Sunday, June 11, 2006
Luther Between God and the Devil: Catholic Apologist Art Sippo on Heiko Oberman
I have often suggested a good biography on Luther is Heiko Oberman’s Luther: Man Between God and the Devil [New Haven: Yale University, 1989]. The book is affordable, easy to find in many libraries and bookstores, well written, well documented, and written by an expert in the field of Reformation research. Rarely, if ever, will one find Oberman’s credentials questioned on his expertise on Luther, or his books vilified as propaganda rather than cogent historical study.
Oberman’s spent his last years as Regents Professor of Medieval, Renaissance, and Reformation History at the University of Arizona. This school notes:
“Heiko Oberman was an internationally acclaimed scholar, winner of the prestigious Dr. A. H. Heineken Prize for History —the highest award for the historical discipline. Fellow of the Medieval Academy of America, Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy and Correspondent of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, in 1991 he was elected as a member of the American Philosophical Society, America's oldest learned society, begun in 1743 in Philadelphia by Benjamin Franklin. He received many distinguished fellowships and awards including honorary degrees from Harvard University, the University of St. Louis, the University of Aberdeen (Scotland), and Valparaiso University (Indiana). Coincident with the diagnosis of his terminal illness, it was announced that a distinction for extraordinary representation of Dutch scholarship and culture would be conferred on Heiko Oberman by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands in April 2002.”[Source]
“Author and/or editor of 30 books and some hundred articles, he is particularly known for his prize-winning study The Harvest of Medieval Theology (Harvard University Press, 1963) and for his Luther: Man Between God and the Devil (English version, Yale University Press, 1990), for which he received the German Historischer Sachbuchpreis for "the most significant history book during the decade 1975-1985."[Source]
Catholic apologist Art Sippo though has an entirely different perspective on the ability and writing of Heiko Oberman. Sippo says bluntly:
“Heiko Obermann is a fawning sycophant when it come to Luther. In one of his books, he claims that Luther was the champion of the modern secular world with its sexual freedom and easy contraception and abortion! Consequently, I do not consider him to be a good judge of normative Christianity. He is like those 19th Century Kulturkampf types that Fr. Denifle refuted.”
Let’s work these charges slowly. I propose Sippo’s evaluation of Heiko Oberman’s Luther: Man Between God and the Devil is blatantly absurd. Anyone applying his reasoning in evaluating this book begins with presuppositions that are emotionally bent toward a misunderstanding of history, and reading biographies in general.
Sippo Charge #1 “Heiko Obermann is a fawning sycophant when it come to Luther.”
One has to immediately ask, what is the role of a biographer? Is it to pass judgment on the person whom one is writing about, or is a biographer’s role, to attempt to present the “facts” of history with as much context, care, and impartiality as is humanly possible? This is what Oberman attempts, and it is a strength of his work. Oberman presents the “facts” about Luther, and places them in their historical context. Oberman states,
“Discovering Luther the man demands more than scholarship can ever expect to offer. We must be prepared to leave behind our own view of life and the world: to cross centuries of confessional and intellectual conflict in order to become his contemporary” (p. xix)
Oberman attempts to understand Luther as a medieval man, in a medieval context:
“Oberman lays before his readers both a man, Luther, for whom the Devil was as real and as much on his thoughts as God, and a theology, Luther’s, which sees all of humanity as the battlefield between God and the Devil. To match, perhaps, the alien righteousness of Luther’s theology, Oberman presents an alien Luther, not the modern, progressive Luther of much post-enlightenment scholarship of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but a Luther caught not only between God and Devil but also between the medieval and the modern, a Luther who lived the conviction that his world existed ‘in the shadow of the last days.’ While some scholars feel Oberman may have overstated his case, he has undoubtedly produced a [sic.] important corrective to the studies that make Luther too modern and too heroic ....” [Reformation and Revival Ministries. (1999; 2003). Reformation and Revival Volume 8 (vnp.8.1.212]
“What makes this book intriguing, and at the same time unusual, is how the author traces Luther’s struggle to his opposition of the Devil. He insists that Luther was acutely aware of Satan. Oberman believes, therefore, that the Devil “provides the key to understanding this man at once creative and crude, who railed bitterly against popes, Turks, and Jews as instruments of the Devil” (dust jacket). The same description concludes that Luther “... brought hope and consolation by emphasizing the need for people to have faith in God’s mercy and to perform acts of righteousness—with the aim not of winning favor with God but of improving the world. Oberman demonstrates that the times were such that belief in the Devil was commonplace. He then develops his unique thesis by showing that whether it was Luther’s rebellion against the church or his exhortations against the wiles of the enemy, it must all be understood by the belief that Luther understood himself to be locked in a profound conflict with Satan himself."[Reformation and Revival Volume 8 (vnp.8.1.238)]
“The author’s avowed purpose is to encounter a Luther devoid of the excessively prosaic or condemnatory views of Protestant or Catholic or of those who would portray him as an ecumenical figure. Oberman attempts to discover Luther in the context of the most important battle of his life: that with the devil. In crafting such an approach the author portrays Luther as a man in constant tension and turmoil in which his personality is fully displayed in public as well as private life. In Oberman’s own words he desires to “grasp the man in his totality—with head and heart, in and out of tune with the temper of his time” (p. ix).” [Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society Volume 34 (Vol. 34, Page 568)].
Now, Mr. Sippo appears to have a different standard for biographers. His standard seems to be that the biographer must be overwhelmingly critical of its subject. The biographer must be able to take the “facts” and use them to annihilate the subject. I posit those who do Reformation history according to Dr. Sippo’s paradigm will arrive nowhere near an intelligent or rational understanding of history. One arrives in “Jack Chick” land- a land in which “facts” are weapons of destruction, rather than tools for arriving at truth.
Sippo Charge #2 “In one of his books, [Oberman] claims that Luther was the champion of the modern secular world with its sexual freedom and easy contraception and abortion!”
Let’s have a run on Art Sippo’s playground for a moment. Sippo claims that Heiko Oberman’s book should not be read because somewhere, Oberman says something like, “Luther was the champion of the modern secular world with its sexual freedom and easy contraception and abortion!” Now, if Oberman really said this, wouldn’t this be a good reason for a Catholic to read Luther: Man Between God and the Devil? Here’s a scholar willing to blame Luther for societal problems most important to Catholics. I doubt though, this is what Sippo (or Oberman) has in mind.
What Sippo probably means is Oberman attributed the rise of aspects of modernity to the Reformation, and Sippo linked this to “sexual freedom and easy contraception and abortion!” Without having a context by which to evaluate Oberman’s actual remarks, Sippo’s polemic does nothing more than suggest that Oberman shouldn’t be read because the author makes a point of interpretation Sippo disagrees with. I suggest this is not a correct method to use to evaluate a biographer. I highly doubt Dr. Sippo will produce a context for his remark. Even if Sippo could prove his point, it doesn’t necessarily mean Oberman is an author to be avoided. It means you the reader, should critically evaluate everything you read.
Sippo Charge #3 “Consequently, I do not consider [Oberman] a good judge of normative Christianity. He is like those 19th Century Kulturkampf types that Fr. Denifle refuted.”
Sippo implies that only biographies written by those who are advocates of “normative Christianity” can write books about Luther, whatever that means. The immediate problem of double standard is clearly thrown into Sippo’s lap. Sippo’s champions of Luther biography include Erik Erikson and Richard Marius. Neither of these men write from the perspective of “normative Christianity” (Marius explicitly states his approach to Luther as “essentially non-religious” [Martin Luther, The Christian Between God And Death, xii]. Erikson disavows the reality of religious experience.
Sippo also implies Denifle’s book on Luther represent books written from the perspective of “normative Christianity”. But recall, Denifle interpreted the Reformation by exploring Luther’s sexuality and alleged lust. For Denifle, Luther’s carnal desires caused the Reformation. Luther was forced to reinterpret the Scriptures to legitimize marriage for himself. Thus, Sippo’s “normative” paradigm would perhaps explore anyone’s life by looking at lustfulness and need for marriage. It would question why any of you succumbed to your lustfulness rather than joining a monastery or nunnery.