Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen 1 – The Historical Context

By Ulrich Bubenheimer

This is part of a series of introductory posts for the updated edition and translation of Martin Luther’s Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen und Fürbitte der Heiligen (An Open Letter on Translating and the Intercession of Saints), published as Volume 5 of the Treasures of the Taylorian. Series One: Reformation Pamphlets. Ebook of the publication

1. The Historical Context (Ulrich Bubenheimer)
2. The Translation Controversy (Howard Jones)
3. The Publication (Henrike Lähnemann)
4. Reading Early Modern German (Henrike Lähnemann)

Martin Luther wrote the Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen in September 1530 at Coburg Fortress, which belonged to the Elector of Saxony. At this time the Imperial Diet was taking place some 200 km away at Augsburg. At this assembly called by the Holy Roman Emperor, Luther’s colleague Philip Melanchthon was making a formal proclamation of Protestantism, the Augsburg Confession. Luther did not attend, as he had been declared an outlaw at the Diet of Worms in 1521 and was relatively safe only in Saxon territory under the protection first of Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony (d. 1525), and then of Frederick’s brother Johann, Elector since 1525. As well as corresponding with Melanchthon and his other colleagues at Augsburg, Luther spent his confinement at Coburg, following the model of his New Testament translation at Wartburg Castle in 1522, by working on his translation of the Old Testament and on polemical writings such as the Sendbrief.

The pretext for the Sendbrief was that an anonymous friend of Luther’s had asked for guidance on two matters: (i) why Luther had inserted the word ‘alone’ (allein) in his 1522 translation of Romans 3: 28, so that it reads, ‘man is justified without the works of the law, by faith alone’ and (ii) whether Christians may call on the departed saints for intercession before God. The concept of calling on a holy figure, such as an apostle, local saint, or guardian angel, as a ‘patron’ to support prayer by the power of their holiness was widespread, as is evident from medieval altar paintings and prayer books such as the single sheet (Ill. 3), pasted into a Book of Hours, with a prayer asking for Mary’s intercession and promising indulgence.

Late medieval printed single sheet asking for the intercession of Mary.
Woodcut pasted into a Book of Hours, Bodleian Library MS. Bodl. 113, fol. 13v,
promising an indulgence of 11,000 years, printed in the Netherlands or France in late 15th century. The prayer was frequently reprinted e.g. in the ‘Hortulus animae’, ed. by Sebastian Brant in Strasbourg 1503.

The Sendbrief ist one of a number of writings in which Luther tried to influence the religious negotiations at Augsburg and to stiffen the resolve of his colleagues, on whom he was keeping a critical, if distant, eye. On 25 June 1530 the Augsburg Confession was read out before the Reichstag, in response to which Emperor Charles V told the Catholic side to write a refutation (Confutatio). This was read out on 3 August, followed by negotiation sessions in which the positions of the two sides were compared, as well as more intimate gatherings aimed at reaching agreement. The spokesman on the Lutheran side was Melanchthon, and on the Catholic side Johann Eck (1486─1543).

On 6 September Melanchthon wrote to his friend Johannes Hess in Breslau about the negotiations he had had with Eck on 16 August: ‘On the righteousness of faith he [Eck] conceded to us that faith justifies, but he was mocking about the word “alone”.’ For his part Melanchthon did not insist on the very pointed wording ‘by faith alone’ (sola fide), but he wanted good works as a precondition for justification to be excluded.[1] Georg Spalatin (1484─1545), a member of the Elector of Saxony’s delegation, gave a detailed account of Eck’s argumentation. First Spalatin recounted some of the arguments used by Eck against Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone, and then he quoted an ironic closing remark by Eck: ‘Doctor Eck added finally that the soles should therefore be sent back for a while to the cobbler’, in an apparent pun on sola and sole.[2] This oblique reference was clearly interpreted by Luther as questioning his competence as a translator: the formulation ‘allein aus Glauben’ (‘by faith alone’) was worn out like the soles of a well-used shoe and now needed to be repaired by an expert. Luther reacted accordingly and presented himself in the Sendbrief as an accomplished translator, for whom amateurs like Hieronymus Emser (Sudler zu Dresen ‘Bungler of Dresden’) und Johannes Cochläus (doctor Rotzloͤffel ‘Dr Snotty-Nose’) were no match (see Glossary of Names). Eck’s mockery about Luther’s addition of the word ‘allein’ in his translation of Romans 3:28 (‘We hold that man becomes righteous without the works of the law, by faith alone’),[3] and Melanchthon’s willingness to compromise on this, prompted Luther to begin the Sendbrief.[4] Based on the translation principles set out in the work, Luther sought to demonstrate that the addition of the word ‘alone’ here was not only good German, but also appropriate to St Paul’s purpose. Eck’s mockery helps to explain the polemical, rhetorical tone which runs through the Sendbrief. Luther labels the Catholic negotiators whom Melanchthon was dealing with as Sophisten, Buchstabilisten, Papisten, Esel, and Papstesel (‘sophists’, ‘literalists’, ‘papists’, ‘donkeys’ and ‘papal donkeys’). Luther does not mention Eck by name, but he does engage with the substance of Eck’s arguments.

Following the longer first part of the Sendbrief on translating, Luther focuses in the shorter, second part on the intercession of saints, and the reason for this choice of subject-matter can be inferred from contemporary sources related to the Diet of Augsburg. Chapter 21 of the Augsburg Confession (De cultu sanctorum ‘On the worship of saints’) deals with the veneration of saints. It accepts that saints can be commemorated as examples of faith and good works, but then points out that there is no biblical basis for the practice of calling on and appealing to them to intercede before God; on the contrary it is, according to Scripture, only Christ, as the mediator between God and humankind, who should be called upon.[5] According to a letter to Justus Jonas of 21 July, 1530, Luther considered these points by Melanchthon to be part of a negotiating ploy in which Melanchthon was talking up differences with his opponents in an effort to reach an agreement.[6] At the time he was writing the Sendbrief, Luther already believed that the prospect of an agreement was hopeless, and he took the opportunity to deal with the topic more aggressively, arguing that any worship of saints was ein lauter menschen tandt (‘nothing but man-made nonsense’)[7]. However, Luther confined himself in the Sendbrief to the arguments against the intercession of saints in particular, rather than against the worship of saints in general, and said that he was intending to write more on the topic on another occasion.[8] The impression given at the end of the work is that Luther was simply holding back, for the time being, further remarks which he already had planned. However, he did not make good on his announcement of further writing on the topic.[9]

Luther signed off the Sendbrief with the date of 8 September 1530. On 12 September he wrote to his friend and former fellow Augustinian Wenzeslaus Linck (1483─1547), who had been a preacher in Nuremberg since 1525, asking him to pass the manuscript to Georg Rottmaier in Nuremberg (and to no-one else).[10] Rottmaier was evidently the publisher of a number of writings by Luther in 1530 which came out of Simon Petreius’s Nuremberg printshop.[11] Luther suggested that Linck should put down his own name as the editor of the work and claim that it had been passed to him by a good friend.[12] Linck followed this suggestion in his foreword, stressing that he could not in good conscience hold back the letter but had to go into print with it: diesen sendtbrieff / der mir durch einen guten freundt zu handen kommen / nit wissen zu verhalten / sonder offentlich in druck geben.[13]

Luther himself addressed the Sendbrief to a friend who is supposed to have sent him the two questions discussed in the work: Dem Erbarn vnd fursichtigen N. meinem günstigen herrn vnd freunde.[14] Luther does not name the friend in this address, and one might assume that this is merely a literary fiction. However, the forms of address used by Luther give us a possible clue to whom he might have had in mind. The various honorifics and titles by which people had to be addressed at the time depended on that person’s status. The correct forms of address were taught at school and collected in ‘Kanzleibüchlein’ or ‘Titelbüchlein’, manuals for use in the chancery on how correctly to use titles and forms of address for different orders of society, which also contain model sentences for writing letters to anyone from the pope to ordinary citizens. Luther addresses his friend with the adjectives erbar (‘honourable’) and fur­sichtig (‘judicious’).

Titelbüchlein von geystlichem vnd weltlichem standt, Nuremberg: Johann Weißen­burger, 1513, list of titles for members of the Nuremberg town council, fol. xxiiij r (VD16 K 103), München, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek 4 J.pract. 206

In Nuremberg, a ‘Titel-’ or ‘Kanzleibüchlein’ (ill. 4) was anonymously published by Johann Weißenburger in 1513 with the promise on the titlepage to teach the correct terms of address for all people in authority: Hye nach wirt begriffen / ein Titelbüchlein von geystlichem vnd weltlichem standt (‘Hereafter is contained a little handbook on forms of address for clergy and laity’). The manual recommends the following forms of address for members of the Nuremberg town council: Den Fuͤrsichtigen Hochberuͤmpten vnnd weisen / Burgermeyster vnd Rathe der Stat Nuͤrmberg / meinen guͤnstigen lieben herren (‘To the judicious, most famous and wise mayor and councillors of Nuremberg city, my gracious dear lords’). Fürsichtig was used for citizens who held an official position in a town, such as councillors, while erbar was used for those enjoying particularly high standing owing to family connections or office – men of the minor aristocracy or civic patriciate and dignitaries such as the mayor or town clerk.

The forms of address used by Luther show that he had in mind a member of the civic elite. There are a number of letters written by Luther during the Diet of Augsburg in which he addressed the Nuremberg town clerk Lazarus Spengler (1479─1534)[15] with the same formulation, for example, in a letter of 28 September 1530: Dem Erbarn fursichtigen Herrn Lasaro Spengler, der Stad Nurmberg Syndico, meynem gonstigen Herrn vnd freunde (‘To the honourable, judicious Herr Lazarus Spengler, Secretary of State of the city of Nuremberg, my generous patron and friend’)[16] During his stay at Coburg, Luther had already dedicated to Spengler his treatise Ein predig/ das man kinder zur Schulen halten solle (‘A sermon on why children should be sent to school’, July 1530) using the equivalent form of address (ill. 5).[17]

Eine predigt/ Mart. Luther / das man kinder zur Schulen halten solle,
Wittenberg: Nickel Schirlentz 1530, VD16 L 5689,
Oxford, Taylor Institution Library, ARCH.8°.G.1530(7)

Spengler was an intermediary between the Nuremberg city council and its envoys at the Diet of Augsburg, so he was able to pass information to Luther about proceedings at the Diet,[18] to which Luther would respond setting out his position. Occasionally Spengler was also given letters from Luther to pass onto his negotiating colleagues; two of these which were meant for Melanchthon were sent back by Spengler undelivered, as he thought that the critical comments in them would put Melanchthon under too much pressure.[19] Against this background, Spengler would be a plausible addressee for Luther’s Sendbrief.[20]

Both Wenzeslaus Linck and Lazarus Spengler had, since the beginnings of the Reformation, been Luther’s intermediaries and the disseminators of his writing and teaching in Nuremberg.[21] A close examination of the correspondence which Luther and Melanchthon had with their Nuremberg friends also shows them discussing the questions addressed in Sendbrief. Another person involved in the discussion was Veit Dietrich (1506–1549)[22], a native of Nuremberg who had come to Coburg as Luther’s assistant and secretary. Melanchthon had conceded to the Catholic negotiators at Augsburg that, if an agreement were reached, the jurisdiction of bishops in the Protestant territories could be restored. This concession met with considerable opposition, especially in Nuremberg which, as a free city of the Holy Roman Empire, was unwilling to hand church government back to the bishops. On 1 September 1530, Melanchthon wrote to Veit Dietrich, ‘Your citizens [i.e. those of Nuremberg] are making remarkable accusations against me about the re-establishment of episcopal jurisdiction. Meanwhile they conceal what is distressing them and they are mocking about certain other matters we are negotiating, about the saints etc.‘[23] Here it is clear that there was also unease in Nuremberg about Melanchthon’s readiness to compromise on the question of the veneration of saints.

What the stumbling-block was in this matter can be inferred from a ‘declaration’, dating from 18 August 1530 and minuted by Georg Spalatin, about the outcome of the negotiations between the two sides.[24] Both sides agreed that there was no commandment in the Bible to call upon saints; accordingly the Lutheran side rejected the practice, but the Catholic delegation stood by it, invoking what was a widespread observance throughout the church. On the more precise question of calling on the saints for intercession before God, the Lutheran side was, however, prepared to accept a distinction tabled by the other side. According to this distinction, while one should not call upon the saints for their intercession before God, one could nonetheless pray to God, in keeping with the practice of the church, ‘so that the prayers of the saints might assist us’.[25] In the Sendbrief Luther dismisses this distinction, with which, he says, the papists ‘primp and preen themselves’.[26] For Luther the decisive factor was that there is no biblical basis for such a distinction. The appeal to general practice in the church, for which Melanchthon had evidently shown some sympathy, was firmly rejected by Luther with the argument that the practice had been forced on the church by the pope, priests, and monks.[27]

By reconstructing the historical background to Luther’s Sendbrief, it is thus clear that the two parts of the work, which at first sight are unconnected in content, pick up two themes from the negotiations at Augsburg. Melanchthon’s willingness to compromise in his negotiations with the Catholic side[28] was looked upon with disapproval by some of Luther’s supporters, especially his friends and allies in Nuremberg. This explains why the circulation of the Sendbrief is linked to Nuremberg – through the involvement of Wenzeslaus Linck and the printing of the work there. Moreover, Lazarus Spengler, the possible addressee of the Sendbrief, was an official at Nuremberg. Without naming Melanchthon, Luther makes clear in his discussion of these questions that there is, for him, no room for compromise. Johannes Eck’s criticism of Luther’s translation of Romans 3: 28 was taken by Luther as a challenge for him to justify his German version of this Bible passage by setting out his principles of translation. His position on the intercession of saints in the second part is relatively unstructured and is not explicitly integrated with the first part, and was in any case, according to Luther, a preliminary sketch of a separate work on the subject which he had planned (but then did not carry out). When the negotiations at the Imperial Diet failed, this topic evidently faded into the background for Luther. But there is one aspect of this second part of the Sendbrief which is integrated with the first part, albeit implicitly: the contrast between the principle of biblical authority (sola scriptura ‘scripture alone’) and the practices of the church.

[1] De iusticia fidei concedebat nobis, quod fides iustificet, sed cavillabatur vocem ‘sola’. Neque tamen addi voluit opera, sed graciam et sacramenta et verbum tanquam instrumenta. Hec ego concessi posse addi. Sed opera tamen exclusi (‘On the righteousness of faith he conceded to us that faith justifies, but he was mocking about the word ‘alone’. He did not, however, want works to be added, but grace and the sacraments and the word, as if they were instruments [i.e. of grace]. I agreed that these could be added, but works I excluded’). MBW, vol. T 4/2, 646, 4 – 647, 7.

[2] Darumb hat Doctor Eck letztlich auch gesagt, Man soll die Solen ein weil zum schuster schicken, Förstemann (1835), p. 225; quoted by Hans-Ulrich Delius in: LStA 3, p. 478.

[3] Wir halten / das der mensch gerecht werde on des gesetzs werck / allein durch den glauben, Sendbrief, fol. a2r (WA 30/2, 29─30). References in the introduction are to the folio numbers of the copy in the Taylor Institution Library on which this edition is based.

[4] By this time he had been told about Eck’s mockery; see Melanchthon to Luther, 22 August 1530; MBW, T 4/1, 579, 5─10.

[5] Dingel (2014), pp. 128─31.

[6] WA.B 5, 496, 7─9.

[7] Sendbrief, fol. b4v (WA 30/2, 644, 3).

[8] Sendbrief, fol. c2r (WA 30/2, 646, 9─11).

[9] Luther says that he intends to deal with the subject further in a sermon von den lieben Engeln ‘sermon on the dear angels’, Sendbrief, fol. b4v (WA 30/2, 643, 14─17). The Predigt von den Engeln ‘Sermon on the Angels’ (WA 32, 111─21), which Luther gave on 29 September 1530 at Coburg does not include any remarks about the veneration of saints. However, handwritten notes by Luther on the proposed work about the saints seem to have been preserved. See the short text in WA 30/2, 694. These shorthand notes seem not to be an outline for the second part of the Sendbrief, because they only partly correspond to the remarks in the Sendbrief about the intercession of saints.

[10] Luther to Linck, 12 September 1530; WA.B 5, 620, 1─3.

[11] Reske (2015), pp. 733 and 725─26.

[12] WA.B 5, 496, 7─9.

[13] Sendbrief, fol. a1v (WA 30/2, 632, 9─11).

[14] ‘To the honourable and judicious N., my generous patron and friend’, Sendbrief, fol. a2r (WA 30/2, 632, 23─24 and 646, 16─17).

[15] Cf. Philipp N. Bebb, ‘Spengler, Lazarus’, in: OER 4, pp 101─102.

[16] WA.B 5, 634, 1─2. Similarly WA.B 5, 561, 1─2.

[17] WA 30/2, 517─20. The dedicatory preface to Spengler, which is undated, was also published by Petreius in Nuremberg 1530, VD16 L 5688.

[18] Cf. Luther to Spengler, 24 August 1530; WA.B 5, 561, 7─8.

[19] WA.B 5, 634, 4─11.

[20] Hans-Ulrich Delius also suspected that Spengler was the addressee of the Sendbrief; see LStA 3, p. 478 und p. 481, fn. 11.

[21] On Linck, see Wolf-Friedrich Schäufele, ‘Linck, Wenzeslaus’ in BBKL 15 (1999), cols 864─70. On Spengler, see Berndt Hamm, ‘Spengler, Lazarus (1479-$1534)’ in TRE 31 (2000), pp. 666─70.

[22] Cf. Jeffrey P. Jaynes, ‘Dietrich Veit’ in: OER 1, p. 485.

[23] MBW, vol. T 4/2, 629, 12─14: Tui cives mirifice criminantur me propter restitutam episcopis iurisdictionem. Interim dissimulant, quid doleat ipsis, et cavillantur in nostris actionibus quaedam alia de sanctis etc.

[24] The document, written in Spalatin’s hand, has the title, Erklärung, über welche Artikel man im Ausschusse der Vierzehn einig sey (‘Declaration about which articles are agreed in the Committee of Fourteen’), Förstemann (1835), p. 230.

[25] das vns der Heiligen bitt furdere; Förstemann (1835), p. 232.

[26] putzen vnnd schmuͤcken sich, Sendbrief, fol. b4v (WA 30/2, 643).

[27] Sendbrief, fol. b4v–c2r (WA 30/2, 643─46), particularly c1v.

[28] For an account of the religious negotiations at the Diet of Augsburg sympathetic to the part Melanchthon played there, see Scheible (2016), pp. 128─40. The dynamics of the relationship during the Imperial Diet between Luther and the more open to compromise Melanchthon are described in Roper (2016), chapter 15.

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