The Vindication and Refutation of Thomas Müntzer (l. c. 1489-1525) is a 1524 open letter to Jesus Christ, Martin Luther (l. 1483-1546), and the Christian community charging Luther with hypocrisy, betraying his original vision to win support from the nobility, and ignoring the legitimate complaints of the peasants. It was written in response to Luther's attacks on Müntzer.
The full title of the work is A Highly Provoked Vindication and Refutation of the Unspiritual Soft-Living Flesh in Wittenberg Whose Robbery and Distortion of Scripture Has So Grievously Polluted Our Wretched Christian Church. The "Soft-Living Flesh in Wittenberg" of the title refers to Luther who had been given a former monastery as a home by a noble supporter as well as receiving other favors. The work was printed at Nuremberg in 1524 but, as Luther was a popular and powerful figure at that time, and Müntzer's work seemed incendiary, all copies were confiscated before distribution. Whether Luther ever read the work is unclear.
The Vindication and Refutation is considered a valuable document of the early Protestant Reformation for its perspective on Luther, understood as the pivotal figure of that movement. Müntzer claims that Luther betrayed his cause by supporting the nobility against the peasantry to ensure his own safety and the future of the Reformation while Luther, at this same time, was portraying himself as a willing martyr for the cause who spoke only the truth he claimed God had revealed to him through scripture.
Müntzer claimed the same for himself, arguing he was motivated by scripture and the Holy Spirit, and Luther was only a pawn of the nobility. Luther regarded Müntzer as a dangerous radical whose beliefs endangered the Reformation but, by 1524, Müntzer had more support from the peasant class than Luther and would die in the revolt against the nobility known as the German Peasants' War (1524-1525). Luther denounced this conflict most notably in his Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants (1525) and Müntzer was cast as a villain afterwards. This view, however, was informed by the works of Luther and his supporters. The Vindication and Refutation provides Müntzer's side of the story.
Background to the Work
Müntzer, a Catholic priest, began questioning the Church's policies in 1514, three years before Luther’s 95 Theses were posted at Wittenberg on 31 October 1517, and was an early supporter of Luther's call for the reformation of the Church. Luther seems to have been impressed by him as he recommended Müntzer for the position of parish priest in Zwickau in 1519. Once arrived, Müntzer became involved with the mystic and reformer Nicolaus Storch (d. c. 1536) and his Zwickau Prophets who insisted on the primacy of the Holy Spirt over scripture to reveal the nature of God and His will for humanity. Müntzer also responded to their apocalyptic vision of the imminent return of Christ, a conclusion Müntzer had arrived at himself prior to Zwickau.
Between 1519-1521, Luther became the most prominent figure of the movement that would become known as the Protestant Reformation, especially after his appearance at the Diet of Worms in 1521. Luther's speech at the Diet of Worms was a direct challenge to the authority of the Church which, among other abuses, demanded a tithe of 10% of the peasants' wages. The nobility and lesser nobility also taxed the peasants who were further oppressed by the emerging middle class of merchants. The peasant class saw Luther as their champion who would topple the unjust social hierarchy which placed the nobility and Church at the top and them at the very bottom, and usher in a new order of Christian equality and prosperity.
After Worms, however, Luther was taken into protective custody by the noble Frederick III (the Wise, l. 1563-1525) who had previously supported him secretly (as had other nobles) and hid him from the Catholic agents of Charles V who had issued the Edict of Worms condemning Luther as an outlaw and calling for his execution. Luther, therefore, owed his life, and the future prospects of his reformation, to the nobility who, in an effort to restore peace, wanted Luther to moderate the movement that was encouraging widespread revolt. The peasants, however, were expecting him to emerge from hiding at Frederick III's castle and support them against these very nobles.
When Luther sided with the nobility, many peasants felt he had betrayed them and Müntzer, who by 1521 was already preaching an interpretation more aligned with the Zwickau Prophets than with Luther, agreed with them. Müntzer did not believe the nobility was sincere in their support for the Reformation out of honest religious conviction but rather because breaking the power of the Church would benefit them politically and financially. Müntzer's sermons resonated more powerfully with the lower class, who were oppressed by the nobility as much as by the Church, than Luther’s at this time because he preached the imminent end of the world when Christ would establish true justice at a time when Luther was preaching moderation, restraint, and dutiful obedience to the nobility.
When Luther criticized Müntzer's sermons and ordered him to Wittenberg to give an account of himself, Müntzer refused. He claimed he was too busy with the real work of the Reformation to humor Luther's request and continued preaching to large, receptive, crowds. Called before the nobles of his region to explain his beliefs, Müntzer delivered his Sermon Before the Princes encouraging more equitable treatment of the peasantry and just rule in accordance with Scripture. Luther rejected Müntzer's vision and attacked him in his Letter to the Princes of Saxony About the Rebellious Spirit. Müntzer responded to Luther's charges that he was inciting insurrection with his Vindication and Refutation which, as noted, was suppressed.
The Text in Part
The Vindication and Refutation is a long work (19 pages) with frequent digressions as Müntzer switches between citing scriptural authority for his beliefs, interpretation of biblical passages, pleas to Christ and fellow Christians, and direct attacks on Luther. Only a part of the text, therefore, is given below. Luther is addressed by a number of epithets throughout, including “Doctor Liar”, as Müntzer details his claim that Luther only used scripture for his own self-glorification, merely pretended to care for the lower classes, and that Luther was “kept” by the nobles to serve their own ends and provided with various luxuries in return for betraying the cause he claimed to champion.
The following translation is by Peter Matheson from The Collected Works of Thomas Müntzer (1994) reprinted in part by Denis R. Janz in A Reformation Reader: Primary Texts with Introductions (2008).
To the most illustrious first-born prince and almighty Jesus Christ, to the gentle king of kings, the bold duke of all believers, my most merciful lord and faithful protector, and his sole grieving bride, poor Christianity…
There is nothing so very surprising about Doctor Liar, that most ambitious of all the biblical scholars, becoming a more arrogant fool every day, covering himself up with your Holy Scripture without once sacrificing his own self-glorification or comforts. He makes use of it most deceitfully, but nonetheless wishes to keep you as far away as possible, just as if he had gained mastery of your judgments. And he stands insolently in your sight and utterly despises your righteous spirit, for he presents himself in his true clothes when, from raging envy and the most bitter hatred, he mocks me, a chosen limb of your body; he makes me a laughing-stock before his scornful, mocking, and most ferocious cronies, and portrays me to the simple-minded as a Satan or devil, he slanders and sneers at me with his corrupt, scandalous opinions, to my irreparable harm…
I have done nothing to that cunning black raven but this: like an innocent dove, I have flapped my wings which are covered with silver through a sevenfold purification and gilded my back with gold. I have flown over the carrion on which he likes to perch [the nobility] and despised it, for I want the whole world to know that he flatters the godless scoundrels and – in short – he defends them. And from that it is quite evident that Doctor Liar does not reside in the house of God for he does not despise the godless; on the contrary, on behalf of the godless, he vilifies many god-fearing people as devils and rebellious spirits…
Although I have had printed the sermon which I gave before the princes of Saxony, without any reservations, and told them from scripture how they should use the sword to avert an insurrection – in short, that disobedience must be punished regardless of whether you are great or small – despite this, along comes Father Tread-Softly, that lenient chap, and says, “he wants to cause rebellion!” He says one thing, but keeps silent about the most significant point, which I clearly put to the princes, that a whole community should have the power of the sword, just as they should have the key to forgiveness…that the princes were not lords over the sword but rather its servants, and that they should not act however they want…It is the greatest outrage in the world that no one is prepared to take up the cause of the needy, and that the mighty do what they want…
Our poor flatterer wants to cover himself with Christ by using invented compassion…He is a herald who wants to earn gratitude from the bloodshed which arises over people's possessions, which God certainly never approved. Open your eyes! What is the evil brew from which all usury, theft, and robbery springs but the assumption of our lords and princes that all creatures are their property? The fish in the water, the birds in the air, the plants on the face of the earth – it all has to belong to them! And, on top of that, they then proclaim God's commandments to the poor and say: God has commanded that you shall not steal. But that does not help them at all. For they oppress everyone, flaying and fleecing them all, the poor peasant, the workman, and all who live. And, of course, if any poor person commits the smallest crime, he must hang. And to this Doctor Liar responds, Amen. It is the lords themselves who make the poor man their enemy. They refuse to remove the causes of rebellion, so how can it turn out well in the long run? If saying that makes me an inciter to rebellion, so be it!...
Shame on you, you arch-rogue, you wish to snuggle up to the wayward world like a hypocrite and are prepared to justify anyone. But you know full well whom you should slander. The poor monks and priests and merchants cannot defend themselves, so that is why you scold them. Oh, but no one is allowed to pass judgement on the godless rulers, even when they trample Christ under their feet. However, in order to please the peasants, you write that the princes will be cast down by the word of God, and you say in your response to the latest Imperial mandate, the princes shall be cast down from their thrones. Yet you prefer them to the merchants…Why should they get away with it? What about their interest charges and their oppression? But once you've given the princes a scolding, you cheer them up again, you new Pope, by presenting them with monasteries and churches, so they are quite content with you…
We could quite easily fall asleep listening to your boasting and nonsensical foolishness. The fact that you were able to stand before the Empire at Worms is all thanks to the German nobility, whose mouth you have smeared well with honey, because they fully expected that you would make them some gifts of the Bohemian kind with your preaching – that is, hand over monasteries and religious foundations to them – as you are now promising the princes. If you had wavered at Worms, then you were just as likely to have been stabbed by the nobility as set free, everyone knows that. Truly, you have no right to take credit for risking your noble blood there, as you like to boast. You and your cronies made use of wild deceptions and cunning: at your own suggestion you let yourself be captured and pretended you were taken unwillingly. Anyone who did not understand your roguery would swear to all the saints that you were a really saintly Martin. Sleep peacefully, dear flesh! I would rather smell you roasting in your own arrogance in a pot or in a cauldron by the fire, smitten by God's wrath, and then stewing in your own juice. May the devil devour you! Your flesh is like that of an ass; it would be a long time cooking and would turn out to be a rough dish indeed for your mealy-mouthed friends…
Although Goliath relied on his armor and sword, David got the better of him. Saul also started something good, but it was David who, after wandering for a long time, completed the task. And this is a symbol of you, O Christ, in your dear friends whom you will protect in all eternity. Amen.
1524 [postscript] O Doctor Liar, you wily fox. With your lies you have made sad the hearts of the righteous, whom God had never saddened; and you have thereby strengthened the power of the godless evil-doers so that they indeed remain in their old ways. Therefore, it will go with you as it does with a fox in a trap. The people will be free and God alone will be lord over them.
Müntzer's negative views on Luther were also expressed in his sermons to a congregation consisting mainly of the peasantry and were dismissed by Luther's supporters; but he was not alone in his criticisms. Reformer Andreas Karlstadt (l. 1486-1541), another early supporter of Luther, who defended the Reformation at the Leipzig Disputation in 1519, also broke with him after 1521 when it seemed Luther had intentionally slowed the pace of the movement in deference to his noble patrons.
The peasant class had arrived at this same conclusion when Luther advocated their continued submission to the status quo instead of supporting their cause and, after the decisive Battle of Frankenhausen on 15 May 1525 when the peasants were massacred and Müntzer arrested and executed, peasant animosity toward Luther intensified. Luther had first come out in writing against the German Peasants' War in April 1525 with his Admonition to Peace and various nobles asked him to go on a speaking tour to spread this message and end the revolt that had, by this time, been ongoing since the fall of 1524.
When Luther was met with peasant hostility on his tour – actually being stoned by a mob at one point – he published his Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants in May 1525 which caused further backlash, even among his supporters, as it advocated for the massacre of the rebellious peasantry and approved of the kind of wholesale slaughter that characterized Frankenhausen and other engagements. Scholar Lyndal Roper cites letters from Luther's supporters who were shocked at his clear allegiance to the nobility and advocacy of mass murder including one referencing him as a “flatterer of princes” (256) a charge Luther repudiated, citing scripture to support his stand against the rebels and in support of princes who were ordained by God.
Müntzer has sometimes been characterized as a radical who used the German Peasants' War to advance his own apocalyptic vision and validate his self-image as a prophet of God and true Reformer, but it is just as likely he was sincere in his calls for religious and social reform. If Müntzer had enjoyed the same support of powerful patrons, or had the same access to the printing press to popularize his views as Luther, he might now be remembered as one of the leading figures of the movement.
Although Luther continues to be understood as the hero of the Reformation, Müntzer's works question how that movement might have developed differently, or what the outcome may have been, if Luther had not been backed by the nobles or if other Reformers had been given the same support. These questions continue to be debated by scholars in the present day and Müntzer's Vindication and Refutation, as well as his other works, contribute significantly to these discussions.