Sunday, February 21, 2010

Luther: Under the Evangel, no one will give a penny... Under The Papacy it snowed alms

Here's another obscure Luther quote typically used by Rome's defenders:
Under the papacy it snowed alms, foundations, legacies. Under the Evangel, on the contrary, no one will give a farthing. (in Janssen, ibid., vol. 15,465) (link)
I came across a defender of Rome 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 was used as proof of the "immediate ill effects of Protestantism on morality" and thirdly, "Luther's Disgust at the State of Protestant Morality."

The quote is said to come from Johannes Janssen's History of the German People From the Close of the Middle Ages Volume 15. On page 465, Janssen states:
This decrease of benevolence to the poor and of contributions in general to all good objects, and the increase of an insatiable greed of gain were matters of standing complaint among the Protestants. Nobody spoke more strongly and more frequently on the subject than Luther. 'Under the papacy' he said, 'it snowed alms, foundations, legacies. Under the Evangel, on the contrary, no one will give a farthing.'
Janssen says the quote comes from "Collected works xliii, 164."This would be the forty-third volume of the Erlangen edition of Luther's Works, which contains his exposition of the Sermon on the Mount. Here is page 164:

A more legible copy of this text can be found here. The text can also be found in WA 32:408-409. The text in question is Luther's commentary on Matthew 6:1-4. This text is based on sermonic material. Technically speaking, Luther did not write the text cited above. It is the result of those who heard Luther preach and took notes, then transcribing the material into a written form. LW 21 states that there is uncertainty as to exactly who took down the notes to these sermons from Luther. Note the caution expressed by the English edition of Luther's Works:
Because the evolution of the work from the pulpit to the appearance of the finished commentary is so completely obscure, a certain amount of caution is necessary in referring to it as a source for our understanding of Luther’s thought. We cannot be sure whether the editor or editors, whoever they may have been, took certain liberties with the text of Luther’s sermons as delivered. We know that this happened with other works (cf. Introduction to Vol. 1 of Luther’s Works). At the same time, there seems to be no warrant for the extreme skepticism of certain scholars regarding the reliability of this commentary. There are many parallels throughout Luther’s works for most of the ideas and many of the terms that appear here. (LW 21: xx-xxi)

Luther's sermons on Matthew 6 can be found translated into English in LW 21. An alternate earlier translation by Charles Hay from 1892 can be found here (the quote in question is found on pages 231-232). Luther is commenting on the following words of Scripture: 
1. Beware of practicing your charity before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.
2. Thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward.
3. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,
4. So that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Luther is discussing the practice of alms giving, and how the Lord denounced those who do good works in order to bring glory to themselves. Giving alms is indeed a good thing, but most people can't help but want glory from their outward good deeds. Luther states:

It is incredible how common this blasphemy and vice is in the world, especially among the best people, and how few people there really are who do good works without seeking the honor or favor of the world this way. Take all the alms ever given in the whole papacy, and just count how many you will be able to find that were not given with this intention in mind. Alas, the world will never learn what real almsgiving is. That is how we are all inclined. If the praise of the people, their honor, gratitude, and favor were not forthcoming, every one of us would soon pull his hand back. What if the pope had said to the princes and the donors, “Gentlemen, I will not give you a heller for all your foundations and alms”? How much do you imagine they would have donated for churches and other institutions then? Not a stone would have been hauled or laid in place. We can see that now. We are teaching correctly and urging these works on the basis that they should be given for God’s sake, out of a pure and simple heart, and not for the sake of increasing our own honor or merit. Therefore nobody wants to give a heller nowadays. In former days, when they had praise and honor for it, the alms, endowments, and wills came down like snow. Of course, their notion that they were earning heaven by this did have a great deal to do with it. Still this was not the main reason; but as Christ says here, the main reason was the fact that this was something great and praiseworthy in the eyes of the people. Otherwise they would have paid no attention to it, and they would not have done it for the sake of God and the kingdom of heaven (LW 21:132).
Alternate English translation (Charles Hay):
But who believes that this vice and fault is so common in the world, and especially in the case of the best, and how few there are of those who without this seeking for worldly honor or favor are doing good works? Take all the alms given in the whole papacy, and count up as many as you can find, that are not given with this intention. Yes, the world will never get to understand what it really means to give alms. For we are all inclined that way, if the people would not begin to praise us, or to show us honor, gratitude or favor, everyone would soon draw back his hand. For if the pope had said to the princes and founders [of monasteries, etc.]: Gentlemen, I will not give you a penny for all your foundations and alms, etc., what do you suppose they would have given for churches and other institutions? They would not have had a stone hauled or laid in position; as we now see, because we teach correctly and exhort to these works, so that we are to give for God's sake, from a pure, simple heart, without any seeking for our own honor or merit, etc., now nobody wants to give a cent. But hitherto, when they had praise and lienor for doing it, it snowed with alms, endowments and wills; and yet this had something to do with it, that men believed they were meriting heaven thereby; nevertheless, that was not the real reason, but it was just what Christ here says, that it was a great thing in the eyes of the people, and was praised. Otherwise they would not have cared for it, so as to do it for the sake of God and the kingdom of heaven.
Does this quote prove the "agony of Luther" over "the state of early Protestantism," or, is Luther simply expounding on a general truth common to all men? It appears to me, the problem of doing a good work in a godly way predated the Reformation. The "agony" Luther had was for the plight of all men. Is this quote describing the immediate ill effects of Protestantism on morality? No, because as Luther points out, "the world will never get to understand what it really means to give alms." Simply because under the papacy "it snowed alms" doesn't mean these were moral alms. Does this quote prove Luther had disgust for the state of Protestant morality? Recall, he begins by stating, "how few people there really are who do good works without seeking the honor or favor of the world this way."

From the context, you can see how both Janssen and Rome's apologists have misused this quote. Their point was that Protestantism caused people to hardly give a farthing, while under the papacy, it "snowed alms." However, Luther's point is not about the amount of alms, but the heart of alms. It doesn't matter that under Protestantism there was "less." The point is that if the heart does or gives from the wrong motivation, it isn't God pleasing.

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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