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History of the Christian Church, Volume VII. Modern Christianity. The German Reformation.
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§ 45. The Babylonian Captivity of the Church. October, 1520.


De Captivitate Babylonica Ecclesiae Praeludium D. Martini Lutheri. Wittenb. 1520. Erl. ed. Opera Lat., vol. V. 13–118; German translation (Von der Babylonischen Gefängniss, etc.) by an unknown author, 1520, reprinted in Walch, XIX. 5–153, and in 0. v. Gerlach, IV. 65–199; the Lat. original again in the Weimar ed., vol. V. An English translation by Buchheim in First Principles of the Reformation (London, 1883), pp. 141–245.


In closing the "Address to the Nobility," Luther announces: "I have another song still to sing concerning Rome. If they wish to hear it, I will sing it to them, and sing with all my might. Do you understand, my friend Rome, what I mean?"

This new song, or second war-trumpet, was the book on the, "Babylonian Captivity of the Church," published in the beginning of October, 1520.241241    On Oct. 3, 1520, Luther wrote to Spalatin: "Liber de captivitate Ecclesiae sabbato exibit, et ad te mittetur." (De Wette, I 491.) He calls it a "prelude," as if the real battle were yet to come. He intended it for scholars and the clergy, and therefore wrote in Latin. It is a polemical, theological work of far-reaching consequences, cutting one of the roots of Romanism, and looking towards a new type of Christian life and worship. He attacks the sacramental system of the Roman Church, by which she accompanies and controls the life of the Christian from the cradle to the grave, and brings every important act and event under the power of the priest. This system he represents as a captivity, and Rome as the modern Babylon. Yet he was very far from undervaluing the importance and benefit of the sacrament; and as far as the doctrine of baptism and the eucharist is concerned, he agreed better with the Catholic than with the Zwinglian view.

Luther begins by thanking his Romish opponents for promoting his theological education. "Two years ago," he says, "I wrote about indulgences when I was still involved in superstitious respect for the tyranny of Rome; but now I have learned, by the kind aid of Prierias and the friars, that indulgences are nothing but wicked devices of the flatterers of Rome. Afterwards Eck and Emser instructed me concerning the primacy of the Pope. While I denied the divine right, I still admitted the human right; but after reading the super-subtle subtilties of those coxcombs in defense of their idol, I became convinced that the papacy is the kingdom of Babylon and the power of Nimrod the mighty hunter. Now a learned professor of Leipzig writes against me on the sacrament in both kinds, and is about to do still greater wonders.242242    He means Alveld’s Tractatus de communione sub utraque specie quantum ad laicos, 1520. He contemptuously omits his name. He says that it was neither commanded nor decreed, whether by Christ or the apostles, that both kinds should be administered to the laity."


1. Luther first discusses the sacrament of the Holy Communion, and opposes three errors as a threefold bondage; namely, the withdrawal of the cup from the laity, the doctrine of transubstantiation, and the sacrifice of the mass.

(a) As regards the withdrawal of the cup, he refutes the flimsy arguments of Alveld, and proves from the accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Paul, that the whole sacrament was intended for the laity as well as the clergy, according to the command, "Drink ye all of this." Each writer attaches the mark of universality to the cup, not to the bread, as if the Spirit foresaw the (Bohemian) schism. The blood of Christ was shed for all for the remission of sins. If the laymen have the thing, why should they be refused the sign which is much less than the thing itself? The Church has no more right to take away the cup from the laity than the bread. The Romanists are the heretics and schismatics in this case, and not the Bohemians and the Greeks who take their stand on the manifest teaching of the Word of God. "I conclude, then, that to deny reception in both kinds to the laity is an act of impiety and tyranny, and one not in the power of any angel, much less of any Pope or council whatsoever." ... "The sacrament does not belong to the priests, but to all; nor are the priests lords, but servants, whose duty it is to give both kinds to those who seek them, as often as they seek them." ... "Since the Bishop of Rome has ceased to be a bishop, and has become a tyrant, I fear absolutely none of his decrees; for I know that neither he, nor even a general council, has authority to establish new articles of faith."

(b) The doctrine of transubstantiation is a milder bondage, and might be held alongside with the other and more natural view of the real presence, which leaves the elements unchanged. It is well known that Luther was to the end of life a firm believer in the real presence, and oral manducation of the very body and blood of Christ by unworthy as well as worthy communicants (of course, with opposite effects). He denied a miraculous change of the substance of the elements, but maintained the co-existence of the body and blood in, with, and under bread and wine, both being real, the one invisible and the other visible.243243    This view is usually called consubstantiation; but Lutherans object to the term in the sense ofimpanation, or local inclusion, mixture, and circumscription. They mean an illocal presence of a ubiquitous body. In this book he claims toleration for both theories, with a personal preference for the latter. "Christians are at liberty, without peril to their salvation, to imagine, think, or believe in either of the two ways, since here there is no necessity of faith." ... "I will not listen to those, or make the slightest account of them, who will cry out that this doctrine is Wiclifite, Hussite, heretical, and opposed to the decisions of the Church." The Scripture does not say that the elements are transubstantiated: Paul calls them real bread and real wine, just as the cup was real. Moreover, Christ speaks (figuratively), "This cup is the new covenant in my blood," meaning his blood contained in the cup. Transubstantiation is a scholastic or Aristotelian figment of the twelfth century.244244    This is not strictly historical. Transubstantiation was clearly taught by Paschasius Radbertus in the ninth century, though not without contradiction from Ratramnus. See Schaff,Ch. Hist., vol. IV. 544 sqq. "Why should Christ not be able to include his body within the substance of bread, as well as within the accidents? Fire and iron, two different substances, are so mingled in red-hot iron, that in every part of it are both fire and iron. Why may not the glorious body of Christ much more be in every part of the substance of the bread?" Common people do not understand the difference between substance and accidents, nor argue about it, but "believe with simple faith that the body and blood of Christ are truly contained in the elements." So also the incarnation does not require a transubstantiation of the human nature, that so the Godhead may be contained beneath the accidents of the human nature; "but each nature is entire, and we can say with truth, This man is God; this God is man."

(c) The sacrifice of the mass: that is, the offering to God of the very body and blood of Christ by the hands of the priest when he pronounces the words of institution; in other words, an actual repetition of the atoning sacrifice of the cross, only in an unbloody manner. This institution is the very heart of Roman-Catholic (and Greek-Catholic) worship. Luther attacks it as the third bondage, and the most impious of all. He feels the difficulty, and perhaps impossibility, of a task which involves an entire revolution of public worship. "At this day," he says, "there is no belief in the Church more generally received, or more firmly held, than that the mass is a good work and a sacrifice. This abuse has brought in an infinite flood of other abuses, until faith in the sacrament has been utterly lost, and they have made this divine sacrament a mere subject of traffic, huckstering, and money-getting contracts; and the entire maintenance of priests and monks depends upon these things." He goes back to the simplicity of the primitive institution of the Lord’s Supper, which is a thankful commemoration of the atoning death of Christ, with a blessing attached to it, namely, the forgiveness of sins, to be appropriated by faith. The substance of this sacrament is promise and faith. It is a gift of God to man, not a gift of man to God. It is, like baptism, to be received, and not to be given. The Romanists have changed it into a good work of man and an opus operatum, by which they imagine to please God; and have surrounded it with so many prayers, signs, vestments, gestures, and ceremonies, that the original meaning is obscured. "They make God no longer the bestower of good gifts on us, but the receiver of ours. Alas for such impiety!" He proves from the ancient Church that the offering of the eucharist, as the name indicates, was originally a thank-offering of the gifts of the communicants for the benefit of the poor. The true sacrifice which we are to offer to God is our thanks, our possessions, and our whole person. He also objects to the use of the Latin language in the mass, and demands the vernacular.

2. The sacrament of Baptism. Luther thanks God that this sacrament has been preserved uninjured, and kept from "the foul and impious monstrosities of avarice and superstition." He agrees essentially with the Roman doctrine, and considers baptism as a means of regeneration; while Zwingli and Calvin regarded it merely as a sign and seal of preceding regeneration and church-membership. He even makes more of it than the Romanists, and opposes the prevailing view of St. Jerome, that penitence is a second plank of refuge after shipwreck. Instead of relying on priestly absolution, it is better to go back to the remission of sins secured in baptism. "When we rise out of our sins, and exercise penitence, we are simply reverting to the efficacy of baptism and to faith in it, whence we had fallen; and we return to the promise then made to us, but which we had abandoned through our sin. For the truth of the promise once made always abides, and is ready to stretch out the hand and receive us when we return."

As to the mode of baptism, he gives here, as elsewhere, his preference to immersion, which then still prevailed in England and in some parts of the Continent, and which was not a point of dispute either between Romanists and Protestants, or between Protestants and Anabaptists; while on the question of infant-baptism the Anabaptists differed from both. "Baptism," he says, "is that dipping into water whence it takes its name. For, in Greek to baptize signifies to dip, and baptism is a dipping." "Baptism signifies two things,—death and resurrection; that is, full and complete justification. When the minister dips the child into the water, this signifies death; when he draws him out again, this signifies life. Thus Paul explains the matter (Rom. 6:4) .... I could wish that the baptized should be totally immersed, according to the meaning of the word and the signification of the mystery; not that I think it necessary to do so, but that it would be well that so complete and perfect a thing as baptism should also be completely and perfectly expressed in the sign."

Luther’s view of baptismal regeneration seems to be inconsistent with his chief doctrine of justification by faith alone. He says, "It is not baptism which justifies any man, or is of any advantage; but faith in that word of promise to which baptism is added: for this justifies and fulfills the meaning of baptism. For faith is the submerging of the old man, and the emerging of the new man." But how does this apply to baptized infants, who can not be said to have faith in any proper sense of the term, though they have undoubtedly the capacity of faith? Luther here brings in the vicarious faith of the parents or the Church. But he suggests also the idea that faith is produced in the children, through baptism, on the ground of their religious receptivity.

3. Lastly, Luther attacks the traditional number of the sacraments. He allows "only two sacraments in the Church of God, Baptism and Bread; since it is in these alone that we see both a sign divinely instituted, and a promise of remission of sins." In some sense he retains also the sacrament of Penance, as a way and means of return to baptism.

The rest of the seven Roman sacraments—confirmation, marriage, ordination, and extreme unction—he rejects because they can not be proved from Scripture, and are not commanded by Christ.

Matrimony has existed from the beginning of the world, and belongs to all mankind. Why, then, should it be called a sacrament? Paul calls it a "mystery," but not a sacrament, as translated in the Vulgate (Ep. 5:32); or rather he speaks there of the union of Christ and the Church, which is reflected in matrimony as in a sort of allegory. But the Pope has restricted this universal human institution by rigorous impediments derived from spiritual affinity and legal relationship. He forbids it to the clergy, and claims the power to annull rightful marriages, even against the will of one of the parties. "Learn, then, in this one matter of matrimony, into what an unhappy and hopeless state of confusion, hindrance, entanglement, and peril all things that are done in the Church have been brought by the pestilent and impious traditions of men! There is no hope of a remedy, unless we do away with all the laws of men, call back the gospel of liberty, and judge and rule all things according to it alone."

Luther closes with these words: "I hear a report that fresh bulls and papal curses are being, prepared against me, by which I am urged to recant, or else to be declared a heretic. If this is true, I wish this little book to be a part of my future recantation, that they may not complain that their tyranny has puffed itself up in vain. I shall also shortly publish, Christ being my helper, such a recantation as the See of Rome has never yet seen or heard, thus abundantly testifying my obedience in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.245245    Perhaps he means the burning of the Pope’s bull, rather than, as O. v. Gerlach conjectures, the appendix to his later book against Ambrosius Catharinus, in which he tries to prove that the Pope is the Antichrist predicted by Dan. viii. 23-25. Amen.


" ’Hostis Herodes impie,

Christum venire quid times?

Non arripit mortalia

Qui regna dat coelestia.’ "



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