Amsdorf Preface from 1557

By Nikolaus von Amsdorf (1483-1565)

Translator’s Preface

In Friedrich Bente’s Historical Introductions to the Lutheran Confessions (St. Louis: CPH, 2005; also printed at the beginning of the Concordia Triglotta), he discusses the Majoristic Controversy in chapter 13. This controversy, which took place after Luther’s death, centered around the proposition that good works are necessary for salvation. In response to this erroneous proposition, Bente says that Nikolaus von Amsdorf, “the intimate and trusted friend of Luther,” reacted absurdly and that “the momentum of his uncontrolled zeal carried him a step too far—over the precipice. He declared that good works are detrimental and injurious to salvation” (p. 285).

But in supporting this accusation against Amsdorf, Bente only cites Amsdorf’s infamous 1559 publication, That the Proposition “Good Works Are Harmful to Salvation” Is a Correct, True, and Christian Proposition. But on the very next page (286) Bente writes:

Melanchthon refers to the proposition of Amsdorf as “filthy speech, unflaetige Rede.” In 1557, at Worms, he wrote: “Now Amsdorf writes: Good works are detrimental to salvation… The Antinomians and their like must avoid the filthy speech, ‘Good works are detrimental to salvation.'”

Bente does not explain how Melanchthon could react to Amsdorf’s proposition in 1557, when Amsdorf did not publish his infamous work until 1559.

The answer is below, translated from vol. 28 of the Weimar edition of Luther’s works (D. Martin Luthers Werke: kritische Gesammtausgabe [sic] [Weimar: Hermann Böhlaus Nachfolger, 1903], p. 765-767). In 1557, the Erfurt pastor Andreas Poach was ready to have his first edition of Luther’s sermons on John 18-20 published in Jena, on the basis of Georg Rörer’s shorthand transcripts. Nikolaus von Amsdorf wrote the preface for that edition, in which, to our knowledge, he came out publicly with the proposition “that good works not only are not necessary for salvation, but are also harmful to salvation” for the first time.

Article IV of the Formula of Concord eventually dealt with both erroneous propositions (see Endnote 4 below).

For more on Poach’s first edition of Luther’s sermons on John 18-20, see here.

I was informed via email by the staff of Concordia Publishing House (CPH) that this preface is also included in vol. 69 of the American edition of Luther’s Works. (Volume 69 is one of the new volumes that CPH is publishing in anticipation of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.) However, I do not own this volume, nor have I touched it, seen it, or consulted it. Any similarities between that translation and the one below are purely coincidental.

Though Amsdorf goes too far in this preface, he also has many fine things to say. His second to last paragraph and final two sentences are my prayer in providing this translation.

Preface by Amsdorf (1557)

To all pious Christians I, Nikolaus von Amsdorf, wish God’s grace, understanding, Spirit, and wisdom, so that they continually remain and persist in the pure doctrine of the holy gospel until their end. Amen.

Many beautiful and glorious sermons preached by the holy and cherished man Doctor Martin Luther of blessed memory on several chapters of the two Evangelists John and Matthew were taken down as Luther was speaking by the worthy and well educated Mr. Georg Rörer. Another man1 has put these on paper and dispatched them to press faithfully, diligently, and in the best possible way. Until now they have never been printed or published. They are not like the other writings which Luther himself produced and had published, but in these last and dangerous present times, when all sorts of error and heresies are once again being freshly stirred up and are appearing in abundance, they are still very necessary, beneficial, and comforting for guarding oneself and standing firmly against them.

Therefore the illustrious, highborn princes and lords, the brothers Lord Johann Friedrich, Lord Johann Wilhelm, and Lord Johann Friedrich the Younger, dukes of Saxony, landgraves in Thuringia, and margraves of Meissen, my gracious princes and lords, have decreed and commanded that these sermones or sermons be specially printed. (They have done this out of the their special desire and love for having the Holy Scriptures brought to light according to their pure, natural, and correct understanding.) For in these sermons many articles of our holy Christian faith are dealt with and explained according to the contents of the pure doctrine of the holy gospel.

Their Princely Graces likewise wanted to have the special confessiones, that is, the glorious and Christian confessions, both of their dear lord and father, the formerly most illustrious, highborn Elector of Saxony, Lord Johann Friedrich of Christian and praiseworthy memory, and of Doctor Martin2 printed and published along with the above-mentioned sermons, for compelling and weighty reasons.

From these confessions all pious and troubled hearts, which are assailed under the cross that they carry in any situations like those of these men, should take a comforting example and illustration, so that they too confess their faith as joyfully and steadfastly as the praiseworthy elector of Christian memory did. He confessed his faith during his imprisonment dauntlessly, yet with the utmost patience and humility.

For he did not rant and rave, he did not disparage the Imperial Majesty or his counselors who urged him to accept the Interim, nor give them empty prattle. Instead, with due honor and reverence, he humbly and submissively requested, and yet at the same time announced, that he could not and would not accept such an Interim in good conscience, just as everyone will see and read in this confession of his.3

Likewise everyone can also see and note from the confession of Dr. Martin Luther that he agrees with neither sects nor factions nor fanatics alike, but condemns and rejects them all, including those that have arisen after his Christian departure from this world, whoever they may be – Interimists, Adiaphorists, or Majorists. Therefore they are quite unjust and shameless in availing themselves of Dr. Martin and in crying out, writing, and boasting that Doctor Martin has taught and written just as they write and teach, even though the opposite is found in his books for all to see. To point out the one worst, most pressing, and most dangerous article: All those who teach and write that good works are necessary for salvation are going directly against Luther, yes, directly against themselves. For Luther of blessed and holy memory writes everywhere and especially on Galatians that good works not only are not necessary for salvation, but are also harmful to salvation. For this is what he says:

When one just considers the matter at its foundation and in the light, then it is certain and is found that such teaching and emphasizing of works as necessary for salvation does more and greater damage than any human reason could ever comprehend or understand. For in so doing not only is the knowledge of grace clouded, but Christ with all his benefits is ripped away and the entire gospel is turned upside down, as Paul here testifies.4

And they themselves also write and cry out that we obtain forgiveness of sins and eternal salvation by pure grace, without our works or merit, purely for free. Now if this, their own confession, is true, how then can our good works be necessary for salvation (which we have already obtained for free, by grace, before any good work, as they themselves confess)? This is contrary to their very own confession.

I therefore ask all Christians for the sake of God to read diligently and take to heart these sermons of Luther, along with the two confessions. Then they will experience and take away from them sure comfort, strength, and power, so that they will persist and remain in the pure doctrine of the gospel and will avoid and condemn all Adiaphoristic and Majoristic doctrines. This is now highly necessary at this time, for people are rashly wanting to hold a convention with the Zwinglians, with the idea that we should settle our differences, join forces, and reach an agreement with them. But to do this without harm to religion and our conscience is impossible. This is no more an option for us than is settling our differences or reaching an agreement with the papists or Adiaphorists.

Thus any conventions, colloquies, or conferences are vain and pointless, for there can be no agreement or unity in these matters. Rather, as soon as we undertake a negotiation or colloquy, the truth has already been suppressed and defeated. For the persuasibilia verba humanae sapientiae [persuasive words of human wisdom]5 (which are nothing more than words and ink) do not diminish in value but stay on top, so that they and their dreams win out in the end.

This is exactly what I have not only read in histories and chronicles, but also seen and experienced in our colloquies which I have attended. Therefore there is nothing better or safer than to remain with the pure word of God without any comment, interpretation, or exposition of human reason. This is what the holy man of God has offered and given us in these sermons and his other writings and also in this last confession of his. In this way we are sure and certain that we cannot go astray or be in error.

May God, the Father of all mercy, help us from heaven to this end, so that we ever remain with the pure Word without any gloss, exposition, or human interpretation.

For as soon as we depart from the Word and follow the Adiaphorists’ interpretation and exposition, we are already gone and eternally lost. For Christ does not want to be preached persuasibilibus verbis humanae sapientiae [with persuasive words of human wisdom], as Paul says. He does not want to have his Church built, planted, and watered by great scholars, but by fishermen and uneducated people who have a correct faith, no matter how lowly and despised they might be on earth.

Endnotes

1 Andreas Poach – trans.

2 The “special confessiones” referred to are the confession of Elector Johann Friedrich I against the Augsburg Interim of Emperor Charles V (1548) and the Brief Confession concerning the Holy Sacrament of Martin Luther (1544). – trans.

3 Amsdorf almost makes it sound as though this confession of the elector was going to be published with Luther’s sermons in the same volume, but that did not happen. It was published by Valentin Ernst Loescher “from the manuscript” (“ex M[anu]S[crip]TO”) in his Unschuldige Nachrichten von Alten und Neuen Theologischen Sachen, Büchern, Uhrkunden, Controversien, Veränderungen, Anmerckungen, Vorschlägen, u. d. g. zur Heil. Sonntags-Ubung, Verfertiget von Einigen Dienern des Göttlichen Wortes. Auff das Jahr 1702. Andere Aufflage. (Leipzig: Bei den Großischen Erben, Druckts Martin Fulde, 1705), p. 393-398. (Loescher was, among other things, a collector of rare books, codices, and manuscripts.) Bente quotes a good portion of the elector’s confession on p. 224-225 in the work cited in my Translator’s Preface above. Bente took the quote from C. F. W. Walther’s Der Concordienformel Kern und Stern (Heart and Soul of the Formula of Concord), who in turn took it from Loescher’s printing in the Unschuldige Nachrichten. However, Walther’s citation there – “S. 364ff” – is incorrect; it should read “S. 394ff”. It just so happens that p. 394 was misprinted as 364; the other page numbers were printed correctly. – trans.

4 This assertion by Amsdorf thus predates his infamous writing from 1559, “Daß die Propositio (Gute Werk sind zur Seligkeit schädlich) ein rechte wahre christliche Propositio sei” (“That the Proposition ‘Good Works Are Harmful to Salvation’ Is a Correct, True, and Christian Proposition”). Amsdorf could put on a show appealing to Luther’s Commentarius in Epistolam ad Galatas (Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians); he is probably thinking of: “Cum igiturmea iustitia coram Deo mihi non prosit sed plus obsit…” (“Since therefore…my own righteousness before God does not help me, but hurts me much more…” (Johann Konrad Irmischer, D. Martini Luther Commentarium in Epistolam S. Pauli ad Galatas [Erlangen: Carl Heyder, 1843], 1:59). Amsdorf probably did not use the German translation of these lectures on Galatians by Justus Menius (his opponent at the time), which used to be the section that was cut out and printed in the Erlangen edition, 2nd ed., 20/II:145f, even though it is simply not a sermon; q. v. p. 156. – G. Koffmane.

Note that in the quote Koffmane cites Luther does not actually say flatly that good works are harmful to salvation, but that good works hurt us when we attempt to use them to earn righteousness before God or gain salvation from him. Even in the Luther quote Amsdorf cites, which is apparently an adaptation and not a quotation according to Koffmane, it is the teaching and emphasizing of good works as necessary for salvation that does the harm, not the good works themselves. Cf. Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, Article IV, §37ff. – trans.

5 Rf. 1 Corinthians 2:4-5. – trans.

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

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