Monday, September 22, 2008

Luther: "My Teaching is not mine, but God's"

Recently this Luther snippet was posted on a discussion board:

"I have said repeatedly: Assail my person if you will, and in any way you will; I do not claim to be an angel. But I will allow no one to assail my teaching with impunity, since I know that it is not mine, but God’s. For on this depends my neighbor’s salvation and my own, to God’s praise and honor." Martin Luther, (Reply to the Answer of the Leipzig Goat, 1521; from PE, Vol. III, 293-294; translated by A. Steimle)

In the discussion thread, this quote is supposed to prove, "...when it came to Luther's statements about his authority to interpret Scripture, it seems very clear that he considered himself to be a human authority above all others... Here we see Luther claiming that he would not allow anyone to rebuke him on matters of his teaching. In this he placed his teaching, or his interpretation of Scripture above that of everyone else. He also contends that he knows that his teaching if from God, and therefore is not his own. This of course would mean that he placed himself above anyone who disagreed with him, setting himself up as a divine authority."

The historical context of this quote is truly interesting, and explains why Luther said this. In the context, Luther is responding to one of his most severe papal critics, Jerome Emser. Emser had written to Luther, “Three times I gave you a brotherly warning and begged you, for God’s sake, to spare the poor folk to whom you are giving such great offense by this affair, and you gave your final answer in these words: ‘Let the devil care! This thing was not begun for God’s sake and shall not stop for God’s sake!’ ” Luther responded back with his "Reply to the Answer of the Leipzig Goat." Luther was angered at being... miscited by a Catholic apologist. Luther explains the actual context of his comment from his debate with Eck at the Leipzig debate:

It happened at Leipzig, in the chancellery of the castle — I have a keen and lively memory of the occasion — that the discussion concerning the arrangements for the disputation proceeded, according to Eckian practice, to place all the advantage on his side. We saw that our opponents sought glory rather than truth, although until then I had hoped that they had begun the matter in God’s name, even as I had done. Then I uttered the plaintive words that came from a sorrowful heart: “This thing is not begun in God’s name, nor will the end be in God’s name.” And the result has proved it; every one now sees that my prophecy is fulfilled. The kind of fruit the disputation has borne is all too evident.

Luther boldly calls Emser a liar because of his context-less miscitation. Luther was not referring to the indulgence controversy, the Reformation, or even his teachings on justification, but to Eck's manipulation of the Leipzig debate. Luther states, "My words referred not to myself, but to Eck, Emser, and the Leipzig theologians...". Further, "Therefore, my dear liar, I did not say, as you accuse me, that I regard the taking offense by the common people of so little account, that I consigned it to the devil. That is an invention of yours, in order to accuse me of being, as you say, a proud and haughty man... But if I knew that my teaching brought injury to one simple-minded man— which cannot be, since it is the Gospel itself—I would rather suffer ten deaths than allow such teaching to spread or go unrecanted."

Indeed, Luther did catch a leading Catholic theologian deliberately lying against him by misquoting him. Here we find those officially opposing Luther, those who claimed to be representing the "truth," resorting to...lies. Luther then states,

He is a villain indeed, worse even than Emser himself, who would not sympathize with the common people when they take offense. Again, he is unchristian who would sympathize with the tyrants and Pharisees when they take offense. I will not waste any words arguing whether I am a haughty man or not, since that does not concern my teaching, but my person. I have said repeatedly: Assail my person if you will, and in any way you will; I do not claim to be an angel. But I will allow no one to assail my teaching with impunity, since I know that it is not mine, but God’s. For on this depends my neighbor’s salvation and my own, to God’s praise and honor. Now I think one would sooner believe my fellow Wittenbergers, who see my daily life and have constant dealings with me, rather than the lying outsider, Emser.

So, Luther's comment about his teaching "I know that it is not mine, but God’s," falls in this context. Emser had misquoted Luther as devilishly admitting his teaching was not from God, that he didn't care about the common people who heard it. Luther responds by presenting a context, and admitting the opposite: his teaching was God's. One must stop and ask, if faced with the charge that one's teachings come from the Devil, what should one say in response?

Does the quote prove Luther "...placed his teaching, or his interpretation of Scripture above that of everyone else"? No. What it proves is Luther sought to verify his teaching by the sole authority of Scripture. Here was where the battle was to be fought. The document this quote comes from was still during the indulgence dispute, 1521. When Luther began his critique of indulgences, he sought to critique the abuse via an appeal to the Scriptures. What was Emser doing? Luther states, "Why were you silent about the abominable abuse of the indulgences and all the Roman knavery, and why are you still silent?" Luther was repeatedly put down by leading Catholic theologians who argued in favor of indulgences. Luther states, "It does not concern me whether you are good or evil, but I will attack your poisonous and lying teaching that contradicts God’s Word, and, with God’s help, I will oppose it vigorously."

Luther returns to the question as to whether or not he had ever started anything in "God's name":

Furthermore, that your great wisdom and superior holiness may be astounded and cross itself at the sight of such a poor sinner and great fool, I will go on and say that I do not boast ever to have begun anything in God’s name, as you boast with such solemn affirmations. What do you think of that, Emser? Now let your pen splutter, ring all the bells and cry aloud, that what is in me is all the devil’s work, just as you would so gladly have done, out of great love, in this death-thrust of yours. Dear Emser, my heart’s trust is, that I have begun it in His name, but I am not so bold as to pass judgment myself and to say brazenly it is surely not otherwise. I would not like to rely upon this confidence when God judges, but I creep to His grace and I hope that He will accept it as having been begun in His name, and if any impure motives have crept in, since I am a sinful man of ordinary flesh and blood, He will graciously forgive it and not deal severely with me in His judgment.

Emser accuses Luther's teachings as causing dissension, and therefore not of God. Luther responds:

My hope that I have begun in God’s name and that I teach the Word of God aright has no stronger witness and sign than this, that its rapid spread throughout the world without my doing or seeking it, and in spite of untold opposition and persecution by the powerful and learned, has brought about dissension. If that were not the case, I would have despaired and given up long ago. That the real nature of the Divine Word is to produce just such a movement and disturbance is affirmed By Psalm 147: “God’s word runneth swiftly”; and by Christ: “I will give you a mouth and wisdom which all your adversaries shall not be able to gainsay and resist”; and in Matthew: “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth. I came not to send peace, but a sword and dissension. For I am come to set a son at variance against his father, and the daughter against the mother, and a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.” (Psalms 147:15; Luke 21:15; Matthew 10:34 ff.)

Contrarily, Luther argues that the Romanist teachings are really those not of God:

This is exactly why I firmly believe that the greater number of the popes’ and all the sophist theologians’ books are the devil’s teachings: They have been received by the world peacefully without opposition, have been accorded all honor and held in higher esteem and fear than the holy Gospel. If they had come from God, they would have pleased the smaller number, brought discord into homes and made some men martyrs. But you, a holy priest of God and a Christian lover, pretend to write peaceful doctrine which shall not give offense, and you appeal to the final judgment that you do so without rancor and in the name of God. My good friend, you make St. Simeon a liar when he says in Luke 2:34 “Christ is set for the fall and rising again of many, and for a sign which shall be spoken against.” All the strife and the wars of the Old Testament prefigured the preaching of the Gospel which must produce strife, dissension, disputes, disturbance.

So, we see that the snippet quote has a context. But, defenders of Catholicism ignore the historical situation and context, and simply declare Luther words to mean he claimed to be "a human authority above all others" and that he "set himself up as a divine authority." Such is not the case. Luther continually argues from Scripture, and desires the same in response. One need only look at his treatise An Argument in Defense of all the Articles of Martin Luther Wrongly Condemned in the Roman Bull from the same year as proof. Theologians are supposed to argue from Scripture! Of verses not infallibly defined by Rome, theologians were given freedom to interpret! If Luther's teachings were not God's, how should one determine it? By appealing to the Scriptures.

The quote as used in the discussion thread comes from a Roman apologist's book on Luther. After using this quote, and a few others, the writer states:

We often hear complaints from Protestant apologists and other partisans about the excessive, intolerably "autocratic" authority of the papacy, yet papal proclamations are not even in the same universe as these above, from the founder of Protestantism. Martin Luther didn't need trifles as insignificant as the decree of an ecumenical council to justify himself. He simply assumed his prophetic call and proceeded on, undaunted by precedent and Church authority alike, if it went against his "judgment," which, of course, also was "God’s" and not his own. These quotes from Luther are all of a piece: they all indicate that he considered himself some sort of infallible, unquestionable theological / spiritual guide or authority. Lots of people claim this, of course. Why should Martin Luther have been regarded any differently from any other self-proclaimed prophets or oracles of God? I think this is a perfectly legitimate and highly important question that Protestants would do well to ponder.

In reviewing the context of this quote, I used only the reference a Catholic apologist provided: Reply to the Answer of the Leipzig Goat, 1521; from PE, Vol. III. Even the historical background material I referenced comes from this source. Perhaps the Roman apologist got the quote from someone else, and never read the context. This is indeed possible. But if he did read the context, one sees an incredible example of reading history through Romanist glasses. Rather than thrusting oneself into the context of the debate between Luther and Emser, we are given the typical Catholic polemic that Luther "...simply assumed his prophetic call and proceeded on, undaunted by precedent and Church authority alike, which, of course, also was 'God’s" and not his own' " and that Luther, "...considered himself some sort of infallible, unquestionable theological / spiritual guide or authority." The Catholic apologist asks for Protestants to "ponder" whether or not Luther should be regarded any differently than any other self-proclaimed prophet. The real question though to ask, is why should anachronism and lack of context be the grid to interpret Luther by?

"...that the pope and his fellow-tyrants have taught differently is as clear as day. Hus proved it, so did I and many others, and I will bring still better proof, so help me God."- Luther to Jerome Emser, 1521

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