Saturday, May 02, 2009

Heinrich Denifle: Catholic Interpreter of Luther

Luther was a fallen-away monk with unbridled lust, a theological ignoramus, an evil man, and used immorality to begin the the Reformation. Denifle accuses Luther of buffoonery, hypocrisy, pride, ignorance, forgery, slander, pornography, vice, debauchery, drunkenness, seduction, corruption, and more: he is a lecher, knave, liar, blackguard, sot, and worse: he was infected with the venereal disease syphilis.

Extracted from, The Roman Catholic Perspective of Martin Luther (Part One)


The Catholic Encyclopedia states that Heinrich Denifle was one of the best Austrian Catholic preachers in the 1880’s, and “beloved by Leo XIII and Pius X.” He was also an accomplished scholar, with groundbreaking work on the relationship between scholastic theology and medieval mysticism.[34] The Encyclopedia praises Denifle:

“Catholic and non-Catholic savants alike… have recognized that he was immeasurably superior to his adversaries. This was owing to his intimate knowledge of the Fathers, of theology -- both scholastic and mystic -- of medieval history, and lastly of Middle-High German with its dialects.”

In the course of his research on medieval theology and the corruption of the Church, Denifle developed an interest in understanding Luther. The Encyclopedia states,

“At the beginning of this painful investigation Denifle had not a thought about Luther, but now he saw that he could not avoid him; to estimate the new departure it was necessary to understand Luther, for of this appalling depravity he was the personification as well as the preacher. So Denifle devoted many years to the task of ascertaining for himself how, and why, and when Luther fell.”

A great irony in Luther studies is that the protestant heirs of Luther did not know they possessed a copy of Luther’s early 1515 – 1516 commentary notes on Romans, while the Vatican claimed to be in possession of a copy. In 1880, Leo XIII opened the secret archives of the Vatican to scholars. Luther’s then-unknown Roman’s treatise was found, and Denifle working as an assistant archivist was able to utilize it. The announcement that Father Denifle was going to publish a biography including never before writings from Luther was highly anticipated in the academic world. The Encyclopedia touts,

“For some time previous it had been known that Denifle was engaged on such a work, but when in 1904 the first volume of 860 pages of "Luther und Luthertum in der ersten Entwicklung quelienmässig darstellt" appeared, it fell like a bomb into the midst of the Reformer's admirers. The edition was exhausted in a month. The leading Protestants and rationalists in Germany, Seeberg, Harnack,[35] and seven other professors, besides a host of newspaper writers attempted to defend Luther, but in vain. Denifle's crushing answer to Harnack and Seeberg, "Luther in rationalistischer und christlicher Beleuchtung" appeared in March, 1904, and two months afterwards he issued a revised edition of the first part of the first volume; the second was brought out in 1905 and the third in 1906 by A. Weiss, O.P.”

The Encyclopedia approvingly evaluates Denifle’s work on Luther:

“[Denifle] examines [Luther’s] views on the vow of chastity in detail, and convicts him of ignorance, mendaciousness, etc. The second part which is entitled "a contribution to the history of exegesis, literature and dogmatic theology in the Middle Ages", refutes Luther's assertion that his doctrine of justification by faith, i.e. his interpretation of Rom., i, 17, was the traditional one, by giving the relevant passages from no fewer than sixty-five commentators. Of these works many exist only in manuscript. To discover them it was necessary to traverse Europe; this part which appeared posthumously is a masterpiece of critical erudition. The third part shows that the year 1515 was the turning point in Luther's career, and that his own account of his early life is utterly untrustworthy, that his immorality was the real source of his doctrine, etc. No such analysis of Luther's theology and exegesis was ever given to the learned world for which it was written.”

“He has thrown more light on Luther's career and character than all the editors of Luther's works and all Luther's biographers taken together. Denifle wished to offend no man, but he certainly resolved on showing once and for all the Reformer in his true colours. He makes Luther exhibit himself. Protestant writers, he remarks betray an utter lack of the historical method in dealing with the subject, and the notions commonly accepted are all founded on fable. As he pointedly observes: "Critics, Harnack and Ritschl more than others, may say what they like about God Incarnate; but let no one dare to say a word of disapproval about Luther before 1521". Denifle's impeachment is no doubt a terrible one, but apart from some trifling inaccuracies in immaterial points it is established by irrefragable proofs.”

Interestingly, these positive comments from the Catholic Encyclopedia come from roughly the same time period in which Denifle’s work on Luther appeared. It is apparent that the compilers of the Encyclopedia were quite favorable to Denifle: he is a frequently cited scholar throughout the entire work on a variety of topics. That Denifle is a respected scholar is beyond question. That his opinion on Luther would carry weight in the academic world is understandable, particularly since Denifle had a deep knowledge of medieval theology, and access to early works from Luther otherwise unavailable to the modern world.

Catholic scholar Leonard Swidler points out that Denifle’s work met with great approval of the highest authorities of the Roman Catholic Church, and influenced papal statements. Denifle’s influence can be found in the encyclical Militantis ecclesiae, written for the Canisiusjubilaeum August 1, 1897. Here Pope Leo XIII spoke of the Reformation as the “Lutheran Rebellion” that ushered in the demise of morals. Pius X wrote an encyclical on St. Charles Borromaeo, Editae saepe, (May 26, 1910) in which he put forth:

“There arose haughty and rebellious men, "enemies of the cross of Christ . . . men with worldly . . . minds whose god is the belly." They strove not for the betterment of morals but rather for the denial of the foundations of faith. They cast everything into confusion and cleared for themselves and others a broad path of undisciplined wilfullness, or sought, indeed openly at, the bidding of the most depraved princes and peoples and under the disapproval of the ecclesiastical authority and leadership, to forcibly obliterate the Church's teaching, constitution and discipline.”[36]

Denifle’s Evaluation of Luther
How though did Denifle’s research stand the test of time? Here are a few summary statements from modern Protestant and Catholic scholars evaluating the content of Denifle’s work on Luther:

“The Dominican Denifle attempted to perform a "moral and scholarly execution" of Luther as a fallen-away monk with unbridled lust, a theological ignoramus; Luther was an evil man, and the Reformation fundamentally sprang from immorality. He wrote, "Luther, there is nothing godly in you!" Luther was ‘an ordinary, or if you will, an extraordinary destroyer, a revolutionary, who went through his age like a demon ruthlessly trampling to earth what had been reverenced a thousand years before him. He was a seducer who carried away hundreds of thousands with him in his fateful errors, a false prophet who in his contradiction-burdened teaching as in his sin-laden life manifested the exact opposite of what one should expect and demand from one sent from God. He was a liar and deceiver who through the very overthrowing of all moral limitations under the banner of Christian freedom attracted to himself so many deluded souls.’”[37]

“Denifle has two principle theses: the first is that Luther was so vile that he could not possibly be an instrument of God, that he was an imposter whose reforming zeal was but a cloak to his own moral decadence; the second theses is that this so-called reformer made no discovery at all in the theological realm, that he was not only a liar, but an ignorant liar- too ignorant of the true medieval context to understand the prevalent teaching of the righteousness of God. To defend his first theses, Denifle accuses Luther of buffoonery, hypocrisy, pride, ignorance, forgery, slander, pornography, vice, debauchery, drunkenness, seduction, corruption, and more: he is a lecher, knave, liar, blackguard, sot, and worse. Rupp describes such language as belonging to criminal pathology. Such accusations are seriously drawn up, and in the guise of scientific objectivity have deceived many: they are dictated by blind anger. He cries out toward the end of his book, ‘Luther, there is nothing divine in you! At the end he appeals to Protestants, ‘Have done with Luther; return to the Church’.” To defend his second thesis, concerning Luther's theological incompetence, Denifle argues that Luther was contaminated with nominalism, and had shown himself utterly unable to understand the golden age of scholasticism. In a volume of sources published the following year, Denifle analyzes no fewer than sixty-six commentaries on Romans from the time of Augustine onwards, in an attempt to bring out Luther's errors on justification and his ignorance of medieval tradition. Unfortunately for Lutheranism, no Luther scholar of the day could match Denifle’s mastery of the Middle Ages or his knowledge of the religious life for use in preparing a response. When the Protestants eventually did reply, Denifle simply dismissed them, referring to the 'inferior mentality' of Protestants (men such as Harnack and Seeberg!) and describing them as symptomatic of 'the bankruptcy of Protestant Science'.” [38]

“[Denifle] had expert knowledge which could have served well in understanding Luther's earliest works… But Denifle, a pugnacious Tyrolian, chose not to understand Luther but to demolish him, showing Luther to be a theological ignoramus and decadent, fallen monk victimized by unruly passion According to Denifle, Luther's theology rests on the conviction that the human heart is wholly dominated by lust anger, and pride. Luther had not taken monastic discipline seriously and failed to cooperate with the graces God offered him. Luther had fallen into numerous sexual sins and his theology then is simply a clever justification for a life without self-discipline and moral striving. Along the way in his exposition, Denifle heaped intemperate abuse on Protestant accounts of Luther for their misunderstandings of medieval thought. He opened one of his concluding chapters with a flourish, ‘Luther, there is no once of godliness in you!’”[39]

“The evidence which Denfile presented [about Luther] was certainly impressive and his influence on anti-Lutheran writers has been continuous and considerable; but it had been marshaled in a distinctly slanted fashion He had, for instance, laid great stress on Luther's use of the word ‘concupiscentia', mistakeningly interpreting it as sexual lust. He quoted a phrase which Luther used in a letter to his wife, 'I gorge myself like a Bohemian and I get drunk like a German. God be praised. Amen', to suggest that he was a worldly man, but he did not note the context of the letter, a humorous one written to his wife when she was very worried by his poor appetite. He used a series of portraits in his first edition to show how the thin, ascetic scholar and monk became obese and unattractive; the last of his portraits, he noted, was surprisingly bestial', though the fact that it was made of the reformer after his death, and possibly after decomposition had set in, should have minimized his astonishment.”[40]

“Denifle has grossly misrepresented [Luther] in identifying [Luther’s admitting of sins] with the lusts of the flesh, and his theory that the sensual tendency ultimately led him to a sense of moral bankruptcy and induced him to take refuge in the doctrine of justification by faith alone is utterly misleading. It is not shared by reasonable Roman Catholic writers like Kiefl, who have rightly discarded the theory of Denifle and his followers Grisar, Paquier, Cristiani as untenable.”[41]

“Father Heinrich Denifle in his Luther und Lutherthum made three major points: 1) Luther had broken his monastic vows; 2) at least sixty-five instances can be found of interpretations of Romans 1:17 in Luther's sense before Luther's time; and 3) the year 1515 was the turning point for Luther when lust overpowered him. It is useful to recall the tone of Denifle's polemic. "Luther's melancholy interior is the midpoint of his theology" (vol. 1, p. 590). "Luther gave the impression of being a man who hurls himself into the flood, without knowing what he is doing. He believed thereby to have found the best means with which to make himself the leader of the movement. Now he first sees what he has begun; he cannot turn back, the waves have been set free, his pride does not allow him to rescue himself from it, so he becomes completely radical" (vol. 2, p. 13). Warming up to his subject, Denifle continues: "Luther's undertaking was faustian, the black magic artist Dr. Faust is only an idealized Luther" (vol. 2, p. 108); "the devil controlled him, the devil who bothers Luther so terribly is Luther's own uneasy conscience and this devil plagues him more and more" (vol. 2, p. 118). "The Reformation was the cloaca maxima, the large drainage canal, through which the debris, which had long been piling up, was conducted away, which would otherwise have ruined and poisoned everything if it had remained in the church" (vol. 2, p. 109).”[42]

“[Denifle] depicted Luther as a moral miscreant who had invented the doctrine of justification to excuse his own immoral life. He accused the Reformer of being guilty of a "damned halt-knowledge" and of a "philosophy of the flesh," and he called Luther's doctrine a "seminar of sins and vices." In several passages he chose the form of personal address to Luther, exclaiming, for example, "Luther, in you there is nothing divine!"”[43]

“Denifle pursued the question of Luther's relationship to medieval theology, especially to Thomas Aquinas. His conclusion: the Reformation was based at least in part on Luther s woeful ignorance of classical Roman theology. As for the causes of Luther s reformatory views, Denifle found them in what he called Luther’s unbridled sensuality, his uncontrollable lust, thirst, and appetite. Justification by faith then became the cover-up for his own sins. The composite picture of Luther is that of a glutton, a forger, a liar, a blasphemer, a drunk; a vicious, proud, unprincipled, syphilitic man whose communion with God ceased entirely before his death, which may have been self-inflicted.”[44]

“Denifle began to quarry from Luther's own works and manuscripts what was rumored even before publication to be "ein boses Buch!" The work was aimed at annihilating Luther's reputation, but out of his own mouth and from his own pen. The young Catholic Luther, torn with sin and constant remorse, was pitted against the hardened old reprobate. Grilling his subject mercilessly like a savage district attorney, Denifle denied him veracity, depicted a lecherous young man ridden by unconquerable concupiscence of the flesh, and later exhibited a bloated besotted beast given to vile ragings and obscene vituperation. Luther had been wicked very wicked indeed—why, his own words about culpa, culpa, mea maxima culpa!" and his inability to find peace even behind monastery walls convict him! Unable to find any goodness even with God's grace Luther in final desperation simply "invented" forgiveness for nothing, i.e., justification through faith—and then advised "pecca fortiter," sin boldly! Thus he unleashed all the wicked passions of the Evangelical Reformation.”[45]

“What are Denifle's theses? There are two. The one seeks to make Luther into a man so vile that he could not be the instrument of God, an imposter whose "reforming" activities were merely a wretched camouflage to mask his moral decadence. The other tries to prove that the "pseudo-reformer" had made no rediscovery at all in the theological realm; it was that his propensity for lying or his crass ignorance only prevented him from understanding that the justitia Dei familiar to the medieval theologians was as important for them as he said justification was for him. To defend the first of these theses, which was self-condemnatory purely because of its exaggeration, Denifle does not hesitate to accuse Luther of buffoonery, hypocrisy, pride, ignorance, forgery, slander, pornography, vice, debauchery, drunkenness, seduction, corruption, and the like. These accusations, drawn up as a list of indictments which, disguised as scientific objectivity, are dictated by the blindest anger, culminate in a paragraph headed "The Christian Character of Luther". Having stated there that Luther wanted to be a filthy swine because this animal embodied his ideal of the spiritual life, Denifle pronounces the verdict: "Luther, there is nothing divine in you!" To the Protestant readers who have the patience to read to the end of his invectives, Denifle addresses a final appeal: "Have done with Luther; return to the Church."”[46]

“…[T]he high point in controversial literature was reached in the writings of Heinrich Denifle and Hartmann Grisar shortly after the turn of the century. The Dominican Denifle attempted to perform a “moral and scholarly execution” of Luther as a fallen-away monk with unbridled lust and a theological ignoramus. Luther was an evil man, and the Reformation fundamentally sprang from immorality. Denifle wrote “Luther, there is nothing godly in you!” Luther was “an ordinary, or if you will, an extraordinary destroyer, a revolutionary, who went through his age like a demon, ruthlessly trampling to earth what had been reverenced a thousand years before him. He was a seducer who carried away hundreds of thousands with him in his fateful errors, a false prophet who in his contradiction- burdened teaching as in his sin-laden life manifested the exact opposite of what one should expect and demand from one sent from God. He was a liar and deceiver who, through the very overthrowing of all moral limitations under the banner of Christian freedom, attracted to himself so many deluded souls.”[47]

Assessment and Influence of Denifle
The bias of Denifle is overtly apparent. Catholic scholar Jared Wicks points out the immediate reaction to Denifle’s work from Catholic scholars:

“Catholic university men in Germany were reserved about Denifle’s bombshell from Rome. Some coolly pointed out that a person so depraved as the Luther depicted by Denifle could not possibly have produced the literature that in fact changed the course of Christian history. It was lamented that the new documents Denifle presented would never lead to corrections of Lutheran views of Luther, since the Dominican had clothed his work in a vitriolic rhetoric repulsive to Lutherans.”[48]

Catholic scholar Joseph Lortz unmasks the link between Cochlaeus and Denifle, and clearly expresses that he purposefully has abandoned

“the evaluative categories of a Cochlaeus, … dominated [Catholic Luther studies] for over 400 years, and those of the great Denifle…. Gradually Catholics have come to recognize the Christian, and even Catholic, richness of Luther, and they are impressed. They now realize how great the Catholic guilt was that Luther was expelled from the Church to begin the division that burdens us so today--even in theology. Finally, we are anxious to draw Luther's richness back into the Church. ”[49]

In God’s blessed providence, Denifle’s works on Luther have not been widely disseminated in English, but remain one hundred year old, out of print German tomes. The English world has been spared his biased attacks against Luther. Still, even though his work remains obscure, Catholics on the World Wide Web still find ways of utilizing his material:

“Our (people) are now seven times worse than they ever were before. We steal, lie, cheat, ... and commit all manner of vices." (110:22/47 - Denifle, Heinrich, Luther and Lutherdom, vol.1, part 1, tr. from 2nd rev. ed. of German by Raymund Volz, Somerset, England: Torch Press, 1917)”

"The world by this teaching becomes only the worse, the longer it exists ... The people are more avaricious, less merciful ... and worse than before under the Papacy." (110:25/49 - Denifle, Heinrich, Luther and Lutherdom, vol.1, part 1, tr. from 2nd rev. ed. of German by Raymund Volz, Somerset, England: Torch Press, 1917)”[50]

Atkinson says, “Denifle's thesis has wreaked irreparable harm to the Catholic understanding of Luther, and has exercised an astonishing influence on Catholicism in general and on Catholic scholarship in particular, which one might have thought impervious to such impassioned and biased thinking.”[51] Denifle’s attacks though did have this positive aspect: he forced Protestant scholars to do even greater research into Luther, particularly to reviewing the early years of Luther’s life and medieval scholasticism. Richard Stauffer notes the Reponses to Denifle’s main points on Luther:

“Whereas in the first thesis he seeks to rule out his opponent on the score of morality, in the second he aims at proving Luther's incompetence, if not dishonesty, in theology. In this new attempt at liquidation Denifle revives the idea that Luther was contaminated by the nominalism of William of Occam and failed to appreciate the golden age of scholasticism…Denifle's theses stirred up considerable feeling in Protestantism. The former had nevertheless a certain usefulness, in that it made Lutheran historians finally renounce hagiography and rediscover the true Luther: a man who, besides his greatnesses had also his littlenesses and who, because he was conscious of his wretchedness, was able to be unreservedly the herald of God's grace. Among those who were stimulated by Denifle's attacks to try to give Protestantism a sound picture of the Reformer, we must mention Otto Scheel. The biography which he set out to write, but which unfortunately remained unfinished, is a remarkable work. It devotes no less than two volumes—all that appeared-to tracing Luther's development up to 1515, a period treated only very superficially by nineteenth-century Luther-scholars. Denifle's second thesis had the effect of reminding Protestant theologians that, to know the young Luther, it is also necessary to know the teaching of scholasticism; that, to understand his message, the necessary preliminary is to have understood the thought of the Middle Ages. In this respect, the German historian whom one can regard as the initiator in the renaissance of Luther studies, Karl Holl. did a wonderful work. He was able to show, in particular, that Luther s interpretation of Rom. 1: 17 represented not only a rediscovery of the thought of St Augustine but even a new understanding of God.”[52]

FOOTNOTES

[34] “In his day he had an immense reputation in the scholarly world, especially for his works on medieval mysticism, on the history of the universities up to 1400, on the cartulary of the University of Paris, and on The Desolation of the Churches, Monasteries, and Hospitals in France towards the Middle of the Fifteenth Century” (Richard Stauffer, Luther as Seen by Catholics, 13).

[35] The Catholic Encyclopedia is cheerleading at this point. Stauffer has pointed out, “…the way in which [Denifle] reproached A. Harnack and R. Seeberg in his Luther in rationalistiscer und christlicher Beleuchtung shows that he was not a man who could engage in a genuine theological dialogue” (Richard Stauffer, Luther as Seen by Catholics, 17).

[36] Leonard Swidler, “Catholic Reformation Scholarship in Germany”, 190. Says Swidler elsewhere, “Grisar and Denifle, of course were supported in their attitudes by the highest church authorities. Pope Leo XIII in the encyclical Militantis ecclesiae, written for the Canisius-jubilaeum August 1, 1897, described the Reformation as the “rebellio lutherana,” which brought about the ultimate ruin of morals. St. Pius X in his encyclical on St. Charles Borromaeo, Editae suepe, May 26, 1910, said: There arose haughty and rebellious men, ‘enemies of the cross of Christ . . . men with worldly . . minds whose god is the belly.’ They strove not for the betterment of morals but rather for the denial of the foundations of faith. They cast everything into confusion and cleared for themselves and others a broad path of undisciplined wilfulness, or sought, indeed openly at the bidding of the most depraved princes and peoples and under the disapproval of the ecclesiastical authority and leadership, forcibly to obliterate the Church’s teaching, constitution and discipline” [Leonard J. Swidler, The Ecumenical Vanguard: The History of the Una Sancta Movement ].

[37] Leonard Swidler, “Catholic Reformation Scholarship in Germany”, 190.

[38] James Atkinson, Martin Luther: Prophet to the Church Catholic , 10.

[39] Jared Wicks, Luther and His Spiritual Legacy, 17-18.

[40] V.H.H. Green, Luther and the Reformation (New York: G.P.Putnum’s Sons, 1964) 193-195.

[41] James Mackinnon, Luther and the Reformation Vol. I (New York: Russell & Russell, 1962), 105.

[42] Lewis Spitz, “Images of Luther,” (Concordia Journal 11, March 1985), 46.

[43] Johann Heinz, “Martin Luther and His Theology in German Catholic Interpretation Before and After Vatican II” (Andrews University Seminary Studies, 26, Autumn 1988), 255.

[44] Fred W. Meuser and Stanley D. Schneider (eds.) Interpreting Luther’s Legacy, 39.

[45] Peter Brunner and Bernard J. Holm, Luther in the 20th Century, (Iowa: Luther College Press, 1961), 86.

[46] Richard Stauffer, Luther as Seen by Catholics, 13.

[47] Leonard J. Swidler, The Ecumenical Vanguard: The History of the Una Sancta Movement .

[48] Jared Wicks, Luther and His Spiritual Legacy, 18.

[49] Jared Wicks (ed.) Catholic Scholars Dialogue with Luther (Loyola University Press, 1970), 6-7.

[50] http://www.findamass.com/quotes.htm

[51] James Atkinson, Martin Luther: Prophet to the Church Catholic , 11.

[52] Richard Stauffer, Luther as Seen by Catholics, 14.

2 comments:

L P said...

Thanks for the research, it is appreciated.


LPC

James Swan said...

Thanks- currently I'm interacting with a Roman Catholic who actually thinks Denifle has valid points about Luther.