Dr. Mark U. Edwards, Jr. (PhD, Stanford University) is Professor of the History of Christianity at Harvard Divinity School and the author of Luther and the False Brethren (Stanford University Press, 1975). The title of the work makes reference to Luther’s personal epithet for his evangelical opponents: the “false brethren.” Luther’s invectives against these individuals, as Edwards shows, were particularly abusive and ad hominem. Luther and the False Brethren (1975) is a “coherent explanation for Luther’s claims about himself, for his often brutal personal attacks on his evangelical opponents, and for the reluctance of these opponents to respond in kind.” (3) Edwards is also explicit that this work is a response to Heinrich Bornkamm’s exhortation to research “the older Luther.” Consequently, this work is largely in the narrative style with analysis along the road.
Edwards begins the work with the stark observation that, during his polemics against the Roman Catholic Church, Luther was hesitant to bolster his own authority with claims about himself. On the other hand, in Luther’s internecine disputes with evangelical opponents from 1522 to his death, this reluctance is not evident. Moreover, according to Edwards, “Luther was incredibly abusive to all his opponents, and saw Satan behind them all.” (2) Edwards calls this post-Wartburg chapter in Luther’s life the “second act” of his Reformation. During this time, Luther returned to find men like Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt and his fellow Augustinian Gabriel Zwilling asking serious questions about the mass. An investigating commission including Karlstadt, Melanchthon, Amsdorf, and the jurist Jerome Schurf submitted a majority report strongly advocating these reforms. Nicholas Storch, Thomas Drechsel, and Marcus Stubner, the so-called “Zwickau prophets,” claimed they had been called by God and that their teachings came from the Spirit. These reforms were codified in the “Wittenberg Ordinance.” These reforms included communion in both kinds, partaking by hand, the elevation of the host, and the elimination of all references to sacrifice. Karlstadt’s iconoclasm was particularly concerning to both Luther and the Elector. Luther responded to the Wittenberg Movement by asserting “no insurrection is ever right, no matter how right the cause it seeks to promote.” Luther likened his Catholic opponents to Annas and Caiaphas, whereas the “false brethren” were likened to Judas, due to their origin from a common circle of friends. Though Karlstadt and Zwilling claimed unity with Luther, the latter called their efforts a “monstrosity” and wished to distinguish himself from their reforms. According to Luther, these men burdened consciences with nonessential issues instead of true Christian doctrine. They were false prophets with a “history of self-seeking and vanity.” Within weeks, however, Luther regained control of Wittenberg, giving credence to the Word as the true agent of change.
Luther called a man of similar radical beliefs, Thomas Muntzer, the “Satan at Allstedt.” He saw the same spirit in Karlstadt at work in Muntzer. For this reason, Luther’s Against the Heavenly Prophets took aim at “Karlstadt’s spirit” perhaps more than Karlstadt himself. (51) After all, according to Luther, Karlstadt was impelled by the “Allstedt spirit.” In this work Luther identified five articles of true Christianity: the law of God must be preached for the recognition of sin, the preaching of the gospel should comfort the conscience, the old man must be put to death, love of one’s neighbor should naturally ensue, and finally the law and its work should keep one outwardly pious. (53) Karlstadt’s misuse of the Mosaic Law especially bothered Luther. According to Edwards, Luther believed he was in a metaphysical struggle: “Satan always first attacked the gospel with force, and when that failed, he attacked it with false brethren and false teachings.” (59)
During the Peasants’ War, Luther “admonished both the rulers and the peasants that there was nothing Christian on either side.” (63) He compared the rebellion to a “great fire” devastating the whole land. When Luther compared the peasants to murderers, he was not well received among their ranks, despite his recognition of the excesses of the nobles. Still, Luther “laid most of the blame for the rebellion on the princes and bishops who had refused to appoint proper and pious preachers of the gospel to instruct the common man.” (79)
From the outset, Luther detected the scent of Karlstadt’s fanaticism when he encountered Ulrich Zwingli‘s similar spiritual interpretation of the Lord’s Supper. Both men, including Oecolampadius, interpreted Christ’s words “tropologically, symbolically, metaphorically, or as a metonymy.” (84) Though the “sacramentarians” pleaded for concord, Luther insisted this was an impossibility. After all, a spirit of discord was evidence of a satanic spirit. Edwards remarks, “The central issue was how the words of institution should be interpreted.” (96) In turn, Luther claimed that Zwingli was “completely perverted and has entirely lost Christ.” At the Marburg Colloquy, while both sides agreed to a “spiritual eating,” they were divided on the true meaning and implications of John 6:63. To Zwingli, Luther’s real presence view seemed “papist.” To Luther, Zwingli had effectively removed Christ from the mass! To Luther, this was the difference between the true and false church, the latter having begun with the murderer Cain. Luther’s self-perception revolved around the true prophets and apostles because, according to Edwards, he “had a keen sense of his importance in the affairs of the church of his age.” (125) Men like Martin Bucer, convinced that the controversy was over semantics, tried valiantly to bring the Zurich Reformers and clergy of Strasbourg in unision with Luther. However this was to no avail. For Luther, Christ’s presence was solely determined by Christ’s promise; this was non-negotiable.
John Agricola presented a new, antinomian challenge to Luther. Noted for his “new vocabulary,” Agricola argued that Paul distinguished between revelation of God’s righteousness and the revelation of God’s wrath from heaven. Provocatively, Agricola also insisted that one who persisted in sin “recrucified” Christ. Edwards incisively observes, “The paradigm of the struggle between the true and false churches is again in evidence.” (166) In his Against the Antinomians, Luther disavowed Agricola and dissociated himself from the latter’s position. Agricola opposed preaching the law before preaching grace, and this raised serious red flags for Luther. Despite Agricola’s admiration for Luther, the Wittenberg Reformer was sure that he identified “the devil’s role” in his schemes. Ultimately, the central goal of Luther’s Short Confession was “to testify to the world before his death and judgment that he had condemned, was condemning, and always would condemn the sacramentarians and their false teachings.” (190) Luther was bold and defiant to the end.
Perhaps the most consistent theme in Luther and the False Brethren (1975) is that of role of Satan in the schemes of his opponents. According to the Wittenberg Reformer, these “false brethren” were not simply obstacles to his Reformation goals; they were united in a common satanic spirit as the spiritual offspring of Cain. As a result, Luther attacked them vociferously and consistently. Edwards’ unique contribution to Luther studies is his ability to explain exactly how Luther identified this satanic spirit and how this influenced his interaction with his evangelical opponents, despite their repeated attempts at reconciliation and civility. (201) As Edwards asserts, Luther “directed his attack more against this spirit than against the men it occupied, and attributed to them not only what they had allegedly done but what, because of the satanic spirit, they were allegedly capable of doing.” (200) Luther and the False Brethren is a successful exposition of Luther’s engagement with this “false church” as manifested in the Reformed ranks.
Edwards’ best erudition is found in his ability to infiltrate the mind of Luther and even detect changes in his self-perception. For instance, the author records that “Luther’s view of himself as he entered the 1530s was in some ways different from the one he had held a decade earlier.” (112) He was no longer simply a professor or doctor of theology. Due to his engagements with the “false brethren,” he was now an apologist of the Christian faith destined to find trial behind every turn. Edwards does well in capturing this self-awareness. Furthermore, Luther viewed his experiences in biblical proportion: “In the course of his struggles with the fanatics during the 1520s he found many parallels between them and the biblical false brethren.” (113) As a result, he viewed himself and his office in equally biblical terms. For instance, his suffering was the Apostle Paul’s suffering. His calling was Paul’s calling. Their endurance was the same and so was their burden to face the very enemies of the cross who had once been their friends. “It was Luther’s view that Paul did not disparage his opponents but that he judged them by his apostolic authority.” (123)
Therefore Luther felt strongly that he possessed license and liberty to excoriate his opponents with that same brand of superior authority. Hence Luther viewed himself in very Pauline terms. As Edwards points out, Luther used the Apostle to help understand his own unique historical and spiritual milieu. Conversely, he inserted that same milieu into Paul’s own context in order to further understand Scripture. Edwards writes, “By 1531 Luther had come to believe that he occupied in his time the same role that the true prophets and apostles had occupied in biblical times.” (125) A particularly novel contribution to Luther studies offered by Luther and the False Brethren is the effects of this mentality upon his relations with his evangelical opponents. The fact that Satan was believed to be behind every troublesome interaction only lends more credence to Edwards’ assertion that Luther’s self-perception was of biblical magnitude. Edwards’ concluding paragraph is in fact a quote by Melanchthon paralleling his mentor to the prophet Jeremiah and insisting, “Because of the magnitude of the disorders God gave this age a violent physician.” The quote cements Edwards’ point perfectly.
There is no ostensible partiality in Edwards’ Luther and the False Brethren. The author remains academic throughout and does the task of the historian in interpreting his subject through a relatively objective lens. In his concluding remarks Edwards insists, “The face that Luther turned toward his evangelical opponents was not a pretty one. With a monumental sense of certainty and self-righteousness, he abused and condemned men who, to all appearances, were sincerely searching for the truth and ardently desired to find agreement with the Saxon reformer.” (205) Throughout this book, Edwards captures both Luther’s weaknesses and his strengths. Neither is neglected in favor of the other. As a result, Luther and the False Brethren is an excellent resource in the study of the Wittenberg Reformer’s interactions with his evangelical opponents. Despite a few tedious sections of story-telling where historical analysis is scant, this is a worthy resource on this subject.