Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Martin Luther's Volatile Language

This excerpt is from my paper Luther And The Jews found Here.

There is also concern over Luther’s language, which becomes quite foul towards the Jews in his later treatises. In regards to Luther’s foul language, Roland Bainton has observed, “The volume of coarseness, in his total output is slight. Detractors have sifted from the pitchblende of his ninety tomes a few pages of radioactive vulgarity.”[i] But though small in percentage, it is there nonetheless and needs to be accounted for. Lest some think that Luther’s harsh language against the Jews was unique, his language against the Papacy was stronger, and his words against the Turks and false brethren were almost as strong:

Neither the vulgarity nor the violence nor the charges of satanic motivation nor the sarcastic mocking is unique to [Luther’s later Jewish] treatises. If anything, Luther’s 1541 Against Hanswurst and his 1545 Against the Papacy at Rome, Founded by the Devil contain more scatology, more sallies against the devil, more heavy sarcasm, and more violence of language and recommendations. The polemics of the older Luther against the Turks and Protestant opponents are only slightly more restrained. Against each of these opponents- Catholics, Turks, other Protestants and Jews- he occasionally passed on libelous tales and gave credence to improbable charges. In all these respects Luther treated the Jews no differently than he treated his other opponents.”[ii]

Some think that illness and depression caused the “old” Luther to explode in violent harsh outbursts of profanity towards his enemies. It is a convenient explanation which locates the cause of his harsh polemics in unavoidable human frailty: senility, disease, and depression. But, a much more likely explanation is that put forth by Heiko Oberman. Oberman traces Luther’s harsh language as far back as sermon preached in 1515, thus proving the young Luther used the same type of speech as the old Luther. Most importantly, Oberman provides insight rather than psychological condemnation. He points out, “In the total historical context, …Luther’s scatology-permeated language has to be taken seriously as an expression of the painful battle fought body and soul against the Adversary, who threatens both flesh and spirit.”[iv] Luther’s rough language was therefore a weapon to use against the devil. “…[A]ll true Christians stand in a large anti-defamation league and are called upon to combat the God-awful, filthy adversary, using his own weapons and his own strategy: ‘Get lost Satan…”[v] In other words, Luther used scatological language to fight against Satan. Since Luther felt Satan was the mastermind behind works-centered religions (like Judaism), Luther attacks those religions using Satan’s own weapons against him.

For Luther, his use of scatological language exposes the Devil, who has hidden himself in the papacy, behind the Turks, and in the theology of Judaism. Since it is the Last Days, Satan must be resisted with all one’s might: with as much energy and all the vehemence possible. By exposing Satan in these systems, Satan becomes enraged and fights harder against God. By fighting harder, the Last Day approaches quicker.[vii]

Luther also felt he was following the example of Christ. Luther asks rhetorically if the Lord used abusive language against his enemies: “Was he abusive when he called the Jews an adulterous and perverse generation, an offspring of vipers, hypocrites, and children of the Devil?… The truth, which one is conscious of possessing, cannot be patient against its obstinate and intractable enemies.”[viii] In similar fashion, Luther responded to his opponent Latomus:

He [Latomus] says that I lack the evangelical modesty which I enjoin, and that this is especially true of the book in which I replied to the sophists of Louvain when they condemned my teachings.  Now I have never insisted that anyone consider me modest or holy, but only that everyone recognize what the gospel is. If they do this, I give anyone freedom to attack my life to his heart’s content. My boast is that I have injured no one’s life or reputation, but only sharply reproached, as godless and sacrilegious, those assertions, inventions, and doctrines which are against the Word of God. I do not apologize for this, for I have good precedents. John the Baptist [Luke 3:7] and Christ after him [Matt. 23:33] called the Pharisees the “offspring of vipers.” So excessive and outrageous was this abuse of such learned, holy, powerful, and honored men that they said in reply that He had a demon [John 7:20]. If in this instance Latomus had been judge, I wonder what the verdict would have been! Elsewhere Christ calls them “blind” [Matt. 23:16], “crooked,” “liars,” “sons of the devil” [John 8:44, 55]. Good God, even Paul lacked evangelical modesty when he anathematized the teachers of the Galatians [Gal. 1:8] who were, I suppose, great men. Others he calls “dogs” [Phil. 3:2], “empty talkers” [Tit. 1:10], “deceivers” [Col. 2:4, 8]. Further, he accused to his face the magician Elymas with being a “son of the devil, full of all deceit and villainy [Acts 13:10].” [ix]


[i] Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (New York: Mentor Books, 1950), 232.

[ii] Mark U Edwards, Luther’s Last Battles (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983), 140.

[iv] Heiko Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil (New York: Image Books, 1989), 108-109.

[v] Heiko A. Oberman. The Impact of the Reformation. (Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.,1994), 61.

[viii] Martin Luther as cited by Eric Gritsch, “The Unrefined Reformer” Christian History, 39 (vol. XII, No. 3), 36.

[ix] LW 32:141.


FM483 said...

The Postmodern age we now live in poses perhaps the greatest challenge to orthodox Christianity. At least in Luther's time his words were taken seriously. Today, with the philosophy of Relativism permeating society, people are not able to even distinguish the TRUTH because of the cacophony of conflicting and inconsistent messages being transmitted. A good example of this is the frustrating experiences of the author of this Blog - James Swan - in dealing with Roman Catholics on another site. One would think that the 16th century Reformation never even happened, since the same unscriptural abuses and heresies have simply been handed down over the centuries to different people. James Swan no sooner finishes an excellent communication with one person on the RC blog, and then another person pops up with identical false beliefs the other had weeks ago prior to discourse! The battles fought by St Paul in Galatians and elsewhere are simply being repeated in each generation, with only the external packaging being different: the sum and substance of the debates are unchanged and are all somehow associated with the Person and Work of the Son of God, Jesus Christ. While our society may be advanced technologically, theologically this age is as confused and ignorant as ever. People are confused and superstitious, being non-thinkers with respect to anything theological. Since a man's life is so short and eternity so great, one would think people would be more seriously engaged in theological dialogue. Perhaps Luther was correct in seeing Satan behind the masking of our eyes from Christ and His Finished Work? Indeed, that would explain a great deal of the confusion in our Postmodern relativistic world! Scripture is correct in stating that although the sands on the seashore are virtually countless, only the remnant in each generation are saved. Is it only 1 out of 100 sheep? Or less?

James Swan said...


If anyone should have a blog, it's you. Each comment you leave is packed with insight. Thank you.

I haven't done much interacting on Luther with the cyber-Cathoics lately.It is true, I could probably spend all my time in cyber-space dialoging with Roman Catholics about Luther. I have two big files on my computer: one is filled with previous discussions I've had about Luther in the last 5 years or so.It's amazing- they bring him up more than Protestants. It's to the point now, if i do engage a Catholic on Luther- I don't even have to do the work anymore in most cases. I can simply cut-and-paste from my own previous discussions. There really is nothing new under the sun.

The other file is filled with web-pages against Luther. every time I come across one, I save it. It's amazing how one web site copies from another- and the same mis-information just moves along. The same Luther quotes pop up- It's to the point where in some cases I know which anti-Luther Roman Catholic book they swiped the quote from. Rarely are the quotes the result of a Roman Catholic sitting down and reading Luther.