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§ 29. The Penitential Psalms. The Eve of the Reformation.

The first original work which Luther published was a German exposition of the seven Penitential Psalms, 1517.172172    Weimar ed., vol. I. 154-220. A Latin copy had appeared already in 1513 and is preserved in the library at Wolfenbüttel, from which Prof. E. Riehm of Halle published it: Initium theologiae Lutheri. S. exempla scholiorum quibus D. Lutherus Psalterium interpretari coepit. Part. I. Septem Psalms paenitentiales. Textum originalem nunc primum de Lutheri autographo exprimendum curavit. Halle, 1874. Luther’s closing lectures of 1516 exist likewise in MS. at Dresden, from which they were published by J. C. Seidemann in: Doctoris M. Lutheri scholae ineditae de Psalmis annis 1513-1516. Dresden, 1876, in 2 vols. It was a fit introduction to the reformatory Theses which enjoin the true evangelical repentance. In this exposition he sets forth the doctrines of sin and grace and the comfort of the gospel for the understanding of the common people. It shows him first in the light of a popular author, and had a wide circulation.

Luther was now approaching the prime of manhood. He was the shining light of the young university, and his fame began to spread through Germany. But he stood not alone. He had valuable friends and co-workers such as Dr. Wenzeslaus Link, the prior of the convent, and John Lange, who had a rare knowledge of Greek. Carlstadt also, his senior colleague, was at that time in full sympathy with him. Nicolaus von Amsdorf, of the same age with Luther, was one of his most faithful adherents, but more influential in the pulpit than in the chair. Christoph Scheurl, Professor of jurisprudence, was likewise intimate with Luther. Nor must we forget Georg Spalatin, who did not belong to the university, but had great influence upon it as chaplain and secretary of the Elector Frederick, and acted as friendly mediator between him and Luther. The most effective aid the Reformer received, in 1518, in the person of Melanchthon.173173    On the early colleagues of Luther, see Jürgens, II. 217-235.

The working forces of the Reformation were thus fully prepared and ready for action. The scholastic philosophy and theology were undermined, and a biblical, evangelical theology ruled in Wittenberg. It was a significant coincidence, that the first edition of the Greek Testament was published by Erasmus in 1516, just a year before the Reformation.174174    Luther made good use of it for his translation, but was not pleased with the writings of Erasmus. As early as March 1, 1517, he wrote to John Lange: "I now read our Erasmus, but he pleases me less every day. It is well enough that he should constantly and learnedly refute the monks and priests, and charge them with a deep-rooted and sleepy ignorance. But I fear he does not sufficiently promote Christ and the grace of God, of which he knows very little. He thinks more of the human than the divine .... Not every one who is a good Greek and Hebrew, is also for this reason a good Christian. The blessed Jerome with his five tongues did not equal the one-tongued Augustin, although Erasmus thinks differently."—Briefe, ed. De Wette, I. 52.

Luther had as yet no idea of reforming the Catholic church, and still less of separating from it. All the roots of his life and piety were in the historic church, and he considered himself a good Catholic even in 1517, and was so in fact. He still devoutly prayed to the Virgin Mary from the pulpit; he did not doubt the intercession of saints in heaven for the sinners on earth; he celebrated mass with full belief in the repetition of the sacrifice on the cross and the miracle of transubstantiation; he regarded the Hussites as "sinful heretics" for breaking away from the unity of the church and the papacy which offered a bulwark against sectarian division.

But by the leading of Providence he became innocently and reluctantly a Reformer. A series of events carried him irresistibly from step to step, and forced him far beyond his original intentions. Had he foreseen the separation, he would have shrunk from it in horror. He was as much the child of his age as its father, and the times molded him before he molded the times. This is the case with all men of Providence: they are led by a divine hand while they are leading their fellow-men.


The works of Luther written before the 95 Theses (reprinted in the Weimar ed., I. 1–238, III., IV.) are as follows: Commentary on the Psalms; a number of sermons; Tractatus de his, qui ad ecclesias confugiunt (an investigation of the right of asylum; first printed 1517, anonymously, then under Luther’s name, 1520, at Landshut; but of doubtful genuineness); Sermo praescriptus praeposito in Litzka, 1512 (a Latin sermon prepared for his friend, the Provost Georg Mascov of Leitzkau in Brandenburg); several Latin Sermons from 1514–1517; Quaestio de viribus et voluntate hominis sine gratia disputata, 1516; Preface to his first edition of "German Theology," 1516; The seven Penitential Psalms, 1517; Disputatio contra scholasticam theologiam, 1517. The last are 97 theses against the philosophy of Aristotle, of whom he said, that he would hold him to be a devil if he had not had flesh. These theses were published in September, 1517, and were followed in October by the 95 Theses against the traffic in Indulgences.

The earliest letters of Luther, from April 22, 1507, to Oct. 31, 1517, are addressed to Braun (vicar at Eisenach), Spalatin (chaplain of the Elector Frederick), Lohr (prior of the Augustinian Convent at Erfurt), John Lange, Scheurl, and others. They are printed in Latin in Löscher’s Reformations-Acta, vol. . 795–846; in De Wette’s edition of Luther’s Briefe, I. 1–64; German translation in Walch, vol. XXI. The last of these ante-Reformation letters is directed to Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz, and dated from the day of the publication of the Theses, Oct. 31, 1517 (DeWette I. 67–70). The letters begin with the name of "Jesus."

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