Why are so many great Lutheran books called “Commonplaces” or “Loci”?

Many classic Lutheran books of theology have similar titles. What do these similar names mean and where did they come from? 

Commonplaces and the Lutheran Church Fathers

Johann Gerhard wrote Theological Commonplaces [Loci theologici]. Martin Chemnitz wrote a book of the same title [Loci theologici]. And Philip Melanchthon, Luther’s right-hand man in the Reformation, wrote his Commonplaces [Loci communes] in 1521. (He later changed the name to Chief Theological Topics [Loci praecipui theologici].)

Martin Luther had high praise for Melanchthon’s Loci. In his preface to The Bondage of the Will (1525), he wrote: “Philip Melanchthon’s invincible little book on Loci Theologici [“Theological Topics”] … in my judgment is worthy not only of immortality but even of the Church’s canon.”[1] And Luther’s praise of Melanchthon’s book did not stop there. A table talk from the winter of 1542–43 records Luther’s praise of Melanchthon’s Loci:

If anybody wishes to become a theologian, he has a great advantage, first of all, in having the Bible. This is now so clear that he can read it without any trouble. Afterward he should read Philip’s Loci Communes. This he should read diligently and well, until he has its contents fixed in his head. If he has these two he is a theologian, and neither the devil nor a heretic can shake him. The whole of theology is open to him, and afterward he can read whatever he wishes for edification. … There’s no book under the sun in which the whole of theology is so compactly presented as in the Loci Communes. If you read all the fathers and sententiaries you have nothing. No better book has been written after the Holy Scriptures than Philip’s. He expresses himself more concisely than I do when he argues and instructs. I’m garrulous and more rhetorical.[2]

Origins of the name "Commonplaces"

But why that name, “Commonplaces”? Nowadays, something “commonplace” is common, and not particularly interesting—just the opposite of these classic Lutheran books of theology. “Commonplace” used to mean “common topic.” Commonplace-books were large blank books, divided by students into sections for taking notes. Each section had a topic. A book of these topics was a book of “commonplaces.” In the era before computers, this was an effective way to take notes and organize large amounts of information. According to an analogy drawn from Seneca’s Epistulae morales, no. 84, readers are to imitate bees, taking quotations from authors and writing them down for future use. While the origin of commonplace books can be traced to the classical Latin authors, they continued to be used until the Baroque era. The commonplace-books of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries had their forerunners in medieval florilegia (collections of beautiful sayings) and preaching manuals.

Organizing Commonplaces

Methods of organization were extremely diverse, yet the practice of constructing one’s own set of commonplace books was deeply entrenched in early modern schools and helps to explain the prolific literary output of so many authors, as well as their way of thinking. “Reading, marking, learning, digesting, and regurgitating excerpted passages was a universal habit of the West European literate community,” writes Ann Moss. “Commonplace-books were the principal support system of humanist pedagogy. Pupils were required to make themselves commonplace-books, and to collect excerpts from their reading under the appropriate heads. When they came to construct compositions of their own, they were encouraged to use their commonplace-books as a resource, culling from them quotations, examples, and other illustrative material, as well as replicating the categories of thought enshrined in the commonplace-heads.”[3]

Philip Melanchthon’s advice about study and the construction of commonplace-books can be found in his De locis communibus ratio (1531), a chapter of his De rhetorica libri tres (1519), as well as in Institutiones rhetoricae (1521), Elementa rhetorices (1531), and De officiis concionatoris (1529). Of course, Melanchthon put the commonplace method to work in service of God’s Word in his Loci communes of 1521 (revised throughout his life). For Melanchthon, commonplaces and place-headings are the same thing. The commonplaces should correspond to how the world is structured and should be arranged systematically, not like unstructured florilegia. The purposes of commonplaces-books are “for the study of the higher disciplines, for critical reading, and for producing new work.”

David Chytraeus, another sixteenth-century Lutheran and a contributor to the Formula of Concord, set forth his study program and instructions for constructing commonplace-books in his Praecepta rhetoricae inventionis (1562), De ratione discendi et ordine studiorum in singulis artibus recte instituendis (1564), and De ratione (1564). When reading, one should pay attention to what locus the author is currently discussing, one should notice statements and gather them like flowers, and one should observe good diction. All of these are things that can and should be excerpted and entered into one’s own commonplace-books. According to him, commonplace-heads are not merely a cataloging system, but should aid in generating arguments, ornamentation, and amplification. When using syllogisms in argumentation, one’s commonplaces can supply the major premises. For Chytraeus, the order of headings in a commonplace-book should be as follows: God, Ten Commandments, man, topics related to man (politics, moral philosophy, the artes), each of these topics being subdivided.

For instructions on using the commonplace method for your own notes, see Benjamin Mayes, “Loci Communes, A Theologian’s Best Friend: How to Make the Theological Tool of Your Dreams,” Logia: A Journal of Lutheran Theology 13, no. 3 [2004]: 7–10.)

Thus “commonplaces” are not commonplace, but a useful means to organize one’s study and to record key information and insights from other authors. Lutherans in bygone centuries used this method for taking notes, organizing information, and writing. By doing so, they prepared for themselves and for us an immense treasury of ideas and words, suited for every situation.

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[1] WA 18:601.4–6 (cf. AE 33:16).

[2] AE 54:439–440, Table Talk no. 5511.
[3] Ann Moss, Printed Commonplace-Books and the Structuring of Renaissance Thought (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996).
Picture of Rev. Dr. Benjamin T. G. Mayes
At CPH since 2006, Benjamin Mayes has served as the managing editor for Luther's Works: American Edition, the general editor for Johann Gerhard's Theological Commonplaces.

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