What Martin Luther Must Have Certainly Wanted to Say

Colloquia Oder Tischreden Doctor Martini Lutheri: so er in vilen Jaren, die Zeyt seines Lebens, gegen Gelehrten Leuthen, Auch frömbden Gesten und seinen Tischgesellen gefüret.

Published by Peter Schmidt (Frankfurt), 1567

 

If Catholic saints ever had competition, it was Martin Luther, the great reformer. In his lifetime alone some 560 paintings of him were made in the workshop of the famous painter Lucas Cranach. Today Martin Luther is probably the most painted figure in German history. Of course none of his followers of Protestant faith prayed to him, but then Catholics also claimed that they didn’t pray to their saints, only worship them.

The German Reformation became embodied in Luther, even though other reformers were no less influential for the Protestant faith. Philip Melanchthon, for instance, wrote not only the first systematic summary of the new faith but also the “Confessio Augustana”, the confession of faith that was accepted by a large majority of the German reformists. His writings became a authoritative text on what to believe as a Protestant.

The title page shows Luther, surrounded by his followers and other reformers, giving one of his famous speeches.

Not all theologians were happy about Melanchthon’s central role. A group among them, who called themselves the Gnesio-Lutherans, i.e. the “genuine” Lutherans, defended their teachings as the true teachings of Luther. Theologian Johannes Aurifaber (1519-1575) was one of them. He began gathering Luther’s unpublished writings, many of which were never intended for publication by the great reformer. Around 20 years after his death Aurifaber published numerous sermons, letters, and – with more than 20 editions the most successful of his works – the Table talk.

This book is based on more or less random notes of all the guests that were taking notes at Martin Luther’s table. Zwickau pastor Konrad Cordatus began taking notes in 1531. Soon others followed his example. This is how a number of unauthorized notes, some of them literal transcriptions, some of them summaries, came into circulation before Aurifaber published them – made them “comprehensible” by his own additions.

 

The gravestone of Aurifaber in the Preacher’s Church of Erfurt. Photo: Wolfgang Sauber / CC BY-SA 4.0.

From today’s perspective, doubts about the authenticity of the conversations so gathered are well in order. Let’s not forget that every visitor had his own agenda and is likely to have recorded precisely those of Luther’s words which supported what he wanted to believe all along. And these notes were once more edited by Aurifaber, an important Gnesio-Lutheran who had his own views on what Luther had wanted to say.

Still, Aurifaber had a long-lasting influence on our image of Luther. The first historical-critical edition of his table talk was published in 1883. In it the author is presented as a well-travelled writer with an agenda of his own, who doesn’t pay too much attention to sources. Good reason not to take the contents of the table talk all too literally.

Aurifaber drew an image of the great reformer as his followers would have loved to see him all too well: simple, down-to-earth, the family father at the dinner table, explicating his understanding of Christianity – and in such a way that everyone could understand him.