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Literature Review
Martin Luther’s developing attitude towards astrology
focus on structure
Historians of the sixteenth-century Reformation have traditionally viewed Catholicism as an
intricate, perhaps convoluted system of ceremonial customs and practices existing in
addition to the Bible, incorporating supernatural, ritualistic and financial mechanisms into the
process of worship. Lutheranism, meanwhile, has been characterised as a rejection of these
excesses, instead favouring pious simplicity, scripture and faith. This distinction has
traditionally framed literature on early modern religious change, and has had serious
implications for assessment of prominent individuals such as Martin Luther. However, more
recent scholarship suggests that the worldly, the physical and the supernatural all had a
place in Luther’s theological outlook as well as in his image. Numerous works have shed
fragmentary light on Luther’s perceptions of the supernatural, but a full study of his views on
astrology and eschatology is still required if scholars are to further develop the lively debate
surrounding Lutheran theology, beliefs and practices. In order to plot this new direction for
research, it is initially important to review the existing scholarship on early modern religious
and secular authority, Lutheran theology and popular belief. This will be supported by a
review of the literature surrounding the eschatological impulse and the development of
thought relating to astrology during the early modern period. With these themes in mind, the
scholarly works focusing on Martin Luther can be more acutely assessed and their qualities
and limitations drawn out.
Studies of early modern perceptions of religious authority have often focused on the primacy
God and scripture within Lutheran theology. A. G. Dickens emphasised Luther’s belief that
spiritual and physical authority rests with God and, consequently, that all human action takes
place with divine permission.1 By advocating God as the universal authority, Luther appears
to dismiss the importance of human agency. As Dickens puts it, Luther believed that God’s
‘immutable sovereign will governs all his creatures’. Quentin Skinner's essay on Luther's
political views reinforces this perspective, arguing that Luther saw the New Testament of the
Bible as 'the final authority on all fundamental questions about the proper conduct of social
and political life', and that 'Luther's final word is always based on the Word of God.' 2 This
supports the view that Protestantism was set in contrast to the worldly, human-focused
mechanisms of Catholicism, and suggests a rejection of clerical authority in favour of a
scriptural focus. Historians are continuously complicating this picture, however. Introducing
A. G. Dickens, Martin Luther and the Reformation (London, 1967), pp. 85-86.
Q. Skinner, The Age of Reformation, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought, vol. 2 (Cambridge, 1978),
p. 19.
his translations of Luther and Calvin, Harro Hӧpfl highlights the variation in Luther’s opinions
towards authority, explaining that he could be either hostile or tolerant towards secular rulers
depending on their approach to religious reform.3 More recently, John Witte has focused on
the changing Lutheran attitude to legal authority. Witte acknowledges Luther’s hostility to
canon law, as well as his belief that scripture was a sufficient source of authority, but goes
on to argue that he increasingly advocated legal frameworks outside the Bible, particularly
relating to civil law and the role of jurists.4 Despite Luther’s developing tolerance of nonscriptural law, however, Hӧpfl stresses that the extra-biblical content of the Lutheran
approach to authority was not merely pragmatic, and that Luther’s theology could itself
accommodate secular law.5 This suggests that, while the supremacy of God and scripture
often appear as key tenets of the Lutheran movement, its approach to authority was by no
means fixed to the Bible. Thus, it is important that future scholarly assessment of Luther
continues to acknowledge his interest in ideas other than those directly based on scripture
and faith. Crucially, consistent attention should be paid to the ways in which Lutheran
theology attempted to fuse the authority and guidance of God with occurrences in the
physical world. (leading to...
A. G. Dickens provided a traditional overview of Lutheran theology, highlighting Luther’s
belief in salvation by faith alone, his christocentrism and his dismissal of good works,
indulgences and saints.6 Shortly after this focus on the rejection of what Dickens termed ‘the
religion of outward observances’, W. D. J. Cargill Thompson provided an assessment of the
theology of the ‘Two Kingdoms’. Thompson argues that the idea of the ‘Two Kingdoms’
demonstrates the Lutheran belief that God’s process of creation persists in the world, and
that both the temporal and spiritual existence of the Christian is important to Lutheran
theology.7 This begins to challenge Dickens, suggesting the relevance of the physical world
to Lutheranism, but it is equally important to appreciate the relationship between official
doctrine and popular belief during the period. Leading to...
Scholarship on popular religious beliefs and practices has often emphasised Protestant
opposition to the supernatural. Keith Thomas devoted much attention to the Protestant
suspicion of Catholic rituals, such as confirmation, consecration, incantation and most of the
H. Hӧpfl, Luther and Calvin on Secular Authority (Cambridge, 1991), pp. x-xi.
J. Witte, Law and Protestantism: The Legal Teachings of the Lutheran Reformation (Cambridge, 2002), pp. 14, 82-83.
Hӧpfl, Luther, pp. xi-xiii.
Dickens, Martin Luther, pp. 25-27.
W. D. J. Cargill Thompson, 'The "Two Kingdoms" and the "Two Regiments": Some Problems of Luther's
Zwei-Reiche-Lehre', Journal of Theological Studies, 20 (1969), pp. 164-185.
sacraments.8 This parallels Dickens’ approach to Lutheran authority, suggesting that
Protestantism, with its sole focus on scripture, was hostile to the excesses prevalent in
Catholicism. However, while Thomas saw the Reformation as creating a new sense of
separation between magic and religion, he also argues that Protestantism had a
supernatural dimension in its adherence to providence. Thomas explains the Protestant
belief that, since God was the prime authority over all things, every eventuality in the
physical world was viewed as divinely sanctioned. Importantly, it was believed that the Bible
provided a precedent for God’s triggering of events, including natural disasters.9 In light of
this, it would be erroneous to say that Protestant belief was entirely based on scripture, as it
still relied on interpretation to account for the changing nature of the world. R. W. Scribner
has further suggested some of the excesses of Protestant belief, emphasising the ritualistic
nature of antagonism towards Catholic traditions. Scribner highlights that iconoclasm and
other disruptions of Catholic traditions during the Reformation were often expressed as
cathartic rituals, incorporating themes of evangelical retribution and purification.10 This
suggests a ceremonial element to Protestantism that traditional assessments have often
underplayed. Combined with the divinity of natural disaster, this expression of excess draws
attention to the complexities of popular Protestant belief. In addition, Stuart Clark and C.
Scott Dixon have explored the response of Lutheran writers to magic, shedding light on a
crucial aspect of the relationship between theology and popular belief. They suggest that
Lutheran theologians, such as Andreas Althamer in 1532, articulated a connection between
sorcery and the work of the Devil in order to dissuade popular belief in magic. Crucially, this
connection did not dismiss the notion of magic as unfounded, but rather relied on the
credibility of magical practices as the causes of diabolical harm.11 This analysis is crucial in
order to understand the ways in which Lutheranism tried to deal with popular belief in the
supernatural, and historians have identified similar complexities in Lutheran attitudes
towards eschatology and astrology.
Andrew Cunningham and Ole Peter Grell have provided an extensive overview of the
multifarious ways in which the eschatological impulse was pervasive in early modern
K. Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth
Century England (Oxford, 1971), pp. 56-61.
Ibid., pp. 78-81; For the pervasiveness of providence in England and its unique place in Protestant theology,
see A. Walsham, Providence in Early Modern England (Oxford, 1999), pp. 8-9.
R. W. Scribner, Popular Culture and Popular Movements in Reformation Germany (London, 1987), pp. 103122.
S. Clark, ‘Protestant Demonology: Sin, Superstition and Society c. 1520-c. 1630’, in B. Ankarloo and G.
Henningsen (eds.), Early Modern Witchcraft: Centres and Peripheries (Oxford, 1990), pp. 45-91; C. S. Dixon,
‘Popular Beliefs and the Reformation in Brandenburg-Ansbach’, in B. Scribner and T. Johnson (eds.), Popular
Religion in Germany and Central Europe, 1400-1800 (London, 1996), pp. 126-127.
Europe.12 Their work addresses Luther’s symbolic significance, arguing that his emergence
as a prophetic reformer was widely interpreted as a signifier that the Last Days were
approaching.13 In order to explore early modern eschatology, this research has benefitted
from previous scholarship. This includes Norman Cohn’s study in millenarian Anabaptism,
Jean Delumeau’s far-reaching assessment of religious guilt and selfhood, as well as the
work of Robert Barnes, who has argued that notions of the apocalypse were integral to
Luther's theology, and that his thinking in turn catalysed a sense of urgency about the
imminence of the Last Days.14 In addition to the eschatological precedent for Lutheranism,
scholarship has also explored the role of various forms of disaster as factors in encouraging
apocalyptic beliefs. Avihu Zakai’s work on English Protestantism identifies an interesting
development in Luther’s own views on eschatological ‘disasters’ as signifiers. Zakai explains
that while Luther rejected prophetic signs as precursors to the apocalypse in 1522, he
expressed an interest in interpreting disasters in order to predict the future in 1545.15 This
scrutiny is crucial in order to establish that Luther’s views on eschatology were evolving over
time and were not necessarily hostile to interpreting physical events as evidence of God’s
will. Elaine Fulton and Penny Roberts have provided a further focus on physical events in
their study of early modern environmental change, emphasising the belief among Lutherans
such as Matthaeus Bader, writing in 1578, that natural disasters were triggered directly by
God.16 The common theme of these studies is that Lutheranism did not reject the physical in
favour of the spiritual. Luther and his supporters not only believed that God’s will manifested
itself in the physical world, but that every natural event was the product of a divine decision.
While this research provides deep insights into notions of the apocalypse, scholarship has
often taken a fragmented approach to Luther’s developing attitudes towards eschatology
and astrology. For example, Cunningham and Grell examine Luther’s discussion of cosmic
activity as a sign of the Day of Judgement, but provide only two brief examples of his
deference to celestial events as a means to predict the end of the world. 17 A deeper
investigation directly into Luther’s work, incorporating these pieces of evidence, could further
A. Cunningham and O. P. Grell, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Religion, War, Famine and Death in
Reformation Europe (Cambridge, 2000).
Ibid., p. 19.
R. B. Barnes, Prophecy and Gnosis: Apocalypticism in the Wake of the Lutheran Reformation (Stanford,
1988) pp. 139-140; N. Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium (2nd edn., Oxford, 1970); J. Delumeau, Sin and
Fear: The Emergence of a Western Guilt Culture 13 th-18th Centuries (New York, 1990).
A. Zakai, 'Reformation, History, and Eschatology in English Protestantism', History and Theory, 26 (1987),
pp. 300-318, pp. 304-305.
E. Fulton and P. Roberts, ‘The Wrath of God: Explanations of crisis and natural disaster in pre-modern
Europe’, Mark Levene and Richard Maguire (eds.), History at the End of the World? History, Climate Change
and the Possibility of Closure (Humanities e-books, 2009), pp. 67-79. [exact page number not available; used
author's manuscript copy].
Cunningham and Grell, The Four Horsemen, pp. 73-74.
illuminate his views on the relationship between eschatology and astrology.
Although not directly addressing Luther and Lutheranism, research into early modern
English astrology has provided important perspectives on theoretical approaches, literary
sources and the role of medicine.18 More directly, Luc Racaut has explored confessional
approaches to astrology in a study of the French Wars of Religion, providing an assessment
of previous scholarly approaches to astrology. Racaut warns against the tendency to see the
study of ‘superstition’ as an attempt to locate the development of Enlightenment scepticism
in early modern Protestant belief, and highlights that there were both Protestant and Catholic
advocates of astrology.19 While primarily concerned with the latter half of the sixteenth
century, after Luther’s death, Racaut’s contribution to the historiography of astrology is
nonetheless valuable because it dispels the anachronistic search for Enlightenment values
in the Reformation, encouraging historians to assess Lutheranism on its own terms. Robin
Barnes has adopted this approach in his assessment of Luther's attitudes towards astrology.
Barnes explains that Luther's scepticism towards 'systematic' astrological predictions was
predicated on his strict adherence to scripture, but goes on to say that he refrained from
dismissing it entirely and sometimes identified cosmic occurrences as eschatological
signifiers.20 Barnes goes on to examine a preface to the astrological predictions of Johannes
Lichtenberger, published in 1527, in which Luther advocates the interpretation of celestial
events but argues that they could never be categorised or used to make consistent
predictions.21 This contribution is useful because it further complicates the traditional
perception of Luther as rejecting all non-scriptural foundations for religious belief, and also
suggests that his response to astrology was far from directly hostile. It is crucial that future
research carries this assertion forward in a more extensive investigation of Luther’s views.
C. Scott Dixon has reinforced this understanding, arguing that Lutherans saw their beliefs as
intrinsically linked to divine celestial movements and that Luther's failure to condemn
astrology outright contributed to its persistence after his death.22 However, it remains for the
See B. Capp, Astrology and the Popular Press: English Almanacs 1500-1800 (London, 1979); L. H. Curth,
English Almanacs: Astrology and Popular Medicine 1550-1700 (Manchester, 2007); M. S. Dawson, 'Astrology
and Human Variation in Early Modern England', Historical Journal, 56 (2013), pp. 31-53. For a critique of
teleology and positivism in approaches to the history of astrology, see P. Curry, ‘Astrology in early modern
England: the making of a vulgar knowledge’, in S. Pumfrey, P. L. Rossi and M. Slawinski (eds.), Science,
Culture and Popular Belief in Renaissance Europe (Manchester, 1991), pp. 274-291, pp. 288-290.
L. Racaut, ‘A Protestant or Catholic superstition? Astrology and eschatology during the French Wars of
Religion’, in H. Parish and W. G. Naphy (eds.), Religion and Superstition in Reformation Europe (Manchester,
2002), pp. 154-169, p. 154, 166.
Barnes, Prophecy, pp. 144.
Ibid., pp. 146-148.
C. Scott Dixon, 'Popular Astrology and Lutheran Propaganda in Reformation Germany,' History, 84 (1999),
pp. 403-418, p. 403, 408-409. A similar process has been suggested by Philip Soergel in relation to Luther’s
views on both angels and miracles, the existence of which he saw as superfluous to faith in God but also never
denied, thus perpetuating Lutheran beliefs in these ideas after his death. See P. M. Soergel, Miracles and the
various examples of Luther’s ambivalence towards astrology to be drawn together to provide
a more coherent account of his views.
Any interpretation of Luther’s attitudes towards eschatology and astrology would be
undermined without a concrete understanding of his identity. As scholarship on authority has
demonstrated, Luther has been traditionally associated with change and characterised as
deferring to scripture and faith in direct opposition to the worldly excesses of late-medieval
Catholicism. However, historians such as Heiko A. Oberman have gradually updated this
perception, highlighting numerous elements of late-medieval thought in Luther’s outlook. For
example, Oberman argues that Luther’s understanding of the Antichrist and the Last Days
was informed by the teachings of St. Augustine (354-430) and the preacher Bernard of
Clairvaux (1091-1153).23 Oberman goes on to question the notion of Luther’s modernity,
explaining that his views on the Devil were not merely metaphorical as Protestant historians
have claimed, but actually referred to a physical conflict that was taking place in the world. 24
This contribution is useful because it emphasises the nuance of Luther’s beliefs and the
context in which they developed. Crucially, Oberman’s work has encouraged historians to
examine the late-medieval background from which Luther emerged, prompting further
scholarship to engage with the elements of continuity as well as change evident in his views.
Studies in material culture and visual depictions of Luther have debated this sense of
continuity. Scribner's research into claims surrounding miraculously ‘incombustible’ portraits
of Luther, the first of which emerged in 1521, has raised further questions over the radical
nature and transformative effects of the Reformation.25 More recently, Lyndal Roper has
questioned this approach, arguing that while imagery and clothing were important to early
modern visualisations of Luther, these emphasised his humanity rather than the saintly
iconography associated with late medieval Catholicism.26 This particular debate is indicative
of a wider disagreement that is yet to be resolved, and discussions of continuity and change
must expand in order to scrutinise other aspects of Luther’s life, such as his approach to
cosmic activity. Alongside this dialogue around continuity and change, Richard Marius has
sought to further unravel the perception of theological consistency that Luther’s supposedly
scriptural and faith-based focus implies. Marius argues that Luther’s beliefs were the product
of an inner conflict between fear and doubt on the one hand and the eagerness to be faithful
Protestant Imagination: The Evangelical Wonder Book in Reformation Germany (Oxford, 2012), pp. 33-66; P.
M. Soergel, ‘Luther on the angels’, in P. Marshall and A. Walsham (eds.), Angels in the Early Modern World
(Cambridge, 2006), pp. 67-68.
H. A. Oberman, Luther: Man between God and the Devil (Yale, 1989), pp. 67-71.
Ibid., pp. 102-106.
R. W. Scribner, 'Incombustible Luther: The Image of the Reformer in Early Modern Germany', Past and
Present, 110 (1986), pp. 38-68, pp. 38-39, 68.
L. Roper, 'Martin Luther's Body: The "Stout Doctor" and His Biographers', American Historical Review, 115
(2010) pp. 351-384, p. 383.
on the other.27 Marius also touches on cosmic activity, referencing a letter in which Luther
muses over whether or not a meteor shower sighted over Vienna in 1520 could have been
an omen.28 This hints at a more intimate understanding of Luther’s doubts, but it remains
another fragment of evidence that has yet to be incorporated into a more detailed study of
Luther’s mindset.
Scholarship on the themes of authority, theology and popular belief has undermined the
argument that Lutheranism was based solely on scripture and faith. Research into
eschatology has provided persuasive evidence that Luther’s beliefs were informed by
expectations of the Last Days, while works on early modern astrology have repeatedly
suggested his complex attitude towards cosmic events and their correspondence to divine
will. What remains to be undertaken is a critical analysis of Luther’s developing attitudes
towards astrology, providence, omens and portents, integrating his various comments on
celestial interpretation into one holistic study.
R. Marius, Martin Luther: The Christian between God and Death (Harvard, 1999), pp. xiii-xiv.
Ibid., p. 219. For the importance of Luther’s letters and the need to approach them critically, see L. Roper,
'"To his Most Learned and Fearest Friend": Reading Luther's Letters', German History, 28 (2010), pp. 283-295.