Discrediting the Reformation by indicting Martin Luther of teaching bigamy and polygamy lives on. Over on the Catholic Answers forum they started discussing Luther's statement "sin boldly." Well, eventually a Roman Catholic interpreted Luther's statement in light of Luther's involvement in the Phillip of Hesse bigamy debacle. It was stated,
"...not only Luther, but Philip Melanchthon, Martin Bucer and several other 'reformers' did in fact, teach it was 'OK to sin,' for they gave Philip of Hesse permission to take a second wife!"
"...reluctantly or not, Luther, Melanchthon, Bucer et al, did indeed and in fact give their 'consent' to Philip for him to take a second wife while his first one was still living! A blatant disregard for the commandments! And if that's not to 'sin boldly,' then I don't know what is!!"
So, according to these comments, when Luther said "sin boldly" he meant living a life of wanton lawlessness, in fact go ahead and have a few wives! Of course, Luther meant no such thing when he wrote "sin boldly." The ironic thing about the person making these comments is his ability to maneuver around Google Books and present posts in which he tries to make one think context and history are important. Unfortunately, he proves on a most fundamental level, he's completely ignorant of Luther, history, and Luther's theology.
I've written on the topic of Luther's alleged bigamy and polygamy approval before, but I'd like to approach it from a different perspective this time, and notice some historical details being left out, as well as an interesting double standard. I've been reading Henry VIII and Luther by Erwin Doernberg (California: Stanford University Press, 1961). Henry VIII provoked a lot of controversy in regards to his marital state. He wanted the Pope to grant him a divorce from his wife so he could marry another woman. Doernberg raises an interesting parallel between those who indict Luther for bigamy, while letting the Pope, Erasmus, and many others off the hook. The following text is from pages 73-78.
Here it is necessary to interrupt the story [of Henry VIII] and to discuss briefly the Pope's preference for bigamy. We shall see later on that Luther also was of the opinion that, compared with divorce, bigamy was the lesser scandal.
There is a curious tendency among some English historians,by no means confined to Roman Catholics, not only to preserve a conspiratorial silence about the Pope's genuine conviction but to follow up their silence about the Pope with a disgusted exposure of so 'typically Lutheran' an immorality.
Since this procedure has been chosen even by outstanding writers who are rightly regarded as authorities, it is only natural that the falsity should have been repeated, probably often in perfect innocence, by lesser writers.
Monogamy was the normal thing among Christians and nobody in Henry VIII's time, with the exception of the Anabaptists of Munster (1534), denied its normality. Neither the Pope nor Luther regarded bigamy as desideratum; but both of them, and not they alone, regarded it as the lesser evil compared with divorce.
Erasmus of Rotterdam gave, quite casually, the same advice. He was drawn into Henry's affair in 1526 when Catherine requested of him, through her chamberlain Lord Mountjoy, that he should come to her aid by writing in her favour. The result was the book Matrimonii Christiani Institutio in which the problems of divorce and impediments are discussed at length; the book maintains that a marriage with a deceased brother's wife does not, as such, present a cause for nullification. During 1527 Erasmus was in correspondence with Vives and the King's divorce affair was being discussed.On September 2nd Erasmus wrote: 'Far be it from me to mix in the affair of Jupiter and Juno, particularly as I know little about it. But I should prefer that he should take two Junos rather than put away one.'
The mere fact that the Pope, Luther and Erasmus considered bigamy to be the obvious preferable solution indicates clearly that this idea, so alien and unacceptable to the modern mind, was a perfectly reasonable reaction at the time. Among those who had no scruples were also, for instance, the French ambassador, the King of France (who in April 1532 said to Chapuys that the King should go ahead and marry the
lady of his choice as Louis XII had done in 1499; again in January 1533 he advised Henry, through du Bellay, that he should marry Anne without hesitation and afterwards defend his cause) and Lord Wiltshire. The Pope, when discussing the possibility of a marriage between Princess Mary and the Duke of Norfolk's son, was aware of the fact that the Earl of Surrey had a wife living; this, in the Pope's opinion, was not too important as he had been forced into the marriage. Erasmus is particularly well suited to show that the proposal of bigamy was not regarded as shocking; had he felt that he could be taken to task for proposing an immoral solution, he to would never have given such an opinion in a letter written to England. Erasmus was not a courageous man. Indeed, after 1531, when he realized the course that events were taking, he no longer complied with the wishes of Queen Catherine, who again asked him for help at that time; he hedged and tiptoed precisely as he had done twelve years earlier when he was asked to state whether he was for or against Luther. Soon afterwards the necessity for caution had vanished, and then Erasmus dedicated some of his books to Lord Rochford—Anne Boleyn's father! No, Erasmus was hardly the kind of person to shock his correspondents. He always swam with the current. When advocating bigamy as a lesser evil than divorce, he simply expressed contemporary opinion.
Henry VIII and Philip of Hesse were by no means the only exalted persons who had given cause for such discussions and decisions. The Pope had permitted the King of Castile to have two wives. Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, Henry VIII's brother-in-law, committed bigamy twice, was three times divorced and finally married his daughter-in-law; his case, one is happy to say, was not typical of the age, but it shows what was possible.
We have already mentioned that it was originally Henry VIII's opinion that a second marriage would be the solution of his problem and his first application to Clement VII requested papal permission for a second wife. Soon afterwards he changed his mind and began to aim at a declaration of nullity, not—we repeat—because he judged bigamy to be immoral, but in consideration of the succession. Eventually, he hastily reverted to the original plan by marrying Anne Boleyn without being divorced from Catherine and, once again, it was consideration for the succession which prompted him, not that he regarded bigamy as the lesser evil.The decision of Luther and his colleagues regarding Henry's matrimonial cause will be quoted later. Their memorandum will demonstrate, in the form of an extremely detailed investigation, by what reasoning bigamy was judged to be incomparably less sinful than divorce, that bigamy was considered at least possible whereas divorce was not; it is therefore not necessary at this moment to discuss the theological argument. The point of the present paragraph is to indicate that no historian should feel compelled to improve on reality by electing to treat the Pope's advice with discreet silence—as if it had been immoral advice!—and by compensating for this silence with rhetorical references to the scandal of Philip of Hesse. I have never been able to understand how it is that so many historians outside the Roman obedience take a greater interest in damaging Luther's reputation than in guarding their own.
Luther's attitude towards the problem of bigamy is made clear in his reply to an inquiry; in 1526 he wrote to Jose Levin Metzsch: 'In answer to your question whether someone could marry more than one wife, this is my reply: unbelievers may do what they like, but Christian liberty must be made to harmonize with charitable care for the welfare of others wherever it can be done without harm to faith and conscience. But nowadays everyone wants the sort of liberty which pleases his own interest, without any care for the interest and improvement of the community.... Even if in the olden days men had many wives, Christians should not follow their example; they have no need to do so, it does not improve them and there is no command to that effect in God's word. Only scandal and disquiet would be the result...'
'Scandal and disquiet' were certainly not wanting when Luther and Melanchthon granted, in December 1539,a dispensation to Philip of Hesse to contract a second marriage. Here, as in the matrimonial cause of Henry VIII, was a case of a 'disturbed conscience'. The prince had led to excess the kind of dissolute life which was practically the normal thing among princes (Charles V by no means excepted), was badly afflicted with syphilis and, somehow or other, full of certainty that a second marriage would bring peace to his life; quite possibly, he also hoped superstitiously for a miraculous cure of the disease through a lawful union with a pure virgin. Martin Bucer was sent to Wittenberg and Luther became convinced that Philip's cause was a genuine conscientious problem. The dispensation was granted. Long preambles stated that monogamy was the normal divine institution; thus it had been at the time of the creation and later became the laudable law in the Church despite the fact that in some eras concessions had become customary. This said, they proceeded to explain the possibility of an exception provided it was understood that there was a fundamental difference between the introduction of a new law or custom and the granting of a special dispensation. They implored the prince to keep the dispensation a close secret, for two reasons: firstly, it must not be presumed by anybody that a new custom had been sanctioned and, secondly, the opponents of the Lutherans should be prevented from hearing of it as they would, no doubt, broadcast the news that the Lutherans had become like the Anabaptists, or even like the Turks.
There follows a strong admonition that henceforth the prince must give up his adulteries, and a reminder (I Cor. vi,i 9,10) that according to St. Paul adulterers shall not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. The letter further stresses that one of the chief duties of pastors is to guard the sanctity of matrimony and to keep a watch on all human institutions lest they become severed from their original and divinely ordained meaning. 'However, since your Grace finds it impossible to abstain from an unchaste life— you say that to do so is not possible to you— we should wish to see you in a better estate before God, enabling you to live henceforth with a quiet conscience for your Grace's own salvation and for the good of your land and people.'
Only a few months later the secret began, of course, to leak out. Luther at first thought it could be met by a denial,but this was no way out: the affair became common knowledge. Luther, not normally easily distressed about a wrong move if it was open to rectification, was full of regret and made no secret of this when writing to the quite despairing Melanchthon. 'The serpent and the serpent's brood of wisdom after the event will plague us more than all enemies and opponents have ever done.' He maintained that the devil's own wisdom had guided them when they granted the dispensation.
It was probably the scandal made of the case of Philip of Hesse which brought to an end the possibility of considering bigamy the lesser evil in comparison with the break-up of a matrimonial bond. Bigamy became as impossible as 'divorce' and the case of Philip, no doubt, strengthened the effect of Charles V's recent legislation against bigamy.
We have mentioned cases of dispensations for bigamy which caused no great scandal; they had been granted under the old religion. Here, however, was a case which called forth an ostentatious outcry against the rotten morals of the reformers. Quod licet Jovi non licet bovi. As a pastoral, individual dispensation, Luther's consent had been quite legitimate; diplomatically speaking—Luther had never pretended to be a diplomat, or to be guided by the morals of diplomats— the granting of the dispensation had been a gigantic blunder. The case of Philip of Hesse became—and has remained, when suitably told—the favourite subject for the portrayal of Luther the Knave.
Luther had no reason to regard the cases of Henry VIII and Philip of Hesse as in any way related. Philip's conscience was concerned with the conduct of his life; Henry VIII's conscience was troubled by the discovery that a marriage which had become burdensome had possibly never been a marriage. Philip wanted a second wife; Henry wanted a separation. Philip sent Bucer to Wittenberg with a pastoral question; Henry VIII sent delegations of experts on the Mosaic law. There is, altogether, little basis for comparison.