Martin Chemnitz has important lessons for us as we confess God’s truth in our world.
“You Protestants have two Martins; if the second had not come, the first would not have stood.”
That Roman Catholic observation says that the work and legacy of the first Martin—Martin Luther—would have been lost if not for the second Martin—Martin Chemnitz. In other words, Martin Chemnitz is the best Lutheran since, well, Luther.
While you might not have heard of Martin Chemnitz before, he’s worth getting to know. Approaching another Reformation remembrance of the first Martin’s work makes this the perfect time to learn more about the second Martin.
A brief history
Martin Chemnitz was born in northeastern Germany in 1522, about one year after Luther’s famous “Here
I stand” speech before the Diet of Worms. Financial problems interrupted Chemnitz’s schooling several times, and war forced him to bounce around for several years. Eventually he landed a job as a German duke’s librarian. Now with the resources available and time to study, Chemnitz called this “the greatest fortune God bestowed on me during the time of my studies.” After several years of studying Scripture, church history, and doctrine, Martin Chemnitz became a theologian.
Now let’s step back and see what was happening in Lutheranism at this time. When Chemnitz stepped onto the scene as a theologian, Martin Luther had been in the grave for several years. Cracks were appearing in the Lutheran foundation because theological controversies were popping up left and right. Controversies raged over topics such as the necessity of good works for salvation, the role of God’s law in a believer’s life, the role of the human will in conversion, and an understanding of the Lord’s Supper. And that’s not even half of them! The sheer number of controversies is mind-boggling and highlights Lutheranism’s great need. It needed a leader to bring this fledgling church through controversy, restore unity and peace, and keep Lutheranism on the narrow path of pure doctrine.
God had used the first Martin to rediscover pure doctrine. He used the second Martin to preserve pure doctrine.
Many faithful men stepped forward to help solve these controversies. The result of their efforts was the Formula of Concord, a confession of faith intended to unify Lutherans and bring concord, or peace, to the Lutheran church. Martin Chemnitz was the most knowledgeable and influential of these “concordists.” His theological stance and personality made the Formula of Concord possible and helped save Lutheranism as a theological movement. God had used the first Martin to rediscover pure doctrine. He used the second Martin to preserve pure doctrine.
Chemnitz was the right man to preserve doctrinal purity and unity among Lutherans. He knew how to handle controversies by following three main principles: Start with Scripture, insist on pure doctrine, and be a peacemaker.
Start with Scripture
Much like the first Martin, the second Martin was a student of Scripture. Chemnitz was a highly competent biblical scholar. He was familiar with Greek and Hebrew and wonderfully at home with all the Bible’s content. By insisting that Scripture set the tone for the church’s teaching and life, he followed the first Martin’s principle that Scripture was the standard against which all doctrine must be judged.
This is a perfect way to start solving doctrinal controversies for two reasons. First, Scripture is God’s Word, so the best way to find pure doctrine is to let God speak through his Word. While that might seem like a Lutheran no-brainer to us, Chemnitz was dealing with people who did not always let God’s Word stand on its own. Yet Chemnitz held unswervingly to the belief that Holy Scripture is the highest authority in the church because its authority is God’s authority.
Second, starting with Scripture forces everyone to use the same standard. If two people disagree on a point of doctrine but they aren’t both using Scripture to support their position, they will never agree because they aren’t using the same standard. This would be like asking a metric system user and an imperial system user to follow a speed limit sign that reads “70.” Both would be driving at very different speeds! Whether it’s speed limits or doctrine, people must use the same standard. Starting with Scripture means everyone uses the same standard for doctrine. Even better, starting with Scripture means everyone uses God’s standard for doctrine. There’s no better starting point than that!
Insist on pure doctrine
Starting with Scripture leads naturally to Chemnitz’s second principle: Insist on pure doctrine. When doctrinal questions come up, the first step is to see what Scripture says. Many doctrinal controversies came about because theologians went beyond Scripture and injected their own thoughts and ideas into the mix. Keeping Scripture as the focal point in doctrinal controversies is the best way to eliminate false doctrine.
For example, consider how Chemnitz handled the doctrine on which the church rises and falls—justification by grace through faith. Chemnitz wanted absolute clarity on this most important teaching, so he insisted that Lutherans use what he called “exclusive terms” when describing justification. Exclusive terms are small but important biblical phrases, such as apart from the law, through faith, by grace, and not by works. Romans chapter 3 and Ephesians chapter 2 are prime examples of these exclusive terms. They kept error from creeping into the all-important teaching of justification.
For Chemnitz, however, pure doctrine for doctrine’s sake wasn’t the end game. Doctrine always had to be useful and functional; it must make clear what is necessary for salvation. In other words, the ultimate goal was pure doctrine that comforted souls with the message of salvation by grace alone. Throughout each doctrinal controversy, the primary concern of Martin Chemnitz was that the certainty of salvation not be lost.
Be a peacemaker
Finally, Chemnitz was a unifier and a peacemaker. From early on in his ministry, he had helped solve doctrinal disputes and interpersonal conflicts. What stood out about Chemnitz, though, was the way in which he settled controversies. He called out false teaching when he saw it, but he did so with gentleness and respect. In an era known for polemics and strong personal attacks, Chemnitz condemned false teachings without attacking false teachers. This tactful, face-saving approach showed that the pursuit of pure doctrine was far more important than knocking your opponents down a peg.
This is perhaps the biggest difference between the first and second Martin. Luther, while he certainly had a kind, pastoral side to him, was known for his fire and passion. That passion sometimes led to his opponents getting both barrels in a no-holds-barred, anything-goes doctrinal fight. Yet Chemnitz saw the power of peacemaking. He lived the proverbial truth that “a gentle answer turns away wrath” (Proverbs 15:1).
In a world still steeped in religious controversy, perhaps we should take a page from Martin Chemnitz’s playbook. Speak the truth of Scripture. Yes, speak it boldly! But do so with gentleness and respect. Chemnitz’s success proves the power of peacemaking.
We have lessons to learn from the second Martin. Start with Scripture. Insist on pure doctrine. Be a peacemaker. Those principles preserved the work of Luther back then, and they can do the same today.
Author: Evan Chartrand
Volume 108, Number 10
Issue: October 2021