Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Martin Luther on "Ceremonies"

The more I study Martin Luther's scholarly publications, the more I realize how certain branches of modern "Lutheranism" have clearly steered away from his own views regarding theology and ethics. Recently I've been studying a newly published reader's edition of Martin Luther's Christian Freedom, which is based upon Luther's original Latin edition, one which he personally dedicated to Pope Leo X as well. The more widely distributed and popular German edition, from which older English translations derive, was loosely based on Luther's Latin manuscript, and omitted certain portions (for reasons which we don't know).1 Below is one of those edited portions from the original Latin manuscript, and it concerns the subject of liturgical "ceremonies" and their usefulness. For protestants who have been raised to think that Luther was staunchly against all liturgical ceremonies and works, the following statements by Luther will come as a surprise. Martin Luther wrote:

There are many who, when they hear of this liberty of faith, immediately turn it into an occasion for the flesh. ...They do not want to show themselves free and Christian in any other way than by their contempt and rebuking of ceremonies, traditions, and human laws. They do this as if they were Christians merely because they do no fast on the established days. Or they devour meat while others are fasting. Or they omit the customary prayers, scoffing at the precepts of men with upturned nose, while they utterly neglect everything else that pertains to the Christian religion.  
...This life cannot be conducted without ceremonies and works. For the hotblooded and those in the young age of adolescence have need of being restrained and guarded by these chains. Each one must discipline his own body by these efforts. Thus, it is necessary that the minister of Christ be prudent and faithful in ruling and teaching the people of Christ. He must act in such a manner regarding all these topics that their conscience and faith may not be offended, and no notion or root of bitterness may spring up among them, and so many be defiled. Paul warned the Hebrews about this defilement that happens when faith is lost, that they may not begin to be corrupted by a notion about works, as if they were to be justified through them. This happens easily. It defiles very many unless faith is constantly taught at the same time, though this cannot be avoided when faith is silenced and only the ordinances of men are taught. This has been done until now by the pestilential, godless, soul-murdering traditions of our pontiffs and opinions of our theologians, with countless souls having been drawn down to hell by these snares...2

1. Martin Luther, Christian Freedom: Faith Working Through Love [St Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2011] selections from p. 44
2.  Ibid. p. 78-9, 83

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