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The Babylonian Captivity surpassed everything which he had written so far against the Roman Church…It was the chief evidence of Luther’s heresy” –Martin Brecht, Martin Luther: His Road to Reformation, 1483-1521

 

“On Oct 6, 1520, (Luther’s) Babylonian Captivity emerged from the press of Melchior Lotter in Wittenberg – a forty-four page Latin bomb planted in the midst of the delicate machinery of the Catholic sacramental system.  The publication of the Babylonica, as it came to be known in English, shattered any lingering illusions that Luther was a reformer cast in the mold of Erasmus…His tone and radicalism jarred educated Europe.”  –Richard Marius, Martin Luther: The Christian Between God and Death

Martin Luther’s manifesto of religious individualism,
one of the central documents of the Protestant Reformation
exceedingly scarce 1520 first edition

"God does not deal, nor has he ever dealt, with man otherwise than through a word of promise… We in turn cannot deal with God otherwise than through faith in the Word of his promise.  He does not desire works, nor has he need of them…There is no doubt, therefore, that in our day all priests and monks, together with their bishops and all their superiors, are idolators, living in a most perilous state by reason of this ignorance, abuse, and mockery of the mass, or sacrament, or promise of God.” 

“But you will say: What is this?  Will you not overturn the practice and teaching of all the churches and monasteries, by virtue of which they have flourished all these centuries?  For the mass is the foundation of their anniversaries, intercessions, applications, communications, etc., that is to say, of their fat income.  I answer: This is the very thing that has constrained me to write of the captivity of the church.  For it is in this manner that the sacred testament of God has been forced into the service of a most impious traffic.”  

-Martin Luther, The Babylonian Captivity

LUTHER, Martin. De Captivitate Babylonica Ecclesiae. Wittenberg: [Melchior Lotter, 1520]. Quarto, period-style binding of modern three-quarter pigskin over wooden boards. A-L4; 44 leaves. $48,000.

First edition of Martin Luther's revolutionary call to spiritual individualism. The Babylonian Captivity is Luther’s most severe attack on the Roman Church and one of the central documents of the Protestant Reformation. In it Luther articulated a radical theology that reduced the essence of Christianity to just two core elements: God’s promise to man as set forth in Scripture, and man’s faithful acceptance of that promise. The ecclesiastical and cultural implications of this doctrine were momentous, as theologians across Europe recognized immediately. The Babylonian Captivity undermined the bond between Church officials and the laity and set forth a powerful doctrine of spiritual individualism that would change Europe forever.

EXTREMELY SCARCE. We can find no record of another copy being offered for sale in the last 30 years.

Condition: Text generally clean with scattered occasional spotting and offsetting; residue on gutter of title page and last leaf; very small (approx. half-inch) repaired tear to lower corner of last leaf (in margin, not affecting text). 

Please read below for a detailed description of The Babylonian Captivity.

 

          Martin Luther’s attacks on the medieval Roman Catholic Church’s doctrines and practices initiated perhaps the most momentous revolution of the past two millennia and made him, without question, one of the truly pivotal figures of Western Culture.  Few documents played a more central role in the history of the Protestant Reformation than Martin Luther’s Prelude on the Babylonian Captivity of the Church.  The Captivity was the second of Luther’s three great treatises of 1520, and marks the peak of Luther’s incendiary theological radicalism.  The first of the 1520 treatises, Luther’s Open Letter to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, argued that in times of crisis Scripture allowed for secular powers to act independently of the pope to call a council to bring about Church reform.  The immediate political significance of this document was immense, especially among the German peoples.  However, while the tone of this letter was bitterly critical of the Roman Church, in it Luther wrote as one who would reform the Church, not lead a revolt against it.   Luther’s position changed dramatically with the publication of the Babylonian Captivity, the second of his great treatises of 1520.  It was here that Luther took an explicitly insurrectionary position, writing that the pope was the antichrist and arguing that true Christianity had to be rescued from the “Babylonian Captivity” into which the Roman Church had led it.  The Captivity marked the crowning moment of Luther’s theological radicalism and represents the point of irreparable fracture between his own writings and the Roman Church. 

            As a work of theology, the Captivity is primarily an attack on the Roman Church’s sacramental system, the practices and teachings that gave the Church its spiritual and temporal authority.  For Luther, a reformed theology of the sacraments was the key to rescuing true Christianity from its “Babylonian Captivity”.  The central argument of the Babylonian Captivity was that the essence of a true sacrament is that of a divine promise, and that each Christian had to accept this promise for himself.  The incendiary corollary to this was Luther’s argument that there was no role for the Church to play in administering the mass.  This amounted to an act of theological sedition for it severed the bond between laymen and the pope, and called for individual Christians to cement their bond with God independently of the Roman Church.   In Luther’s view the centuries-old notion that priests were intermediaries who administered the mass was the fraudulent and self-enriching “teaching of godless men”.  The radicalism inherent in Luther’s entirely novel re-conceptualization of the sacraments was no minor theoretical matter.  Luther himself saw that the practical implications of the Captivity ’s argument were enormous and potentially lethal for the Church.  He addressed this question in the Captivity, writing, “But you will say: What is this?  Will you not overturn the practice and teaching of all the churches and monasteries, by virtue of which they have flourished all these centuries?  For the mass is the foundation of their anniversaries, intercessions, applications, communications, etc., that is to say, of their fat income.  I answer: This is the very thing that has constrained me to write of the captivity of the church.  For it is in this manner that the sacred testament of God has been forced into the service of a most impious traffic…”. 

            By severing the bond between priests and laymen Luther had set forth an argument that undermined the Roman Church at its most fundamental level.  From a broader historical perspective the still greater importance of this argument was that it was the first clear and authoritative expression of the spiritual individualism at the heart of the Protestant Reformation.  Luther’s Captivity drove a wedge between Church authority and the individual Christian and effectively reduced the core of a Christian’s bond with God to two simple elements: God’s promise, or sacrament, and man’s faith in that promise.  Luther’s reformed notion of the sacraments put each individual’s spiritual fate in his own hands.  More than this, Luther’s notion of the sacraments galvanized the distinctly evangelical thrust of Protestantism as he argued that the way to know and accept God’s promise was through Scripture and faith, not the practices and teachings of the Roman Church.  This meant that spreading the gospel was the essence of being a ‘priest’ of Christ, not careful observance of Church-sanctioned rituals and practices.  

            The fact that the Captivity was Luther’s most revolutionary work was immediately apparent to Church officials and theologians all across Europe.  Nothing that he wrote was more important in sealing his break with the Catholic Church.  Indeed, the outcome of his trial at the Diet of Worms in 1521 was determined by his refusal to publicly disavow authorship of the Babylonian Captivity. The publication of the Captivity and Luther’s refusal to recant it at Worms marks a point at which individual conscience and the forces of empire crashed with astounding and epoch-shaping force, setting off a disruption so great that five centuries later the shock waves are still rippling through the social, cultural, religious and economic fabric of the Western world.

 More on the content of the Babylonian Captivity

             While the Captivity’s stinging rhetoric, the call for a “priesthood of all believers” and Luther’s characterization of the Pope as the antichrist got the attention of all of Europe, the true importance of this slim pamphlet lies in the fact that in it Luther offers, for the first time, a sustained and comprehensive ecclesiastical attack on Church power and practice.  The Babylonian Captivity was Luther’s theological tour de force. 

            The subject of the Captivity is the Church’s sacramental system, through which the Church exercised spiritual and cultural control over Christians’ lives from birth to death.  Luther’s method was to compare the practices of the Church’s centuries-old sacramental system with what was written in the New Testament.  For Luther, the true Christian’s bond to God could be secured only through acceptance of God’s testament – i.e., through faith: “Without this faith, whatever else is brought to it by way of prayers, preparations, works, signs, or gestures are incitements to impiety.”  Luther’s conclusion was that of the seven sacraments observed by the Catholic Church – baptism, eucharist, penance, confirmation, marriage, ordination and extreme unction – only two, baptism and the eucharist, were true sacraments.  Luther wrote, “Only in these two do we find both the divinely instituted sign and the promise of forgiveness of sins.”   For Luther the other so-called sacraments were mere works, as opposed to faith in God’s promise.  Luther wrote, “For God does not deal, nor has he ever dealt, with man otherwise than through a word of promise…We in turn cannot deal with God otherwise than through faith in the Word of his promise.  He does not desire works, nor has he need of them…There is no doubt, therefore, that in our day all priests and monks, together with their bishops and all their superiors, are idolators, living in a most perilous state by reason of this ignorance, abuse, and mockery of the mass, or sacrament, or promise of God.” 

            Luther’s discussion of the mass was the central and most incendiary component of the Captivity and posed the greatest practical threat to the Church.  Luther’s argument was that there was no role for the Church to play in administering the Mass – effectively this amounted to an act of theological sedition for it severed the bond between laymen and the Pope and called for individual Christians to free themselves from the tyranny of the Roman Church.  Sedition was exactly what Luther thought was required to restore Christianity to its true foundation, human faith in God’s promise.  Luther wrote in the Captivity, “For where faith dies and the word of faith is silent, there works and the prescribing of works immediately crowd into their place.  By then we have been carried away out of our own land, as into Babylonian Captivity, and despoiled of all our precious possessions.  This has been the fate of the mass; it has been converted by the teaching of godless men into a good work”.  Luther’s attack on the Church’s role in administering the mass went against centuries of Church practice, and Church leaders recognized from the first that this view not only undermined their authority but also the Church’s primary sources of revenue.  Luther knew that his critique of the seven sacraments was a threat to the Church’s very existence as an institution.  Luther wrote, “But you will say: What is this?  Will you not overturn the practice and teaching of all the churches and monestaries, by virtue of which they have flourished all these centuries?  For the mass is the foundation of their anniversaries, intercessions, applications, communications, etc., that is to say, of their fat income.  I answer: This is the very thing that has constrained me to write of the captivity of the church.  For it is in this manner that the sacred testament of God has been forced into the service of a most impious traffic.”   In Luther’s Captivity he argues that the whole machinery of the Church along with its carefully proscribed rituals and practices were not just theologically groundless but dangerous diversions from the essence of what it was to be a Christian.  While the Captivity is one of Luther’s most theoretical writings, its practical implications were truly momentous. 

            The shockingly caustic tone of Luther’s attack on the Church and his revolutionary insistence on understanding the Mass strictly according to Scripture are enough to make the Captivity a central document of the Reformation.  However the Captivity’s importance is greater still, for this document integrates Luther’s attack on existing Church practice with his notion of the “priesthood of all believers.”  Luther’s notion of the “priesthood of all believers,” a slogan which spread like wildfire from Luther’s pen to the lips of dissenters all across Europe, was one of his great contributions to the Protestant movement, initiating a groundswell of spiritual egalitarianism and underwriting the distinctly evangelical cast of early Protestantism.   As with his notion of the Mass, for Luther the essence of Christian priesthood was to be discovered and understood only through Scripture.   The account of Christian priesthood that Luther found there – i.e., that all Christians are Christ’s priests by virtue of having been baptized – was, again, very much at odds with Church practice.   Luther writes: “If they (the papists) were forced to grant that as many of us as have been baptised are all priests without distinction, as indeed we are, and that to them was committed the ministry only, yet with our consent, they would presently learn that they have no right to rule over us except in so far as we freely concede it. For thus it is written in 1 Peter 2:9, "Ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, and a priestly kingdom." Therefore we are all priests, as many of us as are Christians…And the priesthood is nothing but a ministry, as we learn from 1 Corinthians 4:1, "Let a man so account of us as of the ministers of Christ, and the dispensers of the mysteries of God."  In arguing that all Christians are priests through baptism, as opposed to select individuals being made into priests through ordination by the Church, Luther was denying that the Church played any essential role in selecting and bestowing upon priests any so-called “indelible character” that guaranteed their spiritual authority over laymen.  For Luther the notion of a Church-bestowed “indelible character” was, as he wrote, “a laughing-stock.”  Elaborating on this, Luther wrote, “I admit that the pope imparts this character, but Christ knows nothing of it; and a priest who is consecrated with it becomes thereby the life-long servant and captive, not of Christ, but of the pope; as it is in our day. Moreover, unless I am greatly mistaken, if this sacrament and this lie fall, the papacy itself with its characters will scarcely survive; our joyous liberty will be restored to us; we shall realize that we are all equal by every right, and having cast off the yoke of tyranny, shall know that he who is a Christian has Christ, and that he who has Christ has all things that are Christ's and is able to do all things (Philippians 4:13).”   Luther’s doctrine of the “priesthood” of all Christians galvanized a movement of religious individualism and spiritual egalitarianism that continues to reverberate through Western Culture to this day.  

            The radicalism of Luther’s reasoning and rhetoric in the Babylonian Captivity was the focus of his trial at the Diet of Worms in 1521.  His refusal to disavow authorship of this pamphlet led to his being branded a heretic and an outlaw – he would have been executed were it not for the protection of Frederick the Wise. It is worth noting that if Luther had recanted his Captivity, a reconciliation with the Church would almost certainly have been negotiated – indeed, by 1521 gradual reform of Church practice was already underway under the impetus of moderate thinkers such as Erasmus and even the Luther of 1517, whose famous 95 Theses were controversial but still within the bounds of what Church leaders could and would tolerate.  Not so for the Luther who wrote the Babylonian Captivity of 1520, for unlike the 95 Theses, the Captivity struck a direct and piercing blow to the Church’s ecclesiastical and economic core and threatened to completely discredit the authority of church officials from the pope all the way down to parish priests.  As the Church immediately recognized, Luther’s Captivity was an act of revolution, a revolution they sought to avoid by trying to persuade its author, under threat of execution, to publicly deny that he ever wrote it.  There can be no question that Luther’s Babylonian Captivity is a document of surpassing importance in the history of the Protestant Reformation and indeed Western Culture.

 

           

           

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