Archive for May 5th, 2015

Frederick III, the Wise (1463-1525)

Frederick the Wise, elector of Saxony from 1486 to 1525, was Martin Luther’s sovereign in the early years of the Reformation. Were it not for Frederick, there might not have been a Lutheran Reformation. Born in Torgau in 1463, he became so well known for his skill in political diplomacy and his sense of justice and fairness that he was called “the Wise” by his subjects. Though he never met Luther, Frederick repeatedly protected and provided for him. In all likelihood he saved the reformer from a martyr’s fate. Frederick refused the pope’s demand to extradite Luther to Rome for a heresy trial in 1518. When Emperor Charles V declared Luther an outlaw in 1521 at the Diet of Worms, Frederick provided sanctuary for Luther at the Wartburg castle. On his deathbed, Frederick received the Lord’s Supper in both kinds–a clear confession of the evangelical faith. (LCMS Commemoration Biographies)


After the dramatic confrontation at the Diet of  Wurms, Luther, a declared heretic and under the Imperial Ban, could have been killed on sight, so,

Frederick the Wise had decided to hide him, and gave instructions to court officials to make the arrangements without divulging the details, even to himself, that he might truthfully feign innocence. Spalatin, however, might know. Luther and one companion were apprised of the plan. Luther was not very happy over it. He had set his face to return to Wittenberg, come what might. With a few companions in a wagon he was entering the woods on the out skirts of the village of Eisenach when armed horsemen fell upon the party and with much cursing and show of violence dragged Luther to the ground. The one companion, privy to the ruse, played his part and roundly berated the abductors. They placed Luther upon a horse and led him for a whole day by circuitous roads through the woods until at dusk, loomed up against the sky, the massive contours of Wartburg Castle. At eleven o’clock in the night the party reined up before the gates.” (From Here I Stand by Roland Bainton)

Luther was so imprisoned for nine months and he called this castle, “My Patmos” but while there he began another momentous event in the history of the Reformation and indeed, the whole Church:  he began translating the Bible into German.

Frederick the Wise may have been Luther’s model of the God-given vocation of the Christian prince, or as we would understand it:  the vocation (calling) by God of those who serve in government.  Frederick the Wise protected his subjects and notably, Fr. Martin Luther.  Prince Frederick eventually stopped meddling in spiritual matters.  His collection of relics was immense but eventually he abolished it (1).  Luther and the blessed Reformers saw the inherent tyranny when there is a confusion of the two vocations, spiritual and temporal, the kingdom of God and the kingdoms, or nations, of this world.  They saw a clear distinction between the two in their respective vocations.  From The Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article XXVIII: 

There has been great controversy concerning the Power of Bishops, in which some have awkwardly confounded the power of the Church 2] and the power of the sword. And from this confusion very great wars and tumults have resulted, while the Pontiffs, emboldened by the power of the Keys, not only have instituted new services and burdened consciences with reservation of cases and ruthless excommunications, but have also undertaken to transfer the kingdoms of this world, 3] and to take the Empire from the Emperor. These wrongs have long since been rebuked in the Church 4] by learned and godly men. Therefore our teachers, for the comforting of men’s consciences, were constrained to show the difference between the power of the Church and the power of the sword, and taught that both of them, because of God’s commandment, are to be held in reverence and honor, as the chief blessings of God on earth.

Look what happens when the Church wants to wield the sword!  Look what happens when government meddles in the life of the Church!  Luther saw in Frederick the right vocation of the government:  to preserve and protect life in this world. This falls under the rubric of the 1st Article of The Apostles Creed and the second table of the 10 Commandments.  The two vocations/kingdoms are united by two realities:  the Lord is God of both and Christians are citizens of both.  I think that the  basis of our first amendments rights in regards to religion is a distillation of this keen insight from the Scriptures, in the Lutheran Confessions:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

Frederick the Wise, if you will, protected Luther’s free exercise of religion.  Frederick also protected Luther’s printing of his many pamphlets and books.  Again the 1st Amendment of the Bill of Rights, the next phrase after the religion clause, “or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press”.  

Now Frederick was thoroughly a man of his times, as we are of ours.  He was no Jeffersonian enlightenment man.  Yet, I think he was a precursor of the proper role of government: to protect freedom of religion (yes, even freedom from religion) and free speech.  In our day and time, this is again under acute attack by those who would deny both freedom of religion and speech by the forces of political correctness denying the Christians’ right to speak for the marriage between a man and a woman because of the howling of the gay activist movement.  Government, according to the Constitution, has the vocation, as did Frederick, to protect those rights.  Even the right of someone to make fun of both Christianity and Islam, but also to stop those who are offended to the point of killing those who so satirize.  Frederick the Wise protected his subject, Luther.  And for Frederick’s fulfilling of his vocation as a Christian prince, we give thanks to the Lord. I pray we can give thanks to the Lord for our elected government officials fulfilling their high calling.

(1)  “The collection included one tooth of St. Jerome, of St. Chrysostom four pieces, of St. Bernard six, and of St. Augustine four; of Our Lady four hairs, three pieces of her cloak, four from her girdle, and seven from the veil sprinkled with the blood of Christ. The relics of Christ included one piece from his swaddling clothes, thirteen from his crib, one wisp of straw, one piece of the gold brought by the Wise Men and three of the myrrh, one strand of Jesus’ beard, one of the nails driven into his hands, one piece of bread eaten at the Last Supper, one piece of the stone on which Jesus stood to ascend into heaven, and one twig of Moses’ burning bush. By 1520 the collection had mounted to 19,013 holy bones. Those who viewed these relics on the designated day and made the stipulated contributions might receive from the pope indulgences for the reduction of purgatory, either for themselves or others, to the extent of 1,902,202 years and 270 days. These were the treasures made available on the day of All Saints.” Frederick never became a Lutheran by public confesssion but maybe by faith: in 1523 Frederick the Wise abolished his relic collection.    (Quote: From Here I Stand by Roland Bainton)


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