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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 5 — History of Protestantism in Germany to the Leipsic Disputation, 1519

Chapter 5 — Luther as priest, professor, and preacher

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Ordained as a Priest – Wittemberg University – Luther made Professor – Lectures on the Bible – Popularity – Concourse of Students – Luther Preaches at Wittemberg – A Wooden Church – The Audience – The Impression – The Gospel Resumes its March – Who shall Stop it?

LUTHER had been two years in the monastery, when on Sunday, 2nd May, 1507, he was ordained to the priesthood. The act was performed by Jerome, Bishop of Brandenburg. John Luther, his father, was present, attended by twenty horsemen, Martin's old comrades, and bringing to his son a present of twenty guilders. The earliest letter extant of Luther is one of invitation to John Braun, Vicar of Eisenach. It gives a fine picture of the feelings with which Luther entered upon his new office. "Since the glorious God," said he, "holy in all his works, has deigned to exalt me, who am a wretched man and every way an unworthy sinner, so eminently, and to call me to his sublime ministry by his sole and most liberal mercy, may I be grateful for the magnificence of such Divine goodness (as far at least as dust and ashes may) and duly discharge the office committed to me." [1]

In the Protestant Churches, the office into which ordination admits one is that of ministry; in the Church of Rome, in which Luther received ordination, it is that of priesthood. The Bishop of Brandenburg, when he ordained Luther, placed the chalice in his hand, accompanying the action with the words, "Receive thou the power of sacrificing for the quick and the dead." [2] It is one of the fundamental tenets of Protestantism that to offer sacrifice is the prerogative of Christ alone, and that, since the coming of this "one Priest," and the offering of His "one sacrifice," sacrificing priesthood is for ever abolished. Luther did not see this then; but the recollection of the words addressed to him by the bishop appalled him in after years. "If the earth did not open and swallow us both up," said he, "it was owing to the great patience and long-suffering of the Lord."

Luther passed another year in his cell, and left it in haste at last, as Joseph his prison, being summoned to fill a wider sphere. The University of Wittemberg was founded in 1502 by Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony. He wished, as he said in its charter, to make it the light of his kingdom. He little dreamed what a fulfillment awaited his wish. The elector was looking round him for fit men for its chairs. Staupitz, whose sagacity and honorable character gave him great weight with Frederick, recommended the Augustinian monk at Erfurt. The electoral invitation was immediately dispatched to Luther, and accepted by him. And now we behold him, disciplined by God, rich in the experience of himself, and illumined with the knowledge of the Gospel, bidding the monastery a final adieu, though not as yet the cowl, and going forth to teach in the newly-founded University of Wittemberg. [3]

The department assigned to Luther was "dialectics and physics" – in other words, the scholastic philosophy. There was a day – it had not long gone by – when Luther reveled in this philosophy, and deemed it the perfection of all wisdom. He had since tasted the "old wine" of the apostles, and had lost all relish for the "new wine" of the schoolmen. Much he longed to unseal the fountains of the Water of Life to his students. Nevertheless, he set about doing the work prescribed to him, and his labors in this ungenial field were of great use, in the way of completing his own preparation for combating and overthrowing the Aristotelian philosophy – one of the idols of the age.

Soon "philosophy" was exchanged for "theology," as the department of the new professor. It was now that Luther was in his right place. He opened the New Testament; he selected for exposition the Epistle to the Romans [4] – that book which shines like a glorious constellation in the firmament of the Bible, gathering as it does into one group all the great themes of revelation.

Passing from the cell to the class-room with the open Bible in his hand, the professor spoke as no teacher had spoken for ages in Christendom. [5] It was no rhetorician, showing what a master of his art he was; it was no dialectician, proud to display the dexterity of his logic, or the cunning of his sophistry; it was no philosopher, expounding with an air of superior wisdom the latest invention of the schools; Luther spoke like one who had come from another sphere. And he had indeed been carried upwards, or, to speak with greater accuracy, he had, more truly than the great poet of the Inferno, gone down into Hades, and at the cost of tears, and groans, and agonies of soul he had learned what he was now communicating so freely to others. Herein lay the secret of Luther's power. The youths crowded round him; their numbers increased day by day; professors and rectors sat at his feet; the fame of the university went forth to other lands, and students flocked from foreign countries to hear the wisdom of the Wittemberg professor. The living waters shut up so long were again let loose, and were flowing among the habitations of men, and promised to convert the dry and parched wilderness which Christendom had become into the garden of the Lord.

"This monk," said Dr. Mallerstadt, the rector of the university, himself a man of great learning and fame, "will reform the whole Church. He builds on the prophets and apostles, which neither Scotist nor Thomist can overthrow." [6]

Staupitz watched the career of the young professor with peculiar and lively satisfaction. He was even now planning a yet wider usefulness for him. Why, thought

Staupitz, should Luther confine his light within the walls of the university? Around him in Wittemberg, and in all the towns of Germany, are multitudes who are as sheep without a shepherd, seeking to satisfy their hunger with the husks on which the monks feed them; why not minister to these men also the Bread of Life? The Vicar-General proposed to Luther that he should preach in public. He shrank back from so august an office – so weighty a responsibility. "In less than six months," said Luther, "I shall be in my grave." But Staupitz knew the monk better than he knew himself; he continued to urge his proposal, and at last Luther consented. We have followed him from the cell to the professor's chair, now we are to follow him from the chair to the pulpit.

Luther opened his public ministry in no proud cathedral, but in one of the humblest sanctuaries in all Germany. In the center of the public square stood an old wooden church, thirty feet long and twenty broad. Far from magnificent in even its best days, it was now sorely decayed. Tottering to its fall, it needed to be propped up on all sides. In this chapel was a pulpit of boards raised three feet over the level of the floor. This was the place assigned to the young preacher. In this shed, and from this rude pulpit, was the Gospel proclaimed to the common people for the first time after the silence of centuries.

"This building," says Myconius, "may well be compared to the stable in which Christ was born. It was in this wretched enclosure that God willed, so to speak, that his well-beloved Son should be born a second time. Among those thousands of cathedrals and parish churches with which the world is filled, there was not one at that time which God chose for the glorious preaching of eternal life." [7]

If his learning and subtlety fitted Luther to shine in the university, not less did his powers of popular eloquence enable him to command the attention of his countrymen. Before his day the pulpit had sunk ineffably low. At that time not a secular priest in all Italy ever entered a pulpit. [8] Preaching was wholly abandoned to the Mendicant friars. These persons knew neither human nor Divine knowledge. To retain their hearers they were under the necessity of amusing them. This was not difficult, for the audience was as little critical as the preacher was fastidious. Gibes – the coarser, the more effective; legends and tales – the more wonderful and incredible, the more attentively listened to; the lives and miracles of the saints were the staple of the sermons of the age. Dante has immortalized these productions, and the truth of his descriptions is attested by the representations of such scenes which have come clown to us in the sculpture-work of the cathedrals. [9] But the preacher who now appeared in the humble pulpit of the wooden chapel of Wittemberg spoke with authority, and not as the friars. His animated face, his kindling eye, his thrilling tones – above all, the majesty of the truths which he announced – captivated the hearts and awed the consciences of his hearers. He proclaimed pardon and heaven, not as indirect gifts through priests, but as direct from God. Men wondered at these tidings – so new, so strange, and yet so refreshing and welcome. It was evident, to use the language of Melancthon, that "his words had their birth-place not on his lips, but in his soul." [10]

His fame as a preacher grew. From the surrounding cities came crowds to hear him. The timbers of the old edifice creaked under the multitude of listeners. It was far too small to accommodate the numbers that flocked to it.

The Town Council of Wittemberg now elected him to be their preacher, and gave him the use of the parish church. On one occasion the Elector Frederick was among his hearers, and expressed his admiration of the simplicity and force of his language, and the copiousness and weight of his matter. In presence of this larger audience his eloquence burst forth in new power. Still wider shone the light, and more numerous every day were the eyes that turned towards the spot where it was rising. The Reformation was now fairly launched on its path. God had bidden it go onwards, and man would be unable to stop it. Popes and emperors and mighty armies would throw themselves upon it; scaffolds and stakes would be raised to oppose it: over all would it march in triumph, and at last ascend the throne of the world. Emerging from this lowly shed in the square of Wittemberg, as emerges the sun from the mists of earth, it would rise ever higher and shine ever brighter, till at length Truth, like a glorious noon, would shed its beams from pole to pole.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, October 27th, 2020
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30
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