Roman Catholic Lutherans?

A review of Franz Posset’s Unser Martin: Martin Luther aus der Sicht katholischer Sympathisanten (Münster: Aschendorff Verlag, 2015).

by Eric J. Demeuse

Historians of the Reformation understandably and perhaps necessarily delineate figures into confessional camps, even before those camps were themselves delineated. As early as 1519, John Eck is a Catholic (because he opposed Luther), Melanchthon a ‘Lutheran’ (because he opposed Eck), and never the twain shall meet. Franz Posset appreciably complicates such binaries in his 2015 book Unser Martin (Our Martin). In the introduction, Posset laments that phrases such as ‘old believers,’ ‘new believers,’ ‘Lutherans,’ ‘Catholics,’ ‘Evangelicals,’ etc., continue to dominate the parlance of Reformation students and scholars, even when speaking of early, pre-confessional reform movements of the sixteenth century. Understanding Luther in the context of a catholic, ecclesial reform movement that began back around 1300, Posset notes that Luther was not alone in defending ‘the truth of the Gospel,’ especially in the German dioceses (13). In fact, the diversity and complexity of reform movements in the early-sixteenth century renders the above labels at best unhelpful, at worst misleading. The period in question, Posset argues, suffered a great confusion of language (Sprachverwirrung) which obscures the place of Luther—and the place of other figures at that time—in the ‘Reformation.’ Importantly, the imposition of later, confessional labels to describe the parties of ‘the Luther affair’ obscures the place of those who sympathized with Luther yet remained loyal to the papacy. This book is the story of four such men—a canon, an Augustinian, a Benedictine, and a preacher—who referred to Luther as ‘our Martin,’ ‘our apostle,’ ‘the savior of Germany,’ and ‘the herald of the gospel truth’ respectively, all while living and dying in communion with Rome.

In chapter one, Posset discusses the sympathies of canon Bernhard Adelmann for Luther. One of the richest contributions of this chapter to Reformation studies is Posset’s meticulous tracing of letter and pamphlet exchanges. It is easy to forget in our own technological age the process by which letters and publications were exchanged in the sixteenth century. For example, how did Luther get a hold of John Eck’s response to the Ninety-Five Theses, the Annotationes? Posset shows that it was Bernhard Adelmann who passed the Annotationes on to Luther via Wenzeslaus Linck. Adelmann had a distaste for Eck rivaled only by Luther, calling Eck  ‘monster,’ ‘swine,’ and even ‘the devil.’ Further, Adelmann—a renowned opponent of usury—sympathized with Luther’s suggested reforms and played a key role in bringing him before Eck in the famous clash at Leipzig. Despite his distaste for Eck, however, Adelmann does not fit neatly into a so-called ‘Lutheran’ camp, though Eck would accuse him of this and even add his name alongside Luther’s in the ban promulgated throughout the empire. Rather, Adelmann, widely known as a ‘friend of the Wittenberg reformers,’ remained in communion with Rome to his death. His reputation as a sympathizer, Posset remarks, is surprising given that he never sent a pamphlet to the publishers. Rather, as Posset’s citations reveal, it was Adelmann’s letters to and from fellow humanists—including Luther—which spread that reputation so widely (47).

In chapter two, Posset investigates one of Luther’s fellow Augustinians, Caspar Amman. Posset makes a strong case for the importance of this Hebraist, largely ignored in the scholarship today. Though many have considered Amman’s Hebrew Grammar his chief work, Posset makes a compelling case for the significance of Amman’s Psalter translation. Amman was the first to translate the Psalter directly from the original Hebrew to German (1523)—even beating Luther to the punch. Posset meticulously, occasionally tediously, compares parts of Amman’s translation to that of Luther and other humanists. Amman’s work, however, like his career, never popularized to the degree of Luther’s. Posset suggests this is due less to the local dialect Amman used in translation (as some have suggested) and more to the fact that he died the year after completing his Psalter and none took up the task of dispersing his translation.

Those looking for a strong connection between Amman and Luther will be disappointed. This chapter proves more an exposition of the life and work of Caspar Amman than a detailing of his sympathies for Luther. In fact, Luther seems either to have disregarded Amman’s work or to have been entirely unaware of it. No correspondence exists between the two, as Luther never responded to a letter sent to him from Amman, wherein the latter disagreed with Luther’s translation of Matthew 16:18. Nevertheless, Posset does put forth a number of interesting connections. Amman possessed a renowned library which included many works by Luther and other reformers. In addition, it was clear that Amman held Luther in high regard, referring to him as ‘our apostle.’ This and other factors perhaps led to Amman’s strained relationship with Rome; he was arrested but then subsequently released and reconciled to the Roman church. Nevertheless, Posset suggests, Amman’s relationship to both Rome and the ‘sect of Luther’ remains ambiguous to his death in 1524/5. What is clearer, according to Posset, is Amman’s significance and excellence as a humanist scholar and one of the greatest Christian Hebraists of his time.

Another great Humanist—and a polymath at that—is the Benedictine Vitus Bild. Bild was an instructor of Latin and Music, a manufacturer of sundials, the producer of a liturgical calendar, and a budding geographer, Hellenist, and Hebraist. Above all, however, he was a proponent of spreading the ‘Gospel truth.’ Posset traces Bild’s correspondences, especially with Georg Spalatin, revealing Bild’s sympathies with the early reform movements in Wittenberg and Augsburg. As he does throughout the book, Posset closely examines the personal libraries of the figures in question, revealing the pamphlets in their possession by German reformers. Bild does not disappoint in this regard, possessing a number of works from Luther, Karlstadt, Melanchthon, and others. Bild’s particular interest, Posset points out, was with the question of the ‘Lord’s Supper.’ Bild, together with Willibald Pirckheimer, strongly opposed the position of Oecolompadius and Ulrich Zwingli. In an illuminating anecdote, Posset relates how Bild requested that Pirckenheimer translate his work on the Real Presence against Oecolompadius from the academic Latin to German in order to attain a wider audience. Pirckenheimer refused, however, saying that Luther had already published a sufficient defense in German. Again, we see here the blurring of lines between ‘old’ and ‘new’ believers, even relying on each other in defense of then agreed upon positions. This blurring was strikingly evident in Bild’s Benedictine monastery, which split into ‘Lutheran’ and ‘Old Believers’ the year following his death. Prior to that split, however, such labels would prove dubious, as the monastery wrestled with loyalty to Rome and the reform movement sweeping Germany.

As with the story of Amman, any contact or correspondence between Bild and Luther remains non-existent. Bild twice attempted a correspondence with Luther, whom he considered the ‘savior of Germany’ and, in a letter to Spalatin, the ‘truest servant of God’s vineyard.’ Yet nothing materialized between the two. As Bild neared death in the late 1520s, his enthusiasm for the reform movement waned as that movement became more sectarian and radical. Of course, it should be remembered, I would add, that Luther’s own enthusiasm waned around that time and for similar reasons, writing in 1527 that he often reflected whether it would have been better to keep the papacy than to witness so many disturbances from radical reformers (see WA 20:674, 36-38; LW 30:254). These and other resonances indicate that we cannot know for certain which direction Bild would have gone in the 1530 split of the Benedictine monastery. Nevertheless, Bild remained both in communion with Rome and a Luther-sympathizer until his death.

The final character treated seems also the most difficult to judge: the preacher Kaspar Haslach. In this chapter Posset spends a great deal of time on Haslach’s interrogation before the Augsburg Vicar General under the accusation of propagating the Lutheran heresy. In numerous documents, Haslach expresses a disdain for the pope surpassed only by Luther himself, at times indicating the pope to be the antichrist. In defense of a return to scriptural theology, Haslach strongly critiqued the ‘sophistry’ of Aristotle, a not uncommon critique dating back at least to the thirteenth century. Further, Haslach expressed in numerous sermons that Christians must not place their trust in good works, but in Christ alone. Nevertheless, upon interrogation Haslach renounced any connection to the ‘Lutheran heresy’ and pledged his fidelity to the Catholic Church. He was consequently acquitted on the condition that he acquire no more of Luther’s works. Haslach did continue, however, to read the works of other reformers: Melanhthon, Osiander, Bullinger, Zwingli, and others. Posset thus maintains, as others did in the sixteenth century, that Haslach remained both  ‘Catholic’ and faithful to Rome and sympathetic with Luther until his death. Further, Posset points out that many of the doctrines preached by Haslach were not the exclusive property of Luther or what became the ‘Lutheran movement.’ Rather, these ‘reform’ doctrines were in the blood of sixteenth-century theology on every side of the ‘Luther Affair’—and of this there are more sides than two, as Posset shows throughout the book.

In all, Posset’s book is a rich contribution to Reformation studies, advancing in a special way the project of Heiko Oberman and others who have struggled to portray Luther as a unique yet nevertheless very medieval theologian seeking to preach the ‘Gospel truth’ to his own generation in need of reform. In his conclusion, Posset reiterates that the plea for the ‘Gospel truth’ was not the exclusive battle cry of Luther and what would become the ‘Lutheran movement.’ Rather, this was a plea that resounded throughout the Diocese of Augsburg, and even throughout Christendom in various forms and measures. Even John Eck, Posset notes, said that one could agree with Luther insofar as he did not oppose ‘the truth of the Gospel.’ Though Eck likely understood this phrase in a different light than Luther or someone like Adelmann, nevertheless his rhetorical use of ‘the Gospel truth’ renders any neat dichotomy of sides in pre-confessional Europe—especially one based on such a catchphrase—untenable.

A final and fascinating point that Posset brings to light is the fact that none of the four sympathizers—at least according to our knowledge and records—possessed or commented upon any of Luther’s three great ‘Reformation Treatises’ of 1520: On the Freedom of the Christian, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, and the Letter to the German Nobility. This seems astonishing given the weight that we typically give these treatises, and it seems unlikely that such sympathizers would have merely ignored these works had they been so prominent. Posset thus suggests that perhaps these works were not so important in the consciousness of the time, though, it should be noted, the importance of these treatises in other regions, and even in Germany among such controversialists as Johann Cochlaeus, would challenge that conclusion. Nevertheless, this implies the question which scholars continually and distressingly ask before the ‘ocean’ of Luther’s massive corpus: which works should be given pride of place? In his dissertation, Posset argued convincingly, though perhaps to the opposite extreme, that the heavy emphasis on the ‘Pauline’ Luther does not take into account Luther’s high praise for Johannine texts and Luther’s preference for his own Johannine commentaries. The present work suggests that it was Luther’s early sermons which won him favor among the sympathizers portrayed. In any case, while Luther research demands a certain selectivity, Posset reminds scholars the importance of being self-conscious and honest about our own selectivity, continually examining our scholarly conscience as far as possible to ask whether it is the sentiments of Luther and his sixteenth-century contemporaries which we portray, or merely the sentiments of our own day imposed upon the Friar from Wittenberg.

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