Review: Luther’s Works: Prefaces I

Title of Work:

Luther's Works: Prefaces I

Author of Work:

Martin Luther; Christopher Boyd Brown, editor


Pastor Christopher Doerr

Page Number:

Format Availability:


SS.80.Luthers Works.LgLuther’s forty-five prefaces to the works of others, from 1520 to 1532, each with its own scholarly introduction, touch on autobiography, history, exegesis, polemics, and pastoral theology.  “Most significantly, the prefaces convey a clear sense of how Luther saw the maturing Reformation movement” (dust jacket).

Because I forget polemics are an important way to praise God and protect my people (326) . . . Because I forget to teach my people the three estates: basics, such as how it pleases God when we point our children to careers in government (307), or how to worship God while doing housework (309) . . .

And because I forget to encourage my people to read specific books, periodicals, and electronic media to increase their love for the pure Gospel . . .

Especially for these three reasons I’m glad I read this book.

It is of uneven quality and usefulness.

The scholarly introductions and notes range from helpful to pedantic:

  • Place name after place name without maps or directions (e.g., 6, 7, 128, 151, 313, 330).
  • Details that should’ve gone in footnotes (e.g., lists of editions, 43-44; lists of translations, 153-154; achievements of minor figures, 221; or notes on dialects, 314).
  • Big words (e.g., “quondam,” 204; or “paranesis,” 337).
  • And seemingly endless uninformative footnotes about religious orders extinct already at Luther’s time (141-147).

Occasional details in the introductions and notes were doctrinally off:

  • Is it “unfair” to call a leader of monks hypocritical (25), just because he was a “moral” man? No, it isn’t unfair: the whole monastic system was hypocrisy.
  • Late in life, Justus Menius was “charged” with Majorism (189). Why say only “charged”?  Menius claimed innocence, but the evidence from his own works convicts him: see quotes, e.g., in ch.145 of Bente’s introduction to the Concordia Triglotta.
  • Should we say some Anabaptists followed “Nicene orthodoxy” (263)? Nicene orthodoxy isn’t just the Trinity: “We believe in one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.”

Two introductions said, “Luther says this-and-such here,” but their points weren’t then in the preface (315, 345).

The prefaces themselves differ greatly: one, less than a page, little to chew on: the next, eighteen pages, full of quotables, etc.

There were just a few glitches in Luther’s use of Scripture.  He had great insights, for example, into Nadab and Abihu’s sin (31), the Recabites (33), Hannah (35), when adiaphora isn’t adiaphora (114), how persistent waverers are as bad as persistent errorists (137), 1 Co. 7:33-34 (308), and Mt. 7:11 (324).  But he also had . . .

  • A couple passages out of context: e.g., Gal. 1:12 on page 10; 1 Cor. 2:16 on page 22.
  • A couple dubious prophecy interpretations: e.g., Job’s taming of Behemoth prophesies Christ (233); or the tribe of Benjamin in Ps. 68 represents St. Paul (283).
  • He said the command to marry is stricter than the Sixth Commandment (245). Should we call it a “command to marry”?  How would it be “stricter”?
  • He said Gog and Magog and the battle in Rev. 20 are direct prophecies of the invasion of the Ottoman Turks (278f), and that John “took” his description of the battle from Ezekiel, when in fact God gave him that description in a vision (281).

A few of Luther’s other observations not quite spot on:

  • He was just a barbarian with little talent (15)?
  • The devil was giving up the fight (107)? No, plenty of –isms were still to come.
  • Work all done, time to die, already in 1527 (200)? What about the Catechisms, the German O.T., and so on?

But these are endearing mistakes.  As I said, I’m glad I read this.

For one, it was nice to read a Missouri Synod book confessing that the Papacy is the Antichrist, unlike Brighton’s Revelation in the new Concordia Commentaries.

I learned plenty Reformation history.  A few examples . . .

  • At the Lepzig debate, when Luther backed John Hus, why was this controversial? I would’ve said, because Hus was a condemned heretic.  But Hus was infamous in Albertine Saxony for another reason: bitter memories of their suffering at the hands of Hussite forces in the Hussite Wars of 1420-34 (98).
  • I didn’t remember the nobility’s attempted peace negotiations before Münzer’s defeat at the battle of Frankenhausen (124). And then to think the 6,000 peasants killed probably all went to hell “because they persisted obstinately in their open disobedience . . . up to the very end” (125)—how poignant!
  • I knew Duke George of Saxony hated Luther. Was this partly because his first cousin Ursula had turned Lutheran, forsaken her convent and her vows, and issued a public statement as to her reasons why (231)?
  • I only remembered Menius as one of the Majorists. But he’d been a famous Lutheran writer, called, for instance, “[t]he single most important popularizer of Luther’s advice about marriage” (241).  No wonder the heresy charges were a big deal!
  • And how pervasive monastic thinking was! In the Parable of the Sower, Jesus says some seed bore thirty, sixty, or a hundred times what was sown: thirty is married Christians, sixty the widows, and a hundred those sworn to celibacy (297).  Or when Jesus cleared the Temple, where did he get the cord he used as a whip?—Around his waist he wore a Franciscan cincture (303)!

But practically speaking, as mentioned above, this book benefited me most by showing me things I’m neglecting in my preaching and teaching.

  • If I don’t teach my people about Antichrist’s oppressive reign and blasphemous doctrines, how will they rightly appreciate our pure Gospel heritage? “Therefore, dear friends,” writes Luther, “let us . . . with writing, poems, rhymes, singing, and painting point out this noble race of idols, just as they have earned and deserve.  Cursed be whoever is indolent in this, knowing that he thus does God a service.” (149)  The Creed is an arsenal full of war machines against all heresies (268).  I must use polemics carefully, with a pastor’s Seelsorger heart, but I must not neglect them.  In them, too, “God’s name and His Word are honored, as with a proper divine worship and sacrifice of thanksgiving, with which He is well pleased.” (326)
  • Rome, “patron of fornication” (70), taught people to despise and avoid marriage (62,66). Our society does, too, although without pretended holiness (293-311).  I neglect teaching about this and other basics about the three estates.
  • And Gospel-centered commentaries, especially ones that teach laypeople love for the Psalms, are precious. A powerful Bugenhagen quote: “I do not consider anyone to be a Christian who cannot derive comfort from the Psalms, or indeed who cannot see his own personal history recorded in the Psalms.” (84)  I neglect to recommend commentaries to my people and to train them in using Psalms.

A book I could hardly put down?  No, it isn’t that.  A book with some great context for Reformation history, a few exegetical gems, and plenty of urgent pastor-to-pastor admonitions? It is that.

Luther’s Works: Prefaces I, by Martin Luther, edited by Christopher Boyd Brown.  St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2012.  xl. + 388 pages.