I. Introduction: Luther On the Internet
This Martin Luther quote runs rampant across the Internet in various forms:
. . I shall no longer do you the honor of allowing you - or even an angel from heaven - to judge my teaching or to examine it. . . . I shall not have it judged by any man, not even by any angel. For since I am certain of it, I shall be your judge and even the angels' judge through this teaching . . . so that whoever does not accept my teaching may not be saved - for it is God's and not mine. Therefore, my judgment is also not mine but God's.Alternate version:
I do not admit that my doctrine can be judged by anyone, even by the angels. He who does not receive my doctrine cannot be saved.
II. Roman Catholic Polemics
This quote has been used against Luther for quite a long time by Roman Catholics. Cochlaeus (a contemporary of Luther's) cites it as a savage and rebellious statement. Jacques Maritain cites it as an example of "egocentrism: something much subtler, much deeper, and much more serious, than egoism; a metaphyiscial egoism." Patrick O'Hare alludes to the quote as an example of Luther's "disregard for all authority save his own." Henry O'Connor uses it as an example of Luther claiming his own authority and infallibility: "Did any Pope ever proclaim his Authority and Infallibility in a more unmistakeable manner?" J. Verras cites it as Luther's "high opinion of himself" and "inexpressible contempt for all who dare to oppose him or to disagree from him." Hartmann Grisar uses it as an example of Luther's growing insistence on private revelation from God. An old copy of Catholic Weekly infers that Luther may have been insane by making such a statement.
A quick Google search of this quote reveals a number of contemporary Roman Catholic interpretations as well: One Romanist calls it an example of Luther's "colorful, sadly self-deluded, megalomaniacal language" and "Dogmatic Self-Proclaimed Super-Duper Infallibility and Virtual Inspiration." Another says it shows "the classic mindset of the heretic" who will not bend, refusing "to even allow others to examine his teaching." Another says it's an example of a lack of humility and pride. Another says these words demonstrate "immense arrogance."
If one simply reads the quote as cited by one of the above Romanists, the words often appear without a context or historical background. Luther is simply portrayed as unwilling to have his words scrutinized or evaluated, or worse, an unstable heretic simply claiming to be "right". If on the other hand the treatise this quote comes from is read, quite a different image comes forth. One finds that Luther spends quite a number of pages proving (or arguing) his "teachings" are from the pages of Scripture, and then finally asking his readers to make their own judgment.
The treatise the quote comes from is Wyder den falsch genantten Standt des Bapst und der Bischoffen (1522). It can be found in Erl. 28:144 and WA 10 (2): 106. It wa translated into English as Against the Spiritual Estate of the Pope and the Bishops Falsely So-Called, and can be found in LW 39: 248-249.
IV. Historical Background
This treatise was in part provoked by the sale of indulgences. Note the "gospel" of indulgences put forth from Rome that Luther opposed in his treatise:
On September 15, 1521, Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz celebrated the annual festival of relics at his newly built cathedral, the Church of St. Moritz and Mary Magdalene in Halle, with the official announcement that indulgences would be granted to all visitors to the exhibition of relics. Anyone who prayed at a shrine and gave alms was promised an indulgence of four thousand years; anyone who confessed his sins to one of the priests hearing confessions in the cathedral during the ten days of the celebration would receive a plenary indulgence. Pope Leo X had issued a bull in 1519 granting the cathedral of Halle the same privileges granted to the Church of St. Peter in Rome: its confessors were authorized to absolve cases usually absolved only by the apostolic see in Rome; in addition, they could convert vows into financial contributions for the completion of the Halle cathedral—privileges not unusual in the established indulgence practice of the Roman curia. (LW 39:241).Luther wrote against this and other severe results of the "gospel" of Papalism as well in an earlier treatise that was blocked from publication by Elector Frederick, and its possibility of "a threat to public peace" (LW 39:241). An angered Luther then went on to compose a similar but more general writing against indulgences: Against the Spiritual Estate of the Pope and the Bishops Falsely So-Called. LW notes, "Luther... was more concerned with the evil of the indulgences than with the person of the archbishop of Mainz. 'I wanted to put an end to ungodliness,' he wrote to Melanchthon on January 13, 1522" (LW 39:243).LW 39 also explains: "Luther’s highly polemical and satirical language, more evident in this treatise than in others, was prompted by the recurrence of the indulgence traffic in the territory of Albrecht of Mainz" (LW 39:244). Included also were arguments for the right of priests to marry, and the right of an individual to criticize or correct an authority when that authority is corrupt.
The quote in question is found in the very first section of this treatise entitled, "Jesus." Below is the entirety of that first section.
Martin Luther, ecclesiastic in Wittenberg by the grace of God: To the papal bishops [I offer] my service and self-understanding in Christ.
Although I might be regarded as a fool by you, dear lords, because of the haughty title I call myself, an ecclesiastic by the grace of God, you should know that I am not at all surprised by this. You curse, slander, condemn, persecute, and possibly even burn me as a heretic for the sake of a high and noble cause. In this you act as you please, according to the pleasure of your idol. As a result of God’s disfavor you have the virtue that you do not want to listen. Neither do you want to give an answer. Instead, like the hardened Jews you blasphemously and stubbornly want to condemn me without a hearing, without investigating the cause, without overcoming me. You are not even ashamed of letting a man defy you so frequently with such good reason. Very well then, since it is a question of lowering the horns and acting with brute force, I too have to lower my horns and risk my head for my Lord. In order to get things started, I call myself an ecclesiastic by the grace of God in defiance of you and the devil, although you call me a heretic with an abundance of slander. And even if I called myself an evangelist by the grace of God, I would still be more confident of proving it than that any one of you could prove his episcopal title or name. I am certain that Christ himself, who is the master of my teaching, gives me this title and regards me as one. Moreover, he will be my witness on the Last Day that it is not my pure gospel but his. Thus your raging and raving is not going to help you at all. Rather, the more you rage and rave, the haughtier we shall be toward you, with God’s help, and [the more we] shall despise your disgrace. Even though you might take my life, since you are murderers, you will annihilate neither my name nor my teaching. For you too will have to die at last and put an end to murder.
Now that I am deprived of my titles through papal and imperial disfavor and my bestial character is washed away with so many bulls that I need never be called either Doctor of Holy Scripture or some kind of papal creature, I am almost as shocked as an ass who has lost its bag. For these masks were my greatest shame before God. I too was once in error (which I learned from your crowd at great price and with great effort), a liar, a cheater, a seducer, and a blasphemer against God’s pure teaching, as you are now. But the Father of all mercy did not look at my vice, blasphemy, and my very sinful, evil life; instead, out of the infinite richness of his grace, he permitted me to know his Son, Jesus Christ, and to teach [him] to others, until we were certain of his truth. However, I need not have any title and name to praise highly the word, office, and work which I have from God and which you blind blasphemers defile and persecute beyond measure. I trust my praise will overcome your defiling, just as my justice will overcome your injustice. It does not matter if, with your blasphemy, you are on top for the moment.
Therefore, I now let you know that from now on I shall no longer do you the honor of allowing you—or even an angel from heaven—to judge my teaching or to examine it. For there has been enough foolish humility now for the third time at Worms, and it has not helped. Instead, I shall let myself be heard and, as St. Peter teaches, give an explanation and defense of my teaching to all the world [I Pet. 3:15]. I shall not have it judged by any man, not even by any angel. For since I am certain of it, I shall be your judge and even the angels’ judge through this teaching (as St. Paul says [I Cor. 6:3]) so that whoever does not accept my teaching may not be saved—for it is God’s and not mine. Therefore, my judgment is also not mine but God’s.
Finally, dear lords, let this be the conclusion: If I live you shall have no peace from me, and if you kill me you shall have ten times less peace, for I shall be, as Hosea says, a bear on the road and a lion in the street [Hos. 13:8]. No matter how you handle me, you shall not have your will until your iron head and stiff neck are broken with either grace or disgrace. If you do not improve as I would like to see you do, then it is agreed that you threaten with hostility and I do not care. May God grant that you know yourselves. Amen. [LW 39:247-249]
It's obvious from the context that Luther was indeed "highly polemical," and I would add, seemingly angry. That Romanist interpreters pounce on the singular statements they do is a telling sign of missing the point (and perhaps never even bothering to read the entire document this quote was taken from). Note the words typically left out in a Romanist version of the quote:
I shall no longer do you the honor of allowing you—or even an angel from heaven—to judge my teaching or to examine it. For there has been enough foolish humility now for the third time at Worms, and it has not helped. Instead, I shall let myself be heard and, as St. Peter teaches, give an explanation and defense of my teaching to all the world [I Pet. 3:15].
Luther had indeed subjected himself to the judgment of Romanism, and to what result? Obfuscation and subterfuge! Luther then states he's going to give an explanation and defense, which he indeed does. Towards the end of the treatise, after pages of scriptural argumentation against Romanism, Luther sums it all by stating one needs to judge his arguments for yourself:
If someone said to me at this point, “Previously you have rejected the pope; will you now also reject bishops and the spiritual estate? Is everything to be turned around?” my answer would be: Judge for yourself and decide whether I turn things around by preferring divine word and order, or whether they turn things around by preferring their order and destroying God’s. Tell me, which is right: for them to turn God’s order around, or for me to turn their blasphemous devil’s order around? Do not look at the work itself but at the basis and reason for the work. Nobody should look at that which opposes God’s word, nor should one care what the consequences may or may not be. Instead, one should look at God’s word alone and not worry—even if angels were involved—about who will get hurt, what will happen, or what the result will be (LW 39:279).
Further, the quote in its historical context shows that there were two "teachings" in conflict. For instance, in regard to indulgences, there was that put forth by Luther (indulgences are not of divine authority) and that put forth by Romanism (indulgences are of divine authority). Luther states:
In all the indulgence bulls [the Pope] promises forgiveness of sins to all those who have repented and confessed. This is the worst poison and most harmful seduction emanating from that supreme seducer, the pope, and from his masks. Christ, Matthew 9[:2], did not say to the paralytic, “If you put money in the box your sins are forgiven.” Rather, he said, “Be of good courage,” or, “Trust firmly and your sins are forgiven.” These wolves and damned masks tear people away from this blessed faith and trust in God’s sheer grace which alone grants forgiveness of sins. Instead, they lead people to put their trust in bulls, paper, and money so that simple minds learn to rely on their own works and not on God’s grace. The accursed pretension of such bulls is abominable beyond imagining, because it condemns and destroys God’s first and foremost commandment, namely, the commandment which teaches trust in God’s grace alone. They teach trust in paper and wax, that is, in their invalid and accursed lies (LW 39:275).
In one instance during his treatise, Luther mentions that indulgences went as far as "to preach that people may keep their ill-gotten goods if they give them a portion of them and also let them have the profits from them" (LW 39:273). How does Luther respond, by declaring his authority? No, he refers back to the Scripture "You shall not steal." Throughout the treatise, Luther simply refers to the clear words of Scripture to refute Romanism. For instance:
St. Paul said to Titus that he should appoint a married and blameless bishop in every town [Titus 1:5–7]. That is undoubtedly God’s order, will, and opinion. Our papal bishops fight against this; they removed the bishops from every town and made themselves bishops over many towns. But St. Paul stands here—indeed, the Holy Spirit stands here firmly and strongly—saying that every town should have a bishop and that they must all be equals. St. Paul speaks of every town and considers all bishops to be equal (LW 39:278).
Previous to the quote in question in the (introduction) Luther states, "I am certain that Christ himself, who is the master of my teaching, gives me this title [ecclesiastic] and regards me as one. Moreover, he will be my witness on the Last Day that it is not my pure gospel but his." Luther is claiming he's been given his teaching from Christ. Does he claim, like Paul, that Christ appeared to him? No. What he's speaking about is the teaching of Scripture. This brief snippet from the Theological Quarterly of the Lutheran Synod of Missouri sums this up far better than I ever could:
Luther's claim to authority as a teacher of God's Word is the common claim of every Christian who proves his belief from the Scriptures. The infallibility of the Scriptures becomes the infallibility of the teachers of Scripture. They can challenge the world as Isaiah did: "To the Law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them"; or Christ: "The Scripture cannot be broken"; or Paul: "Though an angel from heaven preached other gospel to you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed!" —[source]