Luther’s Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation was his call for the active involvement of secular authorities in reforming the German church. At first glance it seems like a revolutionary plea, but in fact it was a largely traditional reform treatise appealing to secular rulers in a rather customary way for the late medieval church. Since the conflict between papacy and empire of the eleventh through fourteenth centuries reached its culmination, there had been an uneasy tension between the ruling classes of increasingly independent countries and the churches within their boundaries. The conciliar controversy of the fifteenth century only muddled the situation more, as the French and Germans declared neutrality in the 1438 Pragmatic Sanction of Bourges and the 1439 Acceptatio of Mainz, respectively, where they agreed to accept both the Roman papacy and the conciliar reforms. In 1448, Emperor Frederick III signed the Concordat of Vienna declaring his support for the papacy again in exchange for certain papal privileges that increased the empire’s ecclesiastical autonomy. Seen from this perspective, Luther’s appeal to secular authority in governing the church was in line with late medieval practice.
The treatise itself was composed in the summer of 1520 in the wake of growing tensions over the authority of the papacy. To this end, Address to the Christian Nobility begins with Luther’s famous assertion that the papacy had erected three walls to protect itself from reform. The first wall split the church into a spiritual class, composed of prelates, priests, and monks, and a temporal class, including secular rulers. This wall protected the clerical class from civil penalties and prohibited the princes from exercising their right as Christians to reform the church. It is in this context that Luther made his first reference to the priesthood of believers, claiming that all Christians are equal by baptism and the priests themselves officiate on the behalf of the people, therefore any Christian—especially a Christian prince charged with leadership in his territory—is free to carry out reform. The other two walls were less notable. The second wall was built to protect the pope from the authority of Scripture under the pretense that the people could not interpret the Scriptures on their own, to which Luther responded that the presence of the Holy Spirit gives them equal right and ability to do so. The third wall represented the resistance of pope to councils, which Luther argues were a legitimate means for reforming the church.
The remainder of Address to the Christian Nobility is a series of specific reform proposals (26 in the first edition, one added to the second edition), the majority of which reflect the common positions of conciliar reformers in the previous century, such as the abolition of annates (taxes paid to the papacy when a vacant benefice was filled), rejection of Roman jurisdiction over temporal affairs, reduction in the size of the Curia, and the right to confirm bishops locally. Other proposals aimed at the reform of monasteries or popular devotion. One even reflected Luther’s humanist concerns, suggesting that Aristotle and canon law be replaced with the study of the classics and the biblical languages in university education.
Luther’s treatise was originally published on August 18. Though traditional in many respects, it nonetheless caused an uproar because of the controversy surrounding him. Erasmus called it an “irreparable breach.” John Lang of Erfurt called it a “battle trumpet.” Spalatin criticized it, while Melanchthon refused to reject or endorse it. John Eck of Ingolstadt, Jerome Emser of Duke George’s court in Saxony, and the Franciscan Thomas Murner of Strasbourg all wrote scathing rebuttals.