Thursday, June 13, 2019

Luther's High Regard for John Calvin?

What did Martin Luther think of John Calvin? Here's a curious comment from the Table Talk in which Luther appears to consider Calvin highly:
NOT all are able to bear tribulations alike; for, if an human creature were merely flesh without bones, then the body would fall into a lump, or bunch; the bones and sinews do keep up the flesh, etc. Even so it is in the Christian congregation. some must be able to bear a blow of the devil; as we three, Philip Melanchthon, John Calvin, and myself; therefore we pray continually in the church ; for it is prayer that must do the deed.
Now that's quite a compliment! Or is it? Maybe not. The original sources say something different.

It bears repeating that the Table Talk is not actually something Luther wrote. It's a collection of second hand comments written down by Luther's friends and students published after his death. It often falls on deaf ears when I point out to detractors that 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. The Table Talk, therefore, contains something Luther may have said, but not necessarily

This particular comment comes from the oldest English edition of the Table Talk:

Here's where it becomes tedious and tricky, but necessary, to understand Luther's alleged mention of John Calvin in this utterance. This version of the Table Talk was translated from German into English by Captain Henry Bell (1652): Dris Martini Lutheri Colloquia Mensalia: Or, Dr Martin Luther's Divine Discourses at His Table, etc. This English version of Luther's second-hand comments begins with a strange (and at times seemingly fictional) tale of how Captain Bell came across the Table Talk (found here). The saga begins with the destruction of Luther's Table Talk due to persecution from the Papacy and Empire, but one copy managed to be hidden away, fortunately discovered before being destroyed. In a flowery tale, Bell describes why and how he translated it¾ at the prompting of an angelic vision ¾ along with the perils of getting it published. Preserved Smith's critical study of Luther's Table Talk refers to Bell's account as "such a tissue of mistakes and improbabilities that it is hardly worth serious criticism,and also, "The whole thing has the air of being invented to heighten the interest of the translation." On the other hand, Gordon Rupp scrutinized Bell's story in his book, The Righteousness of God (New York: The Philosophical Library, Inc., 1953), pp. 56- 77, and deems aspects of Bell's story plausible. Even if the background story has elements of fiction, this does not necessarily deem Bell's work inferior or suspect (that will be discussed below). The book is an actual translation of Luther's Table Talk and has served the English speaking world for hundreds of years, particularly in its revision by William Hazlitt..

When the German text of the Table Talk is consulted for the quote under scrutiny, here is what appears:

One doesn't need to know German is to see that the name "John Calvin" does not appear in the text. Rather, the text says "ich, Philippus Melanchthon und Doctor Pommer." Was "Doctor Pommer" simply another way of referring to John Calvin. No. "Doctor Pommer" refers to Luther's associate, Johannes Bugenhagen (1485–1558), of Pomerania, whom Luther dubbed, " Doctor Pomeranus."

Luther was not referring to John Calvin in this Table Talk quote. Why did Captain Bell insert Calvin's name?  According to Rupp, Bell may have have made changes to the German text when translating into English to appease the Parliamentary committee that examined the translation. I've documented one of these changes before: Bell's translation has Luther admitting his error of the real presence in the Lord's Supper! Note these words from the Report of the Committee of the House of Commons in Bell's edition:

I suspect Bell's insertion of Calvin's name was similar to doctoring Luther's theology on the Lord's Supper.     

Addendum #1
Some years back I put together Luther and Calvin... Friends or Enemies? There isn't much in the record in regard to Luther's view of Calvin. In the entry I present the sparse few mentions of Calvin in Luther's writings.

Addendum #2
The Table Talk utterance under scrutiny can be found in WATR 3:36, and was not included in LW 54. Hazlitt though included an English revision.


LPC said...

Hi James,


A long time ago, I read a document from I think Project Guttenberg of the story of how Calvin communicated w Luther through Melanchton.
In that document, it was recorded that Melanchton would not show Luther what Calvin wrote about the Lord's Supper, Melanchton was afraid Luther would go on beast mode had he seen what Calvin wrote about the Supper.

In the document also, it was said the Calvin called Luther some names and knew of his temper.

I am sorry I could not give you a precise document but this stuck to my mind clearly.

You must note that Calvin for a while adhered to a version of our Augsburg Confession.

Thanks for being true to faithful scholarship, I am glad you did not side with Bell etc.

God bless,


James Swan said...


Thanks for reading my blog all of these years, I know you've subjected yourself to my blog for many years! Much appreciated.

If look towards the bottom of this blog entry, see Addendum #1. I linked to a previous blog entry, "Luther and Calvin... Friends or enemies?"

In that entry, I tried to put together all the tidbits of their relationship (or lack thereof). I think what you're mentioning is covered in that blog article.

One other thing that I'm not sure I ever covered here on the blog... the popular notion that Melanchthon and Calvin were friends. I read an article a few years back that challenged this popular fact. I recall thinking the author made some valid points. It might have been more that they spoke politely to each other rather than any sort of actual friendship. I'd have to find that article. It was in an anthology on Melanchthon, somewhere in my personal library, buried on a shelf.