Statements are brought forth from late in Luther's career indicting him of regret and an admission of failure for starting the Reformation. I've gone through a number of these Luther quotes. These arguments subsided after the positive Roman Catholic reassessment of Luther that occurred in the early twentieth century, but have gained new polemical life floating through cyber-space used by a new generation of Rome's cyber-defenders. Here's one of those quotes (from a recent Roman Catholic cyber-source):
I fear... that we are a greater offense to God than the papists. (Janssen, ibid., vol. 15, 467)I've observed Roman Catholic web-pages using this quote in different ways; First, as an example of "The Agony of Luther" over "the State of Early Protestantism," second, that during the Reformation "Catholics were no more ignorant or impious or wicked than, for example, Lutherans, according to the descriptions of Luther himself," and third, as proof of the "immediate ill effects of Protestantism on morality" and "Luther's Disgust at the State of Protestant Morality." The overall picture painted is that of a despondent Luther who regretted the Reformation.
The documentation given is "Janssen, ibid., vol. 15, 467." This refers to nineteenth century Roman Catholic historian Johannes Janssen's History of the German People From the Close of the Middle Ages Volume 15. Janssen's work belongs to the period of destructive criticism of Luther and the Reformation. Janssen viewed Luther and the Reformation as destroying German culture and piety (see, Gregory Sobolewski, Martin Luther: Roman Catholic Prophet, p. 22-23). Janssen states,
'I fear me,' he said, preaching on the robbery of widows and orphans, 'that we are in such wise trifling with the Evangel, that we are a greater offence to God than the papists. For if there is to be stealing it is better to steal from a rich man than from a poor beggar, for an orphan who has nothing but a morsel of bread. Sirach said: "Do not the widow's tears run down her cheek, and her cry against him that causeth them to fall? For from the cheek they go up even to heaven, and the Lord that heareth will not be delighted with them.''God is not called in vain the Father of widows and orphans, for if they are forsaken by every man God still looks after them! 'He pronounced a woe: 'Woe unto you peasants, burghers, nobles, who grab and scrape up everything for yourselves and pretend all the time to be good evangelicals.' (Collected Works xliv 356-357) [p. 467].A similar citation can be found used by another Roman Catholic historian Hartmann Grisar (from the period of destructive criticism of Luther and the Reformation as well):
No one now will give, and, "unless we had the lands we stole from the Pope, the preachers would have but scant fare"; they even try "to snatch the morsels out of the parson s mouth." The way in which the "nobles and officials" now treat what was formerly Church property amounts to "a devouring of all beggars, strangers and poor widows; we may indeed bewail this, for they eat up the very marrow of the bones. Since they raise a hue and cry against the Papists let them also not forget us. Woe to you peasants, burghers and nobles who grab everything, hoard and scrape, and pretend all the time to be good Evangelicals." (Ib., Erl. ed., 44, p. 356. Sermons on Mat. xviii.-xxiii. For similar statements see the passage in the last Note and Erl. ed., 22,S. 317 ; also above, vol. iv., passim. Cp. also Luther s statements i Janssen, " Hist, of the German People," xv., p. 465 ff. ; Dollinger, " Die Ref.," 2, p. 215, 306, 349 [source].Janssen and Grisar both refer to the Erlangen edition of Luther's works volume 44, around pages 356-357 (note also, Grisar references the very section from Janssen here under scrutiny, an obvious tip-off that Grisar was following the interpretive lead of Jannsen). Janssen says it's "a sermon on the robbery of widows and orphans." Grisar says the source is Luther's sermons on Matthew 18-23. He's correct. The sermon can be found in WA 47:462. The text reads,
The exact sermon was on Matthew 23:14 from 1538 ("The thirty-second sermon, on Matt. 23:14... Luther preached it after March 27 and before September 25, 1538, but the precise date cannot be determined" (LW 68:168). Luther apparently preached his Matthew sermons to the general public at St. Mary's Church in Wittenberg on Wednesdays. Like many of Luther's sermons, it was not written by Luther, but was rather recorded in manuscript notes, in this case by either Georg Rörer or Johann Stolz. The sermon was planned for publication after Luther's death in the mid 1560's, but never made it to the press. It was eventually published in 1817 (see LW 68: xvi-xviii). This tedium is interesting because it was somewhat fresh primary material when Janssen got a hold of it in the later nineteenth century.
This sermon was translated into English in 2014 in LW:68, Sermons on Matthew Chapters 19-24. The sermon begins on page 168 and ends on page 173. The specific quote can be found on pages 172-173 at the close of the sermon.
The topic of the sermon was the Lord's woe on the hypocritical pharisees with their long prayers and their societal abuse against widows. Previous to the quote in question, Luther describes this sort of prayer and behavior has existed "since the world began." He mentions that in his day, "the greatest cathedrals, monasteries, and mendicants" (LW 68:169) were of similar ilk. They likewise have long prayers, but have prayers that only give the appearance of praying. He then finds examples of modern pharisees living in his own day who "devour the world's goods." The people he has in mind are those with ties to the papacy: "Therefore, the worst robbers, the likes of which have never been seen before on earth, are our pope, cardinals, bishops, and clergy, who blaspheme God..." (LW 68"171). He then addresses his congregation with the following warnings:
Therefore, the worst robbers, the likes of which have never been seen before on earth, are our pope, cardinals, bishops, and clergy, who blaspheme God on top of this. But God afflicts the world like this because it despises His word. It is evident how people gave to the false supplicants. All bishoprics have duchies, and people gave because of the false appearance. Now people do not give anything at all when the Gospel is being preached and people can pray correctly. Now they can find a pastor who does more than all the pope's bishops, but they give him only about ten gulden. No one wants to give now, and if we did not have the stolen property of the pope, the preachers would have hardly anything to eat. But that is not all; people also gladly take to themselves all that the poor pastors have for getting an income. People used to open their moneybags generously, but now they would gladly snatch the morsel from the mouth of the pastors. The princes have no lack, but the noblemen and magistrates also take away from the pastors their leftover stale crusts of bread, and yet they want to be regarded as being good evangelical people. Will our Lord God allow this to go on? They are sure to find out. The prayer is not false now, yet people do not give enough for the preachers to have food and drink. Instead, they would gladly take from them that which they still have. No one can convince a peasant or nobleman to think: "He is not from around here! The house and field are not his. Once he lays down his head and dies, his widow will be kicked out. I have a little castle and will be satisfied with that. I do not want to do him any harm." Instead, the young noblemen do it themselves, and the magistrates laugh at it. Therefore, we are worse than the pope, who steals from the rich widows, emperors, kings, princes, and lords. We rob from the poor beggars, their children, and widows, and this is done by us even in this principality. Therefore, we set ourselves in opposition to the Gospel even more disgracefully than in the lands of Duke George or the margrave. That is devouring the beggars, guests, and poor widows. We can also cry out in woe over this, for they devour flesh and bone. While lamenting over the Papists, we should also not forget ourselves.
I fear that we fool around with the Gospel such that we are even worse before God than the Papists. For if someone is going to steal, then it is better to steal from a rich man than from a poor beggar or orphan who has nothing more than a bite of bread. Sirach [35:17-21] says not to grieve the widows and orphans, since their tears fall not down but up. That is, they cry out toward [heaven] above. Those are true waters that go above the mountains, as the proverb has it [cf. Ps. 104:6]. And it is not without cause that God is called the Father of the widows and the orphans, for when they have been abandoned by everyone, God indeed cares for them [cf. Ps. 68:5; 146:9]. But it is better for us to care for and help the widows and orphans, since they are commended to us. If He has to do it, however, this is the kind of business He will take up again with us: "If you afflict the widows, I will cause the young men of your wives to be killed; your wives and children will become widows and orphans" [Exod. 22:23-24]. Thus the Turks make widows and orphans these days, but we have earned it
[You may say,] "The people should not be scolded!" Christ can also preach well. but here He takes vinegar and forgets the honey and says: "Woe, woe to you peasants, townspeople, and nobility, who scrabble, scrape, and grab up everything for yourselves, and yet want to be regarded as good evangelical people. See to it that the Gospel is not only on your lips, while your deeds are doing the opposite."[LW 68:171-173].
Out of all the quotes used to prove Luther's despondency over the effects of the Reformation, this one comes closest to presenting Luther's grave concern over the state of the early Protestant church. Luther was disheartened by the lack of funds to support Protestant ministers. While Luther viewed the general stealing of the Papists as horrible, he likewise chastised his own people for lack of giving, which in essence was a form of stealing.
To take Luther's exhortation though to his congregation as "agony" or regret over the Reformation goes too far. It's one thing to argue Luther suffered from depression and despondency over the state of the Protestant churches, it's quite another to use his words to prove he had a sense of failure and guilt over the reform of the church or the preaching of the Gospel. Luther often complained about the Wittenberg church. He threatened, more than once, that he would either leave this congregation or no longer preach to them. Was this a confession of failure? No. His chiding of his congregation must be understood in the context of his theology. The editors of Luther's Works explain,
The tensions between Luther and the Wittenberg congregation came to a head in Luther's resolution during the summer of 1545 to abandon Wittenberg and to retire with Katy and his family to the countryside, until he was finally persuaded by the petitions of the elector and the university to return. But though dramatic, Luther's brief self-imposed exile from Wittenberg during the last year of his life was in fact not unprecedented. In 1530, before his departure for the Coburg during the Diet of Augsburg, Luther had announced that he would not preach in Wittenberg anymore, and similar threats, sometimes carried through for several weeks at a time, were repeated both before and after.
Luther's complaints about the Wittenberg congregation have been taken as evidence of his personal despair at the end of his life and as an admission of the broader failure of the Reformation at the hands of its foremost exponent. But Luther's sharp criticism must be understood in the context of his own theology and apocalyptic understanding, and set alongside his contemporary statements (often, indeed, within the same sermons) of satisfaction and hope. Although Luther discouraged and even ridiculed efforts (including those of his own friends) to predict the end of the world, he understood the history of the Church, from the time of the apostles to his own era, in view of the coming Last Day. Throughout history, the true Church, gathered around the preaching of the pure Gospel, had been and would always be opposed not only by enemies without but also by false preachers and heretics in its own midst. Indeed, the ferocity of such opposition and resistance, spurred on by the devil, was one of the marks of the true Church and of the pure doctrine. In light of such an understanding, a Reformation that was an unchallenged success would ipso facto have been a failure.
As such, the faults of Evangelical congregations denounced in Luther's preaching were themselves testimonies to the purity of the Gospel being proclaimed in their midst; emphasizing them in preaching constituted a response to the theological claims both of the Antinomians, who denied that the Law should be preached to Christians, and of the Anabaptists, who were understood to demand the radical perfection of Christians in their communities. To be sure, Luther was in full earnest in denouncing sins of greed and usury and demanding their reformation. But the root cause, the fault of coldness toward the Gospel, became in Luther's preaching a confirmation of the truth of his doctrine. In his next-to-last sermon of February 7, 1546, Luther complained of the devotion of the Christians in Eisleben:
If you do go to the Sacrament, you go and come away again like a block of wood, or you let other people go to it and stay away yourself. So, too, you hear God's Word and that God's Son has died for you with no more devotion than if someone had said to you that the Turk had slain the sultan or the emperor had captured the king of France or some other tale, and you think it has no bearing on you, and you are as cold as ice and do not enkindle your heart nor take any thought for your soul or eternal life. That is what careless, wild people do, who take no thought for God.
But Luther is not in fact concerned here to distinguish better Christians from worse ones, denouncing the coldly indifferent and demanding warmer devotion. Instead, he insists that this resistance to the Gospel is the result of original sin even among the best of believers:
Yea, indeed, and we, the best of Christians, do the same. We are able neither to possess this joy nor to bring it into our hearts, though we gladly would. It will not penetrate the heart, bone, and marrow; it does not savor and live; it does not comfort and gladden us as it should. The old Adam and our sinful nature do this; the sin, which still lurks within us, compels me and you so that we do not believe it.
Luther's answer, then, is not to demand perfection, but to direct his hearers back to the catechism:
Therefore St. Peter says in the Second Epistle, chapter 3 [:18):... "Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ." Prepare yourselves, you Christians, so that you do not think: "We have learned and believe all there is to know about the catechism, Christ, the Sacrament, Baptism, and Absolution." You have just begun and are still very young students. Therefore, think about how you may increase and grow and always continue learning what it means that Christ died for your sakes, so that this does not remain on your tongue like foam or spittle but penetrates and enters the heart, so that it comforts and gladdens you.
After all, Luther says, it is only the heretics, like the ancient Donatists or the modern Anabaptists, who imagine that individual Christians or the Christian Church as a whole can become entirely pure and perfect in this life. The lackluster faith and devotion of Evangelical Christians described by Luther thus becomes, in the context of his theology, a proof of the truth of Lutheran teaching over against Anabaptist claims. Luther's "disappointment" was as much a homiletical posture determined by the expectations of his theology as it was a matter of dispassionate observation.
Luther's complaints about coldness toward the Gospel appear alongside and indeed presuppose his confident declarations that, in fact, the Gospel is being abundantly preached and proclaimed, not only in the churches by faithful pastors, not only in the schools—of which Luther boasts even as he pleads for more generous support—but also in homes, among parents and children, as he says in his last sermon: "You hear at home in your house, father and mother and children sing and speak of it, the preacher speaks of it in the parish church." The Gospel is thus communicated from one generation to the next—and back again. It is to the children, with whom Luther habitually associates knowledge of the Christian Creed, that he refers adults who have questions about Christian faith, and upon the youth, "the seedlings with which the Church of God, like a beautiful garden, is cultivated and propagated," that the reformer continues to place undiminished hopes. The Reformation, as Luther understands it at the end of his life, is neither an accomplished event nor a step along the progressive way to the full purification of the Church, but it is a continual struggle, carried out through the preaching of the Law and the Gospel, to be renewed from generation to generation until the Last Day. [LW 58:xx-xxii].
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.