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The History of Luther’s Church Postil, Conclusion

155187 v76Concordia Publishing House will soon release LW 76: Church Postils II, the second of five volumes of Martin 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 the final installment of 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.

Philipp Jacob Spener’s Edition of the Church Postil and Tradition

The first attempt at a critical edition of Luther’s Church Postil was made in 1700 by Philipp Jacob Spener (1635–1705). Spener stated that he wanted to set forth an edition that was as complete as possible, and to do this, he used three editions: from 1528 (Hans Lufft [1495–1584] in Wittenberg), 1532 (Melchior Lotter [ca. 1490–after 1544] in Magdeburg), and from 1543. The title page of Spener’s edition claims that these were the three main editions of Luther’s lifetime, yet actually these editions were the only ones Spener happened to have on hand. The first of his foundational texts presents Luther’s 1525 Winter Postil, and the second text presents the same, with the addition of Roth’s 1526 edition of the Summer Postil and 1527 edition of the Festival Postil. Spener’s third text is Luther’s 1540 Winter Postil and Cruciger’s 1544 (i.e., 1543) edition of the Summer Postil. Not surprisingly, there were barely any variations between Spener’s first two texts, aside from the Bible quotations that had been updated to the latest version of the German Bible in the second of his basis texts.

Yet Spener noticed significant differences between his first two texts and his third text. He recognized that the “1543 [1544] edition” was the last published during Luther’s lifetime and was approved by him, even the major changes undertaken by Cruciger in the Summer Postil. Nevertheless, Spener may not have known of Luther’s disappointment with Roth’s edition, and so Spener did not approve of Cruciger’s Summer Postil and also noted the changes that had been made to the Winter Postil. Spener’s argument against Cruciger’s edition is that, though he was loyal, trustworthy, and approved by Luther, his editing changed too much and was not Luther’s very words; Luther himself probably had no time to review Cruciger’s work. Spener wanted only the words from Luther’s own hand and mind. And since Spener mistakenly thought Cruciger was responsible for both halves of the 1543 [1544] edition, including Luther’s 1540 Winter Postil, this half of the Church Postil was suspect to him as well.

As a result, for the first time since Luther’s death, the earlier 1525 Luther edition of the Winter Postil together with the 1526 Roth edition of the Summer Postil with the 1527 Roth Festival Postil served as the basis of Spener’s edition. This meant that in the winter half of the year, Luther’s unqualified, anti-institutional rhetoric returned as the primary reading, though Spener, as an honest editor, used brackets and asterisks to show what had been changed or omitted in the later edition. In the summer half of the postil, the sermons edited by Roth were given pride of place as the first sermon for each Sunday, while the sermons edited by Cruciger were listed in second or third place.

Despite its flaws, Spener’s edition represented a revolution in the publication of the Church Postil and soon established itself as the predominant tradition for publishing this postil. Gottfried Arnold (1666–1714) republished Spener’s edition in 1710 with additional sermons of Luther. Johann Georg Walch (1693–1775) accepted Spener’s approach to the Church Postil and incorporated this preference for Roth’s Summer Postil and Luther’s 1525 Winter Postil into his own edition of Luther’s collected works, though Walch also divided the Epistle sermons from the Gospel sermons, further distancing the Church Postil from the form in which Luther had shaped it.

The St. Louis German edition of Luther’s works followed Walch’s approach, separating the Gospel and Epistles sermons, preferring Roth’s work to Cruciger’s, and preferring Luther’s earlier 1525 Winter Postil to his mature 1540 edition. However, the St. Louis edition did pay closer attention to the superior critical apparatus available in the second series of the Erlangen edition.

The St. Louis edition served as the basis for the English translation of John Nicholas Lenker (1858–1929), which is the only version of the Church Postil that the English-speaking world has known (first published from 1904–9). Lenker’s translation carries on the Spener tradition. Besides this, Lenker presents translations that, at more than a century in age, are often inaccurate and stilted. In addition, it is difficult to start from Lenker and find one’s place in the Weimar edition.

Returning to Luther’s Form of the Church Postil

When a text has developed over the course of an author’s lifetime, editors are faced with the choice of whether to set forth as the basis the earliest form of the text or the latest, most mature, form. For the Winter Postil, Luther was responsible for the form of the text from beginning to end. Which form of the Winter Postil should be preferred? The Weimar edition set forth the earliest form of the text as the basis and presented exhaustive footnotes, detailing all later variants. On the other hand, Ernst Ludwig Enders in the second series of the Erlangen edition set forth Luther’s 1540 revision as the base text for the Winter Postil. For the reasons stated above, our edition will set forth the mature version of the Winter Postil, with significant variants in the earlier editions indicated in the footnotes. As a result, for the Winter Postil, our edition has revised the translation of Lenker thoroughly on the basis of the Erlangen edition with consultation of the Weimar edition. References to both editions are given in the running heads at the top of the page. Volume 52 of the American edition included a partial translation of the 1522 Christmas Postil. Since we are publishing the entire Church Postil, these sermons are repeated here and in LW 76 and are revised from Lenker’s edition. Also, we have included the Gospel sermon for St. John’s Day and all the Epistle sermons, which were omitted in volume 52. Therefore, in volumes 75 and 76 of the American edition, the reader will encounter Luther’s mature, final version of the Winter Postil.

For the Summer Postil, though Roth’s edition comes closest to the stenographic notes of Luther’s sermons, Luther himself approved of Cruciger’s work, not Roth’s. Given a choice between Roth and Cruciger, some scholars would reject both as a source of Luther’s actual thought, since he did not write the sermons himself. Recently, however, scholars have become increasingly interested in how Luther was known to the public and how he worked as part of a team of reformers. Because his Summer Postil was so widespread, it was a primary means by which sixteenth-century people encountered Luther’s ideas. As Robert Kolb has written: “Without teams, no Reformation. . . . The Wittenberg Reformation certainly revolved around the professor who sparked it, Martin Luther, but Luther would not have been able to change the face and heart of the church in Germany and beyond without his team. He and his movement were dependent on the collegial academic partnership that formed around him from the time of Philip Melanchthon’s arrival in Wittenberg” (“The Theology of Justus Jonas,” in Justus Jonas [1493–1555] und seine Bedeutung für die Wittenberger Reformation, ed. Irene Dingel et al. [Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 2009], p. 103). So, faced with the choice between the editorial work of two of Luther’s colleagues, our edition chooses the editor whom Luther approved: Cruciger. Readers interested in the sermons set forth by Roth can find them as the first Gospel sermon for the Sundays from Easter to the end of the church year in Lenker’s version. Our version of the Summer Postil will follow the Weimar edition, which presents the best text of Cruciger’s work on Luther’s summer sermons.

Our footnotes do not aim to be exhaustive in listing variants (for that we refer readers to the Weimar edition). Rather, we intend to set forth only variants that we recognize as historically and theologically significant. In the footnotes:

“1522” refers to the Wittenberg Advent Postil and Christmas Postil printings

“1525” refers to the Wittenberg Lent Postil printing

“1528” refers to Luther’s 1525 Winter Postil, in a 1528 printing by Hans Lufft in Wittenberg

“1532” refers to the 1532 printing of this same edition by the same printer

As noted above, the basis text is Luther’s 1540 Winter Postil, printed again by Lufft in Wittenberg. The St. Louis edition and Lenker include paragraph numbers for the Church Postil. We have chosen to include these paragraph numbers in our edition, since they are useful for making comparisons among editions and for locating specific passages. Locating the individual sermons of Luther’s postils in other editions can be difficult. To help readers locate the sermons from this volume in Lenker and various German editions, we have included a cross-reference chart.

Luther’s citation of the Bible in the Winter Postil differs from contemporary standards for citing Scripture. Luther referred to Scripture texts only by chapter, not by chapter and verse, so all verse references are editorial conjectures. Because Luther referred to Scripture texts by chapter, he often felt free to combine various parts of the chapter without indicating what had been left out. Our edition has translated the Bible text as Luther presented it, rather than adding ellipses for every omission that Luther made. In the Winter Postil, Luther’s Bible quotations are often translations from the Latin Vulgate—a fact which helps to explain why his quotations so often differ from modern Bible translations. As noted above, the biggest change in Luther’s 1540 edition of the Winter Postil was the updating of most, but not all, of the Bible text to match the latest edition of the German Bible. We have not usually noted these changes to the Bible text in our footnotes, since the changes do not usually show a change in Luther’s theological outlook and they can be better reviewed in the German of the Erlangen edition.

Translating and publishing Luther is a team effort. Christopher Boyd Brown, the general editor for the new series of the American edition of Luther’s works, first brought to my attention the changes that Spener made to Luther’s Church Postil. Dr. Brown’s oversight of the project has made the new volumes of the American edition possible. James Langebartels served as assistant editor for this volume, updating and correcting the Lenker translation and contributing to the annotations. Margaret Arnold contributed to the annotations as well. Dawn Mirly Weinstock was the production editor and brought the volume together. Countless other colleagues at Concordia Publishing House contributed to make this volume possible. The undersigned bears responsibility for any errors in the final form of the translation and annotations. To God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit be glory.

From Luther’s Works volume 75 © 2013 Concordia Publishing House, www.cph.org. Contact CPH for permission to reproduce this material.

The complete text of this introduction, including the detailed annotations not included here, is available in LW 75: Church Postil I. This volume is part of the expansion of the American Edition of Luther’s Works. Learn more at cph.org/luthersworks.

Written by


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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