Luther’s Church Postil has been available in an old, imperfect English translation, but now there is a better and more reliable edition. Luther’s Works: Volume 79: Church Postil V, published by Concordia Publishing House, reflects a significant milestone in the publication of Luther’s Works in English. The complete, best, last, and final edition of the Church Postil, based on the one Luther personally approved, is available for English-speaking readers for the first time.
By way of introduction to the Church Postil, let’s begin first with that rather odd word, Postil. The word is from the Latin expression post illa verba, meaning literally, “after these words.” What words? The words just read from the Bible in the church service. A postil, therefore, is a sermon intended to explain the biblical text just heard. In Luther’s time, there were various postil collections available; they were collections of sermons on the annual cycle of readings from the New Testament Gospels and Epistles.
Volume 79 is a translation of the last and final authoritative edition of the Church Postil, a project Luther worked on periodically throughout his life, starting with the first edition he prepared while in exile (protective custody) at the Wartburg Castle. There he worked on the Latin 1521 Advent Postil and then the 1522 Wartburg Postil.
From these early editions, Luther continued working on his sermons, which he intended to be used to help preachers who were struggling to preach the text of the Scriptures in light of the renewal of the Gospel that came about during the Reformation. Luther wanted people to hear solid biblical preaching that reflected the truth of God’s Word, and particularly the pure and unadulterated Good News of Jesus Christ, articulated through the key to the interpretation of the Scriptures: the proper distinction between Law and Gospel.
During the years Luther was working on his sermons, others took it upon themselves to publish versions and editions of his sermons that Luther did not himself personally approve. Perhaps the most notorious example was the “Roth edition” of the Church Postil, prepared by Stephen Roth, who gathered Luther’s materials and published them. Although he first thanked Roth, Luther later became painfully aware of how badly Roth had botched his sermons. Luther’s close friends and associates castigated Roth, and then Luther himself recognized that Roth’s work left much to be desired. Consequently, Luther and his colleagues set to work in the early 1530s to prepare a better edition of the Church Postil.
But here is where the story of the transmission of the Church Postil and its appearance in English for the first time in the early 1900s takes an unfortunate turn. The earliest critical edition of the Church Postil was prepared by Philip Spener, who did not use the better and later “Luther-approved editions” but relied on the earlier editions of the Church Postil. The Spener edition became the de facto authoritative edition, and for hundreds of years, the Church Postil was only available to people via Spener’s defective edition. In places, Spener tended to make Luther sound like an anti-institutional radical who had a low regard for such things as the holy ministry. The error continued in the 1700s, when George Walch used Spener’s edition to prepare his edition of Luther’s Works. Walch’s use of an inferior textual basis for the Church Postil went unnoticed by the editors of the so-called Saint Louis Edition of Luther’s Works, printed by the Missouri Synod in the late 1800s.
At the turn of the twentieth century, John Nicholas Lenker, a Lutheran American General Synod professor, undertook the task of publishing key writings of Martin Luther into English, including his Church Postil. Because Lenker used the St. Louis edition version of the Church Postil, the English-speaking Lutheran Church received a translation of the edition that had never been approved by Luther and had been actually rejected by Luther’s close colleagues and associates. Fortunately, this error has now been corrected.
With the completion of this new edition, we finally have the Church Postil as Luther himself intended it, but in English. The edition Luther preferred was prepared by his favorite editor, Caspar Cruciger, who did his work with Luther’s knowledge, involvement, and personal approval. This new edition and translation is based on Cruciger’s 1540 edition of the Church Postil.
Volumes 75–79 of the American edition of Luther’s Works provide readers with an English translation of Luther’s mature, final version of the Church Postil, the likes of which have not seen for more than three hundred years. Also included are footnotes identifying the occasions for which these sermons were originally preached and the ways in which they were adapted for print to be Luther’s definitive sermonic legacy.