The Real Luther: A Friar at Erfurt & Wittenberg: Exploring Luther’s Life with Melanchthon as Guide, by Franz Posset. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2011. 195 pages.
Dr. Franz Posset is an independent researcher and an associate editor of Luther Digest. He has authored five books, including The Front-Runner of the Catholic Reformation: The Life and Works of Johann von Staupitz.
As the subtitles indicate, this book explores Luther’s early career, especially his time in Erfurt. The book ends with Posset’s own translation of Melanchthon’s preface to the 1546 edition of Luther’s Works. Posset uses this preface extensively in the main body of the book to support several of the points he makes about Luther’s career.
Posset’s main point is that the Lutheran church and the Roman Catholic church should not remain divided, because Luther’s gospel was really St. Bernard’s gospel: “Luther emerged as Bernardus Redivivus” (127), that is, Bernard come back to life. Posset argues that since Bernard influenced Luther so much, that therefore Luther’s gospel and his doctrine of justification actually do fit into mainstream Roman Catholicism, as supposedly proven by the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification between the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic church (xiv). Posset goes so far as to ask if it isn’t “about high time” for us Lutherans to kiss the Pope’s feet (128). However, the author doesn’t get around to Luther’s Bernard connection till almost halfway through the book.
In a somewhat rambling style, Posset first tackles several minor points: inaccuracies in how Luther’s early career and his Reformation Day activities are normally told. To illustrate Posset’s approach, let me share parts of a couple paragraphs from my most recent Reformation Sunday sermon, and then explain how Posset would disagree with what I said.
I said, “It’s called ‘Reformation Day.’ October 31st. What year?—1517. Four hundred and ninety-five years ago, a German university professor named Martin Luther, what did he do? The history books say on that day he started to tell all of Europe, ‘I found the gospel, and I’m bringing it back.’ On that day, he had his 95 theses, his 95 sentences, and he mailed a copy off to his archbishop, and he nailed a copy to the church’s front door. And what’d those sentences say? ‘The other preachers nowadays aren’t preaching what people need most of all to hear: the gospel.’ Luther himself was just starting to understand the gospel and how wonderful it was, yet even at the beginning of his understanding he understood that treasure of the gospel more than almost any other preacher had for centuries. The people of Europe were hungry for that good news of Jesus, so hungry that, within a couple weeks of Luther putting that paper on the church door, it had spread on foot, on horseback, and was being printed off in printing presses all across the continent of Europe. As Luther dove into his Bible more and more, he understood the gospel better and better, and he preached it more clearly and wrote about it more purely, and he was beloved by thousands throughout Europe.”
Starting with the name for the holiday, Posset says, “we should remember that with this so-called first ‘Reformation Day’ we use a term (reformatio) that Luther himself hardly ever used” (7). Luther was primarily interested not in reformation, but in improving pastoral care (9).
Posset then argues that we shouldn’t call them the “95 theses.” Luther didn’t use that term, because it sounds like he was trying to start a controversy. It also sounds too professorial, rather than pastoral (21). Ninety-five “talking points” would be better, and more in line with the terms Luther used.
More importantly, Posset doesn’t think Luther posted the “talking points,” whether on the church door or anywhere else. He says it “looks like” the whole story of posting the 95 sentences was “concocted” by Rörer and Melanchthon, although “in good faith” (23). Posset’s reason? Nowhere in Luther’s writings does he say anything about posting them, just mailing them.
At this point in the book, in a 13-page section that seemed somewhat tangential (30-42), Posset criticizes the way other scholars use the Table Talk as evidence for the facts of Luther’s life. The Table Talk is a secondary, not a primary source. Posset then describes other “mistakes” common in popular accounts of Luther’s career:
- We should not say that Luther once got caught in a horrible thunderstorm and made a vow to St. Anne. Posset argues that this isn’t reliable, since it is only found in a 1539 Table Talk (53).
- We should not call Luther a monk, when he was actually a friar, which is important, because friars had pastoral duties outside their own abbeys (57).
- Nor should we attribute the phrase “Scripture alone” to Luther. Posset claims that this expression “is not found verbatim anywhere in the historical Luther’s vocabulary.” (67) This claim was confusing to me, since the phrase is found in a letter of Luther that Posset himself quotes (63)!
Even if Posset doesn’t always convince us to change the way we tell Luther’s story in sermons or catechism classes, it cannot hurt for us to be aware that some details we have always considered factual are questioned by modern Luther scholars. I see this as the main benefit of reading this book. We, as careful pastors, would hate to lead a well-read listener to question our claims about Luther’s gospel because in the listener’s mind we are making questionable claims about Luther’s biography.
Please bear with me as I use my Reformation sermon once more to illustrate how Posset also questions two basic claims we often make in our sermons about Luther’s understanding of the gospel.
Claim #1: I said in my sermon that in 1517, Luther was just beginning to understand the gospel. Posset would disagree. Posset points out that already in March 1509, Luther wrote to a friend, “This is how our God is: He reigns in sweetness and in eternity” (93). As Melanchthon’s preface mentions twice, Luther received great consolation from a Bernard sermon quoted to him by a senior friar in his early years at Erfurt. This seems to have been before October 1509, when Luther was jotting down notes from his reading in Bernard into another book that he was reading by Anselm (95, 171). Therefore, eight years before what we call Reformation Day, Luther must have had the gospel and was no longer fretting over his own salvation. He was “freed” from his “consternations” (91).
However, neither Luther nor Melanchthon mentions that that one conversation with the anonymous senior friar cured Luther of all his doubts about his salvation. It is one thing to have heard the gospel. It is a far different thing to be skilled at applying law and gospel to one’s own heart.
What Melanchthon actually says is that Luther “so often” needed consolation from this senior friar (163). That one good quote from Bernard had not cured all of Luther’s consternations. In his eagerness to de-emphasize the difference between Luther and Roman Catholicism, it seems Posset did not read Melanchthon’s preface closely enough.
Claim #2: I said in my sermon that Luther understood the gospel better than almost any other preacher had for centuries. Posset would heartily disagree, as I have said above. He would say that Luther was just bringing back Bernard’s gospel. After all, Luther’s writings quote Bernard more than 500 times (95)!
It is right for us to rejoice over God’s preservation of the gospel even under the reigns of the most depraved popes. It is right for us to be careful in our Reformation Sunday sermons not to say that the gospel had been “lost” for centuries, as that would mean Jesus had failed in his promise that his church could never be overcome.
However, it is also right for us to realize that, although Bernard depended on Jesus as his Savior, Bernard would have been horrified at the Reformation. For example, Bernard, who pleaded for years with his sister to leave her husband and become a nun, would have been horrified at the marriage of Martin and Katie Luther. Bernard, who vigorously preached in support of the crusades and the popes, would have been horrified at the burning of the papal bull, and so on.
I appreciate that Posset’s book drove me to my 1954 Lutheran Cyclopedia to find this far more balanced summary of Bernard:
Despite his exaltation of monachism as the ideal of Christianity, his excessive glorification of Mary (whose “immaculate conception,” however, he opposed), and his enthusiastic support of the Papacy as the highest authority in the Church, he was a sincerely pious, a truly humble Christian, and he was that because he loved the Bible and because he believed in justification by faith, deploring on his deathbed, as throughout his life, the sinfulness of his life (Perdite vixi), and imploring the mercy of God for the sake of the righteousness gained by Christ—a psychological enigma indeed. Luther says: “When Bernard is speaking of Christ, it is a pleasure indeed to listen to him; but when he leaves that subject and discourses on rules and works, it is no longer St. Bernard.”
Could we say that Bernard knew how to die under the gospel, but hardly knew how to live under it or how to organize a church under it? In contrast, by God’s grace, Martin Luther eventually knew all of the above. Despite his personal faith, Bernard helped strengthen the reign of the Antichrist. Luther clearly revealed the Antichrist and freed countless thousands from his reign.
Few of us can claim to be Luther scholars. There are great blessings to be had in studying the great work our loving God did through Luther, so we can present that great work accurately and enthusiastically to our hearers. However, I cannot recommend this book as worthy of the precious hours you have for quiet studying. It is too choppy in its organization, its thinking, and its understanding of “the real Luther.”