Sunday, February 05, 2017

Martin Luther's Pride in Exhalting Himself Above the Church Fathers

I was reviewing and revising one of my older blog entries in which Luther claimed he was superior to Augustine and Ambrosius (this entry also). I followed an old link back to a now defunct web-page making the same claim and also adding a number of other Luther quotes, all meant to demonstrate Luther's views on the church fathers were "contradictions, falsehoods, and dishonesty." Let's take a look at some of the quotes being put forth as proof.

The following Luther quote is used to demonstrate Luther's alleged comically surreal self-exhalation above the church fathers:
“On one occasion when I was consoling a man on the loss of his son he, too, said to me: You will see, Martin, you will become a great man! I often call this to mind, for such words have something of the omen or oracle about them.” . . .
On a surface reading even without any context, there's nothing in this statement in which Luther is comparing himself to any church father or placing himself above the church fathers. Perhaps the statement is meant to demonstrate that while counseling a grieving father, Luther was self-absorbed about his own importance? Perhaps this is intended to be the comically surreal self-exhalation? We'll see that in context, none of these negatives are proved, and we'll also take a look at the Roman Catholic polemical historical source which appears to be the genesis of the spin that the quote was intended to be a prideful and arrogant boast from Luther.

The source provided is Grisar 4, p.330. This refers to Roman Catholic historian Hartmann Grisar's massive multi-volume biography of Luther. In volume 4, Grisar presents the subheading, "Luther on his own Greatness and Superiority to Criticism The Art of 'Rhetoric'" (p.327). Grisar presents a selection of comments displaying how (he thinks) Luther thought of himself.  He concentrates on anything that would cast Luther in a negative way. For Grisar, even those statements from Luther that appear to be positive or humble are slanted negatively and pridefully:
It is true that he knew perfectly well that it was impossible to figure a Divine mission without the pediment and shield of humility. How indeed could those words of profound humility, so frequent with St. Paul, have rung in Luther s ears without finding some echo? Hence we find Luther, too, from time to time making such his own; and this he did, not out of mere hypocrisy, but from a real wish to identify his feelings with those of the Apostle; in almost every instance, however, his egotism destroys any good impulse and drives him in the opposite direction (p.327).
Among his collection of prideful and arrogant Luther statements, Grisar presents the following from Luther (on page 330):
"On one occasion when I was consoling a man on the loss of his son he, too, said to me: 'You will see, Martin, you will become a great man!' I often call this to mind, for such words have something of the omen or oracle about them." ["Briefwechsel," 8, p.160]
"Briefwechsel" refers to a collection of Luther's letters. Volume 8 page 160 can be found here (the letter can also be found in WA BR 5:518-520). The letter reads in part,

This text is from Luther's letter to Jerome Weller, July 1530. Some date the letter to November. Hartmann Grisar goes with July and points out, "In the older reprints the letter was erroneously put at a later date" [source].  While this letter is not available in the English edition of Luther's Works (LW), a translation is available in Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel. It has also been cited either in full or partially in a number of books. The translation below comes from W.H.T. Dau, Luther examined and reexamined: a review of Catholic criticism and a plea for revaluation (Concordia Pub. House, 1917), pp. 119-122. Another translation can be found here,  Yale Divinity School has an English translation, and an online undocumented contemporary English translation can be found here. The letter itself has quite a polemical history, cited by numerous Roman Catholic sources (as well as even being cited by PBS).

Grace and peace in Christ.
My dearest Jerome, you must firmly believe that your affliction is of the devil, and that you are plagued in this manner because you believe in Christ. For you see that the most wrathful enemies of the Gospel, as, for instance, Eck, Zwingli, and others, are suffered to be at ease and happy. All of us who are Christians must have the devil for our adversary and enemy, as Peter says: 'Your adversary, the devil, goeth about,' etc., 1 Pet. 5, 8. Dearest Jerome, you must rejoice over these onslaughts of the devil, because they are a sure sign that you have a gracious and merciful God. 
You will say: This affliction is more grievous than I can bear; you fear that you will be overcome and vanquished, so that you are driven to blasphemy and despair. I know these tricks of Satan: if he cannot overcome the person whom he afflicts at the first onset, he seeks to exhaust and weaken him by incessantly attacking him, in order that the person may succumb and acknowledge himself beaten. Accordingly, whenever this affliction befalls you, beware lest you enter into an argument with the devil, or muse upon these death-dealing thoughts. For this means nothing else than to yield to the devil and succumb to him. You must rather take pains to treat these thoughts which the devil instils in you with the severest contempt. In afflictions and conflicts of this kind contempt is the best and easiest way for overcoming the devil. Make up your mind to laugh at your adversary, and find some one whom you can engage in a conversation. You must by all means avoid being alone, for then the devil will make his strongest effort to catch you; he lies in wait for you when you are alone. In a case like this the devil is overcome by scorning and despising him, not by opposing him and arguing with him. My dear Jerome, you must engage in merry talk and games with my wife and the rest, so as to defeat these devilish thoughts, and you must be intent on being cheerful. This affliction is more necessary to you than food and drink.
I shall relate to you what happened to me when I was about your age. When I entered the cloister, it happened that at first I always walked about sad and melancholy, and could not shake off my sadness. Accordingly, I sought counsel and confessed to Dr. Staupitz, --I am glad to mention this man's name. I opened my heart to him, telling him with what horrid and terrible thoughts I was being visited. He said in reply: Martin, you do not know how useful and necessary this affliction is to you; for God does not exercise you thus without a purpose. You will see that He will employ you as His servant to accomplish great things by you. This came true. For I became a great doctor--I may justly say this of myself--; but at the time when I was suffering these afflictions I would never have believed that this could come to pass. No doubt, that is what is going to happen to you: you will become a great man. In the mean time be careful to keep a brave and stout heart, and impress on your mind this thought that such remarks which fall from the lips chiefly of learned and great men contain a prediction and prophecy. I remember well how a certain party whom I was comforting for the loss of his son said to me: Martin, you will see, you will become a great man. I often remembered this remark, for, as I said, such remarks contain a prediction and a prophecy.
Therefore, be cheerful and brave, and cast these exceedingly terrifying thoughts entirely from you. Whenever the devil worries you with these thoughts, seek the company of men at once, or drink somewhat more liberally, jest and play some jolly prank, or do anything exhilarating. Occasionally a person must drink somewhat more liberally, engage in plays, and jests, or even commit some little sin from hatred and contempt of the devil, so as to leave him no room for raising scruples in our conscience about the most trifling matters. For when we are overanxious and careful for fear that we may be doing wrong in any matter, we shall be conquered. Accordingly, if the devil should say to you: By all means, do not drink! you must tell him: Just because you forbid it, I shall drink, and that, liberally. In this manner you must always do the contrary of what Satan forbids. When I drink my wine unmixed, prattle with the greatest unconcern, eat more frequently, do you think that I have any other reason for doing these things than to scorn and spite the devil who has attempted to spite and scorn me? Would God I could commit some real brave sin to ridicule the devil, that he might see that I acknowledge no sin and am not conscious of having committed any. We must put the whole law entirely out of our eyes and hearts,--we, I say, whom the devil thus assails and torments. Whenever the devil charges us with our sins and pronounces us guilty of death and hell, we ought to say to him: I admit that I deserve death and hell; what, then, will happen to me? Why, you will be eternally damned! By no means; for I know One who has suffered and made satisfaction for me. His name is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Where He abides, there will I also abide. [link]
In regard to the story about Luther giving spiritual counsel to a man who had lost his son, other information that appears to be related is found in a Table Talk utterance: 
No. 223: A Prophecy Concerning Luther
April 7, 1532
A certain old man from Meiningen had a son at Erfurt who was a friend of Luther’s. He once said to Luther when he heard him complain of ill health, “Dear son, don’t worry, some day you’ll be a great man.” Luther said, “On that occasion I heard a prophet!” (LW 54:29; WA TR 1:95)
A footnote explaining the phrase "dear son" explains, "German: Lieber Bacalarie. The form of address indicates that Luther was still a student in the university in Erfurt at the time." There are obvious differences and similarities in this Table Talk statement (but not necessarily contradictory). In the Table Talk, there is no mention of Luther's counsel to a grieving father who lost his son, but rather the father giving counsel to Luther for his ill health.

Most often this letter is cited because of Luther's instructed Weller to "drink liberally" (or as PBS says, "go and get drunk"). Here, Grisar uses the letter to indict Luther of pride. Elsewhere Grisar thoroughly chastises Luther for the entire Letter. Of the story in question, Grisar states,
Finally he encourages the sorely tried man by telling him how Staupitz had foretold that the temptations which he, Luther, endured in the monastery would help to make a great man of him, and that he had now, as a matter of fact, become a " great doctor." " You, too," he continues, " will become a great man, and rest assured that such [prophetic] words, particularly those that fall from the lips of great and learned men, are not without their value as oracles and predictions." It is not surprising that such counsels and the consolation of possible future greatness did not improve the pitiable condition of the unfortunate man, but that he long continued to suffer. 

Exactly who was Jerome Weller? Hieronymus Weller von Molsdorf (1499-1572) originally intended to be lawyer, but under Luther's influence at Wittenberg chose the path of the theologian. "From 1527 to 1536, when he was married and established his own household, Weller lived in Luther's house and ate at his table, in return for which he tutored Luther's children" (LW 54:203). He would have been around thirty years old when Luther sent him the letter in question from the Castle Coburg back to Wittenberg. There are three extant letters from Luther to Weller during this time period: June 19. 1530, July, 1530, and August 15, 1530.

Weller's "shyness and modesty made him particularly subject to fits of depression" (link).  "By temperament, Weller was timid, squeamish, and given to melancholy. Luther rebuked him for avoiding people and urged him to seek out acquaintances and talk to them" (LW 54:203). All three of these letters reflect this, and all three letters are filled with Luther's care, concern, spiritual counsel and encouragement for Weller.  One pastor outlines the July letter as follows:

1. Rejoice because temptation testifies of God's mercy to you.
2. Do not dwell on the deadly thoughts of the Devil.
3. Laugh your adversary to scorn.
4. Be around other believers.
5. Proclaim the good news of Jesus for you and your salvation.

Luther's use of Staupitz and his recollection of  "consoling a man on the loss of his son" were meant to be words of encouragement from someone who had similarly struggled with melancholy and depression. During Luther's dark periods, others encouraged him that the struggles he was having were for a purpose: "You will see that He will employ you as His servant to accomplish great things by you." Luther was passing this on to Weller, whom he obviously saw as a man with spiritual gifts. Contrarily, according to Grisar: "It is not surprising that such counsels and the consolation of possible future greatness did not improve the pitiable condition of the unfortunate man, but that he long continued to suffer." What did become of Jerome Weller? Did he become the potentially great man that Luther saw,  or did he suffer a pitiable condition, not able to rise from the pit of despondency to any meaningful purpose? Here is a brief biographical sketch:
Hieronymus Weller von Molsdorf was born on September 5, 1499 in Freiberg, Saxony. In the time when Luther began the Reformation, he came to Wittenberg. There he dedicated himself at first to the study of law and for a time led a frivolous life in a bad crowd. But soon he was so frightened in his conscious by the powerful preaching of Luther that he left the way of sin and determined to serve God alone. He then also gave up the study of law and chose instead the study of theology. Luther took him into his home, where he stayed for eight years. It is said that Luther loved him as a son. After he became a doctor of theology, he was called by Duke Heinrich (of Albertine Saxony) as professor of theology at Freiberg and later was also appointed inspector of schools. In these offices, he worked with great blessing for the spiritual formation (Erbauung) of the church of Christ until his blessed death on March 20, 1572 in the 73rd year of his life. 
He was a learned, mild, and modest man. His great reputation brought him calls from Vienna, Copenhagen, Meißen, Leipzig, and Nuremberg, but he declined them all and wanted rather to bring his life to a peaceful conclusion in his minor position in Freiberg. He is said to have suffered much from spiritual afflictions (Anfechtungen) and was also not brought to preach, because he only preached once in Naumberg. 
The judgments of the great theologians who lived at that time testify concerning the high respect which he had in the church. (David) Chytraeus calls him an admirable man, the single Lutheran who has become much esteemed on account of his zeal for piety and on account of his purity of doctrine and life. Conrad Porta says that he was the most faithful student and follower of Luther. Lukas Osiander confesses that in his writings the spirit of Christ and Luther lives in the loveliest manner and that his writings are full of true and certain comfort. Nikolaus Selnecker writes of him, “He was a holy man, not merely a scholar, but also a practical theologian, exercised through the cross of spiritual affliction and capable of comforting the souls of those afflicted in the heart and capable of quickening them through the life-giving Word of Christ.” 

Found on-line is Jerome Weller’s, Luther Guide for the Proper Study of Theology, 1561. This writing is attributed to Weller, but it is said to be Luther's advise for the proper study of theology as recorded by Weller. Well worth the read (and it's only seven pages). 


Rhology said...

exalting* himself


James Swan said...

oops. thx.

No_Mo_skygods said...

Luther did in fact exalt himself above the Fathers, if Protestant theologian/historian Philip Schaff is to be believed (though he doesn't express it in those terms).

You will find the relevant citation in the 4th paragraph under "The dominating qualities of his doctrine" in the article "Teaching of St. Augustine of Hippo."

James Swan said...

Mr. Skygods,

You have been answered in full. See: