Friday, February 02, 2018

Luther: "After we understood that good works were not necessary for justification, we became much more remiss and colder in the practice of good"

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

“After we understood that good works were not necessary for justification, we became much more remiss and colder in the practice of good … And if we could return today to the prior state of things and if the doctrine that affirms the necessity of doing good works could be revived, our eagerness and promptness in doing good works would be quite different” (Werke, 27, p. 443, in ibid., p. 441).

This is one of those quotes that I categorically classify as "Did Luther Regret the Reformation?" They are typically posted by those dedicated to defending the Roman church. Historically, such "shock" quotes served as propaganda used by pre-1930 Roman Catholic controversialists. Those writers put forth the conclusion that the Reformation was a failure: it didn't produce any real fruit, and Luther's own words and the state of Protestantism at the time prove it. The argument goes: Protestantism isn't a movement of the church. It is the result of heresy, and heresy never leads anyone to true holiness. Then statements are typically brought forth from Luther's career, indicting him of regret for starting the Reformation. Most of these pre-1930 books had fallen into obscurity, but with the arrival of the information explosion brought forth by the Internet, these quotes made a comeback. It's not at all uncommon to visit discussion forums like Catholic Answers and find these "regret" quotes taking center-stage. With this quote, the implication is that previously the state of Christian piety was much better and Luther knew it. His "Gospel" was a failure in producing good works among those who followed his teaching. Luther is presented as admitting that a return to "the prior state of things" would produce the much-needed "good works" missing in German society. It was "the devastating effects of such admittedly insincere preaching" on "his evangelical followers."

The person who posted the quote provides obscure documentation ("Werke, 27, p. 443, in ibid., p. 441"). Such obscurity often 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 presented is blatant plagiarism. For this quote particularly, this web-page appears to be that which was directly 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. This quote appears to have been plagiarized from this webpage (or one similar to it) that presents a version of an article written by Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira entitled, Luther Thought He Was Divine! It appears this article was "originally published in the Folha de S.Paulo, on January 10, 1984," so it's probable that the article was not originally in English (here is the Portuguese version). The quote is almost the same in de Oliveira's version from a website dedicated to his writings:
“After we understood that good works are not necessary for justification, I became much more remiss and cold in doing good...and if we could return now to the old state of things and if the doctrine of the necessity of good works to be holy could be revived, our alacrity and promptness in doing good would be different” (Werke, XXVII, p. 443; Franca, p. 443).
In this version, Luther says "I became much more remiss and cold..." It could be a typo, but more probable, this version suffers from translation issues. Also this version explains part of the documentation ("in ibid., p. 441").  This part of the reference is due to Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira attempting to accurately document the quote. For his article, he states: "I will cite excerpts from the work of Fr. Leonel Franca SJ titled The Church, the Reform and Civilization (Rio de Janeiro: Editora Civilizacão Brasileira, 3rd ed., 1934, 558 pages)." Notice that de Oliveira didn't actually reference Luther when the article was composed back in 1984, he borrowed from someone else. The quote can be found on page 391 in Franca's book (1958 edition). Franca uses almost the same documentation: "Weimar XXVII, 443":

"Werke, 27" refers to volume 27 of the Weimar edition of Luther's collected writings. Here is WA 27:443. The page being cited is from an Advent sermon on Matthew 21 from November 29, 1528.  In WA 27, there are two versions of the text cited on each page of this sermon. The first is a mix of German and Latin, the second in Latin only. It appears Franca utilized the Latin text as he notes the words "dictu mirum" (found only in the straight Latin text on page 443). There does not appear to be an official English translation of the sermon available. 


The same sermon (and reference) has been cited by Roman Catholic historian,  Hartmann Grisar:
"That we are now so lazy and cold in the performance of good works," he says, in a recently published sermon of 1528, "is due to our no longer regarding them as a means of justification. For when we still hoped to be justified by our works our zeal for doing good was a marvel. One sought to excel the other in uprightness and piety. Were the old teaching to be revived today and our works made contributory to righteousness, we should be readier and more willing to do what is good. Of this there is, however, no prospect and thus, when it is a question of serving our neighbour and praising God by means of good works, we are sluggish and not disposed to do anything." 
I've covered similar quotes like this before. One can find similar laments from Luther peppered throughout his writings, typically his sermons. Notice the sentence, "For when we still hoped to be justified by our works our zeal for doing good was a marvel." The Catholic Answers participant using the quote thought it showed Luther himself recognizing "the devastating effects of such admittedly insincere preaching." Luther though is not longing for the good old days under the papacy, nor is he admitting his preaching was insincere. Luther was exhorting his hearers towards righteous living and also pointing out how people will rely on their own works instead of Christ's. When people thought they were working their way into heaven, there was more zeal. On the contrary, Luther's notion of good works were that they demonstrated a Christian heart and were done out of gratitude to the grace given them.  Luther had a pastor's heart, and continually exhorted his hearers to live the Christian life, even if it meant chastising his hearers by reminding them of their previous bondage under the Roman system. The ironic thing is that some Roman Catholics accuse Luther of teaching the wanton lawlessness of sola fide. Yet, when Luther exhorts his hearers to adhere to Christian piety and good works, even this is used against him.

Those using quotes like this also fail to grasp Luther's overall picture of the church.  He believed that within the large throng of people claiming to be Christians, God had a "little flock." For instance, in a preface to Caspar Adler's sermon exhorting people to give alms, Luther says of the sermon:
For even if the great, lost crowd does not regard it, nevertheless a few must form the little flock [Luke 12:32] who relieve it with love and thanksgiving and thank God for it, just as St. Paul, after he had long labored in vain on the lost crowd, turned to the elect and said that he would do all things for the sake of the elect [2 Tim. 2:10]. This is what we also intend to do. For even if we would like to do more among the others, still it will come to nothing and is all in vain. May Christ, our Lord and Savior, preserve us, His little flock, and be with us until the day of His glory and our salvation [LW 60:15-16].
Luther wasn't postmillennial. While he was discouraged that the world seemed to be getting worse, his eschatological expectation can be traced back even to the early days of his Reformation work. For Luther, it was the end of the world. Things were indeed going to get worse. The Gospel was going to be fought against by the Devil with all his might. The true church was a tiny flock in a battle against the world, the flesh, and the Devil. He hoped the people would improve with the preaching of the Gospel, he often admitted he knew things were going to get worse because of the Gospel. There are a number of quotes peppered throughout Luther's writings in regard to the "little flock."
Christendom, too, is a living, healthy body of the pious little flock, God’s children. Yet filth and stench are mixed in. (LW 24:206)
With reference to this, the prophet tells us in this verse that this King will have a people nevertheless which will really be His own, and this especially in the midst of His enemies. He gives us the comfort that “a holy Christian Church” will always exist and remain in the world, just as the article of our Creed teaches us. This means that there will always be a little flock, whoever and wherever they may be, who in unity will cling to this Lord, uphold His scepter, and publicly confess His Word. (LW 13:285)
Whatever goal these hypocrites may want to attain with their “Spirit,” I do not choose to share it with them. May a merciful God preserve me from a Christian Church in which everyone is a saint! I want to be and remain in the church and little flock of the fainthearted, the feeble, and the ailing, who feel and recognize the wretchedness of their sins, who sigh and cry to God incessantly for comfort and help, who believe in the forgiveness of sin, and who suffer persecution for the sake of the Word, which they confess and teach purely and without adulteration (LW 22:55).

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