More on Luther…
Concordia Publishing House will soon release LW 76: Church Postils II, the second of five volumes of Martin Luther's Church Postil. The Church Postil consists of Luther's sermons for the church year. Luther began working on it while hiding out at the Wartburg in 1521. Alongside his translation of the New Testament into German, he intended that the Church Postil should bring the reformational, Gospel message to ordinary pastors and laypeople. Aside from his catechisms, Luther's sermons for the church year, the postils, were his most influential writings for the common people. What follows is the second of five installments of Dr. Benjamin Mayes's introduction to LW 75, explaining how the Church Postil developed, was perfected by Luther, corrupted later, and only now has been restored to the form that Luther intended.
Stephan Roth's Postil Editions
Stephan Roth's editorial work on Luther's postil was not commissioned by Luther, though for a while Luther gave his consent. Roth (1492–1546) was not a theologian but a schoolteacher. At the age of 25 he was leading the school of his hometown, Zwickau, and later he led the Latin school in Joachimsthal (Bohemia). In 1523, however, he enrolled at Wittenberg and struck up a friendship with Luther, Johann Bugenhagen (1485–1558), and others. During this time, Roth translated writings of Luther and Bugenhagen and also took notes while Luther preached. Later, Roth added other early Luther sermons to these notes. In 1527 he returned to Zwickau to serve as the city secretary. But Roth had already recognized the market's demand for sermons of Luther for the summer half of the church year. Although not commissioned by Luther to do so, Roth edited and published Explanation of the Gospels from Easter to Advent, now known as Roth's edition of the Summer Postil (1526), and he succeeded in obtaining a preface from Luther to include with the volume. In the preface, Luther (with the theft and publication of part of the Lent Postil likely still in mind) viewed the publication of the Summer Postil as unnecessary, but at least better than shoddy, unauthorized publications under his name. Unlike Luther's 1525 Winter Postil, which had sermons on the Epistle and Gospel texts, Roth's collection contained sermons only on the Gospel texts. Also, Roth's work was not of the highest quality. In many ways, Roth was not a theologically competent editor of the reformer's sermons—a task that required a certain amount of editorial contribution to supplement and smooth out the rough stenographic notes of his preaching. Instead, Roth was a collector and publisher of Luther's homiletical fragments. And wherever Roth could not find the sermons he needed from Luther, he proceeded to gather material from other sources and publish it among Luther's sermons.
Encouraged by the success of the Summer Postil, Roth undertook a sequel: Explanation of the Gospels for the Chief Festivals in the Whole Year—now called the Festival Postil (1527)—consisting of sermons on the Gospel texts appointed for the festival and saint days of the church year. Roth set himself a difficult task, however, since there were many saint and festival days for which there were no sermons of Luther. For these days Roth improvised by printing the text of the Gospel reading and a summary by Bugenhagen. Often Roth proceeded in a wholly arbitrary manner, for example, constructing a sermon for St. Andrew's Day from Luther's Lectures on Galatians and a sermon for St. Barbara's Day from a sermon Luther preached in 1524 for the Twenty-Second Sunday after Trinity. The sermon for St. Thomas' Day was primarily Roth's own work. The sermons for SS. Philip and James and for St. Michael are translations from Philip Melanchthon (1497–1560). Again, Luther provided a preface (without having examined the volume), stating that the publication of the Festival Postil was undertaken completely under his supervision and direction in order to prevent people from adding to his sermons "whatever they want" and marring his preaching so that he himself could not recognize what is affixed under his name. The irony is that this is precisely what Roth's edition did.
Once he was at work, Roth was unable to stop. After the success of the Summer Postil and Festival Postil, Roth proceeded to produce an edition of the Winter Postil completely different from, and in competition with, the one that Luther had prepared. Known now as Roth's edition of the Winter Postil (1528), this Explanation of the Gospels from Advent to Easter may be considered an attempt to abridge Luther's 1525 Winter Postil. Roth eliminated the sermons on Epistle texts and edited down or replaced the Gospel sermons, resulting in a Winter Postil much more compact than Luther's own.
Roth's printers urged him to obtain a preface from Luther for the new Winter Postil. At Roth's request, Georg Rörer (1492–1557) showed Luther the printer's pages, and then reported to Roth on July 9, 1528:
Rörer concluded his letter:
One might expect the opposite, yet in his very brief preface Luther stated that he was pleased with his friend Stephan Roth's efforts to clean up his sermons and put them in order. Yet discontent toward Roth grew among Luther's friends, especially when it was made known that Roth was profiting financially from publishing Luther's postils and as the poor quality of Roth's work became clear. On August 5, 1528, Rörer wrote to Roth:
Finally, Rörer wrote a harsh letter to Roth on October 15, 1528, reproaching Roth's entire postil edition and asking him to cease publishing Luther's sermons.
Thus, on the basis of Rörer's testimony, Luther was displeased with Roth's edition, and the team of scholars around Luther recognized that Luther's rough sermons required revising before being released to the public and that his earlier sermons were not fit for publication without extensive editing.
Beginning in 1531, tension between Luther and Roth increased as a result of the Zwickau city council's endeavor to dismiss a pastor without just cause. Finally, Luther considered Roth, who was the secretary for the city council, as being separated from his fellowship—that is, excommunicated—and this ban was never lifted. In a letter of November 27, 1535, Luther told Nicolaus Gerbel (ca. 1485–1560) of Strassburg that he wanted Roth's edition of the postil to be totally eradicated.
Despite the displeasure of Luther, Rörer, and Cruciger behind the scenes, Roth's edition of the Winter Postil continued to be published and sold alongside Luther's edition, yet then ceased to be published after Luther's own revision of his Winter Postil came out in 1540. Roth's edition of the Summer Postil, likewise, ceased to be published after Cruciger's edition appeared in 1540. Roth's Festival Postil, however, was never replaced by Luther, and thus continued to be published throughout the sixteenth century.
[To be continued . . . ]
The complete text of this introduction, including the detailed annotations not included here, is available in LW 75: Church Postil I. This volume is part of the expansion of the American Edition of Luther's Works. Learn more at cph.org/luthersworks.