Sunday, May 16, 2010

R.C. Sproul and the Neurosis of Luther

Recently I came across the following from R.C. Sproul:

Luther's chronic stomach troubles have also been linked to a psychosomatic problem. His neurotic phobias all seemed to go directly to his stomach, destroying his digestion [R. C. Sproul, The Holiness of God (Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 2000), p. 78].

I'm quite fond of Sproul's Holiness of God book. If I recall, it was this lecture from Sproul in which I first encountered a deeper presentation of the life of Luther. The lecture is basically the same Luther content presented in Sproul's later book. I remember listening to the lecture while driving to a friend's house. I was so riveted by Sproul's presentation, I didn't want to exit the car before hearing it to the end. Now here I am years later, still involved with basically the same material on a regular basis.

The entire chapter from which this quote is taken is available here. It is indeed a worthy read.

If one were to simply isolate this quote from the context, one misses the thrust of Sproul's argumentation. From the quote above, one sees only Sproul describing the image of Luther as a man with neurotic phobias. If one though reads the entire chapter, quite a different image takes shape.

The neurotic phobias which precede this quote are described by Sproul as "the fear of violent death as an expression of divine judgment and punishment" (p.77). Along these lines, Sproul recounts Luther's thunderstorm experience (via Bainton's rendition) which drove him to the monastery (p. 76-77).

After the quote in question, Sproul goes on to describe Luther's deep belief in the reality of Satan. For the modern mind, Luther appears quite unstable. Sproul states though,

The Satan stories are ripe with fodder for practicing psychologists. They see in these accounts two indications of mental imbalance. On the one hand Luther is thought to have suffered from hallucinations and on the other from delusions of grandeur that the Prince of Darkness would single him out as his favorite target.Yet from the vantage point of church history it should not surprise us to think that in the sixteenth century satanic energy might most strongly be focused on Martin Luther (p.78).

Sproul then describes another frequent episode from Luther's life which is supposed to prove his neurotic instability: Luther's celebration of his first mass. Sproul uses Luther's own explanation of his apparent neurotic behavior as to why he was paralyzed by the words, "We offer unto thee, the living, the true, the eternal God":

At these words I was utterly stupefied and terror-stricken. I thought to myself, “With what tongue shall I address such majesty, seeing that all men ought to tremble in the presence of even an earthly prince? Who am I, that I should lift up mine eyes or raise my hands to the divine Majesty? The angels surround him. At his nod the earth trembles. And shall I, a miserable little pygmy, say ‘I want this, I ask for that’? For I am dust and ashes and full of sin and I am speaking to the living, eternal and the true God (p.80).

A key episode of Luther's alleged insanity and neurosis for Sproul is the trial at Worms. Sproul recounts Luther's famous "Here I Stand" speech and the says:

The words of a crazy man? Perhaps. The question is raised how one man dare stand against pope and emperor, councils and creeds, against the entire organized authority of Christendom. What arrogance there must be to contradict the finest scholars and the highest officials of the church, to set his own powers of mind and biblical interpretation against that of the whole world. Is this egomania? Is it megalomania? Are these the musings of a biblical genius, a courageous saint, or the ravings of a maniac? Whatever the verdict, this lonely stand, for good or for evil, divided Christendom asunder.

As important as this event was to the church and to the personal history of Martin Luther, it was not the chief reason future scholars would judge Luther insane. There was something even more extraordinary, more morbid, indeed macabre, about the man. It had to do with Luther’s behavioral patterns while he was a monk in the monastery (p.84).

Then Sproul examines Luther's behavior in the monastery. He explores Luther's drive to be "the perfect monk" by his indulgence in severe forms of self-flagellation and obsession with confessing sin. Sproul states:

Here it is! Here is the aspect of Luther that has most brought the verdict of insanity. The man was radically abnormal. His guilt complex was unlike anyone’s before him. He was so morbid in his guilt, so disturbed in his emotions that he could no longer function as a normal human being. He could not even function as a normal monk. He was still running from the lightning bolt (p.79-80).

Stopping here in The Holiness of God would lead one to think the earlier quote which began this blog entry is vindicated: Sproul indeed thought Luther suffered from neurosis. Sproul though states:

Some theorists argue that a person may have a more accurate view of reality when they are insane than when they are sane. We think of the anxiety-stricken man who goes to the psychiatrist and complains that he is so paralyzed by fear that he cannot attend a church picnic. When the psychiatrist probes, the man explains that he could be involved in a car crash on the way to the picnic, be struck by a poisonous snake while at the picnic, be hit by lightning if a storm comes up, or choke to death on a hot dog.

All of these fears represent sober possibilities. Life is dangerous business. Nowhere are we safe from a multitude of life-threatening dangers. Howard Hughes, with all his millions, could not find an environment where he was totally safe from the attack of hostile germs. The psychiatrist cannot prove that all picnics are safe. The man’s perception of all the things that could go wrong is accurate, but he is still abnormal, because he has lost the defenses we normally carry with us that enable us to ignore the clear and present dangers that surround us every day.

One aspect of Luther’s background and personality is often overlooked by the psychological analysts. They miss the point that before Luther went to the monastery he had already distinguished himself as one of the brightest young minds in Europe in the field of jurisprudence. Luther was brilliant. There was nothing wrong with his brain. His grasp of subtle and difficult points of the law made him a standout. Some heralded him as a legal genius.

It has been said many times that there is a fine line between genius and insanity and that some people move back and forth across it. Perhaps that was the problem Luther had.

He was not crazy. He was a genius. He had a superior understanding of law. Once he applied his astute legal mind to the law of God, he saw things that most mortals miss.

Luther examined the Great Commandment, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your mind and all your strength, and your neighbor as yourself.” Then he asked himself, “What is the Great Transgression?” Some answer this question by saying that the great sin is murder, adultery, blasphemy, or unbelief. Luther disagreed. He concluded that if the Great Commandment was to love God with all the heart, then the Great Transgression was to fail to love God with all the heart. He saw a balance between great obligations and great sins.

Most people do not think that way. None of us keeps the Great Commandment for five minutes. We may think that we do in a surface way, but upon a moment’s reflection it is clear that none of us loves God with our whole heart or our whole mind or our whole strength. No one loves his neighbor as he loves himself. We may do everything in our power to avoid thinking about this at a deep level, but there is always that nagging sense in the back of our minds to accuse us of the certain knowledge that in fact we violate the Great Commandment every day. Like Isaiah, we also know that no one else keeps the Great Commandment either. Herein is our comfort: Nobody is perfect. We all fall short of perfect love for God, so why worry about it? It doesn’t drive sane fellows to the confessional for six hours a day. If God punished everyone who failed to keep the Great Commandment, He would have to punish everyone in the world. The test is too great, too demanding; it is not fair. God will have to judge us all on a curve.

Luther didn’t see it that way. He realized that if God graded on a curve, He would have to compromise His own holiness. To count on God doing so is supreme arrogance and supreme foolishness as well. God does not lower His own standards to accommodate us. He remains altogether Holy, altogether righteous, and altogether just. But we are unjust and therein lies our dilemma. Luther’s legal mind was haunted by the question: How can an unjust man survive in the presence of a just God? Where everyone else was at ease in the matter, Luther was in agony:

Do you not know that God dwells in light inaccessible? We weak and ignorant creatures want to probe and understand the incomprehensible majesty of the unfathomable light of the wonder of God. We approach; we prepare ourselves to approach. What wonder then that his majesty overpowers us and shatters! [Roland Bainton, Here I Stand (NAL, 1978).] (p.87-88).

Summing up the chapter, Sproul recounts Luther's discovery of "The just shall live by faith" as the solution to Luther's encounter with the holiness of God. Sproul concludes:

“The just shall live by faith.” This was the battlecry of the Protestant Reformation. The idea that justification is by faith alone, by the merits of Christ alone, was so central to the gospel that Luther called it “the article upon which the church stands or falls.” Luther knew that it was the article by which he would stand or fall. Once Luther grasped the teaching of Paul in Romans, he was reborn. The burden of his guilt was lifted. The crazed torment was ended. This meant so much to the man that he was able to stand against pope and council, prince and emperor, and, if necessary, the whole world. He had walked through the gates of paradise and no one was going to drag him back. Luther was a Protestant who knew what he was protesting. Was Luther crazy? Perhaps. But if he was, our prayer is that God would send to this earth an epidemic of such insanity that we too may taste of the righteousness that is by faith alone (p.94-95).

Once again, the lesson is to be careful with context. The "chronic stomach troubles" which began this entry were, according to Sproul, symptoms of a neurosis which ultimately was the neurosis of Luther's acute understanding and encounter with the Holiness of God.