That Time Martin Luther Became a Thief

In this 1875 painting by Gustav Adolph Spangenberg, “Luther Making Music in the Circle of His Family”, Melanchthon is portrayed sitting at the table behind them. Apparently he was present at every Luther family gathering?

The relationship between the German Reformers Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon has been puzzled over by scholars for centuries. They were fellow professors at the University of Wittenberg and collaborated on a number of projects, from a German translation of the Bible to the Augsburg Confession. Yet, there were undoubtedly some theological differences between them in later years, and all their contemporaries noted that their personalities were essentially opposites. Luther himself once characterized the relationship in the following way.

I am rough, boisterous, stormy, and altogether warlike. I am born to fight against innumerable monsters and devils. I must remove stumps and stones, cut away thistles, and thorns, and clear the wild forests; but Master Philip comes along softly and gently, sowing and watering with joy, according to the gifts which God has abundantly bestowed upon him.[1]

This reminds me very much of a comparison I have sometimes made between myself and my husband: he’s the bulldozer and I’m a pair of tweezers. Luckily, God can use all types of people for His glory. As James William Richard noted with regard to Luther and Melanchthon, “Each esteemed the other better than himself. Each saw in the other a wonderful instrument of Providence, and each had the consciousness that he had been providentially joined to the other for the execution of a common commission.”[2]

Nevertheless, Luther did occasionally feel that Melanchthon was too hesitant. Well, maybe more than occasionally. After he returned to Wittenberg from his exile at the Wartburg Castle, Luther was anxious to see his friend publish a follow-up to his successful work of systematic theology, Loci Communes. Richard picks up the story for us sometime in 1522.

While he and Luther were engaged in revising the German translation of the New Testament, Luther insisted that Melanchthon should publish his lectures on the Epistles to the Romans and Corinthians. This he refused to do, his extreme modesty leading him to say that the Scripture should be allowed to do its work without the word of man. Luther thought that a man who expounded the Scripture as Master Philip did, rendered an invaluable service to the Church. Accordingly he obtained a copy of the lectures secretly and published them without the knowledge of the author…[3]

Yes, ladies and gentleman, Martin Luther was a thief. He took Melanchthon’s writings without his knowledge and sent them to be published. When an explanation became necessary, Luther responded in a very Luther way, writing a letter to Melanchthon that was something less than a mea culpa.

The sin is on your side, if there be any sin here. Why did not you yourself publish? Why did you suffer me to ask, command, and urge you so often to publish? This is my defence against you: I am willing to be, and to be called, a thief, fearing neither your complaints nor accusation. But to those who, you think, will turn up their noses, or will not be satisfied, I shall say: Publish something better…. Finally, I threaten you, that I will steal and publish what you have written on Genesis, Matthew, and John, unless you shall anticipate me.[4]

How fortunate for Dr. Martin that his colleague was rather forgiving! Not only had Melanchthon had his writings stolen, but as it turned out, someone neglected to check for typos before they were printed for the world to see. As Richard relates, “Very soon the commentary was published at Nuremberg, disfigured by numerous errors. Then Melanchthon laughed, and said to Luther ‘he hoped that, made wiser by experience, he would commit no more such thefts.’”[5]

Never in my life has anyone considered my work important enough to steal and rush into print against my consent. However, if such a thing did happen, I hope that I would be gracious enough to respond as Melanchthon did: with laughter rather than anger. Perhaps the grace shown by Melanchthon to his older colleague helps to explain why, in later years, Luther did not attack him with the same level of vitriol that he usually displayed, despite what he surely felt were theological errors. Indeed, Luther hardly criticized him at all on that score.

To conclude, I think we can safely add theft to the long list of Martin Luther’s offenses, but he was so lucky in his friends that he faced no penalty. Fortunate man! Would that we all could be so lucky!

[1] Richard, James William. Philip Melanchthon – The Protestant Preceptor of Germany, 1497-1560. (London: Forgotten Books, 2015) Page 42.

[2] Richard, page 43

[3] Richard, pages 103-4

[4] Richard, page 104-5

[5] Richard, page 106