain clothes. Portions of the mass were recited in the German tongue. Masses for the dead were discontinued. Vigils ceased, vespers were altered, images were smashed. Meat was eaten on fast days. Endowments were withdrawn by patrons. The enrollment in universities declined because students were no longer supported by ecclesiastical stipends. All this could not escape the eye of Hans and Gretel. Doctrine might go over their heads, but liturgy was part of their daily religious life. They realized now that the reformation meant something..." 
- Bainton, Here I Stand, p. 153
Though Martin Luther was not present, and could not go to Wittenberg to deal with the increasingly chaotic situation, he was kept informed of developments. Some of the treatises and letters he wrote addressed what was happening, but their dissemination was delayed or had little immediate effect. In December 1521, Luther disguised himself as a knight and made a clandestine visit to Wittenberg to see what was taking place with his own eyes. He returned to Wartburg with a mixture of feelings: happy about some reforms, unhappy about the violence, concerned as a pastor about how and why some were preaching and embracing changes, and furious that writings he had sent to Wittenberg to address various situations had not been published and distributed.

Karlstadt and the Iconoclast, Linnig
On Christmas Day, the entire town of Wittenberg turned out at Castle Church. In spite of Elector Frederick's order on Dec. 19 that no changes should be made in the mass, it had been announced that this would be a simple, evangelical and reformed service. And so it was. Karlstadt officiated in a plain black robe without vestments. He told the people they need not have confessed their sins or fasted in order to partake of the Supper; faith alone was required. He conducted the first part of the service in Latin, then changed to German to introduce the sacrament. He omitted all parts in which the mass was called a sacrifice. The people took the bread and the chalice in their own hands. A host was even dropped on the floor and picked up again.

This "first reformed mass" had been preceded on Christmas Eve by rioting in the streets of Wittenberg when Karlstadt's service was announced. It was followed the day after Christmas by Karlstadt's public engagement to be married. Public agitation and violent protests against images in the churches and priests had been going on for weeks. In addition to these developments, a group of "prophets" from the town of Zwickau near the Bohemian border, influenced by Thomas MΓΌntzer, had arrived in town, claiming personal revelations, asserting little need for the Bible, speaking against the practice of infant baptism, and promoting visions of the future. Though they were dealt with and never caused any serious problems in Wittenberg at the time, they added a potential element of "wild fire" to the mix that was troubling.

The church was being restructured. In late January, the Wittenberg town council approved a new church constitution that incorporated many elements of reform. It included a plan to remove altars and images from the churches, all the way down to crucifixes. This led to more iconoclastic violence. A prohibition on taking up public collections and begging was put in place, which had a dramatic effect on monks and students in particular, and which prompted more of them to leave their institutions.

Then in February, Elector Frederick stepped in. He stopped Karlstadt and Zwilling from preaching, virtually annulled the new church constitution, and scaled back the innovations in the mass. Martin Luther began corresponding with him anew, and discussions about Luther's return to Wittenberg commenced. Frederick was in a difficult position. Luther was a wanted man, but the town needed its leader. The empire had stated its commitment to stopping him, but the reformer assured Frederick that he served a great Protector. Luther wrote a statement for the Diet at Nuremburg designed to convince the powers that the Elector was not responsible for his return. He prepared to go home.

The turning point in Martin Luther's career had arrived. He had been at the forefront of restoring an emphasis on Christ and the gospel in the life of the Church. Having opened that door, strong winds of change blowing through it were not only bringing new life, but also causing destruction. Furthermore, unwise people were fanning the dangerous wild fires being spread by those winds. The whole town of Wittenberg was threatened.

Now it was time for the professor and polemicist to focus on being a pastor. And that is what Martin Luther did when he returned to town in March 1522. For the next two years, he identified himself in his writings as "The Ecclesiast" -- a servant to the church at Wittenberg (Brecht, Martin Luther 1521-1532, Loc. 978).

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