Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Did Luther Have a Valid Call To Monastic Life?

To the Left: The Augustinian Church and Monastery in Erfurt, where Martin Luther lived

Over the years, I've found that Roman Catholics will sometimes argue Luther made a grave mistake when he became a monk, and this is just one more reason why he could not have been any sort of reformer of Christ's church. Consider Father Patrick O'Hare's summation found in the book, The Facts About Luther:

When we consider the motives that prompted Luther to abandon the world, we fear he knew little about the ways of God and was not well informed of the gravity and responsibilities of the step he was taking. The calling he aspired to is the highest given to man on earth and because it is a ministry of salvation, replete with solemn and sacred obligations, it should not be embraced without prayerful consideration and wise and prudent counsel. It is only when vocation is sufficiently pronounced and when one by one the different stages of the journey in which are acquired continually increasing helps towards reaching the appointed goal, are passed, that one should enter the sanctuary. "No man," says St. Paul, "takes the honor to himself, but he that is called by God." That Luther was not called by God to conventual life seems evident enough from all the circumstances. Every sign and mark one looks for in aspirants to the monastic life were apparently lacking in him. Parent and friend alike knew this and opposed his course, feeling it was merely the expression of a temporary attitude of mind and not a real vocation. Luther himself admits that he was driven by despair, rather than the love of higher perfection, into a religious career. He says: "I entered the monastery and renounced the world because I despaired of myself all the while." From his earliest days he was subject to fits of depression and melancholy. Emotional by temperament, he would pass suddenly from mirth and cheerfulness to a gloomy, despondent state of mind in which he was tormented by frightful searchings of conscience. The fear of God's judgments and the recollection of his own sins sorely tried him and caused unnecessary anxiety and dread as to his fate. He saw in himself nothing but sin and in God nothing but anger and revenge. He fell a victim to excessive scrupulousness, and, as he was self- opinionated and stubborn-minded, he relied altogether too much on his own righteousness and disregarded the remedies most effectual for his spiritual condition. Like all those who trust in themselves, he rushed from extreme timidity to excessive rashness. Had he consulted those who were skilled in the direction of conventual religious and made known the troubled waters beneath the smooth surface of his daily life, he might have been made to understand that, owing to his abnormal state of mind and his natural disposition, he was not fitted for the carrying out of the evangelical counsels and thus have been prevented from forcing himself into a mould for which he was manifestly unsuited. In the uneasy and serious state of his conscience the advice and counsel of the wise and prudent were ignored. Moved by his own feelings and relying on his own powers, he suddenly and secretly decided for himself a career in life which, as events proved, was not only a mistake as far as he was concerned, but one fraught with disaster to innumerable others, whom he afterwards influenced to join in his revolt against the Mother Church[source].

Before we castigate all Roman Catholics for holding an opinion similar to Father O'Hare, consider the words of a more recent Roman Catholic source: The New Catholic Encyclopedia-

The Call to Religion. In the summer of 1505 Luther influenced no doubt by his father, began the study of law. Sometime in July of the same year, while returning to Erfurt from a visit to Mansfield, he encountered a severe- thunderstorm near the village of Stotternheim; as a lightning bolt threw him to the ground, he vowed to St. Anne in a sudden panic that he would become a monk. To assume that the decision to enter the monastery was as impromptu as it is often depicted does Luther an injustice. His strict religious upbringing his natural bent toward piety, and above all the experiences of the last few years at the university were unquestionably factors of his move. In 1503 he had severely wounded himself by accidentally cutting the artery in his thigh and had spent many weeks in meditative recuperation. In the same year one of his closest friends, a fellow student, had died suddenly. The plague that struck the city of Erfurt in 1505 had made him keenly aware of the preeminence of death. All of this indicates that a call to religion was -something that had been in his mind for a long period.

Nor is it without significance that he chose to enter the monastery of the Hermits of St. Augustine. The city of Erfurt boasted a Dominican, a Franciscan and a Servite monastery in addition to the Black Cloister, a member of the Observant, or stricter Augustinian, congregation of Saxony, which was by far the most severe religious house in the city. On July 16 1505, much to the chagrin of his parents, who were already selecting a bride for the student of law, Luther entered the novitiate. Soon after his profession, the exact date of which is not known, he was told to prepare himself for the reception of Holy Orders. He was ordained a deacon by the suffragan bishop, Johann von Laasphe of Erfurt, on Feb. 27, 1507; he received the priesthood in the Erfurt cathedral on the following April 4th. [Luther entry, The New Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. VIII, p. 1086].

How does one decide between Father O'Hare or The New Catholic Encyclopedia? Both say very different things, creating two very different pictures of Martin Luther. The answer is that Father O'Hare's view is usually classified as the outdated approach to Martin Luther. O'Hare belonged to the tradition of destructive criticism that lasted in Catholic scholarship until the early 20th century.

While Catholic laymen seem to champion O'Hare's view, they're quite out of step with their scholars. Many Twentieth Century Catholics scholars studied Luther as a sincere religious man and an honest theologian. Here are some excerpts from my paper, The Roman Catholic Perspective of Martin Luther (Part Two)

Kiefl appreciated Luther’s profound piety. He held Luther’s starting point and his main interest were religious.

Merkle held Luther was searching for a religion for the heart, and he also saw the religious depth evident in the young Luther.

Fischer saw Luther as a man of prayer: "However rich a Church may be in truly great Christian men of prayer, it would still have room for the distinctives of the praying Luther; it should not pass carelessly over this great man of prayer and his precious utterances on prayer and his excellent instruction on prayer."

Jedin defended Luther's moral character against such scholars as Denifle.

Lortz saw Luther as a deeply religious man: he entered a strict monastery and gave up care for himself to truly come face to face with a gracious God. Lortz states, "there is no doubt that he was a profoundly religious man, a true Christian, who lived by a deep faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, born of the Virgin Mary, crucified and risen to save us. We must also remember that all his life Luther was a man of prayer and a zealous preacher of the Word of God."

Herte spent a fair amount of time refuting previous Catholic scholarship's vilification of Luther's character, as did Swidler.

Hessen saw Luther as having a great experience with God, encountering him in Christ and his Gospel.

Adam saw Luther as a man whose convictions were fed by an irresistible religious experience.

Congar saw Luther as a profoundly religious man who had a deeply sensitive conscience.

Sartory held love inspired Luther. Luther was was a homo religiosus, a genuine religious personality.

Tavard says Luther was not the odd man out, but embodied the religious disquiet of many of his contemporaries.

McDonough saw Luther as a man with a desire to be at peace with God. Luther had a real experience with God driven by the Scriptures.

Todd saw Luther as a pious and intelligent monk.

Wicks says Luther can be a forceful teacher of lived religion.

Now I don’t believe in the validity of Roman Catholic monasticism, nor do I believe God calls anyone to such. However, how is it possible that Internet Catholic layman overlook their own scholarship? Many of Rome's writers see Luther as an honest religious man. I've read though, countless web pages or comments from Catholics that Luther did not have valid reasons for entering the monastery, nor did he have the right psyche to be in the monastery. He was not a sincere religious man. Given all we know though about Luther, I would say he was indeed a genuine religious personality.

For the sake of argument, let's play on the field of Internet Catholic laymen for a moment. Suppose they argue that Luther's thunderstorm experience proves his was not a genuine calling to the monastery. I would ask, why would a fear of death invalidate a genuine religious call? Could not a person have both a serious call, and a fear of death? Does not the vow being kept point to a person deeply committed to their "spirituality"? Recall the old Burt Reynolds movie, "The End" (I think that's what it was called). He makes a vow to God at the end of the movie while swimming to the beach from far off in the ocean. By the time he's reached the shore, he has ignored the vow. While a movie isn't reality, isn't its message typical of human nature? We often ask God to get us out of something, only to eventually ignore whatever vows we've made in our silly attempts at bargaining with deity. Not so for Luther.

One wonders if the same type of scrutiny is applied to such people like Ignatius of Loyola. He lay recuperating from severe wounds and made a decision for monasticism. Of course, had he been deemed a heretic, one could see Father O'Hare writing The Facts About Loyola, and how his calling to monasticism was not valid.


Stacey said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
James Swan said...

Ifind it strange that although you personally believe Luther did not have a call to monasticism, since you believe nobody can, you have a problem with others believing he did not have that call.

From the introduction:

Over the years, I've found that Roman Catholics will sometimes argue Luther made a grave mistake when he became a monk, and this is just one more reason why he could not have been any sort of reformer of Christ's church.

The argument as I've laid it out stems from the interactions I've had over the years with Roman Catholics. It typically goes, "Luther could not have been called by God to be any sort of Reformer. Rather, he was a man with serious psychological problems who wrongly entered into the monastery and revolted against a Catholicism he did not understand."

If Catholics would step back for a moment, and step away from an outdated historical approach to Luther, they would find Luther knew the Catholicism he embraced very well. He was fundamentally an honest, sincere, religious person. When he entered the monastery, he entered it with a proper religious disposition.

The implications of such an established basis in discussion with a Roman Catholic would mean that the topic would not be about Luther's personal character. Rather, one could discuss the issues surrounding the Reformation instead of Luther's character.

While our interaction last week caused me to think about this argument a little more, I actually wrote it in such a way that it wasn't directed toward you. I will say though, your blog entry is in error when you state,

You can see where Swan is coming from, though, that is the medieval perspective of Martin Luther. He says, "Martin Luther joined the monastery because he was serious about his soul and being truly spiritual" which isn't strictly true. Although from a pious family, the reason Luther joined a monastery is because, fearing for his life during a thunderstorm, he made a vow to God that if he lived he would become a monk.

I suggest rereading the snippet I posted from the New Catholic Encyclopedia. The entry stated, "To assume that the decision to enter the monastery was as impromptu as it is often depicted does Luther an injustice." So Stacey, according to this Catholic writer, you're doing Luther an injustice.