Monday, May 19, 2008

Luther Mythology & Hagiography

Do Protestants have an accepted "mythology,” of Martin Luther? Some Roman Catholics probably think Luther's many commendable attributes are thoroughly put forth in hundreds of Protestant biographies (some may even posit these volumes are best described as "hagiographies"), while his darker side, sins, and faults aren't mentioned. Is it up to Catholics to present the "whole truth" about Luther?

There are probably thousands of non-Catholic books on Luther, and I do admit, I don't have them all. But guess what? If you go into your big-chain-bookstore, you will find books by Protestants that describe exactly who Luther was, warts and all.

By and large, the majority of Luther research has come from Protestants. There is a large amount of research put forth by Protestants documenting less than admirable periods in Luther’s life like Mark U. Edwards: Luther's Last Battles: Politics and Polemics 1531-1546 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983). This book isn't that hard to track down. In it, you'll find lengthy discussions of Luther's extreme rhetoric against his enemies. Here you'll read about Luther's attacks against the Jews and the Papacy, his harsh language, his illness, his mental health, and you can also view the propaganda woodcut drawings that were included in his book, Against the Papacy at Rome Founded By the Devil. Edwards has also done an excellent volume documenting Luther's interaction with the Anabaptists and peasants entitled, Luther and the False Brethren (California: Stanford University Press, 1975). Far from covering up the Peasants Revolt, Edwards goes right to the heart of the matter.

One of the most interesting books I've ever read is Martin Luther as Prophet, Teacher, and Hero by Robert Kolb (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999). In this book you can read how some of the early Lutherans ascribed infallibility to Luther, and also read discussions on Luther considering himself a "prophet" or an "apostle"at times.

Even the more Luther-friendly books cover Luther's darker side. Roland Bainton's Here I Stand addresses the "bigamy of Phillip of Hesse" incident, and Luther's anger towards the Jews. Heiko Oberman’s Luther: Man Between God and the Devil [New Haven: Yale University, 1989]likewise addresses many of Luther's faults.

The popular magazine Christian History did a two issue series dedicated to Luther. They include an article called "The Unrefined Reformer" which addresses "Why was Luther sometimes bull-headed, coarse-tongued, and intemperate?" [Issue 39 (vol XII, No. 3). But perhaps most telling is the current English edition of Luther’s Works. It contains some of Luther’s worst and most troubling writings, like On The Jews and Their Lies.

It is simply erroneous to think that there has been some sort of unified conscious effort by Protestants to present a whitewashed Luther of mythological proportions, especially now in 2008.If by some chance, you come across a Roman Catholic arguing that only Catholics can present the "real Luther," you'll be getting a smoke-and-mirror show. The real "myth" being put forth is that only a Roman Catholic can tell you who the "real" Luther was. I am by no means saying that one should not read books on Luther by Catholics. I can recommend more than few that I've enjoyed and learned from. I am simply warning you to recognize sophistry in popular Catholic apologetics.


kmerian said...

Mr. Swan, it appears that in an effort to bash Catholic apologists you are attempting to create controversy where there is none.

I know I have never said, nor have I ever seen a Catholic apologist claim that only a Catholic can present the true luther and all Protestants will white-wash Luther. That simply isn't true.

Mr. Swan, it seems you have a very low opinion of those of us who defend our Catholic faith. That is nothing but prejudice, you seek to find controversy where there is none.

James Swan said...


I don't make this stuff up. I assure you that I actually have a book about Luther written by a Roman Catholic apologist in which it is claimed that many Protestant works about Luther present "mythology" or "hagiographies," and that the Catholic book being presented will achieve objectivity by consulting Catholic works about Luther. Interestingly, one of the main "objective" Catholic works used is one that most modern Catholic Scholars would not use.

Hence, I'm not "creating controversy." Rather, I'm doing what I've done for years- evaluate Catholic claims about Luther and the Reformation.

kmerian said...

I have to disagree. Ok, so you have one book that claims that "many" Protestant biographers of Luther paint too glowing a picture. Well, choose any historical figure and you can lump biographies into 3 catagories. Overly forgiving, overly critical and relatively fair.

Even you admit that there are many good Catholic biographies of Luther, and that you have one bad one. It seems you are attempting to paint all Catholic apologists with the brush of the one, instead of the many who are fair.

Would it be fair for me to point out a bad history of the Catholic Church (perhaps Hislop) and then say:
"See, protestant apologists are incapable of telling the truth about Catholicism"

You are creating controversy by holding up the exception as the norm.

BJ Buracker said...


How would you respond to a similar critique that churches paint a hagiographic picture of Luther? For instance, growing up in Protestant churches and schools, I never once heard a negative comment about Luther that I can remember. I know I never heard of his antisemitism. It wasn't until I read Bainton's book and heard Frank James' lectures that I learned these things.

Thus, it seems to me that a critique could certainly be made that whereas scholarly works may not paint a rosey colored picture of Luther, perhaps Protestant churches do. Have you heard such an argument and/or how would you respond?


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James Swan said...


I think you're disagreeing for the sake of disagreeing. I am not painting "all" Catholic writers with one brush, and any fair reading of my conclusion will substantiate this. I think you're seeing what you want to in my words, rather than what they actually say. Note particularly when I say, "If by some chance, you come across a Roman Catholic arguing... " I did NOT say, "All Catholic apologists argue x."

BJ Buracker,

I think you make a valid point. I would not disagree that often when Luther is referred to in a church setting, one gets the image of the noble hero boldly standing against the corrupt church. Obviously, when Luther stood against the Church and empire, this event stands out as heroic.Luther's insistence on faith alone and scripture alone are points that are quite harmonious with many a sermon. On the other hand, I have been in many dispensational churches over the years which are very pro-Israel, and more than once I've heard how Luther was an anti-Semite. With the former, I think ministers could use Luther's faults and imperfection as yet another example of justification by faith alone and imputed righteousness as gifts to a sinner, but I doubt many make this point (they should). With the later, they fall into the "throwing the baby out with the bath water" syndrome.

Tim Enloe said...

Aren't hagiography and mythology a problem on all sides? Echoing bj buracker, I could say that the people who brought me into the Reformed Faith (Michael Horton and the ACE guys, R.C. Sproul, a few others) painted an overly rosy picture of both the Reformation and the Calvinist system as a whole. It wasn't a matter of some sort of "sophistry" on their parts - they really honest-to-God believed what they were saying. However, it only became clear after years of study and reflection going far beyond the treatments in their own books that what they were saying wasn't realistic and needed serious correction at points.

It's not necessary to invoke dishonesty and "sophistry" to explain these things. When it comes to the Big Things - Truth, Justice, Goodness, and the like - there is just something just profoundly human about piously exaggerating, and then convincing oneself that one is not really exaggerating but only "telling it like it is."

Apologists of all varieties are right up there with hagiographers and mythmakers on this one.

James Swan said...

Hi Tim,

I have respect for many theologians, both living and dead, but with the realization that we are virtual idol makers (echoing Calvin's famous statement). It's very easy to make idols out of theologians. I'm sure I'm not alone in continually seeking to root out such idolatry. That being said, I have a great appreciation for many Reformed theologians. I realize that within Reformed theology (or probably any theology), there is a particular human tendency, a quite normal one, to emulate, respect, and give praise to the great accomplishments or holiness achieved by a particular person. I though, am actually maybe almost as equally comforted by the great failures and sins of these same theologians. It reminds me that they were, like I, sinful, and their only hope was the same hope as mine: having the perfect righteousness of Christ.

This blog entry has a specific book in mind, and my argument is a specific. The person making the argument really believe that many Protestant biographies of Luther are more mythology or "hagiographies." The irony is many (if not primarily) Protestant works are listed in the bibliography... Go figure. I have hundreds of books on Luther, and the charge is simply untrue. I can't know the motivations of the author, but I can evaluate the claim and state that one should be careful with statements they make in books they are selling for profit.

As to Sproul, Horton, etc, I rarely read works by these guys anymore, though I still listen to them regularly (White Horse Inn, Renewing Your Mind). I will always be fond of Dr. Sproul, and have been introduced to many avenues of theology I probably would not have explored otherwise due to his leading, including Reformed theology. As you know, Sproul typically writes introductory work, and I've found many of them useful. I recall most vividly being enthralled by his lecture on Luther "Love God? Sometimes I Hate Him!" It was really my first introduction to Luther. I can think of some points in which I disagree with Dr. Sproul, or have been displeased with some of his argumentation.

I'm sure what you mean when you say "I could say that the people who brought me into the Reformed Faith (Michael Horton and the ACE guys, R.C. Sproul, a few others) painted an overly rosy picture of both the Reformation and the Calvinist system as a whole" is much more critical then I would be of these same men and of the Calvinism they espouse. This of course is off topic, and is the tip of the iceberg that would show where you and I disagree theologically. I respectfully don't wish to venture into such a discussion with you.

Tim Enloe said...


I don't believe I asked you to discuss theological disagreements between us. As far as those go, I don't know what you've been told in the chatroom or what you think you've seen me say in other forums, but I remain firmly committed to all the Reformation solas, understood as the Reformers themselves did. I'm not exactly sure why free and open discussion of what the Reformation meant in its own context and how it may have been degraded since the days of the Reformers by alien influences is a forbidden topic with you and your friends, but it's a very curious fact of your collective public stance. Anything goes if it serves refuting a "papist idolator," I guess, but nothing but a radicalized party line about the Reformation can be discussed. So much for the iron-sharpens-iron pursuit of Truth, eh?

I can understand your notation that your blog entry was about a specific person and a specific subject, and how in that context you might judge my remarks "off topic," but what's a guy supposed to do? It's not like you folks here at Beggar's All invite free and open discussion between your fellow Protestants. I suppose you could just ask me to stop commenting here, and if you do I will respect your wishes. But again, I find it odd that you folks have seemingly unlimited time to talk with Roman Catholics about Reformation issues but so litle time and interest in talking with fellow Protestants who disagree with you about the same.

The cause of Protestantism has nothing to fear from historical truth, and has a whole lot to gain from ceasing to let its agenda be dictated by pop-Catholic apologetics. It's just too bad that there isn't a place where you apologist types could feel comfortable letting your hair down and just talking for once. There's more to life, and much more to the Gospel, than constant crusades against "error." That's probably why Luther, when questioned as to what he'd do if he knew Christ was coming back tomorrow said, "I would plant a tree." Not everything has to be about Theology and Disagreement and Apologetics and Polemics, James. The Reformation is a lot bigger than that.

Anonymous said...


Don't be too harsh on James. His work on Catholic's use of Luther and their methodology is very good. More importantly, they are not non-essentials, at least to some.

Nevertheless, I agree with you that it would be beneficial to also talk about Protestants who have or are distorting the Reformation, or just plain ignorant of it, and to situate the Reformation in its own context and show how the Reformers understood it.

James Swan said...


My point was to simply stay on the topic at hand. My interest is in popular Catholic apologetics and their interpretation of Luther. I'm sorry if it came across in any other way.

I realize there are much smarter Catholics on a far deeper level. However, I find more people involved in Catholic apologetics are much more likely to have a Catholic Answers bumper-sticker than a theological treatise from an actual Catholic theologian. Of course, this is painted with a broad brush. I know many Catholics who stop by here do not approve of popular Catholic apologetics.

I don't recall ever calling a Roman Catholic a "papist idolater," nor do I ever recall deleting, or stopping you from commenting on this blog. You are welcome to comment here, and I've always appreciated your help early on in posting my Internet papers, back when I didn't even think my interest in Luther was worth wasting anyone's bandwidth on.

I've recently tried to moderate the comments more to try and keep things on track better. A while back I spent half an afternoon composing a comment to someone, and I realized, the comment being responded to, while related, was taking the blog entry in multiple directions.

The topic, "what the Reformation meant in its own context and how it may have been degraded since the days of the Reformers by alien influences" is a good one, but not currently the focus of this entry.


Tim Enloe said...

James, thanks for your response. I suppose I see better how everything I've said here is off topic of your post. My apologies for skewing your thread. I wanted to say something on your "Who Sent the Reformers to Reform the Church" post, because on that issue you and I see eye to eye and much of my own work can be used to bolster your point there, but comments were closed on that one. That is a very fruitful angle of approaching the issues. I have never yet dealt with a Catholic apologist who can properly deal with the notion that the Church has to take responsibility for the destruction that happened on her watch. The Achilles Heel of this high papalist dogmatism is its historical lack of responsibility to authorities outside of itself. Keep highlighting that and you will take the bite out of much of what these guys bark.

James Swan said...

I wanted to say something on your "Who Sent the Reformers to Reform the Church" post, because on that issue you and I see eye to eye and much of my own work can be used to bolster your point there, but comments were closed on that one

I closed the comments, because the blog post was simply a cut-and-paste of a CARM discussion.

In the future, I will probably have posts open for comment on similar topics.