Sunday, December 18, 2005

The Facts About Luther (Part Two): Sin Boldly

Above: my 1916 copy of The Facts About Luther (At the bottom, the price says "25 Cents"). To the Right: The 1987 TAN reprint.

Did Luther Say "Be a Sinner and Sin Boldly"? Well, yes, he did. In this link, I took a close look at this outrageous statement from Luther. In a later part of the paper, I took a look at the way Roman Catholics have treated this statement. Generally, they thrust this statement to the forefront of his theology as a description of his understanding of faith and works. This of course, is a spurious method. John Warwick Montgomery so accurately pointed out:

“The Luther research movement, which took its origin in recent years largely from Karl Holl's work, and which has produced a 'veritable Luther-renaissance' in our understanding of the reformer, has been based on two cardinal principles: first, Luther must be allowed to speak for himself, not through the mouths of later interpreters, whether friend or foe; and second, the touchstone in Luther's interpretation must be the reformer's central convictions, not his occasional remarks, which, when taken in isolation from his central convictions, can be used to build utterly perverse and misleading descriptions of his character.”
Source: John Warwick Montgomery, In Defense of Luther (Wisconsin: Northwestern Publishing House, 1970), 129.

One such mis-interpreter of Luther was Father O’Hare. Indeed, Luther’s statement “sin boldly” receives plenty of attention in his book, The Facts About Luther. Here is an excellent example of violating exactly what Montgomery sets out above. The “sin boldly” quote is an obscure saying of Luther’s from a fragment of a letter. The letter has no address, salutation, or signature. In other words, it has no beginning or ending, thus lacking a complete context. I strongly doubt anyone besides Melanchthon was aware of this remark until many years (if not a hundred or two or three) after Luther’s death. The letter was originally part of a private collection that was published, I believe in the 1800’s. After being published, Catholic scholars (and some liberal protestant scholars) with a strong bent against Luther jumped all over it. Because Roman Catholic authors cited it out of context and blew it out proportion, common laymen (both Protestant and Catholic) were given a faulty understanding of Luther’s theology of justification by faith alone. Thus, I blame anti-Luther writings (pre-Joseph Lortz) for causing the confusion over this quote.

Now in my paper, I took a look at Father O’Hare’s interpretation of Luther’s “sin boldly” O’Hare states:

"‘Be a sinner,’ [Luther] says, ‘sin boldly and fearlessly.’ The command embodied in the unsuspicious words set at naught all the laws of morality and gives wide scope to human freedom and to disorder. The thought of the degrading recommendation makes the blood run cold in the veins of decent, law-abiding people.”

“Luther's pronouncement, ‘Be a sinner and sin boldly,’ has only one meaning, namely, a command to transgress the Divine Law, insult God and open up the way to the commission of crime and iniquity.”

O’Hare’s misinterpretation of Luther’s “sin boldly” is due to the gross literalism he applies to the text. By setting up a strawman interpretation, he then proceeds to hurl invective at Luther relentlessly for about two pages. Protestants who correctly avoid such gross literalism O’Hare says, “have edited and interpreted the recommendation so as to give it a turn and a meaning altogether unwarranted and untenable.”

Father O’Hare misrepresents Luther repeatedly. He holds Luther was not only mad, but also morally depraved and corrupt. He asserts that Luther in the Wartburg was in close touch with Satan. Luther lived an indecent life, disparaged celibacy and virginity, sanctioned adultery, dishonored marriage, authorized prostitution and polygamy, and was a drunkard found in the tavern. Luther was a blasphemer, a libertine, a revolutionary, a hater of religious vows, a disgrace to the religious calling, and the propagator of immorality and open licentiousness. O’Hare’s understanding of “sin boldly” serves as a good example why The Facts About Luther is one of the worst ever written. It shows that simply because someone has the “facts” doesn’t necessarily mean they’re presenting the truth.

Now a Roman Catholic Apologist recently pointed out to me that Father O’Hare does mention “…Luther's own stress on good works as part and parcel of saving faith…” To substantiate this, he directed me to pages 116-117 of O’Hare’s book:

“We do not wish to insinuate that [Luther] actually taught and approved sin, for we know that he did as a rule instruct men to avoid violations of the Law and repress the concupiscence leading thereto. But we do hold that his whole theory of justification by faith alone and his denial of moral freedom, making God 'the author of what is evil in us,' necessarily broke down the usual barriers against sin, and that his moral recommendations very often in the plainest of language did actually and openly encourage sin.”

The Roman apologist pointed out that O’Hare is simply using a form of the reductio ad absurdum. In other words, O’Hare is really consistently saying that Luther did teach and preach good works, but the effects of justification by faith alone resulted in lawlessness.

The problem I see with the Romanist's reading is that O’Hare consistently throughout the book portrays Luther as against good works. In my 1916 copy of The Facts About Luther, the book contains an index. Under the heading “Works” the reader is directed to the following entries “Luther opposed to good, 104; according to Luther not necessary, 107; denounced good, 111; disastrous results of opposition to good, 112, 128, 129, 134” Don’t bother trying to match up these pages references with the TAN reprint- these refer to my 1916 copy- the pages are numbered differently. By the way, these are the only entries listed under "Works". Nowhere do you find the index referring to Luther's teaching good works positively. The book is not trying to tell you that Luther consistently taught and preached about needed good works- It wants you to know that Luther was a deceptive minion of Satan that said one thing and practised another.

This example from O’Hare should suffice:

“This view of justification [faith alone] was forthwith made the fundamental dogma of the new religion Luther formulated for the world's acceptance. From the time this false doctrine was first announced, his followers in heresy have been taught to believe that men are saved by faith alone and that good works are altogether unnecessary. "The Gospel," Luther falsely declares, "teaches nothing of the merits of works; he that says the Gospel requires works for salvation, I say, flat and plain, is a liar." {Table Talk, p. 137, Hazlitt}. If men believe in Christ, they are told, and accept Him as their personal Saviour, His justice will be imputed to them and they will go straight to Heaven. It does not matter what evil they have done during their lives; it does not matter whether or not they repent of their sins; it does not matter whether or not, at the moment of death, they have compunction, contrition or attrition, or are in a state of grace- if they have faith they will be saved” (101-102)

Really, O’Hare’s understanding of Luther is not primarily to argue using a form of the reductio ad absurdum. Rather, O’Hare is intent on showing the contradictory nature of Luther’s theology. This is most plainly seen in his treatment of Luther’s understanding of the law on pages 107- 116. O’Hare notes that Luther “wanted the law announced.” “He preached it and taught it” (108). But then O’Hare spews a multitude of quotes implying Luther hated the law and sought to do away with it.

When O’Hare notes on 116-117 that Luther didn’t teach and approve of sin, he has to do so because of the overwhelming content of Luther’s works consistently say this. The picture O’Hare wants to draw of Luther is that of a deceptive theologian who inconsistently created a bogus theology. In other words, O’Hare’s Luther says one thing (Obey the law, do good works), and then says another: sin boldly. This is clearly shown in the discussion beginning on page 119, where O’Hare begins discussing moral questions that were asked of Luther by his friends. The picture of Luther painted by O’Hare is that of a gross sinner who hated morality and good works. On page 122 O’Hare states, “When we consider [Luther’s] own behavior and the dangerous advice he gave his friends, we are led to believe that only one devoid of his senses or one morally weak could condone, palliate, and defend sin…” Then, “It cannot be denied that Luther taught that ‘good works are useless’ that ‘they are sin’ and in fact ‘impossible.’ ” (122).

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