Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Careful Where You Find Your Quotes #2

Here's a citation that demonstrates what happens when you extract facts from the immediate context without taking into consideration what the immediate context actually says. The topic is Luther's involvement with the bigamy of Philip of Hesse. A Catholic over on the CARM boards asks,

This one really confuses me. It is a very well known and very well documented fact that both Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon (his right hand "dude"), sanctioned the bigamous marriage of Philip of Hesse. Two Protestant authors and scholars describe this as follows:

-snip-

"He (Philip of Hesse), wanted to marry a seventeen year old girl. . It seemed to him that he could commit bigamy since polygamy runs through the Old Testament and is not forbidden in the New. Luther and Melanchthon reluctantly agreed - so long as the second marriage was kept secret. It was not. The second wife naturally wanted recognition. The scandal broke, and Luther was ridiculed everywhere." Richard Marius, Martin Luther, p. 440

A number of loaded questions were then asked as to Luther's behavior in this debacle. You can look over the questions in the original post. As to this issue, I did a blog entry some time back: Perspectives on Luther: Luther a Polygamist?, and I also answered on the CARM boards, noting the double standards involved with this issue.

Then it was stated, "Please do not refute the actual history because it is solid history." What interests me of course, is the citation from Richard Marius above, used to verify the "solid history." This is what happens when the quote is put back in context:

"Luther's views on marriage took into account bodily and spiritual needs. We have noted already his seemingly radical advice on the subject in the Babylonian Captivity and other works. He always stood against divorce, by which a man might thrust a wife defenseless into the world. This opposition to divorce helps explain his consent to the bigamy of Philip of Hesse in 1540. Philip became one of the great champions of Luther's cause. His portrait by Hans Krell in 1525 shows a fine-featured, almost pretty young man. His marriage in 1523 to a daughter of Duke George of Saxony produced seven children. By 1539 he was tired of his wife, and his many adulteries had given him syphilis, a disease rampant in the sixteenth century. He wanted to marry a seventeen-year-old girl. It seemed to him that he could commit bigamy since polygamy runs through the Old Testament and is not forbidden in the New. Luther and Melanchthon reluctantly agreedso long as the second marriage was kept secret. It was not. The second wife naturally wanted recognition. The scandal broke, and Luther was ridiculed everywhere. Yet his major aim was to protect Philip's first wife from being thrown to the wolves. If one takes the Bible as the norm of behavior it is hard to see how Luther can be condemned" [Richard Marius, Martin Luther: The Christian Between God and Death (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1999), p.440].

Marius states elsewhere in the same book:

“Luther touched briefly on divorce. He hated divorce so much that he would prefer bigamy, he said, though he was not sure that bigamy was right. The notion was not farfetched to anyone steeped in scripture as Luther was. Nowhere in the Bible is polygamy condemned. The patriarchs and kings of the Old Testament had many wives. Paul in the New Testament said that an ‘overseer,’ or bishop, should be the husband of one wife, but he never suggested that the ordinary Christian had to be so limited. Monogamy is a legacy of the Greeks and Romans. By approving bigamy, Luther was concerned to protect a wife from being discarded in a cruel world where a woman required a man to protect her” [The Christian Between God and Death, 261].

The late Richard Marius, if I recall, wasn't even a Christian. The Catholic citing him states he's Protestant, but Marius defines himself as "essentially nonreligious" in the preface of this book (p. xii). In the context, Marius provided a sympathetic explanation for Luther's behavior. One wonders why a Catholic would cite Marius selectively, and then ask for explanations of Luther's behavior? I can't help but wonder how certain people read books. Do they only see what they want to?

Marius more-a-less excused Luther's actions. Don't misunderstand- I do not wish to justify Luther's behavior, or even the position taken by Marius. I bring this up because this citation is a good exercise in carefully reading books as to extract a proper context.

Luther clearly got himself into a scandalous and sinful amount of trouble. One of Luther's final comments on the entire mess was, “that if anyone thereafter should practice bigamy, let the Devil give him a bath in the abyss of hell.” More about this is detailed in my other blog entry.

A profound aspect of the Bible is its commitment to telling us about the sins of the human condition. Such is the case of Martin Luther and his involvement with Hesses' bigamy. Luther's life shows peaks and valleys: success for God’s kingdom, along with failure. With Luther’s attitude on bigamy, and his involvement with Phillip of Hesse, we see the warts of Luther. Luther had to learn the hard way with his attitude on bigamy. What He thought worked hypothetically, did not work in actuality. God has a way of teaching His people this lesson as he conforms them to His image- always showing us the sin in our own lives as we seek to be conformed to the image of Christ.

2 comments:

Kepha said...

Wow! Simply, wow.

EA said...

James asked: "I can't help but wonder how certain people read books. Do they only see what they want to?"

In part, yes. More probably, they stop reading when they 'have the proof' that they think buttresses their preconceptions.