When Pope Paul III convoked a council for 1537, the evangelical territories had to decide whether or not to attend. John Frederick, elector of Saxony, solicited the opinions of Wittenberg jurists and theologians. The Schmalkaldic League was to convene in February of 1537 to discuss its stance on a council and the prospect of forming a unified theological front in advance. At the same time, John Frederick had also pressed Luther to put into writing an official statement of this theology. The reformer’s health failing with increased age, the elector knew ecclesiastical stability would be an issue after the death of Luther. John Frederick intended to have Luther draft his statement, submit it to the other Wittenbergers for discussion and approval, then to the Schmalkaldic League in February as a theological basis for any participation in the pending council.
The result of this commission was Luther’s Smalcald Articles. The articles represented a comprehensive summary of his basic theological and ecclesiastical reforms. John Frederick had requested that Luther address the question of the papacy, which led to an extensive treatment of the topic in which he spoke of the papacy as antichrist. In the course of writing, Luther had a bout of illness that forced him to hurriedly complete the work. While private discussion with Agricola, Amsdorf, and Splaatin led to agreement on all articles provided a statement on the invocation of saints was added, Melanchthon took greater issue on several points and granted more to both Roman and southern German opponents than did Luther. John Frederick accepted the articles in January and intended to hold them before the Schmalkalden assembly as both a proposed theological confession for the entire league and a binding statement of doctrine for Electoral Saxony.
The meeting of the Schmalkaldic League opened on February 10 and included 38 theologians from eighteen different locales. Melanchthon had privately expressed concern over Luther’s articles, in particular the statement on the Sacrament of the Altar that was at odds with the 1536 Wittenberg Concord and stood to cause division between the Wittenbergers and the southern Germans. For this and other reasons, they were not used as a basic for discussion and instead the theologians agreed to use the Augsburg Confession and Wittenberg Concord instead. They also assigned Melanchthon the task of drafting a statement on the papacy, which resulted in the Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope. The Treatise was signed on 24 February. In addition, the assembly chose not to take Luther’s recommendation of participating in the coming council because it did not meet their previous demands for a free general council.