At the end of his German treatise, Address to the Christian Nobility (An den christlichen Adel deutscher Nation), Luther dropped a hint of what was coming next: “I know another little song about Rome and the Romanists. If their ears are itching to hear it, I will sing that one to them, too — and pitch it in the highest key!” This “little song” Luther would call a “prelude” on the captivity of the Roman church — or the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, published just a few months later in October of 1520. A polemical treatise, it was truly “pitched high,” with Luther hiding little of his dissatisfaction with the prevalent sacramental practices sanctioned by Rome. Although he fully expected the work to elicit a cacophony of criticisms from his opponents, Luther’s positive aim was to set forth a reconsideration of the sacramental Christian life that centered on the word. His thesis is that the papacy had distorted the sacraments with its own traditions and regulations, transforming them into a system of control and coercion. The evangelical liberty of the sacramental promises had been replaced by a papal absolutism that, like a feudal lordship, claimed its own jurisdictional liberties and privileges over the totality of Christian life through a sacramental system that spanned birth to death. Yet Luther does not replace one tyranny for another; his argument for a return to the biblical understanding of the sacraments is moderated by a consideration of traditions and external practices in relation to their effects on the individual conscience and faith.
On the one hand, Luther’s treatise is shaped by some of the specific arguments of his opponents. There are two treatises in particular to which Luther reacts. The first is by an Italian Dominican, Isidoro Isolani (c. 1480-1528), who wrote a tract calling for Luther’s recantation, Revocatio Martini Lutheri Augustiniani ad sanctam sedem (1519). The second writing, appearing in July of 1520, was by the Leipzig theologian Augustinus Alveld (c. 1480-1535), who argued against Luther on the topic of communion in “both kinds.” In some sense, the Babylonian Captivity serves as Luther’s reply.
But Luther’s ideas on the sacraments had been in development for some time before. His early personal struggles with the penance and the Mass are well known and were the context for much of his Anfechtungen and spiritual trials in the monastery. Likewise, his subsequent clarity on the teaching of justification and faith quickly reshaped his thinking on the sacramental life. By 1519, he had decided that only three of the seven sacraments could be de ned as such on the basis of Scriptures, publishing a series of sermons that year on the sacraments of penance, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. In 1520, he wrote another, more extensive treatise on the Lord’s Supper, a Treatise on the New Testament. In all of these works, the sacrament chiefly consists in the divine promise and the faith which grasps it. So it is in the Babylonian Captivity, where the correlative of faith and promise is the leitmotif that runs through the entire work.
As Luther discusses each of the sacraments, he exhibits a remarkable combination of detailed, penetrating biblical interpretation and pastoral sensitivity for the common person. In fact, it is precisely the perceived lack of attention to Scripture and to pastoral care that drives Luther’s ire and polemic. Christians are being fleeced, coerced, and misled by those who should be guiding and caring for consciences. The errors of Rome are intolerable because they are so injurious to faith. The most egregious for Luther was how the Eucharist was understood and practiced. Here he identifies three “captivities” of the Mass by which the papacy imprisons the Christian church: the reservation of the cup, the doctrine of transubstantiation, and the use of the Mass as a sacrifice and work to gain divine favor. In all three of these areas, Luther focuses on the pastoral implications of Rome’s misuse and tyranny.
The Babylonian Captivity is written in Latin, attesting to the technical nature of the topic and to the education of Luther’s audience. It is clear that he assumes for his reader at least a broad knowledge of Scholastic theology and, for his humanist readership, a facility with classical allusions which, relative to Luther’s other writings, are not infrequent. The reception of the work was a mixed one. Georg Spalatin (1484-1545), the elector’s secretary, was worried about the effects the tone would have. Erasmus believed (perhaps rightly) that the breach was now irreparable. Johannes Bugenhagen (1485-1558) was appalled upon his rst reading, but upon closer study became convinced that Luther was in the right, and soon became Luther’s trusted colleague, co-reformer, and friend. Henry VIII of England (1491- 1547) even entered into the fray, writing his own refutation of Luther, a Defense of the Seven Sacraments, for which he received the title Fidei Defensor from the pope. The papal bull threatening Luther with excommunication was already on its way, so in some sense Luther hardly felt he could make matters worse. But in the end, the Babylonian Captivity had the effect of galvanizing both opponents and supporters. It became the central work for which Luther had to answer at the Diet of Worms in 1521.
Some of Luther’s expressed positions–though provocative at the time–became less agreeable to his followers later on. In particular, Luther seemed ambivalent regarding the role of laws in civil affairs, suggesting that the gospel was a better guide for rulers. Luther himself deemed this position de cient when faced with the Peasants’ War in 1525. Likewise, when discussing marriage, Luther was inclined to dismiss the manifold laws and regulations that had grown around the institution and rely only on biblical mandates and examples. This led to some of his more controversial remarks regarding the permissibility of bigamy. After the marital scandal of Philip of Hesse, which ensued in part from following Luther’s advice, these remarks were deemed unacceptable. When Luther’s works were first collected and published in Jena and Wittenberg, the publishers excised these portions from Luther’s treatise.
[From Erik H. Herrmann, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, 1520: The Annotated Luther Study Edition, ed. Paul Robinson. Fortress Press: 2016, pp. 9-12.]