The story of Martin Luther’s “kidnapping” has given rise to impressions of intrigue and daring adventure and his ten months at the Wartburg castle near Eisenach evoke pictures of restful solitude—perhaps from Luther’s descriptive names “My Patmos” and “Land of the birds.” The reality is different. The “kidnapping” was prearranged and carried out by friends of the Elector, and Luther was aware in advance that something would be done to rescue him from the emperor’s death sentence. Far from a restful vacation, Luther worked very hard while he was hidden away.
Luther’s quarters in the twelfth-century castle were right above the apartment of the caretaker-guard, Hans von Berlepsch, who had played the part of one of the kidnappers. Luther had a room (15 x 20 feet in size) with a writing table and other furnishings and a very small bedroom adjoining it. It was also the task of Berlepsch to convert Luther from his monkish, professorial appearance to that of Junker Jörg (Knight George). To that end, the monastic garb was replaced with the clothing of a knight and Luther also grew a full head of hair to cover his tonsure, the shaved bald spot marking him as a monk.
At first, Luther was confined to his room, which he began to consider his jail, calling it “My Patmos” after the Greek island where St. John was exiled and wrote the book of Revelation (1:9). Later, when he had gotten his “new look,” he was permitted to wander the grounds and even went hunting with the guard (he didn’t like that activity at all and never went again).
While Luther’s location was kept secret so that his opponents only guessed (wrongly) where he was, the lines of communication with Wittenberg (150 miles distant) were kept open and he could send and receive letters and messages.
Having undergone the strict isolation of the Covid-19 pandemic, we know how important it is to stay busy under such circumstances, and Luther did keep very busy. One of his projects was continuing to work on a Latin church postil, a book of sermons for the clergy he had begun before going to Worms. At the Wartburg, he worked on a postil in German to be used for devotions by laypeople. He also completed a commentary on the Magnificat, Mary’s Song in Luke 1 (in Luther’s Works, volume 21).
Controversy with Roman Catholic theologians continued. Luther exchanged attacks with the Leipzig professor Jerome Emser as well as responding to public charges made against him by the faculties of two Roman Catholic universities, Paris and Louvain (Belgium).
Luther’s response to the Louvain professor, Jacob Latomus, provides a picture of Luther’s frame of mind during the first part of his Wartburg stay.
The faculty of Louvain had condemned Luther’s writings in 1519, to which Luther responded in 1520. In 1521, Latomus published a defense of his university’s condemnation of Luther, taking up some of the statements that were thought to be heretical. Luther considered it essential to respond and he used the occasion to take up some of the most crucial issues in his writings up to that time—the relationship between the law and gospel, sin and grace, faith and good works. Luther wrote this lengthy response in eight days, remarkable in that he did not have his library at hand and responded with writings from the fathers that he had memorized, as well as many Bible passages. Martin Brecht writes that Luther’s “refutation was one of the most consistent and clearly systematized expositions of the central reformation doctrine of grace and human nature” (Brecht II, 7).
To the scholastic theologians, one of Luther’s most provocative and dangerous teachings was that redeemed Christians commit real sins; Christians do not merely have weakness or inclination to sin as the Roman church taught. Latomus had focused on three statements made by Luther: “The saints [believers] do not live without sin”; “Sin remains after baptism”; and “Every good work of the saints is sin.”
Luther’s defense was, “Sin is simply that which is not in accord with God’s law.” To be under condemnation for one’s sin is to be under God’s wrath, but where there is forgiveness there is no more wrath and condemnation. But God’s wrath over man’s sins was poured out on Christ so that God has been fully satisfied. No longer is mankind under God’s wrath; through faith, sin is no longer imputed or charged against the believer. Christians in this life still have sinful flesh, but under God’s grace they are spiritual; in God’s sight they are saints. Where their sin is no longer imputed, they are no longer under condemnation. And yet, their flesh is still weak and they sin. Luther’s teaching is summarized by a Latin statement: Simul iustus et peccator (At the same time saint and sinner). That is at the heart of the biblical teaching on justification through faith.
Luther points out Latomus’ inferior logic and knowledge of language. Latomus misquotes scripture, or quotes in part, leaving out what is inconvenient to his position. But much of it comes down to a faulty belief that sin has many different meanings in the Bible. “Sin,” Luther says, is often used metaphorically or figuratively, as in “Christ was made sin.” The Roman theologians took every use of the word “sin” as a metaphor and called each a separate meaning of “sin.” But for Luther, the Bible has only one meaning for “sin”—“simply that which is not in accord with God’s law” (LW 32, 195).
In his commentary on Romans, Luther writes about the Christian, “Therefore I am at the same time a sinner and a righteous man, for I do evil and I hate the evil which I do” and “a sinner in fact, but a righteous man by the sure imputation and promise of God” (LW 25: 258 and 260).
Thus, at the very outset of his stay at the Wartburg, Luther has his focus set on this most foundational truth of God’s word: sinner, yet righteous through faith, a justified saint.
Luther did much more during his time at the Wartburg—far more than feeding the birds from his lofty window above Eisenach. He wrote letters to Wittenberg and other places. He had in mind his dear Christian people in various places in Germany and beyond—as far away as Livonia (Latvia)—and he prepared sermon books for laity to read as devotional material. At the same time, he carried on his defense of Christian teaching against those who distorted God’s word. His translation of the New Testament (done in the last eleven weeks of his stay at the Wartburg) was a great part of his legacy.
Luther was not sidelined when he was hidden away at the Wartburg, but it became a highly fruitful part of the Lutheran Reformation.
Notes: Luther’s time at the Wartburg is treated in detail in Scott Hendrix, Martin Luther; Martin Brecht, Shaping and Defining the Reformation (Vol 2 of his 3 volume Martin Luther); and Ernst Schweibert, Luther and His Times. Against Latomus is found in Luther’s Works, volume 32.
Rev. Erling Teigen