Sunday, June 11, 2006

Luther Between God and the Devil: Catholic Apologist Art Sippo on Heiko Oberman

I have often suggested a good biography on Luther is Heiko Oberman’s Luther: Man Between God and the Devil [New Haven: Yale University, 1989]. The book is affordable, easy to find in many libraries and bookstores, well written, well documented, and written by an expert in the field of Reformation research. Rarely, if ever, will one find Oberman’s credentials questioned on his expertise on Luther, or his books vilified as propaganda rather than cogent historical study.

Oberman’s spent his last years as Regents Professor of Medieval, Renaissance, and Reformation History at the University of Arizona. This school notes:

Heiko Oberman was an internationally acclaimed scholar, winner of the prestigious Dr. A. H. Heineken Prize for History —the highest award for the historical discipline. Fellow of the Medieval Academy of America, Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy and Correspondent of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, in 1991 he was elected as a member of the American Philosophical Society, America's oldest learned society, begun in 1743 in Philadelphia by Benjamin Franklin. He received many distinguished fellowships and awards including honorary degrees from Harvard University, the University of St. Louis, the University of Aberdeen (Scotland), and Valparaiso University (Indiana). Coincident with the diagnosis of his terminal illness, it was announced that a distinction for extraordinary representation of Dutch scholarship and culture would be conferred on Heiko Oberman by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands in April 2002.”[Source]

Author and/or editor of 30 books and some hundred articles, he is particularly known for his prize-winning study The Harvest of Medieval Theology (Harvard University Press, 1963) and for his Luther: Man Between God and the Devil (English version, Yale University Press, 1990), for which he received the German Historischer Sachbuchpreis for "the most significant history book during the decade 1975-1985."[Source]

Catholic apologist Art Sippo though has an entirely different perspective on the ability and writing of Heiko Oberman. Sippo says bluntly:

Heiko Obermann is a fawning sycophant when it come to Luther. In one of his books, he claims that Luther was the champion of the modern secular world with its sexual freedom and easy contraception and abortion! Consequently, I do not consider him to be a good judge of normative Christianity. He is like those 19th Century Kulturkampf types that Fr. Denifle refuted.”

Let’s work these charges slowly. I propose Sippo’s evaluation of Heiko Oberman’s Luther: Man Between God and the Devil is blatantly absurd. Anyone applying his reasoning in evaluating this book begins with presuppositions that are emotionally bent toward a misunderstanding of history, and reading biographies in general.

Sippo Charge #1Heiko Obermann is a fawning sycophant when it come to Luther.”

One has to immediately ask, what is the role of a biographer? Is it to pass judgment on the person whom one is writing about, or is a biographer’s role, to attempt to present the “facts” of history with as much context, care, and impartiality as is humanly possible? This is what Oberman attempts, and it is a strength of his work. Oberman presents the “facts” about Luther, and places them in their historical context. Oberman states,

Discovering Luther the man demands more than scholarship can ever expect to offer. We must be prepared to leave behind our own view of life and the world: to cross centuries of confessional and intellectual conflict in order to become his contemporary” (p. xix)

Oberman attempts to understand Luther as a medieval man, in a medieval context:

Oberman lays before his readers both a man, Luther, for whom the Devil was as real and as much on his thoughts as God, and a theology, Luther’s, which sees all of humanity as the battlefield between God and the Devil. To match, perhaps, the alien righteousness of Luther’s theology, Oberman presents an alien Luther, not the modern, progressive Luther of much post-enlightenment scholarship of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but a Luther caught not only between God and Devil but also between the medieval and the modern, a Luther who lived the conviction that his world existed ‘in the shadow of the last days.’ While some scholars feel Oberman may have overstated his case, he has undoubtedly produced a [sic.] important corrective to the studies that make Luther too modern and too heroic ....” [Reformation and Revival Ministries. (1999; 2003). Reformation and Revival Volume 8 (vnp.8.1.212]

What makes this book intriguing, and at the same time unusual, is how the author traces Luther’s struggle to his opposition of the Devil. He insists that Luther was acutely aware of Satan. Oberman believes, therefore, that the Devil “provides the key to understanding this man at once creative and crude, who railed bitterly against popes, Turks, and Jews as instruments of the Devil” (dust jacket). The same description concludes that Luther “... brought hope and consolation by emphasizing the need for people to have faith in God’s mercy and to perform acts of righteousness—with the aim not of winning favor with God but of improving the world. Oberman demonstrates that the times were such that belief in the Devil was commonplace. He then develops his unique thesis by showing that whether it was Luther’s rebellion against the church or his exhortations against the wiles of the enemy, it must all be understood by the belief that Luther understood himself to be locked in a profound conflict with Satan himself."[Reformation and Revival Volume 8 (vnp.8.1.238)]

The author’s avowed purpose is to encounter a Luther devoid of the excessively prosaic or condemnatory views of Protestant or Catholic or of those who would portray him as an ecumenical figure. Oberman attempts to discover Luther in the context of the most important battle of his life: that with the devil. In crafting such an approach the author portrays Luther as a man in constant tension and turmoil in which his personality is fully displayed in public as well as private life. In Oberman’s own words he desires to “grasp the man in his totality—with head and heart, in and out of tune with the temper of his time” (p. ix).” [Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society Volume 34 (Vol. 34, Page 568)].

Now, Mr. Sippo appears to have a different standard for biographers. His standard seems to be that the biographer must be overwhelmingly critical of its subject. The biographer must be able to take the “facts” and use them to annihilate the subject. I posit those who do Reformation history according to Dr. Sippo’s paradigm will arrive nowhere near an intelligent or rational understanding of history. One arrives in “Jack Chick” land- a land in which “facts” are weapons of destruction, rather than tools for arriving at truth.

Sippo Charge #2In one of his books, [Oberman] claims that Luther was the champion of the modern secular world with its sexual freedom and easy contraception and abortion!”

Let’s have a run on Art Sippo’s playground for a moment. Sippo claims that Heiko Oberman’s book should not be read because somewhere, Oberman says something like, “Luther was the champion of the modern secular world with its sexual freedom and easy contraception and abortion!” Now, if Oberman really said this, wouldn’t this be a good reason for a Catholic to read Luther: Man Between God and the Devil? Here’s a scholar willing to blame Luther for societal problems most important to Catholics. I doubt though, this is what Sippo (or Oberman) has in mind.

What Sippo probably means is Oberman attributed the rise of aspects of modernity to the Reformation, and Sippo linked this to “sexual freedom and easy contraception and abortion!” Without having a context by which to evaluate Oberman’s actual remarks, Sippo’s polemic does nothing more than suggest that Oberman shouldn’t be read because the author makes a point of interpretation Sippo disagrees with. I suggest this is not a correct method to use to evaluate a biographer. I highly doubt Dr. Sippo will produce a context for his remark. Even if Sippo could prove his point, it doesn’t necessarily mean Oberman is an author to be avoided. It means you the reader, should critically evaluate everything you read.

Sippo Charge #3Consequently, I do not consider [Oberman] a good judge of normative Christianity. He is like those 19th Century Kulturkampf types that Fr. Denifle refuted.”

Sippo implies that only biographies written by those who are advocates of “normative Christianity” can write books about Luther, whatever that means. The immediate problem of double standard is clearly thrown into Sippo’s lap. Sippo’s champions of Luther biography include Erik Erikson and Richard Marius. Neither of these men write from the perspective of “normative Christianity” (Marius explicitly states his approach to Luther as “essentially non-religious” [Martin Luther, The Christian Between God And Death, xii]. Erikson disavows the reality of religious experience.

Sippo also implies Denifle’s book on Luther represent books written from the perspective of “normative Christianity”. But recall, Denifle interpreted the Reformation by exploring Luther’s sexuality and alleged lust. For Denifle, Luther’s carnal desires caused the Reformation. Luther was forced to reinterpret the Scriptures to legitimize marriage for himself. Thus, Sippo’s “normative” paradigm would perhaps explore anyone’s life by looking at lustfulness and need for marriage. It would question why any of you succumbed to your lustfulness rather than joining a monastery or nunnery.


Churchmouse said...

Ah, the more I hear from Sippo, the more I realize his inadequacies in dealing with any issues of the Reformation or Protestantism as a whole. Seems his only intention is to "rally the troops" by giving them the fodder for polemics. There is no intent to understand their "separated brethren" in Art's World or the causes which led to a Reformation because, to them, the Church can not do wrong. The issues that led to the Reformation are nonexistent and were caused by those who just couldn't handle celibacy??? I give as much to Sippo as an apologist as I would to John Madden as an airline pilot. It just isn't happening!


James Swan said...

Consider Denifle's point of view: the highest form of sexuality is a denial of sexuality. That is, those who become monks or nuns, live at a higher level of spirituality than those who fall prey to their lust and marry. For a monk like Luther to marry, only proved to Denifle that Luther could not live at this higher level of holiness.

Here's an interesting section from Heiko Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil [New Haven: Yale University, 1989, 275-276] on Denifle and Luther's problem with "lust"- it takes a few readings to digest, but Oberman rightly points out Denifle's mistake, as well as Protestants who "whitewash" Luther:

"No one in our century has dealt so thoroughly with Luther's sexuality as the Dominican Heinrich Seuse Denifle. His disgust for Luther demonstrates that hatred, too, can engender perception and the courage to say a great deal that has been politely pushed aside in our era of ecumenism.

Denifle sees Luther's "lust" as one of the main causes of the Reformation. Luther's experiences with his sexuality led him to believe that man's "primeval sin" was insuperable. His carnal instinct drove him to reinterpret the Scriptures so as to legitimate marriage "completely overcome by

From sensuality to the Reformation! This image of Luther makes Luther's wife, Catherine of Bora, a whore as well as the core of Reformation theology. Protestants immediately disclaimed the thesis as slander, and today it no longer finds sympathy among the Catholic Luther scholars. Nonetheless, there is an undeniable consensus between Luther's slanderer and his defenders. Despite the Reformer, sexual drives are confused with man's "primeval sin." What nature wants is "unholy," something only for the dark hours of the night. One need only read Luther's Wider denfalsch genannten
geistlichen Stand (Against the so-called spiritual estate; 15 22) to establish that he did not hesitate to speak plainly about the healthy elemental force of desire.

'A young woman, if the high and rare grace of virginity has not been bestowed upon her, can do without a man as little as without food, drink, sleep, and other natural needs. And on the other hand: a man, too, cannot be without a woman. The reason is the following: begetting children is as deeply rooted in nature as eating and drinking. That is
why God provided the body with limbs, arteries, ejaculation, and everything that goes along with them. Now if someone wants to stop this and not permit what nature wants and must do, what is he doing but preventing nature from being nature, fire from burning, water from being wet, and man from either drinking, eating, or sleeping?'

Not only Heinrich Denifle considered this selfincriminating: "If the Protestants had found a Catholic writer before Luther who had written this, they would surely have branded him as unclean to the highest extent and corrupted to the core. And justifiably so."True, but not "justifiable"; the word cannot be left unchallenged! The lustful Luther deserved to be read and understood without the monkish priggishness of so-called cultivated citizens. The tendency to make him "respectable"—and not Denifle's appalled outcry—explains why one of Luther's most revealing and engaging letters has been all but suppressed. In December 1525 he wrote to his friend
Spalatin to say that he would unfortunately not be able to attend his friend's wedding. But Spalatin should not let himself be misled by the hidebound priests of the old faith in Altenburg because marriage was a gift of God. This was followed by an erotic passage, the second part of which was stricken from editions of Luther's letters very early on: "When you sleep with your Catherine and embrace her, you should Think:
'This child of man, this wonderful creature of God has been given to me by my Christ. May He be praised and glorified.' On the evening of the day on which, according to my calculations,you will receive this, I shall make love to my Catherine while you make love to yours, and thus we will be united in love.'"

FM483 said...

Although it may be difficult to believe, most Roman Catholic I personally know believe that Martin Luther was a terrible heretic and a major cause of the split with the medieval Church. Consequently, everything they read, even the way they think, is colored with this basic premise. They are not objective and analytic in any sense of the word. In the area of religion in general, most people are shallow thinkers at best and fearful of venturing outside their comfort zones. This is true of most men, unfortunately. Sippo’s basic premise is no different and demonstrates he is a poor scholar. Otherwise, as you point out James, he would have evaluated Luther in the entire context of his day and age and thought – and then present his teachings. You see, what Sippo and all anti-Luther writers fail to do is to look at the writings of Martin Luther as a good indication of what he taught and confessed. The best single source to understand Luther is perhaps his “Small Catechism”. This is included in the Book of Concord, the collection of documents stating what all Lutheran confess as true, and every person wanting to explore the basic Christian faith and become communicant members of the Lutheran Church must read. In the Small Catechism you are introduced and immersed into your Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and His work on your behalf: the Grace of God. The organization of Luther’s Catechism is unique and telling. In all earlier catechisms the 10 commandments were placed last. They were all Law oriented; the Law and it’s keeping was the climax of life. Unfortunately, all such treatises neglected what the Word of God said: the primary purpose of the Law is to show us our sin, not to show us how to become more pleasing to God and righteous in His sight. Luther turned all this around by placing the 10 commandments at the beginning, which illustrate our sinfulness and need for FAITH. Next, he placed the Creed, which describes Who God is and that He is the source of Faith. Finally the Luther Catechism presents the solution from God as to how man obtains His favor: the Means of Grace. Hence, Luther demonstrates how Faith is created and maintained in a believer’s life - just the opposite of the medieval church’s way of thinking, where the church itself is center in a person’s life and indispensable for salvation.

At any rate, this is what bothered the medieval Roman church and still bothers it today, as demonstrated by it’s members’ inability to objectively evaluate Martin Luther and the Reformation. Consequently the Reformation of the 16th century continues to this day.

Frank Marron

James Swan said...

Just for my own documentation, so I can keep track of things. Dr. Sippo has responded:

"Posted - 06/11/2006 : 10:24:52 PM

Mr Swan sez:

I have often suggested a good biography on Luther is Heiko Oberman’s Luther: Man Between God and the Devil [New Haven: Yale University, 1989].

Nope. It is a sycophantic whitewash typical of prot denial about Luther. Richard Marius's Luther: The Christian between God and Death (Belknap, Harvard University, 1999) was written (and titled) in order to oppose the portrait of Luther in Oberman's book. Actually, I prefer Marius's earlier book "Luther: An Experiment in Biography " (Lippincott, 1974). And the best book of all remains Luther: the Man and the Image by Herbert David Rix. CAtholics need to see Luther in a more critical light before they read Oberman's fawning portrait so that they may see how far Oberman distorts the truth.

Oberman attempts to understand Luther as a medieval man, in a medieval context

Oberman makes his living writing books and teacing courses that try to justify the prot Deformation. He is hardly capable of understanding Luther in a medieval context because that was a period of intense Catholic faith which Luther rabidly attacked and tried to destroy. Neither Oberman nor Luther are good judges of that period.

In fact, all good biographers of Luther try to see him in the context, but I have found that only those who are able to disassociate themselves from loyalty for the prot religions have really been able to see him clearly. There is a tremendous amount of objetionalble material in Luther's writings and his life. I have enumerated many of these which Mr Swan totally ignores.

My Challenge to Mr. Swan is to stop arguing about Luther's biographers and start dealing with the man himself. The facts are as I have protrayed them.

Am I to assume that Mr. Swan agrees with Oberman who wrote in his book The Dawn of the Reformation: Essays in Late Medieval and Early Reformation Thought how Luther opposed the "monkish" morality of the Middle Ages and embraced a modern outlook that espouses sexual freedom and abortion? And that Jesus had to be an adulterer? Etc...

Let's deal with that, Mr. Swan.


James Swan said...


I likewise agrre about the Small Catechism. I have used it devotionally in the past, and is well worth even my fellow Calvinists getting.

Oddball Pastor said...

For reasons that now escape me, I never thought of Jack Chick and Art Sippo in the same context. Now I can't separate them.

When the lightbulb of truth goes on, it doesn't go out for anything.

Churchmouse said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

I frequently post on a well known Catholic site. I enjoy the usually civil sparring with Catholics as it forces me to research more about my faith tradition. After being asked repeatedly about "faith alone" I finally asked one particular member if they ever read any of Luther's writing on the subject. He replied no, "I do not read Luther. In fact, Leo X excommunicated anyone who read Luther. I have never seen that excommunication revoked."

Gee, we must have a great many excommunicated Catholic apoligists out there, and at least one pope to boot.

Sam said...

Knowing a 500 year old man is fraught with dangers - on both sides. Perhaps I'm a little more simple than most. but I prefer to look at what happened. Luther/Calvin: their products now support the gay agenda, free sex, abortion... I can hear the cry "Not my church!" Another of L/C's products, the 31 flavors fo Christ. The Church started by Christ: Steadfast in its beliefs and willing to stand by them. If a priest of bishop strays, the laity has the ability to appeal to Rome and expect action. Try that in the anything goes world of the Lutherns, Church of England, or ... fill in the blank. How do you base your Christianity on the latest fad, urge, or notion? Please claim that you base your faith on the Bible and proceed to how today’s Protestant world fits. Mr. Swan, you have written eloquently about Luther. Do you have any ink left for his faiths today?