“Lest the Human Race Die in Despair”: A Poem on Luther for Reformation Day

The great and good celebration of the Festival of the Reformation is coming up this Sunday, and so for this week’s “Melanchthon Monday” I offer you a poem Melanchthon wrote about Martin Luther to his son, Martin Luther.

The poem deals with the chief themes of the Reformation: the recovery of the gospel of grace that frees one from the hard and unforgiving bondage of the law–justification by faith alone, the material principle of the Reformation; and the source of Christian theology in the Holy Scriptures–Scripture alone, the formal principle of the Reformation. Lines 7-8 highlight in particular Luther’s translation of the Bible into the vernacular, and the corresponding importance of reading the Bible when it is available in one’s own language.

It is also a poem about filial piety, in two ways. First, spiritually: Luther’s spiritual descendants owe God gratitude for his ministry. Second, naturally: Luther’s son ought to know about and follow the example of his father. Both are entailed by the fourth commandment. Because this is so, the close of the poem shows how–though it is only implicit–the Reformational proclamation of the gospel, which refuses to confuse the gospel with the law, nevertheless does not at all abandon the law.

The poem is in elegiac couplets; my translation is in English blank verse.

De Reverendo Viro Martino Luthero Doctore Theologiae, ad Filium Martinum Lutherum.

Mersa erat in tetras Ecclesia maesta tenebras,

#########Ac tacuit dura lege sepulta fides.

Ne tamen humanum prorsus genus omne periret,

#########Voce tui docuit nos Deus ipse patris.

Hic cum multa suae fidei monumenta dedisset

#########Doctrinae spargens semina pura Dei,

In linguam nostram studuit transfundere fontes

#########Et tantum lucis lectio nulla tenet.

Ergo Deum, pariterque Dei celebrare ministrum

#########Perpetuo gratae posteritatis erit.

Ac te praecipue patris novisse labores,

#########Ipsiusque sequi iussa verenda decet.

On the Reverend Martin Luther, Teacher of Theology, to His Son, Martin Luther.

The church, despondent, choked on night’s dank fog,

And faith grew silent, buried by the law.

Yet, lest the human race die in despair,

The Lord God taught us by your father’s voice.

When he had given tokens of his faith

By strewing pure seeds of God’s good news,

Their sources he transfused into our tongue; 

No other reading radiates such light.

Therefore with thanks perpetual we laud

And magnify God and his minister.

That you, his son, your father’s labors know

And follow his commands is meet and right.

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