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History of the Christian Church, Volume VII. Modern Christianity. The German Reformation.
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§ 105. Luther and Carlstadt.


The first outward impulse to the eucharistic controversy came from Holland in the summer of 1522, when Henry Rhodius brought from Utrecht a collection of the writings of John Wessel to Wittenberg, which he had received from a distinguished Dutch jurist, Cornelius Honius (Hoen). Wessel, one of the chief forerunners of the Reformation (d. 1489), proposed, in a tract "De Coena," a figurative interpretation of the words of institution, which seems to have influenced the opinions of Erasmus, Carlstadt, and Zwingli on this subject.822822    Ullmann, Reformatoren vor der Reformation (1842), vol. II. 560-583. Melanchthon derived the controversy from Erasmus. "Tota illa tragoedia περὶ δείπνου κυριακοῦ ab ipso [Erasmo] nata videri potest." Letter to Camerarius, July 26, 1529 ("Corpus Ref.," I. 1083). He was informed by Zwingli in Marburg: "se ex Erasmi scriptis primum hausisse opinionem suam de coena Domini." Letter to Acquila, Oct. 12, 1529 (IV. 970). Erasmus spoke very highly of the book of Oecolampadius on the Lord’s Supper, and would have accepted his view if it were not for the consensus of the church: "Mihi non displiceret Oecolampadii sententia, nisi obstaret consensus ecclesiae." Letter to Pirkheimer, June 6, 1526.

But Luther was so much pleased with the agreement on other points that he overlooked the difference, and lauded Wessel as a theologian truly taught of God, and endowed with a high mind and wonderful gifts; yea, so fully in harmony with him, that the Papists might charge Luther with having derived all his doctrines from Wessel, had he known his writings before.823823    Preface to "Farrago rerum, theolog., Wesselo autore," published at Wittenberg, 1521 or 1522. Op., VII. 493 sqq. See Ullmann, l.c. p. 564 sq. This edition, however, excludes the tract De coena,—a proof that Luther did not altogether like it.

The controversy was opened in earnest by Carlstadt, Luther’s older colleague and former friend, who gave him infinite trouble, and forced him into self-defense and into the development of the conservative and churchly elements in his theology.824824    See §§ 66 and 68, pp. 378 sqq. and 387. Carlstadt is the real author of the eucharistic controversy, not Luther, as Hospinian and Hottinger assumed. But Luther and Zwingli were the chief actors in it. Carlstadt’s view passed out of sight, when the Swiss view was brought out. He smarted under the defeat he had suffered in 1522, and first silently, then openly, opposed Luther, regarding him henceforth as his enemy, and as the author of all his misfortunes. In this way he mixed, from the start, the gall of personal bitterness into the eucharistic controversy. Luther would probably have been more moderate if it had been free from those complications.

In 1524 Carlstadt came out with a new and absurd interpretation of the words of institution (Matt. 26:26 and parallel passages); holding that the Greek word for "this" being neuter (tou'to), could not refer to the bread, which is masculine in Greek (a[rto"), but must refer to the body of Christ (to; sw'ma), to which the Saviour pointed, so as to say, "Take, eat! This here [this body] is my body [which will soon be] broken for you; this [blood] is my blood [which will be] shed for you." This resolves the words into a tautology and platitude. At the same time Carlstadt opposed infant-baptism, and traced his crude novelties to higher inspiration.825825    This is the reason why Luther called Carlstadt and his sympathizers enthusiasts and fanatics. Schwarmgeister or Schwärmer. After his expulsion from Saxony he propagated them, together with slanderous assaults upon Luther as, a double Papist," in several publications which appeared in Basel and Strasburg.826826    His eucharistic tracts in crude and unreadable German are printed in Walch, XX. 138-158, 378-409, 2852-2929. Comp., also, vol. XV. 2414-2502. Carlstadt’s earlier eucharistic writings of 1521 strongly defend the corporal presence, and even the adoration of bread and wine, because they were the body and blood of Christ. Planck, l.c., II. 210 sqq., gives a full exposition of his earlier and later views. See, also, M. Göbel on Carlstadt’s Abendmahlslehre in the "Studien und Kritiken," 1842. He excited some interest among the Swiss Reformers, who sympathized with his misfortunes, and agreed with his opposition to the theory of a corporal presence and oral manducation, but dissented entirely from his exegesis, his mysticism, and radicalism. Capito and Bucer, the Reformers of Strassburg, leaned to the Swiss view, but regretted the controversy, and sent a deacon with Carlstadt’s tracts to Luther for advice.

Luther exhorted the Strassburgers, in a vigorous letter (Dec. 14, 1524), to hold fast to the evangelical doctrines, and warned them against the dangerous vagaries of Carlstadt. At the same time he issued an elaborate refutation of Carlstadt, in a book "Against the Heavenly Prophets" (December, 1524, and January, 1525, in two parts). It is written with great ability and great violence. "A new storm is arising," he begins. "Dr. Andreas Carlstadt is fallen away from us, and has become our worst enemy." He thought the poor man had committed the unpardonable sin.827827    Letter to Briesmann, Jan. 11, 1525, De Wette, II. 612. He describes, in vivid colors, the wild and misty mysticism and false legalism of these self-styled prophets, and defends the real presence. He despised the objections of reason, which was the mistress of the Devil. It is characteristic, that, from this time on, he lowered his estimate of the value of reason in theology, although he used it very freely and effectually in this very book.828828    KöstIin (M. L., I. 726): Luther’s Widerwille gegen die menschliche Vernunft im Gebiete des Religiösen und Göttlichen wurde, seit er hier [in Carlstadt’s writings] sie auftreten sah, noch stärker und heftiger als früher. Früher stellte er hin und wieder noch unbefangen die Berufung auf Schriftbeweise und auf helle, evidente, vernünftige Gründe nebeneinander, indem er durch die einen oder anderen widerlegt zu werden begehrte: so ja auch noch beim Wormser Reichstag; solchen Ausdrücken werden wir fortan nicht leicht mehr begegnen."On Luther’s views of the relation of reason to faith, see above, § 9, p. 29 sqq.



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