On Christian Liberty. Luther’s Revised Edition, With Marginal Notes by Beatus Rhenanus

Luther, Martin (1483-1546)

Epistola Lvtheriana Ad Leonem Decimum Svmmvm Pontificem. Dissertatio de Libertate Christiana per Autorem Recognita. Wittenbergae.

Basel: Adam Petri, 1521


Quarto: 19.8 x 14.5 cm. Collation: A-E4, F6 (lacking blank F6)

FIRST REVISED EDITION (1st ed. published in 1520).

Modern paste-paper boards. A fine copy with good margins. Title lightly dust-soiled.

Together with his “Address to the Nobility of the German Nation” and “On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church”, Luther’s “On Christian Liberty” stands as one of the central pillars of Luther’s model of the reformed church. In this work, the Reformer articulates his doctrine of “sola fides” (justification by faith alone) and sets up his model of the “priesthood of all believers” against the corrupt and false hierarchy of the Catholic Church.

Luther first composed the work in German before writing his Latin version “De Libertate Christiana.” Both versions appeared in late 1520. In early 1521, Luther sent a corrected copy of the text to a cathedral canon in Augsburg, who forwarded it to the famous humanist (and early supporter of Luther) Beatus Rhenanus, who added his own marginal annotations and sent it on to Basel, where the revised text (this edition) was printed by Adam Petri.

“The immediate purpose of the treatise was to counter the Catholic slander that Luther’s teaching meant that Christians could believe the propositions of the gospel and live like the Devil and still be certain of salvation. For Luther faith was the presence of Christ in the heart, and it required the Christian to have the same selfless attitude toward the world that Christ had possessed. Luther expected discipline, love and service from everyone who bore the name of Christ. The motives of this life could not be selfish. Christians did not love the neighbor out of slavish lust for reward; rather they loved others because Christ had already loved them. Good works did not make Christians good; Christ made them good, and Christians did good works out of gratitude in the changed nature that Christ had given them.

“As Peter Kawerau has cogently argued, “On Christian Liberty” not only contains Luther’s views on the nature of a Christian life and morals; it also demonstrates the essence of Luther’s view of the church, the community of Christians existing through time from its founding by Christ unto the ending of the world. By releasing the Christian from the bondage of law, Luther also declared independence from the vast and complicated decrees of canon law, the collections of authoritative statements by popes, councils and theologians that had been sanctified by tradition and that kept good order in the church…. Luther came back to an abiding theme: the priesthood of all believers. It meant that every Christian could stand before God without any intermediary except Christ himself. He was careful to say that the priesthood of all believers does not mean that every Christian has a divine right to preach and teach. As Paul said, ‘So one esteems us as ministers of Christ and dispensers of the mysteries of God’ (1 Cor. 4:1). The ‘us’ refers to the ministers who administer the sacraments, the ‘mysteries of God,’ as Luther had called them in the ‘Babylonian Captivity.’

“Here is a seeming contradiction: Luther sought to overthrow the institutional hierarchy of the Catholic Church with its priests, bishops and the pope; yet he created another hierarchy, that of the ministers confirmed by congregations in the right to preach the Word, the ‘mysteries of God,’ that ordinary Christians might mistake unless they had an authoritative guide. In effect he conceded a major point. Yes, the Bible was clear and unambiguous in its teachings; but even true Christians, who could count themselves priests before God, might not understand this clear Bible. Therefore a class of ministers was needed to explain it to the masses. Luther seemed to expect the well-meaning masses to see the clarity once they heard it explained, and if they did not, they would still live obedient and faithful lives and accept the word of their preachers.”(Richard Marius, “Martin Luther”, pp. 264-270)

The work is prefaced by a letter addressed to Pope Leo X, written by Luther at the behest of Karl von Miltitz, who sought to reconcile Luther with Rome after the enormous affront to the papacy made by Luther in his “Babylonian Captivity.” The letter is written in a humble tone but is far from conciliatory. Luther “addressed the pope in the firm tones of a good German schoolmaster admonishing an inept but well-meaning child. Luther told the pope that although he had not attacked Leo personally, he nevertheless declared unremitting war against the papacy itself. Leo was counseled to give up his ‘glory’ –that is, the title of pope- to retire to the parish and live on the income of a simple priest, and to accept all of the doctrinal definitions that Luther had proposed. Then Leo could help Luther reform the church. In effect, Luther said peace could reign between them if Leo helped destroy the papacy.”(Ibid)

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