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A Closer Look at the Smalcald Articles (SA) (Second of Three)

Written by | April, 2012
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75th Anniversary of the SMALCALD ARTICLES

“…The Word of God shall establish articles of faith and no one else, not even an angel.” (Luther, SA, Part II, Art. II)

Historical Setting

This year is the 475th anniversary of the Smalcald Articles (SA) which were penned by Dr. Martin Luther in 1537. The boxed dateline shows where these articles occurred in the busy reformer’s life.

Luther was busy indeed as—with the sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God, and with conscience bound to that Word—he spearheaded the protracted 16th century Lutheran Reformation.

It’s been a while since we reviewed this part of Reformation history for ourselves. We find it to be quite true that “the last sixteen years of Luther’s life, from the Augsburg Confession in 1530 to his death in 1546, are commonly treated more cursorily by biographers than the earlier period, if they are not omitted altogether…”1) In fact, this noted Luther biographer himself provides almost nothing regarding the Smalcald Articles and their development.

Still, ample information can be found to (re)introduce us to these Smalcald Articles which appeared during those comparatively quiet years of Luther’s life. And it is worthwhile to review some of that history, particularly since the SA remains one of the Confessions our synod accepts as its own.

Luther’s theological influence was considerable for the Augsburg Confession and its Apology (composed primarily by the Reformer’s colleague Philip Melanchthon). However, of the nine confessions found in the Book of Concord, Luther was the sole author of three—his two Catechisms and the Smalcald Articles. The latter he prepared at his Elector’s request in behalf of the members of the Smalcald League.

The “Smalcald League”?
What was that? In the proximity of the city of Schmalkalden
(a few miles south of the city of Erfurt in Saxony), Germany, the League was a geographical/theological alliance formed by Lutheran princes following the Diet (Council) of Augsburg in 1530. That year, with Emperor Charles V present, the Augsburg Confession was adopted by the Lutheran “protestants” as their church’s mark of identity.

Charles, however, was a Roman Catholic and did not accept the AC; instead, he asked his Catholic theologians to prepare a reply to it, giving the Lutherans until April 15, 1531, to reunite with “the Christian Church, the Holy Father, and His Majesty.”

“A Last Will And Testament”

Yes, tension filled the air! It soon became clear that the AC was not enough to settle matters once and for all—at least as far as the Emperor and the pope were concerned. Even the “protesting” Lutherans fondly hoped and prayed that yet another general council of the church might settle some of the still-burning religious issues.

But something more, something new, needed to be written. The following quote shortens a long story:

“…The [Smalcald] League became a power the emperor had to reckon with. It was not until June 1536 that the pope issued a bull, setting the date (May 8, 1537) and place (Mantua [Italy]) for a council. Later he declared the purpose of the council to be ‘the utter extirpation of the poisonous, pestilential Lutheran heresy.’ The question now was should the Lutherans attend a council called by the pope? Elector John Frederick was opposed…. Luther favored it, not for the sake of the Lutherans, but for the sake of the rest of Christendom. The papal legate was taken aback when Luther told him: ‘We do not need a council for ourselves and our adherents, for we already have the firm Evangelical doctrine and order. Christendom, however, needs it, in order that those whom error still holds captive may be able to distinguish between error and truth.'” 2)

Elector John commissioned his friend “Doctor Martin” to prepare a set of articles setting forth the evangelical position. Luther “was to indicate those doctrines in which no concession could be made—articles which not even peril of death would make him recant. But he was also to note those articles in which some compromise was possible.” 3)

The stage was set. Luther had been in such ill health that he felt close to death, yet he could not, would not, miss the opportunity to leave what might be termed a “last will and testament” of all his teaching and preaching. From the PREFACE OF DR. MARTIN LUTHER to the SA: “I have decided to publish these articles so that, if I should die before a council meets…those who live after me may have my testimony and confession…to show where I have stood until now and where, by God’s grace, I will continue
to stand….”

Luther’s PREFACE concluded with this prayer: “Dear Lord Jesus Christ, assemble a council of Thine own, and by Thy glorious advent deliver Thy servants. The pope and his adherents are lost. They will have nothing to do with Thee. But help us, poor and wretched souls who cry unto Thee and earnestly seek Thee according to the grace which Thou hast given us by Thy Holy Spirit, who with Thee and the Father liveth and reigneth, blessed forever. Amen.”

1) Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand—A Life of Martin Luther, Abingdon Press, 1963, p. 292

2) A. Schuetze, Martin Luther: Reformer, NPH, p. 102f

3) W. Allbeck, Studies in the Lutheran Confessions, Muhlenberg Press, 1952, p. 188

 

— To follow —

3) God’s Word Alone the Rule
of Faith

 

Box copy on Page 19

 

Planned series on the Smalcald Articles:

#1 Of The Divine Majesty/Redemption/Salvation by Grace (in this issue)

#2 Of The Mass

#3 Of Cloisters/Papacy

#4 Of Sin and the Law

#5 Of Repentance

#6 Of The Gospel and Sacraments

#7 Of Keys and Confession

#8 Of Ordination/Traditions/Conclusion

 

Historical Context:

1483 – February 10, Luther’s birth

1517 – October 31, 95 theses posted

1520 – Three classic treatises published by Luther

1521 – April 18, his “Here I stand!” at the Diet (Council) of Worms

1525 – Luther’s marriage to Catherine von Bora

1528 – May 28, Luther’s confession Concerning Christ’s Supper

1529 – Large & Small Catechisms appeared; Evangelical states “protest” at the Diet of Speyer; Schwabach Articles; Marburg Articles

1530 – Diet of Augsburg, Torgau Articles, Augsburg Confession read

1531 – “Smalcald League” formed; Augsburg Confession & Apology published

1534 – Luther completed his translation of the Bible

1536 – Elector requested Luther write yet another set of articles

1537 – Smalcald Articles approved (privately)

1546 – February 18, Luther’s death

1577 – Formula of Concord published

1580 – Book of Concord appeared