Friday, June 23, 2006

Catholic Apologist Art Sippo on Richard Marius

Catholic apologist Dr. Sippo recommends the work of Richard Marius. He says, “Dr. Marius is a Protestant whose most recent Luther book was published by Harvard University Press in 1999. Why does Mr. Swan not recommend it? Because it does not say what Mr. Swan wants it to say.” Well, if one goes and actually reads the dialog between myself and Sippo, one finds I barely mention Marius through most of the dialog. The reason why Mr. Swan didn’t spend a lot of time on Marius, is because I haven’t read a lot of Marius. Sippo also has repeatedly criticized my book recommendations because they are written by authors who do not represent “normative Christianity” [Read: out of date Catholic scholarship, or modern speculative psychohistory]. Marius is definitely not a Roman Catholic, and I would argue is probably not even a Protestant, though he may claim to be one. Thus, Sippo isn’t even consistent with his own point of view on which books to read.

Sippo directed readers to a much earlier work from Marius- I haven’t commented on it because I haven’t read it. I have though perused his current book from 1999, Luther: The Christian Between God and Death. I don’t really have too much of problem with Marius, as long as those who read his work realize the perspective he comes from. He basically gets the facts straight, though the book doesn’t cover Luther’s entire life.

Marius says his underlying presuppositions to his study on Luther is “essentially non-religious.” From this perspective, he begins with the notion that “Luther represents a catastrophe in the history of Western civilization.” And, “…[W]hatever good Luther did is not matched by the calamities that came because of him” (p. xii) (Marius also lays part of the blame on the Catholic Church as well). Because the Reformation led to wars between Catholics and Protestants, the loss of life was a grave calamity of the Reformation. Humanists are always concerned with preserving humanity, for humanity’s sake. Try applying Marius’s reasoning to Moses: The Jews would have been better off if they stayed in Egypt because they almost all died in the desert wilderness. The Jews that went into the Promised Land exterminated a large number of people. Moses should have been like Erasmus and sought to negotiate more conservatively with Pharaoh. Hence, whatever good Moses did is not matched by the calamities that came because of him… Or consider the early church: instead of giving their lives for their beliefs, they should have negotiated with the Roman government. They should have said, “we’ll bow to Caesar as god, but we don’t really mean it.” Countless lives could have been saved. Thus, whatever good the early church caused by not cooperating with the Roman government is not matched by the calamities they caused.

Marius is also not devoid of psychological interpretation, finding that Luther’s “temperament driven by fear and by the need to conquer it so he could live day by day”(p.xiii) was a crucial aspect of understanding why Luther wasn’t more like Erasmus is in protestations against the Catholic Church. Well, maybe, maybe not. Maybe it was a partial factor. Who knows? It is a speculative point at best.

Art Sippo mentioned Marius was a Protestant. If this is true, I would have to elaborate that Marius is an “essentially non-religious” Protestant. These are his words. Marius calls his 1999 book on Luther written from an “essentially non-religious” perspective. Thus, his book is written from a humanistic standpoint. His concerns in his study of Luther are quite different than either those of Catholics or Protestants, which makes his perspective intriguing. For instance, Art Sippo is on a crusade against Luther and his involvement in the bigamy of Phillip of Hesse scandal. I strongly doubt Sippo will utilize Marius’s book Luther: The Christian Between God and Death, as Marius is fairly sympathetic to Luther and his involvement:

Luther touched briefly on divorce. He hated divorce so much that he would prefer bigamy, he said, though he was not sure that bigamy was right. The notion was not farfetched to anyone steeped in scripture as Luther was. Nowhere in the Bible is polygamy condemned. The patriarchs and kings of the Old Testament had many wives. Paul in the New Testament said that an ‘overseer,’ or bishop, should be the husband of one wife, but he never suggested that the ordinary Christian had to be so limited. Monogamy is a legacy of the Greeks and Romans. By approving bigamy, Luther was concerned to protect a wife from being discarded in a cruel world where a woman required a man to protect her” [Marius, Luther: The Christian Between God and Death, 261].

Luther's views on marriage took into account bodily and spiritual needs. We have noted already his seemingly radical advice on the subject in the Babylonian Captivity and other works. He always stood against divorce, by which a man might thrust a wife defenseless into the world. This opposition to divorce helps explain his consent to the bigamy of Philip of Hesse in 1540. Philip became one of the great champions of Luther's cause. His portrait by Hans Krell in 1525 shows a fine-featured, almost pretty young man. His marriage in 1523 to a daughter of Duke George of Saxony produced seven children. By 1539 he was tired of his wife, and his many adulteries had given him syphilis, a disease rampant in the sixteenth century. He wanted to marry a seventeen-year-old girl. It seemed to him that he could commit bigamy since polygamy runs through the Old Testament and is not forbidden in the New. Luther and Melanchthon reluctantly agreed—so long as the second marriage was kept secret. It was not. The second wife naturally wanted recognition. The scandal broke, and Luther was ridiculed everywhere. Yet his major aim was to protect Philip’s first wife from being thrown to the wolves. If one takes the Bible as the norm of behavior it is hard to see how Luther can be condemned” [Marius, Luther: The Christian Between God and Death, 440].

Art Sippo’s response to my position on Marius is as follows:

Then there is Mr. Swan's attack on Dr. Marius. Marius has written on several religious figures including St. Thomas More and was invited to Belmont College - a Southern Bap1stist[sic] institution in Nashville , TN - in 1998 to give a lecture series on Luther. Marius has studied Luther for almost 30 years and had written a previous book in the mid 1970s that I referred to earlier and still recommend highly. Marius very early in his study of Luther concluded that he was a disaster and that he caused more harm than good. His portrait of Luther is much closer to that of Fr. Denifle than that of Obermann [sic] or Lortz. And Marius tried not to take sides in the religious dispute that marked Luther's career. In this case Mr. Swan castigates Marius for being objective and non-partisan whereas he objected to Fr. Denifles for being too Catholic. So much for Swan's academic neutrality.”

Sippo concludes I attacked Marius! He’s wrong. Note that I said, “I don’t really have too much of problem with Marius, as long as those who read his work realize the perspective he comes from.” Second, Marius’s book is not much closer to Denifle’s book. Recall, Denifle treated Luther as a depraved sex maniac. Marius does not. Third, I never “castigated” Marius for being “objective and non-partisan”. I did note that Marius admitted his perspective was “non-religious”, and this perspective is not devoid of its own bias. Rather than criticize Marius for being a humanist, I noted his perspective made his work on Luther “intriguing”.

Sippo continues:

Marius tells the story from an objective viewpoint, not that of a partisan of either side. Consequently, I find his portrait superior to that of Obermann. Sadly, Mr. Swan only wants you to read the positive material about Luther and not to read anything that is critical of the man.”

The only sad thing is that Dr. Sippo doesn’t read carefully. I didn’t tell people not to read the books by Marius. I also don’t have a problem with people reading anything “critical” about Luther. However, if the “critical" book on Luther tries to prove Luther was a sex maniac (Denifle), or in contact with Satan (Patrick O’Hare), I’d suggest you’re wasting both your time and money.

Sippo continues:

Mr. Swan tries to show that Marius shows some sympathy for Luther implying that I do not have such sympathy, but he's wrong. I do have sympathy for Luther. He was an interesting and complex character. While he had violent antipathy for Catholics and Jews, Luther was always a soft touch for someone in need. His student Karlstadt turned against Luther and became a strident critic. They traded insults several times. but when Karlstadt fell on hard times, Luther took him in and nursed him until his death. If it had not been for wife Katy, Luther would have been economically destitute because of his generosity.

But this does not make Luther correct in his theology, nor does it justify his apostasy or his reprehensible behavior. It is an objective fact that Luther was wrong and his intransigence did great damage to Christendom. Nobody was saved because of Luther. Many went to perdition. That burden lies on his soul.Then Swan makes an oblique attempt to justify Luther's part in the bigamy of Philip of Hesse by pretending that Luther was just trying to protect poor Christian from being divorced and abandoned. That according to Swan is why Luther supported bigamy. It was out of his generous heart. There is only one small problem: neither divorce nor bigamy are compatible with biblical morality

Sippo is definitely out to lunch, somewhere. He’s obsessed with Luther’s involvement with the bigamy of Phillip of Hesse, to the point where he can’t even understand my point. I never directly commented on this issue. I posted the opinion of Marius on this issue, and noted that Sippo would never use Marius’s perspective because it disagrees with his own. In other words, Sippo recommends Marius, but would never agree with Marius on the bigamy scandal. In essence, Sippo proved my point: the perspective of Marius must be considered when one reads his book. Simple as that.


Oddball Pastor said...


It does sound as though Marius, while taking negative view of Luther generally, does not do so for reasons that Sippo would agree with.

I think that it is necessary to acknowledge that for Sippo the only thing you need to be consistent about is antipathy towards Luther to qualify as a good read.

I think you have been very consistent: you have considered the point of view and subsequent approach to Luther by all authors.

It is funny to see Art accuse you of promoting an author (or not) according to agreement with your own conclusions. You have actually never done that. Art however does this in a relentless and embarassing manner.

I am sure Dr. Sippo is aware of what "projection" is about...

Churchmouse said...

Unfortunately, Sippo's bias views continue with a new thread he's posted "Luther : "reformer" as an abused child." It's amazing that some folks take him so seriously, as if he truly researches Luther pro and con. One can only hope that the guy will eventually be approached by his peers and told to ease up, as Madrid attempted to do, but the sad thing is that they really don't do anything about it.


Anonymous said...

I just found your blog and I really would like to know what you have to say about Maritain's writing on Luther. He seems to be much more academic than most books about the man.
How does one go about defending some of Luther's statements, especially toward the end of his life, such as when he praises a band of men for entering a convent and raping nuns?
I had respect for him until I read some of his actual words. Of course not all he says is bad, but I don't know how one can ignore much of what he says.

James Swan said...

Hello anonymous,

First, in regard to Luther condoning Rape, i'm not familiar with this particular quote you mention. If you have a treatise or context, please let me know- i'd be interested in seeing it.

In regard to Maritain, he was an author that belonged to the era of Catholic scholars prone to misinterpreting Luther.

Catholic historian Joseph Lortz comments,

“There can be no doubt of the sincerity and conviction of Cochlaeus, but neither can there be any doubt that it was he who poisoned the well of historical studies. Roman Catholic historians have drawn their prejudice against Luther from this polemical source, which in its animosity has an almost total disregard for objective truth and historical facts. Denifle, Grisar, Cristiani, Paquier, and Maritain (to cite the most famous and influential) have all drunk deep of this poisoned well-too deeply- and lesser historians have adopted their position.”

And also note the word from Catholic scholar John Mcdonough

"Catholic scholars, in the past, have failed to perceive this essential Luther because they were, in my opinion, prisoners of Greek philosophy and scholastic theology. Instead of interpreting Luther in his own context—the dynamic experiential context of the prophet and the preacher—they attempted to reduce his strong sinewy metaphors and wild paradoxes to logical categories. In this way it was easy for them to point to contradictions and absurdities in his teachings.
Thus we find men like Denifle, Grisar, Maritain, even Bouyer
and others, misunderstanding Luther's statements about man's enduring sinfulness or the Christian's passive and imputed righteousness."