Friday, December 15, 2017

Melanchthon: Luther was so immoral "that he wished they would remove him from the office of preaching”

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

“He was so well aware of his immorality,” we are informed by Melanchthon, “that he wished they would remove him from the office of preaching.” (Sleidan, Book II, 1520).

With this snippet, alleged testimony from Melanchton is brought forth indicting Luther not only of immorality, but of being so sinful that Luther wanted to be removed "from the office of preaching." Melanchthon was one of Luther's closest friends, so here would be compelling testimony not only of Luther's depravity, but also a demonstration that he was in no way qualified to usher in a reformation of the church.  A closer look at this quote though will show Melanchthon never said or wrote this. Further, we'll see that the quote ultimately amounts to propaganda: the historical context of the quote is being ignored in order to perpetuate a false historical paradigm.

The person who posted the quote provides obscure documentation ("Sleidan, Book II, 1520"). 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, most likely, the quote above under scrutiny as well. The quote appears in a similar form in Father O'Hare's book on page 319. O'Hare states, "He was so well aware of his immorality," as we are informed by his favorite disciple, "that he wished they would remove him from the office of preaching." (Sleidan, Book II, 1520)." It appears Father O'Hare himself plagiarized this sentence. The earliest I've traced it  back is to the English translation of Jean François Marie Trévern's Amicable Discussion (1828). Trévern's original French can be found here:

Trévern similarly documents the quote as "Sleid. liv. II, an 1520." What was posted on the Catholic Answers discussion forum (and this web-page also) is an obvious plagiarism of something Father O'Hare published over one hundred years ago, and something Father O'Hare took from something published long before him. 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 refers to "Sleidan, Book II, 1520." No explanation from O'Hare or Trévern is provided as to what this reference means. I searched a number of texts using the quote under scrutiny, and I found no explanation as to what the reference is pointing to.

The reference appears to be to the author Johann Sleidan (Johannes Sleidanus), a sixteenth-century Reformation historian (1506–56). Sleidan put together "a chronological narrative of the reformation from 1517 until 1555." It was a series of twenty-five books. "Book II" therefore is just that: the second volume of the series.  "1520" is not a page number. It refers to the content of Book II: the year 1520. The series was entitled, De Statu Religionis Et Reipublicae, Carolo Quinto, Caesare, Commentarii: Cum Indice luculentissimo. pars altera. Volume 2 can be found here. The relevant text reads as follows:

This entirety of Sleiden's series was translated into English by Edward Bohun:
The general history of the Reformation of the Church from the errors and corruptions of the Church of Rome, begun in Germany by Martin Luther with the progress thereof in all parts of Christendom from the year 1517 to the year 1556 / written in Latin by John Sleidan ; and faithfully englished. To which is added A continuation to the Council of Trent in the year 1562 / by Edward Bohun.
Published in English in 1689, the whole series is available online here in English and here . Book Two is available here and here. Amazon sells a reprint of the English translation. It's probable that Trévern relied on a French translation of Sleidan, the relevant text can be found here. Below is the English translation of the text in question.

To the same effect, on the same day, Luther writes to the Bishop of Mersburgh, that as to his Doctrin, his Conscience bore him witness that it was the same that Christ and his Apostles had taught:* But because his Life and manners were not in all things answerable to the Purity of his Profession, he could even wish that he were silenc'd from Preaching, as being unworthy to exercise that Sacred Function: That he was not moved either by the hopes of Gain or Vain-glory; but that the End to which all his Endeavours were directed, was to imprint a-fresh in the minds of Men those eternal Truths, which were now almost utterly defaced, or else obscured by a gross and wilful stupidity; That those who condemn his Writings, were hurried on by the violence of their Passions; and promoted their own ambitious designs, under the specious pretence of upholding the Authority of the Bishop of Rome: That a great many Foreigners, famous both for Parts and Learning, had by their Letters approved of his Works, and thanked him for his obliging the Publick with them: That this confirm'd him in his Opinion, that his Doctrin was Orthodox: He beseeches him therefore to shew some Fatherly tenderness towards him; and if he had hitherto erred, to guide him now into the right way: That he could not as yet get his Cause to be heard, although he had been importunate in requesting it: That he should think it a great happiness to be convinced of any of his Errours, and they should find he had been mis∣represented by those who had possessed the World with a belief of his Obstinacy.
The immediate thing to notice first is that the very source being cited (Sleidan), does not say Melanchthon said or wrote what's purported. Patrick O'Hare and Jean François Marie Trévern are also wrong when they stated, "as we are informed by his favorite disciple." According to Sleidan, the comment was written by Luther in a letter to "the Bishop of Mersburgh." It wasn't being reported by anyone.  Even if it was the bishop's comment, that bishop was no disciple of Luther, but rather a high-ranking Roman Catholic bishop. The second thing to notice is that Sleidan doesn't mention sexual immorality. He says specifically "life and manners" in comparison to the "Purity of his Profession." Given Luther's meticulous conscience of his own sin and his awareness of the office of minister of the Gospel, this comment need not mean anything as outrageous as Luther's detractors speculate.

A third aspect is to determine if Luther actually wrote a letter admitting his immorality and his wish to be removed from the office of preaching. On February 4, 1520 Luther wrote two similar letters: one to Albrecht, archbishop of Mayence, and another to Adolphus, bishop of Merseburg. These letters can be found in WAbr 2:398-403. While a lengthy section of the letter to Albrecht was translated into English, the letter to Adolphus has not (as far as I can determine). In the letter to Bishop Adolphus, Luther says in part:

One notices that the letter opens with a fair amount of zealous flattery, as if one were addressing royalty. He then mentions all the charges being brought against him by his detractors, and they should not be believed.  Luther eventually says:"usque hodie opto a publicj moveri, relicto docendi negotio,... Scio, quod non vivo, quae doceo, ideoque taedet me officii hujus: tantum abest, ut gloriam quaeram, ut multi mihi imponunt." The immediate question that should come to mind is: why would Luther write a letter to a Roman Catholic bishop, a bishop that was hostile to Luther's plight, and say this? It doesn't make any sense.

The answer comes in understanding this historical context of February 1520. Luther was stirring up a reformed movement in a number of ways, and not all of his ideas were met with approval. For instance, at the time he was arguing that the cup should be given to the laity in the Lord's Supper. Heinrich Boehmer explains,
His suggestion regarding the restoration of the cup to the laity caused such offense at the Dresden court that Duke George denounced him to the Elector on December 27 as a secret Hussite. Moreover, Duke George immediately mobilized the bishops of Meissen and Merseberg against the "very Pragueish" Treatise on the Lord's Supper.  The bishop of Meissen responded by issuing a mandate of his own against the sermon on January 24 [Martin Luther: Road to Reformation, p. 303].
Boehmer says that the Elector found all this "exceedingly disagreeable" and asked Luther to write an "immediate pacifying explanation to the archbishop of Mainz and the bishop Merseberg and probably several other prelates." Before sending the letters, the Elector wanted to look over what Luther had written. After a series of other events that further complicated the relationship between Luther and the bishop of Meissen, "on February 22, Luther brought himself to the point of signing the letters to the archbishop of Mainz and the bishop of Merseburg" (Boehmer, p.304).  An excerpt from one of these letters can be found here.  When Luther writes that "his Life and manners were not in all things answerable to the Purity of his Profession, he could even wish that he were silenc'd from Preaching," he's not making bold personal confessions to his friends, he's attempting to smooth over the bishop by humbling himself (at the order of the Elector). Boehmer explains the response Luther received:
The two prelates were apparently surprised beyond measure at Luther's wholly unexpected readiness to be corrected by them. The bishop of Merseburg could not keep from imparting a sort of censure in his response, but in the conclusion he was very friendly and suggested a personal meeting with Luther [Boehmer, p.304-305].
For a slightly different explanation of the historical context, see Martin Brecht's discussion in Martin Luther: His Road to Reformation, 1483-1521, pp. 357-358. Brecht thinks it may have been  Karl von Miltitz acting "on behalf of Electoral Saxony" who contacted Bishop Adolf of Mersburg to see if it was he who was complaining about Luther to the Pope. Brecht says "Luther was instructed by the court to write letters to bishop Adolf of Mersburg and Albrecht of Mainz about the accusations raised against him." Brecht says the letter "would scarcely mollify the bishop of Mersburg." Miltitz was a papal nuncio and active in attempting to reconcile Luther with the Papacy during this time period. Miltitz was also responsible in getting Luther to write a letter to the Pope, in "the conventional, curialistic style," but the letter was not sent.

Despite the clarity of this historical information, the quote has been used, whole or in part, by those who typically who hold an untenable historical view of Luther. This view paints Luther as grossly antinomian. Those espousing this view are often defenders of the Roman church (but not limited to them).  Historically, such shocking 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.  Denifle's Luther was an immoral, lust, and sex crazed monk. A section of the very quote in question makes it into Denifle's analysis
“As I knew,” says Solomon, “that I could not otherwise be continent, except God gave it, * * * I went to the Lord and besought him." The Church opposes a spiritual to the carnal “uri.” “Burn, O Lord, with the fire of the Holy Ghost, our reins and our heart, that we may serve thee with a chaste body and please with a clean heart,'' is the prayer in the "Missa in tentatione carnis." Our Saviour Himself counsels watching and constant prayer as a means of not succumbing to temptation. Indeed, Luther a short time before knew this well too. As the strongest weapon against evil desire, he recommends "prayer, contemplation of the Passion of Jesus Christ, as well as the word of God," and a few years earlier he holds up watching and fervor of spirit as an unfailing remedy against carnal lust. I have said that he then still knew this, but not that he still put it into practice. From and after 1516, on his own confession, he seldom found time to acquit himself of the prescribed prayers, the hours, and to celebrate Mass. What he acknowledged in 1520 was even then already verified of himself: "I know that I do not live according to what I teach." ["Scio quod non vivo quae doceo." To Bishop Adolf of Merseburg, February 4, 1520, " Brief wechsel," 2, p. 312].
Notice for Denifle, there's not any sort of mention about either the context or the historical situation that provoked the letter. Rather, Denifle rips it from its context and uses it to propel his predetermined interpretation of Luther. Another Roman Catholic historian, Hartmann Grisar, fair only a little better:
Yet Luther speaks ably enough in 1517 of the urgent necessity of spiritual exercises, more particularly meditation on the Scriptures, to which the recitation of the Office in Choir was an introduction: " As we are attacked by countless distractions from without, impeded by cares and engrossed by business, and as all this leads us away from purity of heart, only one remedy remains for us, viz. with great zeal to 'exhort each other' (Heb. iii. 13), rouse our slumbering spirit by the Word of God, reading the same continually, and hearing it as the Apostle exhorts." Not long after he is, however, compelled to write: "I know right well that I do not live in accordance with my teaching." ["Scio quod non vivo quae doceo." To Bishop Adolf of Merseburg, February 4, 1520, " Brief wechsel," 2, p. 312].
One could easily dismiss the comments from the Catholic Answers discussion forum which opened this blog post, for the Internet is filled with unsubstantiated nonsense. One could even go so far as to give Father O'Hare a pass. He was a popular priest living in a time period in which anti-Reformation polemic was standard. He was a pop-apologist before there was such a thing as Catholic Answers. Denifle and Grisar though were trained historians. They should have been able to navigate correctly through the facts. Their use of the quote demonstrates that for all of us, worldview determines interpretation, sometimes at the expense of accuracy.  


Ninco Nanco said...

This is a reminder that Martin Luther was almost certainly a better Catholic by Vatican II standards than 99.99% of contemporary Catholics.

James Swan said...