Saturday, June 24, 2006

A Last Look At Catholic Apologist Art's Sippo's View Of Luther Biographies

"Mr. Swan claims that he came here it interact with me because I was a Catholic apologist. I must say that I do not believe him. He is on a one-man crusade to defame the critics of Luther and to push forward the work of certain scholars who misrepresent him and who give a favorable report to him. Mr. Swan's agenda is to eliminate from every-one's consideration that long standing tradition which found Luther to be a morally dubious and seriously disordered person who is not worthy of any-one's allegiance." - Catholic apologist, Art Sippo

"Unfortunately, at the moment, one Catholic is repeatedly responding to [James Swan] in ways which qualify for virtually every bad trait so often (sadly) observed in the apologetics sub-community (if defined as "anyone who does apologetics on the Internet")."- another Catholic Apologist 

"Art, we've been through this so many times now, I don't know how else to say it. Please drop the invective and ad hominem and just make your case, critique the other guy's, and move forward with the conversation. All the egregious stuff is just plain unedifying and it has no power to persuade, only provoke."- Catholic Apologist, Patrick Madrid

Some of you have probably wondered when I would shake the dust from my feet and walk away from Catholic apologist Art Sippo. It's been about a month since I first began my attempt to interact with Dr. Sippo. The interaction definately wasn't a "debate", and it barely resembles a dialog. The interaction reminded me more of two lawyers attempting to a control a context. He who controls the context generally comes across better in a disagreement.

After about a month, the discussion found here went about 10 Envoy pages with approximately 175 posts and 2600 views. I contributed 38 posts. My posts were usually long and detailed, and I attempted to pick out only those points I thought were relevant.

I tried to stay focused on what this thread was originally about: Luther and Calvin biographies. This is really the only thing I wanted to discuss, and that only with Art Sippo, or anyone else who has knowledge in this area. I limited myself to this for one reason: time constraints. While it might take Art or one of his supporters 10 seconds to cut and paste something negative about Luther, it takes me a few hours to verbalize a detailed, accurate, historical response. Even with my responses to Art, they took time. It might've taken him two minutes to write something, but each of my posts on Luther biographies took anywhere between 2 to 3 hours. For the most part, I’ve not simply popped over to someone else’s web site and did the ol' cut and paste. I had about 15 books piled on my desk all related to the discussion. Many of the citations I utilized I typed in (very time consuming!) from my own personal collection of journal articles and books, not a web site.

Sippo and I will never agree on any of the "facts" about Luther. The question I’m interested in is "why"? The sources Sippo used (and the sources he disdained) for his information explained a great deal about his perspective- thus rendering any discussion between he and I about the "facts" of Luther’s life an exercise in futility. I've written about many topics on Luther -including some of the issues Art attempted to bully me into veering off into. A partial listing can be found here.

Sippo Repeatedly attempted to discuss Luther’s involvement with the Philip of Hesse bigamy issue: "I want everyone to notice that Mr. Swan has refused to deal with the issue of Luther and the bigamy of Phillip of Hesse. he is still harping on his personal assessment of the works of Rix, Smith, Marius, Denifle, Grisar et al. Sad." I avoided it, not because I’m “scared” of a discussion, but because it was not relevant. I have a brief link on this issue here:

Perspectives of Luther: Luther a Polygamist? - A response to the charge that Luther sanctioned polygamy for political purposes.

My focus though, remained on the sources. Sippo tried repeatedly to dissuade me from this, but if I was going to spend my time with Art, I was determined to try and make it worth my while. In other words, I ignored his repeated tangents and rabbit trails.

Sippo’s particular polemic against the Reformation and Luther is not "particular" at all. One can find countless cyber-discussions about the "evil" Martin Luther. Most of the time, those going against Luther have little or no knowledge of the books written about Luther from which their perspective comes. Sippo is unique, in that he at least had some familiarity with the sources from which his perspective comes.

I knew that a discussion about the sources with Art Sippo is somewhat of an exercise in futility- He didn’t seem to be listening, nor care what I said. He ignored my evaluations in many instances, and attacked the authors I mentioned rather than what they wrote. He defended his champions by hurling invective rather than interacting with my criticisms. In some instances, I have more to say about Art's position, particularly his take on Bainton. Thus, I will be adding to the blog entry here in which I discussed Bainton.

My evaluation of Art Sippo's take on Luther is really an exercise in presuppositional apologetics. Sippo begins with flawed presuppositions, therefore his conclusions are flawed. Sippo’s approach is an extreme version of the majority of pop-Catholic apologetics. Sometimes though, dealing with the extreme is an excellent way to be prepared to analyze those in the same vein that have less intensity.

The original question asked was “I wish to research the lives of Martin Luther and John Calvin, can anyone recommend books on these men?” The person who asked this question disappeared into the depths of cyber space. Hopefully, he has gotten a taste of the difficulties in studying Martin Luther. Luther biographer Richard Marius has rightly noted,

Martin Luther is a difficult and inexhaustible subject…He remains daunting. Luther wrote and talked with almost the regularity of breath, and anyone who sets out to know him well must climb a mountain of his literary output. In the great Weimar edition of his work, in progress for more than a century, we now have some sixty volumes of theological and devotional treatises in Latin and German, fourteen volumes of correspondence, and twelve volumes that include his German translations of and prefaces to the Bible. In addition we have six volumes of his table talk, recorded by students who boarded in the Luther household and wrote down the great mans rambling monologues to sell to printers eager for anything that bore Luther's name. One could easily spend ones own life reading and reading again all that Luther wrote, and all scholars of the man realize soon enough that they cannot read all his work if they are to have any life left to write anything of their own. I am no exception….

Another major and obvious difficulty arises in writing about Luther. For centuries devout scholars, evangelical and Catholic, studied Luther to extol or condemn him. Evangelicals made him a colossus and hero who cleansed the gospel and gave light and freedom to the soul. Catholics portrayed him as demon-possessed, a sex-crazed monk of furious temper, a liar and fraud willing to tumble down the great and beautiful edifice of Catholic Christianity for no better motives than lust and pride. The religious indifference of modern secular culture has cooled these passions, and an ecumenical spirit now prevails in studies of Luther and the sixteenth century.”

Source: Richard Marius, Luther: The Christian Between God and Death [Massachusetts: Belknap Press, 1999, xi-xii].

Marius is indeed correct. It is not only a difficult undertaking to read Luther ad fontes, but reading books about him is just as ominous of a task. Each biographer comes from a particular perspective. The task of the historian is to record the facts as impartially as possible. Many times, they fail miserably at this task. Of course, I don’t believe even the best Reformation historians are completely able to disassociate themselves from their subjects- their opinions spill out into their books. Have they though, presented the facts accurately, or have they made wild speculative interpretations about their subject? This later has been my argument against some of the books on Luther suggested by Dr. Art Sippo.

Sippo And The Psychohistorians

Art Sippo states,

"...all the negative things that are documented by Fr. Denifle, Fr. Grisar, Fr. O'Hare, Preserved Smith, Eric Erickson, Paul Reiter, Peter Weiser, Herbert David Rix, and Richard Marius are all taken out of context."

I never said this, and I asked Sippo twice to show me where. Search through the discussion and you won't find it. What I did argue was Art Sippo relies on psychohistory in his approach to Luther biographies. This approach posits history can be understood by applying the science of psychoanalysis to a historical figure. This view holds that history is more than simply “facts”- it is also the result of psychological forces that drive people to do what they do. Very early on in this discussion, Sippo provided a brief overview of how he saw Luther:

Luther began having serious bouts of depression and poor self esteem around 1509 when he was 26 years old. He would spend upwards of 1-3 HOURS in the confessional everyday obsessing about his internal doubts and rebelliousness. His was an excess of scrupulosity which in his day look pious but in ours would be considered pathological. A religious superior today would identify Luther as psychologically disturbed and he would likely have been started on anti-depressant medications. We could have been spared the whole Deformation if only Fr. Martin had taken some St. John's Wort from an herbalist.

In any case, his bouts of depression got so deep that they sometimes immobilized him. He had these bouts all of his life up until the end. He speaks of them in his autobiographical material where he was so depressed that he couldn't get out of bed.

He became depressed and anxious because he perceived himself as a miserable sinner and God as an overbearing judge waiting to damn him. If you rad[sic] what he writes about these moods, they are classic for depressed patients who never remember anything good and always obsess about what is bad. He felt so strongly about this that he hated God for sitting in judgment on him which made him even more anxious and depressed.”

Sippo’s opinion is speculative at best: he mixes in historical facts and then provides diagnosis’s- this is the way of the psychohistorians. In the case of Luther, they begin fundamentally with the presupposition that Luther did not consider deeply and passionately the holy and perfect God and the dreadful sinfulness of man. They think if you pop some pills you’ll be “normal” and get your “self esteem” pumped up to where it needs to be. Don’t sweat about coming into contact with the perfect and holy God of the universe. Take a pill- you’ll be fine. God is your “buddy”. Isn’t it amazing that many psychohistorians rule out the validity of religious experience, and thus never consider it as a possible psychological explanation? Why? Because psychohistory is the child of atheism.

Those scholars Sippo relies on, and also his own comments about Luther, demonstrate Sippo’s reliance on psychohistory. Sippo's champions are men like Denifle (Luther was a depraved sex maniac), Grisar (Luther was a psychopath), Reiter (Luther was a manic-depressive), Erikson (Luther is best understood via “crisis development). Sippo says: “It seems critically important to Mr. Swan's apologetic for Luther that two things be accomplished: 1) Everybody must ignore any conclusions drawn from the tradition of Luther Scholarship that sees psychopathology as an important factor in the development of Luther's religion.” I have not argued this. I have said that psychohistory is speculative, sometimes it can be interesting, but it is never definitive. That those who have undertaken the arduous task of psychoanalyzing Luther do not agree among each other proves it is unreliable in providing definitive answers.

It is the speculative nature which is the Achilles heel of psychohistory. This is why I referred to it as “guessing” throughout my discussion with Dr. Sippo. Judge for yourself if the books recommended by Art Sippo produced a unified, historically verifiable understanding of Luther, or if they’re... guessing. They all arrive at different psychological conclusions! Further, how can someone do psychology on a dead man? One cannot. It’s bad enough that the “pychologizing” is done on a dead man, but even worse: Luther is now over 500 years old! How can the art and science of psychology be applied to a 500+-year-old dead man? Are there any current living psychologists that ever treated a medieval German man? No of course not. While the findings of psychohistory may be interesting, they’re speculative at best. I’m far too honest to give this approach of psychohistory more merit than it deserves. Thus you, the discerning reader, should likewise be cautious in reading the conclusions of some of the authors recommended by Art Sippo.

Curiously, I wonder what conclusions a psychologist would come to by simply reading Art Sippo’s posts from this Envoy discussion board. Suppose a Psychologist got hold of Art’s 2000 *plus* Envoy posts, and decided to diagnose him. He sees in this very discussion that Art veered off topic and gravitated repeatedly to the subjects of bigamy and Nazi’s, and that he hurled invective at anyone in his way. Why? Is Dr. Sippo hiding a secret “something” about these topics in his own life? Why is he so angry? Is he holding something in he doesn’t want anyone to know about? Now, please, put down your swords, machine guns, and light sabers. I do not for a moment believe that Art Sippo is a Nazi or he longs for two wives. I’m simply suggesting that doing psychology on a person one has never met via what they’ve written is no way to do history either.

Sippo and Catholic Historian Joseph Lortz
Sippo also mentions, that my arguments against him was to prove “The Nazi view of Luther as given by Joseph Lortz must remain inviolate!” I’m convinced that Dr. Sippo doesn’t even understand my well-defined position on Lortz given in the discussion, which I won’t repeat here. I noted my fundamental disagreements with Lortz, and I also noted his generally accepted importance in the role of Catholic research on Luther.

Lortz stands as one of the first Catholic theologians to treat Luther respectfully- and this respect infuriates Sippo. Lortz’s work inspired many other Catholic scholars- thus, I’ve recommended his work for historical significance. Catholics should be aware that there is an entire genre of Catholic writers who are not at all like Father O’Hare or Art Sippo. I have a blog entry on Sippo’s view of Lortz, which I plan on adding to.

I spent on time on Lortz for one reason: the tactic Art Sippo used to discredit Lortz was primarily an example of poisoning the well. Sippo says, “Lortz was a Nazi and as a Nazi he wrote books and papers extolling Luther as a German hero just like his fellow Nazis did. Everyone admits that his was a departure from the traditional Catholic understanding of Luther.” Everyone? No, not everyone. Even Catholic apologist Patrick Madrid found Sippo's argumentation against Lortz flawed. He said to Dr. Sippo:

"...[S]urely you see the exquisite irony in your double claim that James Swan "slander[s] Fr. Denifle and other Luther scholars whose work [he does] not like," and "The only reason [he] like[s] Lortz is because he says some things that [Swan] as a Protestant want a Catholic to say about Luther. But this is bias."You are guilty of exactly the thing you berate him for doing: You have attacked Lortz and his scholarship relentlessly because you don't like his national politics, or his weltanshauung, or his views of Luther, while you uphold other scholars and their conclusions because "they say some things a Catholic wants a Protestant to say about Luther."Art, I hope you'll take your own statement to heart: "It is Luther who is the issue not his biographers."

To prove His point, Sippo took a biographical account of Joseph Lortz, and made it say what he wanted it to. Contrary to Dr. Sippo, Lortz’s life cannot be summed up by the word “Nazi.” He produced no Catholic studies or Catholic scholars that held this, nor did he produce any who completely disregarded Lortz, other than that of a footnote to study Sippo probably never read by Otto Pesch. Sippo says, “Betcha Dr. Pesch's study can give you more references if are inclined to look it up.” In other words, Sippo has no idea what the study says! I’m guessing it probably does what I do: critique and interact with arguments, and note that even those considered in the genre of the “Lortz movement” have moved beyond him. I highly doubt though, Pesch would minimize the importance of Lortz’s studies in Catholic approaches to Luther. When I produced actual statements from Pesch speaking of the importance of Lortz, Sippo completely ignored them. He had to because it refuted his position. Best to ignore it- maybe it will go away.

Dr. Sippo seems to think that current Catholic scholars don’t recognize the importance of Lortz’s work. I strongly suggest Dr. Sippo read the essay by Catholic theologian Patrick W. Carey, “Luther in an American Catholic Context.” From, Timothy Maschke, Franz Posset, and Joan Skocir, Ad fonts Lutheri: Toward the Recovery of the Real Luther: Essays in Honor of Kenneth Hagen’s Sixty-Fifth Birthday (Milwaukee: Marquette Press, 2001). Carey notes what I have all along- Lortz has historical significance in Catholic Luther studies. He notes that Lortz’s books “reversed the picture of Luther created by Denifle and Grisar and presented him as homo religious” (p. 48).

Also, Michael Lukens wrote a detailed article in 1990 entitled, “Lortz’s view of the Reformation and the Crisis of the True Church” (Archiv Fur Reformations Geschicte 81, 1990). Guess what, he doesn’t spend his time searching for in the article: Nazism’s in Lortz’s work. This guy is a specialist in Post-Holocaust Theology and Catholic theological responses and movements within Third Reich. He notes,

Joseph Lortz (1887-1975) ranks as one of the premier Catholic church historians in this century, and that is probably the only statement about him on which there exists general agreement today” (p.20).

“…Lortz was a pioneer in forcing within Catholicism a sharp focus upon the historical causes and development of the Reformation, when the normative posture was to ignore its legitimacy on the basis of Tridentine theological orthodoxy” (p. 30)

Most important, Lukens explains why Catholic historians have moved away from some of Lortz’s point- this though is explained without devaluing his work:

But in Catholicism, the ecclesial establishment found Lortz difficult to deal with, because his work operated within an orthodox arena of ecclesiology while at the same time it raised a host of impermissible historical judgments. As Catholic Reformation historiography matured, the quandary of the Lortz-evaluation has continued but differently. As Lortz's historical contribution continues to draw positive attention, in fact is now credited as pioneering work that spawned a wide and fruitful range of both Catholic and Protestant reform studies, his theological orientation and ecclesial model have been largely dropped, to the effect that, if the thesis here is accurate, the central focus to which Lortz committed himself has been set aside. This may also mean, however, because these confessional loyalties are no longer operating so strongly in Reformation scholarship today, that perhaps we are now ready to decide justHow pioneering Lortz may have been” (p.31).

All I’ve been trying to point out is that Lortz’s work has significance in Catholic scholarship. Sippo touts, “I am not interested in Mr. Swan's chicanery about "sources." The issue is not the "sources" but Luther himself.” Since Sippo can’t be trusted with the “sources”- why should I even bother to discuss Luther with him? He misused Krieg’s Catholic Theologians In Nazi Germany. I defy anyone to get that book and prove Krieg holds Lortz was a lifelong Nazi. Sippo’s probably banking on the fact that no one will get the book.

Final Remarks
I dialoged with Dr. Art Sippo for really only one reason: Dr. Sippo is considered a “Catholic apologist.” Catholic laymen look to him as an authority, particularly with his views on Luther and the Reformation. My opinion after dialoging with Art, is that his opinion should not seriously be considered on these topics. Sippo himself should agree. He stated, “Mr. Madrid himself is just an[sic] another guy with an opinion. So was Lortz. So are you. So am I. Our opinions don't count.” Agreed, I’m just another guy. I am not a Luther expert. Obviously, neither is Art Sippo. However, I write what I do in the hopes that people will actually be motivated either by thankfulness or displeasure to do their own research. Don’t take my word for things. Go get the books, check out what I’ve said. Definitely check out what Art Sippo has said. Check out what everyone says. Be Berean in your studies.

I’m not scared of people checking my facts. Art Sippo is. He says, “By definition, all prot works are heretical. They are untrustworthy and cannot be compared to books written from the perspective of normative Christianity. Catholics need to start from the perspective of truth of the Catholic Faith. If they do so, they have no need of heretical prot misrepresentations.” Of course, Sippo isn’t even consistent with himself, as some of the books he recommends are by people who aren’t even “Christian,” hence not members of “normative Christianity.” He tells his followers, “My challenge to Catholic readers is to read solid Catholic Scholarship on Luther, not the works of the ecumanical fringe.” Yes by all means, keep your heads buried in the sand, according to Dr. Sippo. It’s Lord Of The Flies mentality. It’s Orwellian. It’s the same stupidity that leads cultures and countries to hate and fight each other. By all means, don’t understand what the other side believes. When you find a witch, yell “witch!” and burn her. Don’t ask any questions.


EA said...

Thank you for your patient work in this regard, James. Reading the threads between you and Art Sippo was very entertaining and enlightening. Enlightening for the information regarding different biographers' perspectives on Luther that you provided and entertaining due to the spectacle of having a grown man repeatedly use the 'Liar, liar! Pants on fire!' defense.

James Swan said...

Thanks for the comments ea, and for reading this blog. Keep Art Sippo in your prayers.