By Dr. Benjamin T. G. Mayes
2016 will be the 470th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther’s “heavenly birthday,” his earthly death. And then in 2017 the whole world will observe the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation. It will mark just the beginning of the Reformation, since in 1517 Luther certainly had not yet reformed the church. Instead, the posting of the 95 Theses set into motion the events that would lead to a reformation and purification of the public teaching and practice in the Western Church, especially in Germany. At this time, therefore, it is good and right to consider what those writings were which moved the Reformation forward and set forth the Gospel in its purity.
What was Luther’s best book?
If you ask most Lutheran pastors what Luther considered his best book, they might say The Bondage of the Will and the Small Catechism. This is true, or at least it was in 1537. That year, in a letter to Wolfgang Capito of Strassburg (LW 50:173), Luther stated he saw no reason for any of his writings to be reprinted in an edition of his works except for The Bondage of the Will (1525, LW 33:3–295) and the Catechism (1529). Note that by “Catechism” Luther might have meant either the Small Catechism or the Large Catechism, or both. So in 1537, those were his best books. But we should not allow this one statement to answer the question definitively. On other occasions Luther listed other books as his “best.” (Here I am indebted to Gerhard Ebeling, Evangelische Evangelienauslegung, p. 36 n. 72.)
A decade earlier, in his 1527 treatise on the Lord’s Supper, This is My Body (in LW 37:147), Luther stated that the best book he ever wrote was “the Postil,” by which he meant the winter half of the Church Postil (LW 75–76; cf. LW 75:xvi n. 18).
Later, Johann Mathesius (1504–65) noted Luther’s pleasure with his sermons on John 14–16 of the years 1533–1534, edited by Caspar Cruciger in 1538–39 (LW 24; 69:3–119):
The Herr Doctor often took this book to church with him and liked to read in it. As I and others heard from his own mouth at table, this was the best book he had written, “though I did not write it,” he said, “but Dr. Caspar Cruciger showed his deep understanding and great diligence in [editing] it. After the [translation of the] Holy Bible, this should be [esteemed as] my most worthy and precious book.” (Johann Mathesius, Historien von des Ehrwirdigen in Gott Seligen thewren Manns Gottes, Doctoris Martini Luthers, anfang, lehr, leben, und sterben [Nürnberg: Johann von Berg, 1566], in Georg Loesche, ed., Johannes Mathesius: Ausgewählte Werke [Prag: Calve, 1898], 3:262, as translated by Christopher Boyd Brown in LW 69:8.]
Then on another occasion, Luther seems to have added yet another book to his “best” list. An undated table talk records Luther as saying, “The best work written by me is the Epistle to the Galatians [LW 26–27], and on John chapters 14–16” [WA Tr 5:323, no. 5694].
Thus, according to Luther his “best works” are:
- Winter half of the Church Postil (LW 75–76)
- Translation of the German Bible, probably including the marginal notes and prefaces to the books of the Bible (see LW 35:225–411 for the prefaces; there is no English translation of Luther’s German Bible).
- Bondage of the Will (LW 33:3–295)
- Catechism (Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions, pp. 313–440; and in all other editions of the Book of Concord)
- Commentary on Galatians (LW 26–27)
- Sermons on John 14–16 (LW 24)
No doubt, this list may seem too short to those who love Luther’s writings. Something seems to be missing. Because Luther lectured on Genesis (LW 1–8) at the end of his life (1535–1545), and they began to be published only in 1544, two years before his death, we do not have a statement from the Reformer placing these lectures on the same level as the other “best works.” The House Postil, edited first by Veit Dietrich in 1544, has also been very popular, but was published too late for Luther’s views on it to have been recorded. (A partial English translation of Dietrich’s edition of the House Postil was made by Matthias Loy, Sermons on the Gospels for the Sundays and Principal Festivals of the Church Year, 2 vols. [Rock Island, Ill.: Augustana Book Concern, 1871]. A posthumous, completely revised edition of the House Postil was prepared by Andreas Poach in 1559; this edition was translated under the editorship of Eugene Klug as Sermons of Martin Luther: The House Postils, 3 vols. [Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996]; reprinted as vols. 5–7 of The Complete Sermons of Martin Luther [Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000], which of course do not contain all of Luther’s sermons.) What is missing from the list also are so many of the works considered necessary reading in a seminar on the Reformation, such as the 95 Theses (1517), the Heidelberg Disputation (1518), Two Kinds of Righteousness (1519), To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation (1520), The Freedom of a Christian (1520), and The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520); as well as works emphasizing the evangelical catholicity of his reform, such as This is My Body, Confession concerning Christ’s Supper, and On the Councils and the Church; not to mention his sermons and private letters. It is astonishing that Luther’s treatises, so popular among church historians, are not ranked so highly by Luther himself. Except for the Bondage of the Will and the Catechisms, all of Luther’s “best books” are Bible commentaries or the translation of the Bible itself.
A Free Reading Plan or Two or Three
Do you really need a reading plan to read Luther’s best books? Not really. Just pick up LW 24, 26–27, 33, and 75–76, and start reading.
On the other hand, perhaps you may want to read Luther’s writings in connection with the Church Year. In that case, take a look at George Kraus, A Guide to a Year's Reading in Luther's Works – Downloadable. This will lead you through an in-depth study of the writing of Luther. Each daily reading was carefully chosen and arranged throughout the course of the year to help make your study both timely and fruitful. For the main festivals of the Church Year, you will read something by Luther related to that theme. For the rest of the year you will read a good sampling of Luther’s most important works.
Finally, this summer (2015), Concordia Publishing House launched a reading program for both children and adults, entitled “Read Like a Lutheran.” Among the adults’ reading lists there is one for Luther’s Works; it highlights some lesser-known writings by Luther or related to the Reformation.
Why read Luther?
Perhaps the main question for heirs of Luther in the 21st century is, “Why read Luther at all, 500 years later?” There are several reasons:
- By reading him, one can learn an enormous amount about God’s Word, church history, and clear thinking.
- Though it is not new with Luther, he does a thorough job with his polemics. Sometimes his polemics become sarcastic, ridiculous, and thoroughly entertaining. Although it may not be popular these days, polemics are still important as long as they are motivated by truth and love. They help us to go beyond saying, “This is what we believe,” to saying, “and this is why.”
- We should learn from our fathers in the faith (Deut. 32:7; Prov. 22:28; Jer. 6:16), and among the fathers Luther is “the leading teacher of the Augsburg Confession” (FC SD VII 34).
- Luther, to this day, has an immediacy and vitality to his writing that is inspiring and encouraging!
- He focuses keenly on the consolation of salvation in Jesus Christ and applies this consolation clearly and powerfully.
Therefore, there is no better time to start reading Luther than now! Start your day first with Holy Scripture and prayer, and then pick up a volume of Luther, or load up an e-book of Luther, and be enriched!