Concordia 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 second of five installments 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.
Stephan Roth’s Postil Editions
Stephan Roth’s editorial work on Luther’s postil was not commissioned by Luther, though for a while Luther gave his consent. Roth (1492–1546) was not a theologian but a schoolteacher. At the age of 25 he was leading the school of his hometown, Zwickau, and later he led the Latin school in Joachimsthal (Bohemia). In 1523, however, he enrolled at Wittenberg and struck up a friendship with Luther, Johann Bugenhagen (1485–1558), and others. During this time, Roth translated writings of Luther and Bugenhagen and also took notes while Luther preached. Later, Roth added other early Luther sermons to these notes. In 1527 he returned to Zwickau to serve as the city secretary. But Roth had already recognized the market’s demand for sermons of Luther for the summer half of the church year. Although not commissioned by Luther to do so, Roth edited and published Explanation of the Gospels from Easter to Advent, now known as Roth’s edition of the Summer Postil (1526), and he succeeded in obtaining a preface from Luther to include with the volume. In the preface, Luther (with the theft and publication of part of the Lent Postil likely still in mind) viewed the publication of the Summer Postil as unnecessary, but at least better than shoddy, unauthorized publications under his name. Unlike Luther’s 1525 Winter Postil, which had sermons on the Epistle and Gospel texts, Roth’s collection contained sermons only on the Gospel texts. Also, Roth’s work was not of the highest quality. In many ways, Roth was not a theologically competent editor of the reformer’s sermons—a task that required a certain amount of editorial contribution to supplement and smooth out the rough stenographic notes of his preaching. Instead, Roth was a collector and publisher of Luther’s homiletical fragments. And wherever Roth could not find the sermons he needed from Luther, he proceeded to gather material from other sources and publish it among Luther’s sermons.
Encouraged by the success of the Summer Postil, Roth undertook a sequel: Explanation of the Gospels for the Chief Festivals in the Whole Year—now called the Festival Postil (1527)—consisting of sermons on the Gospel texts appointed for the festival and saint days of the church year. Roth set himself a difficult task, however, since there were many saint and festival days for which there were no sermons of Luther. For these days Roth improvised by printing the text of the Gospel reading and a summary by Bugenhagen. Often Roth proceeded in a wholly arbitrary manner, for example, constructing a sermon for St. Andrew’s Day from Luther’s Lectures on Galatians and a sermon for St. Barbara’s Day from a sermon Luther preached in 1524 for the Twenty-Second Sunday after Trinity. The sermon for St. Thomas’ Day was primarily Roth’s own work. The sermons for SS. Philip and James and for St. Michael are translations from Philip Melanchthon (1497–1560). Again, Luther provided a preface (without having examined the volume), stating that the publication of the Festival Postil was undertaken completely under his supervision and direction in order to prevent people from adding to his sermons “whatever they want” and marring his preaching so that he himself could not recognize what is affixed under his name. The irony is that this is precisely what Roth’s edition did.
Once he was at work, Roth was unable to stop. After the success of the Summer Postil and Festival Postil, Roth proceeded to produce an edition of the Winter Postil completely different from, and in competition with, the one that Luther had prepared. Known now as Roth’s edition of the Winter Postil (1528), this Explanation of the Gospels from Advent to Easter may be considered an attempt to abridge Luther’s 1525 Winter Postil. Roth eliminated the sermons on Epistle texts and edited down or replaced the Gospel sermons, resulting in a Winter Postil much more compact than Luther’s own.
Roth’s printers urged him to obtain a preface from Luther for the new Winter Postil. At Roth’s request, Georg Rörer (1492–1557) showed Luther the printer’s pages, and then reported to Roth on July 9, 1528:
I urged the Doctor to write a preface as soon as possible, but, being occupied with other matters, he was unable. He invited me to supper, then said, “At supper I will write it for you.” However, at his first look at the postils, he became quite enraged, saying, “Why are these postils being published, when they were previously written and published more diligently and more amply by me?” Then immediately Philip and Jonas calmed him down, [saying] that the labor was in vain, but he should just acknowledge them as his own. As for me, I added that this labor of yours was not displeasing to Bugenhagen, though he likes the sermons preached by Dr. Martin more than the ones prepared and written by him. Then the Doctor was displeased that you added in the title: “Sermons of Luther When He Returned from His Patmos.” Again, he was offended accidentally while reading “the Gospel must sound bad”; Latin: male audit.
Rörer concluded his letter:
You will not believe how difficult—indeed, extremely difficult—it was for Luther to write the preface. The more he read in the [printer’s] copy, the less he was inclined to write the preface. Surely all good men sympathize with you, which their letters will testify. Send the polished copy to the Doctor’s wife and to me.
One might expect the opposite, yet in his very brief preface Luther stated that he was pleased with his friend Stephan Roth’s efforts to clean up his sermons and put them in order. Yet discontent toward Roth grew among Luther’s friends, especially when it was made known that Roth was profiting financially from publishing Luther’s postils and as the poor quality of Roth’s work became clear. On August 5, 1528, Rörer wrote to Roth:
I asked Cruciger to write to you. He promised that he would do so. But when I wanted to ask for the letter, he was not at home. He is not very pleased with your work in assembling the sermons for the summer Sundays and saints’ days. He says that you were very careless in correcting them, and they were very careless in printing them, so that sometimes he does not know what words and entire orations mean when he is supposed to correct them. This is what I think he himself will tell you when he writes to you. Bartholomaeus the bookseller is very angry with that other man. I wanted to calm him down recently. What does he say? “I gave that man (if you recall) 14 gulden, and Moritz [gave him] the same or a little less, and promised that he would keep the trust with us.” When I heard him mentioning money, what could I say? How could I excuse you? You did not mention a word to me about this money, or if you did mention it, since it is not known to me, you certainly did not mention an amount so great.
Finally, Rörer wrote a harsh letter to Roth on October 15, 1528, reproaching Roth’s entire postil edition and asking him to cease publishing Luther’s sermons.
I made sure that the book you intended for Dr. M.’s wife would be bound. It would not have been at all proper to have given her the book before it was prepared. Many interpret this labor of yours in heaping up sermons in a way of which I do not now want to speak. I have not yet heard the Doctor’s judgment. This is what I am advising you: Do not fool yourself and seek your own profit more than that of the readers. Enough and more than enough sermons have now been printed. I do not approve of the fact that you are having the first and oldest sermons of Dr. M. printed. If they were being printed with the consent of the author, or if he himself were having them printed, he would have found quite a few things that he would have either changed or completely erased, following the example of Augustine. But you, without discrimination—as long as the book grows beyond bounds—are scraping together all the sermons, and you have praise; you also have your profit. Look, I say, do not deceive yourself. God has sharper eyes than you do. If you want to aid the Christian cause with your labor, why do you not ask me for the sermons preached last year and this year? Here, surely, I would have spurred you on, and would have loved one sermon more than even half of this book. I know you will not like this judgment of mine at all, but as for me, I know what I am saying. Someday in an argument those excessive commentaries will be sought, with the result that Scripture will be neglected. What do you think will happen then? “But the commentaries of former times were impure; the commentaries of our times are godly.” That is true. But even before now enough of those godly commentaries have been published. You see, this is why godly men publish their explanations: not that we may cling to them forever but that they may be like pointers for us, showing the way to the fountain itself—not to mention the blasphemy of the fanatics [Schwermologorum], who laugh at us who spend our time even on Holy Scripture. But this blasphemy of theirs is from Satan, not the good Spirit. . . . I have been asked, even almost begged by some, to tell you these things and admonish you to suppress those sermons, especially if they are from those that were preached about eight, nine, or ten years ago, which you are promising to publish with your scant attention and effort. I have not yet presented the book to the Doctor’s wife, because it has not yet been prepared. If it had been prepared, I doubtlessly would have heard what judgment Dr. Martin would pass on your work. I will state this in another way: I did my part when I sent the preface. At that time Dr. M. said, among other things: “It would have been better advised for me myself to publish the rest of the Gospels and Epistles through the whole year with my annotations, and surely it would have been an easy thing to do,” he said, “since there was no need for such a lengthy explanation of the Gospels and Epistles in this latter postil as there was in the first. Much could have been understood from that former [postil].”
Thus, on the basis of Rörer’s testimony, Luther was displeased with Roth’s edition, and the team of scholars around Luther recognized that Luther’s rough sermons required revising before being released to the public and that his earlier sermons were not fit for publication without extensive editing.
Beginning in 1531, tension between Luther and Roth increased as a result of the Zwickau city council’s endeavor to dismiss a pastor without just cause. Finally, Luther considered Roth, who was the secretary for the city council, as being separated from his fellowship—that is, excommunicated—and this ban was never lifted. In a letter of November 27, 1535, Luther told Nicolaus Gerbel (ca. 1485–1560) of Strassburg that he wanted Roth’s edition of the postil to be totally eradicated.
Concerning the postil, you have more respect for it than I do. I would like the whole book to be destroyed. And this is what I am doing: I am entrusting to Dr. Caspar Cruciger the work of re-editing the whole into a new and better form, which would be of benefit to the whole Church everywhere. He is the sort of man, unless love deceives me, who will correspond to Elisha, if I were Elijah (if one may compare small things with great), a man of peace and quiet, to whom I shall commend the church after [I depart]; Philip does this too.
Despite the displeasure of Luther, Rörer, and Cruciger behind the scenes, Roth’s edition of the Winter Postil continued to be published and sold alongside Luther’s edition, yet then ceased to be published after Luther’s own revision of his Winter Postil came out in 1540. Roth’s edition of the Summer Postil, likewise, ceased to be published after Cruciger’s edition appeared in 1540. Roth’s Festival Postil, however, was never replaced by Luther, and thus continued to be published throughout the sixteenth century.
[To be continued . . . ]
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.