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date: 10 December 2023

Martin Luther as a Polemicistlocked

Martin Luther as a Polemicistlocked

  • Thomas KaufmannThomas KaufmannGeorg-August-Universität Göttingen


Luther was criticized for his polemics, particularly by his humanist contemporaries, and his writing did not in fact live up to the ideal of modestia (moderation). However, personal invective such as that engaged in by some humanists under cover of an incognito was not particularly evident in Luther’s work. Once he had sharply distanced himself from scholastic theology, especially in his academic lectures and series of theses, his polemical writing increased as a result of the dispute over indulgences (autumn of 1517). In his literary skirmishes with Tetzel, Luther first switched to using the vernacular German; it became characteristic of his polemical writing that he reacted quickly to enable the reading public to follow the controversy. From spring of 1520, as the number of defenders of the old faith (Prierias, Eck, Alveldt, Emser, Murner, Catharinus, and others) steadily grew, Luther was neither willing nor able to answer every written invective directed at him. The particular historical context, the prominence of his opponent, and the importance of the theme for further advancing the Reformation all played important roles in whom he chose to respond to. Since 1522 Luther was involved in numerous controversies with inner-Reformation opponents that centered on questions regarding how to conduct the Reformation, the sacraments, the external means of their administration, and how to treat members of congregations too weak or unprepared to accept change. Luther thought it important to draw clear lines with respect to opponents in his own camp, especially Karlstadt, Müntzer, and Zwingli. Of particular importance among his other writings are polemical texts against Turks and Jews. He found polemics in service of the truth of Christ’s teachings to be unavoidable.


  • Christianity

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