Johannes Cochlaeus: an
introduction to his life and work
by Ralph Keen
Johannes Cochlaeus stands among the prominent members of the Catholic reaction to the Reformation during its first three decades. His work serves as valuable evidence for scholars of the division of western Christianity that took place in the sixteenth century. But two qualities give him a special place among the early Catholic respondents to Protestantism: the volume of his work and the rhetorical ferocity of his reaction to the beginnings of Protestantism. He was the most prolific and most acerbic of the Catholic polemicists, and both of these qualities in tandem give him a historical importance that is only now being recognized. While the Commentary on the Life of Luther has long been acknowledged to be Cochlaeus's most important work, Cochlaeus himself and his other works remain largely unknown, especially in the English-speaking world.1
The early stage of Cochlaeus's career was one in which correcting errors in biblical interpretation seemed sufficient response to the new attacks on the old faith. But after the Diet of Augsburg of 1530, Cochlaeus's writings pursue a new theme. Whereas the preceding decade was focused on religious issues, in the 1530s the Reformers had drawn their princes' support to their cause, and in the eyes of Romanists like Cochlaeus the matter became a political as well as a theological one. From 1530 to 1539 Cochlaeus combined religious argument with political exhortation, impressing upon Catholic secular authorities the importance of recognizing the danger of tolerating the Protestants. Cochlaeus stands out among the controversialists in his combination of political and religious rhetoric. There is an obvious biographical reason for this. From 1528 he served as court chaplain to Duke George of Saxony, one of the most relentless opponents of reform among the German nobility. With the creation of political alliances like the Schmalkald Federation in 1529, the Reformation became an issue for public counsel. Cochlaeus, who as court chaplain had the ear of his duke, becomes through his writings of this period the theological counselor to the Catholic nobility throughout Europe.
This survey offers the reader of the Commentary an introduction to the main events of Cochlaeus's career and an assessment of his treatment of Luther. His career falls into three periods: from his youth to the beginning of his work as chaplain to the Duke of Saxony; the years in Meissen, when he was at his