Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Luther Said: Christ Committed Adultery?

This Luther quote pops up every so often. For instance, over on the CARM boards, A Roman Catholic said:

"Searching for something else I came across the following quote from Martin Luther, found in his works in German, and am curious to see if anyone here has seen it before and perhaps can offer an explanation of it. "Christ committed adultery first of all with the woman at the well about whom St. John tells us. Was not everybody about Him saying: "Whatever has he been doing with her?" Secondly, with Mary Magdalene, and thirdly with the woman taken in adultery whom he dismissed so lightly. Thus even Christ, who was so righteous, must have been guilty of fornication before He died."(D. Martin Luthers Werke, kritische Gesamtausgabe , vol. 2, no. 1472, April 7 - May 1, 1532, p. 33)"

Documentation
The reference given is to "Martin Luthers Werke, kritische Gesamtausgabe, vol. 2, no. 1472, April 7 - May 1, 1532, p. 33." What is meant by this is Luther's Werke, Weimarer Ausgabe (WA). WA separates Luther's writings into categories. The "Vol. 2" being referenced is to the second volume in the second set of writings, Tischreden (WA TR). The reference, "p. 33" is not correct. This incorrect page number may have originally gained popularity from this 2004 link.  A number of websites document the quote incorrectly as page 33 (for instance, Dr. Phil Blosser the Pertinacious Papist and Bruce Chilton). A popular anti-Luther page documents the quote as "Trishreden, Weimer Edition, Vol. 2, Pg. 107. - What a great blasphemy from a man who is regarded as 'great reformer'!" While they get the page number correct (page 107), they misspell Tischreden as "Trishreden." Here is how WA TR 2:107 reads,


The quote is available in the English edition of Luther's Works. It is from Luther's Table Talk, LW 54:154. Luther didn't write the Table Talk. It is a collection of second-hand comments written down by Luther's friends and students, published after his death.

Context
No. 1472: Christ Reproached as Adulterer Between April 7 and May 1, 1532
[Martin Luther said,] “Christ was an adulterer for the first time with the woman at the well, for it was said, ‘Nobody knows what he’s doing with her’ [John 4:27]. Again [he was an adulterer] with Magdalene, and still again with the adulterous woman in John 8 [:2–11], whom he let off so easily. So the good Christ had to become an adulterer before he died.” (LW 54:154)


Conclusion
The quote does appears outrageous, but there are some thing to note. First, the quote has no context. One does not know what exactly Luther had in mind. Was he kidding? Was he summarizing someone else's argument? Was he using hyperbole? It's really hard to say. If taken literally, it certainly is at odds with his other statements about Christ. Therefore, even though one can't know exactly why he said this, we can have a strong assurance he didn't mean it literally. The editors of Luther's Works include a footnote for this comment of Luther's, and they offer the following speculation:
This entry has been cited against Luther, among others by Arnold Lunn in The Revolt Against Reason (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1951), pp. 45, 257, 258. What Luther meant might have been made clearer if John Schlaginhaufen had indicated the context of the Reformer’s remarks. The probable context is suggested in a sermon of 1536 (WA 41, 647) in which Luther asserted that Christ was reproached by the world as a glutton, a winebibber, and even an adulterer. (LW 54:154, fn. 100)
If you run across a Roman Catholic citing these words against Luther (or any obscure comments from Luther's Table Talk) I commend to you also these words by Roman Catholic Scholar Thomas O’Meara:
“…Catholics are using inaccurately rhetorical arguments when they make the value of Luther’s theology and reform depend upon his table-talk language. Rhetoric appeals to the mind- but it appeals through emotions. It reaches the mind not through a purely intellectual act, examining the case thoroughly and logically, but by leaps and bounds, driven by emotions and will, faculties incapable of a calm judgment of what is true” [Thomas O’Meara, Mary in Protestant and Catholic Theology, (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1966), 5].
I always caution Roman Catholics to be careful with Luther’s Table Talk. The Table Talk is a collection of comments from Luther written down by Luther’s students and friends. Thus, it is not in actuality an official writing of Luther's and should not serve as the basis for interpreting his theology. Even anti-Luther Catholic historian Hartmann Grisar has pointed out,
“Of course, it must not be overlooked that the Table Talks are ephemeral—‘children of the moment.’ While they correctly and vividly reproduce the ideas of the speaker, minus the cool reflection which prevails in the writing of letters and still more of books, they contain frequent exaggerations and betray a lack of moderation. The lightning-like flashes which they emit are not always true. The momentary exaggerations of the speaker at times beget contradictions which conflict with other talks or literary utterances. Frequently humorous statements were received as serious declarations. Humor and satire of a very pungent kind play a great part in these talks” [Hartmann Grisar, Martin Luther: His Life and Work (Maryland: Newman Press, 1950), 481].

Addendum
The following article has some helpful information: What did Luther say? Jesus and Mary Magdalene, Christian Century, May 16, 2006 by Matthew Becker -
A recent New Yorker article on Mary Magdalene, obviously written with an eye on her role as Jesus' paramour in Dan Brown's best-selling The Da Vinci Code, began by noting that "Brown is by no means the first to have suggested that Christ had a sex life--Martin Luther said it" (February 13-20). Bruce Chilton, an Episcopal scholar from Bard College, also makes this claim about Luther in Mary Magdalene: A Biography (2005). And a 2003 story in Time magazine declared that "Martin Luther believed that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married."
Did Luther really make these assertions? An electronic search of the digital edition of Luther's works, the massive Weimar Ausgabe (WA), uncovers no evidence that he did. Only two statements come even close to suggesting these unorthodoxies.
The first is a comment on Psalm 119:145 in which Luther interprets Mary Magdalene's actions at the tomb of Christ as an example of loving devotion. Mary "came beforehand at the dawn and with untimely haste and cried and called for her betrothed [sponsum] much more wonderfully in spirit than in the body. But I think that she alone might easily explain the Song of Songs."
Luther's Works: American Edition (LW) unfortunately mistranslates sponsum as "husband." In Luther's medieval monastic context, the word meant something different. The verb spondeo means "to pledge oneself to" or "to promise oneself to someone," as in "to pledge in the vow of marriage." The male form of the noun is "fiance" and the female form is "bride."
The full context of Luther's remark indicates that he was thinking allegorically. Influenced by mainstream allegorical interpretations of the Song of Songs, Luther viewed Mary as the prototypical disciple (a celibate nun?), the first "bride of Christ," who had made her vow of unconditional love and obedience to her sponsum ("betrothed," "groom"). Even today Roman Catholic nuns wear a ring to symbolize their betrothal to Christ. On another occasion Luther argued that all Christians are "brides of Christ" (LW 28:48). He certainly did not think Jesus and Mary were actually husband and wife. Several unambiguous statements in his writings clearly indicate that he held the traditional view that Jesus, like Paul, was celibate and chaste.
Seemingly more problematic is a small notation from John Schlagenhaufen, one of Luther's close friends, which contains a recollection of something Luther supposedly said informally at his Wittenberg dinner table in 1532:
Christ [as] adulterer. In the first instance
Jesus became an adulterer
with the woman at the well in John
4, because they say (no one understands),
"What is he doing with
her?" In the same way with Magdalena;
in the same way with the
adulteress of John 8, whom he let
off so easily. In that way the godly
Christ first of all must also become
an adulterer before he died. (WA
TR 2, 107, sec. 1472; cf. LW 54:154)
No one knows if Luther actually said this. The critical apparatus in the Weimar Ausgabe reveals the textual and grammatical problems in this supposed quotation. Schlagenhaufen recorded only a portion of what he remembered Luther to have said that day (and after how many beers?). No context is given.
Scholars know how difficult, if not impossible, it is to link the lapidary "table notations" of Luther's friends to Luther's own views. The editors of the American Edition speculate in a footnote that the "probable context is suggested in a sermon of 1536 (WA 41, 647) in which Luther asserted that Christ was reproached by the world as a glutton, a winebibber, and even an adulterer" (LW 54:154).
A more probable context is Luther's account of the atonement. One of his basic assertions is that our sins become Christ's and Christ's perfect righteousness becomes ours by faith. This idea of "the happy exchange" is found in many Luther texts. Given his central soteriological and christological concern, the theological irony in Schlagenhaufen's remembered notation becomes clearer: The "godly" Christ becomes or is made a sinner through his solidarity with sinners, even to the point of dying as a God-forsaken criminal on the cross. This is how Luther understood Paul's statement, "God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor. 5:21).
So Christ "becomes" an adulterer, though he does not actually commit adultery with Mary or anyone else. He puts mercy front and center, and rejects the legalism which demanded that the woman caught in adultery be killed and the woman at the well and Mary Magdalene be shunned. The holy one becomes the sinner by putting himself into the situation of sinners, by loving and forgiving them, and ultimately by taking their sins on himself. For this gospel reason, Luther could also remark that God made Jesus "the worst sinner of the whole world," even though he also acknowledged that the sinless, righteous Christ actually committed no sin himself.
Trapped in a literalistic approach to Schlagenhaufen's contextless note, some readers have missed the metaphorical character of the remark, which Luther may have made, if he made it at all, with a twinkle in his eye. I'm confident that Luther would not be a fan of The Da Vinci Code--except perhaps with a beer in hand and that twinkle in his eye.