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Prelude on the Babylonian Captivity of the Church (October 1520) was the second of the three major treatises published by Martin Luther in 1520, coming after the Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation (August 1520) and before On the Freedom of a Christian (November 1520). It was a theological treatise, and as such was published in Latin as well as German, the language in which the treatises were published.



In this work Luther examines the seven sacraments of the medieval Church in the light of the Bible. With regard to the Eucharist, he advocated restoring the cup to the laity, dismissed the theory of Transubstantiation while affirming the real presence of the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist, and rejected the teaching that the Eucharist was a sacrifice offered to God.

With regard to Baptism, he taught that it brings justification only if conjoined with saving faith in the recipient; however, it remained the foundation of salvation even for those who might later fall[1] and be reclaimed.

As for penance, its essence consists in the words of promise (absolution) received by faith. Only these three can be regarded as sacraments because of their divine institution and the divine promises of salvation connected with them; but strictly speaking, only Baptism and the Eucharist are sacraments, since only they have "divinely instituted visible sign[s]": water in Baptism and bread and wine in the Eucharist.[2] Luther denied in this document that Confirmation, Matrimony, Holy Orders, and Extreme Unction were sacraments.

In this treatise, Luther regarded the first "captivity" to be withholding the cup in the Lord's Supper from the laity, the second the doctrine of transubstantiation, and the third, the Roman Catholic Church's teaching that the Mass was a sacrifice, rather than a spiritual communion with Jesus.[3]

The work is angry in tone, attacking the papacy. Although Luther had made a link tentatively in the address To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, this was the first time he forthrightly accused the pope of being the Antichrist. It certainly heralded a radicalisation of Luther's views — only a year before he had defended the validity of the sacraments, yet was now attacking them fiercely.

Although published in Latin, a translation of this work was quickly published in German by Luther’s opponent, the Strasbourg Franciscan Thomas Murner. He hoped that by making people aware of the radical nature of Luther’s beliefs, they would realise their foolishness in supporting him. In fact, the opposite proved true, and Murner’s translation helped to spread Luther’s views across Germany. The virulence of Luther's language however, was off-putting to some. After the publication of this work, with its harsh condemnation of the papacy, the renowned humanist Erasmus, who had previously been cautiously supportive of Luther's activities, became convinced that he should not support Luther's calls for reform.

Avignon papacy

The book's title is also a name given to the difficult period of the Avignon papacy, during the time of the Western Schism. The Catholic Church endured a prolonged period of crisis that lasted from 1305 until 1416. During these years, the Church found its authority undermined, openly challenged, and divided among rivals. Although it emerged at the end of the period with its authority seemingly intact, the struggle brought significant changes to the structure of the Church and sowed seeds that would later sprout in the Protestant Reformation.


  1. ^ Schaff-Herzog, "Luther, Martin," 71.
  2. ^ Schaff-Herzog, "Luther, Martin," 71.
  3. ^ Spitz, 338.

See also

Pelikan, Jaroslav and Lehmann, Helmut T, Luther’s Works, 55 vols, (Saint Louis, Philadelphia, 1955-76), Vol 36

External links

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