Works of Martin Luther, with introductions and notes, Volume 1/Luther's Prefaces

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SELECTIONS FROM

LUTHER'S PREFACES TO HIS WORKS

1539 AND 1545

LUTHER'S PREFACE TO THE FIRST PART OF HIS GERMAN WORKS[1]

EDITION OF 1539

I would gladly have seen all my books forgotten and destroyed; if only for the reason that I am afraid of the example.[2] For I see what benefit it has brought to the churches, that men have begun to collect many books and great libraries, outside and alongside of the Holy Scriptures; and have begun especially to scramble together, without any distinction, all sorts of "Fathers," "Councils," and "Doctors." Not only has good time been wasted, and the study of the Scriptures neglected; but the pure understanding of the divine Word is lost, until at last the Bible has come to lie forgotten in the dust under the bench.

Although it is both useful and necessary that the writings of some of the Fathers and the decrees of some of the Councils should be preserved as witnesses and records, nevertheless, I think, est modus in rebus,[3] and it is no pity that the books of many of the Fathers and Councils have, by God's grace, been lost. If they had all remained, one could scarce go in or out for books, and we should still have nothing better than we find in the Holy Scriptures.

Then, too, it was our intention and our hope, when we began to put the Bible into German, that there would be less writing, and more studying and reading of the Scriptures. For all other writings should point to the Scriptures, as John pointed to Christ, when he said, "He must increase, but I must decrease."[4] In this way every one may drink for himself from the fresh spring, as all the Fathers have had to do when they wished to produce anything worth while. Neither Fathers nor Councils nor we ourselves will do so well, even when our very best is done, as the Holy Scriptures have done; that is to say, we shall never do so well as God Himself. Even though for our salvation we need to have the Holy Spirit and faith and divine language and divine works, nevertheless we must let the Prophets and Apostles sit at the desk, while we sit at their feet and listen to what they say. It is not for us to say what they must hear.

Since, however, I cannot prevent it, and, without my wish, they are now bent on collecting and printing my books—small honor to me—I shall have to let them put their energy and labor on the venture. I comfort myself with the thought that my books will yet lie forgotten in the dust, especially when, by God's grace, I have written something good. Non ero melior patribus meis.[5][6] The other kind will be more likely to endure. For when the Bible can be left lying under the bench, and when it is true of the Fathers and Councils that the better they were, the more completely they have been forgotten; there is good hope that, when the curiosity of this age has been satisfied, my books too will not long remain; the more so, since it has begun to rain and snow books and "Doctors," of which many are already forgotten and gone to dust, so that one no longer remembers even their names. They themselves had hoped, to be sure, that they would always be in the market, and play schoolmaster to the churches.

Well, then, let it go, in God's Name. I only ask in all kindness that the man who wishes at this time to have my books will by no means let them be a hindrance to his own study of the Scriptures, but read them as I read the orders and the ordures of the pope[7] and the books of the sophists. I look now and then to see what they have done, or learn from them the history and thought of their time, but I do not study them, or feel myself bound to conform to them. I do not treat the Fathers and the Councils very differently. In this I follow the example of St. Augustine, who is one of the first, and almost the only one of them to subject himself to the Holy Scriptures alone, uninfluenced by the books of all the Fathers and the Saints. This brought him into a hard fray with St. Jerome, who cast up to him the writings of his predecessors; but he did not care for that. If this example of St. Augustine had been followed, the pope would not have become Antichrist, the countless vermin, the swarming, parasitic mass of books would not have come into the Church, and the Bible would have kept its place in the pulpit.

II

DR. MARTIN LUTHER TO THE CHRISTIAN READER[8]

EDITION OF 1545

Above all things I beseech the Christian reader and beg him for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ, to read my earliest books very circumspectly and with much pity, knowing that before now I too was a monk, and one of the right frantic and raving papists. When I took up this matter against Indulgences, I was so full and drunken, yea, so besotted in papal doctrine that, out of my great zeal, I would have been ready to do murder—at least, I would have been glad to see and help that murder should be done—on all who would not be obedient and subject to the pope, even to his smallest word.

Such a Saul was I at that time; and I meant it right earnestly; and there are still many such to-day. In a word, I was not such a frozen and ice-cold[9] champion of the papacy as Eck and others of his kind have been and still are. They defend the Roman See more for the sake of the shameful belly, which is their god, than because they are really attached to its cause. Indeed I am wholly of the opinion that like latter-day Epicureans,[10] they only laugh at the pope. But I verily espoused this cause in deepest earnest and in all fidelity; the more so because I shrank from the Last Day with great anxiety and fear and terror, and yet from the depths of my heart desired to be saved.

Therefore, Christian reader, thou wilt find in my earliest books and writings how many points of faith I then, with all humility, yielded and conceded to the pope, which since then I have held and condemned for the most horrible blasphemy and abomination, and which I would have to be so held and so condemned forever. Amen.

Thou wilt therefore ascribe this my error, or as my opponents venomously call it, this inconsistency of mine,[11] to the time, and to my ignorance and inexperience. At the beginning I was quite alone and without any helpers, and moreover, to tell the truth, unskilled in all these things, and far too unlearned to discuss such high and weighty matters. For it was without any intention, purpose, or will of mine that I fell, quite unexpectedly, into this wrangling and contention. This I take God, the Searcher of hearts, to witness.

I tell these things to the end that, if thou shalt read my books, thou mayest know and remember that I am one of those who, as St. Augustine says of himself, have grown by writing and by teaching others, and not one of those who, starting with nothing, have in a trice become the most exalted and most learned doctors. We find, alas! many of these self-grown doctors; who in truth are nothing, do nothing and accomplish nothing, are moreover untried and inexperienced, and yet, after a single look at the Scriptures, think themselves able wholly to exhaust its spirit.

Farewell, dear reader, in the Lord. Pray that the Word may be further spread abroad, and may be strong against the miserable devil. For he is mighty and wicked, and just now is raving everywhere and raging cruelly, like one who well knows and feels that his time is short, and that the kingdom of his Vicar, the Antichrist in Rome,[12] is sore beset. But may the God of all grace and mercy strengthen and complete in us the work He has begun, to His honor and to the comfort of His little flock. Amen.

  1. Text as given in the Berlin Edition of Buchwald and others, Vol. I, pp. ix ff.
  2. i. e. The example set by preserving and collecting them.
  3. "There is moderation in all things."
  4. John 3:30
  5. I Kings 19:4
  6. "I shall not be better than my fathers." Cf. I Kings 19:4.
  7. Des Pabsts Drecket und Drecketal. Luther makes a pun on decreta and decretalia,—the official names for the decrees of the Pope.
  8. From the Preface to the Complete Works (1545). Text according to the Berlin Edition of Buchwald and others, Vol. I, pp. xi ff.
  9. Evidently a play on the Latin frigidus, often used in the sense of "trivial" or "silly"; so Luther refers to the "frigida decreta Paparum," in his Propositions for the Leipzig Disputation (1519).
  10. i. e. Frivolous mockers at holy things.
  11. See Prefatory Note to the Fourteen of Consolation, below, p. 109.
  12. Long before this Luther had repeatedly expressed the conviction that the Pope was the Antichrist foretold in 2 Thess. 2:3 f., and Rev. 13 and 17.
Copyright.svg PD-icon.svg This work is a translation and has a separate copyright status to the applicable copyright protections of the original content.
Original:

This work was published before January 1, 1924, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.

 
Translation:

This work was published before January 1, 1924, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.