Wittenberg: [Melchior Lotter the younger, October 6,], 1520.
Quarto: 21.5 x 15.5 cm. 44 leaves. Collation: A-L4
FIRST EDITION, FIRST PRINTING.
Bound in modern boards. In a folding solander box. A truly excellent copy with crisp, clean leaves. With a fine woodcut title border by Lukas Cranach.
This is the first edition of Luther’s “Prelude on The Babylonian Captivity of the Church”, the Reformer’s radical critique of the sacramental system of the church and the second of his three crucial reformatory writings of 1520. It is in the “Babylonian Captivity” that Luther first levels his charge that the pope is the Antichrist and explicitly condemns the Church as a tyrannical oppressor of Christian liberty. The shackles that bind the Christian are the laws and decretals of the Church. These “innumerable” laws prevent the Christian from contemplating the spiritual meaning of Scripture and the sacraments, binding him instead to worldliness. What is worse, the pope himself has no authority to enact these laws. Luther argues that the Keys, from which the pope takes his authority, “were granted to all, and avail only of sins”.
“Neither the pope nor a bishop nor any other man has the right to impose a single syllable of law upon a Christian man without his consent. If he does, it is done in the spirit of tyranny. Therefore the prayers, fasts, donations, and whatever else the pope decrees and demands in all of his decretals, as numerous as they are evil, he demands and decrees without any right whatever. He sins against the liberty of the Church whenever he attempts any such thing. In fact, today's churchmen are indeed such vigorous defenders of the liberty of the Church, that is, of wood and stone, of land and rents – for "churchly" is nowadays the same as "spiritual" – yet with such fictions they not only take captive but utterly destroy the true liberty of the Church, and deal with us far worse than the Turk, in opposition to the word of the Apostle, "Do not be enslaved by men." Yes, to be subjected to their statutes and tyrannical laws is to be enslaved by men.”
Luther identifies the sacramental system as the fundamental cause of the Church’s corruption as well as the papacy’s chief instrument for exerting its tyrannical control over Christians. For Luther, there is no sacrament “except where there is a direct divine promise, exercising our faith.” Using the explicit text of the Scriptures as his litmus, Luther denies that there are seven sacraments and instead recognizes only three: baptism, confession, and the Lord’s Supper. Luther contends that these sacraments are held “captive” by the Roman church by means of three erroneous practices: the withholding of the Cup from the laity; adherence to the doctrine of transubstantiation; and the insistence that the mass is a sacrifice rather than a spiritual communion with Jesus Christ. This third is the most godless of the church’s “captivities”, for the corruption of the mass into a work or sacrifice led to the development of the money-making schemes, brotherhoods, merits, and in fact the entire maintenance of the priests and monks.
Luther calls upon all Christians subjected to this tyranny to endure it and, in the same breath, demands that the Papacy free the Church from its captivity by abolishing its laws:
“I confidently cry out: No one – not men – not angels – may justly impose laws upon Christians without their consent, for we are free from all things. If any laws are laid on us, we must bear them in such a way as to preserve the consciousness of our liberty. We must know and strongly affirm that the making of such laws is unjust, that we will bear and rejoice in this injustice. We will be careful neither to justify the tyrant nor complain against his tyranny. "For who is he," says Peter, "that will harm you, if you are followers of that which is good?" " All things work together for good to the elect." Nevertheless, since few know this glory of baptism and the blessedness of Christian liberty, and cannot know them because of the tyranny of the pope, I for one will walk away from it all and redeem my conscience by bringing this charge against the pope and all his papists: Unless they will abolish their laws and traditions, and restore to Christ's churches their liberty and have it taught among them, they are guilty of all the souls that perish under this miserable captivity, and the papacy is truly the kingdom of Babylon, yes, the kingdom of the real Antichrist! For who is " the man of sin" and "the son of perdition" but he that with his doctrines and his laws increases sins and the perdition of souls in the Church, while he sits in the Church as if he were God? All this the papal tyranny has fulfilled, and more than fulfilled, these many centuries. It has extinguished faith, obscured the sacraments and oppressed the Gospel. But its own laws, which are not only impious and sacrilegious, but even barbarous and foolish, it has enjoined and multiplied world without end.”
The “Babylonian Captivity” was Luther’s most severe attack on the Church to date and its impact reverberated throughout Europe. The University of Paris condemned the document; upon reading it, Erasmus realized that his efforts to restore peace were futile and announced, “The breach is irreparable.” King Henry VIII himself responded with his “Assertio Septem Sacramentorum”, winning for himself the title “Defender of the Faith” from Pope Leo X.1
“With the ‘Babylonian captivity’ Luther had embarked upon a conscious confrontation with his ecclesiastical opponents. He declared the book to be part of his future ‘recantation’ which the bull threatening excommunication required of him. The work eclipsed all his earlier statements, forcing them out of the discussion. As became apparent at the Diet of Worms, they were prepared to agree with him in many things but this writing they could not affirm; it was the chief evidence of Luther’s heresy. In it, Luther had demolished the church as a sacramental institution which nurtured a Christian’s life from cradle to grave, thereby robbing it of a great deal of its power and influence over Christians. This was in keeping with the tone of the writing, which was directed toward freedom, in part the freedom of the sacraments, but in part also dealing with the freedom of Christians. No matter whether this was conceived of largely as revolutionary and destructive of the church, Luther was convinced that he had recovered the New Testament understanding of the sacraments and the priesthood. The preeminent character of the sacraments as gift, rather than as demand and achievement, was revealed once more.”(Brecht, Vol. I, p. 384)
1. See Abdel Ross Wentz’s introduction to the “Babylonian captivity” in the Concordia edition of Luther’s Works.
For an in-depth discussion of Luther’s critique of canon law, see John Witte Jr., “Law and Protestantism: the legal teachings of the Lutheran Reformation”, Chapter II, “The Evangelical Conversion of Catholic Canon Law, p. 54 ff.
Benzing 704; Title border: Luther 11