“And Take They Our Life” – More Thoughts on “A Mighty Fortress”

By | May 16, 2020

The short phrase “and take they our life” is the fifth line of the fourth and final stanza of one of the greatest Christian hymns in all of sacred music, “A Mighty Fortress” (EIN FESTE BURG) by Martin Luther (1483-1546). This phrase consists of five words in English and only four in the original German, “nehmen sie den Leib,” but behind it lies Luther’s entire Theology of Martyrdom which points us by extension to his Theology of the Cross. These issues are addressed in a recently published book by the Rev. Bryan Wolfmueller And Take They Our Life: Martin Luther’s Theology on Martyrdom (click image above for details).

Martyrdom of Johann Esch and Heinrich Voes in 1523

When Luther wrote the phrase “and take they our life” he no doubt was thinking of himself since after the Edict of Worms in 1521 he was in danger of being arrested at any moment and summarily executed. No doubt he was thinking of Hendrick Voess and Johann van Esschen, the first martyrs of the Reformation who were burned at the stake in Brussels on July 1, 1523 for defying the Edict of Worms and preaching the theology of justification by grace alone (see picture). After Luther learned of their martyrdom, he wrote an open letter publicizing it and praising their faithfulness. He also published his first hymn which became quite popular, a ballad recounting their execution and steadfastness (click here for a recording in German and here for a translation). No doubt Luther was also thinking of Brother Henry of Zutphen who suffered the same fate in 1524 except that the crowd couldn’t get the fire started in the middle of a wet December, so they just beat him to death (click here for the stories of these martyrs).

In this short book Rev. Wolfmueller first provides insight into Luther’s response to the martyrdoms of his time by examining a letter of comfort he wrote to Brother Henry’s congregation in Bremen. In the second chapter Rev. Wolfmueller recounts the stories of St. Agnes and Agatha, two martyrs of the early church who Luther mentions frequently in his writings. This broader discussion reveals Luther’s keen awareness and deep understanding of the issue. An appendix provides additional poignant quotes by Luther on martyrdom. Throughout it is important to note that “distinct from the practice of the Middle Ages, Luther extolled the martyrs not as champions of good works, but champions of faith.” Through them we always are pointed to the death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Rev. Wolfmueller sets this tone right at the start of the book:

It is a great wonder that the grand moment of the devil’s triumph is the precise moment of his overthrow. It is the same great wonder that the death of God is eternal life for man. Likewise, that the profound humiliation and shame of Jesus’ cross is His glory and exaltation. In the weakness of the cross God overpowers sin, death, and the devil. In the foolishness of the cross sinners are made wise unto salvation. In the suffering of Jesus we Christians are given eternal happiness. In His forsakenness we are forgiven. In His death we find life, an eternal life that never ends, that cannot end.

Wolfmueller, Bryan. And Take They Our Life: Martin Luther’s Theology of Martyrdom. Around the Word. Kindle Edition.

And Take They Our Life: Martin Luther’s Theology on Martyrdom is a companion to another book by Rev. Wolfmueller, A Martyr’s Faith in a Faithless World which is also highly recommended (see link below). Both books will give great meaning to and a fuller understanding of the short phrase “and take they our life.”

For a playlist of some interesting and remarkable settings of “A Mighty Fortress,” click here.

Soli Deo Gloria!

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