Wednesday, May 14, 2008

"Luther's Own Statements" By Henry O'Connor

"Only a year before his death, Luther published a famous work against the Pope. This work is so satanical in its title, so satanical in its beginning, so satanical in its almost every page, so super-satanical in its conclusion, that it could have only been written by a man with a thoroughly satanical spirit. It is marvelous how anyone should have been able to fill one hundred and fifty-seven printed pages with such a number of satanical expressions that must have been borrowed from the very depths of Hell"- Henry O'Connor, commenting on Luther's book "Against the Popery of Rome, Instituted by the Devil"

Recently a Catholic blogger stopped by and asked me the following:

"I recently came across this 62-pg booklet about the extent to which one can rightly call Luther a reformer commissioned by Almighty God. I was just wondering if you had read it, and if you have or would like to make any comments regarding it."

He provided a link to this booklet, which is found in three parts:

Part one Part two Part three

What was so ironic is that as I read his question, I had this 62 page booklet in front of me. Actually, my copy is a 62 page book entitled Luther's Own Statements Concerning His Teaching and its Results Taken Exclusively From the Earliest and Best Editions of Luther's German and Latin Works by Henry O'Connor, S.J. My copy is the third edition published by Benziger Brothers (New York and St. Louis). I've had this book for a few years now. Before the advent of Google books, I collected books about Luther by Roman Catholics. This book was mentioned by a Roman Catholic web-page, and I was able to track down my own copy, which was not easy, nor cheap. Now, the Internet has pretty much put an end to tracking these old books down.

The book is an old small anthology of Luther quotes, peppered with vilifying commentary from O’Connor, a Roman Catholic. The author claims to have compiled the quotes from the original sources “Nearly two-thirds of the matter contained in this pamphlet is taken from the original editions of Luther’s own Works, as published in Wittenberg, under the very eye of the Reformer of Germany himself”(p. 3) He says “I have taken special care not to quote anything, that would have a different meaning, if read with the full context”(p.5).

This book belongs to the vilifying anti-Luther tradition that I've often commented about. You can read about the earlier hostile Roman Catholic evaluations of Luther in my paper, The Roman Catholic Perspective of Martin Luther (Part One). Previous to the 1900’s, a Catholic tradition of criticism based more on attacking Luther the person rather than Luther the honest theologian was the common method. Men like Cochlaeus, Denifle, Grisar, Ganss, O’Hare, and O'Connor, wrote extensively against Luther. They presented him as a child of the devil, a drunk, a lustful sexual deviant infected with syphilis, a liar, ignorant of correct theology, a manic-depressive, the creator of a theological system to justify a sinful lifestyle, a prideful blasphemer, a promoter of divorce and polygamy, and a host of other charges. During the 1900’s, a tradition of a more balanced Catholic criticism emerged. These Catholic scholars desired to understand the theological issues raised by Luther rather than setting up vilifying caricatures. Luther was no longer viewed as Satan’s son, but rather as a sincere religious man and an honest theologian. Sure, Luther was still wrong, but he wasn’t wrong because he was the evil blaspheming son of the devil. He actually had some good points, and was misunderstood by earlier Catholic criticisms. To read my overview of the more balanced Catholic opinions on Luther, see my paper: The Roman Catholic Perspective of Martin Luther (Part Two).

Books like O'Connor's received praise from Roman Catholics. Here is a link to one such positive review..."The work should be in every priest's library, so as to be at hand for immediate reference."

We find ourselves now in the age of the Internet. The works of destructive Catholic scholars, most of which had been long out of print, now find a new voice, and a loud voice. Their charges against Luther the person have flourished, while the Catholic works of the 20th Century are often completely ignored. Catholic “converts” resurrect the earlier destructive Luther scholarship. The new Catholic converts use the witnessing techniques of Protestantism, zealously using history in their efforts to evangelize. It's not uncommon for these Catholics to refer to Ganss or Patrick O’Hare, or to at least lift Luther citations from their works. The Internet apologists freely cite English translations of Luther with German or Latin references. It's obvious from this that Luther isn’t being read in context, but rather these earlier destructive critical texts are being used. As Protestants, they formerly rallied against the historical validity of the Catholic Church. Now as Catholics, they attack the historical validity of the Reformation.

I've only briefly mentioned O'Connor's book over the years. I never focused on it with much depth because it had not found a voice in cyber-space. Now that it's available, I'll probably comment more on it. I would immediately point out this book is on the same level as that put out by Father Patrick O'Hare (The Facts About Luther). These men are quite convinced that Luther was a truly evil man in league with Satan. These earlier Catholic writers are not like the current ecumenically minded Luther-friendly Catholic writers we find here and there today. No, they are quite convinced of Luther's evil, and attribute anything they can dig up to prove his malicious intent and utter wickedness.

It would be hard for me to imagine any serious current Catholic writer using this book as a resource in writing about Luther (with the exception, if they were presenting a history of Catholic Luther scholarship). I guess in some alternate reality somewhere, a Catholic apologist may refer to it as a primary reference in their work critiquing Luther. Of course, this would be ridiculous, as it isn't a work to be used as a primary source. It's a quote book with vilifying commentary. If you find a Catholic writer using this book as a primary reference, this should tip you off immediately that the material being put forth should not be trusted.

O'Connor boldly declares Luther to be in league with Satan: "A man who Pretends to be a Reformer is sent either by God or by Satan" (p. 61). Earlier in the book, O'Connor presents an entire section linking Luther, and Luther's teachings to the Devil: "Luther received the full and unqualified approval of the Devil for these new doctrines. It was the Devil who spoke in favour of the new doctrine of justification by faith alone, and against Mass, Mary, and the Saints" (p.18).

He argues Luther was a liar, a hypocrite, one who wrote a "Satanical book", it is Satan that speaks through Luther, Luther has a "Satanical hatred of the Pope," he was responsible for the deaths of 100,000 peasants; where Luther's teaching is accepted the sick, poor, and children are neglected, and drunkenness spreads like a deluge. And, these are only a few of the the charges and attacks against Luther.

Many of Luther's quotes are taken out of context, or spun to make him the worst possible person. For instance, O’Connor delves immediately into Luther’s “sin boldly” comment (preface). He says

“I am of the opinion that, if we merely consider the words just quoted, it would be an exaggeration to say that Luther ordered his disciple to sin, or that he even positively advised him to do so. To my mind the words mean: ‘As far as the certainty of our own salvation is concerned, it does not matter one bit whether we sin or not, as long as we put our trust in Christ.’ Thus whereas Christ preaches hatred of every sin, Luther proclaims indifference toward every kind of sin, with the only exception of unbelief.”

O’Connor begins well enough: Luther did not order Melanchthon to sin. But beyond that, his interpretation derails immediately. The rest of his statement shows an obvious confusion of Luther’s understanding of faith and works. It indeed does matter “whether we sin or not” because (as Luther repeatedly taught) true faith shows itself by its good works. Both Christ and Luther preached a hatred of sin. Luther never proclaimed an “indifference toward every kind of sin.” O’Connor concludes, “Therefore, Luther, the self-constituted Lawgiver of the sixteenth century, allows and recommends what God the supreme Lawgiver of all ages, past, present, and future, forbids.” O’Connor sees Luther as fundamentally teaching lawlessness.

O'Connor then quotes an obscure letter of Luther's to Jerome Weller, and comments that "Luther not only allows, but even wishes his friend to sin..." Here we find O'Connor ignoring Luther's major and vast writings on the relationship of faith and works. For information on Luther's letter to Weller, see my link here.

In books like O'Connor's, an accurate picture of Luther is not being put forth.When I have the time, I'll put forth some more quotes and commentary from O'Connor. With all the good books currently available from both Catholics and Protestants on Luther, one wonders why anyone would give O'Connor's book even a minute of seriousness. It certainly is not a primary reference, but belongs as an artifact of Catholic scholarship that has largely been abandoned.


James Swan said...


Thanks for stopping by. I have a few general comments about Luther books, rather than any Luther book in particular.

I recall back in the 1980's always being amazed with how many books by, or about C.S. Lewis were coming out- these from a man who had been dead for quite a while.As I got older, I realized the books were coming out because there was a market for them. As an aside, I used to have a book which I lent to someone 20 years ago (and never got back) about C.S. Lewis fabrications that were being put out by Walter Hooper. The author of the book was a woman, last name was "Lindskoog" or something like that. She argued Hooper was attempting to pass off his writings as those of C.S. Lewis.

I feel the same amazement about the multitude of Luther books that keep coming out. I doubt their sell-ability in today's consumer market, but who knows? I don't think there really is a need for any more books about Luther.

That being said, over the years I've thought about doing a book about Luther, I can think of a couple different angles of research that have not been trodden, or rather, at least have only been trodden sparsely. Perhaps one day I'll join in and add yet another Luther book to the thousands that already exist.

I will say, from my own perspective, that last thing needed are new books presenting overviews of the Reformation, Luther's life, or Luther's theology. Much greater minds than mine have put out volumes addressing these topics, and I would never pretend to be qualified to put out a book addressing these topics. My conscience would not allow me to attempt to make money off such an endeavor.

Rhology said...

Thousands of books on Luther?
Wow, I never realised there could be that many!

James Swan said...

Well, I've never counted all the books on Luther and the Reformation- you got me Rho. I'd be willing to bet though that there are thousands.

kmerian said...

Mr. Swan, you are showing more than just a bit of hypocrisy here. Just about 2 weeks ago you recommended those converting to the Catholic faith get a 150 year old work titled "on the right use of the fathers".

You now decry Catholics going to 19th Century Anti-protestant books. But you gladly point Catholics or potential Catholics to 19th Century Anti-Catholic books.

You are right, there are far better written and charitable 20th Century books that are ignored. ON BOTH SIDES.

James Swan said...

What I've argued is that when I spend time going over Protestant to Catholic conversion stories, I rarely find these people have interacted with many of the Protestant works dealing with the ECF's. Simply because a work is "old" doesn't mean it's bad. In the blog post you mention, I dont' recall any blog comments actually interacting with the ECF quotes in that old book by John Daillé.

On the other hand, In my blog articles, I have consistently pointed out that Catholic scholarship on Luther previous to Catholic historian Joseph Lortz has been largely repudiated by recent Catholic scholars as inadequate and villifying. It's Catholic scholars who have admitted this earleir slanderous tradition against Luther.

In this blog entry, I cited O"Connor's treatment of Luther's infamous "sin boldly" comment as an example of an obvious misunderstanding, if not mistreatment of Luther. I could provide other example from O"Connor as well, demonstrating his work belongs to the inadequate and villifying scholarship I've written about.

Paul Ackermann said...

True, many modern Catholic would not approve of bringing up the dark side of Luther, but neither would they approve bringing up the dark side of Muhammad.

It is missing the point of saying that the "sin boldly" statement must be looked in context of Luther's doctrine that works was the evidence of being justified. You are comparing the early Luther to the later Luther. The early Luther would say something as outrageous as the "sin boldly" statement. But the later Luther found that people were worse morally than before when they were under Catholic doctrine. So he changed his view only after he realized the people were using justification by faith alone as a license to sin.

I am not sure I would say that Luther was an evil man, but he defintely an unstable man. He was probably a manic-depressive. Even Luther apologist Roland Bainton admit he problem with depression.

This means that we cannot look at Luther as if he was stable, as if he had a coherent theology. And unstable person could contradict himself, saying one day to sin boldly and the next to say that we must have works as evidence of his salvation.

This is not the first time Luther contradict himself. During the Peasant Revolt, he first identified with the peasant. Later he cheered on the prince to kill all the peasants. Luther was always a man of contradictions.

James Swan said...


Your comments sound very similar to a person I recently dialoged with on the Catholic Answers forums. You are entitled to your opinions, but I find them grossly ill-informed.

You seem to be unaware of the trends in Catholic scholarship on Luther, and that material can be found here on this blog, or at any good library.

Luther held his position on faith and works throughout his career, so it is not missing the point. The early and later Luther said the same things, Gordon Rupp pointed out in “Miles Emeritus? Continuity and Old Discontinuity Between the Young and The Luther” that with Luther's basic theology, there is an inner coherence.

As to people "being worse" some of those quotes I've looked prove Luther was taken out of context. Also, you fail to take Luther's eschatology into account in regard to such statements.

As to Luther being "manic depressive" I suggest that one be careful doing 500 year old psychology. I suggest defining your terms before doing your medical analysis.

Indeed, Luther had a very coherent theology. I suggest reading The Theology of Martin Luther by Paul Althaus.

As to the peasants revolt, the peasants were already revolting before 1517. Luther consistently stood against rebellious peasants and insurrectionists.