Luther’s Church Postil: In Defense of Lenker, et al.

Unreliable? Not so fast.

Concordia Publishing House, the venerable flagship publisher of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, recently announced the completion of their new five-volume translation of Luther’s Church Postil via the Concordia Academic blog. Volume 79 of the American Edition of Luther’s Works (Church Postil V) is now finished and available for purchase.

There is every reason to be glad about the completion of this project. The managing editor and— I believe— lead translator of the new volumes, the omnicompetent Rev’d Dr. Benjamin T. G. Mayes, is one of the brightest theological lights in the LCMS, and probably one of the brightest in the world of orthodox Lutheranism beyond her (— it bears mentioning that he is also probably the kindest, most genteel, and most pastoral academic theologian you could ever hope to meet). No one should doubt that Dr. Mayes and the rest of the editorial team have produced an excellent translation of Luther’s sermons, and, in so doing, made a monumental contribution to the ever-growing compendium of orthodox Lutheran theology in English. Credit is due to him and to Concordia Publishing House, in whose cap he has been a value-adding feather for quite some time.

Yet something about the recent blog-post at Concordia Academic seemed very off to me when I first read it. (NB: Dr. Mayes is not the author of said post, nor do I believe that the actual author should necessarily be blamed for all of its content. Thus I will refer to “the post” and not “the author” doing such things as “going on”, “alleging”, “continuing”, “asserting”, “saying”, etc.) Nearly every paragraph in the piece skids gracelessly over the line separating healthy pride in a worthy accomplishment from overweening boasting in the same— or over the line separating careful history from procrustean triumphalism. One gets the feeling that there is a shadowboxing subtext to the piece, telling certain unnamed competitors to step off and get out of the way.

Right off the bat, we are told that “Luther’s Church Postil has been available in an old, imperfect English translation, but now there is a better and more reliable edition.” A mild claim, yes, although the syntax sort of implies that a perfect translation has now been achieved. It certainly makes you wonder if you’ve been ingesting erroneous imperfections all this time that you’ve been reading the Lenker translation (more on that in a moment— skip Trent; go to “more”). But similar points get aggressively reasserted throughout the body of the post. It all feels a bit salesy and combative.

A few excerpts:

“The complete, best, last, and final edition of the Church Postil, based on the one Luther personally approved, is available for English-speaking readers for the first time.” That was four adjectives in a row, for the record. While they may be apt, the sheer superlation and finality of this assertion is enough to give anyone pause— personally, I’m always uncomfortable with “end of history” language. Moreover, the phrase “the one Luther personally approved” is problematic, as it smoothes over some necessarily rough history. More on this below. (Skip Trent; go to the “more” that is below.)

We are told that Stephen Roth’s edition is “notorious” and “botched”; Philip Spener fares no better: his is “defective”, and he “tended to make Luther sound like an anti-institutional radical who had a low regard for such things as the holy ministry”— this sounds plausible, given Spener’s particular brand of Pietism, but one is still left wondering how and where this tendency can be observed in the Church Postil, as no parallel snippet translations are given, nor any examples at all. The post goes on:

The error continued in the 1700s, when George Walch used Spener’s edition to prepare his edition of Luther’s Works. Walch’s use of an inferior textual basis for the Church Postil went unnoticed by the editors of the so-called Saint Louis Edition of Luther’s Works, printed by the Missouri Synod in the late 1800s. [emphasis added]

Yes, the editors of the “so-called” (?) Saint Louis Edition of Luther’s Works did not even notice— and thus were presumably not even aware of— the errors upstream of them, according to the post. This is astonishing information, if indeed it is accurate. If this were the case, it sounds like it’s the St. Louis editors who should be “so-called.”

Then comes the killing blow:

At the turn of the twentieth century, John Nicholas Lenker, a Lutheran American General Synod professor, undertook the task of publishing key writings of Martin Luther into English, including his Church Postil. Because Lenker used the St. Louis edition version of the Church Postil, the English-speaking Lutheran Church received a translation of the edition that had never been approved by Luther and had been actually rejected by Luther’s close colleagues and associates. Fortunately, this error has now been corrected. [emphases added]

John Nicholas Lenker

So it’s true: if you’ve been reading John Lenker’s translations of Luther’s sermons, you’ve been gobbling up a dog’s breakfast of rejected, pietist Lutheran pseudepigrapha! How could you have been such a fool? Fortunately, this error has now been corrected. Now get out your checkbook.

Though I have heard the occasional passing disparagement of Lenker’s translation here and there, I had never looked into it until recently. Reading the Concordia Academic blog-post, though, I hit peak piqued curiosity: are there significant and well-known instances in Lenker’s work where scholars have identified interpolation or corruption? Or are Lenker’s errors (and/or those upstream of him) subtle and general— the proverbial “B.S. in the brownie-mix”— and therefore the more problematic?

As I have been reading Luther’s sermons over the course of the Church year, I have also been publishing them on this blog in tandem with episodes of Pr. Tapani Simojoki’s wonderful podcast, “Sunday Cantata.” Text, not me reading, so no need to worry. I don’t profit from this at all, and I don’t have any great stake in the matter of whether people click through to my website— it’s self-funded— just the ordinary stake of your garden-variety narcissist (read: blogger) who gets a dopamine high from a spike in his stats. I do know, however, that many have appreciated having a free version of Luther’s sermons recirculated in a fresh, cleaned-up layout, and paired with J. S. Bach’s wonderful church cantatas. It’s on iTunes, if that helps.

Needless to say at this point, I was skeptical of the general tendentiousness of CPH’s blog-post, not least because I myself have been reading John Lenker’s translation of the Church Postil for about half a year now, and have benefited immensely from the endeavor— or so it seemed to me! I thought it would be a shame for people to be discouraged from reading Luther’s sermons…unless, of course, Lenker’s translations do contain outright errors, wrought as they are from the “defective” and erroneous Spener edition, via Walch, via the sloped-forehead St. Louis “edition” editors. The blog-post over at CPH just seemed like too much. But that was just a hunch, and a hunch is not much to go on.

Sometimes, though, hunches do get you going in the right direction. As I am unable to make side-by-side comparisons of any of the critical editions of Luther’s works, being no German scholar, I reached out to a friend of mine who happens to be a Luther scholar and translator— the Rev’d Dr. Holger Sonntag. What he wrote in response was so illuminating that I decided to reproduce it here. I do so now with his permission:

Hi Trent,


Good to hear from you! I hope you are well.


It looks like the CPH blog post faults Lenker not so much for his work as such (the translations may be fine), but that he used the wrong/inferior textual basis— an earlier version of the Church Postil not approved by Luther.


Frankly, I was not aware of this issue until now… So, first of all, thank you for making me aware of it! But it seems to me that we need not worry too much about CPH’s claims here. Just consider some interesting remarks in the preface of vol. 11, cols. XIV-XVIII, of the St. Louis edition, addressing exactly the issues:


When editing the postils, Roth left out some things, added others, and now and then combined two sermons or divided one sermon into two. [Friedrich] Francke’s judgment, however, is too strict and harsh when he accuses Roth of arbitrariness and indicates that Roth wrote some sermons himself. To be sure, Luther was not quite satisfied anymore with Roth’s work later on; in fact, he wanted Roth’s postil destroyed, as he writes in a 1535 letter to Nicholas Gerballius in Strasbourg. But we also know that Luther often looked down on his earlier works and kept improving his own sermons for new editions. The fact is that Luther’s sermons contained in the winter portion of the postil agree almost exactly with the text of the editions published by Luther himself until 1525, while the sermons in the editions between 1522 and 1535 significantly deviate from the parallel sermons in the 1540 and 1543 editions. Thus, we may assume that also in the summer portion of the postil, Roth did not arbitrarily change the manuscripts available to him, but only made corrections here and there that seemed desirable to him, just as Luther used to change his own manuscripts. It almost appears as if Roth, in Luther’s judgment, did not make enough changes, since Cruciger, after he was commissioned to publish a new edition of the postil, took much more comprehensive liberties. … Cruciger’s editorial procedure was approximately this: Most frequently, he based his work on sermons in Roth’s edition, but reworked them so completely that they appear to be new products. As he indicates in his preface, he compiled many sermons out of Luther’s oral sermons and notes Luther himself or somebody else prepared during the presentation. These sermons by which he replaced those collected by Roth are, as one can easily tell from their content, style, expression, are in good part his own works. He softened Luther’s strong language, often watering it down; he developed Luther’s brief, pithy thoughts further on his own; and he made corrections in proper and improper places. These sermons in Cruciger’s summer portion read easily and smoothly, but throughout, they have a different character than those sermons where Luther himself speaks verbatim. Meanwhile, it will be difficult to separate and determine with any degree of exactitude and finality for the 1543/1544 edition of the Church Postil what, and how much, comes from Luther and where Cruciger’s additions begin and end. … Spener’s postil [based on the 1528, 1532, and 1543 editions] was now also the foundation for the Walch edition, as it had been for the two Leipzig editions just mentioned. In 1737, Walch published the Church Postil as a separate book. It was printed according to Spener’s text. The basis was, as in Spener’s edition, chiefly the 1532 edition. But Walch compared, or had his assistants compare, with it not only the 1528 and 1543 editions, but also those of 1522, 1525, 1527, 1535, and 1540, and annotated the variants in separate notes or in brackets in the text of the exposition. … This text was then incorporated into Walch’s complete edition of Luther’s works. … The editor of the second edition of the Erlangen edition, E. L. Enders, used the 1540 edition for the gospel postil’s winter portion (not for winter and summer portion, as Francke indicates erroneously), but for the Gospel Postil’s summer portion, he used the 1531 edition; for the Epistle Postil, he used the 1543 edition, for the festival portion, he used the 1527 edition, annotating variants from the same editions used by Walch and from a variety of separate prints. For his 1871 edition, Dr. Friedrich Francke consistently observed the principle of recreating the oldest text. … In our edition of the gospel part, we had before us the old Walch edition, the second Erlangen edition, Francke’s edition, and the text forms listed by Walch and completely by Enders of the 1522, 1525, 1527, 1528, 1531, 1532, 1535, 1540, 1543 / 1544, as well as a copy of the 1544 Cruciger edition. Based on these references, we compiled the text of the edition at hand. We were unable to follow Walch in every instance. Walch, or Spener, respectively, often acted too mechanically and arbitrarily. … But it did not seem advisable to us to correct Walch based on the Erlangen edition … We also could not become comfortable with Franke’s principle of reproducing the oldest text throughout … [emphasis mine — TDD]


And then they continue for several pages of detailed analysis.


OK, all this could be totally wrong and not “up to date” as far as the Church Postil scholarship CPH might have gotten access to is concerned. But for me, it not only looks very impressive and very thorough and diligent. It also raises several red flags regarding the claims made in CPH’s recent blog.


For one, the blog makes it sound as if Walch mindlessly reprinted Spener. That is apparently not accurate. The blog, second, also makes it sound as if the St. Louis edition was basically just a reprint of Walch. Clearly not the case! Third, Roth’s work seems to be more faithful to the earlier Luther than Cruciger. But fourth, since Luther was the first to come up with Lutheran theology, it’s understandable that editing was considered necessary and appropriate to give the people the most “up to date” version of the Reformer’s insights in a sermonic form. Then again, fifth, Cruciger seems to have taken significant liberties and watered down the text. And six, let’s face it, publishers already in the 16th century needed to publish stuff to make some guilders— what better than a new and improved version of a bestseller?


In all, the textual history of the Church Postil is extremely complicated. CPH makes it sound so easy: Why not use the last edition Luther “approved”? Duh! But that only gives solace for those who don’t know the history behind that text. It’s not like Luther supervised every word that Cruciger put down. CPH doesn’t give editorial credit where editorial credit is due: Every editor of the Church Postil, beginning with Luther himself and Roth and including the St. Louis editors, had to make tough calls: what’s right, what’s wrong, what to include, what to omit; the older reading might be “better” theologically or stylistically, but at times a later edition might have hit the nail on the head theologically or stylistically. [emphasis mine — TDD]


Simply saying, “we’ve got the easy solution— why has no one else thought of simply republishing Cruciger?” would be kind of naive and amateurish, frankly, especially when announced with such a polemical post. And then to charge so much money for a product that apparently, in good part, is Luther’s in name only! In fairness, though, I doubt that the blog post actually reflects CPH’s editorial opinion here.


In sum, since others have already done the comparing and reviewing, I don’t think I need to reinvent that wheel. I’ll continue using the St. Louis text. If that’s what Lenker used, good for him! I think he’s in sound company. Of course, translating the sermons is at times a challenge. So let’s cut him some slack so long as it’s not outright error.


Since it seems to be virtually impossible to get Luther’s original words as he originally preached them back in the day out of the edited, re-edited, and re-mixed text of the postils (a good number of sermons, esp. in the Cruciger edition, Luther apparently never actually preached), we must ask ourselves what we’re actually seeking in the postils.


Like generations of Lutherans before me, I look to them for theologically sound nourishment and edification in my daily walk as a Christian. So far, I haven’t been disappointed.

After perusing the staid and equanimous front matter of AE 79 (available as a free preview from CPH here), Dr. Sonntag had this to say:

I appreciate the scholarly tone of this preface. And the first sermon of that sampling right away shows why that blog post is so weird: clearly, there’s no point faulting Roth who started working in the late 1520s for not including a sermon Luther first preached in 1531! And footnote 1 kind of makes the point made in the St. Louis ed. preface I translated: The basis of the first part cannot be located within Luther’s extant works (in English: Cruciger wrote it). And the second part is Cruciger’s “adaptation” of Luther’s sermon notes from 1531.


So, is this then Cruciger’s Postil or is it still recognizably Luther’s? Remember, Luther also “approved” works written by others outright, see his many commendatory prefaces.


Looks like those different families of postil editions are really different works altogether and we probably shouldn’t blame one editor for using one particular set of sermons as his basis if the sermons that are allegedly better (or whatever) hadn’t been preached/written yet.


Again, circumspect caution instead of operating like bulls in the china shop is the way to go here. The CPH and the Lenker editions could be complementing each other if a person wanted to be a scholar of Luther editions. I don’t see the need to throw out the Lenker (or St. Louis ed.). That said, I certainly very much appreciate what this [the vol. 79] preface says about the real results the Gospel produces in militant Christians by God’s grace (p. XIV). That’s a highly and welcome important insight and acknowledgement, I’d say. Let’s not overlook that.

In fine, there is no reason to think that the St. Louis edition (“edition”; de gustibus) version of the Church Postil or John Lenker’s English translation thereof is extraordinarily suspect. You shouldn’t forsake reading Lenker in a fit of aporia over whether or not you might be absorbing stealth error. If we’re going to play the “stealth error” game— I’m not suggesting that we should— we may as well second-guess Caspar Cruciger’s editorial role in promulgating the “Luther-approved” Church Postil since he later showed Calvinizing tendencies (what else can “willing to compromise with Zwinglians and RCs” and “helped draft Leipzig Interim” mean?). No; we should give him the same gracious break that we give to Philipp Melanchthon. (On second thought, let’s do better than that.)

Modesty doth become a publishing house as much as it doth a brave man. The completion of the Concordia Publishing House translation of Luther’s Church Postil is indeed significant and praiseworthy, but precisely how it is significant should be stated with a bit more reserve. And, as it turns out, it should also be stated with a bit more accuracy. There is no reason or need for CPH to insinuate that if people can’t afford the “complete, best, last, and final edition of the Church Postil,” they’d probably be better off not reading Luther’s sermons at all; more to the point, there is both reason and need for them not to make such an insinuation.

Don’t get me wrong— if you can afford to drop $54.99 + S&H on AE 79 (or $274.99 plus S&H for the whole Church Postil), that’s great. If you can afford it, I would go so far as to say that you should eventually buy them, so great is my confidence in Dr. Mayes et al and so important are these sermons (and so great a reason do they furnish us with for taking leave of the innovation of the three-year lectionary and re-embracing the historic lectionary). I hope to own them all myself someday. The whole American Edition run are quality books in every way, and well worth the price. (It’s also nice if your godfather gives you the first fifty-five volumes as a gift…) But if you can’t afford the expenditure, or you simply have other priorities for your money, you should take up and read the Lenker translation of the Church Postil, and you shouldn’t fear that it is the B-grade result of some reckless, ignorant, or disingenuous editorial process which is going to lead you into un-Lutheran error. It simply is not.

At the end of the day, more than just business concerns are bound up in such matters. CPH should understand and, frankly, be more sympathetic to the fact that not everyone can afford their books. They should not imply— generally, or in this specific instance— that they alone steward the treasury of orthodox Lutheran theology, that all other wells are poisonous, and that the impecunious and/or thrifty among us are fishing in a mercury-pool if we avail ourselves of free public-domain translations or the catalogues of smaller publishers in our effort to lay hold of good Lutheran theological literature. CPH shouldn’t imply this not just because it’s mean, obnoxious, and unbecoming when they do; they shouldn’t imply it because it isn’t even close to being true.

To be blunt, poor people benefit from Lutheran theology, too. (There’s a decent biblical case to be made that they benefit from it more than some others, in fact, but now who’s being tendentious?) G. K. Chesterton once wrote the following memorable lines in Chesterton’s Weekly:

Either Private Property is good for Man or it is bad for Man. If it is bad, let us all immediately become honest and courageous Communists…. But if it is good for Man it is good for Everyman. But we [distributists] are not ashamed of private property; for we would give it to everyone.

What is true of private property is even truer of Lutheran theology. I leave it to the amiable wit of amiable, witty readers to fill in the rest of the analogy to taste.


»Help keep Pseudepigraphus online«

Addendum: from a second email from Dr. Sonntag

Another nugget I found in the preface to WA 22, pp. XVII-XIX, on Cruciger’s postil that basically echoes what we read in the St. Louis ed.:


It has already been said earlier that Luther’s intent and desire was not a verbatim republication of his sermons. This is another reason why he was not satisfied with Roth’s postils, as Roth aimed at the greatest possible faithfulness— one might even call it: scholarly faithfulness. For us, however, Roth’s postils would have to appear as the more valuable ones, at least from a scholarly point of view, especially if we did not have the transcripts on which he relied. On the other hand, Luther gladly and thankfully acknowledged Cruciger’s edition of his sermons as his intellectual property, thereby indicating that Cruciger was able to express Luther’s thoughts faithfully even without being tied to the spoken word. It was, thus, only natural that Cruciger would edit the summer postil in the same way as he had already edited a number of previous sermons. … Just as Roth, Cruciger first relied on printed sermons. Although he changed a number of things, we only need to annotate his deviations. … In the case of other sermons, however, he acts in a completely free manner. … [Besides leaving out all contemporary historical references from the sermon transcripts,] Cruciger, in general, acted in a completely free manner in his use of the sermon manuscripts. In most cases, he is content to process Luther’s thoughts without an connection to the words. He independently creates the beginning and ending of sermons … Several sermons, from different years, are compiled into one … without any concern for the fact that they thereby grow to an excessive length. … It is due to this free attitude that it is not possible to identify his source at all times. Still, Luther, in his preface, acknowledged Cruciger’s summer postil as his intellectual property— and we must say: with less of a justification than in the case of Roth’s postils— and praised the work. This does not relieve us of the scholarly duty to treat it critically. …


The other thing is that, if I’m not totally mistaken, both Lenker and St. Louis actually translate the Cruciger text for the summer sermons, as well as the Roth text. See the reference in the footnote 1 to the sermon on Luke 18 in the pdf you linked for me. In Lenker, that’s the “Second Sermon” found in “edition c,” Cruciger’s 1543/44 edition of the summer postil (btw, that is one colorful edition, see here, the sermon on Luke 18 starts on fol. 315v— sorry, no digital version of the winter part, apparently revised by Luther himself). See also the overview in Aland’s Hilfsbuch zum Lutherstudium, pp. 196ff.)


It seems, at least for the summer portion (Easter through the end of the church year), you’ve already got what the blog was trying to sell you. You can do the comparing and contrasting for yourself. See also Lenker’s brief editorial note, providing a digest of what’s in the St. Louis preface, in volume 1 that basically said what we’ve been discussing yesterday: the 1543 edition of the summer sermons is “the thoughts of Luther in the language of Cruciger.”


Now that you’ve gotten me thinking about these things, another idea occurred to me:


Given the freedom Cruciger used in rewriting stuff, and Luther’s approval of it, could we not say that the summer postil, instead of being the last of Luther’s postils, is really among the first sound Lutheran postils?


Luther never was about having “his own” theology. His job as a professor and pastor was to teach and confess the theology of the Christian Church revealed in the Bible. No desire to be original is appropriate here.


But Luther clearly also had no desire to be the archaeologist or archivist of his own theological thinking a lá, “Well, I hit it well in 1521, but after that it went down-hill. So let’s preserve for perpetuity that 1521 expression of the truth.” (His reluctance to agree to a collected works edition in 1539 speaks [against] volumes here…) The scholarly concerns of the editors of the Weimar edition clearly were not Luther’s— I’m saying that while being grateful for the collected editions we have.


It’s almost as if he, by encouraging Cruciger to use his own words, wanted to assist the church to transition to a time when Luther was no longer around— all this work notably happened in the last few years of his death.


Just as we can use our own words to confess the biblical truth (creeds, confessions, sermons, blogs: Luke 10:16), so Luther wanted to help his disciples see: you can be Lutherans AND use your own words— so long as the doctrinal substance and meaning is what I have taught from Scripture (sorry, no Newmanian “development of doctrine” authorized here).


This same hermeneutic we also see consciously employed by the preface to the Formula of Concord: the Augsburg Conf. and Apology are not teaching Melanchthon’s theology— they are Luther’s biblical theology in Melanchthon’s words. To understand these editable documents properly, therefore, we must look to Luther’s consistent writings, not Melanchthon’s ever-flexible theological output.


I think this hermeneutic is advisable in the case of Cruciger’s postil (and even Roth’s postil) as well— not only in view of Cruciger’s possible Calvinisms and Melanchthonianisms, but as a generally wise practice.