The Mature Luther on Ceremonies

From Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960).

With respect to what troubles you – whether a cope or alb is to be worn in the procession during Rogation week and on Saint Mark’s Day, and whether a procession around the churchyard is to be held with a pure responsory on Sundays and with the Salve festa dies on Easter without, however, carrying the Sacrament about – this is my advice: If your lord, the margrave and elector, etc. [Joachim II, Elector of Brandenburg], permits the gospel of Jesus Christ to be preached with purity and power and without human additions and the two sacraments of Baptism an the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ to be administered and offered according to their institution, if he is willing to abolish the invocation of saints (as if they were mediators, intercessors, and deliverers) and the carrying about of the Sacrament in procession, and if he is willing to discontinue daily Masses, vigils, and Masses for the dead and the consecration of water, salt, and herbs and allow only pure responsories and hymns, Latin and German, in procession, go along in God’s name and carry a silver or gold cross and wear a cope or alb of velvet, silk, or linen. And if one cope or alb is not enough for your lord, the elector, wear three of them, as the high priest Aaron did when he put on three vestments, one on top of the other and all of them beautiful and attractive [cf. Lev. 8:7] (after which ecclesiastical vestments were called ornata in the papacy). Moreover, if His Grace is not satisfied that you go about singing and ringing bells in procession only once, go about seven times, as Joshua compassed the city of Jericho seven times with the Children of Israel, making a great shout and blowing trumpets [Joshua 6:4,5,16]. If your lord, the margrave, desires it, let His grace leap and dance at the head of the procession with harps, drums, cymbals, and bells, as David danced before the Ark of the Lord when it was carried into the city of Jerusalem [II Sam. 6:14,15]. I am fully satisfied, for none of these things (as long as no abuse is connected with them) adds anything to the gospel or detracts from it. Only do not let such things be regarded as necessary for salvation and thus bind the consciences of men. How I would rejoice and thank God if I could persuade the pope and the papists of this! If the pope gave me the freedom to go about and preach and only commanded me (with a dispensation) to hitch on a pair of trousers, I should be glad to do him the favor of wearing them.
As concerns the elevation of the Sacrament in the Mass, this is an optional ceremony and no danger can come to the Christian faith as a result of it, provided nothing else is added. Accordingly you may lift up the Sacrament in God’s name as long as it is desired.
We had ample cause to abolish the elevation here in Wittenberg, and perhaps you do not have such cause in Berlin. Nor shall we restore the ceremony unless some urgent reason requires us to do so, for it is an optional thing and a human exercise rather than a divine commandment. Only what God commands is necessary; the rest is free. (Letter to George Buchholzer [December 4, 1539], pp. 306-07)

I confess that I am not favorably disposed even toward necessary ceremonies, but that I am opposed to those that are not necessary. Not only have I been (and still am) incensed by my experience under the papacy, but the example of the Ancient Church is also disquieting to me. It easily happens that ceremonies become laws, and after they are established as laws, they quickly become snares to men’s consciences. Meanwhile pure doctrine is obscured and buried, especially if those who come after are indifferent and unschooled folk who are more concerned about ceremonies than they are about mortifying the lusts of the flesh. We see this even among those who are now living; strife and divisions arise when everybody follows his own opinion. In short, contempt for the Word on our side and blasphemy on the side of our opponents seem to me to point to the time of which John prophesied when he said to his people, “The ax is laid unto the root of the trees” [Matt. 3:10], etc.
At all events, since the end is close at hand, it does not seem to me that it is necessary (at least in this blessed time) to be too concerned about introducing ceremonies, making them uniform, and fixing them permanently by law. The one thing that needs to be done is this: the Word must be preached often and purely, and competent and learned ministers must be secured who are concerned above all else that they be of one heart and one mind in the Lord. If this is achieved, it will undoubtedly be easy to secure uniformity in ceremonies, or at least to tolerate differences. Without such internal unity, on the other hand, there will be no end to differences and no way to deal with them, for those who come after us will claim the same right that we exercise, and flesh will be set against flesh, a consequence of corrupt nature.
Accordingly I cannot advise that ceremonies be made uniform everywhere. Diversity may be tolerated – provided that manifestly godless and foolish ceremonies are abandoned. For example, if some ceremonies have been discontinued in certain places, they should not be restored, and if some ceremonies have been hitherto retained, they should not be given up. This applies to the customary location of altars, to the sacred and secular vestments of the clergy, and to other similar things. For if heart and mind are one in the Lord, one man will readily allow another’s ceremonies to be different. On the other hand, if there is no seeking after unity in heart and mind, external agreement will achieve little. Nor will such agreement last long among those who come after us, for observances are subject to places, times, persons, and circumstances. The Kingdom of God does not depend on them. Moreover, they are by their very nature changeable. ...
After all, why should one wish to make everything uniform when even under the papacy there was great diversity, which reached into every province? And how great are the differences that have always divided the Greek churches from the Latin!
This is why we insist on the establishment of schools, and especially on purity and agreement in doctrine, which will make hearts and minds one in the Lord. (Letter to Prince George of Anhalt [July 10, 1545], pp. 311-13)

Martin Luther

Return to the Lutheran Theology Web Site Home Page