This is a continuation of look at Catholic apologist Art Sippo’s take on Luther scholarship. Previous entries can be found here:
On Dialoging With Catholic apologist Art Sippo on Luther Scholarship
Catholic Apologist Art Sippo on Father O’Hare’s “Facts About Luther”
Catholic Apologist Art Sippo on Luther Scholarship and Research (Part 1)
Art Sippo on Catholic Historians Grisar and Denifle and Luther’s Demon Possession (part 2)
Catholic Apologist Art Sippo Takes The Time To Thank Me For My Luther Research
If you've read through any of these links, or visited the battlefield and read through the discussion proper, you've probably realized that Mr. Sippo’s understanding of Luther appears to be strongly based on the psychohistory approach. In other words, 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. Those scholars Sippo relies on, and also his own comments about Luther, demonstrate this. Sippo's champions are men like Denifle, Grisar, and Erikson. All used a pyschohistory approach in interpreting Luther.
Note Sippo’s words:
“[Heinrich Denifle] dug into the archives where only scholars had previously gone and he found evidence of Luther's intemperate personality, his intolerance, and his gross logical inconsistency in what he wrote. He also resurrected the complaints of many of Luther's contemporaries about the man's erratic behavior and his excesses. It is Fr. Denifle who brought these things to light and spurred on the more critical portrait of Luther that would emerge in the 20th Century from Fr. Grisar, Preserved Smith, Paul Reiter, Erik Ericsson[sic], Marius, and Rix.”
Sippo says, “It must be noted that psychiatric diagnoses cannot be made with certainty on deceased people. But some folks have left us enough information in their journals, diaries and written output that we can make an intelligent guess as to their state of mind.” One thing Art Sippo doesn’t tell you, is that while men like Denifle, Grisar, Smith, and Erikson used a similar approach in trying to understand Luther, none of them arrive at the same conclusions- or even minimize or maximize similar conclusions. So, even though Luther produced a large corpus of writings to draw analysis from, each of these psychohistorians arrive at different conclusions when digging for pychohistory "facts"[tedium: Sippo says, “The English translation of his works runs to 52 volumes…” Actually, it runs 54 volumes with a 55th volume appendix, and also a 56th supplementary volume by Jaraslov Pelikan on interpreting Luther].
Let’s look at the evidence.
Denifle’s approach has been called “the pansexual interpretation of the Reformation.” According to Denifle, Luther’s psychosis was inherent lust, secret vices, an overpowering sex drive, and an opposition to celibacy. All these were some of Luther’s psychological reasons to abandon the Roman Church in his “attempt” to destroy her. This approach to Luther has been largely abandoned- even Denifle’s close associate, Albert Maria Weiss, O.P., concluded, “Denifle was a historical researcher of the first rank, but as a historical writer Denifle was not the equal of the researcher.” In other words, the case against Luther that Denifle built was not valid. Rarely will anyone find a brave writer willing to defend Denifle’s pansexual approach to Luther. That Mr. Sippo could even recommend his writings leads me to believe he was completely unaware of its abandonment by Catholic historians- unless of course, Sippo himself wants to argue in favor of Denifle’s pansexual approach.
Immediately following Denifle were the works of Hartmann Grisar. Grisar similarly used a psychohistory approach in his volumes on Luther. Did Grisar exclusively use the pansexual approach as did Denifle? No, while he will at times indict Luther’s in similar ways, Grisar basically categorizes Luther neurosis with pathological manic-depressive psychology. Where Denifle wants you to hate Luther as a depraved sex maniac, Grisar wants you to pity him for being a psychopath. Sippo comments that it was Herbert David Rix “who makes the case for Luther's manic-depression problem” in the mid-1980’s. Actually, Grisar made it long before him. Out of all the psychohistory works, Grisar’s books at least have some value in factual content. Generally, Grisar’s “facts” are good- even if his conclusions and insinuations flaw his overall work.
Grisar can indeed be praised for avoiding some of the abusive polemic language that filled Denifle’s work. He also strove to disprove many of the stories about Luther’s personal life that Denifle used to damage the reputation of Luther:
“Grisar demolished two major points in the thesis of Denifle. He was not at all disposed to credit the tale of Luther’s moral turpitude. He stated emphatically that ‘the only arguments on which the assertions of great inward corruption could be based, viz. actual texts and facts capable of convincing anyone…simply are not forthcoming’ He admitted that Denifle’s interpretation of ‘concupiscence’ would not bear examination. ‘Nor does the manner in which Luther represents concupiscence prove his inward corruption. He does not make it consist merely in the concupiscence of the flesh.’ He can pay tribute to Luther’s minor virtues, as when he admits that “Of Christian Liberty” “does in fact present his wrong ideas in a mystical garb which appeals strongly to the heart.” [Gordon Rupp, The Righteousness of God (Great Britain: Hodder and Stoughton Publishing, 1953), 25].
Dr. Sippo also mentions Protestant historian Preserved Smith. Smith’s most famous work on Luther is a compilation of his correspondence called, The Life And Letters of Martin Luther. Smith was known as an excellent historian, but as Reformation expert Lewis Spitz once pointed out, in his psychological analysis he was a “very amateurish analyst.” Smith was very interested in Freudian analysis and theory, particularly the role of sex in personal development. In 1913 he published an article called “Luther’s Early Development in the Light of Psychoanalysis” [American Journal of Psychology 24 (1913) 360-77]. Commenting on Luther, Smith says,
“Luther is a thoroughly typical example of the neurotic quasi-hysterical sequence of an infantile sex-complex; so much so, indeed, that Sigismund Freud and his school could hardly have found a better example to illustrate the sounder part of their theory than him.” (p.362).
Smith’s Freudian observations show Luther to be a product of an alcoholic parent, a sufferer of the Oedipus complex, was an abused child, struggled with depression, had an infatuation with demonism, and had sexual repression. Smith then interprets these factors as the causes of some of Luther’s central doctrines (like faith alone, the Bondage of the Will, etc).
The most famous of all the psychohistorians writing on Luther is Erik Erikson in his book, Young Man Luther (1958). Erikson used a modified Freudian approach to Luther. He approached religious phenomena with prejudice: recall, Freud argued that religious phenomena are to be understood on the model of the neurotic symptoms of the individual: hence, a materialistic outlook on religion. Freud saw religious concerns within an individual as reflecting something “wrong” in a human. Erickson does the same with his treatment of Luther. Catholics beware: Erikson is no friend of your beliefs, or of anyone with religious beliefs. While Sippo criticizes me (very unjustly) for recommending John Todd and Joseph Lortz, one should ask him why he recommends a book presupposing an atheist worldview.
Erikson felt that since a great body of writing from Luther and his students existed, an evaluation could take place. He analyzed Luther’s writings with Ego Development psychology, which uses a model that posits two important crisis’s in Luther’s life: Identity and integrity crises. These are key to the development of the human personality-
-Identity crises: takes place in the years of adolescence: a young person comes to some independent recognition of himself
-Integrity crises: Begins in more mature years (mid life crises)
Erikson looked at Luther’s relations to his father and mother (even though the source material was very limited). For instance, he quotes Luther’s statement on his dad beating him- Erikson’s conclusion is that since Luther had such a love / hate relationship to his father, he eventually rejected the pope. Erikson also argues that Luther’s father was a drunkard, given to cruelty. In regards to Luther’s mother: Erikson makes much of Luther’s statement that she beat him once for stealing a nut. Erikson concludes Luther dethroned the Virgin Mary due to his hatred of his mother.
In both of these examples, Erikson failed to take into account all the evidence. Luther elsewhere says his father was ‘happy’ when drunk; also in the account of his beating there are other texts that say his father felt quite remorseful for it, and expressed this to Luther. Erikson doesn’t take into account that Luther rejected the devotion to Mary of the medieval church, and also wrote a “sensitive” commentary on Mary’s Magnificat. There really wasn’t a violent rejection of Mary due to his relationship with his mother- if anything, Luther reevaluated Mary’s role as an example of justification by faith alone. Positive statements about Mary are peppered through his writings.
Erikson’s notes three crises in Luther’s life:
-First crises: The thunderstorm in 1505 and joining of monastery. Erikson argues “identity crises”: Luther’s desire to separate himself from his father; his joining the monastery shows Luther’s fear of God and his father motivated him.
-Second crises:(also an identity crises) 1507- Luther in the monastery has a “fit in the choir loft” while Mark 9:17 is being read (the healing of a boy with demon). Luther cries out, “It is not I!” Erikson argues that Luther so identifies with the story of a boy possessed with a demon that he has to scream out to try to establish his non-identity. [Note: Luther never referred to this story: It comes from a Cochlaeus- a Roman Catholic 16th century polemicist who wrote against Luther. Cochlaeus admitted he got this story fourth hand].
Third crises: Luther’s “Tower experience.” Erikson takes a German phrase uttered by Luther and interprets it literally to mean Luther was sitting on the toilet when he has his evangelical breakthrough. Erikson concludes that one can see from a Freudian perspective how Luther’s spiritual issues are tied up with biological functions. [Note: there was no toilet in the tower. The phrase Luther said in German means, “down in the dumps”- it was conventional speech. Luther really was saying that his breakthrough came during a time when he was depressed].
Many reviews of Erikson’s book have been written. There is no agreement among scholars as to whether or not his work on Luther is reliable. To my knowledge, Erikson refused to answer his many critics, in print. Historical scholars are fairly unified that Erikson made poor use of the evidence, simply because Erikson was not a Reformation historian. Erikson made use of both Protestant and Catholic sources. In terms of Catholic sources, he used the work of Heinrich Denifle, and also did not discriminate carefully enough amongst primary sources, secondary sources and hostile sources. In other words, hearsay also functioned as "fact".
But these are some of the sources Art Sippo directs you toward in understanding Luther. Judge for yourself if these men produce a unified, historically verifiable understanding of Luther, or if they’re... guessing. How can someone do psychology on a dead man? One cannot. Thus, the psychohistory method, while interesting, should not be one’s main approach to learning about Martin Luther.
Now, I realize I’m the “enemy” Protestant…you know, that evil snake that’s come to the Envoy forums to trip up Roman Catholics. But, judge for yourself by what I’ve written if I deserve the treatment being doled out by Mr. Sippo. I’ve attempted to substantiate my opinion respectfully. Mr. Sippo has continually hurled invective at me. Wonder why?
I don’t claim to be a Luther “expert”. But, I do claim to pursue the truth. I apply the same scrutiny to Protestant writers as well. Mr. Sippo hurls insults at me because he’s most likely scared people will read my responses seriously, and maybe even read the books I recommend. I don’t claim to be any type of psychologist, but I do wonder why Mr. Sippo writes violently when dialoging with protestants, or discussing the Reformation. I think before I write. I try to do serious historical study. I don’t simply rant and rave and hurl invective. Catholics can hate me for being a Protestant or 'anti catholic" if they want, but at least argue cogently.