The History of Luther’s Church Postil

The Church Postil consists of Luther’s sermons for the church year. Luther began working on it while hiding out at the Wartburg in 1521. Alongside his translation of the New Testament into German, he intended that the Church Postil should bring the reformational, Gospel message to ordinary pastors and laypeople. Aside from his catechisms, Luther’s sermons for the church year, the postils, were his most influential writings for the common people. What follows is Dr. Benjamin Mayes’s introduction to LW 75, explaining how the Church Postil developed, was perfected by Luther, corrupted later, and only now has been restored to the form that Luther intended.

Introduction to the Luther-Cruciger Church Postil (1540–1544)

Luther’s sermons were among his most influential writings, especially the collection of sermons known as the Church Postil. From 1525 to 1529, some twenty-five editions of Luther’s postil were published, while in the next half-decade the number rose to more than fifty, and publication remained strong for the remainder of Luther’s life and long after his death in 1546. The title Church Postil includes the various homiletical writings of Luther that developed in different ways and at various times during his career. Beginning in 1521 and continuing throughout his life, Luther referred to his published collections of sermons for the church year as “postils” [postillae]. This word, deriving from the Latin post illa [verba] (“after these [words]”), had been used in the Middle Ages to introduce a section-by-section exposition of a biblical text, and by Luther’s time it commonly meant a collection of sermons on the annually recurring Epistle and Gospel texts of the church year. But what is now known as Luther’s Church Postil was not so called until 1544, after Veit Dietrich’s (1506–49) edition of the House Postil was published. Previous to the publication of the House Postil, there was no need to differentiate the two postils of Luther. What we now call the Church Postil was instead usually called Explanation of the Epistles and Gospels from Advent until Easter or from Easter until Advent, since the work was typically printed in two parts. The Church Postil developed throughout the course of Luther’s career, growing piece by piece. The following outline shows its constituent parts.

The Church Postil (1544ff.) consists of:

I.       Winter Postil (1525/1540) [Aland 376, Po 9–64], that is, the sermons from Advent to Easter. This postil consists of:

A.     Wartburg Postil (1522), which consists of:

1.      Christmas Postil (1522) [Aland 758, Po 17–33]

2.      Advent Postil (1522) [Aland 9, Po 9–16]

B.     Lent Postil (1525) [Aland 216, Po 34–64], and

II.     Summer Postil, Cruciger edition (1544) [Aland 688, Po 218–305], that is, the sermons from Easter to Advent

Stephan Roth’s edition of Luther’s Explanation of the Gospels (sometimes anachronistically called “Roth’s Edition of the Church Postil”) included only sermons on the Gospel texts of the church year. It included:

I.       Summer Postil, Roth edition (1526) [Aland 689, Po 65–114]

II.     Festival Postil, Roth edition (1527) [Aland 219, Po 116–166], that is, sermons on the festival and saint days of the church year

III.    Winter Postil, Roth edition (1528) [Aland 773, Po 167–217], which was produced in competition with Luther’s own Winter Postil of 1525

Because of the large number of different editions—which varied considerably with regard to their contents, Luther’s involvement in their production, and the time of their publication—there has been some confusion about the publication history of Luther’s Church Postil.

The 1521 Latin Advent Postil and 1522 Wartburg Postil

Before setting off for the Diet of Worms in 1521, Luther finished a short, Latin explanation of the Epistles and Gospels for the four Sundays of Advent and sent his manuscript to the printer. In his preface to the short work, Luther reflects on his struggles against his papistic opponents and his effort to cleanse the Word of God from human filth. While in hiding at the Wartburg after the Diet of Worms, Luther’s plan changed. Now he wanted to prepare a postil in German, and for that he initially intended to translate his previous Latin Advent Postil. But Luther had misplaced his notes, so while he awaited a printed copy of the Latin postil, he began work on the sermons for the Christmas season. However, it became obvious to him that his earlier Advent sermons would not fit into his new plan because his Latin sermons were of a completely different style than the German material for Christmas. Thus Luther abandoned his intention to translate the 1521 Latin Advent Postil and instead composed new Advent sermons in German. The Christmas sermons, known as the Christmas Postil (1522) in the literature, were printed separately once. The German sermons for Advent, the so-called Advent Postil (1522), were printed separately twice. More commonly, these two parts were published together and are now known as the Wartburg Postil (1522).

The 1525 Lent Postil and Winter Postil

No more of the postil appeared in print for the next few years, but market demand for Luther’s church year sermons did not abate. Realizing the need to present shorter sermons, Luther began writing and revising sermons on the Epistles and Gospels of the Sundays after Epiphany, but before he could finish the sermons for Lent, a copy of his work was stolen and printed in Regensburg, though with “Wittemberg” as the place of publication on the title page. Luther continued working on these sermons, known now as the Lent Postil, and had them published in 1525, along with a “Preface and Admonition to the Printers” reproving his anonymous thieves. Soon the Lent Postil was added to the Wartburg Postil and printed under the subtitle: “corrected for the second time [anderweyt] by Martin Luther,” indicating that the Wartburg Postil sermons were in their second revised edition. For the first time, Luther’s sermons on the entire winter half of the church year were available to the public in what is now known as the Winter Postil (1525). It was this Winter Postil (consisting of the Advent, Christmas, and Lent Postils) that Luther in 1527 called “the best book I ever wrote,” though of course he made similar statements about others of his works as well. This was the end of Luther’s own, independent work on the postils. After the 1525 Winter Postil, editors took the postils in hand, sometimes with Luther’s approval and sometimes without.

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The complete text of this introduction, including the detailed annotations not included here, is available in LW 75: Church Postil I

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Dawn Weinstock

Dawn Mirly Weinstock has been with Concordia Publishing House for 25 years and has served as a production editor for professional and academic books for more than 10 years. Her projects have included Luther's Works, Johann Gerhard’s Theological Commonplaces, and the writings of Hermann Sasse, C. F. W. Walther, and many others.

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