Oneof Luther’s most prominent and early opponents was Jerome Emser, a secretary toDuke George of Saxony of Leipzig. Luther and Emser wrote multiple publicletters back and forth in the early 1500s, debating the interpretation ofScripture.
While the focus of the letters was the interpretation of Scripture,the underlying disagreement was with the priesthood of all believers. Theletters, the dispute on how to interpret scripture, and the disagreement on thepriesthood of believers, ultimately lead to the development of reformationanticlericalism. Before diving into Luther andEmser’s dispute, it is best to understand the history between the two. Emser,who studied law and theology at Tubingen and Basel, lectured at Erfurt, wherehe received his master’s degree. During his time as a lecturer, Luther happenedto be one of his students. There is not much recorded though of the two’sinteractions at Erfurt (Luther, 1930, p.
216). In July 1518, Emser invitedLuther over to his house in Dresden for a social gathering, while Luther was aguest preacher at the castle church. While at the dinner, Luther and another guest got into a vigoroustheological debate in which Luther was lured into making a few incriminatingremarks. These remarks would later be used against Luther when he was chargedwith heresy. After the dinner, Luther was extremely suspicious that entiregathering was a set up and his suspicions were later confirmed the followingyear at the Leipzig Debate (Baudler, 2016, p. 47). On July 5th, 1519, Lutherdebated Eck, a German Scholastic theologian and Catholic prelate, at theLeipzig Debate, over multiple Catholic beliefs, including the legitimacy ofpapal authority. During the debateLuther sided with some of the teachings of Hus, a heretic who was burned at thestake.
When questioned that he was siding with a heretic, Luther countered thatthe Council of Constance may have been in error. If the council had erred, thenso had the popes and canon law. Luther remained steadfast on the fact thatScripture, not the Popes or Canon Law, had finally authority for the church (Leipzigdebate). Merely a month later, Emser wrote a letter to John Zack, administratorof the office of Prague’s archbishop, that attacked Luther’s praise of the Hus,while at the same time attempting to be non-partisan.
However, there weremultiple accusations directed towards Luther, while only praise towards Eck (Strand,1961, p. 29). The letter that Emser wrote to Zackwas the starting point for numerous open letters written between the twoopponents. Luther, furious after reading Emser’s letter, replied with a lettercalled “Wild Goat Emser”; the title in reference to Emser’s coat of arms, whichgraced the title page of Emser’s open letter. Then Emser countered with a “Defense against Luther’s Chase”, accusingLuther’s vengeance toward the Pope due to the fact that he did not share in theprofits of the sale of indulgences. After reading this letter, Luther did notfind it necessary to even reply to such an insane accusation (Luther, 1930, p.217).
In 1520, Luther published “Address To The Christian Nobility of theGerman Nation”, which Emser attacked in an open letter in August of that sameyear. Emser’s attack exploded their jousting over the interpretation of Scriptureand the common priesthood of all believers into open warfare (Baudler, 2016, p.47). Luther in his letter “To the Leipzig Goat” let Emser know that he wouldnot be permitted to remain on the arena without a battle. In which Emserreplied with “To the Wittenberg Bull”, where Emser tried to discredit Luther.
Again, Luther immediately replied with “Reply to the Answer of the LeipzigGoat”, where he exposes the lies and explains the incident at Leipzig.Ultimately, the main treatise at controversy is Emser’s “Against TheUnchristian Book of The Augustinian Monk Martin Luther Address to the GermanNobility”, in which Luther responded to, in March of 1521, with “Answer to the HyperChristian,Hyperspiritual, and Hyperlearned Book of Goat Emser of Leipzig” (Luther, 1930,p. 217-218). While all of these letters touch on the interpretation ofScripture and the priesthood of all believers, that latter two go in depth themost. Emser’s view on the interpretationof Scripture is that God’s Word can be interpreted through the Church’sAuthority, the past religious theologians (Fathers), and the Scripture itself oras to he refers to them the Spear, the Dagger, and the Sword. For Emser thereis strength in understanding the unbroken tradition of the Church’s teaching(Paulson, 2000, p.173).
Instead of reading Scriptures alone to find its truthand meaning, Emser turned to the doctrines and the practices set in the church(MacKenzie, 2004, p.8). He believes that one must not interpret the bareScripture, but the interpretation of the Fathers. Therefore making the Fathers thejudges and testers of God’s word. For example, when Emser translated the Bibleto German, he went directly to Luther’s version and revised it on the basis ofLatin Vulgate to fit with the Catholic doctrine, rather than starting with theoriginal Scripture to understand its meaning in German (MacKenzie, 2004 p.13). Hence why in Emser’s translation of the Bible,in Matthew 3:2 he included the words “take heed for the heretics, who despisepenance and confession” and in Matthew 7:20 “every heretic is a bad tree, whichbrings no good fruit” (Stand, 1963, p.115-116).
While Emser does look at theScripture when interpreting it, his first response to is look at the CatholicDoctrine and how the Father’s before him have interpreted the Scripture. Furthermore, Emser believes there isa two-fold way to interpret scripture. He developed this idea when he wasinterpreting 2 Corinthians 3:6, “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”The letter, Emser believes, refers to interpreting the literal meaning ofScripture, where as the spirit refers to a higher and allegorical meaning ofScripture (Paulson, 2000, p.170).
If oneinterprets Scripture literally that will lead to death, where as interpretingScripture with a higher allegorical meaning leads to life, according to Emser.Emser’s interpretation of 2 Corinthians 3:6 was built on the teachings ofOrigen, Dionysius, and other previous religious scholars. Using his two-fold way to interpretscripture, Emser then interprets 1 Peter 2:9, “Ye are royal priesthood and aholy nation”. The literal translation of this verse is that all Christiansshall be such priests as are consecrated bishops, but according to Emser thisis the wrong way to interpret this verse. Rather if one was to interpret the verseaccording to the Spirit, Peter is talking about the inner spiritual priesthood,which all Christians have, not the consecrated priesthood. From this Emser deciphersthat there are two kinds of priesthoods referenced in Scripture, a spiritualpriesthood and a consecrated priesthood (Dipple, 1996, p. 41). The words of Peter throughout his writings canbe applied to both kinds of priesthoods and according to Emser the difficultpart is applying them to the right kind of priesthood.
On the other hand, Luther (1930)believes that Scripture should only be interpreted using Scripture(p.258) Forone “cannot prove the light with darkness, but what is obscure and uncertainmust be made clear by that which is clear and certain” (Luther, 1930, p.258).Luther (1930) specifically points to Deuteronomy 4:2, where God commands that”Ye shall not add unto my words nor diminish ought from them” (p. 281). Hecontinues by stating how the appointed priests are teachers of the law, buthave no authority to teach their own law. For Jeremiah 23:31 says “I have not sent these prophets, yetthey preached; I gave them no command, yetthey taught.
But if they had stood in my counsel and had caused my people to hear my words, then I could haveturned them from their evil way and from theirdoings.”Additionally,Luther (1930) believes that the pope and the sophist theologian’s books are thedevil’s teaching for they have been received peacefully without oppositionhaving been held in honor and higher esteem than the holy Gospel (p.235). Ifwhat they had been teaching truly came from God, it would have satisfied asmaller number and brought conflict into homes (Luther, 1930, p.235). Additionally, Luther interprets the same scripturethat Emser interprets, 2 Corinthians 3:6, but he interprets it with Scripturealone. He explains that the letter and the spirit are not intended to be twosenses, but rather two kinds of preaching, one in the Old Testament and one inthe New Testament (Luther, 1930, p.
271). Luther looks at Corinthians 3:3 tobetter understand what Corinthians 3:6 actually means. For Corinthians 3:3 says “Ye are an epistle of Christ,through our ministry, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not intables of stone, but in the fleshy tables of the heart. Therefore we needed not epistles of commendation to you. Andsuch trust have we to God tothrough Christ not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think anything of ourselves, but our sufficiencyis of God; who also hath made us able ministersand preachers of the New Testament, not of the letter, but of the spirit”Fromthe verses above, Luther (1930) describes that St.
Paul is speaking of twotables and two kinds of preaching (p. 271). For the tables of Moses were stone,where the law was inscribed by God, and the tables of Christ are the hearts ofChristians not written by man, but with the spirit of God through the Gospel(Luther, 1930, p.271). Clearly the letter is the divine law, which is given inthe Old Testament through Moses. It is called “letter” because it was writtenwith letters on stones, therefore it will always remain, never giving anythingexcept its commands. Where as the spirit cannot be contained in any letter, butrather written only on the heart. Hence it is a living writing of the HolySpirit and with that spirit, grace, man does what the law commands andsatisfies.
Therefore, according to Luther (1930), the entire purpose of theverse is not of two senses, but rather two ministries, the law and the gospel(p. 272). The law is what shows man his sin, killing him, and the gospel iswhat allows man to perfectly meet all the laws, returning him life. Luther (1930) also refers to Romans 3:22 toverify his interpretation of this verse (p. 272).
For Romans 3:22 says “But thescripture hath concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith of JesusChrist might be given to them that believe.” Moreover, Luther (1930) emphasizedthe need to be careful when interpreting the Bible, especially when it comes tofigures of speech in the vernacular language (p. 269). Figures of speech werejust as popular in the time that the Bible was written as they were in Luther’stime or even now. Particularly if one is interpreting a book by one of theprophets and is not mindful of figures of speech when interpreting, theirinterpretation will most likely be wrong. For example, “if Luther were tosay, Emser is a stupid ass, a simple-minded man hearing these words wouldunderstand that Emser were actually an ass with long ears and four legs” (Luther,1930, p.
269). Clearly, the simple-minded man would have been deceived in hisunderstanding because in reality Luther is trying to say that Emser is ablockhead. Luther (1930) points to specific examples in the bible; in Luke 3:7John and Christ call the Jews a generation of vipers and in Colossian 2 Paulcalls the Jews dogs (p. 269). Luther (1930) also points out an example of afigure of speech that was not common in his time (p. 269).
In Psalms 110:3 it says,”The dew of thy children shall come out of the womb of the morning.” This verseis not speaking of a physical womb, but rather the children of Christ are bornwithout the work of man, like dew from heaven, out of the morning of theChristian church (Luther, 1930, p. 269). Besides warning about figures ofspeech, Luther also discusses how Scripture should be interpreted as plainlyand fully as possible. To expound upon his point, Luther (1930) examined threeverses, John 14:26, Luke 10:6 and Romans 7:12 (p. 261).
John 14:26 says “The HolyGhost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, andbring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.” Ifsomeone did not look at this verse plainly, he or she may interpret it asChrist did not cause everything to be written in the Gospel, in turn allowingman’s law in the church. Luther (1930) explains though, that when Christ saysthe Holy Ghost will bring to your remembrance, He is speaking of not what oneshall ordain and command, but what He has commanded (p. 261). The disciples,who listened and followed Jesus, could not take in and understand everythingthat He said and therefore the spirit would remind them (Luther, 1930, p.
261).Additionally, Luke 10:6, “He that heareth you, heareth me” if not taken plainlycan be interpreted to mean that people are privileged enough to make laws as theyplease, but what God is actually trying to say is Christ speaks only of theGospel which the apostles are to preach and we are to hear (Luther, 1930, p.261).Lastly, Romans 7:12 says, “The law of God is good, just, holy, and spiritual.”As mentioned earlier, the law is the letter that kills and in this verse it isstill referenced in that same sense.
Luther (1930) states that by reading thisplainly, the law shows how good, righteous, holy, spiritual and equal manshould be, yet man is found to be wicked, unrighteous, sinful, carnal, andunequal to any demand of the law (p. 272). Hence the law shows man how terribleof a person he is and that he is in need of the spirit and grace, which in turnbrings him life (Luther, 1930, p.272). Lastly, Luther interprets 1 Peter2:9, “Ye are a royal priesthood and a holy nation,” to not only further hispoint that Emser interprets Scripture incorrectly, but also to further his ideaof the priesthood of all believers. According to Luther (1930), “the scripturesmake us all priests alike…but the churchy priesthood which is now universallydistinguished from the laity and alone called a priesthood, in the Scripturesis called… a ministry, a service, an office, an eldership, a fostering, aguardianship, a preaching office, shepherds” (p.247). Luther (1930) expounds uponthis with a verse where Paul says to Timothy, “the servant of the Lord must notstrive” (p.
247). Paul calls Timothy a servant of God, whose duty it is topreach and be a spiritual leader. Hecontinues by describing that the word “priest” comes from Greek wordpresbyteros, which is equivalent to senior in Latin and elder in Luther’s time.Therefore, priest does not indicate a rank, but rather age, implying that theword priest does not make a man more spiritual or a minister (Luther, 1930, p.247).Additionally, the word bishop is also derived from Greek, episopus, whichcorresponds to the Latin word speculator or “watchman on his look-out” inLuther’s time. Hence every minister or spiritual ruler should be a bishop, oran overseer who watches and sees that the Gospel and faith in Christ isestablished and defended against all foes. In Scripture all of these titles areinterchangeable, which is evident in Titus 1:5-7.
Paul in these verses refersto the same man as a priest, bishop, elder, and watchman. The fact that in the early 1500s the churchhad “bishops, rectors, priest, chaplains, canons, monks, and other similartitles signifying a difference in office, should not be a surprise;” forLuther (1930) states that “it has all come from their habit of sointerpreting Scripture that not a word of it retains its true meaning” (p. 248).Bishops, as they were defined in the 1500s, according to Luther (1930) areman-made laws and ordinances, having no basis in Scripture (p.
248). Sinceeveryone was a spiritual priest in the Christian communities in the yearsbefore the 1500s, the oldest or most learned was elected to be their servant,officer, guardian, and watchman. Therefore, Luther believes and interprets thisScripture to help emphasize his idea on the priesthood of all believers. Clearly, there is a connectionbetween Emser and Luther’s interpretation of Scripture and Luther’s belief andEmser’s disbelief in the priesthood of all believers.
First of all, when Emserinterprets scripture, he utilizes the church’s authority, the Father’sinterpretation, and the scripture or also known as the spear, the dagger, andthe sword. Since his view on interpreting Scripture requires outside knowledgeand study, it makes sense that he does not agree that everyone in the ChristianChurch can be a priest. Where as Luther believes that in order to interpretScripture, all you need is Scripture. Furthermore, the two differentinterpretations of 1 Peter 2:9 is the biggest association between their viewson interpretation and their views on the priesthood of all believers. Asmentioned, Emser believes this verse is specifically referring to a spiritualpriesthood, but that Paul also makes reference to the consecrated priesthood throughoutScripture. Where as Luther argues that the consecrated priesthood is nowhere tobe found in Scripture, rather it is a man made institution. Through Luther’s letters with Emser,”he sharpens and expands the brief discussion of the origins of the clericaloffice;…a clear indication of the evolution of Luther’s anticlericalism”(Dipple, 1996, p.
42). Luther though, inthe “Address to the Christian Nobility” was not arguing to abolish itcompletely. Where as in his “Answer to the Hyper Christian, Hyper Spiritual,and Hyper Learned Book of Emser of Leipzig”, he expands his identification ofthe contemporary clergy as opponents of the gospel mentioned in Scripture,referring to them as antichrist, false prophets, false apostles, and falsepriests. Luther’s evolution from inferring that the clergy of the old faith areunchristian to insisting that they are the antichrist was central in thedevelopment of anticlericalism. WhileLuther does refer to the pope and those who choose to support him as the antichrist,he does not demand their destruction or a clear formulated vision of thereformed society, rather he calls on Christ to push the papal into hell (Dipple,1996, p.
44). In the spring and summer of 1521,two events caused Luther to further reflect on the traditional priesthood; onebeing the Faculty of Theology of the University Paris condemning his doctrineon the priesthood of all believers and Emser’s letter, “Quadruplica to Luther’sRecent Answer, Concerning His Reformation.” Luther responded to Emser’s letterin early October with “Dr. Luther’s Retraction of the Error Forced Upon Him bythe Most Highly Learned Priest of God, Sir Jerome Emser, Vicar in Meissen” InLuther’s “Retraction,” where he once again comes back to the interpretation ofScripture, specifically 1 Peter 2:9. Luther claims now that Emser’s definitionof a physical priesthood should be applied to all Christians.
Luther candecipher between the true priesthood of all believers and those who have misusedthe title priest, “tonsure-bearers”. Luther went as far to say, “What good does the tonsured crowddo us? They are neither spiritual nor physicalpriest. And why do we need them since we ourselves are all physical, spiritual, and all other kinds ofpriests? Just as Emser himself teaches us with his blade, they eat our bread like strange and unnecessary guest.Therefore away, away with theknaves” (Dipple, 1996, p.
45). Thislanguage along with Luther’s early language of antichrist was likely to have abigger impact on his followers than the fact that he did not have a clearvision as to what should replace the clergy in the reformed society. After the “Retraction”, Luther putthe Emser controversy to rest and began wrestling with the idea of reformingmass. “Luther’s concern with what he perceived to be the abominations of themass also involved reflection upon the nature of the priesthood performing themass” (Dipple, 1996, p. 46), which is a clear relationship between Luther’ssacramental theology and reformation anticlericalism.
In Luther’s “Retraction”to Emser, he develops a link between the sacramental system and the priest’spower over it and manipulation of the congregation. Luther furthers thisconnection in “On the Missuse of the Mass.” His attack on mass incorporates anassault on the priesthood, which he concludes are works of the devil and mustbe avoided. This work of Luther is where he fully develops his anticlericalism(Dipple, 1996, p.46). Recognizably, Emser’s letters andattack on Luther’s priesthood of all believers after the publication of “TheAddress to the German Nobility” were the catalyst in the development ofLuther’s anticlericalism. While Luther’santiclericalism did not reach its fullest development when he was in debatewith Emser, the time-lapse between the two is incredibly short.
Luther’s reviewof the Catholic theology of the mass inevitably involved an evaluation of thepriesthood performing it. After Luther’s lengthy exchange with Emser, Luther,in this “Missuse of the Mass”, accomplished complete obliteration of the papalpriesthood. Emser and Luther’s different views on how to interpret scripturelead to their different views on the priesthood of all believers, whichultimately lead to anticlericalism.