Volumes 59 and 60 of the American Edition of Luther’s Works present a collection of the prefaces for the works of others written by Martin Luther throughout his career. The more than 80 documents included in these two volumes paint an intriguing picture of the reformer as he interacts with friends and opponents and subject matter both familiar (such as biblical commentary) and unique (such as astrology). Elite scholars from around the world have translated and annotated these prefaces to provide a snapshot of both the author of the work and the reformer’s rationale for engaging with the material. As a result, the sum total of these volumes provides a surprisingly detailed “biography” of the reformer and the historical context within which he labored for the Gospel.
The following is a selection from the introduction to volumes 59–60. The complete text, including the detailed annotations not included here, is available in LW 59: Prefaces I. Click Luther’s Works for information on becoming a subscriber to the extension of the American Edition of Luther’s Works.
Introduction to Volumes 59–60 of Luther’s Works
Martin Luther observed wryly in 1537 that he had become a “professional writer of prefaces” [LW 60:136]—not the prefaces to his own works, which he wrote as well, but scores of forewords, epistles, and prefaces commending and commenting on the works of others. Although the historiography of the Reformation has sometimes placed Luther at center stage as a solitary, heroic figure, the collation of his prefaces to nearly a hundred works by other authors serves as a reminder that Luther himself saw the Reformation of the church as a work shared both with his contemporaries and with Christian witnesses from the past. It was within this collaboration that Evangelical theology and ecclesiastical structures took shape and were defended and fortified against opponents. Even the opponents themselves could be enlisted as unwitting contributors to the work of reformation as their works, from papal bulls to the Koran, were published under Luther’s auspices in order to set Evangelical Christianity in a clearer light.
Luther and the Preface
Luther’s prefaces are interesting in no small part because they are such a varied lot, revealing not only his own wide personal connections with other reformers but also the many aspects of the Reformation program, including biblical exegesis and preaching, devotion, and the reform of marriage, inter alia. They also give Luther opportunity to hold forth on a range of subjects that are beyond the usual scope of his theological writing, such as history, astrology, and law. Nonetheless, based on their common literary character, the editors of Luther’s works have long presented his prefaces to the works of others together as a distinct genre within his literary production, and that tradition is renewed here.
The preface as a genre has a long history in literature going back to classical antiquity—though other than a few exceptions in Christian literature, ancient prefaces were almost always written by authors for their own works. Prefaces written to accompany the work of another writer were chiefly a development of the Renaissance and of print culture, when for the first time an interested party might influence the dissemination and reception of another’s work beyond the making or annotating of a single copy. During the Reformation, such preface writing became an important means for writers to express confessional unity or dissent, and Luther was a pioneer in exploring the possibilities of the form.
According to the expectations of the genre, prefaces tended toward a high rhetorical style. Luther’s vernacular prefaces showed his command of the German language and popular polemic. In his Latin prefaces, amid disclaimers of his own skill, Luther displayed an elaborate (if at times somewhat strained) Renaissance Latinity, establishing himself as a member of the humanist respublica litterarum as he gently criticized the Latin of his medieval predecessors or of contemporary opponents—though he was master enough of the genre that he could defy humanist conventions as well, if he chose.
Authors and Printers
Luther’s first preface, published in 1516, was attached to a partial edition of the German Theology, a work of late medieval mysticism. Appearing at a time when Luther himself was scarcely known outside the Augustinian order, the preface served less to commend the German Theology by association with Luther than to associate Luther’s name with a venerable (if obscure) predecessor. That dynamic quickly changed, however, as Luther burst into prominence with the controversy over indulgences and the “Luther case” became the talk of Germany. Luther himself became by far the best-selling author in the German press, transforming the printing industry (and particularly the town of Wittenberg) with the popularity of his own works.
It is not surprising, then, that Luther was often besought to supply others with a preface. Printers and authors expected that their works would sell better with Luther’s name attached to them, and Luther often complains of the pressure brought to bear upon him to provide a foreword. In virtually every case, the title pages of these books alerted the reader to the presence of Luther’s preface—something Luther compared (alluding to one of Erasmus’ Adages) to the wreath of ivy used to advertise a wineshop [cf. LW 60:8]. Elsewhere, Luther could note ironically the offense caused to hostile readers by the presence of his name or could observe that he was conferring fame on undeserving opponents by linking his name with theirs.
Luther was well aware of the ways in which the printers made use of his “name and testimony the better to peddle their books—some of them deceitfully, some honestly” [LW 59:244]. But he was strategic in lending his cooperation. He refused to grant a monopoly on printing his works to the cartel of Wittenberg presses, preferring to maintain his independence so that he could exercise a wider influence to ensure that works he particularly wished to see published would find their way into print. The exploitation between the reformer and the printers was thus mutual. In many of the prefaces below, Luther claims responsibility for seeing the work into the press. He became a major patron of Evangelical literature, not through financial support but through his influence with printers and with the public.
Authors, too, were solicitous of Luther’s endorsement, not only for its effect on their public but also for its theological weight. Although Luther disclaimed for himself the authority to act as an Evangelical censor, with power to determine what should and should not be printed, it is clear that his supporters prized his judgment and attestation. For his part, Luther described himself as bound, not to serve as judge over others but to “[bear] witness to [the author’s] doctrine where it is correct” [LW 59:190]. Although Luther was aware of the weight of the “confirmation of [his] testimony” [LW 60:242], in the prefaces he generally chose to speak of common witness rather than to emphasize—at least explicitly—his own unique authority as reformer.
The contemporary writers for whom Luther composed prefaces were, for the most part, either his own Wittenberg colleagues or his friends and former students deployed across Germany. The Thuringian reformer Justus Menius (1499–1558) received seven prefaces from Luther and the Swabian Johann Brenz (1499–1570) five; Philip Melanchthon’s (1497–1560) works received at least four. Prefaces to works by more distant authors or groups served to solidify public connections between them and Wittenberg, especially in the case of Luther’s prefaces to the confessions by the Unitas Fratrum (the Bohemian Brethren) or to the works of the English reformer Robert Barnes (1495–1540). In a few cases, however, Luther was induced by strategic considerations to supply a preface for an author less well-known to him, sometimes with embarrassing results. Overwhelmed with requests from eager printers and authors alike, occasionally Luther admits that he had been unable to read or review the work in detail; in a few other cases this may be suspected. One must be cautious, therefore, in assuming Luther’s endorsement of every sentence of every work for which he provided a foreword. On the other hand, Luther did not provide a preface for every work he highly esteemed—in particular the Loci Communes of Melanchthon.
Nonetheless, Luther took seriously his opportunity to serve as advocate for the works of others for the good of the church. Writing for the Nürnberg theologian Thomas Venatorius (ca. 1488–1551), Luther drew on the Gospel accounts of the feeding of the five thousand to describe his preface as a “little basket” in which the “good crumb” of Venatorius’ work, “left over from the gracious food of the holy Gospel . . . is to be held and preserved” [LW 59:252]. Amid the outpouring of print in the wake of the Reformation, Luther—especially in the prefaces to his own works—sometimes expressed the wish that his own books might disappear and give place to the Bible alone. In his prefaces to the works of others, however, Luther developed the opposite rhetorical strategy, hailing their books as faithful guides to the Scriptures or as edifices that, because of their confession of Christ, would “surely stand secure on the Rock upon which they are built” [LW 60:69]. Although he complained of the many “useless, harmful books” with which the Gospel’s opponents flooded the world [LW 59:252; cf. LW 59:162], the multiplication of “good books” in print—of which there could never be too many—was a sign of God’s present blessing on the church in restoring the light of the Gospel [LW 60:300; cf. LW 59:332], and Luther was pleased to encourage the works of faithful colleagues and friends. Many of the works for which he wrote prefaces he declared superior to his own for their insights, style, and more refined approach. Luther was grateful for help in the shared work of Evangelical literary production in all its genres, in constructive work as well as in polemics, and his prefaces give a broad survey of this activity.
Christopher Boyd Brown, General Editor, Luther’s Works: American Edition
From Luther’s Works volume 59 © 2012 Concordia Publishing House, www.cph.org. Contact CPH for permission to reproduce these pages.