Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Luther: View Moses With Suspicion, and He's worse than the Devil

Here's an obscure Luther comment found on various web pages:

"Moses must ever be looked upon with suspicion, even as upon a heretic, excommunicated, damned, worse than the Pope and the devil" (Luther, Commentary on Galatians).

This quote can be found on various Internet discussion boards, as well as web pages like Martin Luther the Bare Truth Unfolded. Typically, the quote is used to demonstrate Luther was an antinomian. For instance, notice how Shoebat.com prefaces this quote:

To add insult onto injury, Luther also goes so far as to attack both the Holy Prophets and the Holy Apostles. This was slightly touched on earlier when we mentioned his attitude towards James. As an extension to his rebellion, he also attacks the Holy Blessed Prophet Moses as well. In fact, due to his antinomianism, it was logical for him to attack the Blessed Prophet Moses, which clearly puts Luther under the rebuke of our Lord Jesus Christ, who stated: “For had ye believed Moses, ye would have believed me: for he wrote of Me. But if ye believe not his writings, how shall ye believe my words?” (John 5:46, 47) Let us see what evil Luther stated of Moses and the Law of Moses.

In the example above the documentation given is "Luther, Commentary on Galatians." This is rather sparse documentation.  It's plausible that this quote made its way online from someone using Patrick O'Hare's book, The Facts About Luther. Father O'Hare states, "'Moses must ever be looked upon,' he says, 'with suspicion, even as upon a heretic, excommunicated, damned, worse than the Pope and the Devil.' (Comment, in Gal.) ." The quote in its popular online use is verbatim from O'Hare (with the reference being slightly revised). It's possible O'Hare got the quote from Luther: An Historical Portrait By J. Verres (he references this book a few times). The vague documentation used by O'Hare is the same as that provided by Verres. Verres states:
Against Moses, who so very frequently and so very strictly insists on the keeping of the law, Luther nourished feelings, which verge on personal hatred. To him Moses is the incarnation of everything, that can torment the soul, he calls him by the most opprobious names and denounces him to Christians as a most dangerous man. Not only that Moses ,, who has been given to the Jewish nation only, has nothing to do with us gentiles and Christians," but, ,,if you are prudent, send that stammering and stuttering (balbum et blesum) Moses with his law far away from you, and be not influenced by his terrific threats. Look upon him with suspicion, as upon a heretic, excommunicated, damned, worse than the pope and the devil." 
Verres includes a footnote for the quote in question: 
Hic simpliciter sit tibi suspectus ut haereticus, excommunicatus, damnatus, deterior papā et diabolo, ideoque prorsus non audiendus. Comment. in Gal. Almost the same words occur. Tischr. I.c. 12 § 15.
 Using the Latin text provided by Verres, it is possible to locate the quote in Luther's work on Galatians. It can be found in WA 40 (1):558. The text reads:

This text has been translated into English. A version from the 1800's can be found here. The translation in Luther's works can be found in LW 26:365. 

I am not saying this with the intention that the Law should be held in contempt. Paul does not intend this either, but that it should be held in esteem. But because Paul is dealing here with the issue of justification—a discussion of justification is something vastly different from a discussion of the Law—necessity demanded that he speak of the Law as something very contemptible. When we are dealing with this argument, we cannot speak of it in sufficiently vile and odious terms either. For here the conscience should consider and know nothing except Christ alone. Therefore we should make every effort that in the question of justification we reject the Law from view as far as possible and embrace nothing except the promise of Christ. This is easy enough to say; but in the midst of trial, when the conscience is contending with God, it is extremely difficult to be able to accomplish this. It is especially difficult when the Law is terrifying and accusing you, showing you your sin, and threatening you with the wrath of God and with death, to act as though there had never been any Law or sin but only Christ and sheer grace and redemption. It is difficult also, when you feel the terror of the Law, to say nevertheless: “Law, I shall not listen to you, because you have an evil voice. Besides, the time has now fully come. Therefore I am free. I shall no longer endure your domination.” Then one can see that the most difficult thing of all is to distinguish the Law from grace; that it is simply a divine and heavenly gift to be able in this situation to believe in hope against hope (Rom. 4:18); and that this proposition of Paul’s is eminently true, that we are justified by faith alone.
From this you should learn, therefore, to speak most contemptuously about the Law in the matter of justification, following the example of the apostle, who calls the Law “the elements of the world,” “traditions that kill,” “the power of sin,” and the like. If you permit the Law to dominate in your conscience instead of grace, then when the time comes for you to conquer sin and death in the sight of God, the Law is nothing but the dregs of all evils, heresies, and blasphemies; for all it does is to increase sin, accuse, frighten, threaten with death, and disclose God as a wrathful Judge who damns sinners. If you are wise, therefore, you will put Moses, that lisper and stammerer, far away with his Law; and you will not let his terrors and threats affect you in any way at all. Here he should be as suspect to you as an excommunicated and condemned heretic, worse than the pope and the devil, and therefore not to be listened to at all.
Apart from the matter of justification, on the other hand, we, like Paul, should think reverently of the Law. We should endow it with the highest praises and call it holy, righteous, good, spiritual, divine, etc. Apart from our conscience we should make a god of it; but in our conscience it is truly a devil, for in the slightest trial it cannot encourage or comfort the conscience but does the very opposite, frightening and saddening it and depriving it of confidence in righteousness, of life, and of everything good. This is why Paul calls the Law “weak and beggarly elements” later on (Gal. 4:9). Therefore let us not permit it to dominate our conscience in any way, especially since it cost Christ so much to remove the tyranny of the Law from the conscience. For this was why “He became a curse for us, to redeem us from the curse of the Law” (Gal. 3:13). Therefore let the godly person learn that the Law and Christ are mutually contradictory and altogether incompatible. When Christ is present, the Law must not rule in any way but must retreat from the conscience and yield the bed to Christ alone, since this is too narrow to hold them both (Is. 28:20). Let Him rule alone in righteousness, safety, happiness, and life, so that the conscience may happily fall asleep in Christ, without any awareness of Law, sin, or death.

Anyone with a basic understanding of Luther's theology should be able to grasp the distinction between law and gospel set forth in this section. Luther's comments are in regard to justification, not sanctification. Note how the section starts: "I am not saying this with the intention that the Law should be held in contempt. Paul does not intend this either, but that it should be held in esteem." He concludes: "Apart from the matter of justification, on the other hand, we, like Paul, should think reverently of the Law. We should endow it with the highest praises and call it holy, righteous, good, spiritual, divine, etc." Luther’s theology has a place for the Law of God and its use in the life of a Christian. The Law for Luther was dual purposed: it first drives one to see their sin and a need for a savior; secondly it functions in the life of a Christian to lead one to a correct understanding of the good one ought to do.

Was Luther an antinomian as Shoebat.com asserts above? Hardly. Luther taught a life under the cross, which is a life of discipleship of following after Christ. Our crosses though, do not save. They serve the neighbor. We are called to be neighbor to those around us. Elsewhere I've compiled an extensive list of quotes from Luther all testifying to the same idea: justification is by faith alone unto good works done for the good of one’s neighbor.

This blog entry is a revision of an entry I posted back in 2009. The original can be found here. Because so many sources are now available online, I'm revising older entries by adding additional materials and commentary, and also fixing or deleting dead hyperlinks. Nothing of any significant substance has changed in this entry from that presented in the former.

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