De captivitate babylonica ecclesiae praeludium

Martin Luther. by Johann Prüss. 1520.

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One of the three important theological treatises Luther produced in 1520, De captivitate babylonica ecclesiae harshly condemns the Catholic understanding of the sacraments. Also includes an engraving of Luther by the Wittenberg artist Lucas Cranach.

Image of De captivitate babylonica ecclesiae praeludium

Luther’s readers could be very active, as we can see in the annotations and markings on these pages. The owner highlighted Luther’s most blatant attacks on traditional church practice.

“Instead of believing them [the words of consecration], we reverence them with I know not what superstitious and godless fancies. What else is Satan trying to do to us through this misfortune of ours but to remove every trace of the [true] mass out of the church, though he is meanwhile at work filling every corner of the globe with [false] masses, that is, with abuses and mockeries of God’s testament – burdening the world more and more heavily with most grievous sins of idolatry, to its deeper condemnation? For what more sinful idolatry can there be than to abuse God’s promises with perverse opinions and to neglect or extinguish faith in them?

For God does not deal, nor has he ever dealt, with man otherwise than through a word of promise, as I have said. 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; rather we deal with men and with ourselves on the basis of works. But God has no need of this: that we consider him faithful in his promises [Heb. 10:23], and patiently persist in this belief, and thus worship him with faith, hope, and love. It is in this way that he obtains his glory among us, since it is not of ourselves who run, but of him who shows mercy [Rom. 9:16], promises, and gives, that we have and hold all good things. Behold, this is what true worship and service of God which we ought to perform in the mass. But if the words of promise are not delivered, what exercise of faith can there be? And without faith, who can have hope or love? Without faith, hope, and love, what service of God can there be? There is no doubt, therefore, that in our day all priests and monks, together with their bishops and all their superiors, are idolaters, living in a most perilous state by reason of this ignorance, abuse, and mockery of the mass, or sacrament, or promise of God.

For anyone can easily see that these two, promise and faith, must necessarily go together. For without the promise there is nothing to be believed; while without faith the promise is useless, since it is established and fulfilled through faith. From this everyone will readily gather that the mass, since it is nothing but promise, can be approached and observed only in faith. Without this faith, whatever else is brought to it by way of prayers, preparations, works, signs, or gestures are incitements to impiety rather than exercises of piety. It usually happens that those who are thus prepared imagine themselves legitimately entitled to approach the altar, when in reality they are less prepared than at any other time or by any other work, by reason of the unbelief which they bring with them. How many celebrants you can see everywhere, every day, who imagine they – wretched men – have committed criminal offenses when they make some petty mistake, such as wearing the wrong vestment, or forgetting to wash their hands, or stumbling over their prayers! But the fact that they have no regard for or faith in the mass itself, namely, the divine promise, causes them not the slightest qualms of conscience. O worthless religion of this age of ours, the most godless and thankless of all the ages!"

Source: The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, translated by A.T.W. Steinhäuser and revised by Frederick C. Ahrens and Abdel Ross Wentz, in Luther’s Works, v. 36 (Philadelphia, Muhlenberg Press, 1959), p. 41-43.

Metadata Details
Item Type Pamphlet
Title De captivitate babylonica ecclesiae praeludium
Short Title On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church
Creator Martin Luther
Publication Creator Johann Prüss
Publication Date 1520
Call Number Case VAULT C 6552 .518
Location Special Collections 4th Floor