Sunday, February 28, 2010

Luther: There are nowadays almost as many sects and creeds as there are heads

Here's another obscure Luther quote typically used by Rome's defenders:
There are nowadays almost as many sects and creeds as there are heads.(in Will Durant, The Reformation, [volume 6 of 10-volume The Story of Civilization, 1967], New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957, 441)
From various web-pages, I've come across Rome's defenders using this quote three different ways. First, it was used as an example of "The Agony of Luther" over "the State of Early Protestantism." Second, it's an example of a need for universal Church-wide belief. Third, it proves "It is a farce to view Protestantism as in any way 'universal.'" Fourth, it proves "Without the authoritative guidance of the Church, men will always differ." Fifth, in the book More Biblical Evidence For Catholicism (2007) p. 45- 46, it proves Luther's recognition of the "scandalous nature of sectarianism" with the use of complaining with "dripping disdain."

The quote is said to come from Will Durant's volume on The Reformation, page 441:
As internal liberty varies (other things equal) with external security, Protestantism, during its safe period, indulged in the sectarian fragmentation that seemed inherent in the principles of private judgment and the supremacy of conscience. Already in 1525 Luther wrote: "There are nowadays almost as many sects and creeds as there are heads." Melanchthon was kept grievously busy moderating his master and finding ambiguous formulas for reconciling contradictory certitudes. Catholics pointed gleefully to the mutually recriminating Protestant factions, and predicted that freedom of interpretation and belief would lead to religious anarchy-, moral disintegration, and a skepticism abominable to Protestants as well as Catholics. In 1525 three artists were banished from Protestant Nuremberg for questioning the divine authorship of the Bible, the Real Presence in the Eucharist, and the divinty of Christ.
Durant cites Janssen's fourth volume of The History of the German People,  page 199 as the source:
All that had come to pass formerly in Bohemia as a result of this teaching, the terrible want of unity in religion, of which eye-witnesses at the beginning of the sixteenth century testify, would now, it was prophesied, happen in Germany also. Just as Luther had written of Germany in 1525, 'There are nowadays almost as many sects and creeds as there are heads,' so Bohuslav Hassenstein had written of Bohemia: 'Nobody is hindered from setting up a new religion. Not to mention the Wickliffites and Picards, there are also those who deny the divinity of our Saviour, those who maintain that the soul dies with the body, those who think every religion equally profitable to salvation, yea, verily, those who think that even hell is an invention of man. I pass over here innumerable opinions of this sort. And these sectarians do not keep their opinions to themselves, but preach them openly. Old men and boys, young men and women dispute about matters of faith, and expound the Holy Scriptures, which all the while they have not studied. Each sect finds its adherents, so great is the craving after something new.
Janssen uses the quote as a passing editorial comment and doesn't provide a primary reference to Luther's writings, or even a secondary source (at least in the English version). Durant uses it as proof of Protestant fragmentation. Neither men appear to have used a primary source. I've explored this quote before, so I know the reference is  to De Wette, op. cit., III, 61 or Erl. ed 53, p. 342 or WA 18:547. The text reads:

This text is from Sendschreiben an die Christen zu Antwerpen The Letter of doctor Martin to the Christians of Antwerp (April, [25?] 1525). The letter was written to warn Antwerp of radical leaders and groups during the peasant uprising. The peasants had sporadic outbursts of violence previous to their great uprising in the spring of 1525. Luther was very aware of the peasant situation. He had personally visited some of the peasants, and was almost killed by them. Charismatic leaders spurred them on, using religion as part of the motivation to violently revolt against the establishment. Luther was aware of these charismatic peasant leaders, and wrote against them, and also to warn Antwerp.

This letter is not contained in LW, yet. It appears to be scheduled for an upcoming volume of Luther's Works.  however, a partial English translation is available in Michelet's Life of Luther, Gathered From His Own Writings, pages 91-92 (alternate link).

We believed, during the reign of the pope, that the spirits which make a noise and disturbance in the night, were those of the souls of men, who after death, return and wander about in expiation of their sins. This error, thank God, has been discovered by the Gospel, and it is known at present, that they are not the souls of men, but nothing else than those malicious devils who used to deceive men by false answers. It is they that have brought so much idolatry into the world.
The devil seeing that this sort of disturbance could not last, has devised a new one; and begins to rage in his members, I mean in the ungodly, through whom he makes his way in all sorts of chimerical follies and extravagant doctrines. This won't have baptism, that denies the efficacy of the Lord's supper; a third, puts a world between this and the last judgment ; others teach that Jesus Christ is not God ; some say this, others that ; and there are almost as many sects and beliefs as there are heads.
I must cite one instance, by way of exemplification, for I have plenty to do with these sort of spirits. There is not one of them that does think himself more learned than Luther; they all try to win their spurs against me; and would to heaven that they were all such as they think themselves, and that I were nothing! The one of whom I speak assured me, amongst other things, that lie was sent to me by the God of heaven and earth, and talked most magnificently, but the clown peeped through all. At last, he ordered me to read the books of Moses. I asked for a sign in confirmation of this order, ' It is,' said he, ' written in the gospel of St. John.' By this time I had heard enough, and I told him, to come again, for that we should not have time, just now, to read the books of Moses. . . .I have plenty to do in the course of the year with these poor people: the devil could not have found a better pretext for tormenting me. As yet the world had been full of those clamorous spirits without bodies, who oppressed the souls of men; now they have bodies, and give themselves out for living angels . . .
When the pope reigned we heard nothing of these troubles. The strong one (the devil) was in peace in his fortress; but now that a stronger one than he is come, and prevails against him and drives him out, as the Gospel says, he storms and comes forth with noise and fury.
Dear friends, one of these spirits of disorder has come amongst you in flesh and blood; he would lead you astray with the inventions of his pride: beware of him.
First, he tells you that all men have the Holy Ghost. Secondly, that the Holy Ghost is nothing more than our reason and our understanding. Thirdly, that all men have faith. Fourthly, that there is no hell, that at least the flesh only will be damned. Fifthly, that all souls will enjoy eternal life. Sixthly, that nature itself teaches us to do to our neighbour what we would he should do to us ; this he calls faith. Seventhly, that the law is not violated by concupiscence, so long as we are not consenting to the pleasure. Eighthly, that he that has not the Holy Ghost, is also without sin, for he is destitute of reason.
All these are audacious propositions, vain imaginations; if we except the seventh, the others are not worthy of reply. . . .
It is sufficient for us to know that God wills no sin. As to his sufferance of sin, we ought not to approach the question. The servant is not to know his master's secrets, simply his master's orders: how much less should a poor creature attempt to scrutinize or sound the mysteries and the majesty of the Creator ? . . ."
To learn the law of God, and to know his soul Jesus Christ, is sufficient to absorb the whole of life. . . . A.D. 1525." (Luth. Werke, tom. ii. p. 61,sqq.)


Is this quote describing Luther's agony over the state of early Protestantism? No, it's describing Luther's agony over radical leaders misusing the Scriptures and misleading the people. In fact, he says these radicals were sent by the Devil to torment him. He describes the devastating effect of the Devil, who, Luther says, was at peace in his papal fortress, but now with the gospel being loudly proclaimed, must find a different way to keep men enslaved to sin and darkness. Similarly, this quote doesn't prove Luther's recognition of the "scandalous nature of sectarianism" with the use of complaining with "dripping disdain." Had Luther considered any of these sects in question in this letter anything other the work of the Devil, perhaps then one could argue Luther was in agony over the state of early Protestantism.

As to this quote proving a "farce to view Protestantism as in any way 'universal'," Luther didn't even consider the sects in question as Christian or Protestant. Does this quote prove "Without the authoritative guidance of the Church, men will always differ"? By capital "C" the Catholic apologist appears to mean the Roman Catholic Church. Interestingly, Luther comments elsewhere:
There is no other place in the world where there are so many sects, schisms, and errors as in the papal church. For the papacy, because it builds the church upon a city and person, has become the head and fountain of all sects which have followed it and have characterized Christian life in terms of eating and drinking, clothes and shoes, tonsures and hair, city and place, day and hour. For the spirituality and holiness of the papal church lives by such things, as was said above.  This order fasts at this time, another order fasts at another time; this one does not eat meat, the other one does not eat eggs; this one wears black, the other one white; this one is Carthusian,  the other Benedictine;  and so they continue to create innumerable sects and habits, while faith and true Christian life go to pieces. All this is the result of the blindness which desires to see rather than believe the Christian church and to seek devout Christian life not in faith but in works, of which St. Paul writes so much in Colossians [2]. These things have invaded the church and blindness has confirmed the government of the pope.” [LW 39:221].

Addendum (2016)
This blog entry is a revision of an entry I posted back in 2010. 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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