Monday, August 22, 2016

Which Luther?

I have often suggested that the characterizations of Lutherans from many Roman Catholics, even those Roman Catholics who were once Lutheran, is a false characterization.  Just a few weeks ago I nailed Francis and others who read Luther wrongly or blamed Luther for the wrongs of Vatican II.  But Christopher Jackson, pastor of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church and St. John’s Lutheran Church in Northeast Wisconsin, has written a great piece in the First Things Blog suggesting that those Roman Catholics who are doing this are following bad Lutheran interpretations of Luther.  In other words, the misconceptions of Luther began not with Roman Catholics but with Lutherans who do not always know or read their own namesake correctly.  This is most certainly true.

The sad reality is that Luther is often read by Lutherans through the lens of the modern day divisions of Rome and Wittenberg and with a view toward enhancing the divisions between us rather than a more objective read of Luther within the framework of his own words and time.  In addition, we often blur the distinction between the words of Luther that inform and shape Lutherans (namely, the few words of Luther that form part of the Lutheran Confessions) and the rest of Luther which has no binding force upon Lutheran doctrine or confession.  I am not suggesting that Luther is peripheral to the Lutherans but only reminding us that Luther's words (apart from the Catechisms and the Smalcald Articles) are important but not definitive.  Only the Book of Concord is.

Secondly, Luther is cherry picked for statements often used outside the context of Luther's time or intent to address issues and conflicts in our own day.  This is not necessarily wrong because Luther did speak to issues we face today but it is incumbent upon us to make sure that Luther's words are not torn out of context or some of Luther's words used to define all of what Luther said.  Finally, the words of Luther we often resonate with are not necessarily the most popular expressions Luther himself used in his preaching and teaching.  Again, this is not necessarily wrong but it does place the burden upon us to make sure we do not make more of some of these turns of a phrase than Luther himself did or we risk being unfaithful to him and to the Lutheran faith.

The young Luther or the old Luther, the catholic Luther or the protestant Luther, the firebrand Luther or the conciliatory Luther...  Which Luther is the real Luther?  Well, all of them.  Luther cannot be cut up and subdivided in ways that betray him and his words.  Luther with all his faults and with all his genius must be taken as a whole and not defined by one moment in time or one word spoken or written.

Pastor Jackson summarized his point with words I quote below but I would commend his whole article to you.  Whether you are Roman, Reformed, Evangelical, or Lutheran, we need to make sure we do not paint a picture of Luther that he would reject.  The temptation is great to abuse Luther but the value of keeping Luther straight is key not only to the future of Lutheranism but to the general ecumenical cause.

Catholics should resist importing from today's Lutherans a view of Luther that Luther himself would not have recognized. Instead, I suggest that Catholics—and Lutherans—consider a perspective on Luther promoted by many insightful Catholics. In Luther’s Faith, Catholic theologian Daniel Olivier portrayed Luther as one who was enamored of Christ, with a fierce love and loyalty that drove his theology. Pope Benedict XVI echoed this sentiment in a 2011 speech:
Luther’s thinking, his whole spirituality, was thoroughly Christocentric: “What promotes Christ’s cause” was for Luther the decisive hermeneutical criterion for the exegesis of sacred Scripture. This presupposes, however, that Christ is at the heart of our spirituality and that love for him, living in communion with him, is what guides our life.
That perspective on Luther does not well serve the polemicist, whether Catholic or Lutheran. But, it is the truth, and it is just that Christocentric spirituality, that intense love of the Lord Jesus, that I believe should be considered a hallmark of Luther’s theology, over and against “the Simul.”


Carl Vehse said...

Beggars All: Reformation & Apologetics has had many, many articles over the years explaining quotes attributed to Luther by Romanists. These quotes consistently have been taken out of context or mistranslated to propagandize Luther and Lutheranism as being anti-Christian. Some of the Beggars All articles have been updated with new references and links to Luther's original writings now available on the internet.

Rather than Rev. Jackson's title, "Catholics are adopting a Lutheran [sic]Perspective on Martin Luther They Shouldn't," over the years the Beggars All articles's have readers realizing that "Romanist are Foisting a Lufauxran Perspective on Martin Luther That Is Nothing But Romanist."

John Flanagan said...

Luther was complex. Like each of us, he was beset by competing thoughts, ideas and emotions, and his scriptural interpretations and theology were influenced by his Catholicism. But he was first and foremost a reformer. His work, "Bondage of the Will" is essential reading. The clarity in which he articulated his opposition to the Papal system, the idea of the Pope's infallibility, the sale of indulgences, the need to place the Bible into the hands of ordinary their own language.....these were his greatest achievements. He was flawed and often contentious, unwise in his anti-Semetic remarks, and has been loved and hated throughout his life. But he brought about a much needed Reformation, and in my humble opinion, changed the Christian world forever.

William Tighe said...

"the need to place the Bible into the hands of ordinary Christians."

You know, or should know, that in the last decade of his life Luther vehemently repudiated this idea, which he had embraced for a time in the early 1520s, even citing with approval the statement of the 15th-Century preacher Geilo of Kaysersberg "“to give a layman the Bible and ask him to read it for himself is like giving a three-year-old child a hatchet to play with.”

Luther was all for general Bible-reading in the late 15teens and early 1520s, and thought that the plowboy reading the Bible at the plow, and the milkmaid at the stool would lead to a revival of “true Christianity.” When, however, he realized that “read for yourself” Bible study drew far more ordinary folk into sectarian movememts of all sorts — Anabaptists, milennarians, spiritualists and rationalists — than to orthodox Lutheranism, and also — and just as bad — gave rise to the view that academic Bible scholars (such as himself) had no privileged insight into its its meaning by virtue of their linguistic, literary and dialectical training, he changed his tune; and came to believe that the possession and reading of the whole Bible ought to be limited to those with a high degree of education, and that for the rest (the great majority) they ought to be supplied with selected Biblical excerpts and pericopes calculated to promote their devotional lives and moral practice, buut avoiding anything likely to lead to theological speculation.

And, of course, the later Luther was right.

Anonymous said...

Carl -

You are aces on "Beggars All." James Swan does a yeoman's work in his research and writings. I highly commend him.

J. Baxter

Carl Vehse said...

Dr. Tighe, do you have a specific reference to Martin Luther's writings where he "vehemently repudiated" ordinary Christians reading the Bible, and where he specifically cites the statement from Johann Geiler von Kaisersberg (1445–1510)?

Also in what reference did Geiler make that quoted statement?

Janis Williams said...

Dr. Tighe, I see your point, but would also love to see specific sightings of Luther.

I can see today the possible usefulness of carefully ensuring highly trained scholars and Theologians teach the rest of the people. Isn't this the idea behind Lutheran pastors being the best trained clergy? I absolutely shiver when I hear or read the, "what does this verse mean to you?" type of study format. We are far to apt to publish study material that ranges from smarmy to silly. Evanjellyfish are absolutely infected with this disease, but the virus seems to have spread.

We average, everyday Lutheran Christians who know nothing (or just enough to make us dangerous) of the original languages desperately need to submit ourselves to the Formula of Concord, and to solid preaching and teaching. This would require 1. Our commitment to read (since most of us in America are literate) the Formula, and 2. Our conscious submission to a pastor who is faithful.

John Flanagan said... do not have enough lifetimes or years on this earth to do a scholarly examination of the Formula of Concord and to digest the substantial theological arguments you will encounter. Just read your Bible or a Lutheran Study Bible and ask the Holy Spirit to guide you along your journey. Otherwise, you will get bogged down with too many details. This is fine if you want to be a theologian. For an ordinary Christian, much of the New Testament is self explanatory. As a saved child of God, you need not be burdened with deep arguments of a theologic kind. I admit the OT is more difficult to comprehend, but the Gospels and Epistles are not hard for an ordinary Christian to understand.

Carl Vehse said...

Luther's translation of the NT from the Greek into German was completed and published in 1522. The OT, translated from Greek and Hebrew, was completed in 1534. Luther continued to be involved in subsequent and improved editions of the Bible, which were published up until a year before his death. Even the 1546 edition published by Georg Rörer had some improvements that had come from Luther before his death.

All of these efforts were to provide the German people access to the Bible in their language. Today, in the U.S., while the Missouri Synod uses varous English translations of the Bible, the CPH still sells a copy of Luther's Bible and the ESV English Bible printed in side-by-side columns.

A Google search of the English translation of a statement attributed to Geiler is found only in Dr. Tighe's previous 2011 comment on a Touchstone blog.

Unless there is some specific, referenced and documented evidence to the contrary, it remains questionable that "Luther vehemently repudiated this idea" of putting the Bible into the hands of ordinary Christians and quoted Johann Geiler von Kaisersberg for support.

Johann Geiler did oppose a German Bible—the one of his day which was translated from the Latin Vulgate version. However (in a statement found in Samuel Berger, La Bible au XVIe siècle, Geneva: Slatkine, 1879, p. 32 and ref. 59) Geiler used the centuries-old analogy of a wax nose: "Die heilige geschaft ist wie ein wachserne nase, man bügt es war man will." (The Holy Bible is like a waxen nose, a man can twist it to suit himself).

During the Reformation, the wax nose analogy was used many times by one side against the other side. In 1520 Martin Luther wrote: "Also sehen wir wie fein die Romanisten mit der schrifft handeln, machen drauß was sie nur wollen, als were sie ein wechsern nasen, die man hyn und her zihen mocht." (Thus we can see how beautifully the Romanists treat the Scriptures and make out of them what they like, as if they were a nose of wax, to be pulled around at will.) (Von dem Papstthum zu Rom wider den hochberühmten Romanisten zu Leipzig ("On the Papacy at Rome a Reply to the Celebrated Romanist at Leipzig," from D. Martin Luthers Werke, Vol. 6, p. 305, line 24ff; English translation from Works of Martin Luther Vol. 1 (Philadelphia Edition) pp. 329-394, as posted on Beggars All).

Janis Williams said...

@ Mr. Flanagan (sorry if the title is wrong). By your argument, no pastor should study the Concordia, either. By that argument, no average Christian should study the Bible, because a million lifetimes are not adequate to understand the full meaning even of John 3:16, the Pater Noster, etc. If the common man(or woman) would be "bogged down" reading the Concordia, why did CPH publish a reader's edition? Why are numerous parish pastors teaching the Catechism (Large or Small)? Average Christian men and women (women should not preach/pastor, but they are sometimes capable theologians) should know why they are Lutheran, and why they should be so. Study of Scripture should not be ignored, or reduced in order to learn what we believe and why.

William Tighe said...

I have to admit that I may have been mistaken, as I cannot find the source of the quote. My memory is, that I found it in one of Steven Ozment's books. I did get the name wrong: he was Johann Geiler of Kaysersberg (1445-1510), one of the most renowned preachers of late medieval Germany, who spent much of his career in Strassburgh; cf.:

A google search turned up this:

See p. 107 for the quotation, which, however, I can barely read on my screen, as the print is tiny, and the text upside-down.

William Tighe said...

See also p. 96 here:

Carl Vehse said...

Dr. Tighe,

Thank you for the references to Johann Geiler's quoted statement. Geiller is also quoted as saying, "Es ist fast ein bös Ding dass man die Bibel zu deutsch druckt." (It is almost a wicked thing to print the Bible in German.)
(See History of the Christian Church, Volume VI: The Middle Ages. A.D. 1294-1517 by Philip Schaff, Ref. 1240: Quoted by Frietsche-Nestle in Herzog, II. 704.)

Opposition to translating the Bible into German and putting it into the hands of the common man (much less woman!) was an established position in the pre-Reformation church, with some exceptions like Erasmus.

However, there is no indication that Martin Luther ever came to support such a position as that stated by Geiler.

James Swan said...


The Geiler von Kaiserberg quote can be found in W. Kooiman, Luther en de Bijbel, 73

Principieel kon de Kerk moeilijk bezwaar hebben tegen overzetting van de Bijbel in de volkstaal. Van oudsher was de Schrift immers vertaald; de Septuagint was een vertaling van het Oude Testament in het Grieks, de Vulgaat een vertaling in het Latijn, maar deze officiële overzettingen, inzonderheid de Vulgaat, werden als authentieke Bijbel beschouwd. Op de tekst van de Vulgaat was de scholastieke theologie gebouwd. Afwijkende vertalingen konden onoverzienbare gevolgen hebben voor de kerkelijke leer. Daarom wenste de Kerk in die dagen zeker de lekenbijbel niet. Het lezen en bestuderen van de heilige Schrift moest voorbehouden blijven aan de geestelijke stand, die immers ook alleen in staat was haar inhoud te verklaren. Zo waarschuwt de beroemde Straatsburger prediker Geiler von Kaisersberg: 'Het is een kwaad ding om de Bijbel in het Duits te drukken. Hij moet immers geheel anders verstaan worden dan de tekst luidt. Het is gevaarlijk om kinderen het mes in de hand te geven om ze hun eigen brood te laten snijden. Ze kunnen er zich mee verwonden. Zo moet ook de H. Schrift, die het brood van God bevat, gelezen en verklaárd worden door mensen met gevorderde kennis en ervaring, die de ware zin er uit kunnen halen' . Vertalingen in de volkstaal ontstonden dan ook veelal in ketterse kringen, die zich in hun verzet tegen de wereldlijke macht van de Kerk en haar leergezag terug-trokken op Gods Woord om van daaruit steeds weer hun aanvallen in te zetten , al was dit in Duitsland minder het geval dan elders.

Kooiman cites "Bij G. Buchwald, 400 Jahre deutsche Lutherbibel, 1934, S.4" as his source.

The Kooiman book has been translated into English (,+luther+and+the+Bible&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjFr_ygguTOAhUCrB4KHXtYAJUQ6AEIHDAA). I have a hard copy of the English translation as well.

Kooiman does not link the quote in question to any sort of affirmation from Luther.

I also have a some Ozment books, and only found one which referenced Geiler von Kaiserberg in passing- The Reformation in the Cities. I didn't Google search any of Ozment's books, I simply checked the indexes of the ones I own.