Smalcald Articles and Treatise on the Power of the Pope

The Smalcald Articles were a theological last will and testament written by Luther for a papal council but set aside by his colleague, Philip Melanchthon. Melanchthon added a “postscript” on papal authority related to the larger document, although Luther had been too ill to work with this short paper, the Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope.

Six years after the Augsburg Confession, Pope Paul III called the Lutherans to a church council. John Frederick authorized Luther to assemble a team of theologians and craft his theological last will and testament as the Lutheran declaration to the pope. Now fifteen years after his death sentence, Luther either shifted gears from the harmonious tones of the Augsburg Confession or stated a more radicalized position. At Augsburg in 1530: “[I]t is obvious, without boasting, that the Mass is celebrated among us [Lutherans] with greater devotion and earnestness than among our opponents” (Augsburg Confession, Article XXIV, Mass). In the Smalcald Articles in 1536: “[T]he Mass, as a human trifle, may be discontinued without sin and that no one will be damned who does not observe it but may in fact be saved in a better way without the Mass…. The Mass is a dangerous thing” (Smalcald Articles II). “The pope and his people are lost” (SA, Preface). “[H]e [the pope] is the true end-times Antichrist” (SA II).


By this time Luther had seen troubling signals among his so-called allies. “[T]here are such poisonous people, not only among our adversaries, but also unfaithful associates, who want to be on our side and who dare to use my writings and teaching directly against me…. They want to conceal their poison under my work and mislead the poor people by using my name. What will happen in the future after my death?”


Luther concludes, “These are the articles on which I must stand and on which I intend to stand, God willing, until my death. I can neither change nor concede anything in them. If anyone desires to do so, it is on that person’s conscience” (SA III).


Melanchthon joined more than forty others in subscribing to Luther’s declaration, but he took Luther’s loophole by including the condition that he offered the pope “superiority over the bishops” (SA Subscriptions). Afterward Melanchthon and Luther’s associates replaced the Smalcald Articles with the Augsburg Confession and its Apology for the Lutheran declaration to the pope’s council. The pope’s council was delayed until late 1545, shortly before Luther’s death. The Smalcald Articles thus have value not as a disputational document but because of Luther’s authorship.


In presenting the Augsburg Confession, Melanchthon had sought concord. He had omitted the issue of papal authority. Six years later, as he and his colleagues prepared the Smalcald Articles for Pope Paul III’s council, the Lutherans were done with deference. Melanchthon added the Treatise on the Power and the Primacy of the Pope, referring to the pope merely as “the bishop of Rome.” The Lutherans derided his claims of church superiority, of royal superiority, and of controlling salvation as “false, impious, tyrannical, and ruinous to the church” (Treatise). Then, on to double tyranny: “The pope exercises a double tyranny: he defends his errors with violence and murder, and he forbids judicial inquiry” (Treatise). They even dropped the rhetorical atomic bomb of associating him with the Antichrist: “The marks of the Antichrist clearly fit the reign of the pope and his minions” (Treatise).


In addition to extensive biblical and historical arguments denying the papacy, they also minimized the bishop’s role and exalted congregational authority. “Since the distinction of rank between bishop and pastor is not by divine right, it is clear that an ordination performed by a pastor in his own church is valid by divine right…. Therefore, it is necessary for the church to retain the right to call, choose, and ordain ministers” (Treatise).