Thursday, September 02, 2010

Luther: Perform a Big Sin to Quiet Your Conscience

The following is from the web page Luther, Exposing the Myth, under the heading "On Sin":

"Do not ask anything of your conscience; and if it speaks, do not listen to it; if it insists, stifle it, amuse yourself; if necessary, commit some good big sin, in order to drive it away. Conscience is the voice of Satan, and it is necessary always to do just the contrary of what Satan wishes" [J. Dollinger, La Reforme et les resultants qu’elle a produits. (Trans. E. Perrot, Paris, Gaume, 1848-49), Vol III, pg. 248].

Luther Exposing the Myth says their stated purpose is to show that "from Luther’s own words we shall see him for what he really was, that is a rebellious apostate, who abandoned the faith and led many into apostasy from God under the guise of “reformation” in order to follow his perverse inclinations." With this quote, they attempt to show Christ says those who commit any sin are children of the Devil, while Luther says to quiet your conscience from convicting you of sin and also go out and perform a big sin. Hence contrary to Christ, Luther espoused a weak view of sin.

Luther Exposing the Myth cites "J. Dollinger, La Reforme et les resultants qu’elle a produits. (Trans. E. Perrot, Paris, Gaume, 1848-49), Vol III, pg. 248." Johann Joseph Ignaz von Döllinger was a Roman Catholic scholar. Page 248 of his book can be found here. While Luther's view of sin and the Devil are discussed, the exact form of this quote isn't provided. The closest thing from Dollinger p. 248 is this synopsis of a letter Luther wrote to Jerome Weller:

There's are two Latin quotes at the bottom of the page. The first contains a portion of text of Luther's letter to Jerome Weller in 1530. The second Latin quote is from the Table Talk. Neither of these quotes exactly match that put forth by Luther, Exposing the Myth.

There is a strong possibility Luther, Exposing the Myth took this quote from Antonin Eymieu, Two Arguments for Catholicism (Burns, Oates and Washbourne, 1928 ) p. 48. Eymieu uses the same English quote in question, but the reference is slightly different: "Dollinger, III. Cf. 37-58." The "Cf. 37-58" is instructing readers to see also Dollinger III 37-58 (that's 21 pages of text!).

I suspect the quote is ultimately Eymieu's summary statement of Luther's view with some of Luther's letter to Jerome Weller from 1530 mixed in.  Luther's letter can be found in De Wette, I V. 188 (the fourth volume of Luther's letters). The letter can also be found in WA BR 5:518-520. In English, this letter was not included in LW 49,  it has though been cited either in full or partially in a number of books. The letter itself has quite a polemical history, cited by numerous Roman Catholic sources, as well as even being cited by PBS. A full translation was provided by W.H.T. Dau, Luther Examined and Reexamined: a Review of Catholic Criticism and a Plea for Revaluation (Concordia Pub. House, 1917), pp. 119-122. Another translation can be found here. There is a partial translation provided by Preserved Smith, The Life and Letters of Martin Lutherp. 324 - 325.  Dau dates the letter "sometime in July." Others date the letter to November. Hartmann Grisar goes with July and points out, "In the older reprints the letter was erroneously put at a later date" [source].

Accordingly, whenever this affliction [of conscience from the Devil] befalls you, beware lest you enter into an argument with the devil, or muse upon these death-dealing thoughts. For this means nothing else than to yield to the devil and succumb to him. You must rather take pains to treat these thoughts which the devil instills in you with the severest contempt. In afflictions and conflicts of this kind contempt is the best and easiest way for overcoming the devil. Make up your mind to laugh at your adversary, and find some one whom you can engage in a conversation. You must by all means avoid being alone, for then the devil will make his strongest effort to catch you; he lies in wait for you when you are alone. In a case like this the devil is overcome by scorning and despising him, not by opposing him and arguing with him. My dear Jerome, you must engage in merry talk and games with my wife and the rest, so as to defeat these devilish thoughts, and you must be intent on being cheerful. This affliction is more necessary to you than food and drink.
Therefore, be cheerful and brave, and cast these exceedingly terrifying thoughts entirely from you. Whenever the devil worries you with these thoughts, seek the company of men at once, or drink somewhat more liberally, jest and play some jolly prank, or do anything exhilarating. Occasionally a person must drink somewhat more liberally, engage in plays, and jests, or even commit some little sin from hatred and contempt of the devil, so as to leave him no room for raising scruples in our conscience about the most trifling matters. For when we are overanxious and careful for fear that we may be doing wrong in any matter, we shall be conquered. Accordingly, if the devil should say to you: By all means, do not drink! you must tell him: Just because you forbid it, I shall drink, and that, liberally. In this manner you must always do the contrary of what Satan forbids. When I drink my wine unmixed, prattle with the greatest unconcern, eat more frequently, do you think that I have any other reason for doing these things than to scorn and spite the devil who has attempted to spite and scorn me? Would God I could commit some real brave sin to ridicule the devil, that he might see that I acknowledge no sin and am not conscious of having committed any. We must put the whole law entirely out of our eyes and hearts,--we, I say, whom the devil thus assails and torments. Whenever the devil charges us with our sins and pronounces us guilty of death and hell, we ought to say to him: I admit that I deserve death and hell; what, then, will happen to me? Why, you will be eternally damned! By no means; for I know One who has suffered and made satisfaction for me. His name is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Where He abides, there will I also abide.

I've covered this quote before here. I also came across a very helpful overview on Luther and Conscience. Section three of the link has an overview on Conscience and the Devil. The author states,
For Luther the conscience can be an instrument of the devil, the device to make his assaults, his Anfechtungen, real. Here law and death become allies of the devil trying to make the sinner rely on his or her own good works and accomplishments. But relying on their own righteousness human beings are lost and driven into sadness. He writes:
Therefore we should be on our guard, lest the amazing skill and infinite wiles of Satan deceive us into mistaking the accuser and condemner for the Comforter and Savior, and thus losing the true Christ behind the mask of the false Christ, that is, of the devil, and making Him of no advantage to us.
For Luther, conscience is the place where the law, death, and the devil encounter the human being and drive him into despair. The guilty conscience is one of the most terrifying human experiences. But this is not Luther's final word on conscience. As early as his Romans commentary, he could also say "He who believes in Christ is secure in his conscience and righteous and, as the Scripture says, 'bold as a lion'(Prov. 28:1)." In 1513 in an exposition of Psalm 118 he wrote: "Where could there be a higher or greater joy than in a happy, secure, and fearless conscience, a conscience that trusts in God and fears neither the world nor the devil?" In a sermon preached at Leipzig in 1519 Luther had said:
One must know how one stands with God, if the conscience is to be joyful and be able to stand. For when a person doubts this and does not steadfastly believe that he has a gracious God, then he actually does not have a gracious God. As he believes so he has. Therefore no one can know that he is in grace and that God is gracious toward him except through faith. If he believes it, he is saved; if he does not believe it, he is damned. For this confidence (zuvorsicht) and good conscience is the real, basically good faith, which the grace of God works in us.

I simply couldn't find any direct verification to the validity of this exact quote in the form it is in based on the documentation given. I suspect if this quote exists at all, it's a sort of Roman Catholic interpretation of Luther's letter to Weller. Even without a conclusive context, the quote itself can still be interpreted according to Luther's theological paradigms. It appears to me to be another hyperbolic statement like "sin boldly." Like that quote, the point is to trust in the work of Christ, who took sin upon himself. If you're a believer, your sin has already been punished and atoned for by the death of Christ. Left in our sins we will face nothing but death and damnation. By Christ’s victory over sin, death, and the world, we stand clothed in His righteousness, the recipients of His grace, no matter what we have done.

If Luther's letter to Weller is in view, this letter is one of three letters typically used by Rome's defenders (and others) to prove Luther was an antinomian. W.H.T. Dau provides the contexts for all three letters. Dau concludes his analysis of these letters with pertinent observations that suffice to demonstrate the quote is typically taken out of its historical context:
When Luther advises Weller to drink somewhat more liberally, that does not mean that Luther advises Weller to get drunk. This, however, is exactly what Luther is made to say by his Catholic critics. They make no effort to understand the situation as it confronted Luther, but pounce upon a remark that can easily be understood to convey an offensive meaning. Neither does what Luther says about his own drinking mean that he ever got drunk… Luther's remarks about jesting, merry plays, and jolly pranks in which he would have Weller engage are likewise vitiated by the Catholic insinuation that he advises indecent frivolities, yea, immoralities. Why, all the merriment which he urges upon Weller is to take place in Luther's home and family circle, in the presence of Luther's wife and children, in the presence of Weller's little pupil Hans, who at that time was about four years old. The friends of the family members of the Faculty at the University, ministers, students who either stayed at Luther's home, like Weller, or frequently visited there, are also included in this circle whose company Weller is urged to seek. Imagine a young man coming into this circle drunk, or half drunk, and disporting himself hilariously before the company! We believe that not even all Catholics can be made to believe the insinuations of their writers against Luther when all the facts in the case are presented to them. [source]
In Luther's remarks about sinning to spite the devil we have always heard an echo from his life at the cloister. One's judgment about the monastic life is somewhat mitigated when one hears how Dr. Staupitz and the brethren in the convent at Erfurt would occasionally speak to Luther about the latter's sins. Staupitz called them "Puppensuenden." It is not easy to render this term by a shortand apt English term; "peccadillo" would come near the meaning. A child playing with a doll will treat it as if it were a human being, will dress it, talk to it, and pretend to receive answers from it, etc. That is the way, good Catholics were telling Luther, he was treating his sins. His sins were no real sins, or he had magnified their sinfulness out of all proportion. This same advice Luther hands on to another who was becoming a hypochondriac as he had been. When the mind is in a morbid state it imagines faults, errors, sins, where there are none. The melancholy person in his self-scrutiny becomes an intolerant tyrant to himself. He will flay his poor soul for trifles as if they were the blackest crimes. In such moments the devil is very busy about the victim of gloom and despair. Luther has diagnosed the case of Weller with the skill of a nervous specialist. He counsels Weller not to judge himself according to the devil's prompting, and, in order to break Satan's thrall over him, to wrench himself free from his false notions of what is sinful. In offering this advice, Luther uses such expressions as: "Sin, commit sin," but the whole context shows that he advises Weller to do that which is in itself not sinful, but looks like sin to Weller in his present condition. When Luther declares he would like to commit a real brave sin himself as a taunt to the devil, he adds: "Would that I could!" That means, that, as a matter of fact, he could not do it and did not do it, because it was wrong. What bold immoral act did Weller commit in consequence of Luther's advice? What immoralities are there in Luther's own life? Luther's letters did not convey the meaning to his morbid young friend that Catholic writers think and claim they did. [source]

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.


steelikat said...

Surely it was either hyberbole (the recommendation to commit a "great" sin) or carelessness (the seeming recommendation to commit a pecadillo). Either way Luther did not live in a time where you bloggers and we commentators would pick apart his every word in every correspondence.

In short, no big deal.

James Swan said...

Hello Steve, Liz, & Kate,

For normal people who know how to read in context, it isn't a "big deal."

For many Romanists who struggle with a context, such quotes become a "big deal" for them. Simply Google search each quote I review, and you'll see how often the quotes are used to say something other than what Luther intended.

Anonymous said...

I'm sure Luther said it and everything else attributed to him, just like Jesus said everything the evangelists attribute to him.

Anonymous said...

"For normal people who know how to read in context, it isn't a 'big deal.'"

No context can fix that Satanic statement.

Anonymous said...

My first comment was sarcastic. My second was not.

James Swan said...

My first comment was sarcastic. My second was not.

If you haven't noticed, I typically ignore your comments. I'm very tempted to begin deleting all your comments.