by Edgar M. Krentz
Christ Seminary-Seminex Professor Emeritus of New Testament
“For the church is born out of the word of promise through faith, and it is fed and preserved by the same word, that is, it itself is founded through the promise of God, not the promise of God founded by the church. For the word of God is without parallel over the church, in which nothing has legal power to enact anything, to ordain anything, to do anything, rather the church is founded, ordered and made as a creature.” (Luther, WA 6, 560, 33-561, 2.)
For, prior to Lord’s Supper and Baptism the Gospel is the one most certain and preeminent mark of the church. For only through the Gospel is she conceived, formed, fed, born, raised, cradled, clothed, adorned, strengthened, equipped and protected. In brief the entire life and nature of the church consists of the word of God … When I speak of the Gospel, I understand in that the oral word, not the written word. … Only through the oral word (verbum vocale), through the oral, publically echoing voice of the Gospel (vocalis et publica vox Evangelii) does one experience where the church and the mysteries of the kingdom of God are. (Ad librum eximii Magistri Nostri Magistri Ambrosii Catharini, 1521. WA 721,12.15:" WA 7,720,32ff.: tota vita et substantia Ecclesiae est in verba dei. Non de Evangelio scripto sed vocalii loquor; vgl. 722,3ff.).
There you have it. God’s word of promise creates the church, not vice versa. That puts the church—and us—into our proper place, gives us the means for true self-evaluation, and calls us to repentance. The church cannot manage the Gospel, can take no credit for the Gospel, but cannot be the church of God without the Gospel. Reformation means a constant return to being shaped by the Gospel. Listen again to the words Luther strung together to describe what the gospel does. The church is not the creator of the Gospel, it is a creature created by the Gospel.
We recall today the Reformation. There was a time when sermons on the Reformation told us over and over how bad the Catholic church was in Luther’s day. Today we more need to remind ourselves that we need Reformation! Like the church we are called by the gospel; we bring nothing to God. That is why we pray with open palms raised to heaven. That is what the Reformation watchwords sola gratia and sola fide mean. We come with nothing in our hands. Old Archimedes supposedly said in Ancient Syracuse, “Give me a place to stand and I can move the world.” We have no Archimedean place to stand before God, no place to stand to move God for our benefit.
Luther combined his conviction that the oral word was pre-eminent with the use of the world “promise”. In Galatians Paul uses the term “Gospel” in chapters 1 and 2, but after that he shifts to the term “promise”. Luther was professor of Scripture in Wittenberg University and borrowed that term from Galatians and the Old Testament. Because of his stress on promise Luther regarded Christ as the center of Scripture, as the key to the proper understanding of the Bible. In 1535 Luther set a thesis for doctoral candidate Nicolaus Medler to defend:
“Scripture is not to be understood against Christ, but for Christ. Therefore it must either be referred to him or not regarded as true Scripture. Now if our adversaries argue the Scriptures against Christ, we argue Christ against the Scriptures.” (Theses set for Nicolaus Medler to defend in his oral doctoral examination in 1535, WA 39, 1, 47)
Christ is the key to Scripture, just as the Gospel is the key to the church. Luther’s apothecary and an artist, Lucas Cranach, painted the Altarstück, the altarpiece, in the Church of St. Mary, the Stadtkirche or City Church of Wittenberg, where Luther preched frequently.
The predella shows Luther in the pulpit to the right, the congregation is on the left. Between them is Christ on the cross. That represents Luther’s theology pictorially. He proclaims the cross of Jesus, forms his theologia crucis from the cross, interprets Gospel from the cross; one might even say, in a bad pun, that Luther is cross-eyed.
Luther stressed that the Word is first and foremost oral! Read his Epiphany sermon of 1522, i. e., early on in his life as reformer. (I have translated, in most cases, the boldfaced words .)
Christ has two witnesses of his birth and rule. One is the Scriptures or the word spoken through the mouth. Saint Paul (2 Cor 4:4) and Saint Peter (2 Pet 1:19) call that word a light and a lamp. Now the word is not understood until the light goes on. For the prophets are opened up through the gospel. … For in the New Testament preaching should be oral with a living voice and bring to our ears in language what was earlier hidden in letters and unclear face. The NT is nothing else than at opening and revelation of the OT.
That’s why Christ himself did not write down his teaching, as Moses did, be gave it orally and ordered it to be passed on orally and gave no command to write it. The Apostles wrote little, and not all, but only Peter, Paul, John and Matthew. … Therefore it is not at all the NT way to write books of Christian doctrine, but without books in every place there should be good, learned, spiritual, diligent preachers, who draw the living word out of the Old Testament and act as the apostles did. For before they wrote, they had with their bodily voice preached and converted the people, which was their true apostolic work. … That one however has to write books is already a great falling away and a breaking of the Spirit, that necessity has compelled and not the manner of the NT.
This quite radical Luther models commitment to the oral Gospel; The written New Testament is useful for the proclamation of that Gospel.
Luther applied his christological, evangelical touchstone to everything. In his purification of the Latin Mass Luther kept everything he could: the Eucharistic vestments, the crucifix, the elevation of bread and wine, with proper genuflections. The Latin mass survived in some Lutheran churches for 200 years; Bach set the Lutheran Latin Mass in the 1740s! But Luther changed the liturgical text in at least two ways: He argued that the “Allelouia” should be kept in the liturgy throughout Lent, even sung on Good Friday, since praise of God should take place every day. And he rejected the use of the Eucharistic prayer as containing prayers for the dead and other evangelical contradictions. One should only chant the account of the institution of the Lord’s Supper, a possibility still allowed in the cranberry Evangelical Lutheran Worship.
Luther’s stress on praise led to his recommending hymns in German in his Deutsche Messe. In 1524 a Wittenberg printer published the first hymnbook of the Lutheran Church. Its title page reads “Some Christian Hymns, Canticles, and Psalms Made According to the Pure Word of God, From Holy Scripture by Several Very Learned Men, to Sing in Church as it is in Part Already Practiced in Wittenberg. / Etlich Cristlich Lider Lobgesang/ und Psalm dem rainen wort Gottes gemeß / auf der heyligen schrifft/ durch mancher=lei hochgelerter gemacht/ in der Kirchen zu singen / wie es dann zum tayl berayt zum Wittenberg in übung ist. It is more popularly called the “Achtliederbuch,” since it contained only eight hymns; Four were by Luther, three were by Paul Speratus, the fourth is either anonymous or by Justus Jonas, pastor of the Wittenberg Stadtkirche.
- Nun freut euch, lieben Christen gmein (Luther) LW 595
- Es ist das Heil uns kommen her (Speratus) LW 590
- In Gott gelaub ich, das er hat (Speratus)
- Hilf Gott, wie ist der Menschen Not (Speratus)
- Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein (Luther) “O God Look Down from Heaven, a setting of Psalm 12.
- Es spricht der Unweisen Mund wohl (Luther) The Mouth of Fools doth God confess. A hymn of law!
- Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir (Luther) LW 600
- In Jesu Namen wir heben an (anonymous, setting for two voices; or is it by Justus Jonas)
“Salvation Unto Us Has Come” (ELW 590), composed in prison in Olmütz in 1523, it became THE Reformation “Sturmlied” in many locales, e.g. Heidelberg, Magdeburg, & Waiblingen. i.e. not Ein Feste Burg. 12 stanzas in the original German, 10 to describe law and gospel, the last 2 for the Lord’s Prayer at the end. One can understand why it became the battle hymn of the Reformation in parts of sixteenth century German. It rings the changes on law and gospel, on which Luther based his theology.
I asked to have this silver processional cross placed next to the ambo. The cross itself comes from Ethiopia; I purchased it in Berkeley, CA, some years ago. The stand of walnut wood was made by my pastor, John Gorder, from walnut wood purchased in Wisconsin. It used to stand in the entry hall of our town house here in Hyde Park, where we would see it as we went in and out of our home. When we moved into our apartment at Montgomery Place, a retirement home, we gave it to Augustana Chapel.
Often pastors and bishops had their personal processional cross in a stand by the pulpit, a reminder that proclamation is to be evangelical, gospel oriented. Way back in 1948 my seminary roommate preached his first sermon in St. Paul’s Lutheran church in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The church, dedicated in about 1890, seats some 1800 people! When my roommate came down from the high pulpit into the sacristy, the pastor said, “Good sermon, Karl; too bad you left the people in hell.” Harsh criticism; Lutheran criticism. It made an impression on all his future sermons.
Reformation means careful self-evaluation and change, in the light of the Gospel, for the Gospel. Not a Little Jack Horner attitude of self congratulation, but loud hymn of praise to God for God’s marvelous gift in Christ, so we can say with Luther, Wir sind Bettler, das ist wahr, “We are beggars, that’s the [whole] truth.
Paul Speratus (1484-1551) was born in Swabia, on December 13, l484, possibly at the Castle of Rothlen near Ellwangen. His name was originally Paul Hoffer or Offer, but he later Latinized it. In 1502 he began his studies at Freiburg which he continued in Paris and Italy. In 1518, he preached at Dinkelsbuhl, Bavaria. During the next few years he also preached at Wurzburg and Salzburg. At both places he was forced to leave because he expressed his evangelical views too openly. In 1520, when he received his Doctor of Divinity degree from the University of Vienna, he married. He was one of the first priests to marry, breaking away from the Roman custom of celibacy. He was denounced by the Theological Faculty at Vienna because of a sermon he preached defending marriage and setting forth the doctrine of justification. He became a preacher in Moravia where he gathered a large following. King Ludwig called him to Olmutz where he was in prison for three months.
In 1523, he came to Wittenberg where he worked with Luther and assisted him in preparing the Achtliederbuch, 1524. Later he was appointed court preacher to Margrave Albrecht at Konigsberg. Luther had recommended him for the position. Speratus had a great deal to do with drawing up the Liturgy and Canons, the Kirchenordnung, for the Prussian Church of his day. He died on August 12, 1551 as the bishop of Pomerania. Speratus wrote the text for one of the hymns in the LBW: "Salvation Unto Us Has Come."