The 16th century was a time of liturgical ferment.  The continental and English reformations inspired far-reaching experimentation as Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Cranmer, and lesser lights hastened to conform the worship of their churches to new doctrinal standards.[1]  To describe these cases one is tempted to reverse the traditional tag to read lex credendi statuit legem orandi. The relation of belief and prayer is, of course, always reciprocal, and in the 16th century also reformers pursued liturgical change in part because they were sensitive to the impact of prayer, ceremonial, music, and art upon the faith of the worshipper.  Yet it is difficult to think of a case in which liturgical change has been more self-conscious and thorough than in the early reforming Protestant churches.  Doctrine reigned supreme, and liturgy was its handmaiden.

Nevertheless, though doctrinal concerns were supreme, they were not alone:  once they were satisfied, other considerations came into play.  So, for example, prior to the imposition of the Pian missal of 1570 and the Tridentine drive for liturgical uniformity, at least one notable experiment took place entirely within the Roman Catholic Church:  namely the breviary of Fernandez Cardinal de Quiñones, produced under Clement VII and used from 1535 to 1558.[2]  In the case of this breviary there was no question of radical doctrinal change, yet Quiñones anticipated or paralleled reformation developments by a radical simplification of the daily offices so as to emphasize lectio continua.  The complexity of the breviary and choppiness of its lections were major complaints of the reformers, as of many pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic clergymen and religious.  The first Prayer Book’s preface famously observed

…that commonly when any boke of the Bible was begon: before three or foure Chapiters were read out, all the rest were unread.  And in this sorte the boke of Esaie was begon in Aduent, and the booke of Genesis in Septuagesima: but they were onely begon, and neuer read thorow.[3]

And so, the preface also observed, ‘…yt to turne the boke onlye, was so hard and intricate a matter, that many times there was more busines to fynd out what should be read, then to read it when it was founde out.’[4]  Luther, along with many other reformers, recommended a simplified office of Matins and Vespers, with continuous reading of the Psalter and of Bible books.  Luther also ridiculed religious who ‘burdened themselves like mules’ with their office.[5] The simplification of the offices by Quiñones, Cranmer, and others could be used for doctrinal purposes, but also could have practical, catechetical, and aesthetic purposes parallel to or apart from doctrinal concerns.

In addition to conscious doctrinal, pastoral, and aesthetic influences, several broad trends were at work in theology and liturgics well before Luther.  These influences, common to Roman Catholics and reformers, often were subconscious or implicit.  Sometimes reformation era developments are extensions of late medieval principles rather than expressions of distinctly reformed principles.  Before Martin Luther was the magisterial reformer, he was a late medieval Catholic priest, an Augustinian friar, and an exponent of the late medieval Augustinian theological tradition found in such theologians as Archbishop Bradwardine of Canterbury and Luther’s own teacher, von Staupitz.  Likewise before Thomas Cranmer was a reforming archbishop he was a late medieval priest, ecclesiastical politician and diplomat, and canon lawyer.  Personal history and broader trends both shaped the work of the Luther and his generation.

The main goal of this paper is to explore the liturgical works of Martin Luther within this context of liturgical ferment and the abiding influence of liturgical tradition.  Such an exploration cannot prescind entirely from questions of sacramental theology; however, such questions will arise here only insofar as is necessary to forward the main task.


The following work has six main sections.  The first two set the context by considering the state of the Western rite prior to the 16th century reformations and by considering some of the factors working to modify that rite prior to Luther.  The third section briefly presents some of Luther’s sacramental and liturgical principles.  The fourth and fifth sections consider in detail Luther’s suggestions for change in the baptismal (IV) and Eucharistic (V) liturgies.  Finally, a conclusion will summarize results of this study.

  1. The Western Rite[6] Prior to the Reformation

On July 15, 1570, Pope Pius V promulgated a definitive edition of the Missale Romanum.[7]  Pius imposed this missal, drawn from the usage of the Roman curia, on the whole Roman Catholic communion, except for those dioceses and religious orders which wished to retain another use that demonstrably had more than 200 years of continuous tradition.[8]

Prior to this imposition of near uniformity the West had considerable liturgical variety.  In England, for instance, the preface to the first Prayer Book (1549) notes that

…heretofore, there hath been great diuersitie in saying and synging in churches within this realme:  some folowyng Salsbury use, some Herford use, some the use of Bangor, some of Yorke, and some of Lincolne….[9]

Besides such diocesan or provincial uses, several of the great religious orders had their own missals and breviaries.  Luther’s order, the Augustinians, did not have a distinct use, but neither did they necessarily follow the Roman missal or secular breviary.  Like the Benedictines, their

...service-books varied from house to house…contrary to what is sometimes said…although a greater uniformity is found among the centralised congregations. It would also seem that groups of churches of Austin Canons banded themselves together to follow similar rites and ceremonies.[10]

Luther himself notes this liturgical diversity.  In a late work Luther tells of his 1510 trip to Rome, during which he passed through the diocese of Milan:

In this bishopric not only the elevation or the part of the mass is dissimilar to the mass in other churches, but the entire mass is dissimilar, particularly in that the bishopric does not possess the small canon [i.e., the offertory prayers] and in every respect retains its special character in the mass.  So when I journeyed through that area in the year 1510, I could not celebrate the mass anywhere.  The priests said to us: ‘We are priests of the Ambrosian rite, you cannot celebrate mass here.[11]

To late medieval clergy the diversity prior to Trent seemed striking.

Nonetheless, the real degree of pre-Tridentine liturgical diversity should not be exaggerated.  Well before Trent some uses had gained in influence in a general movement towards liturgical centralization.  The Roman use always enjoyed great prestige, and this influence was augmented after the rise of the Franciscans, whose missal was virtually identical to the Roman.[12]  In England, to give a centralizing example familiar to Anglicans, the Sarum [Salisbury] use gained ground from the 13th century onward at the expense of other uses,[13] though its adoption in a diocese or order did not necessarily entail the suppression of all local customs.[14]  This centralizing tendency continued in England to the eve of the reformation:  in 1414 Saint Paul’s cathedral abandoned its own use for that of Sarum,[15] and the Sarum daily office was imposed on the whole Canterbury province in 1542.[16]  While Sarum use did not supplant York’s influence in the northern province, it did spread to the continent.  Trent’s centralization, therefore, was not wholly unprecedented, though it was far more drastic and abrupt than earlier trends towards uniformity.

Even aside from this late medieval centralizing tendency, and despite the experience of Luther in Italy, the great bulk of the Ordinary of the Mass was shared by all the Western uses.  The ordering of common elements might vary; Roman use admitted few sequence hymns while they flourished in many northern uses; Sarum use troped[17] the Kyries while others did not; an order might use a Kalendar heavy with saints of that order:  but such differences were comparatively minor matters, variations within a common rite.  And, one should add, this broad similarity applies to the baptismal and other major liturgical occasions.  The Western rite was flexible and could admit local variations, but radical variations were rare, and radical change virtually unheard of.[18]

Such, broadly speaking, was the state of the liturgy on the eve of the Protestant Reformation.  Less easy to describe, but equally important are the ways in which the sacraments were understood in the late medieval Church.  While that Church was liturgically conservative, theological shifts were sometimes reflected in liturgical changes.  Furthermore, such theological shifts often were continued in reformation thinking and, therefore, continued to shape the liturgy into the reformation churches when the authority of liturgical tradition was greatly lessened. These tendencies are the subject of the following section of this work.

  1. Some Trends in the Celebration of the Sacraments Prior to Luther

If liturgy is the work of the people of God, then it will both shape and also be shaped by those people and their circumstances and self-understanding.  Throughout the Dark Ages and then the medieval renaissances, these circumstances and this self-understanding exerted their complex influence.  Here a few facets of this influence are noted, particularly insofar as they are relevant for baptismal and Eucharistic liturgy.

  1. The official establishment of Christianity and the virtually universal adoption of infant baptism had profound effects on the rites of baptism, confirmation, and first holy communion as well as on catechesis. The catechumenate disappeared, and the rite for the admission of catechumens was reduced to a vestigial preface to baptism.  Confirmation separated from baptism in the Western Church and often, though not always, was postponed until after first holy communion.  While medieval theologians did not doubt that confirmation was a sacrament, its function became somewhat obscure:  the ‘sacrament in search of a theology’.  Medieval theologians primarily explained confirmation as a rite of passage that enrolled the confirmand into Christ’s army.  These changes in pastoral situation had some effects on medieval liturgy, but were likely to have even more effect when Luther’s revolution freed the practice of a large body of Christians from reflexive acknowledgement of the authority of liturgical tradition.

  1. After the Church came to an explicit understanding of the person and natures of Christ, it gradually began to reflect upon the way in which he is present in the sacrament of the altar. In the first canon of the Fourth Lateran synod (1215) the term ‘transubstantiation’ was adopted, though not originated, to describe the mode of presence:

In this church the priest and sacrifice is the same Jesus Christ Himself, whose body and blood are truly contained in the sacrament of the altar under the figures of bread and wine, the bread having been transubstantiated into His body and the wine into His blood by divine power, so that, to accomplish the mystery of our union, we may receive of Him what He has received of us.[19]

Such theological development naturally affected liturgy.  It certainly contributed to the end of infant communion in the West, for reasons obvious given the vagaries of infant digestion.  Likewise, a whole cultus grew up for the dual purpose of glorifying Christ sacramentally present and of preventing any sacrilege against him so present.  Luther will condemn most of the practices involved in this cultus as man-made additions, which in a sense is exactly what they were.  Yet they also were logical outgrowths of belief in transubstantiation or, indeed, of any theory of the Real Presence which implies a change in the Eucharistic species involving their physicality.  At any rate, here is a close relation between doctrinal development and liturgical development.  It should not surprise that a change in the doctrinal status quo in this area would bring attacks on the cultus that the earlier development produced.

Whatever one may think of these first two factors, they followed almost necessarily from the situation and doctrine of the medieval Church.  The next two factors do not have this almost inevitable character.

  1. There was a tendency in the late medieval West, also observable in the Coptic rite, to convert the Eucharist into a self-description rather than a simple action. The result, Eric Mascall suggests, is that the description became confused with the action itself.[20]  This confusion has important consequences for the rite and its accompanying ceremonies and for theological speculation concerning the ‘moment of consecration’.  In brief, the Eucharist’s normative shape is determined by the four-fold action of the Institution narrative:  the offertory ‘taking’; the ‘blessing’ from the Sursum corda through the consecrating Canon; the ‘breaking’ at the Fraction; and, the ‘giving’ in holy communion.[21]  But the descriptive or ‘show-and-tell’ impulse leads to a telescoping of the action itself into the canon, where the four-fold action is described or narrated in the Institution narrative.

This telescoping explains why the Western Church tended increasingly to understand the words of Institution as the moment of consecration.  This understanding in turn has several liturgical implications.  For one thing, from the moment in which the words are uttered, the elements are to be adored, since they have then been transubstantiated into Jesus.  Thus genuflections, elevations, and incensations are proper and normal within the canon.  For another thing, it becomes necessary to explain why the traditional rites retain the fraction after the Our Father (which follows the canon) rather than putting it within the canon where the act of breaking is described.

Such an explanation is provided in the Sarum missal.  There, in the rubric that follows the word ‘brake’ in the Institution narrative, comes the following instruction:

Here let him touch the host, but not so as to break it, as some do; for although the order of the words seems to imply that Christ brake before consecrating, tradition teaches the contrary.[22]

So too one might have to explain why the communion has to wait until both the host and the chalice are consecrated.  The logical conclusion to the descriptive impulse would be to consecrate the host, break it, give communion under that species, then proceed to consecrate and distribute (or not, in the medieval West) the chalice.

Such radical changes were not made in the medieval Church because of the great authority of the liturgical tradition.  Instead, unlikely explanations, as in the Sarum rubric, are given.  But once the old rites were subject to radical reform, such rubrical gymnastics became unnecessary:  the reformers could simply make the rite fit the late medieval theory which they adopted without comment or reflection.  So it is not surprising that Luther suggests – and Zwingli requires – that communion in each kind follow the appropriate part of the Institution narrative.[23]  Luther and Cranmer and the early Prayer Books all suppressed the traditional Fracture entirely, but when it was restored to the Anglican rite in 1662 it was placed within the Institution narrative in accordance with the medieval tendency.[24]

To summarize this point, then, one may say that Luther, followed by other reformers, took to its logical conclusion a medieval tendency that in turn depended on a deficient understanding of the shape of the Eucharist.  Given the fundamental misunderstanding, unfortunate liturgical changes were bound to follow when traditional restraints were loosened.  In fact unfortunate things almost always occur when liturgy is changed, not by slow and organic development, but rather in accordance with a deliberate theological or doctrinal program.

  1. In the centuries preceding Luther ideas connected with the Eucharistic sacrifice came increasingly to dwell on death and immolation rather than on offering, gift, and oblation. This shift in meaning and emphasis was of a piece with movements in late medieval popular piety and art, including the growth both of pathetic realism in iconography of the Passion and also of devotion to the Seven Sorrows and to Christ as the Man of Sorrows.  The shift brought the belief that the sacrifice of the Mass was a repetition or renewal of the sacrifice of the Cross.[25]  The difference between the Cross and the Mass was that in the one Christ was sacrificed bloodily, and in the other unbloodily.  The sacrifice, meaning immolation, was once and for all in the bloody mode, but was repeatedly performed in the Eucharistic mode.  Speculation often centered on the question of when in the Mass the immolation took place:  some held that it was performed by the separate consecration of Christ’s body and blood; others that it came at the Fracture; others still that it came in the communion.[26]

The next section of this study will consider Luther’s own view of the Eucharistic sacrifice.  The point here is that most popular and theological understandings of the Eucharistic sacrifice available to the early reformers were deficient.  Acceptance of the sacrifice as anything more than Cranmer’s ‘sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving’ might well have seemed to imply acceptance of a doctrine of fresh immolation of Christ.  The dilemma might be false, but it was perhaps understandable given the assumed understanding of sacrifice:

In the theology of the Eucharist, as in many other matters it may well be the case that the ultimate cause of the deadlock between Catholics and Protestants lies not so much in the points on which they have explicitly differed and of which both parties have been therefore fully aware as in a common assumption which both parties have inherited from the Middle Ages and of which, just because it was a common assumption, both parties have been almost if not entirely unconscious.[27]

In the matter of the shape of the Eucharistic action Luther took one late medieval tendency and positively developed it once he was free from traditional restraint.  In the case of the Eucharistic sacrifice he took another medieval tendency and reacted against it negatively. In both cases medieval attitudes shaped Luther’s liturgical work.

The decadent understanding of the sacrifice of the Mass had an influence that reached beyond theology into popular piety, as contemporary poetry or tales of bleeding hosts testify.[28]  The medieval liturgical influence of the decadence, however, was insignificant.  The theories in question made use of, but did not create, liturgical references to sacrifice.  Luther objects particularly to three parts of the liturgy because of their references to sacrifice:

– to the offertory, ‘that utter abomination…which forces all that precedes in the mass into its service and is, therefore, called the offertory…smacks and savors of sacrifice.’[29]

– to the canon, for obvious reasons;

– to the postcommunion collect, ‘the complenda or final collect’ which ‘sounds almost like a sacrifice.[30]

But while some of the offertory prayers are comparatively new, dating from 1000 or 1100, the fact is that some of the most ancient liturgies have references that ‘smack and savor’ of sacrifice:  hostia pura, oblatio servitutis nostrae, sed et cunctae familiae tuae, etc.  Luther decided to abolish such references, rather than give them a new interpretation.  But it would be a mistake to accept the implication that strong language of Eucharistic sacrifice flows mainly from a period of decadent theology of sacrifice.

The four medieval trends just noted could, no doubt, be multiplied.  These four, however, suffice to show that Luther is indeed working within a stream of tradition, whether consciously or unconsciously, and that this tradition influences him both by way of acceptance and by way of negative reaction.  The tradition has dynamic tendencies, and the following sections will show how these tendencies are present in Luther’s own liturgical production.

Before passing to consideration of Luther’s own general liturgical principles, one further comment is necessary about the medieval tendencies just noted.  That is, the Middle Ages should not be made a whipping boy for all that was wrong in Luther’s day.  I have argued just now that two medieval developments noted present cases of theological decline.  The shift in the rites of Christian initiation, however, was inevitable, given the Church’s pastoral responsibilities under medieval conditions.  And the development of the cult of the Blessed Sacrament was in many respects entirely justified by legitimate theological development and by growing consciousness of the Real Presence, whether or not the theories of Lateran IV are accepted as authoritative.

[1] For the Eucharistic liturgies of Luther, Zwingli, Bucer, Calvin, the Edwardian Books of Common Prayer (1549 and 1552), and John Knox, see Liturgies of the Western Church, ed. Bard Thompson (Cleveland & New York: Meridian, 1962), pp. 93-307.

[2] Francis Proctor and Walter Howard Frere, The Book of Common Prayer with a Rationale of its Offices (London: Macmillan, 1951), 3rd impression of revised edition, pp. 26-7.  This work hereafter is cited as ‘Proctor & Frere’.

[3] The First and Second Prayer Books of King Edward VI (London and New York: Everyman, 1977), p. 3.  This work hereafter is cited as BCP of Edward VI.

[4] Ibid., p. 4.

[5] Luther’s Works: Volume 53, Liturgy and Hymns (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1965), ed. Ulrich S. Leupold, p. 12.  This work hereafter is cited as LW 53.

[6] The following definitions will hold for this paper.  ‘Rite’ is a family of liturgies, such as the Eastern Orthodox rite, the Coptic rite, and the Western rite.  More narrowly defined it may be a set of formulae and actions that constitute a particular liturgical act, such as the rite of baptism or the rite of blessing a house.  ‘Use’ is a particular adaption of a rite in the broader sense, such as the Sarum use of the Western rite.  ‘Ceremonies’ are actions in a rite in the narrow sense, such as the sign of the cross, genuflection, or burning incense.

[7] See Joseph A. Jungmann, SJ, The Mass of the Roman Rite: Its Origins and Development (Missarum Sollemnia) (Westminster, MD: Christian Classics, 1980), tr. by Francis A. Brunner, revised and abridged by Charles K. Riepe; p. 102.  Henceforth cited as ‘Jungmann’.

[8] Thompson, op. cit., p. 47.

[9] BCP of Edward VI, p. 4.

[10] Archdale A. King, Liturgies of the Past (London: Longmans, 1959), p. 279.  This work hereafter is cited as ‘King’.

[11] From the ‘Brief Confession Concerning the Holy Sacrament’ (1544) in Luther’s Works:  Volume 38, Word and Sacrament IV (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1971), ed. by Martin E. Lehmann, p. 318.  This volume henceforth will be cited as LW 38.

[12] Jungmann, p. 76.  The Franciscans adopted the Roman Missal, apparently in the form it had under Innocent III, almost from their beginning.  The order reserved the right to make alterations, but almost never did.  Their itinerant ministries naturally contributed to the dissemination of Roman usage.

[13] King, p. 292.

[14]King, p. 279.

[15]King, p. 297.

[16] Proctor & Frere, pp. 21-2.  A movement towards liturgical uniformity fit nicely with the late medieval and Renaissance growth of Western European nation-states, which coalescence began in England earlier than in most places.

[17] In a troped version of the Kyries, the Kyries themselves are interspersed with petitions or hymn verses.  See The Sarum Missal: Edited from Three Early Manuscripts (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969), ed. J. Wickham Legg, pp. 1-5.  The troping of the Sarum Kyries explains why early Tudor Mass settings seldom include a setting for the Kyries.

[18] John Eck’s Enchiridion provides a good example of the levelling pressure of the Latin rite’s weight on an element of novelty:  ‘In memory of the men of Cracow…masses were celebrated in Slavonic; yet the nations of this language long ago gave up this privilege, and now conform to the Latin of the Church.’  Enchiridion of Commonplaces Against Luther and Other Enemies of the Church (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979), tr. and ed. by F.L. Battles; p. 264.  Cf. also Battles’s note, p. 269.

[19] Creeds of the Churches: A Reader in Christian Doctrine from the Bible to the Present (Atlanta: John Knox, 1977), ed. John H. Leith, 2nd printing of revised ed.; p. 58.

[20] Corpus Christi: Essays on the Church and the Eucharist (London: Longmans, 1965), 2nd ed.; pp. 57-76.  Henceforth this work is cited as ‘Mascall’.

[21] Mascall, pp. 62-3.  This analysis is influenced by Gregory Dix’s The Shape of the Liturgy.

[22] Mascall, p. 64.  The full rubric contains also instructions for three acts imitative of the words being recited.  In Procter and Frere, p. 289, the rubric says merely, ‘Hic tanget hostiam.’  Cf. Legg, op. cit. in n. 16 supra, p. 222.

[23] ‘In seems to me that it would accord with the Lord’s Supper to administer the sacrament immediately after the consecration of the bread, before the cup is blessed….’  LW 53, p. 81.  For Zwingli, see Mascall, p. 67.

[24] Proctor & Frere, p. 491.  The 1549 Prayer Book directs the priest to take the bread in his hand and to make the sign of the cross at ‘bless and sanctify’ before the Institution narrative, at the ‘pseudo-epiclesis’ retained from the Roman rite.  All manual acts were suppressed from 1552 to 1662.

[25] Cf. Mascall, pp. 106-26.  Francis Clark, SJ, argues that medieval understandings of the Eucharist and sacrifice in fact were fairly healthy.  His work has been severely criticized by A.A. Stephenson (Theological Studies, Vol, 22, 1961, pp. 588ff.), Eric Mascall (loc. cit.), and Louis Bouyer in Eucharist: Theology and Spirituality of the Eucharistic Prayer (Notre Dame: Notre Dame, 1968), tr. C.U. Quinn; p. 383.  Bouyer points out that even in the better medieval commentaries on the Mass, such as that of Gabriel Biel, thanksgiving is limited to gratitude for the gift of communion or the benefits of the celebration.  The ancient sense of Eucharist is largely lost (p. 382).

[26] See Mascall, pp. 120-3, for examples of such speculation from Melchior Cano, Salmeron, Vasquez, Lessius, de Lugo, and Franzelin.  Other, of course, held that the sacrifice was Christ’s new kenosis, his condescending to the Eucharistic species or to be Prisoner of the Tabernacle.

[27] Ibid., p. 106.

[28] Cf. ‘The Knight of the Grail’ in The Oxford Book of English Verse: 1250-1918 (New York: Oxford, 1939), ed. by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch; pp. 36-7.  The poem seems to describe a veiled lunette containing a Host within the tabernacle:

In that orchard ther was an hall, / That was hangid with purpill and pall.

And in that hall ther was a bede; / Hit was hangid with gold so rede.

And yn that bed ther lythe a knyght, / His wowndes bledyng day and nyght.

By that bedes side ther kneleth a may, / And she wepeth both nyght and day.

And by that beddes side ther stondith a ston, / ‘Corpus Christi’ wretyn theron.

Corpus Christi was first observed in Liége in 1246, and in 1264 was commanded by Urban IV, formerly Archdeacon of Liége, to be universally observed.

[29] LW 53, pp. 25-6.

[30] LW 53, p. 29.

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