Sunday, April 05, 2009

Luther: "I burn with a thousand flames in my unsubdued flesh"


"I burn " said Luther " with a thousand flames in my unsubdued flesh: I feel myself carried on with a rage towards women that approached madness. I, who ought to be fervent in spirit, am only fervent in impurity." (Table Talk)

Quotes like these were used by Roman Catholics to prove Luther "was consumed by the fires of fleshly lust" (Patrick O'Hare, The Facts About Luther, p. 318). Catholic historian Heinrich Denifle would use statements like this to prove Luther invented the doctrine of justification to excuse his gross immorality. Roman Catholicism has engaged in quite a smear campaign of attacking Luther's moral character in order to discredit the Reformation. This is only one of many quotes used in such manner.

I don't know for sure that this quote isn't in an old version of the Tabletalk. I will say though that I have my suspicions it's not. The quote is very similar to another, and often Catholics will cite it with the one in question. Patrick O'Hare cites this similar quote as follows:

"That he was consumed by the fires of fleshly lust he admits himself. Even when engaged, as we related in another place, in the translation of the Bible, Luther, in the year 1521, while living in the Wartburg, to which place this "courageous Apostle" fled in the disguise of a country squire and lived under an assumed name, wrote to his friend Melanchthon to say: "I sit here in idleness and pray, alas, little, and sigh not for the Church of God. Much more am I consumed by the fires of my unbridled flesh. In a word, I, who should burn of the spirit, am consumed by the flesh and by lasciviousness." (De Wette, 2, 22)."

The quotes are very similar are they not? The only thing really missing from this quote is "I feel myself carried on with a rage towards women that approached madness." In fact, when you think about it, this sentence may not even make sense in the quote in question. "Rage" in what way, a lustful rage? An angry misogynist rage? I don't recall any authentic statements from Luther in which he felt bound and overpowered by an insatiable, lustful desire for women, or a bitter hatred for women. Even the very Tabletalk those against Luther like to quote from contains statements in which Luther candidly admits there were far greater temptations than the the lust of flesh that tempted him (See Tabletalk No. 121). I wonder if maybe this sentence somehow or other got picked up along the way and added to this similar quote. Interestingly, this similar quote does have an extant context. It's from a letter to Philip Melanchthon, from the Wartburg, July 13, 1521. Here is the relevant section:

"Your letter has displeased me on two grounds: firstly, because I see that you bear your cross with impatience, give too much way to the affections, and obey the tenderness of your nature; and, secondly, because you elevate me too high, and fall into the serious error of decking me out with various excellencies, as if I were absorbed in God's cause. This high opinion of yours confounds and racks me, when I see myself insensible, hardened, sunk in idleness; grief! seldom in prayer, and not venting one groan over God's church. What do I say? my unsubdued flesh burns me with a devouring fire. In short, I who was to have been eaten up with the spirit, am devoured by the flesh, by luxury, indolence, idleness, somnolency. Is it that God has turned away from me, because you no longer pray for me? You must take my place; you, richer in God's gifts, and more acceptable in his sight. Here is a week slipped away since I have put pen to paper, since I have prayed or studied, either vexed by fleshly cares, or by other temptations. If things do not go on better, I will to Erfurt without any attempt at concealment, for I must consult physicians or surgeons." [source]

Alternate translation:

Your letter displeased me for two reasons: First, I realize that you carry the cross too impatiently; you give in too much to your emotions and as is your way you are just too gentle. Second, you extol me so much. You err tremendously in ascribing such great importance to me, as if I were so much concerned for God’s case. Your high opinion of me shames and tortures me, since—unfortunately—I sit here like a fool and hardened in leisure, pray little, do not sigh for the church of God, yet burn in a big fire of my untamed body. In short I should be ardent in spirit, but I am ardent in the flesh, in lust, laziness, leisure, and sleepiness. I do not know whether God has turned away from me since you all do not pray for me. You are already replacing me; because of the gifts you have from God, you have attained greater authority and popularity than I had. Already eight days have passed in which I have written nothing, in which I have not prayed or studied; this is partly because of temptations of the flesh, partly because I am tortured by other burdens. If this thing does not improve, I shall go directly to Erfurt and not incognito. There you will see me, or I you, for I shall consult doctors or surgeons. It is impossible that I endure this evil any longer; it is easier to endure ten big wounds than this small sign of a lesion. Maybe the Lord burdens me so in order to push me out of this hermitage into the public. [LW 48:256]

From the above context, Luther was not "consumed by the fires of fleshly lust" as Father O'Hare states- that is, Luther was not dreaming of wine, women, and song while hiding away in the Wartburg. It's amusing when I run across Roman Catholics now using such material to discredit Luther. It shows a lack of any research or being deep in history.


On The Tabletalk

This quote appears to have quite a history. If you go over to Google books, you'll find it being cited in the early 1800's. You'll note, most of those old books are primarily Roman Catholic. Also you'll find more recent Catholic usage as well: Catholic Culture: Luther's morals, Luther and the Bible, etc. Of course it appears in Patrick O'Hare's Facts About Luther, a book probably more widely read now than it was when it was first published almost one hundred years ago.

It could very well be from an earlier version of the Table Talk. I haven't though found anything like it in the extant versions of the Tabletalk, nor any helpful references back to an old Tabletalk. Those citations from the early 1800's don't seem to coincide with some of the English versions available during that time period. That is, I've yet to find this quote in an English Tabletalk published in the 1800's. Wherever the English writers got this quote from, it probably wasn't from a version of an English Tabletalk from the 1800's.

The Tabletalk has been in print, in various forms, all the way back to the sixteenth century. John Aurifaber was the mastermind behind the early versions of the Tabletalk, though many others contributed material to him, or either found it's way into subsequent editions. Towards the end of the Nineteenth century and early twentieth century, his text and the recordings of others were scrutinized for inaccuracies. Aurifaber in particular appeared to smooth the edges off Luther at times. LW states,

"Questions have often been raised concerning the reliability of the reports of the Table Talk that have come down to us. Aurifaber’s version, as we have already noted, is far less trustworthy than the manuscripts that were rediscovered at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century. There is no doubt that the manuscripts take us much closer to what was actually said than Aurifaber’s text does. But it is too much to claim that even the manuscripts provide us with verbatim reports. In some cases we have parallel accounts of the same conversation by two reporters, and these are not identical..." [LW 54, introduction].

I mention all this to point out that if the quote in question comes from an earlier source, it comes from a less reliable source. The version of the Tabletalk in the recent LW is a compilation from six German volumes. They state they attempted to leave out less reliable material, Parallel accounts, and they made a special effort to:

"...include pieces that have played a role in later polemical literature, pieces that have often been cited with triumph by unsympathetic writers or that have often been hidden with embarrassment by friendly writers. There are examples which show to what an extent Luther shared superstitions of his time and was guilty of “coarseness” in speech." [LW 54, introduction].

I still have to work through some books and articles in my library, but so far, Internet searches haven't turned up much on this quote.

1 comment:

John8v36 said...

It just shows me that Martin Luther was human like the rest of us and was in fact tempted! :)