LUTHER, Personal Reflections on Shattered Dreams

Taken from, “The Great Renunciation”
Written by, W. H. T. Dau.

Also from, “initium negocii evangelici”
Written by Martin Luther.


The place is Luther’s study at Wittenberg, and the time the summer of 1538…

Luther is writing the Preface to a collection of theses for theological debates on matters relating to the papacy which he had conducted at the University of Wittenberg, and which were published in the fall of that year.

Twenty-one years had passed since he had ventured into the arena of public debate as a timid searcher after light and truth. The questions which had agitated men’s minds at that time had meanwhile been brought to a decision. The Church which had been torn with the fiercest conflict in its history was settling, at least as far as the relation of the Evangelical party to Rome was concerned, into the condition of a permanent rupture. The decision had been reached; the schism had come, and Luther’s side had accepted it as a deplorable, yet unavoidable, solution of a baffling difficulty.

A small man looking backward over the illustrious path, that had been traversed during the last two decades might have been seized with the bragging spirit and given himself over to self-flattery. For the changes that had been wrought, not only in the external condition of the Church, but still-more in the inner life of its members, and in the social relations of mankind at large, were truly astonishing. A great blow had been struck in defense of the liberty wherewith Christ has made men free. The victor might have reclined on his laurels and condescended to receive the eulogies of his admirers.

In Luther’s instance the retrospect to which his mind was invited by the work before him in those dog-days of 1538 led to an introspection, and the somber reflections which crowding his thoughts were deposited into the Preface, in the form of the following confession:

“Dr. Martin Luther to the Pious Reader”


I permit the publication of my Disputations, or Theses, which have been discussed since the beginning of my controversy with the papacy and the leading sophists of the time, chiefly to the end that I may not become lifted up with the magnitude of the affair and the success which God has bestowed on it. For in these Theses my disgrace is publicly exhibited, that is, my weakness and ignorance, which compelled me at the beginning to enter upon this business with the greatest trembling and misgiving.

I was drawn into this affair alone, and without having foreseen it. While I could not retrace my steps, I not only yielded to the Pope in many and important articles of faith, but also continued to worship him. For at that time, who was I? An altogether miserable, insignificant little monk, more like a corpse than a living human being. And I was to run counter to the majesty of the Pope, before whom not only the kings of the earth and the entire world, but also heaven and hell (the threefold mechanism of the universe, as it has been called) stood in awe, and on whose nod everything hung!

All that my heart suffered in that first year and the year after, and how great my humility, which was not feigned, and my near despair was, alas! how little of this is known to those who later began, in proudest fashion, to assail the wounded majesty of the Pope. Although, to use Virgil’s phrase –they did not compose these verses, but they carried away the laurels; which, however, I do not begrudge them.

But while those people were spectators and left me in the lurch alone, I was not so cheerful, confident, and certain; for many things that I know now I did not know at that time. Yea, what indulgences were I did not know at all, nor did the entire papacy know anything about it. They were held in reverence merely because of an established custom and from habit Accordingly, my disputation was not for the purpose of abolishing them, but because, knowing full well what they were not, I desired to know what they might be. And since the dead or dumb teachers, that is, the books of the theologians and jurists, did not satisfy me, I decided to call in the living for counsel, and to hear the Church of God itself, in order that, if perhaps there were remaining anywhere instruments of the Holy Spirit, they might take pity on me, and, while profiting all, might also render me certain regarding the indulgences.

Now, many good men extolled my Theses, but it was impossible for me to acknowledge them to be the Church and instruments of the Holy Ghost. I looked up to the Pope, the cardinals, the bishops, the theologians, the jurists, the monks, and expected the Spirit from them. For I had gorged and filled myself with their teaching to such an extent that I did not realize whether I was awake or sleeping. And after I had overcome all arguments with the Scriptures, I could in the end, even with the grace of Christ, scarcely get over this one point, except with the greatest difficulty and anguish, viz., that we must hear the Church. For the Church of the Pope I regarded (and that with all my heart!) as the true Church, with much greater stubbornness and reverence than these abominable parasites are doing who are nowadays glorifying the Church of the Pope to spite me. If I had despised the Pope as his eulogizers are now doing, I would have believed that the earth must swallow me up that very minute, as it did Korah and his followers.

But to return to my subject,while waiting for the verdict of the Church and of the Holy Spirit, I was forthwith ordered to keep silent, and my superiors appealed to the prevailing custom. Frightened by the authority of the name of the Church, I yielded and declared myself ready to Cardinal Cajetan at Augsburg to keep silent, begging him humbly to impose silence also on the clamorous opposition party. But he not only refused my request, but added that if I did not recant, he would condemn me and all my teachings, whatever they might be. But at that time I had already been teaching the Catechism with no little success, and I knew that the Catechism must not be condemned, and that I must not permit this to be done, lest I should deny Christ.

I did not, however, intend at this time to relate my history, but I confess my foolishness, ignorance, and weakness, lest any man –to follow the example of Paul, should think of me above that which he sees me to be, and in order that no one may entertain a doubt –if that should be possible –that in those great conflicts I was human, and am still human. At the same time I would by my example scare those foolishly brave, inexperienced (I had almost said conceited), miserable writers who have not learned to know the cross and Satan, and who think it nothing now to overcome the Pope, yea, the devil himself. They, consider it their duty to attack Luther, and when they have vanquished him, Satan is an object of ridicule to them.

There spoke a great heart. No note of triumph steals even faintly into this reverie, but only the awe of chastened sorrow is allowed to speak before the wreckage of one of earth’s greatest idols that surrounds the speaker.