A few months back I got into a heated exchange with Catholic Apologist Art Sippo on Luther biographies. I spent a considerable amount of time with Sippo, because he claims to be knowledgeable on Luther, spending many years studying him.
Dr. Sippo strongly defended the Luther biography put out by Catholic historian Heinrich Denifle: "…Denifle… revealed what prots had been deing for centuries. Luther was mentally unstable and those stupid enough to follow him were dsiciples of a lunatic and a dishonest immoralist."
I pointed out to Dr. Sippo that Denifle’s work on Luther is generally not taken seriously by either Roman Catholic or protestant scholars. Denifle belongs to an outdated style of Luther scholarship that presented excessive vilification, rather than scholarly history. Denifle held Luther was a fallen-away monk with unbridled lust, a theological ignoramus, an evil man, and used immorality to begin the Reformation. Denifle accuses Luther of buffoonery, hypocrisy, pride, ignorance, forgery, slander, pornography, vice, debauchery, drunkenness, seduction, corruption, and more: he is a lecher, knave, liar, blackguard, sot, and worse: he was infected with the venereal disease syphilis.
Sippo never retreated from his recommendation of Denifle. In fact, he saw Denifle as inspiring modern Luther biographies:
“[Denifle] found evidence of Luther's intemperate personality, his intolerance, and his gross logical inconsistency in what he wrote. He also resurrected the complaints of many of Luther's contemporaries about the man's erratic behavior and his excesses. It is Fr. Denifle who brought these things to light and spurred on the more critical portrait of Luther that would emerge in the 20th Century from Fr. Grisar, Preserved Smith, Paul Reiter, Erik Ericsson, Marius, and Rix.”
Note above, Sippo mentions “Marius” as a direct literary descendant of Denifle. Sippo repeatedly recommended Richard Marius’s Luther: A Biography (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company), 1974. I didn’t comment on this book for one reason, I didn’t have it ( I did comment on the more recent book on Luther from Marius, Luther: The Christian Between God and Death) . Well, I finally came across a copy of Luther: A Biography while on vacation (found it for a dollar at a used bookstore). Interestingly, Marius comments on Denifle’s work on Luther:
“…[F]ew people today are likely to be upset because Luther married a nun. We are more likely to become annoyed with such people as Thomas More, who seized upon Luther's marriage with shouts of grim pleasure as if this conjugal act finally showed the world just how evil Luther was. The very learned German Catholic historian Heinrich Denifle, in his Luther und Luthertum, written near the turn of this century, was bitterly hostile to Luther. And he summarized the traditional Catholic view that Luther was a lusty monk who could not keep his vows. But Catholic scholars are now embarrassed by Denifle in spite of his monumental learning, and in a day when the Catholic priesthood is experiencing a trauma of its own over the issue of celibacy, Luther's marriage does not seem to be such a stigma.” [Source: Richard Marius Luther: A Biography (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1974), 206].
“As a consequence of the great Weimar Edition, the twentieth century has been flooded with Luther studies. Heinrich Denifle produced the first modern consideration of Luther's works done with meticulous concern for Luther's own writing. But Denifle was only Cochlaeus with footnotes. He sought to prove that Luther was dominated by lust, that the Reformation came solely from his hankering for sexual intercourse, that the theological reasons Luther gave were mere lies to cover his guilt, that the lies were easily refuted, and that Catholics had been perfectly right in condemning him as a heretic.
Denifle wrote at a time when the Catholic Church was under furious attack throughout Europe and the world. Socialism, nationalism, secularism, and the philosophical spirit that had become jaded with nostalgia and romanticism wanted to sweep the Church under the rug of history. Within the Church itself some American Catholics were coming dangerously close to teaching that activity was the way to salvation. And some French scholars were undermining the very foundations of the Church by a radical historical study directed at the origins of Christianity. In that troubled context, Denifle's attack on Luther became a defense of the Church that stood in the world as a champion of decency and right reason against perversion and madness. By studying the righteous judgment of the Church against Luther in the greatest peril the Church had faced in its history, a troubled Catholic might infer the righteous judgment of the Church amid the dangers of the new twentieth century and so be moved with courage and hope to do his religious duty. Protestants naturally enough responded with books that vigorously defended their hero. Denifle forced them not so much into biography as into minute textual analyses to prove that Luther's statements about himself reflected a genuine personal struggle with sin, but not sin conceived as sexual lust. No, the concupiscence Luther talked about meant a selfish desire of the heart to make the self the center of the universe. Denifle did have an incalculable general effect. He made students of Luther pay close attention to the details of Luther's life in their relation to his theology, and he also turned scholarship to a consideration of the flood of works from Luther's pen that had been neglected. Everyone had looked at the ninety-five theses. The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, the Freedom of a Christian, the Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, and some of the devotional works. But now scholars were forced to look at other works that were less inspiring.” [Source: Richard Marius, Luther: A Biography (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1974), 246-247].
Far from recommending Denifle’s work, Marius points out its flaws. He notes exactly what I did to Sippo, and also points out that even Catholic scholars are “embarrassed” by Denifle’s work. Marius is indeed correct on the effect that Denifle’s work had on Protestant Luther biographers. It’s the same effect that the modern day anti-Luther Roman Catholic webpages have on me. They provoke me to research. While Catholic scholars were embarrassed by Denifle’s work, my hope in exposing Sippo’s inherent bias against Luther will likewise embarrass the current Catholic apologetic community