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What Did Jesus Say? (2012) - 7 topics 

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Carlstadt: Elevating Jesus Over Paul

In 1517, Andreas Bodenstein von Carlstadt (or Karlstadt) (1486-1541) and Luther began the Reformation together. (See bio by Beitenholz; see also "Carlstadt," Wikipedia.)

In fact, Carlstadt was as much or more of the Reformation's founder than Luther. This fact is obscured because of a later falling out between Carlstadt and Luther over their differences on issues like Paul. How Luther expelled Carlstadt and his followers from the Reform movement, see our webpage on those issues.

One of the key issues that divided these two men was Carlstadt's clear position in 1520 which held that Jesus's words hold supremacy over those of Paul's, and hence James's epistle is not to be dismissed as canon merely upon the fact it contradicts Paul.

This issue is discussed in detail in Charles Beard's Martin Luther and the Reformation in Germany (1889). Beard explains that Carlstadt's treatise De Canonicis Scripturis (Wittenb. 1520) divided the NT similar to how the Jews had divided the OT canon -- Law, Prophets and Writings. (For a graphic on how the OT was originally divided, go to this link.)

For the NT, Carlstadt made a parallel division: (1) the Gospel and Acts were of first rank; (2) the 16 Epistles comprising Paul and 1 John and 1 Peter were of second rank; and (3) Revelation, and the remaining epistles, including Hebrews were in third rank. (Bleek: 274.)

By doing so, Carlstadt placed Paul's words as inferior to Christ's words in the Gospels, just as in the Jewish canon every Prophet was viewed inferior to Moses's words in the Law. Beard explains:

"But his most remarkable position -- one which Luther would have fiercely contested -- ...is that the first [books of the NT] are to be preferred to that of the second....On this ground, the word of Paul is not to be put on a level with that of Christ." (Reprint 2009 at 278; 1896 edition at 401, quoting Carlstadt, De Canonicis Scripturis (ed. Credner) section 161)

Beard cited the Latin which supported this conclusion in which Carlstadt wrote:

Oportet enim servos dominis obsequi, atque sicut Spiritus Apostoli in came non fuit par vel major Domino, ita quoque pectus Paulinum sub literis non habet autoritatus tantundem, quantum habet Christus.

In translation, Carlstadt said:

It is necessary in fact to preserve obedience to the Lord, and as the Spirit of the Apostles is not a guide equal or greater than the Lord, thus also the heart of Paul within his letters does not have as much authority as has Christ.

Beard correctly understands Carlstadt's principle as meaning that Pauline doctrine could not thrive unless one could find the same message in Christ's words:

Plainly the adoption of Carlstadt's principle would have made it impossible for the Reformer to embrace a Pauline theology, except under the condition of finding it in the books of first and greatest authority, the Gospels themselves. Id., (1896) at 401.

And while Luther rejected James' epistle because it contradicted Paul, Carlstadt instead put James and Paul on the same level. Thus, neither could cancel the other out. Carlstadt's defense of James caused a "rift" between Luther and Carlstadt. (Beitenholz: 254.)

(Luther instead used subjective criteria, mainly derived from Paul's Gospel, to reject four NT books which are still recognized canon today, i.e., Revelation, James, Jude and Hebrews. Luther also dismissed Esther, Job, and Chronicles. See our page on Luther and canon.)

Beard incorrectly then concluded these points by Carlstadt had little influence upon the Reformation. Instead, they were highly influential. In fact, Luther had to use considerable influence and civil authorities to crush the Protestant movement in Germany under Carlstadt that shared this perspective. See our webpage on Luther's Crushing the JWO movement in the Reformation.

Schaff in History of the Christian Church (Scribner: 1888) , Volume 6 at 35 fn. 1, similarly summarized Carlstadt's book of 1520. Carlstadt put Moses and Jesus in first priority in canon, while the prophets and epistles regardless of authorship were in second tier:

In this distinction Carlstadt had preceded him in his book, De Canon. Scripturis (Wittenb. 1520, reprinted in Credner's Zar Gesch. des Kanons, 1847, p. 291— 412). Carlstadt divided the books of the canon into three ordines: (1) libri summae dignitatis (the Pentateuch...and the Gospels); (2) secundae dignitatis (the Prophets and 15 Epistles); (3) tertiae dignitatis (the Jewish Hagiographa and the seven Antilegomena of the New Testament).

One of the motivations of Carlstadt was he thought Luther too easily dismissed the book of James as not valid. If Paul is in first priority, the fact James contradicts Paul would require exclusion of James from canon, as Luther essentially did. If, however, Paul and James stood on the same second level of authority, then it was for the reader to determine which of the two was correct in light of first tier works such as the Torah and/or the words of Jesus.

It is clear that Carlstadt feared a salvation doctrine would arise that omitted Jesus's requirements of works/repentance besides faith. Specifically, on the issue of Luther's decision to exclude James, Carlstadt expressed the fear that faith alone without love would now reign as the gospel instead of what Jesus taught. Carlstadt wrote:

"I am grieved by the bold deprecation of James [by Luther].... Beware that you do not take a paper and loveless faith for the greatest work." (George H. Williams, The Radical Reformation (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1962) at 40, quoting Carlstadt Canonicis.)

Carlstadt's fear soon became reality as 'sola fide' without any works (love or otherwise) became Luther's rallying cry.

Ironically, Luther later realized this was a mistake to teach as the path for salvation for a Christian. From 1530 onward, Luther, Bucer and Melancthon tried to restore Jesus' doctrine in the 'double justification' movement. By 1541, their efforts almost bore fruit. Then after Luther's death in 1546, Melancthon made double justification official Lutheran doctrine. However, after Melancthon's death, in 1580 Lutheranism reverted back to Luther's young ideas, and officially made 'faith alone' the means of salvation for both the non-believer and the Christian. For a detailed history of the 'faith alone' fiasco in the Reformation and Luther's ultimately unsuccessful effort to reverse himself by the 'double-justification' solution, see our [1] Preface to Jesus Words on Salvation and [2] our article "George Major and Melancthon."


Carlstadt aka Karlstadt believed that his view of salvation requiring obedience/works was still consistent with justification by faith, and not the deeds of the law. His idea was very similar to the double-justification solution that Luther, Melancthon and Bucer pushed in the ecumenical conference of 1541. Carlstadt said that once the Spirit was reborn by faith, it is now free to do righteousness, and hence the spirit, and not the will unaided, will produce righteousness that justifies the man. See Ronald J. Sider, Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt: the development of his thought, 1517-1525 (Brill, 1974) at 31.

Carlstadt's book Canonicis Scripturis was reprinted by Karl August Credner in Zur Geschichte des Kanons (1847) at pages 291-412.

Carlstadt came to reject predestination. He taught we have the ability to choose to believe and obey; God does not force anyone into disobedience and unbelief. Otherwise, God would become the author of evil. (Madeleine Grey, The Protestant Reformation (Sussex Academic Press, 2003 ) at 34.)

Carlstadt in his pamphlet "Regarding the Sabbath and the Statutory Holy Days" depicted the Law as a positive. It was a guide to make us more like God in character. "It arouses our desire to become holy as God is holy."  (Edward Allen, "Was Karlstadt a Proto-Sabbatarian," Seminary Studies 44 (Spring 2006) at 134.) "God has given us His commandments and counsels that we might become holy and conformed to God, which is to be like God, and as he is. Thus the Sabbath has become instituted by God that we might desire to become holy and is holy, and rest like Him, letting go of our works as He did." Id.

The young Luther of 1525 condemned Carlstadt's positive view on the Law:

We must  see to it that we retain Christian freedom and do not force such laws and works on the Christian conscience, as if one  through them were upright or a sinner. Here questions are in order concerning the place which images, foods, clothing, places, persons, and all such external things, etc., ought to have. . . . From which you now see that Dr. Karlstadt and his spirits replace the highest with the lowest, the best with the least, the first with the last. Yet  he  would  be considered the greatest spirit of  all,  he  who  has devoured the Holy Spirit feathers and all." (Luther, "Against  the  Heavenly  Prophets in the Matter  of  Images and Sacraments"  (1525),  in Luther  Works 40, ed.  Conrad Bergendoff  (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg, 1958) at 83.)

Carlstadt's view of the Law sharply contrasts with the young Luther's view which gave the Law only two functions: one for the magistrates to correct us and second for us to know our need for grace.

Carlstadt elevated Sabbath to a high level:

"All who desire to be  saved have been given and commanded the Sabbath."  Bodenstein von Karlstadt, "On the Sabbath," in The Essential Carlstadt: Fifteen Tracts, trans. and ed. E. J. Furcha (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1995) at 320-21.

Carlstadt also did not highly regard the Book of Revelation. It was a book in the "third order," which he did not "reject" (as Luther did outright for the early part of his career) but did not give it as much authority as other books. (Penny cyclopaedia (The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge 1833) Vol. I at 162.)

Lutheran Historians Demonizing Carlstadt

If you want to see religious propaganda against Carlstadt at its worst, read Ernst Bruegemann's The Life of Dr. Martin Luther (Concordia Publishing House, 1904). He places Carlstadt among those who supposedly wanted to kill all priests and ungodly men and were dangerous "fanatics," involved in "communism and anarchism." We read at pages 56 and 57.


Cellarius, for example, was a well-educated and scholarly theologian never guilty of such behavior. See "Cellarius," Wikipedia. He was indeed anti-trinitarian, but this did not place him among an unsavory murderous lot of men.

Who were these Zwichau prophets? Were they murderous fanatics, engaging in communism and anarchism? The Zwickau prophets were claiming a charismatic experience with the Holy Spirit:

"A group of Anabaptists claimed to be receiving direct divine inspiration. They were known as the Zwickau prophets." (Test the Spirits.)

Carter Lindberg says the Zwickau prophets were Carlstadt (aka Karlstadt) and Muntzer. But this is false: Carlstadt was not one of them. The Wikipedia gets this right although it exaggerates as "atrocities" the cost in human life due to a justified rebellion against tyranny that was ruthlessly suppressed at Luther's urging. We read:

Preachers such as Zwickau prophet Nicholas Storch and Thomas Müntzer helped instigate the German Peasants' War of 1524–25, during which many atrocities were committed, often in Luther's name. ("Martin Luther," Wikipedia.)

Lindberg next lumps Carlstadt with Muntzer, and then says that based upon these two men, "Luther created a stereotype which he then found...confirmed in the Peasant's War." (Lindberg, The Third Reformation (Mercer, 1983) at 125.)

That is, Luther made up the stereotype that associated Carlstadt with the Peasants War. Lindberg is correct to that extent.

But what Lindberg does not realize is that Lutherans exaggerated the Peasants War beyond belief into allegations that the peasants were murderous, anarchistic, and Communists. But these stereotypes were false through and through, both in drawing any connection between Carlstadt and the Peasants War, and then between the Peasants and allegations of being unjusfiedly murderous, as well as anarchistic and communist.

What is interesting is that Lutheran propagandists ignore that Karlstadt and Luther worked together to have Karlstadt publish a work to deny his involvement in the Peasants' War, and Luther even wrote an introduction.

When the Peasant War broke out, Karlstadt was threatened and wrote to Luther and asked for assistance. Luther took him in, and Karlstadt lived secretly in Luther's house for eight weeks. However, Karlstadt had to sign a pseudo retraction, titled “Apology by Dr. Andreas Karlstadt Regarding the False Charge of Insurrection Which has Unjustly Been Made Against Him.” It also contained a preface by Luther. ("Andreas Karlstadt," Wikipedia.)

Lindberg alludes to this preface by Luther as a "generous deed" on page 126 of his work The Third Reformation:

luther preface for karlstadt

However, it was not so generously treated by subsequent Lutherans who listened only to Luther's earlier rhetoric, and not the language of the Preface to Carlstadt's Apology. Forgetting this event between Luther and Carlstadt, where Luther demanded Carlstadt explain his teachings that the Peasants copied (having no priests, no pastors, and all were brothers), and make sure Karlstadt declare himself not in support of the Brethren movement. But that apology hardly justifies that one concluded Karlstadt instigated it. Especially in light of this episode which all Lutheran historians know about, but typically do not shed much light upon. Brueggeman must be deemed at the top of that list.

What was Luther's earlier rhetoric? He blamed Carlstadt for the violence in the Peasants' War although Carlstadt (unlike Luther) always preached non-violence. Here is the Wikipedia discussion of what preceded the Apology discussion:

On 22 August 1524, Luther preached in Jena. Karlstadt hid in the crowd during Luther’s preaching, and wrote to Luther, asking to see him. This led to the well-known confrontation at the Black Bear Inn in a conversation recorded by a Martin Reinhardt and published within a month. There were a number of misunderstandings between the two men. For example, Luther said that he was convinced that Karlstadt had revolutionary tendencies, despite the fact that Karlstadt had all along rejected violence in the name of religion, and rejected Thomas Müntzer's invitation to join the League of the Elect. Karlstadt's answer was published in 1524 in Wittenberg, and is still extant. This showed that Karlstadt continued to reject the violence that led to the German Peasants' War. Another defamation was Luther's accusation that Karlstadt was not authorized to preach at the city church in Wittenberg during Luther’s stay at Wartburg. The conversation ended when Luther gave Karlstadt a guilder and told him to write against him. In September 1524 Karlstadt was exiled from Saxony byFrederick the Wise and George, Duke of Saxony. Luther also wrote against Karlstadt in his 1526 The Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ—Against the Fanatics. ("Andreas Karlstadt," Wikipedia.)

In other words, Luther knew and had a witness to prove it that Carlstadt did not support violence, and did not support the Peasant's War. Only Luther had prior to the rebellion urged violence by Christians against Roman Catholic authorities. But Luther was willing to scapegoat his old partner, blame him for it all - even as the Peasants rebelled -- even though the peasants only cited Luther's words as their support, and then castigated Carlstadt on any religious topic Luther chose, e.g., in 1526, the issues about the Sacraments. (There Luther flip-flopped, and claimed now that the communion truly transformed the wine into Christ's blood, and the bread into Christ's body, which he and Carlstadt previously agreed was symbolic.)


The Essential Carlstadt -- 15 tracts (Scribd)