Well, considering [Luther] broke his solemn Religious vows and induced a consecrated nun to break her solemn Religious vows to ‘marry’ him I would presume that he did not take serious the ‘vows’ of sacramental marriage.Rome's defenders have discussed Luther rejecting his vows for years. The Catholic Answers folks went through this some years back, as did the Defenders of the Catholic Faith. Under the heading, "Luther Perverts Morality," the Catholic Family News blog states, "Luther, an ordained priest and consecrated Augustinian religious, broke his vow of celibacy and married a nun, also under the vow of celibacy. Luther encouraged many other priests and religious to break their vows and marry." Going beyond contemporary online banter, Father William Most (via EWTN) stated,
Ecclesiastes (Qoheleth) 5.4-5: "When you make a vow to God, do not delay fulfilling it; for he has no pleasure in fools. Fulfill what you vow. It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not fulfill it." Luther broke all his vows.Father Patrick O'Hare stated long ago, "...we cannot forget that Luther, in order to wed, had to commit an act of infidelity towards God and disregard his vow of celibacy. No excuse can be offered to palliate or condone his infidelity." Denifle stated, Luther had "broken his vows and misled others." A letter to the Catholic Magazine from 1831 stated, "An Augustinian monk, broke his vow of chastity made to God, seduced Catherine Boren, a nun, who was under the same vow, and lived with her to the end of his life." Many more examples could be provided, from either laymen or published Roman Catholic works, spanning the centuries.
During the recent Catholic Answers discussion, this bit of Luther-bashing was answered cleverly by a Lutheran participant here. He stated in part,
Luther was released from his religious vows by his father confessor, Johann von Staupitz, who did so in order to protect both himself and Father Martin. Had Luther remained under his charge, Staupitz would’ve been both responsible for Luther’s future actions and required to turn him over to the authorities. No father would want any part in the (what was then assumed to be imminent) death of his son.
From a broad Protestant worldview, Luther abandoned an unbiblical illegitimate vow, so Rome's defenders can cry foul all they want to. But, If indeed Staupitz released Luther from his religious vows, then according to their own worldview, Rome's defenders have no grounds against Luther for marrying. Let's explore this and look at the proof for the assertion that Luther was released from his vows.
I did ask for documentation. I was directed to Heiko Oberman's Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, page 197. Oberman states,
Oberman documents this, "Cf. Th. Kolde, Augustiner-Congregation, 321. Cf. Staupitz's letter to Elector Frederick on 15, Oct. 1518; supplement 16, pp. 443f." "Kolde" refers to German Protestant theologian, Theodor von Kolde (1850-1913). "Augustiner-Congregation" refers to his book, Die deutsche Augustiner-Congregation und Johann von Staupitz; ein Beitrag zur Ordens- und Reformationsgeschichte nach meistens ungedruckten Quellen. Here is page 321. Kolde states,
Kolde here doesn't add anything all that different than Oberman. The second reference, "Staupitz's letter to Elector Frederick on 15, Oct. 1518; supplement 16, pp. 443f" refers to page 443 of Kolde's book which provides the Staupitz letter being alluded to. The letter has been translated into English by Preserved Smith and can be found here. There is nothing in this letter that specifically states Staupitz release Luther from his vows.
I was also informed, "Every good Luther biographer will document his relationship with Staupitz and, necessarily, the former’s release from the latter’s authority. " So, let's take a look at two of the most popular Luther biographies in English. Let's look first at Here I Stand by Roland Bainton. On page 96, Bainton states:
Staupitz released Luther from his vow of obedience to the order. He may have wished to relieve the Augustinians of the onus, or he may have sought to unfetter the friar, but Luther felt that he had been disclaimed. "I was excommunicated three times," he said later, "first by Staupitz, secondly by the pope, and thirdly by the emperor."Bainton provides two references: "Koestlin-Kaweru, 211" and "TR, 225, 409." The first refers to
"Kostlin, Julius and Kawerau, Georg. Martin Luther. I and II (1903)." Here is page 211 from volume I. This source states,
This information is basically the same as that reported by Oberman. The paragraph ends with the Staupitz release, "Ich absolviere Dich von meiner Obedienz und befehle Dich Gott dem Herrn" (I absolve you of obedience to me and commend you to the Lord God). There are a number of footnotes. BR 1, 541 refers to Luther's letter to Staupitz, January 14, 1521, but nothing in that letter says that Staupitz absolved Luther. "Diet. 158" refers to Veit Dietrich's collection of Table Talk utterances (this will be discussed below). "St Kr 1878" refers to Theologische Studien und Kritiken, 1878, page 705, in which footnote 1 refers to Veit Dietrich's Table Talk statement of Staupitz's absolution of Luther "Absolvo te ab oboedientia mea et commendo te Domino Deo" (I absolve you of obedience to me and commend you to the Lord God) (see below).
Bainton's second reference, "TR, 225, 409" refers to two of Luther's Table Talk comments. The first is entry 225 in WATR 1. This entry has been included in LW 54:30,
No. 225: Luther “Excommunicated” Three Times Between April 7 and 15, 1532The second entry, 409, from WATR 1, 177, is another accounting of the same information, but includes the words from Staupitz, "Absolvo te ab oboedientia mea et commendo te Domino Deo" (I absolve you of obedience to me and commend you to the Lord God):
“Three times have I been excommunicated. The first time was by Dr. Staupitz, who absolved me from the observance and rule of the Augustinian Order so that, if the pope pressed him to imprison me or command me to be silent, he could excuse himself on the ground that I was not under his obedience. The second time was by the pope and the third time was by the emperor. Consequently I cannot be accused of laying aside my habit, and I am now silent by divine authority alone.”
Second, let's look at Martin Brecht's massive biography of Luther. He states,
Brecht cites "Kolde 443" (explained above), and "WA, TR 1, nos. 884, 1203." These also refer to Table Talk utterances. Here is 884 and 1203. Both of these repeat the same sentiment documented in the previously mentioned Table Talk quotes. "Scheuris Briejbuch 2:52" refers to a letter and can be found here. Nothing on this page mentions the release of Luther from his monastic vows. WA Br 2:245 refers to Luther's letter to Staupitz January 14, 1521 (explained above).
Granted, I only checked three popular English sources. Of these three, the consensus is that Luther was released from his monastic vows as documented by the Table Talk. Unfortunately, the Table Talk is a collection of second hand comments written down by Luther's friends and students, published after his death. 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, or some probable historical fact mentioned elsewhere. In this instance, it does seem quite likely that Staupitz probably did release Luther from his monastic vows, but none of the references I checked above verify this other than via the Table Talk. Even LW 31 says, "When Staupitz heard a rumor to the effect that Cajetan was planning to arrest Luther and him, he absolved Luther of his monastic vow and left Augsburg without bidding the cardinal farewell" (LW 31:257). That rumor is verified by a letter from Staupitz himself: "He says also that there is in the land a letter of the General against Luther. Dr. Peutinger has heard that it is also against me, with the purpose of throwing us in prison and using force against us. God be our guard!" Unfortunately, the letter does not say anything about releasing Luther from his vows. The fact though of this release from Staupitz seems generally accepted, even by those unfavorable Luther. For instance, Hartmann Grisar stated,
Staupitz, who had stood by him at Augsburg, dispensed him for the journey from any part of the Rule which might have proved to his disadvantage, even from the wearing of the Augustinian habit. This Superior had again shown himself at Augsburg as a man of half-measures who allowed his prejudice for Luther to outweigh the demands of the Church and of his Order.And also:
It is scarcely necessary to say that the fact that, in 1518 (at Augsburg), Staupitz released Luther "from the observance" has nothing whatever to do with the question in hand. Luther says : "me absolvit ab observantia et regula ordinis." (Weim. ed., of the Table-Talk, 1, p. 96.) All that his superior did was to dispense him from his obligation of carrying out outwardly the rule of the Order, e.g. from dressing as a monk, etc. Even had Luther been a Conventual he could still have spoken thus of his having been absolved from the " observance." It may be that Staupitz, for his own freedom of action, also absolved Luther from his duty of obedience to him as Vicar. Even so, however, Luther remained an Augustinian, returned to his monastery, wrote on behalf of the vows, and, long after, still continued to wear the Augustinian habit.I'm not exactly sure how Grisar arrived at the interpretation he did based one quote from the Table Talk , that Staupitz meant only to release Luther "from dressing as a monk, etc." This seems to be a reading into the sparse historical facts. Regardless of Grisar's spin, his comments demonstrate that the Table Talk is generally accepted on this issue.
Echoing Grisar, Roman Catholic scholar Franz Posset says we should not be so quick to think Luther no longer considered himself an Augustinian after his release from Staupitz:
I've chastised Rome's defenders for a number of years for putting the wrong value on the Table Talk. Unless I find some other historical evidence beyond that source arguing Luther was released from his vows, I would only use such reasoning tentatively in applying it to Luther's later marriage. On the other hand, since many of Rome's defenders put the wrong historical value on the Table Talk, why not use the argument? Using the argument would be reasoning according to their worldview!