This is part three of my review of Luther: The Rest of the Story By Ken Hensley (2003). In three audio lectures, Mr. Hensley explains Luther from his particular Roman Catholic perspective.
Previous entries in this series:
Part One : Introduction
Part Two: An outline of Ken Hensley's position from lecture one
In this third installment, I'll be addressing some of Mr. Hensley's positions outlined previously. Ken's basic position is that Luther was a sensitive child beaten by his parents. This caused him to create a false understanding of God. These psychological factors provoked Luther to cause a horrific schism in the church and invent heretical doctrines.
Hensley's approach is known as pyschohistory. This approach holds history can be understood by applying the science of psychoanalysis to a historical figure. History is more than simply “facts”- it is also the result of psychological forces that drive people to do what they do. The Reformation therefore was not God's Spirit working in the Church, it was the result of a man with deep psychological problems who was in the right place at the right time to cause a controversy which divided the church.
Use of The Table Talk as Primary Evidence
There is indeed evidence that Luther's parents and teachers raised him in a stern manner, including severe discipline. The evidence though, is quite sparse. It typically amounts to three Table Talk statements, all of which were cited or alluded to by Hensley:
My parents kept me under very strict discipline, even to the point of making me timid. For the sake of a mere nut my mother beat me until the blood flowed. By such strict discipline they finally forced me into the monastery; though they meant it heartily well, I was only made timid by it. They weren’t able to keep a right balance between temperament and punishment. [LW 54: 234]
One shouldn’t whip children too hard. My father once whipped me so severely that I ran away from him, and he was worried that he might not win me back again.[LW 54:157].
Some teachers are as cruel as hangmen. I was once beaten fifteen times before noon, without any fault of mine, because I was expected to decline and conjugate although I had not yet been taught this. [LW 54: 457].
These three quotes form the bedrock upon which Hensley bases his case. They are statements Luther did not write himself nor ever see, uttered when he was fifty years old. This doesn't automatically amount to a rejection of these statements as facts, but their validity should be corroborated with Luther's actual writings or other historical evidence.
Hensley isn't alone in utilizing the Table Talk to prove his case. The same bedrock was used by Erik Erikson in his book, Young Man Luther (1958). It's hard to say if Hensley used this book as a direct source, or if he used someone else that used Erikson's arguments. Either way, it was Erikson who popularized these Table Talk quotes as proof of Luther's traumatic upbringing. Somewhere down the line, Hensley was the beneficiary of Erikson's analysis, whether he knew it or not.
Many articles were written in response to Erikson's work, as well as two books: Roger A. Johnson ed., Pychohistory and Religion: The Case of Young Man Luther (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977) and Peter Homans ed., Childhood and Selfhood: Essays on Tradition and Modernity in the Psychology of Erik H. Erikson (New Jersey: Associated University Press, 1978). It would be interesting to know if Hensley looked at "the rest of the story" about psycho-historical arguments and their application to Luther. Based on his presentation, I would have to conclude he did not. Heinrich Bornkamm's response to Erik Erikson could be very well stated as aptly to Ken Hensley:
Erikson draws on a considerable number of dark hues belonging to Luther's later memories in order to paint his picture of the relationship of the young Martin to his parents. But he leaves aside many of the lighter colors that could brighten up the picture, painting in, instead, lots of black, which he derives from his knowledge of personal conflict. This, however, considerably oversimplifies the matter. It is far more difficult to sketch a realistic picture of Luther's childhood and youth, one that is faithful to the sources, than it is to draw such a crass one. The historian, grateful as he is for the interpretative aids he has received, will nevertheless not simply capitulate before the clinician's claim to "recognize major trends even where the facts are not -available," least of all when some facts are being overlooked and others added. [Heinrich Bornkamm, "Luther and His Father" in Childhood and Selfhood, p. 65].
Bornkamm is indeed correct. Those who attempt to create a picture of Luther's early years often cling to the "dark hues" at the expense of all the colors. This is exactly what Mr. Hensley did. Luther's parents are painted as excessively severe.
In the above Table Talk quote, Luther states that the discipline inflicted by his parents was meant "heartily well." That is, despite mistakes, they had the best interest of their son in mind. They made sacrifices in order to send him to good schools and they followed their son's progress with pride.
In regard to Luther's mother's beating drawing blood from the young boy, there is no evidence she meant to do so. Nor is there evidence she did this multiple times. Luther said she had good intentions, but that the punishment given was out of proportion to the offense. That is, had he actually stole something of value, he expected to have a stronger punishment.
Note also in the Table Talk citation about Luther's father, again the recollection of Luther is one particular event. After Luther's father punished him severely, he went to great efforts to win back the boy. Bainton says the words "win me back again" used in the quote means that Luther's father "took the initiative to undo the hurt, to overcome the estrangement, alienation, or resentment, and to recover rapport" [Psychohistory and Religion, p. 35]. This would be a more literal rendering of the phrase from the German. There isn't any evidence that Luther's father was a brutal tyrant. There is evidence that Luther was severely punished one time by his father, and that same father sought intently to repair the damage.
The Luther household was known to be a house of piety. Luther's father is said to have prayed by the bedside of his children with great fervor. Luther's father was known to be a man inclined to times of cheerfulness. When he had a few drinks in him, he was "cheerful and friendly and sang and jested." He was a lover of nature, a trait which he passed on to his son. In fact, search through the documents of the sixteenth century, and one will not find anything but statements from Luther that he loved and respected his father. In Luther's memories, the evidence of severe discipline from his parents were exceptions, not the rule. Later in life Luther recollected "My father was angry with me for an hour, but what harm does it do? He after all had ten years of troubles and pains with me" (WA 25: 460, lines 10ff). Bainton notes,
Luther was highly esteemed at home. His parents looked to him as a lad of brilliant parts who should become a jurist, make a prosperous marriage, and support them in their old age. When Luther became a Master of Arts, his father presented him with a copy of the Corpus Juris and addressed him no longer with the familiar Du but with the polite Sie. Luther always exhibited an extraordinary devotion to his father and was grievously disturbed over parental disapproval of his entry into the monastery. When his father died, Luther was too unnerved to work for several days. The attachment to the mother appears to have been less marked; but even of the thrashing he said that it was well intended, and he recalled affectionately a little ditty she used to sing: If folk don't like you and me, The fault with us is like to be. [source]
On the character of Luther's father, Lewis Spitz comments:
No, Hans Luther was not harsh, drunken, or tyrannous, but rather tender and pious as well as stern and ambitious for himself and his son. Hans was inclined to be tender and deeply moved by suffering. Luther on two different occasions recounts a story which illustrates the point: "My father was asked at Mansfeld by a certain neighbor to come and see him, for he was in mortal agony. Turning on his bed he showed him his posterior and said, `See, dear Luther, how they beat me!' at which Father was so shocked and so shaken by those reflections that he nearly died himself."
On one occasion Hans took Martin into a wheat field to show him the grain ripe for harvest and told him how the heavenly Father cares for us. The same man who was merry and humorous when he had belted a few joked with his wife in bed. Luther relates that his sons respect him just as he respected his parents, for his father slept with his mother and joked with her just as Luther did with his wife, and they were nevertheless pious people, just like the patriarchs and prophets.
Hans was a man of genuine piety and an active churchman. The Mansfeld relatives recounted that Luther's father prayer often and earnestly at the bedside of his children. He was badly shaken when in 1505 he lost two sons to the plague and reflected that he should perhaps willingly give Martin to the Lord for service as a monk. He had as a very close friend Jonas Cemmerer, a priest, and had priests and teachers as house guests on occasion. As one of the Vierherrn or councilmen he signed endowments for the church and served as a trustee for prebends. In 1497, the year in which Luther went away to Magdeburg to be with the Brethren of the Common Life, Hans, the priest Johann Ledener, and the Mansfeld citizens won a sixty-day indulgence from the bishop for all those who attender mass at the two altars of a Mansfeld church dedicated to George, Mary, and an assortment of saints [Psychohistory and Religion, pp. 73-74].
Hensley does point out that Luther loved his parents. On the other hand, Hensley says that his relationship with his parents and inability to please them led Luther to his false view of God. Luther viewed God as wrathful judge who could not be pleased. Here is a telling sign of misdiagnosis. If Luther's views of God and parents are mirrored, why is it that Luther loved his parents but (as Hensley says) Luther hated God? One would think Luther must've hated his parents as well, but the historical accounts simply don't bear this out.
Luther Enters The Monastery
According to Hensley, it was the severe treatment inflicted on Luther by his parents that sent him into the monastery. As a testimony to this fact, he provides Luther's statement as noting the primary cause: "My parents kept me under very strict discipline, even to the point of making me timid. For the sake of a mere nut my mother beat me until the blood flowed. By such strict discipline they finally forced me into the monastery."
Hensley though selectively cites the evidence, using only the second hand statement from the Table talk. Many more reasons from far more reliable primary sources are available: "I entered the monastery that I might not perish but have eternal life. I wanted to follow my own counsel and help myself by means of the cowl" [LW 22:359]. Bornkamm provides the following statements from Luther
"I for my part did not run into the monastery because I wanted to serve the devil [Luther is comparing the work ethic with the worship of the golden calf], but in order to gain heaven through my obedience, chastity, and poverty." WA 44: 782,; lines 10 ff (LW 8: 276) : "Against everyone's will I deserted my parents and relatives and rushed into a monastery, and donned a cowl, because I was persuaded that with that kind of life and those severe hardships I was showing great allegiance to God." WA 49: 713, lines 6 ff: "I became a monk because I wanted to propitiate the strict Judge with my works." WATR 4, no. 4414: 303, lines 15 if (LW 54: 338) "I took the vow not for the sake of my belly but for the sake of my salvation, and I observed all our statutes very strictly." WA 37: 661, lines 22 ff: "I always thought, when will you finally get pious and do enough that you will obtain a gracious God? By such thoughts was I driven to monkhood." According to Scheel, Martin Luther, 1: 313, who cites a transcript (WA 37: 274, lines 14 ff), this frequently quoted passage belongs to the period in the monastery and not the time before. But in terms of its content this passage certainly also indicates why Luther entered the monastery. Further references are found in Scheel, Dokumente zu Luthers Entwicklung, and in the index volume WA 58, no. 1 [Heinrich Bornkamm, "Luther and His Father" in Childhood and Selfhood, p. 85].
Here we find multiple statements from Luther's own hand explaining his reasoning. These statements of course do not negate the Table Talk quote, but they should serve as primary evidence whereas a secondary statement from the Table Talk should take the back seat. Hensley though uses the Table Talk as his primary source. While Hensley would probably accept the above statements from Luther, his emphasis as to Luther's reason for entering the monastery has been attached to the wrong fact, based on a faulty presupposition of Luther's relationship with parents.