Sunday, July 15, 2007

Luther: "There are almost as many sects and beliefs as there are heads..."


"There are almost as many sects and beliefs as there are heads; this one will not admit baptism; that one rejects the Sacrament of the altar; another places another world between the present one and the day of judgment; some teach that Jesus Christ is not God. There is not an individual, however clownish he may be, who does not claim to be inspired by the Holy Ghost, and who does not put forth as prophecies his ravings and dreams."- Martin Luther

Zealous defenders of the Roman Church typically use quotes like this. For instance, Steve Ray thinks lack of the infallible Roman Church leads to Biblical anarchy- everyone become his or her own pope, interpreting the Bible on their own:

“Since the Bible is not as perspicuous as Protestants sometimes think (as is proven by the thousands of different interpretations by well-meaning, sincere folks), [Luther said in his Commentary on the Psalms, ‘The Bible is its own interpreter.’ It doesn't take a genius to see where that idea has gotten us. Even Luther quickly saw its devastating effect: ‘There are almost as many sects and beliefs as there are heads; this one will not admit baptism; that one rejects the Sacrament of the altar; another places another world between the present one and the day of judgment; some teach that Jesus Christ is not God. There is not an individual, however clownish he may be, who does not claim to be inspired by the Holy Ghost and who does not put forth as prophecies his ravings and dreams’ (Martin Luther, cited in Leslie Rumble, Bible Quizzes to a Street Preacher (Rockford: TAN Books, 1976, 22).”

When checking these obscure Luther quotes used by Roman Catholics, the first thing to remember, most often, they didn’t get the quote by reading Luther in context. Often, they’ve pulled these quotes from secondary sources. The first place I normally check is Patrick O’Hare’s Facts About Luther. O’Hare cites this quote on page 208 giving the reference “M. Luther, De Wette III,61". His translation is shorter, and a little different:

"This one will not hear of Baptism, that one denies the Sacraments, another puts a world between this and the last day: some teach that Christ is not God, some say this, some say that: there are about as many sects and creeds as there are heads. No Yokel is so rude but when he has dreams and fancies, he thinks himself inspired by the Holy Ghost and must be a prophet."

I think the citation, as it’s floating around cyberspace, has been popularized by Steve Ray’s use of Leslie Rumble’s, Bible Quizzes to a Street Preacher (Rockford: TAN Books, 1976, 22).” Both versions though, be it O’Hare’s or Rumble’s, can be found on the Internet.

I will spare you the trouble of searching the English edition of Luther Works for this quote. It isn’t there. There has been a multitude of old biographies and books on Luther made available online. For instance a better context and reference comes from Catholic historian Hartmann Grisar:

"Amidst the excitement of his struggle with the fanatics he wrote as early as 1525 to the " Christians at Antwerp "The tiresome devil begins to rage amongst the ungodly and to belch forth many wild and mazy beliefs and doctrines. This man will have nothing of baptism, that one denies the Sacrament, a third awaits another world between this and the Last Day ; some teach that Christ is not God ; some say this, some that, and there are as many sects and beliefs as there are heads ; no peasant is so rude but that if he dreams or fancies something, it must forsooth be the Holy Spirit which inspires him, and he himself must be a prophet." (April, 1525, " Werke," Weim. ed., 18, p. 547 ; Erl. ed., 53, p. 342 " Briefwechsel," 5, p. 151)."

Grisar gives us a year (1525), and also a document name (to the "Christians at Antwerp"). We can probably safely infer it was a letter. The year is extremely pertinent, because anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the 16th century knows 1525 was part of the tumultuous years of the peasant’s revolt. The peasants had sporadic outbursts of violence previous to their great uprising in the spring of 1525. Luther was very aware of the peasant situation. He had personally visited some of the peasants, and was almost killed by them. Charismatic leaders spurred them on, using of course, religion as part of the motivation to violently revolt against the establishment. As any basic Reformation text will note, Luther was aware of these charismatic peasant leaders, and wrote against them.

But why did Luther write to Antwerp? From an odd text, The Prophecies of Martin Luther, an historical context emerges. It is the work of one of Luther’s students: Andreas Musculus (1514-1581). Musculus says,
“Not long before, Luther confuted Nicholas Storke, Thomas Muncer, and other Phanatick persons, who called themselves Prophets, and broaching new Doctrines, pretended Evangelical Revelations, and Conferences with God himself: These were they who denyed the Baptism of Infants, and thereby sowed the seed of Anabaptisme and were powerfully and Victoriously opposed by Luther; Some few years afterwards, the Anabaptists finding Wittenbergh too hot for them, did spread themselves over all Helvetia, and other parts of Germany, and began to broach their Fancies at Antwerp; whereupon Luther by an Epistle full of Christian Direction, did Advertise the Reformed Church at Antwerp to take heed of such Erronious Spirits, who had very much afflicted him. In the same letter, he recited the impostures of false Spirits of Popery, and of other suducing Spitits of present time. And in another Letter he again described the Erronious Articles of the Tumultous Spirits at Antwerp, and clearly opened the Inconstancy, boldness and secret Pride, lurking in that profession, and intreating them to abandon the Question concerning Gods Hidden Will, he desired them to attend unto, and to follow the necessary precepts set before them by GOD himself in his own word. The Articles of the Anabaptists were these; 1. That every Man hath the Spirit. 2. That the Spirit was nothing else but our Reason and Understanding. 3. That every man believeth. 4. That there was no place of Torment for men Soules, but that the Body onely was condemned. 5 . That every Soul should be saved. 6. But even by the law of Nature, we are taught to do good to our neighbors, as we would they should do unto us, and that his Will in us was Faith. 7. That we sin not against the law, by desiring any thing, if our Will consent not to our Desires and lusts. 8. That he who hath not the Spirit, hath not Sin, because he wanteth Reason, which Reason these Anabaptists do call the holy Ghost."
I was actually able to track down some of Luther’s letter to Antwerp, as referred to by Grisar, and as described by Musculus:

"Letter of doctor Martin to the Christians of Antwerp."
We believed, during the reign of the pope, that the spirits which make a noise and disturbance in the night, were those of the souls of men, who after death, return and wander about in expiation of their sins. This error, thank God, has been discovered by the Gospel, and it is known at present, that they are not the souls of men, but nothing else than those malicious devils who used to deceive men by false answers. It is they that have brought so much idolatry into the world.
The devil seeing that this sort of disturbance could not last, has devised a new one; and begins to rage in his members, I mean in the ungodly, through whom he makes his way in all sorts of chimerical follies and extravagant doctrines. This won't have baptism, that denies the efficacy of the Lord's supper; a third, puts a world between this and the last judgment ; others teach that Jesus Christ is not God ; some say this, others that ; and there are almost as many sects and beliefs as there are heads.
I must cite one instance, by way of exemplification, for I have plenty to do with these sort of spirits. There is not one of them that does think himself more learned than Luther; they all try to win their spurs against me; and would to heaven that they were all such as they think themselves, and that I were nothing! The one of whom I speak assured me, amongst other things, that lie was sent to me by the God of heaven and earth, and talked most magnificently, but the clown peeped through all. At last, he ordered me to read the books of Moses. I asked for a sign in confirmation of this order, ' It is,' said he, ' written in the gospel of St. John.' By this time I had heard enough, and I told him, to come again, for that we should not have time, just now, to read the books of Moses. . . .
I have plenty to do in the course of the year with these poor people: the devil could not have found a better pretext for tormenting me. As yet the world had been full of those clamorous spirits without bodies, who oppressed the souls of men; now they have bodies, and give themselves out for living angels . . .
When the pope reigned we heard nothing of these troubles. The strong one (the devil) was in peace in his fortress; but now that a stronger one than he is come, and prevails against him and drives him out, as the Gospel says, he storms and comes forth with noise and fury.
Dear friends, one of these spirits of disorder has come amongst you in flesh and blood; he would lead you astray with the inventions of his pride: beware of him.
First, he tells you that all men have the Holy Ghost. Secondly, that the Holy Ghost is nothing more than our reason and our understanding. Thirdly, that all men have faith. Fourthly, that there is no hell, that at least the flesh only will be damned. Fifthly, that all souls will enjoy eternal life. Sixthly, that nature itself teaches us to do to our neighbour what we would he should do to us ; this he calls faith. Seventhly, that the law is not violated by concupiscence, so long as we are not consenting to the pleasure. Eighthly, that he that has not the Holy Ghost, is also without sin, for he is destitute of reason.
All these are audacious propositions, vain imaginations; if we except the seventh, the others are not worthy of reply. . . .
It is sufficient for us to know that God wills no sin. As to his sufferance of sin, we ought not to approach the question. The servant is not to know his master's secrets, simply his master's orders: how much less should a poor creature attempt to scrutinize or sound the mysteries and the majesty of the Creator ? . . .
" To learn the law of God, and to know his soul Jesus Christ, is sufficient to absorb the whole of life. . . . A.D. 1525." (Luth. Werke,tom. ii. p. 61,sqq.)

A date, background, and context help bring this quote to life, rather than it simply bouncing around cyber space as polemical Roman Catholic apologetic. The charge though of Steve Ray still needs to be addressed, namely,

“Since the Bible is not as perspicuous as Protestants sometimes think (as is proven by the thousands of different interpretations by well-meaning, sincere folks), [Luther said in his Commentary on the Psalms, ‘The Bible is its own interpreter.’] It doesn't take a genius to see where that idea has gotten us. Even Luther quickly saw its devastating effect.”

First, it should be obvious the quote is being used out of context. Luther isn’t talking about the devastating effect of sola scriptura. He’s talking about the devastating effect of the devil, who, Luther says, was at peace in his papal fortress, but now with the gospel being loudly proclaimed, must find a different way to keep men enslaved to sin and darkness.

Second, Steve Ray operates under the delusion that somehow, Roman Catholics are all unified in belief. They are not. Roman Catholics hold to sola ecclesia. This is their infallible source. It does not provide unity. One can find scores of Roman Catholics disagreeing with each other. Therefore, it is simply ridiculous for Roman Catholics to hold Protestants to a standard they themselves can’t live up to. That some people misinterpret or twist the Bible is not the fault of the Bible, hence not a proof against sola scriptura. In the same way, that I may possibly configure my computer incorrectly is not the fault of the owner’s manual that comes with it. The misuse of a sufficient source does not negate the clarity of that sufficient source.

Rome has only explicitly defined a handful of passages, and allows their theologians to speculate and use their private judgment on the majority of Scripture. What this means to Catholic laymen, is that in actuality, they can’t really know what the Scriptures do mean in most cases. Rome has claimed infallible interpretive rights, but rarely use the right. Catholics can claim unity, but without an infallible interpretation of almost the entirety of the Bible, their balking against alleged Protestant disunity is more a clanging gong or a facade rather than an actual argument.

This was even something Luther was aware of. Note the following quote from Luther, and its similarity to the Luther quote used by Ray.
“I do not read the scholastics blindfolded, as they do, but ponder them. The apostle told us to prove all things, and hold to that which is good. I do not despise all theirs, neither consider it all good. But these creatures generally kindle a fire out of a spark, and make an elephant out of a flea. When it was permitted to a Thomas to stand out against the whole world, and a Scotus, Gabriel, and others to contradict him, and when, even among the scholastics, there are as many sects as there are heads, or rather every single head daily builds up a new system of divinity, why should I not have the same liberty? But when God lifts up His hand no one can stay it, and when He rests no one can arouse Him.”
In regards to “sects”- Luther said of the Roman Catholic Church:
“…there is no other place in the world where there are so many sects, schisms, and errors as in the papal church. For the papacy, because it builds the church upon a city and person, has become the head and fountain of all sects which have followed it and have characterized Christian life in terms of eating and drinking, clothes and shoes, tonsures and hair, city and place, day and hour. For the spirituality and holiness of the papal church lives by such things, as was said above.  This order fasts at this time, another order fasts at another time; this one does not eat meat, the other one does not eat eggs; this one wears black, the other one white; this one is Carthusian,  the other Benedictine;  and so they continue to create innumerable sects and habits, while faith and true Christian life go to pieces. All this is the result of the blindness which desires to see rather than believe the Christian church and to seek devout Christian life not in faith but in works, of which St. Paul writes so much in Colossians [2]. These things have invaded the church and blindness has confirmed the government of the pope.” [LW 39:221]

Addendum 8/7/14
I began looking for this quote in 2006: The Evils of Private Interpretation: "There are almost as many sects and beliefs as there are heads". I then followed it up with Luther: Sola Scriptura Had a "Devastating Effect?" Then there was this entry. Finally in 2012 I posted Luther: There are almost as many sects and beliefs as there are heads. This quote still pops up from time to time, most often being used by Rome's defenders. An new English translation of Luther's Letter to the Christians of Antwerp is scheduled to be included in a forthcoming volume of Luther's works.  For now, the German text is available here. The quote in question is on page 547 (WA 18:547). 

6 comments:

Carrie said...

Thanks James for dealing with this quote. I never would have figured this out. I'll get my link over today.

I already put the link to your "Luther Myths" from AOmin in my sidebar - that should save some time in the future.

The Scylding said...

Good detective work there!

This is the first time (that I recall) visiting your blog, and I'll be linking to it for sure. found it via Tim Enloe's recommendation on his blog (in Alcuin's shadow).

pilgrim said...

Excellent point about RCism lack of unity as well--they have an outward organizational unity--but that's it at best.

A look at RC history shows the Franciscans disagree with the Jesuits who diasgree with the Franciscans, etc. Their different orders do have some parallel to denominations--not an exact parallel--but close in how they hold beliefs.

Even among the rank & file there are many who hold their own interpretation--much like the Luther quote.

Having a co-called infallible interpreter doesn't mean everybody's on the same page--because now you have to interpret the interpreter--you're adding an extra layer. That men disagree on interpretations in not a deficiency in Scripture--it is a deficiency in men--and no man is infallible-despite the claims of ROme.

Denise Braganza said...

Utter falsehood Franciscans may disagree with Jesuits but they don't go and create a new church because they disagree. They stay within the confines of the ONE HOLY CATHOLIC CHURCH. Family members disagree. Husbands & wives disagree. Is it wrong to disagree?? The apostles disagreed at times. This blog is biased and discriminatory.

James Swan said...

Denise Braganza said...Utter falsehood Franciscans may disagree with Jesuits but they don't go and create a new church because they disagree. They stay within the confines of the ONE HOLY CATHOLIC CHURCH. Family members disagree. Husbands & wives disagree. Is it wrong to disagree?? The apostles disagreed at times. This blog is biased and discriminatory.

Hi Denise, I suspect your comment is a "hit and run." But I'll briefly respond nonetheless. As to this blog being "biased and discriminatory" you appear to have these negative descriptions confused with worldview. Everyone with a definite theological opinion has bias and discriminates. As to the charge of "utter falsehood"... this may make sense under your worldview, but not under mine. As Luther stated above, "there is no other place in the world where there are so many sects, schisms, and errors as in the papal church." That was the Roman church of his day. And yes, they were in the confines of Rome as you probably meant when you shouted in CAPITAL LETTERS.

In my worldview, the Lutherans, the Reformed, the Baptists, etc. also are sects and have schisms, but they are all also in the confines of the one holy catholic church, and by that, I do not mean Rome, but the actual true one holy catholic church.

D'artagnan said...

In the end, we merely have to look at history, at which churches not only hold to Biblical teaching, but even to which ever unbiblical teaching their sect was based upon. Less than a hundred years ago all denominations understood the intrinsic evil of contraception, but none of them do now (at least none of the major ones, as it's hard to keep track of them all). You can't really say you teach the eternal Word if ya keep changing it.