Friday, December 22, 2017

Luther: "I, who should burn of the spirit, am consumed by the flesh and by impurity"

Here's a Martin Luther-related excerpt that appeared on the Catholic Answers Forums:

Even when he was engaged in the translation of the Bible, Luther, in the year 1521, while living in Wartburg — to which place this “courageous” Apostle had fled in the disguise of a country squire and lived under an assumed name — wrote to his friend Melanchthon to say: “I sit here in idleness and pray, alas, little and sigh not for the Church of God. Much more am I consumed by the fires of my unbridled flesh. In a word, I, who should burn of the spirit, am consumed by the flesh and by impurity." (De Wette, 2, 22)

This is one of those quotes that I categorically classify as the "Antinomian Luther." They are typically posted by those dedicated to defending the Roman church (but not limited to them!).  Historically, such "shock" quotes served as propaganda used by pre-1930 Roman Catholic controversialists. The champion of this view was Heinrich Denifle (1844-1905), an Austrian Roman Catholic historian. For Denifle, one of Luther's major problems was lust and immorality. It was Luther's craving for sex that led him to not only break his monastic vows, but to revolt against the established Roman church.   Denifle would use statements like this to prove Luther invented the doctrine of justification to excuse his gross immorality. With this snippet above, a further insinuation is that Luther was not morally qualified to translate the Bible. Let's take a closer look at this quote and see what's going on. Let's see if the historical record proves Luther was "consumed by the flesh and by impurity" rather than the Spirit of God, and therefore unqualified to translate the Bible.

The person who posted the quote provides obscure documentation. Such obscurity usually indicates that the material was not taken from an actual straight reading of text written by Luther . This person also stated,
I am a convert from Protestantism who used to idolize Luther until I read his writings (eventually). Before, and while undertaking my doctorate (early music history + performance), I had learned to read primary sources, this is what also lead me to the Catholic Church - the Apostolic Fathers + St Augustine + Aquinas. Today many people will watch a movie about Luther and think they are well informed about him.
I do question the validity of this testimony of learning, especially the claim of reading Luther's writings and the ability to read primary sources to form opinions. Of the two posts of Luther material this person presented in this discussion (#1#2), neither demonstrates a straight reading of Luther. The material was probably taken from a few web-pages, then cut-and pasted over on to the Catholic Answers discussion forum. I suspect this pagethis page, and perhaps this page was utilized. Unless the person posting this material on Catholic Answers wrote these links, much of the content of these posts is blatant plagiarism. For this quote particularly, this web-page appears to be that which was plagiarized. Even if he (she?) did compose this web page (or one of the others), I still doubt any of the material came from a straight reading (or "studying") of the "primary sources" for Luther. Some of what was posted was directly plagiarized from Father Patrick O'Hare's, The Facts about Luther, especially the quote above under scrutiny. The paragraph appears in a similar form in Father O'Hare's book on page 318. O'Hare states,
That he was consumed by the fires of fleshly lust he admits himself. Even when engaged, as we related in another place, in the translation of the Bible, Luther, in the year 1521, while living in the Wartburg, to which place this "courageous Apostle" fled in the disguise of a country squire and lived under an assumed name, wrote to his friend Melanchthon to say: "I sit here in idleness and pray, alas, little, and sigh not for the Church of God. Much more am I consumed by the fires of my unbridled flesh. In a word, I, who should burn of the spirit, am consumed by the flesh and by lasciviousness." (De Wette, 2, 22.)
What was posted on the Catholic Answers discussion forum (and this web-page also) is an obvious plagiarism of something Father O'Hare wrote over one hundred years ago. Whether the person at Catholic Answers took the quote from O'Hare's book or not, someone at some point did, and that's why it's on the Internet (now being disseminated by cut-and-paste plagiarism). To borrow from this Catholic Answers participant: today many people will read a biased and poorly researched web-page or book about Luther and think they are well informed about him.

The documentation provided is "De Wette, 2, 22." This refers to the second volume of Luther's letters compiled by Dr. Wilhelm Martin Leberecht de Wette in the nineteenth-century. The volumes he put together were included in the Weimar Edition of Luther's Works. Here is de Wette 2,22. What's being referred to is a portion of a letter Luther wrote to Philip Melanchthon on July 13, 1521 from the Wartburg Castle.  The same text is also found in WA 2:356-357. The text reads,

This letter has been translated into English. It can be found in LW 48:256-263, and The Letters of Martin Luther, pp. 79-81.

To Philip Melanchthon, faithful servant of Christ, evangelist of the congregation at Wittenberg
Your letter displeased me for two reasons: First, I realize that you carry the cross too impatiently; you give in too much to your emotions and as is your way you are just too gentle. Second, you extol me so much. You err tremendously in ascribing such great importance to me, as if I were so much concerned for God’s case. Your high opinion of me shames and tortures me, since—unfortunately—I sit here like a fool and hardened in leisure, pray little, do not sigh for the church of God, yet burn in a big fire of my untamed body. In short I should be ardent in spirit, but I am ardent in the flesh, in lust, laziness, leisure, and sleepiness. I do not know whether God has turned away from me since you all do not pray for me. You are already replacing me; because of the gifts you have from God, you have attained greater authority and popularity than I had. Already eight days have passed in which I have written nothing, in which I have not prayed or studied; this is partly because of temptations of the flesh, partly because I am tortured by other burdens. If this thing does not improve, I shall go directly to Erfurt and not incognito. There you will see me, or I you, for I shall consult doctors or surgeons. It is impossible that I endure this evil any longer; it is easier to endure ten big wounds than this small sign of a lesion. Maybe the Lord burdens me so in order to push me out of this hermitage into the public. [LW 48:256-257]
Before commenting on O'Hare's interpretation of this letter, notice his mocking words when he refers to Luther as the "courageous Apostle" who "fled in the disguise of a country squire and lived under an assumed name." The other side of this coin is that Luther was an outlaw with a price on his head, and his being killed as an outlaw during the time-period was an actual possibility, not simply a far-fetched possibility. O'Hare also leaves out the fact that Luther did not plan his own escape to the Wartburg

Father O'Hare's reading of this letter is myopic. He gravitates to one brief section and then makes an inflammatory conclusion. Luther was not "consumed by the fires of fleshly lust" as O'Hare overstates. That is, Luther was not simply dreaming of wine, women, and song all day while hiding away in the Wartburg. A reading of the entire letter will prove that. If Luther was so consumed by lust, it seems odd that he would casually mention a number of his struggles in the beginning of the letter, but then go on for the majority of this long letter to a number of other political and spiritual subjects.

This is not to say that Luther was not really struggling with what he says he was struggling with. W.H.T. Dau long ago provided a fair and balanced view of Luther's stay at the Wartburg:
At the Wartburg, where Luther was an exile for ten months, his name was changed by the warden of the castle, Count von Berlepsch. This was done the better to conceal his identity from the henchmen of Rome, who by the imperial edict of outlawry had been given liberty to hunt Luther and slay him where they found him.
The sexual condition of Luther during the years before his marriage was the normal condition of any healthy young man at his age. Luther speaks of this matter as a person nowadays would speak about it to his physician or to a close friend. The matter to which he refers is in itself perfectly pure: it is an appeal of nature. Do Luther's Catholic critics mean to infer that Luther was the only monk, then or now, that felt this call which human nature issues by the ordination of the Creator? Rome can inflict celibacy even on priests that look like stall-fed oxen, but she cannot unsex men. Mohammedans are less inhuman to their eunuchs. Moreover, it must be borne in mind that Luther complains of this matter as something that disturbs him. It vexed his pure mind, and he fought against it as not many monks of his day have done, by fasting, prayer, and hard work. Yes, hard work! The remarks of Luther about his physical condition are simply twisted from their true import when Luther is represented as a victim of fleshly lust and a habitual debauchee. Luther's Catholic critics fail to mention that during his brief stay at the Wartburg Luther not only translated the greater part of the New Testament, but also wrote about a dozen treatises, some of them of considerable size, and that of his correspondence during this period about fifty letters are still preserved. Surely, a fairly respectable record for a lazy man!
Addendum: Heinrich Denifle, Luther and Lutherdom
Roman Catholic historian Heinrich Denifle discusses why he thinks sixteenth-century monks and nuns vigorously abandoned their celibacy vows. Denifle says there were those lawless people already predisposed to follow Luther's view, then there were those who simply got "carried along by the current of reform." They were swept away by "carelessness." "They neglected communion with God." Denfile then appeals to the quote under scrutiny:
It is no wonder, then, that to such as these the lust of the flesh, caused by their lack of communion with God, gave them much ado. As their spokesmam exclaims: "I am inflamed with carnal pleasure, while I ought to be fervent in spirit. I am on fire with the great flame of my unbridled flesh and sit here in leisure and laziness, neglecting prayer." (Enders, III, 189).
For Denifle, the later group simply didn't try hard enough in their spiritual discipline to maintain their vow of celibacy. In Denifle's view, the person that takes such a vow is one seeking closer communion with God (as opposed to those who don't take such a vow). Let's let Luther respond from his comments on 1 Corinthians 7:
The Holy Spirit has therefore told us through St. Paul that celibacy is a very precious thing and highly to be respected on earth so that nobody, because of the greatness and dignity of this estate, should think himself better than another poor Christian but should rather remain in that simplicity of faith that makes us all one before God. For our poisonous nature simply cannot tolerate that it should not preen itself before God in works; and the better the work, the more credit it wants for it. Therefore it is also blinded by the pure radiance of virginity that it considers no estate higher before God than virginity, because nothing that we do on earth is greater or more beautiful. And so it concludes that just as a virgin counts for more on earth, so it will also be in heaven.
This is the source of all those nonsensical teachings of the devil which prepare special little crowns in heaven for all virgins and make them brides of Christ, as though other Christians were not brides of Christ. Then all the poor misguided young people go wild, each one striving toward this little crown and wanting to fill heaven with virgins and brides of Christ. In the meantime the Christian faith is despised and forgotten and finally extinguished, although it alone can win the crown and make us brides of Christ. Know this, however, and remain certain of it, that such becrowned virgins who rely on such teachings and pretend virginity in this fashion instead of the way St. Paul teaches, not one of them is a pure virgin or can remain one, and at the last they will be found to be neither virgins nor brides of Christ (LW 28:48).

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