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 third 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.
Luther’s 1540 Edition of the Winter Postil and Cruciger’s 1544 Edition of the Summer Postil
In 1540 a revised edition of Luther’s Winter Postil was published under the title Explanation of the Epistles and Gospels from Advent to Easter, by Dr. Martin Luther, Corrected Anew. Luther’s biggest change was an update of the biblical citations to reflect the latest version of the German Bible. Yet he also made many significant changes to his sermons. He removed sections in which he had previously tolerated Roman Catholic fasts and the cult of saints. Some omissions were made to streamline his argument. More significant, some of Luther’s changes demonstrate greater kindness toward Aristotle, the universities, and the schools (e.g., the Epistle sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent). He also removed or qualified a number of reproaches of “the clergy,” since by 1540 an Evangelical clergy had been established. In short, the establishment of the Church of the Augsburg Confession called for a different, less disestablishmentarian, tone. This is not to say that Luther was consistent in revising his unqualified attacks on the universities, the clergy, and Aristotle. Rather, it appears that Luther began with a thorough edit of the Advent sermons, then worked hastily, with the exception of those places where he excised lengthy sections and the complete replacement of the Gospel sermon for the First Sunday after Epiphany.
As mentioned above, as early as 1535 Luther planned to entrust the revision of the Summer Postil to Caspar Cruciger. Like Roth and Rörer, Cruciger came to Wittenberg from the University of Leipzig and was, among the three, the preeminent intellect. After participating in the organization of the Magdeburg school system, he was called back to Wittenberg to fill in for absent professors. Cruciger had earned Luther’s full trust by editing and publishing sermons of Luther on the basis of stenographic notes. Cruciger took up the work on the Summer Postil, but from the middle of 1539 did not make progress. In July 1541, Luther himself began to work on the Summer Postil but soon gave the work back to Cruciger. The Summer Postil was published shortly after Christmas 1543 under the title Explanation of the Epistles and Gospels from Easter to Advent, by Dr. Martin Luther, Prepared Anew. It bore the date 1544 on the title page, since the new year was reckoned as beginning on Christmas Day.
Luther provided an ample preface to the work, addressing preachers of the Gospel. He writes that God has blessed Germans by providing His Word in the German language, the preaching of the catechism, the Sacraments, the Keys, and instruction in godly vocations and estates—all of which stands in stark contrast to the blindness they experienced under the papacy. Luther continues:
Beyond that, we have the postils, and especially this one, which my lord and good friend Dr. Caspar Cruciger has improved and expanded. In it the Epistles and Gospels through the year have been clearly and pleasantly prepared and, as I may say, “pre-chewed,” as a mother chews the porridge before giving it to her baby.
Luther continues by reviewing other literary blessings of God: the purified legends of the saints, Christian hymns, the Psalter, the German Bible. Luther also admonishes his readers to repent and emphasizes the necessity for pastors and preachers to rebuke sin and to excommunicate unrepentant sinners. Although Germany and the world in general are apparently becoming worse and worse, Luther states his confidence that Christ will ultimately triumph over the world and the devil.
Cruciger replaced many of the Gospel sermons that Roth had selected, and he provided Epistle sermons for the summer half of the church year for the first time. His editorial approach does not correspond to modern historical principles of editing; he was quite free with his sources. Whereas Roth’s edition presented the contents of his stenographic notes from Luther’s preached sermons with little emendation, Cruciger’s edition shaped his sources into a uniform whole, which Luther was able to claim as his own intellectual property. Luther’s desire and intention was not at all to present to the reading public a literal transcript of his pulpit utterances. Therefore, while Luther disapproved of Roth’s slavishly exact publication of his sermons, he was fully satisfied with Cruciger’s revisions and acknowledged the latter’s work as his own. Luther saw in Cruciger someone who understood how to communicate his thoughts faithfully without being bound to his extemporaneous homiletical word choice. That is to say, Roth catches better what Luther said; Cruciger catches better what Luther meant to say. Of course, in most cases one can now read the stenographic notes themselves as edited in the Weimar edition, obviating the necessity for Roth’s edition except where the notes have not survived.
[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.