Saturday, June 25, 2011

Luther's Last Years, Revisited

Did Luther Regret the Reformation? Here's a follow-up which demonstrates (once again) how interesting it is to actually read sources in context. I recently came across the following citation from Richard Marius, The Christian Between God and Death on another blog:

His last years in Wittenberg were bitter. He was disappointed in the undisciplined lives of his congregation, and he raged at his audiences from the pulpit. Near the end of his life he threatened to leave the city altogether. . . . The Christian was moved by gratitude to God and sought to do good works not to win salvation but out of spontaneous love. Luther saw no evidence that his people in Wittenberg were so moved. In September 1545, only a few months before he died, Luther preached a long, rambling, and heartfelt sermon lambasting the Wittenbergers for adultery, greed, and the desires of the flesh. (Richard Marius, Martin Luther: The Christian Between God and Death, Harvard University Press, 2000, 466).

Marius says his underlying presuppositions to his study on Luther is “essentially non-religious.” From this perspective, he begins with the notion that “Luther represents a catastrophe in the history of Western civilization.” And, “…[W]hatever good Luther did is not matched by the calamities that came because of him” (p. xii) (Marius also lays part of the blame on the Catholic Church as well). Because the Reformation led to wars between Catholics and Protestants, the loss of life was a grave calamity of the Reformation. 

Here is the entirety of the paragraph from Marius:

What most intrigued me about this snippet is "In September 1545, only a few months before he died, Luther preached a long, rambling, and heartfelt sermon lambasting the Wittenbergers for adultery, greed, and the desires of the flesh" and also the citations from the sermon Marius offered.

The sermon actually isn't long. Marius cites WA 51 (in footnote 67-68). The sermon is only seven pages long, starting on page 50 and ending on page 57, with actually two different versions of the sermon running simultaneously on each page. The sermon isn't rambling either. It's about good works and warring against the flesh. The Christian is not condemned by the law, but still has a lifelong war against the flesh (the Biblical text preached is Galatians 5:16-24). the points raised follow consistently as Luther practically applies the Biblical text to this basic point. The only thing really missing is a concise conclusion to the sermon.

Nor was Luther "lambasting" his congregation for "adultery, greed, and the desires of the flesh." Rather, he was expounding on Galatians 5, stating Paul teaches "flesh and (Spirit) are so opposed to each other that you (can)not do (what you want to do) [Gal. 5:17]. The flesh hangs around my neck together with the old Adam , who fell in paradise (and inborn in us), whom we log about in this life and cannot be rid of until we are buried" [WA 51:51; LW 58:284].

True Luther expounds on particular vices, but not in any sort of "lambasting" way. For instance, Marius quotes Luther saying "those who continue in this "liberty of the flesh' will be damned" (WA 51:53). In  context, Luther states:

"Those who belong to Christ have crucified [the flesh with its passions and desires], etc." [Gal. 5:24].23 "This is what I mean;' [Paul says,] "when I say,`Do not give opportunity to the flesh. If you say, 'I want to do what my flesh leads me to do, [I say that] you ought not follow the desire [of the flesh]." Such is the case with avarice and usury, which may well tempt Christians, especially when need (and poverty befall together), etc. These are the thoughts of the Spirit: "Do not make the loaf too small, (give the right measure, merchandise, and meat, so that you can give an account before God. (For you should not overcharge anyone.)" (That is how the Spirit speaks in Christians.) (But) the flesh [thinks]: "Oh, what harm is a penny or a groschen, if I water down the beer;' and afterward he raises the price. Is that restraining and crucifying the desires? Rather, it is giving them opportunity (and quenching the Spirit).

It is on this account that you belong in the pit of hell. This is vice and sin, even though they dress it up, [saying], "I have a wife and children; they must be provided for." Beware! You are not deceiving God, but yourself [cf. Gal. 6:7]. This vice is characteristic of the old. [And the] squires from the nobility, what do they do? If the crops have done rather poorly, [they say], "Yes, but I must have my money." But is it right? "I do not care about that, [they say]. Much less do I! The Spirit says thus: "I will trust God; He possesses more than I have given up." If the flesh grumbles and says, "Take [what you can get], since things are scarce:' [say to the flesh]: "Not so, I must crucify you." This they do not do. For this reason, I fear that the entire nobility, from top to tail,belongs to the devil, because they have given themselves over to the flesh. And yet they still want to be (regarded as) upright (and thanked for it!) I have said and I have preached to you: "Woe to the avaricious and usurers! They do not belong in heaven, but hell, because they give the flesh free rein." (For they use their freedom for wickedness, and if they were able to snatch up every penny for themselves, [it would not be enough], etc.) Avaricious old men become fatter in belly and in purse (and yet cannot be satisfied). [WA 51:53; LW 58:286-287].
In Context, Luther is exhorting his congregation against avarice and usury most certainly, but note those being condemned by Luther: "I fear that the entire nobility, from top to tail,belongs to the devil, because they have given themselves over to the flesh."

Marius then describes the content of WA 51:55, "Many are baptized and yet are manifestly avaricious. Were such to come to receive the Eucharist from him, he said, he would not give it to them if he knew their faults. Even if they were dying he would not administer the sacrament to them but would tell them to call on God. 'If you die, I will give you to the crows. Let your sack of gold help you.' " In context Luther is describing a truly avaricious man whose "soul is dead, he is an enemy of God, he is condemned to hell.." [WA 51:53; LW 58:288]. Luther later continues:

Avarice cares nothing about heaven but takes gold [as its god]—[gold] must hold the honor and name of our Lord God. The [true] honor given to the Lord is that my heart clings to Him. Whoever trusts [Him] honors God and calls upon [Him] aright, so that I say [to Him]: "Merciful God, You are my God in poverty, wealth, death, need; in poverty and misery I place my confidence in You." The honor that belongs to God—to rely entirely upon God to satisfy [us] in times of need—this the avaricious man gives to the impotent gulden, because he trusts that so long [as] he has a sack full of guldens, etc., [all will be well]. [And when] the sack is not entirely full, he supposes: "If [only] I had enough money"—then he would be happy.

Thus, in the presence of God, the Church of Christ, and of the angels, every greedy person is called an idolater, who robs honor from God and gives it to money. In so doing, he is insolent and gay, but that is absolutely nothing at all, because his god is nothing at all. But is this not a disgraceful title? They are baptized and want to be Christians, and yet are openly avaricious. If I knew of someone like this in particular, he should not come to me for the Sacrament, as they [are accustomed to] do. When death came, I would not give him the Sacrament, but say, "Let your own god help you, who is mighty and strong; call on [your] land full of grain! If you die, I will give you to the ravens; let your sack full of guldens come to your aid! I deny you the grace of God." And if we do not do so—if we are aware—but instead keep silent and do not excommunicate him, then I become a participant in a sin that I myself did not commit. I should not be avaricious myself but should contend in the Spirit, and I should not connive at your avarice and thus go to hell [myself] on your account. You should not come to the Sacrament, and the prayer [of the congregation] will be of no avail to you [The avaricious man] makes avarice into idolatry. Images...  is the honor and praise that belongs to God. These are two examples. We feel the desires of the flesh, but must not consent to it, lest we follow [the desire] with the work. [Say,] "Not so, flesh, guldens! I must not be an idolater for your sake. Get out from the ground, grain; gold, get out of my purse. I will be your master." That is how the Spirit should speak [WA 51:54-55; LW 58:290-291].
The context of Luther's remarks present quite a different picture than that portrayed by Richard Marius. What a shame that bloggers who sift through secondary sources to make a point don't take the time to actually look up the primary material being cited from that secondary source. Scholars and historians can (and do) make mistakes. Sometimes they even mis-read a context.

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