Saturday, October 29, 2016

Luther, the Tower Bathroom, and Faith Alone

In commemoration of Reformation day 2016, here's a wild and weird one from a Roman Catholic on the CARM boards (and also Catholic Answers):
For Luther the bathroom was also a place of worship. His holiest movements came when he was seated on the privy (Abort) of the Wittenberg monastery tower. It was there, while moving his bowels, that he conceived the revolutionary Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone. Afterward he wrote: "these words 'just' and 'justice of God' were thunderbolt to my conscience.... I soon had the thought [that] God's justice which justifies us and saves us. And these words became a sweeter message for me. This knowledge the Holy Spirit gave me on the privy in the tower."
The above is a crude description of what Reformation studies refer to as Luther's Turmerlebnis or "Tower Experience." This refers to the place (and setting) where Luther came to his understanding of justification by faith alone. As the popular version goes, Luther was in the tower of the Augustinian monastery when the "gate to paradise" of the gospel came to him. Luther recollected this experience a year before he died:
Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God, and said, “As if, indeed, it is not enough, that miserable sinners, eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the decalogue, without having God add pain to pain by the gospel and also by the gospel threatening us with his righteousness and wrath!” Thus I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience. Nevertheless, I beat importunately upon Paul at that place, most ardently desiring to know what St. Paul wanted.
At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’ ” There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.” Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates. There a totally other face of the entire Scripture showed itself to me. Thereupon I ran through the Scriptures from memory. I also found in other terms an analogy, as, the work of God, that is, what God does in us, the power of God, with which he makes us strong, the wisdom of God, with which he makes us wise, the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God.
And I extolled my sweetest word with a love as great as the hatred with which I had before hated the word “righteousness of God.” Thus that place in Paul was for me truly the gate to paradise. (LW 34:336-337)
Contrary to these tender autobiographical words, how did a coarse tale about Luther's bathroom habits find its way over to Catholic Answers and CARM? Is it just another one of those myths floating around cyberspace?

Origin of The Story 
The words just cited were from Luther's detailed account of his discovery of justification by faith alone (see The Preface to the Complete Edition of Luther's Latin Writings, 1545, LW 34:323). Even with this firsthand information, historians have not been able to conclusively determine the exact date or exact place in which it occurred. There have been a number of theories as to the specific date in which Luther came to his understanding of justification by faith alone. An exact date has importance because there are those who want to read the Ninety-Five Theses with a Luther who already understood "faith alone" as a backdrop for his complaints against indulgences. There are others who posit Luther had his  Turmerlebnis sometime after the Theses were posted. While it might appear to be a silly quibble, it does impact how one interprets Luther's earlier writings. While scrutinizing for the date, any information about the place has been scrutinized in order to concretely fix the date. Did Luther, the agonizing monk in Augustinian monastery have his "tower experience" while still an obedient monk previous to October 31, 1517? Luther doesn't say where he was. Here's second-hand testimony enters the debate.

The crude story finds its genesis from an interpretation of one sentence from the Table Talk. The Table Talk is a collection of second-hand comments and anecdotes written down by Luther's friends and students published after his death. In other words, Luther didn't write the Table Talk. Since the statements contained therein are purported to have been made by Luther, they should serve more as corroborating second-hand testimony to something Luther is certain to have written. In Reformation history studies, particularity those put together by Roman Catholics and secularists, it is not uncommon to find the Table Talk used as a primary source over Luther's actual writings.  The tenuous nature of this method becomes readily apparent when one actually reads the Table Talk. Often the purported utterances hang without a broader context (or in some instances, any context) and lack the background historical setting in which they were stated.

This particular utterance is found in a 1532 utterance (number 1681) from WA TR 2:177 (and not found in English of the Table Talk in LW 54). Other variations of this utterance can be found in WA TR 3, nos. 3232a, b, c. P. 228 (see Addendum #2 below). Luther is purported to have described his feelings in discovering justification by faith alone sometime between July and September of 1532:

The sentence which has caused this controversy is found at the very end of the second paragraph. The entirety of the second paragraph is in Latin except for the last sentence being a mixture of German and Latin:  Dise Kunst hatt mir der Spiritus Sanctus auf diss Cl[oaca]. eingeben.   In a helpful article Kenneth G. Hagen has described what in this text sentence has provoked this controversy. He points out that there are different versions of what Luther is purported to have said (from Cordatus, Lauterbach, and Schlaginhaufen). The first two say the experience happened in a hypocauslum (warm room or secret place). Hagen states, "However, Schlaginhaufen reports that Luther said that it occurred in or on a "Cl." (auf diss Cl.)." Hagen continues:
The abbreviation "Cl," as the place where the Holy Spirit revealed to Luther a new understanding of Rom 1:17, has caused much speculation and some embarrassment. Some later editors of the Table Talk have suggested that "Cl" means cloaca (toilet). Hartmann Grisar argues that cloaca is the only possible reading. Other suggestions have been that "Cl." means cella (chamber), claustrum (a confined place), capiiulum (chapter), c(apite) 1 (chapter one) or darissimum (very clear).  The last three suggestions refer to Scripture. According to Gordon Rupp, "Most scholars now believe it to have been a warmed room in which Luther studied."
Erik Erikson: Young Man Luther
In the twentieth century some approached Luther by applying psychoanalysis to his writings. Psychologist Erik Erikson took this controversial sentence and interpreted it literally to mean Luther was in the bathroom when he had his evangelical breakthrough. From his Freudian perspective Erikson concluded Luther's spiritual issues were tied up with biological functions.  He presented this in his book, Young Man Luther, a Study in Psychoanalysis and History (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1958). Erikson states on pages 204-206:

Responses To Erikson
If the word "cloaca" is the word in question, a basic response to the phrase Erikson interpreted literally is that in actuality it was simply conventional speech. Luther really was saying that his breakthrough came during a time when he was depressed, or in a state of melancholy. A brief overviews by both Dr. Scott Hendrix and James M. Kittelson in Christian History, Issue 34 (Vol. XI, No. 2).  Kittelson states,
Luther writes elsewhere that the breakthrough occurred when he was In cloaca, which literally means “in the toilet.” Some writers have thus suggested that Luther was sitting on the toilet at that moment; the revelation was a release from parentally induced anal retentiveness.
Dispensing with the toilet theory is easy. “in cloaca” was a bit of monastic slang better rendered as “in the dumps” or “in the pits.” Luther meant that the realization occurred when he was despondent or depressed. He wrote that the event transpired “at last (after) meditating day and night and by the mercy of God. ...” Hence, he was likely in his study, which was located not in the tower but in the arch over the main gate into the monastery.
A more detailed review of this counter-argument to Erikson was described succinctly by Reformation historian Lewis Spitz:  
In his table talk between June 9 and July 12, 1532, however, Luther described his struggle to achieve clarity about faith and righteousness and said that "the Holy Spirit had given him this understanding in this tower." In one of the three rescripts the words auft diser cloaca are added. The phrase looms large in the Catholic-Protestant polemic early in this century and has stimulated analysts to a veritable frenzy of speculation about psycho-physiological relationships, oral anal release, and the Grand Canal controversy. In fact, however, the east tower room on the second floor of the Black Cloister contained the small library reading room with a large Bible where the monks went to read and meditate. It was not a facility. Two explanations of the phrase auff diser cloaca seem far more probable than the defecatory hypothesis. As early as 1919 Ernst Kroker, who had edited these passages in the Tischreden, argued in an article in the Lutherjahrbuch that the term cloaca had to be used in a transferred sense in order is to fit the usage of that day. The psychoanalytic explanation is all but untenable in the light of what we now know about the usage of the term by monks, and specifically by Augustinian hermits. In connection with the experience of accedia, the Klosterkrankheit, the phrase in cloaca was used not only with reference to the locus but to describe a state of melancholy in a way similar to our colloquial expression "down in the dumps." Thus Luther, troubled in conscience, fearful and anxious, suddenly understands that St Paul is speaking of the righteousness God bestows on man through forgiveness, and he is lifted out of the depths into the joy of paradise. [Pychohistory and Religion (Philadelphia: fortress Press, 1977), p. 80].
And finally, Reformation historian Steven Ozment has said,
On the meaning of cloaca, however, the historians have done their homework better than the psychologists. In the late Middle Ages, the descriptions of oneself as being in cloaca, in stercore, or in latrina were common religious rhetoric, actually derived from the Bible and connoting a state of utter humility and dependence on God. When Luther described his Reformation insight as occurring "in cloaca," he was saying no more than that he received his understanding of the righteousness of God after a long period of humble meditation in the tower room- actually the library- of the monastery. Once again an understanding of the religious culture of the period proves more illuminating than conjectures based on modern clinical psychology [Steven Ozment, The Age of Reform (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980), p. 230].
It's important to reiterate that Erikson formulated these multiple pages of psychological theory based on one sentence from something Luther did not write (a Table Talk utterance) and in that sentence, the key word in question "Cl." is not certain beyond doubt.  Historical scholars are fairly unified that Erikson made poor use of the evidence. He did not discriminate carefully enough among primary sources, secondary sources and hostile sources. Hearsay functioned as "fact." To my knowledge, Erikson refused to answer his many critics in print.

Addendum #1: Was There a Tower Bathroom?
Yes, there was a tower at Luther's Augustinian monastery in Wittenberg. Some scholars have contended there was no bathroom sort of feature in the tower at all. In 2004 though, excavation around the monastery (while building a garden) unearthed a "stone room" (BBC News) (see picture above of the excavation).
The 450-year-old toilet, which was very advanced for its time, is made out of stone blocks and, unusually, has a 30-square-centimetre seat with a hole. Underneath is a cesspit attached to a primitive drain (link).
A more recent article notes that artifacts from the excavation have been "copiously published in a catalog in 2009" (link). This archaeological discovery though does not necessarily validate that Luther's evangelical breakthrough came while sitting on the toilet. This article states,
What both parties seemed to have missed, though, is the profound medieval roots of the expression. Already in 1012, Thietmar of Merseburg can tell us that demons arise from the cloaca to tempt monks, while others debated whether it was allowed to pray in unclean places. Opinions were divided, but there is evidence that Luther as a good Augustinian believed you could pray everywhere – even in hell. In Augustine’s time, Father Licentius had sung a verse from a psalm while labouring to rid himself of the filth of this earth. Monica had censured him, but Augustine defended the act, arguing that prayer was appropriate anywhere. Later, in the middle ages, to fall into the “cloaca” came to mean “to fall into sin”. It is indeed possible the reformator meant it both metaphorically and literally, when he claimed to have been inspired while shi**ing; as he did a lot. Probably, because of excessive fasting in his youth he suffered from obstipation and chronic disorders in his bowls; as did Ignatius of Loyola too.

Addendum #2 Table Talk 3232c

No. 3232c: Description of Luther’s “Tower Experience”
Between June 9 and July 21, 1532

“The words ‘righteous’ and ‘righteousness of God’ struck my conscience like lightning. When I heard them I was exceedingly terrified. If God is righteous [I thought], he must punish. But when by God’s grace I pondered, in the tower and heated room of this building,65 over the words, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live’ [Rom. 1:17] and ‘the righteousness of God’ [Rom. 3:21], I soon came to the conclusion that if we, as righteous men, ought to live from faith and if the righteousness of God contribute to the salvation of all who believe, then salvation won’t be our merit but God’s mercy. My spirit was thereby cheered. For it’s by the righteousness of God that we’re justified and saved through Christ. These words [which had before terrified me] now became more pleasing to me. The Holy Spirit unveiled the Scriptures for me in this tower.”

Luther, M. (1999). Luther’s works, vol. 54: Table Talk. (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, & H. T. Lehmann, Eds.) (Vol. 54, pp. 193–194). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

Addendum #3 Hartmann Grisar on The Tower Incident
I want to make mention of one of the most detailed and tedious studies on the tower experience and the phrase "in cloaca" available in English. This study (first published in German) actually precedes the interpretation of Erikson by many decades: Hartmann Grisar, Luther vol. 6 p. 504- 510 (cf. vol. 1, p.396-397). Grisar was a Roman Catholic historian who belong to the period of destructive criticism of Luther and the Reformation. While one may disagree with his interpretations of the facts in regard to his overall opinion about Luther, over the years I've found his documentation to be useful.  In his analysis of the Table Talk statements in question, Grisar concludes that the word abbreviated "Cl." can only mean "cloaca." Grisar states that it is probable that a later copyist of the Table Talk notes was embarrassed by the word so made it into an abbreviation:
The mention of the cloaca explains the entry of Johann Schlaginhaufen in his notes of Luther's own words in 1532: "This art the Spiritus sanctum infused into me in this Cl." Cloaca is abbreviated into Cl., probably because Schlaginhaufen's copyist, was reluctant to write it out in full alongside of the account of the inspiration which Luther had received from the Holy Ghost; the editor suggests we should read "Capitel"; but the chapter-house is not to be thought of. Strange indeed are the interpretations which have been given, even in recent times, by the unlearned to many of the expressions in our texts. The " locus secretus " was supposed to be " a special place allotted to the monks in the tower," whereas it is clear that the " secret chamber " was simply the closet or privy, a word which occurs often enough in Luther's later abuse of the Papists. In olden times it was very usual to establish this adjunct on the city wall and its towers, the sewage having egress outside the town boundaries[link]
In response, Lutheran historian J.M. Reu commented,
It is characteristic for Grisar's mind and method when starting from a very doubtful text, that he attempts to prove that Luther found this important and saving explanation in the privy; but even if he were right, what would it matter ? Kawerau and Scheel on this point strike Grisar home in a way deserved by him [link]
The expression "locus secretus," which Cordatus uses, does by no means necessarily mean privy, and when Khumer's text reads "Turm und Kloake," so this reading is entirely uncertain, being very probably only an incorrect solution of the abbreviation "cl." found in Schlaginhaufen's text. The correct solution seems to be claustrum or cella. Lauterbach's text offers : "in hac turri et hypocausto" [link].

1 comment:

Nick said...

"For Luther the bathroom was also a place of worship." I admit, I laughed when I read this. As much as I wish it was true, it's just too ridiculous to believe.

What is more troubling though is that when both sides read this, they get distracted and ignore the bigger issue at hand. Protestants are focused on Luther "discovering" the plain teaching of Scripture (which nobody before him could ever properly interpret), while Catholics are focused on whether Luther was on the toilet or not. In reality, the question is: Which Church Father or major theologian ever interpreted "righteousness of God" as being God's punishing wrath? That Luther had this 'definition' in his mind suggests he had unwittingly set up a straw man, only to tear it down and appear as a hero. Augustine was one of the most widely read theologians in all of Catholic history, and yet I've never seen Augustine interpret the phrase as God's punishing wrath. For Catholicism, the term "righteousness of God" has always meant something positive, hopeful, saving, etc, not something dark, gloomy, wrathful, etc.

I believe that it's good to have a blog dedicated to exposing lies about Luther, but in fairness Luther's own "lies" need to be exposed as well. Luther discovered nothing that wasn't already well known in Catholic tradition.