Thursday, May 19, 2011

Luther's Battle at the End of the World

Here are two excerpts from older blog entries.


Well, for those of you at least as old as me, you remember Hal Lindsey’s book, The Late Great Planet Earth. Hey it was the 1970’s, and it was so obviously going to be the end of the world at any moment- well of course not quite the end- there were still 7 years for those not raptured to struggle through plagues and war, and the mark of the beast. I’ll never forget the jaws dropped down a few years ago when some non-Reformed Christian friends were telling me about how we’re all going to have computer chip implants in our hands or foreheads, and I was willing to get one if it would make my life easier. Well, it was no surprise to them that I would take “the mark of the beast” from Intel or Microsoft- I was already a Calvinist.

Interestingly though, for Luther it was also the end of the world in the 16th Century. As early in his career as 1522, Luther preached that his generation was living in the last days:

"I do not wish to force any one to believe as I do; neither will I permit anyone to deny me the right to believe that the last day is near at hand. These words and signs of Christ compel me to believe that such is the case. For the history of the centuries that have passed since the birth of Christ nowhere reveals conditions like those of the present. There has never been such building and planting in the world. There has never been such gluttonous and varied eating and drinking as now. Wearing apparel has reached its limit in costliness. Who has ever heard of such commerce as now encircles the earth? There have arisen all kinds of art and sculpture, embroidery and engraving, the like of which has not been seen during the whole Christian era".

Source: Martin Luther, The Sermons of Martin Luther Volume 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 62.

In 1542, Luther said, “I hold that Judgment day is not far away. I say this because the drive of the gospel is now at its height.” (Source: Ewald M. Plass, What Luther Says: An Anthology Volume Two (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1959), 696).

In a Table Talk Luther says also,

It is my firm belief that the angels are getting ready, putting on their armor and girding their swords about them, for the last day is already breaking, and the angels are preparing for the battle, when they will overthrow the Turks and hurl them along with the pope to the bottom of hell. The world will perish shortly. Among us there is the greatest ingratitude and contempt for the Word…As things are beginning to go, the last day is at the door, and I believe that the world will not endure a hundred years. For the light of the gospel is now dawning. That day will follow with thunder and lightning, for the voice of the Lord and of the trumpet are conveyed in the thunder. It will come from the east, and the earth will be severely shaken by the crash with such horror, that men will die of fear. I believe that the last day is not far off, for this reason: the gospel is now making its last effort, and it is just the same as with a light which, when it is about to go out, gives forth a great flash at the end as if it is intended to burn a long time yet, and then it is gone. So it appears to be in the case of the gospel, which seems on the point of widely extending itself, but I fear that it also will go out in a flash, and that the last day will then be at hand. It is just so with a sick man: when he is about to die he often appears most refreshed, and in a trice he has departed.

Source:Hugh Kerr, A Compend of Luther’s Theology (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1966), 244-245. (cf. LW 54:427; Table Talk online, entry: Of Angels: DLXIX).

Thus, the entirety of his Reformation career embraced an impending consummation of history. Mark Edwards points out:

In general Luther viewed the history of his own time as the realization of the apocalyptic predictions of Daniel and Revelation. The events of his age, he was convinced, were certain signs that the End Time was at hand. The 1530 foreword to his translation of Daniel makes clear how firmly set this conviction was. Following traditional exegesis, Luther identified Daniels ‘kingdom of iron’ with the Roman Empire, which, through its transference to the Germans, had survived into Luther’s own time and would persist until the last day. The papacy was the antichrist alluded to in the eleventh chapter of Daniel, and the Turk was the small horn that replaced three horns of the beast in the seventh chapter. The appearance of the papal antichrist and the success of the Turk left no doubt in Luther’s mind that the apocalyptic drama was in its final act” [Mark U Edwards, Luther’s Last Battles (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983), 97].

Lutheran scholar Paul Althaus notes that the “Middle Ages feared the Day of Wrath but Luther desires the coming of Jesus, because he will bring an end to the antichrist and bring about redemption. Luther can call it ‘the most happy Last Day.’”( Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), 420-421).

Luther’s Apocalyptic Expectation & the Jews

Essential to understanding Luther’s attitude toward the Jews is the eschatological framework of his theology. As early as 1522, Luther preached that his generation was living in the last days: “I do not wish to force any one to believe as I do; neither will I permit anyone to deny me the right to believe that the last day is near at hand. These words and signs of Christ compel me to believe that such is the case. For the history of the centuries that have passed since the birth of Christ nowhere reveals conditions like those of the present.” In 1542, Luther said, “I hold that Judgment day is not far away. I say this because the drive of the gospel is now at its height.” Thus, the entirety of his Reformation career embraced an impending consummation of history. Lutheran scholar Paul Althaus notes that the “Middle Ages feared the Day of Wrath but Luther desires the coming of Jesus, because he will bring an end to the antichrist and bring about redemption. Luther can call it ‘the most happy Last Day.’”
Toward the end of his life, this expectation gained in momentum. Luther spoke out strongly against those groups who went against the Gospel: the Papacy, Turks, radicals, and the Jews. These groups were led by the devil, used for continued opposition of the gospel. Early in his career, his treatise That Jesus Christ Was born a Jew kindly appealed to the Jews to embrace the Gospel. Later in his career, the impending Judgment Day compelled Luther to appeal to the authorities to protect Christendom against those groups that continually chose not to convert and opposed to the Gospel. Those that did not embrace the Gospel were not indifferent to it, but rather were opposed to it. Heiko Oberman explains,

“[Luther] spoke to the Christian authorities: the Last Judgment is fast approaching, so woe to those temporal rulers who have neglected their duty to protect Christendom! Now is the time for defense against the storm troopers of the Antichrist, whether they descend upon Christendom from the outside in the form of the Turks, subvert the preaching of the Gospel and order in the empire from inside the Church like the pope and clerics beholden to him, or, like the Jews, undermine the public welfare from the inside. Luther had discovered this concatenation of Jews, pope, and Turks as the unholy coalition of the enemies of God long before he began leveling his massive assaults on the Jews. Now that the terrors of the Last Days had been unleashed, the Church and temporal authorities were forced into their own defensive battle, one without the promise of victory but with the prospects of survival. Christian rulers, you should “not participate in the sins of others, you must pray humbly to God that he should be merciful to you and allow your rule to survive.”

There are those who misunderstand Luther’s Eschatology. For instance, Roman Catholic writer Erik R. von Kuehnelt-Leddihn misunderstands the relationship of the Jews and Luther’s belief he lived during the last days. von Kuehnelt-Leddihn says,

“Of course, there are some dark aspects to Martin Luther, for instance, his inordinate non-racist but religious hatred for the Jews, whom he wanted to put into labor-battalions to let them work "in the sweat of their nostrils." Why? They had rejected his outstretched hand and his call for conversion. Since Luther was convinced that the Pope is Antichrist and because, according to tradition, the conversion of the Jews heralded the Day of Judgment, he published a pamphlet inviting the Jews to the baptismal font. Had they accepted his offer, he would have proved his point against the Papacy, but the Jews failed to react and this infuriated him enormously. Thus he became even more anti-Jewish than Marx or Engels.”

For this explanation to be coherent, von Kuehnelt-Leddihn needs to explain why Luther still believed it was ‘last days’ despite the non-conversion of the Jews. von Kuehnelt-Leddihn can’t do this because early in Luther’s Reformation career, Luther already affirmed that the Jews would not convert in mass. In a sermon on Luke 21:25-36 Luther said, “[Jesus] calls the Jews ‘this generation.’ And this verse clearly obliges us to believe that the common talk that the Jews are all to become Christians is not true.” Later in his career, Luther still held this position: “Of the great mass of Jews he who will may harbor hope. I have no hope for them, nor do I know any passages of Scripture that does.” Gordon Rupp also has pointed out,

“In his lectures on Romans (1515-6) Luther had to treat Paul's hopes for the Jews in chapters 9-11. About a final conversion of the Jewish people Luther is skeptical and though he admits there is patristic support for this, he continued to affirm that he could find no clear word in Holy Scripture that more than a few individuals might be saved. It is true that in his second course of lectures on the Psalms (1519-21) Lewin thought that at Psalm 14 Luther struck a more optimistic note when he prays that, at the very last, divine mercy will intervene. For such an intervention, Luther prayed in one of his very last writings, but it is clear that as far as the Jews are concerned he had no theology of hope.”

Documentation available here.

10 comments:

natamllc said...

I am certain the end of the world is near at hand for me!

I am certain that the end of the world has come already for three friends of mine seeing I attended all of their funerals just this last month!

Wasn't it Luther who wrote that if the world was clearly going to end tomorrow he would go out and plant a tree today?

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

Wow! Thanks for posting this James; I never knew that Luther thought that his generation was the end-times generation.

Knowing this explains so much of why Luther wrote what he did.

The 27th Comrade said...

It has been necessary for God to convince all generations of believers—from the disciples to me, through Luther and Hal Lindsey—that their generation is the last. It has been necessary for Him to have each such generation live as though it were the last. It would be why this is the one event that is never foretold: so that any moment could be it, and so that those who expect the parousia can never rule out “tomorrow”, because there isn’t sufficient information for that to be done.

For one, I am convinced that the parousia is imminent, and I can see that this is true. (I’m not as convinced of the need to shout this out loud, as does Camping, apparently.)

Even the Jews are coming ‘round again to meeting Joseph the second time, after He has become “the man who is lord of the [Gentile] land”, where they would recognise Him as the one sent ahead of them to preserve life, the one they sold cheaply (in both cases, the transaction was at the hand of one “Judah”), and who Israel thought dead all along (even though he never saw the body!) while in fact this Joseph was alive and was ruling among the Gentiles … and so the Jews, surrounded by screaming, fighting Arabs, will be desperate to preserve their lives, and they will say of Jesus “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!”, and they will then have peace.

It is the only way I can explain the troubles that are surrounding them now in their country (as the newspapers don’t stop reporting them): it is the famine of seven years.

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

Brigitte,

Do you think there are baptized Lutherans in Hell?

James Swan said...

Wasn't it Luther who wrote that if the world was clearly going to end tomorrow he would go out and plant a tree today?

I recall this being spurious, but I'd have to check.

Indeed, each day is a gift, and could very well be my last.

James Swan said...

I never knew that Luther thought that his generation was the end-times generation. Knowing this explains so much of why Luther wrote what he did.

I always assume this sort of stuff is general knowledge. Yes, it certainly did play a role in his later writings.

James Swan said...

It has been necessary for Him to have each such generation live as though it were the last.

My take is a bit different. I believe that the creation mandate is still in place:

Genesis 1:28
God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.

This is what we are to do, all to the glory of God. God will usher in eternity in its fullness when he wishes to. Then it simply won't be Paradise "regained" or simply restored- but rather, Paradise as it was intended,to expand and come to it's perfect realization.

James Swan said...

Brigitte,

Do you think there are baptized Lutherans in Hell?


I'm going to assume this comment was left under the wrong post.

The 27th Comrade said...

"My take is a bit different. I believe that the creation mandate is still in place …"

By “last”, I didn’t mean “last day of existence,” but rather I meant “last day before the parousia.” My being convinced that the parousia could be in a week doesn’t stop me from pursuing my (rather ambitious) goals like a maniac. I am, in this, a bit of a psycho: I think like it can be the last day, and live like we have another 2000 millenia left.

By the way, I saw CNN yesterday covering the Camping people. Since I don’t generally do TV, I was surprised that they had such numbers, because I always thought they were fringe fanatics.

James Swan said...

By the way, I saw CNN yesterday covering the Camping people. Since I don’t generally do TV, I was surprised that they had such numbers, because I always thought they were fringe fanatics.

I don't know what their numbers are. It would be interesting to know pre and post May 21.