Unravelling Luther’s House Postils, Part 2

Introduction to Volume 52 of the Weimar Edition of Luther’s Works
By Georg Buchwald
Superintendent of St. Peter’s and St. Kunigunde in Rochlitz in Saxony

Translator’s Preface

Dr. Georg Buchwald in 1908, while serving as pastor of St. Michaelis Church in Leipzig

Dr. Georg Buchwald in 1908, while serving as pastor of St. Michaelis Church in Leipzig

During his lifetime, Georg Buchwald was one of the foremost scholars on Luther’s works. It was he who rediscovered Georg Rörer’s transcripts of Luther’s sermons in 1893 in Jena, after their location had been unknown for nearly 300 years. He was the chief editor for Luther’s sermons for the Weimar edition of Luther’s works.

The Introduction below is found on p. VII-XI of vol. 52 of the Weimar edition (D. Martin Luthers Werke: kritische Gesamtausgabe [Weimar: Hermann Böhlaus Nachfolger, 1915]). Everything is original except for the weblink in endnote 1. In the original book, this introduction is followed by an “Overview” (Übersicht), referred to in the introduction below, in which Buchwald meticulously compares each sermon in the two editions of Luther’s House Postil and their sources.

The information below does dispel some somewhat less-than-thorough scholarship imparted, for example, in “‘Fragments and Crumbs’ for the Preachers: Luther’s House Postils” in Logia. There the author says, for example, that “Luther preached his sermons at home later in the day, apparently when he felt stronger,” which is dispelled by the report from Georg Rörer’s widow below. The author of that Logia article also attempts to support his general bias in favor of Rörer’s edition of the House Postil, but Buchwald makes clear that this bias is by no means unqualifiedly justified.

Most interesting to me is the disputing that took place and the parties that formed over the two different editions of Luther’s House Postil. The late Georg Rörer’s widow was even interrogated as a result. Even though we know about the three Lutheran parties that developed between Luther’s death and the Formula of Concord, it still easy for us Lutherans (or at least for me) to look upon this era with stars in our eyes and to wish for the “good old days” of the Lutheran Church. But many Lutherans at this time seem to have been looking for even the most inconsequential reasons, in retrospect, to bicker with each other. It’s a good reminder that law and gospel have always needed to be preached in every age, to combat the Old Adam and to build up the new man.

I translated this in preparation for my work with Northwestern Publishing House, especially for my work on the preface. I think I am finally starting to get a handle on the history of Luther’s House Postil in general and of Luther’s 1531 Christmas sermons on Isaiah 9:6 in particular. (These are even highlighted by Buchwald toward the end of his introduction.)

May the triune God use this background information about these particular sermons of Luther to help Christians read his sermons intelligently and understand them in context, that they might also better understand the gospel that Luther preached.

Introduction

After the publication of the Church Postil had been completed in 1543, the House Postil appeared in 1544, edited by Veit Dietrich, containing “the house sermons that Luther preached at home, in his house, to his children and the members of his household on Sundays when he was not able to preach in the church on account of frailty” (p. 5, lines 36ff below). In his dedication letter addressed to the mayor and council of the city of Nuremberg (p. 3ff below), Dietrich declares more than once that these were sermons he “alone” had “taken down in shorthand” (p. 5, line 38; cf. p. 8, lines 14f). By publishing these sermons Dietrich was hoping to be of service to the heads of households, in case “they are not able to get to church on Sunday because of sickness or some other necessity, since no one should be so negligent; if he cannot listen to God’s word in church, he should still listen to it at home or read it by himself” (p. 6, lines 21ff). But he also wanted to lend a hand to the “poor pastors” who “are sometimes unfit for preaching” (p. 7, lines 2ff). He certainly had it in mind that they should be read out loud from the pulpit; he himself even acknowledges that he “has preached [them] publicly” in his parish church (p. 6, line 30). Finally, he wanted the House Postil to serve those who were not able to listen to any pure evangelical preaching. “They can read it at home, in their house” (p. 8, line 9).

Dietrich declares openly that he has “added many sermons that were omitted by [Luther], especially on the festivals that are not observed in the Saxon Order, so that this work would be complete throughout the entire year and therefore that much more useful and beneficial for everyone” (p. 8, lines 17ff). This gave Andreas Poach1 occasion to issue another edition of the House Postil in 1559. In the preface to this edition Amsdorf testifies about Dietrich’s postil that it has indeed “explained and interpreted the dear gospel in a pure and unadulterated fashion, and also [has] dealt with it in a nice, brief way.” But then he goes on to add: “Since however some, even many, of Luther’s sermons have been left out or partially altered, and other sermons have also been added, and since My Most Gracious Princes and Lords, the three brothers, dukes of Saxony, have acquired at no small cost the notebooks which Master Rörer of blessed memory has filled from Luther’s mouth, from these the lack may not only be covered and filled, but even enlarged with many sermons that are available in the books just mentioned, and those that are not Luther’s may be left out. In this way and so that Luther’s sermons alone may be found within from now on, their Princely Graces, in order that this treasure may remain with us and not be lost or suppressed, have in turn graciously entrusted it to the presses, to the praise and honor of God and to the use and benefit of their subjects and anyone else who desires it. From it everyone who but wishes can easily grasp and learn the summary and content of the gospel.”

The editor, Andreas Poach himself, expresses himself in even more detail, in an address “To the Christian reader” at the end of the House Postil, regarding the occasion and the guiding principles for his version:

But now it is obvious and as clear as day that in the previous House Postil many sermons have been mixed in that do not belong to the blessed man of God, Dr. Martin Luther. One may observe this from the fact that these foreign sermons have no indication of the year and the time in the margin, as the other sermons belonging to the man of God do. Then too, they also cannot be found in the notebooks of Master Georg Rörer, like the others can, namely those that have an indication of the year and the time in the margin. In addition, Master Veit Dietrich himself acknowledges in the preface of the previous House Postil that he has added many sermons, especially on the festivals that are not observed in the Wittenberg Order.2 And in the preface for the thirteen sermons on the Passion, addressed to Mrs. Baumgartnerin, he acknowledges that these thirteen sermons are his and not Dr. Martin Luther’s,3 and these 13 sermons are also included in the previous House Postil.4

Since then many Christians have wished and desired that the sermons and writings of Dr. Martin Luther of blessed memory might be printed by themselves and without any foreign material added, and also since it was partially for these reasons that the tomes in Jena are being newly issued and printed, I have let myself be prevailed upon by several pious Christians to oversee a new edition of the House Postil and to confer with the notebooks of Master Georg Rörer. For the purpose of carrying out this work I had also occasionally received from Master Rörer himself, while he was still alive, several notebooks in which such house- and church-sermons were taken down; I had taken up this work and now with God’s help I have finished it.

First, the foreign sermons which were not Dr. Martin Luther’s I have left out and in their place I have inserted others which are Dr. Martin Luther’s, and for every sermon I have included in the margin an indication of what year and where it was preached. Accordingly, in this present House Postil there are no foreign sermons to be found, but all of them are Dr. Martin Luther’s, prepared from Master Georg Rörer’s notebooks, faithfully and to the best of my ability.

Secondly, Christ says that the leftover pieces should be picked up, in order that nothing might go to waste. Dr. Martin Luther delivered the house sermons for three years in a row, so that in the second and third year he often preached in his house on exactly the same Gospel. So I have included these in this edition, in order that they may not go to waste, so that now there are often two or three sermons for one Gospel.

Thirdly, Master Veit Dietrich often combined two or three sermons that were not even preached in the same year into one sermon, so that he sometimes cut out the beginning, sometimes the end, sometimes even left something out in the middle, so that the sermon would not be too long. But this method is absurd, for the man of God had different thoughts in different years, and he adjusted his interpretation elsewhere when he had the opportunity. So I have left every single sermon just the way it was, and have included all two or three sermons, each with their beginning, middle, and end, as God has given them on each occasion through his human instrument.

Fourthly, the previous House Postil followed the Nuremberg and Brandenburg Church Orders, even though Dr. Martin Luther did not preach on the festivals observed in these orders, both of which facts Master Veit acknowledges in his preface.5 So I have arranged this present House Postil according to the Wittenberg Church Order, as it was observed by the man of God, so that it would not be necessary to mix in foreign sermons, and so that our descendants might see what the order was like that the man of God observed in church with regard to the festivals.”

The overview presented below shows down to the last detail how Poach went about following the guiding principles that he articulated here.

Poach had declared at the close of his remarks: “In saying all this, however, I do not mean to keep anyone from using the previous House Postil if he is more fond of that version.” Nevertheless his judgment of Dietrich’s postil did not remain without opposition. Already in the same year, 1559, Christoph Walther had a sharp writing published – “Reply to the Flacianistic Lies and False Report against the House Postil of Doctor Martin Luther.”6 He contested that Rörer “could have taken down the house-sermons from Luther’s mouth,” since he had to “serve at church while Luther was preaching these house-sermons.” Rörer had indeed “often” put forth the utmost effort to transcribe “during sermons and lectures,” “but none of it would have made any sense without Doctor [Caspar] Cruciger’s help.” With regard to the festival sermons that Dietrich composed himself and included in the House Postil, Walther maintains that they are all Luther’s sermons, just that they were delivered in church instead of at home. “For Dietrich collected all the sermons that were preached both in Luther’s house and in church and had plenty of Luther’s sermons, so that he certainly did not need to insert any foreign sermons.” Besides that, Luther himself had assigned Rörer the task of overseeing the Wittenberg printing of the House Postil. “Master Georg accepted and performed this task willingly and gladly. He thoroughly proofread and corrected this House Postil himself and took great pleasure and joy in it, also praising it in the highest terms.”

In the camp of the Jena theologians the defender of Dietrich’s House Postil was unknown. At Poach’s bidding inquiries were made of Rörer’s widow about him.7 At the same time she was asked whether her husband had been able to transcribe Luther’s house-sermons himself. She explained that Rörer was indeed working in the church at the time, but that, even if he was the one on duty that week, during the pastor’s sermon he would customarily take off his vestment and then go to the monastery in order to listen to Luther preach in his house.8 We do not wish to call into question what Rörer’s widow asserted about something that lay about 25 years in the past, but it does remain questionable, even according to her assertion, whether Rörer also transcribed Luther’s house-sermons. Dietrich certainly maintained on more than one occasion that he alone had done this. In addition the notes of the house-sermons taken down from Rörer’s hand show at first glance that they are copies of original transcripts [Abschriften von Nachschriften]; they also have a different character than his other transcripts.9

It is not necessary for us to pursue this dispute further10 since, having discovered Rörer’s transcripts in the library in Jena, we are in a position where we can determine the precise relationship between the two House Postils and the sermons that Luther actually delivered, independent of the viewpoints of those parties. If we draw a summary from what is noted for each individual sermon in the overview provided below, we end up with the following information:

1. Dietrich’s House Postil

For a critical examination of the relationship to the sermons actually delivered by Luther, we are almost exclusively directed to Rörer’s collection of transcripts, which lays claim to completeness, so that Poach considers himself justified in declaring a sermon from Dietrich’s House Postil to be inauthentic simply because it “cannot be found in the notebooks of Master Georg Rörer” (quoted above). But Rörer could not have transcribed all of Luther’s sermons himself. As was already referred to above, the notes he took down on the house-sermons in particular are probably, at best, copies of the original transcripts of another person, and we can scarcely go wrong if we assume that these transcripts originated with Dietrich’s hand.

Even if Dietrich frequently follows his master copy, especially when that copy is his own transcript of the house-sermon, still it turns out that, in agreement with Poach’s judgment, quite often he worked several sermons, as many as three (e.g. nos. 52, 53), into one sermon, without concern for the fact that one was delivered domi (at home) and the other publice (publicly, at church). When no sermon of Luther is at his disposal, he knows how to help himself out by creating his own adaptation of the pericope in question using Luther’s Annotationes in aliquot capita Matthaei [Annotations on several chapters of Matthew] (nos. 16, 92) or by utilizing Luther’s thoughts in his Conciunculae quaedam D. Mart. Lutheri amico cuidam praescriptae [Some short sermons of Dr. Martin Luther written down for a certain friend] (as he did in the Ascension sermon, which is why we have refrained from printing it). Yes, Dietrich does not even shy away from sticking a sermon of Melanchthon into the mix when he is unable to procure one delivered by Luther (as he does for St. Bartholomew’s Day; we have not printed this sermon either). In one instance he utilizes a sermon that had already appeared in print by itself (no. 46). For a number of his sermons the source cannot be verified. Poach was probably correct in reproaching Dietrich for having inserted his own sermons here and there.

2. Rörer-Poach’s House Postil

It was Poach’s endeavor to reproduce Luther’s preaching as accurately as possible on the basis of Rörer’s transcripts. When several sermons for the same day are at his disposal, he gladly incorporates several sermons in the House Postil, without concern for whether they were delivered domi or publice. Once he borrows from the weekly sermons on the Gospel of Matthew for the Sunday sermon (p. XV at no. 18). Even when he, like Dietrich, makes use of a sermon already available in print by itself (no. 46), he does not fail to reach back to Rörer’s transcript. For Christmas sermons he brings in a series of sermons that Luther delivered in church on Isaiah 9:2ff (p. XXV at no. 77). His Passion sermons he puts together from sermons preached in various years, only one of which is a house-sermon (p. XXVII). Even though he truly does himself very proud on the precise dating of Luther’s sermons, one error does creep in on him (cf. p. XVII at no. 27).

Many portions in Dietrich’s and Rörer’s postils agree word for word. The explanation for this agreement is not that both men were making use of the same master copy, but simply that Poach, especially in the house-sermons, was transferring Dietrich’s work directly into his own. He does the same thing when Rörer’s transcript is deficient (nos. 51, 57).

*****

We are reproducing the first edition of Dietrich’s postil with the omission of a few portions (see above). We are foregoing providing the variants of later editions, since these just deviate further from the master copy, and we are foregoing printing the sermons that are contained in the later editions but are still missing in the first edition, since these have to be regarded as Dietrich’s own work. The Passio (Passion), which first appears in the edition no. 5 (in 1545, thus while Luther was still alive), we are including at the end. In the beginning we are imparting two portions from Rörer’s House Postil, since these supplements fit nicely with the sermons of Luther imparted in our edition.

Endnotes

1 Cf. General German Biography [Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie] s. v. (You can also read this entry here: Andreas Poach. – trans.)

2 P. 8, lines 17f below.

3 A copy of this work printed by itself:

(The call number for the book in the Nuremberg City Library at the time was provided here.)

“PASSIO. || Oder histori vom | leyden Christi Jhesu || unsers Heylands. || Durch || Vitum Dietrich. || [Holzschnitt: Jesus in Gethsemane] || Gedrückt zu Nürnberg, || Anno, M. D. LVI. ||” Erste und 5. Zeile schwarz, die übrigen rot. Bl. b 1 b in der Widmung an “Frawen Sibilla Jeronimus Baumgartnerin”: “Solche Historia hab ich in ewrem namen yetzund, auch andern Christen zum trost und besserung, wie ichs dise fasten uber gepredigt habe, wöllen im truck auß gehen lassen.”

“PASSION. Or history of the suffering of Christ Jesus our Savior. By Veit Dietrich. [Woodcut: Jesus in Gethsemane] Printed in Nuremberg, 1556.” The first and fifth lines are black; the rest are red. Page b 1 b in the dedication to “Mrs. Sibilla Jeronimus Baugartnerin”: “I wanted to have this history sent to press at the present time in your name, as well as for the comfort and improvement of other Christians, as I have preached it during this past Lent.”

According to the preface to the House Postil (p. 6, line 30 below), this does not exclude the possibility that they are Luther’s sermons, as is also able to be proven from one of them (cf. no. 34 below).

4 Cf. the bibliography below.

5 P. 8, lines 17ff below.

6 Printed in the Leipzig edition of the works of Luther, 15:3ff (in the Preliminary Remarks [Vorbericht]).

7 Andreas Poachs handschriftliche Sammlung ungedruckter Predigten D. Martin Luthers, 1/1:VI. Cp. the note Walther took down in his own hand in the book of Men Ordained in Wittenberg (1573-1589) [dem Wittenberger Ordiniertenbuch 1573-1589]: “I, Christoph Walther, from Döbeln in the territory of Meissen, the son of a cloth-maker, have been a corrector in Wittenberg for 39 years in the practice and method of Mr. Mayor Hans Lufft’s Print Shop. I have often thoroughly read the entire Bible, have also enjoyed reading the books of the honorable Mr. Doctor Martin Luther from little on, and did so diligently, and especially in the printing business I read them all several times. I have also heard the absolutely outstanding and learned men Dr. Martin Luther, Dr. Pomeranus [Bugenhagen], Dr. Cruciger, Dr. Eber, and Mr. Philipp Melanchthon lecture and preach. Since, however, the printing presses are greatly decreasing, I was advised by many good-hearted, pious people that I should join the ministry of the Church. Therefore I have most respectfully petitioned the most illustrious high-born prince and lord, Lord August, Duke of Saxony, Grand Marshal and Elector of the Holy Roman Empire and my Most Gracious Lord, and have asked him for the parish in Holzdorf located near the Schweinitz, and His Electoral Grace has most graciously granted me this parish. For this purpose I was ordained on June 9, 1574, by the worthy and highly learned Mr. Master Bernhard Api[ti]us, archdeacon in Wittenberg.”

8 Cf. Andreas Poachs handschriftliche Sammlung, 1/1:VIf.

9 Walther says, doubtless hitting upon something correct: “It may very well be that Master Georg Rörer had copied [abgeschrieben] and smeared such house-sermons, doing away with this and adding that as he pleased” (Leipzig edition, 15:5).

10 Cf. Andreas Poachs handschriftliche Sammlung, 1/1:VII (Emericus Sylvius to Poach): “I would like it if you wrote to Amsdorf and asked him for both of Walther’s writings against Rörer, as well as his (Amsdorf’s) two writings against Walther, one of which was printed while the other was merely written.” Our searches for these writings, one of which was utilized previously according to the printing in the Leipzig edition of the works of Luther, have been unsuccessful.

About redbrickparsonage
Red Brick Parsonage is operated by a confessional Lutheran pastor serving in the Midwest.

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