Roman Catholic historian Hartmann Grisar did an extensive 6-volume work on Luther. These volumes have been out of print for some time. Over the years, I’ve managed to collect the first 4 volumes. All six volumes are now available on-line here (and I've listed them here). It was one of Rome's defenders that initially piqued my interested in Grisar’s work. He approvingly posted a large section from Grisar (found here). Also in Surprised By Truth: 11 Converts Give the Biblical and Historical Reasons for Becoming Catholic, this same apologist stated,
After seven tense weeks of alternately questioning my sanity and arriving at immensely exciting new plateaus of discovery, the final death blow came in just the fashion I had suspected. I knew that if I was to reject Protestantism, then I had to examine its historical roots: the so-called Protestant Reformation. I had read about Martin Luther, and considered him one of my biggest heroes. I accepted the standard Protestant textbook myth of Martin Luther, as the bold, righteous rebel who stood against the darkness of ‘Romanist tyranny, superstitious ritualism, and unbiblical traditions of men’ that had been added on to the original, ‘pure’ Christianity described in the book of Acts.
But when I studied a large portion of the six-volume biography of Luther, by the German Jesuit Hartmann Grisar, my opinion of Luther was turned upside down. Grisar convinced me that the foundational tenets of the Protestant revolution were altogether tenuous.[This excerpt is from a chapter entitled, “Confessions of a 1980’s Jesus Freak,” found in Patrick Madrid, Surprised By Truth, (San Diego: Basilica Press, 1994). The section quoted is from page 250-251].
Grisar’s work was a key ingredient in this apologist's “conversion” to the Roman Catholic Church. If this body of work from Grisar is so powerful, one wonders why it's no longer in print? I suspect even Grisar himself realized his six-volume set was a cumbersome read. Richard Stauffer makes an interesting comment on it: “This monumental work, replete with all sorts of repetitions, abounding in digressions that are often long enough to be monographs in their own right, is not very easy to read” [Richard Stauffer, Luther As Seen By Catholics (Virginia: John Knox Press, 1967), 15] Grisar eventually edited the six volumes down to a popular one volume text, also out of print, but easy enough to find used.
In fairness, I understand the emotional bond Rome's defender has to Hartmann Grisar. I remember being a garden-variety-non-denominational evangelical-Arminian and hearing RC Sproul for the first time. But simply because we have an emotional attachment to an author does not mean we should neglect to evaluate their work. I posit that when Grisar was utilized, Rome's defender didn’t read anything that would evaluate Grisar and the worth that his books have had in popular academia. Had he done so, he would have come to realize Grisar's work is an outdated approach to Luther.
My less than approving opinion of Hartmann Grisar was not arrived at because of Grisar’s adherence to Catholicism, or his being a “a learned, meticulous Jesuit” as Rome's defender once described him. I do not have an “anti-catholic” bias in my Luther research. For instance, I treat Roman Catholic scholars like Joseph Lortz, Harry McSorely, and John Todd with the respect they deserve, even when I disagree with them (I do!). My research into Grisar’s work has led me to echo both the opinions of both Roman Catholic and Protestant scholars in regard to his work. This particular defender of Rome holds great value in determining truth by scholarly consensus. With that in mind, consider the following.Most of the information below can be found in an extended form in my paper, The Roman Catholic Perspective of Martin Luther(Part One).
Hartmann Grisar made a positive attempt to go beyond the work of Roman Catholic scholar Heinrich Denifle’s vilification, but in essence did nothing more than follow in his footsteps. Grisar can 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. While noting these positive aspects of Grisar’s work, most scholars tend to treat Grisar and Denifle together, as two scholars who basically arrived at the same conclusions, sharing the same bias.
Richard Stauffer has succinctly said,
Compared with Denifle's work, that of Grisar seems an improvement, if only by its tone; for is it not written with a chilliness preferable to the rabies of its predecessor? One might think so at first sight; but I follow Walter Kohler in regarding the brutality of the Dominican as better than the smoothness of the Jesuit. Where Denifle says straight out what he thinks to be the truth, Grisar makes subtle insinuations. One example from among many will illustrate this. It concerns the illness from which Luther suffered in 1523. In asking what was the cause of first the fever and then the insomnia, Grisar relies on a document which an historian cannot draw on in this case and so suggests that Luther could have had the malum Franciae, that is, syphilis. Grisar does not make positive statements; he is content to hint. But by this he shows clearly enough the malice of which the Roman Catholic historian Adolf Herte accused him thirty years later.1Ian Siggins says that Grisar’s works on Luther are “A Catholic historian’s learned but extremely negative critique of Luther.”2 James Atkinson has said,
There can be no doubt of the sincerity and conviction of Cochlaeus, but neither can there be any doubt that it was he who poisoned the well of historical studies. Roman Catholic historians have drawn their prejudice against Luther from this polemical source, which in its animosity has an almost total disregard for objective truth and historical facts. Denifle, Grisar, Cristiani, Paquier, and Maritain (to cite the most famous and influential) have all drunk deep of this poisoned well-too deeply- and lesser historians have adopted their position. 3
Grisar’s intent was to ruin Luther’s reputation, and among those who accept him as an authority without reading further, we may suppose that he succeeds altogether too well. Nevertheless, not all Catholic scholars have been convinced. Friedrich Heiler said of Grisar’s work that it was not an essay in understanding Luther, but an attempt to rule out Luther’s person and liquidate Luther’s work. Hubert Jedin, Adolf Herte, and Yves M.-J. Congar have expressly stated that Grisar was wrong to argue that Luther was a spent force.” Rupp writes of Grisar and Denifle, ‘Anybody who cares to work through their thousands of pages will emerge knowing that he has heard all that can plausibly be said against the character and work of Martin Luther.4Gordon Rupp stated,
Grisar dismisses and even goes out of the way to refute innumerable fables and calumnies. But there are still very many which he is careful to report at length, and one or two elderly calumnies into which he contrives to breathe fresh life. Yet on the whole, he may be said to have done good service even in these cases by provoking more accurate investigation. Thus, there was the old story that Luther’s father had killed a man, which led to investigation which showed that there were two brothers Luther in Mansfield, one Big Hans and the other little Hans. Protestants and Catholics for what its worth, may now reflect equably on the truth that while Luther’s father was an honest citizen, his uncle was an unconscionable knave.
Yet, as Strohl observes, ‘Grisar does not differ fundamentally from Denifle.’ Both writers speak of the fall of Luther: and compared with that fact, the infralapsarian and supralapsarian divergences are of secondary import. He found the root of Luther’s heresy in the Reformer’s hatred of good works, and in domestic quarrel between Observants (‘the Little Saints’) and the Conventuals within the Augustian order. ‘The real origin of Luther’s teaching must be sought in a fundamental principle…his unfavorable estimate of good works.’ ‘His estrangement from what he was pleased to call ‘holiness by works’ always remained Luther’s ruling idea, just as it had been the starting point of his change of mind in monastic days.’ Thus, the cumulative impression of Grisar’s work is not much more flattering to Luther than that of Denifle. 5Eric Gritsch stated,
…Denifle and the Jesuit Hartman Grisar, used Freudian psychology to arrive at their assessment that Luther was a monk obsessed with the lust of the flesh and a pathological manic-depressive personality….These polemical portraits were corrected in the 1940’s when an ecumenically oriented scholar, Joseph Lortz, rejected Freudian psycho-historical methods in favor of a more objective critical assessment to depict Luther as a faithful priest-professor who had succumbed to ‘subjectivism.’ 6Jaroslav Pelikan stated,
The names of three Roman Catholic scholars who dealt with Luther are important here: Denifle, Weiss, and Hartmann Grisar….despite the scholarship, however, and despite great erudition, these biographies [of Luther] persisted in repeating the old slanders and in cultivating the old tone-deafness to the religious accents of the Reformation. And so Denifle had ‘used the framework of his book in order to perpetuate a brand of infamy so tendentious, so objectively untrue, and so frightfully vulgar that it’s equal has not been thought up in our time even by second-rate scribblers’. Weiss had ‘put together all the heresies of the 14th and 15th century from the Atlantic Ocean to the Bohemian forests in order to determine that Luther is a combination of all of them and disappears in them completely.’ And Grisar, too, had still retained ‘remnants of the vulgar-Catholic way of battling,’ even though his research had led him a long way from the earlier screeds.7Klaus Penzel stated,
Karl Holl…tried to rescue Luther as much from Troeltsch’s alleged misrepresentations [of Luther] as from the far more obvious distortions of the Catholic polemicists Grisar and Denifle by basing his studies on the most painstakingly thorough and accurate analysis of Luther’s own writings and their various editions.8Max L. Baeumer stated,
While conservative Catholic writers of the early 19th century declared the Reformation ‘a second fall of man’ or a sinful rebellion against the Catholic Church, Johannes Janssen, Heinrich Denifle, Hartmann Grisar, and Albert Maria Weib, the belligerent Jesuit fighters for the Catholic cause in the Wilhelminian era, used a psuedo-socialist terminology and condemned Luther’s Reformation as a ‘revolt of the proletariat,’ the ‘denegration of aristocracy and the feudal system,’ and as “suppression of the lower classes.9Patrick W. Carey stated,
Research for this essay [Luther in an American Catholic Context] suggests that throughout the period prior to the Second Vatican Council the view of Luther was, with an exception here and there, primarily negative. In the nineteenth century, however, that view was neither as negative as that of John Cochlaeus (1479-1552) in the sixteenth century nor as that of Heinrich Denifle (1844-1905) or Hartmann Grisar (1845-1932) in the twentieth century. Nineteenth-century American Catholics viewed Luther as the leader of the "Protestant Revolt," but his personal character and motives were not assaulted as they were in the works of Denifle and Grisar. No American Catholic until the 1950s, moreover, had an understanding of Luther that was based upon a personal or systematic study of Luther's sources; most of the information on Luther derived from secondary sources, primarily foreign (French and German). Only after World War II, furthermore, did Catholic attitudes towards Luther began to shift and show some respect for his life and thought, but that shift took place among only a few individual theologians. The shift was important, however, because it helped to shape a younger generation of scholars and was part of a larger movement that led to the Second Vatican Council and that anticipated the Church's future within the ecumenical movement.10
During the nineteenth century American Catholics generally identified Luther as a religious revolutionary, but I know of nothing in American Catholic literature of the nineteenth century to match the passionate and unsubstantiated attacks on Luther's immorality or mental sickness that are found in the twentieth century works of the Dominican Church historian and Vatican archivist Heinrich Denifle and the Jesuit professor of Church history at Innsbruck Hartmann Grisar. Both authors were given great attention in the early twentieth century because of their scholarly reputations. Many early twentieth-century American Catholic scholars tended to rely upon Denifle's acknowledged scholarship and followed his judgments on Luther's moral turpitude, and/or followed Grisar on Luther's psychological weaknesses. In the twentieth century the negative views of Denifle were evident in the Catholic diocesan priest Henry George Ganss's (1855-1912) article on Luther for the Catholic Encyclopedia (1910), the most significant manifestation of American Catholic scholarship in the first half of the twentieth century. American Catholic readers of the Encyclopedia took their understanding of Luther from this source.11V.H.H. Green says,
The evidence which Denfile presented [about Luther] was certainly impressive and his influence on anti-Lutheran writers has been continuous and considerable; but it had been marshaled in a distinctly slanted fashion He had, for instance, laid great stress on Luther's use of the word ‘concupiscentia', mistakeningly interpreting it as sexual lust. He quoted a phrase which Luther used in a letter to his wife, 'I gorge myself like a Bohemian and I get drunk like a German. God be praised. Amen', to suggest that he was a worldly man, but he did not note the context of the letter, a humorous one written to his wife when she was very worried by his poor appetite. He used a series of portraits in his first edition to show how the thin, ascetic scholar and monk became obese and unattractive; the last of his portraits, he noted, was surprisingly bestial', though the fact that it was made of the reformer after his death, and possibly after decomposition had set in, should have minimized his astonishment. Although Denifle's insistence that there was a fundamental moral Haw in his personality was questioned by the scholarly Jesuit, Hartmann Grisar, yet his interpretation of Luther was not basically different. 'The real origin of Luther's teaching', he concluded, 'must be sought in a fundamental principle ... his unfavorable estimate of good works'. While other pejorative estimates of Luther's character and work, as those of Maritain and Weijenborg, have been published, recent Catholic historians, such as Gilson, Vignaux and Johann Lortz, have shown a scholarly understanding of the man and his theology.12Leonard Swidler states,
The practice of seeing Luther as all evil and the Catholic Church as all good continued through the centuries. The nineteenth century historian Johannes Janssen, for example, maintained that the Church had already begun a brilliant and profound reform in the fifteenth century and that this reform was suddenly disturbed in a most unwarranted manner by Luther's revolution. But the high point in controversial literature was reached in the writings of Hemnch Denifle and Hartmann Grisar shortly after the turn of the century.
For the Jesuit Hartmann Grisar, Luther was not so much a morally evil man as a mentally sick man. We should turn not our hate but our pity toward Luther the psychopath, who was subject to illusory visits by the devil and terrible fits of depression. It is granted by Protestants that Grisar went about his work with a great deal of scholarly zeal and that his work "contains a powerful denial of the old Catholic Luther-fables and calumniations as well as the deep-rooted view, most lately upheld by Denifle, according to which Luther was driven down the path of the Reformer by lust of the flesh." However, this improvement over Denifle was hardly satisfying to Protestants ; Grisar's polished style merely poured salt in the wound, and his apparent objectivity convinced no one. Without a doubt all the terrible words of Luther, full of hate, anger, "Wildheit und Rohheit" are actually found in Luther's writing's. But the complaint was raised that this was far from all that was in Luther's writings; this was only a one-sided picture, and therefore a distortion, though one with a certain refinement. In the end, "Grisar, just as Denifle, wishes to annihilate Luther.
…in a little more than a generation the attitude of leading Catholic historians toward Luther and the Reformation has changed from the criticism and polemic of Denifle and Grisar to the objectivism of Lortz, Herte, and Hessen. 13Otto Pesch said:
It is well known that the most important works leading up to Lortz are the defamation of Luther by H. Denifle…and the pathological interpretations of Luther by H. Grisar.14Jared Wicks calls Grisar’s books on Luther “cold and one-sided.”15 He also says,
Grisar looked at times to psychology for understanding Luther. In this account, Luther verged on neurosis as he swung from pseudo-mystical quiet to intemperate attack and near-hysteria. As Luther dealt with his maladjustments he came to hold doctrines diverging from church teaching. Late in life Luther suffered bouts of dismal depression, but then he would swing over to jocularity, frenetic work, and violent polemics. Grisar had vast factual knowledge of Luther, but he also showed a subtle talent for stirring suspicions about Luther. He repeatedly showed how problems plaguing modern Protestantism stemmed from Luther.16
Among the strongly judgmental Catholic treatments of Luther, pride of place belongs to the well-informed German Jesuit, Hartmann Grisar, whose massive original volumes are digested into the mere 600 pages of Martin Luther, His Life and Work.17Joseph Lortz has said,
Today I would even go so far as to ask whether the Catholic scholar might not be in a better position to understand Luther adequately than the Protestant researcher. First, we can take it for granted that we have abandoned the evaluative categories of a Cochlaeus, which dominated [Roman Catholic Luther research] for over 400 years, and those of the great Denifle, and even those of Grisar (who was particularly well-versed in details).
A number of questions [concerning Luther] come to the fore here that can be grouped under such categories as "psychological introspection," "sense of responsibility," "crudity," "scrupulosity," "spiritual instability," etc. In this regard it is true that Luther suffered injustice from Grisar and Reiter, and more recently from the American Psychologist, Erik H. Erikson. but the factual situation still exists and must be critically assessed.18James Mackinnon states:
Denifle has grossly misrepresented [Luther] in identifying [Luther’s admitting of sins] with the lusts of the flesh, and his theory that the sensual tendency ultimately led him to a sense of moral bankruptcy and induced him to take refuge in the doctrine of justification by faith alone is utterly misleading. It is not shared by reasonable Roman Catholic writers like Kiefl, who have rightly discarded the theory of Denifle and his followers Grisar, Paquier, Cristiani as untenable.19A.G. Dickens and John Tonkin note,
…the work of two scholars whose writings dominated Roman Catholic research on the Reformation in the first two decades of the 1900’s underlines the unpredictability of historical scholarship and the complex relationship between polemical and historical interests. Heinrich Denifle and, to a lesser extent, Hartmann Grisar manifested a spirit of bitterness difficult to parallel in the history of Catholic thought; yet, paradoxically, much of the power of their attack derived from the wealth of genuine sources on which their writings were based.
…few scholars could credit [Grisar’s] work as a whole with that basic fairness he sincerely believed it to have. This was because Grisar's achievements were invariably balanced by failures. If he boldly refuted a number of palpable fables and groundless calumnies against Luther, he revivified just as many and left standing by innuendo others, which he acknowledged in the telling as unproven. He exhibited throughout a deep hostility and partiality, which led most scholars—both Catholic and Protestant—to conclude that his differences from Denifle were, in the last analysis, marginal.20Footnotes
1 Richard Stauffer, Luther as Seen by Catholics, 15. Stauffer also gives another example: “We may give yet another example, this time in regard to Luther's alleged drunkenness, which illustrates Grisar's cleverness: "He has been accused of being a 'drinker'—another accusation without foundation. The fanatics and the mischief makers, the often austere anabaptists, even some catholics, ill-informed adversaries, have spread the rumours. Some polemical writers have wanted to find a pretext for this charge in certain words of Luther that they have misinterpreted. They have not understood that these were words said in fun, expressions excusable in a man known for not being always careful in his language." The case seems clear: Luther is not a drinker. But directly after these words, Grisar retreats from what he has just said: "No cases of drunkenness have ever been conclusively attested of Luther, although it is notorious that, in the German manner, he was sometimes a bit too fond of his glass of beer" (cf. E.T. Ill, pp. 294-318)” (18).
2 Ian D. Kingston Siggins, Luther (London: Harper & Row, 1972) 197.
3 James Atkinson, Martin Luther: Prophet to the Catholic Church. (WB Eerdman’s Publishing co. Grand rapids, 1983), 8.
4 James Atkinson,. Martin Luther: Prophet to the Catholic Church., 12-13.
5 Gordon Rupp, The Righteousness of God, (Great Britain: Hodder and Stoughton Publishing, 1953), 25.
6 Eric Gritsch, God’s Court Jester, Luther in Retrospect. (Fortress Press, 1983, 146)
7 Jaroslav Pelikan (editor), Interpreters of Luther. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1968), Quote contained in Pelikan’s article, “Adolph von Harnack on Luther” 261-262.
8 Jaroslav Pelikan(editor), Interpreters of Luther. From the article by Klaus Penzel, “Ernst Troeltsch on Luther,” 298.
9 Gerhard Dunnhaupt (editor) The Martin Luther Quincentenial (Michigan: Wayne State University Press) Quote from the article “Was Luther’s Reformation a Revolution?” by Max L. Baeumer p.258.
10 “Luther in an American Catholic Context” by Patrick W. Carey; Found in the book, Timothy Maschke, Franz Posset, and Joan Skocir (editors), Ad Fontes Lutheri: Toward the Recovery of the Real Luther: Essays in Honor of Kenneth Hagen’s Sixty-Fifth Birthday (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2001), 38.
11 “Luther in an American Catholic Context” by Patrick W. Carey, 44.
12 V.H.H. Green, Luther and the Reformation (New York: G.P.Putnum’s Sons, 1964) 193-195
13 Leonard Swidler, “Catholic Reformation Scholarship in Germany” Journal of Ecumenical Studies, 2 1965. 190-191, 203.
14 Otto Pesch, “Twenty Years of Catholic Luther Research” Lutheran World, 13, 1966. 304.
15 Jared Wicks (editor) Catholic Scholars Dialogue with Luther, 1.
16 Jared Wicks, Luther and His Spiritual Legacy, 19.
17 Jared Wicks, Luther and His Spiritual Legacy, 160-161.
18 Jared Wicks (editor) Catholic Scholars Dialogue with Luther, 6-7, 11.
19 James Mackinnon, Luther and the Reformation Vol. I (New York: Russell & Russell, 1962), 105.
20 A.G. Dickens and John Tonkin, The Reformation in Historical Thought (Massachusets: Harvard University Press, 1985) 200, 201.