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The Reception of Continental Reformation in Britain$

Polly Ha and Patrick Collinson

Print publication date: 2010

Print ISBN-13: 9780197264683

Published to British Academy Scholarship Online: January 2012

DOI: 10.5871/bacad/9780197264683.001.0001

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The Reception of Martin Luther in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century England

The Reception of Martin Luther in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century England

(p.63) 4 The Reception of Martin Luther in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century England
The Reception of Continental Reformation in Britain

Carl R. Trueman

Carrie Euler

British Academy

Abstract and Keywords

By challenging any assumed passivity in British adoption of continental reform, reception calls for a closer scrutiny of their relationships. The reception of Martin Luther in England reflects his changing role among continental Protestants. This chapter identifies how English reception of Luther shifted over time. Whereas the early English writer William Tyndale adapted Luther’s theological writing to speak to his own preoccupations, John Foxe was largely responsible for Elizabethan translations of Luther’s commentaries that provided pastoral guidance for afflicted consciences. Luther’s translations continued to speak to troubled consciences in the seventeenth century, yet English divines more often cited Luther as a symbol than as a source in the heated debates over justification in the mid-seventeenth century. The symbolic status of Luther in theological disputes, however, did not simply introduce the indiscriminate use of his example.

Keywords:   William Tyndale, theological writing, Martin Luther, John Foxe, continental Protestants

EXAMINING THE IMPACT OF MARTIN LUTHER in England during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is rendered somewhat frustrating by a number of complicating factors which the historian must acknowledge at the outset. First, as Alec Ryrie has clearly argued, the early evangelical movement in England was permeated with Luther’s texts, and the leading Reformers all exhibited textual dependence upon his writings.1 When we get beyond the immediate literary reception of Luther’s works in the writings of early Reformers prior to Edward VI, we are faced with a situation where so many doctrinal points which were distinctive of Luther before, say, 1530, rapidly become stock-in-trade categories of magisterial Protestantism in a way that makes the direct, or prior, literary influence of Luther impossible to establish with precision or certainty.2

In addition, the changing polemical and pedagogical climate did not simply shape the way Luther was appropriated; arguably, these changes made Luther’s actual theological writings less and less useful. Thus, on the key issue of justification, the seventeenth-century debates at, for example, the Westminster Assembly, tended to focus on issues which involved sophisticated distinctions such as that between Christ’s active and passive righteousness, an issue to which Luther’s writings did not speak directly. Hence, on the crucial issue of the nature of human will in salvation, seventeenth-century British divines, Reformed and Arminian, tended to look to late medieval Dominican paradigms and Renaissance Catholic (p.64) writings of Jesuits and Jansenists to provide them with a sophisticated and nuanced conceptual vocabulary by which to carry the polemical discussion forward. In this context, while the basic conclusion of Luther’s De Servo Arbitrio would no doubt have met with approval, its argumentation and exegesis would have appeared to have all the subtlety of a sledgehammer.


We find significant direct use of Luther’s writings in the early English Reformation in the works of William Tyndale and Robert Barnes.3 Indeed, with regard to Tyndale, the so-called Cologne Fragment (1525) is in part a translation of sections of Luther’s 1522 preface to the New Testament, while his Prologue to Romans (1526) is based upon Luther’s 1522 introduction to Romans. What is significant in each of these works is not that Tyndale translates passages from Luther, but that he quite distinctly modifies them in a manner which ends up using Luther as a means to express a theology which is quite distinct from that of the German original. Certainly the typically Lutheran categories of law and gospel, and of justification by faith are present; but whereas these were once identified by scholars as simply indicating that Tyndale was transmitting Wittenberg theology into an English context, a careful reading indicates that he was rather transforming such in an English context. Thus, the antithesis between law and gospel of the Lutheran originals is ameliorated by Tyndale through an emphasis on liberation from sin and moral transformation as the core of salvation. The result is a theology where imputation plays little role, where the accent falls on the subjective work of the Holy Spirit in the believer, and where the law–gospel dialectic only appears to play a Lutheran role in the individual prior to faith.4

(p.65) The evidential base for explaining the reason for this transformation of Luther’s theology by Tyndale is somewhat narrow. While there are established connections between Tyndale and Lollard texts, the notion that his Reformation theology is driven by Lollard themes, or that Lollardy prepared the ground for his reception of Reformation theology seems to go beyond what the evidence really allows. Yet the argument that Tyndale’s life prior to 1524 is irrelevant to interpreting his theology is clearly wrong-headed, as if early education and attendance at university can have had no impact on his thinking. The thesis here remains one that sees Tyndale’s concerns as being initially those of an Erasmian humanist; and his turning to a more definitively Protestant position only when disillusioned with the Erasmian programme, as symbolised for him by the failure of Bishop Tunstall to support a vernacular Bible translation. Thus his reception of Luther is shaped by an established theological grid which misses the radical dimensions of Luther’s understanding of the cross and of justification in favour of a notion of salvation which accents moral transformation. That he forgets the details of how he decided to seek Tunstal’s patronage is surely significant: Tyndale does tell his readers that he approached the bishop to seek sponsorship for a vernacular Bible because of Erasmus’s praise of him in his Annotations; in fact, no such praise occurs in the Annotations until 1527, although Erasmus does praise Tunstal in a letter of 1517. Nevertheless, the significance of Tyndale’s faulty recollection is surely that his own broad memory of his motivation for vernacular translation is that it was in part the result of the impact of Erasmus on his early life. This would seem to be at least as plausible, if not much more so, than speculation about early Lollard convictions as providing his grid for reading Luther.5

Turning to Robert Barnes, we again find a careful reader and user of Luther, but this time not simply for the way in which he adapts Wittenberg soteriology even as he seeks to articulate it; it is also because on the one really distinctive Lutheran doctrine of the 1530s and beyond, the Christological issues surrounding the Lord’s Supper, Barnes would appear to be the one really significant advocate of Luther’s position, even to the point of colluding with the authorities in the persecution of other Protestants.

(p.66) Thus, in Barnes’s two editions of his Supplication, we find typical Lutheran commonplaces expounded and discussed; yet we also find significant changes in emphasis from the thought of his German mentor. There is little stress on the death of Christ, no developed theology of the cross in any Lutheran sense, and, as with Tyndale, the language of double justification, used by Barnes to explain the argument of the Book of James in a manner which safeguards its place within the canon. Indeed, while he does not use the terminology of double justification to express the relationship between outward works and inward justification until 1534, the basic structure and content of the idea is clearly there in 1531.

Once again, this raises the question of why the change from Luther. When one looks at Barnes’s account of his famous sermon at St Edward’s which, tradition has it, triggered the theological Reformation in England, the question of his Reformation convictions in 1525 is somewhat perplexing, given that, by his own account, the articles drawn up against him do not seem to be particularly radical in a Lutheran sense but rather indicate that it was a perceived practical programme of reform which he was proposing and which had disturbed the authorities. Indeed, few of the articles are directly theological; most focus either on abuses of church power, on ecclesiastical hypocrisy and on pastoral abuses. There are appeals for liturgical reform and a change in attitude to holy days, but, if Lutheran at all, they are so only in the weakest sense. In other words, Barnes, like Tyndale, seems to have come to Reformation convictions through a vision of Erasmian-style reform which he ultimately found to be too weak to achieve the necessary results. This would seem to be one factor in his transformation of soteriological emphases as he appropriates Luther’s thought.

The other factor is his evident interest in patristics. His earliest work, published in Wittenberg in 1530, is an attempt to defend Reformation doctrine through recourse to patristic sources; and, when it comes to the Book of James, his deployment of arguments from Augustine indicates the impact, or at least the attraction, of Augustinian arguments regarding the book’s theology and canonicity.

Yet the most interesting thing about Barnes is not so much his differences from Luther on soteriological matters as his militant identity with him on the Lord’s Supper. In a letter to the imprisoned John Frith in 1533, Tyndale gives his younger colleague the following warning: ‘Of the presence of Christ in the sacrament, meddle as little as you can, that there appear no division among us. Barnes will be hot against you. The Saxons be sore on the affirmative; whether constant or obstinate, I remit (p.67) to God.’6 It has been argued that Barnes shifted his eucharistic theology in a more Reformed direction, but this is based upon the assumption that his theology of justification shifted in parallel way between 1531 and 1534, a point which is incorrect and which, if true, would, of course, have made Tyndale’s comments either wrongheaded or evidence of a very late shift in Barnes’s thinking in late 1533 or early 1534. In his attitude to justification, as, interestingly enough, in that to images, Barnes is arguably more akin to Reformed thinking from at least 1531 onwards.

Evidence for his Lutheran attitude to the Supper from within the two Supplications is also equivocal, as the section on communion does not appear to depend upon a Lutheran original and simply makes the point that both elements should be received by the laity. This is hardly unique to Lutheranism, and the absence of any Christological discussion even after the continental controversies of the 1520s means the evidential basis for arguing Barnes’s Lutheranism on the basis of these texts is virtually non-existent.

There are, however, two decisive pieces of evidence for Barnes’s Lutheran view of the sacrament. First, Barnes apparently wrote a letter to Thomas More, objecting to the latter’s characterisation of him as a Zwinglian in his Confutation of Tyndale’s Answer.7 More took the opportunity to bait English Protestants with this letter in his 1533 Letter against Frith.8 Second, Barnes matriculated at Wittenberg under the pseudonym ‘Antonius Anglius’. Wittenberg was hardly the university of choice for a committed Zwinglian by this point in time. Third, in 1538, according to John Foxe, Barnes helped to bring John Lambert, a critic of the doctrine of the Real Presence, before Thomas Cranmer and hence, in November of that year, to the stake. That a Zwinglian would have been proactively involved in the persecution of Lambert surely defies belief; Barnes must have been an advocate of something approaching the Lutheran doctrine of the Lord’s Supper.

Between them, Tyndale and Barnes demonstrate that, even in the earliest phase of the English Reformation, the appropriation of Lutheran (p.68) texts by leading Protestant thinkers was eclectic and involved a certain transformation of Lutheran emphases. Subsequently, as the distinctive Lutheran understanding of the Lord’s Supper failed to gain any official sanction in the English church, and as other Lutheran doctrines, such as justification by faith, became commonplaces of magisterial Protestant theology, tracing the reception of Luther in England becomes more tricky. While the influence of Melanchthon is clear in Patrick’s Places and his fingerprints can be discerned on writings of church leaders as diverse as Thomas Cranmer and John Hooper, the kind of direct textual dependence on Lutheran originals which we find in Tyndale and Barnes disappears.


Nevertheless, Luther’s works continued to be translated into English and to be republished throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, though there is an inevitable decline in the numbers of such publications in the latter two-thirds of the seventeenth century. Justification by faith and the spiritual consolation it brings were the dominant themes of the Elizabethan translations, including a series of translations in the 1570s connected with John Foxe. Twelve new translations appeared during Elizabeth’s reign, ten between the years 1570 and 1581. Eleven of these twelve mentioned some form of the words ‘comfort’ or ‘consolation’ in their titles or prefaces, and five focused specifically on the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Elizabethan translators used justification in part as a polemical weapon against Catholicism, but mostly they employed it as a devotional principle, a way to offer comfort and consolation to Christians concerned for their salvation.

In emphasising this aspect of Luther’s doctrine, the English seized on a very real and important element in Lutheran theology. Luther himself experienced intense spiritual anxiety, or Anfechtung, followed by relief when he finally realised that St Paul had been describing salvation by faith alone. This reveals that despite the fact that, at least after 1545, the majority of leading English evangelicals were in greater sympathy with the beliefs and practices of the Reformed churches of Germany and Switzerland—John Foxe being one example—Lutheranism played a important role in the formation of English Protestant spirituality. Thus, G. R. Elton was right when he asserted—in one of the few articles that has been written on the subject of English translations of Luther—that (p.69) to Foxe, Luther was ‘the great pastor’.9 Elton wrote this article in German, so the word was Seelsorger, literally ‘caretaker of souls’. This is appropriate; Luther’s pastoralism is less the practical, day-to-day version found in texts of Reformed authors than a more spiritual, devotional version.10

The man most responsible for these Elizabethan translations was John Foxe. Early in his career, Foxe seems to have been drawn to Luther’s writings for spiritual comfort. During the reign of Edward VI, the young Foxe translated A frutefull sermon of the moost evangelicall wryter M. Luther, made of the aungelles. In his preface, Foxe declared all of Luther’s writings to be ‘very expedyent and also necessary in Chrystes churche, bothe for the moste swete consolacions in them conteyned, & farther for openynge of many mysteryes, moche convenyent to be knowen of every christen man’.11 More importantly, Foxe was involved in the production of at least three, possibly five, of the Elizabethan translations of the 1570s, and these translations reveal that what Foxe deemed to be most consoling about Luther’s writings was his doctrine of justification by faith. Whether Foxe was the reason behind or representative of the heightened concern for justification and spiritual comfort in the Elizabethan period is a difficult question; most likely, the answer is that he was both.

The most famous of the Foxe translations was the 1575 English edition of Luther’s commentary on Paul’s epistle to the Galatians, which went through four editions between 1575 and 1588, making it the most popular of all the Tudor translations of Luther.12 The work was carried out by a team of translators, headed by Foxe himself.13 In his brief commendation at the beginning of the volume, Bishop Edwin Sandys of London described Luther’s Galatians as ‘a treatise most comfortable to all afflicted consciences exercised in the Scole of Christ’.14 Similarly, Foxe (p.70) addressed his preface ‘To all afflicted consciences which grone for salvation and wrestle under the crosse for the kingdome of Christ’.15 The subject matter of this commentary was Luther’s doctrine of justification. Luther defined and described at length the two kinds of righteousness: the more important passive or imputed righteousness that comes from God, which is followed by an active, works righteousness.

Special and Chosen Sermons of D. Martin Luther (1578) was a collection of thirty-four sermons translated from Latin by William Gace, a colleague of Foxe’s.16 The sermons ranged widely in subject matter. There were some that discussed a specific theological issue, such as ‘concerning Good Workes and the Fruites of Faith’, and some that focused on a certain story in the Bible, such as that ‘concerning the Bidding of Guests to the great supper’. Two of the thirty-four, numbers ten and seventeen, dealt directly with justification by faith. Several others, such as the aforementioned sermon on good works and another on the difference between the law and the gospel, touched in some way on justification. Gace and Foxe, who wrote the ‘Admonition to the Christian Reader’, both seem to have recognised that the sermons conveyed more than Luther’s doctrine of justification, but their words suggest a desire to slant the content of the collection in a soteriological direction. After rehearsing several different topics of spiritual comfort to be found in the sermons, Gace placed his emphasis firmly on the issue of salvation:

Now for asmuch as these thinges, and the right meanes to attaine unto them, are in these Sermons of that most learned Divine Martin Luther most learnedly, yea euen divinely set forth, they may undoutedly be a singular meane, not onely to instruct them which be ignorant in matters of salvation, but also to increase and confirme the knowledge of such, as have already well profited in Christian religion.17

A Treatise, Touching the Libertie of a Christian is a translation of Luther’s seminal treatise on justification and works, On Christian Liberty. Luther wrote the treatise in German in 1520; it was immediately translated and published in Latin as well, and yet it did not appear in print in English until 1579. The English translator was a courtier by the name of James Bell. Bell was most famous for his narrative account of a visit by a (p.71) Swedish princess to England, but among his other literary achievements are a couple of translations of Latin works by John Foxe. Once again there is a possible connection between Foxe and a 1570s Luther translation. The connection is a bit puzzling, however, because of the somewhat jaunty attitude that Bell exhibited in his dedication of the work to the Countess of Warwick. Although Bell praised the ‘ghostly consolation’ to be found in Luther’s treatise, the general tone of his dedication was rather flighty, very different from the seriousness of most of the translations. He prattled on about the royal court being a welcoming place for foreigners, or ‘Strangers’, and so he concluded that ‘this Straunger so godly [meaning Luther], so zealous, so learned, should be both easily accepted, and gently enterteyned’.18

Elton argues that the popularity of Luther’s works in the 1570s was an attempt to check the ‘overwhelming influence of Calvin’ in England. This statement comes as surprising; John Foxe has always been viewed as a man closer to Calvin and Geneva than to Wittenberg in his theological sympathies. It is unlikely that Foxe or his collaborators intended to put a spoke in the wheel of John Calvin or of ‘Calvinism’ as an indispensable part of the infrastructure of Elizabethan Protestantism. Nevertheless, it is the case that Luther’s doctrine of justification was a way of comforting afflicted souls without mentioning predestination or the problem of assurance of salvation. What John Stachniewski chose to call The Persecutory Imagination19 was a disease which afflicted some devout Protestants, who, based on the doctrine of predestination, came to doubt that they could or would be saved. How many were afflicted or how typical the experience was we could never say. Yet, anecdotally, we do know about Mistress Mary Honeywood, a formidable Protestant matriarch, who famously dashed a Venice glass to the floor, saying that she was as sure to be damned as the glass was to be broken. But a miracle happened: the glass rebounded intact.20 We also know that Foxe was not just the author of The Book of Martyrs but a spiritual practitioner who had pastoral and quasi-clinical experience of such cases.21 It is unlikely (p.72) that that experience had nothing to do with the Luther translations of the 1570s.


When we turn to the seventeenth century, the issue of the reception of Luther in England was significantly muted compared to that of other continental Reformers such as Calvin, Beza and Bullinger; yet this in itself is not unique to England but something that is actually typical of Europe as a whole. Robert Kolb has shown in impressive detail that, within the context of Lutheranism itself, Luther’s status changed rapidly in the later sixteenth century from that of a source of prophetic and oracular wisdom to that of a symbolic, albeit powerful, figure whose written works were not in themselves peculiarly useful or authoritative.22

In part, this was the result of polemical developments and struggles which took place after Luther’s own death, when his legacy was a point at issue and when putative elaborations or developments of his theology by Phillipists and Gnesio-Lutherans competed with each other for the title of true heir. In addition, pedagogical and intellectual developments meant that his works, while still perhaps inspiring at a pastoral level, no longer met the exacting linguistic or conceptual criteria which applied in the seventeenth century. And if Luther’s theological writings suffered eclipse in almost every way but the symbolic in seventeenth-century Lutheranism, it is hardly surprising that this was even more true in the Church of England, where he had never enjoyed widespread influence on those key areas of Lutheran distinctiveness, such as the Lord’s Supper and the communication of properties in the Incarnation.

On the more generic Protestant issue of justification by faith, the Foxe-Sandys edition of the Commentary on Galatians, was published three more times in the seventeenth century, for a total of seven editions between 1575 and 1644. Of course, reception of Luther’s thought is not dependent upon such translations, given the obvious fact that the ecclesiastical intelligentsia would have had access to the original languages. Nevertheless, the frequency of republication would seem to indicate that the work continued to enjoy popularity, a point which is surely related to the polemical context. Given the increasingly contentious nature of (p.73) English discussions about divine grace and human salvation during this period, it would seem plausible to assume that Luther’s commentary functioned as a standard text on the issue of justification, and that this was in part because of the significant symbolic stature of Luther himself.

One might also add that the oft-reprinted introduction by Sandys makes a clear connection between Luther’s doctrine of justification and Christian experience which underlines the fact that the commentary stands in continuity with the earlier English interest in Lutheran theology as pastoral theology, while also making explicit the experiential dimensions of his life and work:

[This is ] a Treatise most comfortable to all afflicted consciences exercised in the Schoole of Christ. The Author felt what he spake, and had experience of what he wrote; and therefore able more lively to expresse both the assaults and the salving, the order of the battell, and the means of the victory.

In this context, it would seem legitimate to infer that the experiential dimension of Calvinistic English Protestantism in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries presumably struck a chord with the experiential language which Sandys uses in his introduction, and with the way in which Luther connected the sharp law–gospel antithesis to Christian experience in the second Galatians commentary. This would prove significant for the development of popular English Protestantism in the hands of none other than John Bunyan.

Early in his somewhat rambling autobiography, Grace Abounding, Bunyan describes how he longed to read about the experience of earlier, godly Christians, and the book which came into his hands was none other than Luther on Galatians. He continues:

I found my condition in his experience, so largely and profoundly handled, as if his Book had been written out of my heart; this made me marvel: for thus thought I, this man could not know anything of the state of Christians now…[H]e doth most gravely also, in that book debate of the rise of these temptations, Blasphemy, Desperation, and the like, shewing that that the law of Moses, as well as the devil, Death, and Hell, hath a very great hand therein…I do prefer this book of Mr Luther upon the Galatians (excepting the Holy Bible) before all the books that ever I have seen, as most fit for a wounded conscience.23

Not only does Bunyan here stand as a representative of the kind of pastoral reception of Luther which sees him as a source of comfort for troubled consciences; but, given the impact of Grace Abounding on subsequent evangelical conversion narratives, it is arguable that his appropriation of (p.74) Luther is one of the most influential receptions and transformations of Lutheran theology in Christian literature. The stark law–gospel antithesis of the Galatians commentary, with its description of the Christian life as a seesaw between faith and despair, is seen by Bunyan as giving a coherent account of the agonies of conversion and the quest for assurance. Such an appropriation of Luther requires some selectivity, given the sacramental dimension of his theology, not least his understanding of justification and of the Christian life. Thus, it would be wrong to read Luther as a conversionist in the strong sense which one finds in the works of Bunyan. Luther, after all, saw baptism as playing a most significant role in the inauguration of the Christian life, as epitomised in his customary response to the temptations of the Devil; and the eucharist was central in his thinking both on the nature of faith, assurance, and pastoral comfort, none of which is true of Bunyan or later evangelical non-conformity, for that matter. Instead, Bunyan stands as part of a tradition of English appropriation of Luther as comforter of sensitive consciences, now connected to narratives of conversion. Thus, the appropriation of experiential dimensions of Luther’s doctrine of justification helped to forge one of the basic paradigms of future evangelical conversion narratives, where despair under the law was followed by joyous assurance under the gospel, with the two being construed as chronological and consecutive. Thus, Luther was appropriated by Puritan conversionist piety.

In the context of discussions about justification in the seventeenth century, it is important to note that such were not simply shaped by anti-Roman polemic and by the straightforward party divisions which Luther’s insistence on faith alone had generated in the early Reformation. By the seventeenth century, technical discussions of justification were also profoundly impacted by conflicting developments within the broad Reformed stream which English mainstream church life reflected. Thus, the nature of the connection between grace and faith, as well as increasingly rarefied debates about imputation (was it of Christ’s passive or whole obedience? Was his death on the cross an identical payment or an equivalent payment for sin?) meant that texts such as Luther’s Galatians commentary were of limited positive use on many aspects of the theological details of current controversy while the central catechetical point—that justification was by faith and by imputation, not impartation—was none the less something which Luther could still be used to establish. Thus, the reception of Luther in English debates on justification is interesting. At one level, he is seen as a historical watershed, the man who recovered the true gospel after centuries in which it had been buried under (p.75) rituals and self-righteousness. Thus, a man such as John Owen will use Luther in his own treatise on justification as a symbol of the foundational importance of the doctrine, while yet building very little of his actual argument on Luther’s own exegetical or theological work.24 Luther’s iconic status as the proponent of justification by faith was important, even as his exegesis faded from view. Indeed, it was typical for English Protestants in the seventeenth century to vindicate him from novelty as part of their own assertion of the Protestant doctrine. Thus, Ralph Hollingworth argued in great detail for the consensus of patristic and Protestant testimony on the doctrine, identifying Luther as the central personality on the issue.25 One might conclude from all this that, while Luther’s theology was of limited use in the detail of debate on justification in the seventeenth century, he loomed large as a symbol, and the need to identify with him, and vindicate him, even among Reformed Protestants, remained strong.

Indeed, even as Protestants themselves fell out about the details of justification by imputation, details upon which Luther himself never opined, the debates often involved discussion of who exactly was entitled to claim his mantle and present themselves as true guardians of the legacy. This was particularly the case in the struggles which took place in the mid-seventeenth century over the nature of justification, saving faith and the relationship of works to assurance. Analysis of the debates is complicated by the fact that the categories of discussion—antinomian and neonomian—are pejorative, polemical terms which tended to be applied by theologians to those with whom they disagreed rather than who belonged to a formal theological party. Yet it is clearly the case that in debates in the 1640s and 1650s about the role of the law in the life of the Christian believer, Luther came to play a prominent role, with his writings being cited by all sides as evidence that, had he lived, he would have supported them. In The Marrow of Modern Divinity, a text commended in its preface by Joseph Caryl, a member of the Westminster (p.76) Assembly, and thus arguably representative of the British Reformed mainstream in the 1640s, Luther is one significant source of quotations on matters pertaining to the relationship of law and gospel.26 In more radical vein, a theologian such as John Eaton could quote Luther, ‘that Hercules of Gods glory’,27 extensively in his writings in order to establish what his opponents decried as a radically antinomian position and, indeed, concluded his greatest work with a catena of Luther quotations, joined by a running commentary provided by himself.28 David Como goes as far as to suggest that the claim to Luther’s legacy became ‘almost axiomatic within antinomian circles’.29 The result was that, in the course of polemic, a theologian such as the Scottish Presbyterian, Samuel Rutherford, was required to spend much time exonerating Luther from charges of antinomianism when attacking contemporary antinomians such as Eaton, John Saltmarsh and Tobias Crisp in order to establish his own theological trajectory as legitimate. Whoever could claim Luther, could clearly claim to stand in the line of true Protestantism.30 Underlying the role of Lutheran texts in such polemic is the assumption by both sides that his theology of justification represents something of a norm for Protestants and that any legitimate Protestant must therefore claim him as an intellectual antecedent.

This use of Luther in debates about the relationship of law and gospel quite possibly impacts two other thinkers in their construction of law and gospel in the context of the rising influence of Anglican moralism and Baxterian notions of justification in post-Restoration England. Theologically speaking, moralism, while diverse in its various manifestations, involved a blurring of the law–gospel antithesis which was so central to Luther and later Gnesio-Lutheranism. Thus, we find John Owen, in his commentary on Hebrews, breaking with the mainstream of confessional (p.77) Reformed thought on the Sinaitic covenant by arguing that it represent a recasting of the covenant of works made in the Garden of Eden with Adam.31

Typical Reformed thought since Calvin had regarded the Decalogue as primarily concerned with providing a moral code by which the people of Israel, redeemed from Egypt, should order their lives; and, under the new church dispensation, the Decalogue functioned as moral guide for Christian.32 This is expressed in the Westminster Confession (1647), chapters 16 and especially 19; and the teaching of a Puritan such as Thomas Watson on this point is unexceptionable. He accents the fact that the Decalogue was given to the children of Israel in the context of God’s deliverance of them from Egypt. As redeemed people, they thus follow the Decalogue as means of moral response to God, out of gratitude for his salvation and in order to effect their sanctification; then, given the typological relationship of the exodus to the salvation wrought in Christ, the Decalogue continues to function in the church age as a guide to the new Israel, the Christian church. Watson even goes so far as to see this as having national implications as well: as the children of Israel were rescued from an idolatrous nation, so England too has been delivered from idolatry, the implication being the English church needs to heed the Second Commandment.33

In his commentary on Hebrews, however, John Owen emphasises not so much the gracious giving of the Decalogue on Sinai but rather the terrifying concomitants of the event. Using specifically the account in Deuteronomy, he points to the thunder and lightning which terrifies the children of Israel with the result that they ask Moses to be a mediator for them with God.34 In other words, the law drives them to a Christ figure, and thus the kind of law–gospel antithesis one finds in Luther is reinstated by Owen in the context of combating moralism in the 1660s and 1670s. This is not a distinctively Reformed position; rather it is distinctively (p.78) Lutheran and it serves the theological and polemical purpose of protecting Protestant theology, specifically Reformed theology, from the dangerous inroads of works-righteousness.

The same phenomenon can be noted in a more elegant literary form in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. In the second edition of the book, Bunyan adds the famous incident between the Slough of Despond and the encounter with Evangelist where Christian is advised by Worldly Wiseman to make his way to the town of Morality; on the way, he wanders up Mount Sinai. Here is how Bunyan describes the scene:

It seemed so high, and also the side of it that was next the way side, did hang so much over, that Christian was afraid to venture further, lest the Hill should fall on his head: Wherefore he stood still, and he wot not what to do. Also his burden, now, seemed heavier to him, than while he was in the way.35

The narrative position of the story as lying before Christian’s conversion at the cross, the association of Sinai and the law with Worldly Wiseman, the town of Morality, and the House of Legality, all cast the law in a negative light. In addition, the increase in the weight of Christian’s burden on Sinai, contrasted with the loss of the burden entirely on the hill of Calvary at the foot of the cross, indicates once again a typically Lutheran antithesis of law and gospel, set within the conversionist framework of English Puritan spirituality. Luther may not be quoted, but one of his most basic and distinctive concept, the law–gospel antithesis, is unmistakably present. Whether Bunyan’s addition of this scene in the second edition is a reaction against a perceived rising tide of religious moralism is a matter for speculation, but this would certainly seem plausible as part of an explanation.

One final point of note in the English reception of Luther is his usefulness as an authority in polemic across the party divisions of the seventeenth century. We have already noted that, in the 1640s, he was an iconic figure in debates about justification. Yet he was also cited in other matters of controversy, and was still significant even for those who were not among the hotter sorts of Protestants. Thus, in 1643, an anonymous pamphlet against the Parliamentary stance towards the king was published, entitled, Davids three mighties, or, Sovereignties three champions, being the three prime reformers of the protestant religion, Luther, Calvin, Tindal (London, 1643). Here, Luther the Protestant hero was used as a witness against the kind of political radicalism which the anonymous author saw (p.79) as driving Parliament. Then, in 1660, one George Pressick published his A breife relation, of some of the most remarkable pasages of the Anabaptists in high and low Germany in the year, 1521 (London, 1660), which consisted in significant parts in recapitulating Luther’s description of Anabaptist and radical excess as a means of warning against religious fanaticism, presumably a hot topic in the England that year. Again, the Protestant hero was wheeled out as a club with which to beat the more radical Protestant elements.

In this context, surely one of the most fascinating explicit uses of Luther is also one of the last. In 1679, in the highly charged anti-Catholic environment of the year of the Popish Plot, a brief pamphlet entitled Dr Martin Luthers prophecies of the destruction of Rome was published in London, in Edinburgh and in Dublin.36 Indeed, 1679 was something of a vintage year for English use of Luther in anti-Roman polemic as it also witnessed the publication of a translation of a work of Erasmus Alber on the Franciscans, which included his correspondence with Dr Martin.37 Luther’s eschatological role in English thought was nothing new: John Frith’s Pistle to the Christen Reader (1529) contained a translation of Luther’s Concerning Anti-Christ (1521); in 1661 a sermon by Luther on the Second Coming was published in English; and then, in 1664, a collection of his prophecies about the downfall of Rome had been collected, translated and published by one R. C.38 What is fascinating about the 1679 pamphlet, however, is that it was actually a composite volume which (p.80) bound some of Luther’s eschatological musings together with those of Michael Nostradamus, the physician, astrologer and self-proclaimed prophet. It might be tempting to read this as a good example of how blurred the lines were between conventional prophetic speculation based upon biblical exegesis, and more arcane arts, or between science and magic, and this may in part be the case; but when the pamphlet is read, the Nostradamus prophecies are referred by the editor not to the downfall of the Roman Antichrist but to the execution of Charles I ‘of blessed memory’ as the result of a nefarious conspiracy. In other words, Luther provides the anti-Roman polemic, and, no doubt, the iconic historical, theological and ecclesiastical authority, while Nostradamus’s prophecy provides a nice touch whereby the whole anti-Catholic text can yet look rather pro-Stuart in sympathies. The Wittenberg Reformer and the French mystic make strange bedfellows, to be sure, but also provide a classic example of how flexible was the reception and use of their work in the seventeenth century.

On the issue of salvation, Luther undoubtedly exerted a powerful influence on English theologians in making the notion of justification by faith a centrepiece of the Protestant faith. Ironically, Luther’s major works on justification, principally his commentary on Galatians, only make it into English editions as part of an ongoing concern to use Luther as a source of pastoral comfort, and at the very point in time when Protestant theology is set to become more elaborate within the university context and in light both of post-Tridentine Catholic retrenchment and the complexity generated by internecine Protestant theological and ecclesiastical struggles. In such a context, Luther’s work appears to have been of more interest for its pastoral implications; and certainly it seems to have played a role less as a source and more as a powerful symbol in seventeenth-century discussions. The two major exceptions to this are the extensive use of his material made by the so-called antinomians in the 1630s and 1640s, and the restoration of a strong law–gospel antithesis by thinkers such as Owen and Bunyan in the Restoration period. Both can be seen as times when Luther became useful as means of combating perceived moralism; but the tenacity with which all Protestants held to Luther’s legacy at this point demonstrates his iconic importance to such debates. Other uses of Luther in the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries—as watershed historical figure, as authority on radicals, as political thinker, as apocalyptic prophet—seem to confirm his status as a hero and a figure of symbolic power rather than as a specific source of doctrinal or exegetical wisdom; and, as such a symbolic figure, he seems (p.81) to have been happily appropriated by a range of Protestants across the various parties which populated seventeenth-century England. One could almost say that, in his death, Luther achieved a Protestant ecumenicity which he never managed during his lifetime.


(1) Alec Ryrie, ‘The Strange Death of Lutheran England’, JEH, 53 (2002): 64–92, 66.

(2) Thus, the law–gospel dialectic, the punctiliar, declaratory understanding of justification, and the identification of the Pope as the eschatological antichrist are all standard elements of Protestantism as it heads towards the era of confessional definition of the 1560s and beyond.

(3) On the origins of English Reformation thought, see the various interpretations offered by: John K. Yost, ‘The Christian Humanism of the English Reformers, 1525–1555: A Study in English Renaissance Humanism’ (PhD thesis, Duke University, 1965); William A. Clebsch, England’s Earliest Protestants 1520–35 (Yale: Yale University Press, 1964); E. G. Rupp, Studies in the Making of the English Protestant Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1949); Carl R. Trueman, Luther’s Legacy: Salvation and English Reformers, 1525–1556 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994). On the life of Tyndale, see David Daniell, William Tyndale: A Biography (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994); on Barnes, see J. P. Lusardi, ‘The Career of Robert Barnes’, in L. A. Schuster (ed.), The Complete Works of St. Thomas More, vol. 8 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1973), pp. 1365–415.

(4) The detailed argument can be found in Trueman, Luther’s Legacy, pp. 84–120, pace Clebsch, who sees the early Tyndale as straightforwardly Lutheran, and shifting towards a more Reformed position only in the later 1520s.

(5) For a full statement of the argument for Lollard influence on Tyndale, see Donald Dean Smeeton, Lollard Themes in the Reformation Theology of William Tyndale (Kirksville, MO: Sixteenth Century Journal Publishers, 1987).

(6) The text of the letter is in N. T. Wright (ed.), The Work of John Frith (Appleford: Courtenay Reformation Classics, 1978), p. 493. For a discussion of Barnes’s Eucharistic theology, see Carl R. Trueman, ‘“The Saxons Be Sore on the Affirmative”: Robert Barnes on the Lord’s Supper’, in W. P. Stephens, The Bible, the Reformation and the Church (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995), pp. 290–307.

(7) For the accusation, see The Complete Works of St Thomas More, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1973), vol. 8, p. 302.

(8) See ibid., vol. 7, pp. 255–6.

(9) G. R. Elton, ‘Luther in England’, in Studies in Tudor and Stuart Politics and Government: Papers and Reviews (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974–1992), pp. 230–45.

(10) For English translations of works by Zurich authors, see Carrie Euler, Couriers of the Gospel: England and Zurich, 1531–1558 (Zurich: Theologischer Verlag Zurich, 2006).

(11) A frutefull sermon of the moost evangelicall wryter M. Luther, made of the aungelles, trans. John Foxe (London, 1548?), STC 16983, preface.

(12) Tyndale’s That faith the mother of all good workes justifieth us went through more editions, but this popularity was almost certainly due to Tyndale’s name, rather than Luther’s authorship. Luther’s name did not appear in any of the editions.

(13) Elizabeth Evenden and Thomas Freeman, Religion and the Book: The Making of Foxe’s ‘Book of Martyrs’ (Cambridge, forthcoming).

(14) A Commentarie of M. Doctor Martin Lvther vpon the Epistle of S. Paul to the Galathians, trans. John Foxe, et al. (London, 1575), STC 16965, sig. *ijr.

(15) A Commentarie of M. Doctor Martin Lvther vpon the Epistle of S. Paul to the Galathians, trans. John Foxe, et al. (London, 1575), STC 16965, sig. *iijr.

(16) Special and Chosen Sermons of D. Martin Luther, trans. William Gace (London, 1578), STC 16993.

(17) Ibid., sig. *v r.

(18) Martin Luther, A Treatise, Touching the Libertie of a Christian, trans. James Bell (London, 1579), STC 16996, sig. A3r.

(19) John Stachniewski, The Persecutory Imagination: English Puritanism and the Literature of Religious Despair (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991).

(20) Patrick Collinson, Godly People: Essays on English Protestantism and Puritanism (London: Hambledon Press, 1983), p. 318.

(21) Thomas S. Freeman, ‘Through a Venice Glass Darkly: John Foxe’s Most Famous Miracle’, in Kate Cooper and Jeremy Gregory (eds), Signs, Wonders, Miracles: Representations of Divine Power in the Life of the Church (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2005).

(22) See Robert Kolb, Martin Luther as Prophet, Teacher, and Hero: Images of the Reformer, 1520–1620 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1999).

(23) Grace Abounding, ed. Roger Sharrock (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962).

(24) E.g., John Owen, Works, 24 vols (London: Johnstone and Hunter, 1850–55), v, p. 37, where he uses a 1516 letter of Luther to Spalatin to show how Luther’s understanding of atonement as it connected to justification was orthodox even prior to the Reformation, and represented the culmination of a tradition of teaching on this point from Justin Martyr to Augustine to Bernard to the Reformation; thus, he is a key link in establishing not simply the importance but also the catholicity of the doctrine. Then, on p. 67 of the same treatise, he uses Luther’s statement on the article of justification being that by which the church stands or falls. The symbolic power of Luther as an authority is clear.

(25) De iustificatione ex solâ fide patrum & Protestantium, consensus (Dublin, 1640).

(26) E. F., The Marrow of Modern Divinity (London, 1645). This book was itself the subject of a famous heresy trial in the Church of Scotland in the early eighteenth century, where its advocates were accused of antinomianism.

(27) John Eaton, The Honey-Combe of Free Justification by Christ Alone (London, 1642), 179. The title-page of this book carries a quotation from Luther on Gal. 2:11.

(28) Ibid., 462–84.

(29) See David R. Como, Blown by the Spirit: Puritanism and the Emergence of an Antinnomian Underground in Pre-Civil-War England (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004), pp. 185–6. Cf. the comment of Theodore Dwight Bozemann that the antinomian agitation of the 1630s constituted the first serious Luther Renaissance in an English-speaking Land’: The Precisianist Strain: Disciplinary Religion and Antinomian Backlash in Puritanism to 1638 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), pp. 197–8.

(30) A Survey of the Spiritual Anti-Christ (London, 1647).

(31) On this issue in general, see C. Fitz Simons Allison, The Rise of Moralism: The Proclamation of the Gospel from Hooker to Baxter (London: SPCK, 1966). On the thought and impact of Baxter in particular, see J. I. Packer, The Redemption and Restoration of Man in the Thought of Richard Baxter (Vancouver: Regent, 2003); Han Boersma, A Hot Peppercorn: Richard Baxter’s Doctrine of Justification in Its Seventeenth-Century Context of Controversy (Zoetermeer: Boekencentrum, 1992); Timothy Cooper, Fear and Polemic in Seventeenth Century England: Richard Baxter and Antinomianism (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001).

(32) E.g., Calvin, Institutes 2.7.12.

(33) See his introduction to the Decalogue in his commentary on the Westminster Shorter Catechism, A Body of Practical Divinity (London, 1692), pp. 242–72.

(34) Works, pp. 24, 311, 320.

(35) The Pilgrim’s Progress from this world to that which is to come (London, 1678), pp. 21–2.

(36) The full title reads: Dr. Martin Luther’s prophecies of the destruction of Rome and the dovvnfall of the Romish religion. And how the Papists for treachery and hypocrisie shall at last become hated, and contemned by all nations. Here are likewise some of the eminent prophecies of that most learned mathematician and prophet Michael Nostred’amus, concerning England and France, and those strange occurrences which are likely to happen to both those countries in these latter dayes, with an account of some of the prophecies of Michael Nostredamus which have been fulfilled here in England already. Licenced May the 7th. 1679.

(37) The Alcoran of the Franciscans, or, A sink of lyes and blasphemies collected out of a blasphemous book belonging to that order, called, The book of the conformities: with the epistles of Dr. Martin Luther, and Erasmus Alberus, detecting the same / formerly printed in Latine, and now made English, for the discovery of the blasphemies of the Franciscans, a considerable order of regulars amongst the papists (London, 1679).

(38) The signs of Christs coming, and of the last day being the substance of a very choice and excellent sermon, preached by…Martin Luther, upon Luke 21. ver. 25, 26 &c. to ver. 34 lately translated out of his Enarrations on the Gospels and writings of the Apostles, and other places of Scripture (London, 1661); The prophecyes of the incomparable Dr. Martin Luther concerning the downfall of the Pope of Rome, and the subversion of the German Empire, to be over-run by the armies of the Turks, together with the many reasons that he giveth for it : as also, the remarkable prophecy of the learned and reverend Mvscvlvs, to the same effect / collected by R.C. M.A. (London, 1664).