Allegedly, "The history of Jonah is so monstrous that it is absolutely incredible ... " according to Luther. In this brief snippet, the implication may be that Luther denied the historical account of Jonah and the whale, and therefore denied the miraculous, and is also probably like one of those liberal scholars who interprets the Bible as fictional literature rather than history. Or quite possibly, he just said awful things about Holy Scripture. I've covered the context of the quote elsewhere, it is a Table talk entry, and not something Luther actually wrote. You can read the context for yourself. It does no harm to Luther.
I bring this quote up, because a few months back, a Catholic apologist defended his understanding of Luther as making a derogatory remark about the book of Jonah by pointing out A Protestant likewise felt Luther was making a nasty comment about the book of Jonah. The following paragraph is a typical argument from this guy :
"Swan then cites Hamilton in agreement, in his next post, about Luther's view of Ecclesiasticus (rather than Ecclesiastes). He loves that, because it agrees with his preconceived notions. But he passes over, for some reason, Hamilton's opinions that disagree with his own. For example, the same book (Hamilton writing), citing Colloquia (another name for Table-Talk), states on page 246, citing Luther: "The history of Jonah is so monstrous, that it is absolutely incredible . . . [footnote] I cited these words of Luther to show in how irreverent a manner he thought himself privileged to speak of the Holy Scriptures." Yet Swan had chided me at the end of his first article for asserting that Luther thought Jonah was a "mere fable"... Sir William Hamilton begs to differ. My William Hazlitt (translator) hard-copy edition of Table-Talk reads a little differently: 'The history of the prophet Jonah is almost incredible, sounding more strange than any poet's fable; if it were not in the Bible, I should take it for a lie.' Take your pick. It's another case of 'what did Luther really say?' and of having to trust one conflicting Protestant account over another. We Catholics cannot be expected to figure all this out, when Protestant authors are so confused themselves. I should think, then, that this is a good reason for cutting us a great deal more slack. "
So for the one or two of you who take his argument seriously, and you're wondering which Protestant is interpreting Luther correctly, recall first: the quote in question wasn't even written by Luther, and secondly, simply because two people can read the same quote and come to a different understanding, doesn't mean one of them is not wrong. It means that you must actually THINK. Use your reasoning to actually read. Am I to believe Catholics like this guy think that unless there is an infallible interpreter for everything, everyone is an idiot?
I'd like to quote an extended section from a lecture given by Luther as recorded by Roland Bainton in his famous biography, Here I Stand (pages 355-357). I do this so if any come across this quote, or actually thinks this Catholic apologist has a cogent argument, you will have here a ready web page to show how Luther actually dealt with the book of Jonah. He does so with respect, and treats the book as history. In fact, according to Luther, because it is in Scripture, it can be believed.
Jonah was sent to rebuke the mighty king of Assyria. That took courage. If we had been there, we should have thought it silly that one single man should attack such an empire. How silly it would seem for one of us to go on such a mission to the Turks. And how ridiculous often it has appeared that a single man should rebuke the pope. But God's work always appears as folly.
"And Jonah took ship for Tarshish." The godless think they can get away from God by going to a town where he is not recognized. Why did Jonah refuse? First because the assignment was very great. No prophet had ever been chosen to go to the heathen. Another reason was that he felt the enmity of Nineveh. He thought God was only the God of the Jews, and he would rather be dead than proclaim the grace of God to the heathen.
Then God sent a great wind. Why should he have involved the other passengers in Jonah's punishment? We are not the ones to lay down rules for God, and for that matter the other persons on the boat were not innocent. We have all transgressed. The storm must have been very sudden because the people felt that it must have an unusual cause. Natural reason taught the sailors that God is God. The light of reason is a great light, but it fails in that it is ready to believe that God is God, but not to believe that God is God to you. These people called on God. This proves that they believed he was God, that is to others, but they did not really believe he would help them, otherwise they would not have thrown Jonah overboard. They did their uttermost to save the ship like the papists who try to be saved by works.
Jonah was asleep in the hold. Men are like that when they have sinned. They feel no compunction. If God had forgotten his sin, Jonah would never have given it another thought. But when he was awakened and saw the state of the ship he recognized his guilt. His conscience became active. Then he felt the sting of death and the anger of God. Not only the ship but the whole world was too small for him. He admitted his fault and cleared all the others. This is what contrition does. It makes all the world innocent and yourself only a sinner. But Jonah was not yet ready to make a public acknowledgment. He let the sailors wrestle until God made it plain that they would all perish with him. No one would confess. They had to cast lots. Wounds cannot be healed until they are revealed, and sins cannot be forgiven until they are confessed. Some say that they sinned in casting lots, but I cannot see that lot-casting is forbidden in Scripture.
Then Jonah said, "I am a Hebrew. I fear the God who made heaven and earth." The weight of sin and conscience is made greater if confessed. Then faith begins to burn, albeit weakly. When God's wrath overtakes us there are always two things, sin and anxiety. Some allow the sin to stand and center on the anxiety. That won't do. Reason does this when faith and grace are not present.
Jonah confessed his sin to be all the greater when he said, "I am a Hebrew and a worshiper of the true God." This made him all the more inexcusable. And Jonah said, "Throw me into the sea." The sailors thought confession was enough, and they set to work again on the oars. Jonah had to plumb the shame which was a thousand times greater because it was against God. For such a one there is no corner into which he may creep, no, not even in hell. He did not foresee his deliverance. God takes all honor and all comfort away and leaves only shame and desolation.
Then came death, for the sting of death is sin. Jonah pronounced his own sentence, "Throw me into the sea." We must always remember that Jonah could not see to the end. He saw only death, death, death. The worst of it was that this death was due to God's anger. It would not be so bad to die as a martyr, but when death is a punishment it is truly horrible.
Who does not tremble before death, even though he does not feel the wrath of God? But if there be also sin and conscience, who can endure shame before God and the world? What a struggle must have taken place in Jonah's heart. He must have sweat blood. He had to fight against sin, against his own conscience, the feeling of his heart, against death, and against God's anger all at once.
As if the sea were not enough, God prepared a great fish. As the monster opened its frightful jaws, the teeth were jagged like mountain peaks. The waves rushed in and swept Jonah into the belly. What a picture is this of Anfechtung. Just so the conscience wilts before the wrath of God, death, hell, and damnation. "And Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale." Those were the longest three days and three nights that ever happened under the sun. His lungs and liver pounded. He would hardly have looked around to see his habitation. He was thinking, "When, when, when will this end?" How could anyone imagine that a man could be three days and three nights in the belly of a fish without light, without food, absolutely alone, and come out alive? Who would not take this for a fairy tale if it were not in Scripture?
But God is even in hell.
"And Jonah prayed unto the Lord from the belly of the whale." I do not believe he could compose such a fine psalm while he was down there, but this shows what he was thinking. He was not expecting his salvation. He thought he must die, yet he prayed, "I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the Lord." This shows that we must always pray to God. If you can just cry, your agony is over. Hell is not hell any more if you can cry to God. But no one can believe how hard this is. We can understand wailing, trembling, sighing, doubting, but to cry out, this is what we cannot do. Conscience, sin, and the wrath of God are about our necks. Nature cannot cry out. When Jonah reached the point that he could cry, he had won. Cry unto the Lord in your anguish, and it will be milder. Just cry and nothing else. He does not ask about your merit. Reason does not understand this, and always wants to bring in something to placate God. But there just is nothing to bring. Reason does not believe that all that is needed to quiet God's anger is a cry.
"All thy waves and thy billows are gone over me." Observe that Jonah calls them thy waves. If a wind-blown leaf can affright a host, what must not the sea have done to Jonah? And what will not the majesty of God at the judgment day do to all angels and all creatures? "My soul melted within me, and I thought of the Lord." This is to turn from the God of judgment to God the Father. But this does not lie in the power of man.
"I will sacrifice unto thee with the voice of thanksgiving, I will pay that I had vowed." "And the Lord spake unto the fish, and it cast Jonah forth upon the dry land." The instrument of death is become the agency of life.