Concluding our articles on the Lutheran view of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, the following quotation or quotations from the History of the Christian Church by Philip Schaff may be of interest to our readers. In these quotations we obtain a picture of Luther’s attitude toward those whom he called the sacramentarians toward the end of his life, and this certainly confirms that the blame for the split in the ranks of Protestantism must be laid at the door of the German Reformer. We quote from Volume VII of this work of Schaff, pages 654, ff.
“We anticipate the concluding act of the sad controversy of Luther with his Protestant opponents. It is all the more painful, since Zwingli and Oecolampadius were then sleeping in the grave; but it belongs to a full knowledge of the great Reformer.
“The Marburg Conference did not really reconcile the parties, or advance the question in dispute; but the conflict subsided for a season, and was thrown into the background by other events. The persistent efforts of Bucer and Hedio to bring about a reconciliation between Wittenberg and Zurich soothed Luther, and excited in him the hope, that the Swiss would give up their heresy, as he regarded it. But in this hope he was disappointed. The Swiss could not accept the ‘Wittenberg Concordia’ of 1536, because it was essentially Lutheran in the assertion of the corporal presence and oral manducation.
“A year and a half before his death, Luther broke out afresh; to the grief of Melancthon and other friends, in a most violent attack on the Sacramentarians, the ‘Short Confession on the Holy Sacrament’ (1544). It was occasioned by Schwenkfeld, and by the rumor that Luther had changed his view, because he had abolished the elevation and adoration of the host. Moreover, he learned that Devay, his former student, and inmate of his house, smuggled the sacramentarian doctrine under Luther’s name into Hungary. He was also displeased with the reformation program of Bucer and Melancthon for the diocese of Cologne (1543), because it stated the doctrine of the Eucharist without the specific Lutheran features, so that he feared it would give aid and comfort to the Sacramentarians. These provocations and vexations, in connection with sickness and old age, combined to increase his irritability, and to sour his temper. They must be taken into account for an understanding of his last document on the Eucharist. It is the severest of all, and forms a parallel to his last work against the papacy, of the same year, which surpasses in violence all he ever wrote against the Romish Antichrist.”
In connection with this “Short Confession on the Holy Sacrament, Melancthon, to whom this writing of de German reformer was a great grief, declared that it was the most atrocious book of Luther. Melancthon agreed with the judgment of Calvin, who wrote him, June 28, 1545: “I confess that we all owe the greatest thanks to Luther, and I should cheerfully concede to him the highest authority, if he only knew how to control himself. Good God! what jubilee we prepare for the Papists, and what sad example do we set to posterity!”
And now we continue with our quotation from Philip Schaff. “The ‘Short Confession’ contains no argument, but the strongest possible re-affirmation of his faith in the real presence, and a declaration of his total and final separation from the Sacramentarians and their doctrine, with some concluding remarks on the elevation of the sacrament. Standing on the brink of the grave, and in view of the judgment seat, he solemnly condemns all enemies of the sacraments wherever they are. ‘Much rather,’ he says, ‘would I be torn to pieces, and burnt a hundred times, than be of one mind and will with Schwenkfeld, Zwingli, Carlstadt, Oecolampad, and all the rest of the Schwarmer, to tolerate their doctrine.’ He overwhelms them with terms of opprobrium and coins new ones which cannot be translated into decent English. He calls them heretics, hypocrites, liars, blasphemers, soul murderers, sinners unto death, bedeviled all over. At one time he had expressed some regard for Oecolampadius, and even for Zwingli, and sincere grief at his tragic death. But in this last book he repeatedly refers to his death as a terrible judgment of God, and doubts whether he was saved. He thinks that Zwingli either played the hypocrite when he professed to many Christian articles at Marburg, or fell away, and has become worse than a heathen, and ten times worse than he was as a papist.
“This attitude Luther retained to the end. It is difficult to say whom he hated most, the papists or the Sacramentarians. On the subject of the real presence he was much farther removed from the latter. He remarks once that he would rather drink blood alone with the papists than wine alone with the Zwinglians. A few days before his death, he wrote to his friend, Pastor Probst in Bremen: ‘Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the Sacramentarians, nor standeth in the way of the Zwinglians, nor sitteth in the seat of the Zurichers.’ Thus he turned the blessing of the first Psalm into a curse, in accordance with his growing habit of cursing the pope and the devil when praying to God. He repeatedly speaks of this habit, especially in reciting the Lord’s Prayer, and justifies it as a part of his piety.
“Six days later (after his last sermon on Jan. 17, 1546) Luther left the city of. his public labors for the city of his birth, and died in peace at Eisleben, Feb. 18, 1546, holding fast to his faith, and commending his soul to his God and Redeemer.
“In view of these last utterances we must, reluctantly, refuse credit to the story that Luther before his death remarked to Melancthon: ‘Dear Philip, I confess that the matter of the Lord’s Supper has been overdone;’ and that, on being asked to correct the evil, and to restore peace to the church, he replied: ‘I often thought of it; but then people might lose confidence in my whole doctrine. I leave the matter in the hands of the Lord. Do what you can after my death.’
“But it is gratifying to know that Luther never said one unkind word of Calvin, who was twenty-five years younger. He never saw him, but read some of his books, and heard of him through Melancthon. In a letter to Bucer, dated Oct. 14, 1539, he sent his respectful salutations to John Sturm and John Calvin, who lived at that time in Strassburg, and added that he had read their books with singular delight. This includes his masterly answer to the letter of Bishop Sadolet (1539). ‘Melanchthon sent salutations from Luther and Bugenhagen to Calvin, and informed him that he was ‘in high favor with Luther,’ notwithstanding the difference of views on the real presence, and that Luther hoped for better opinions, but was willing to bear something from such a good man. Calvin had expressed his views on the Lord’s Supper in the first edition of his Institutes, which appeared in 1536, incidentally also in his answer to Sadolet, which Luther read ‘with delight,’ and more fully in a special treatise, De Coena Domini, which was published in French at Strassburg, 1541, and then in Latin, 1545. Luther must have known these views. He is reported to have seen a copy of Calvin’s tract on the eucharist in a bookstore at Wittenberg, and, after reading it, made the remark: ‘The author is certainly a learned and pious man: if Zwingli and Oecolampadius had from the start declared themselves in this way, there would probably not have arisen such a controversy.
‘Calvin returned Luther’s greetings through Melanchthon, and sent him two pamphlets with a letter, dated Jan. 21, 1545, addressing him as my much respected father, and requesting him to solve the scruples of some converted French refugees. He expresses the wish that ‘he might enjoy for a few hours the happiness of his society,’ though this was impossible on earth.
‘Calvin regretted ‘the vehemence of Luther’s natural temperament, which was so apt to boil over in every direction,’ and to ‘flash his lightning sometimes also upon the servants of the Lord:’ but he always put him above Zwingli, and exhorted the Zurichers to moderation. When he heard of the last attack of Luther, he wrote a noble letter to Bullinger, Nov. 25, 1544, in which he says: “I hear that Luther has at length broken forth in fierce invective, not so much against you as against the whole of us. On the present occasion, I dare scarce venture to ask you to keep silence, because it is neither just that innocent persons should thus be harassed, nor that they should be denied the opportunity of clearing themselves; neither, on the other hand, is it easy to determine whether it would be prudent for them to do so. But of this I do earnestly desire to put you in mind, in the first place, that you would consider how eminent a man Luther is, and his excellent endowments, with what strength of mind and resolute constancy, with how great skill, with what efficiency and power of doctrinal statement, he hath hitherto devoted his whole energy to overthrow the reign of Antichrist, and at the same time to diffuse far and near the doctrine of salvation. Often have I been wont to declare, that even although he were to call me a devil, I should still not the less esteem and acknowledge him as an illustrious servant of God . . . This, therefore, I would beseech you to consider first of all, along with your colleagues, that you have to do with a most distinguished servant of Christ, to whom we are all of us largely indebted. That, besides, you will do yourselves no good by quarreling, except that you may afford some sport to the wicked, so that they may triumph not so much over us as over the gospel. If they see us rending each other asunder, they then give full credit to what we say, but when with one consent and with one voice we preach Christ, they avail themselves unwarrantably of our inherent weakness to cast reproach upon our faith. I wish, therefore, that you would consider and reflect on these things, rather than on what Luther has deserved by his violence; lest that may happen to you which Paul threatens, that by biting and devouring one another, ye be consumed one of another. Even should he have provoked us, we ought rather to decline the contest than to increase the wound by the general shipwreck of the church.”
And Schaff concludes with the remark that “this is the wisest Christian answer from Geneva to the thunderbolts of Wittenberg.” What a wonderful letter of John Calvin! And such a letter from a man who is supposed to have been hard and cold and cruel! What a wonderful statement that, should Luther call him a devil, he would still consider him as an illustrious servant of the Lord! And with this we can certainly agree. There can be no doubt but that these severe utterances of the German reformer must be ascribed to his temperament, which was so apt to boil over in every direction. It has been stated that Luther considered himself the leader of the Reformation, and that it was so extremely difficult for him to tolerate any opposition from those whom he considered to be his followers. There may be some truth in this. Human imperfections must always play some kind of role in any religious controversy. But he was surely a mighty man of God.