Sunday, April 05, 2009

Luther: "I burn with a thousand flames in my unsubdued flesh"

Here's an obscure Luther quote that's comes up from time to time:

"I burn " said Luther " with a thousand flames in my unsubdued flesh: I feel myself carried on with a rage towards women that approached madness. I, who ought to be fervent in spirit, am only fervent in impurity." (Table Talk)

This is one of those quotes that I categorically classify as the "Antinomian Luther." They are typically posted by those dedicated to defending the Roman church (but not limited to them!).  Historically, such "shock" quotes served as propaganda used by pre-1930 Roman Catholic controversialists. The champion of this view was Heinrich Denifle (1844-1905), an Austrian Roman Catholic historian. For Denifle, one of Luther's major problems was lust and immorality. It was Luther's craving for sex that led him to not only break his monastic vows, but to revolt against the established Roman church.   Denifle would use statements like this to prove Luther invented the doctrine of justification to excuse his gross immorality.

This version of the quote has been around for a long time. Here it is in in the Catholic Magazine and Review from 1831, and here it is in a book from 1839. Both of these sources cite "entret. de Tabl." which led me to wonder if the quote originated from a French source like Trevern's Amicable Discussion (Discussion amicale sur l'Église anglicane, et en général sur la Réformation...) from 1824:
Trevern similarly cites "Luth., Entret. de Table" as his source. The English translation of Trevern reads as follows: "I burn with a thousand flames in my unsubdued flesh; I feel myself carried on with a rage towards women that approaches to madness. I, who ought to be fervent in spirit, am only fervent in impurity." That's a close match, so I suspect that the English translation of Trevern is the Genesis of this quote in English. I could find no other earlier sources than Trevern.

I don't know for sure that this quote isn't in an old version of the Table Talk, but I have my suspicions that some of it is not from the Table Talk. The quote is very similar to another, and often cited with the one in question. Patrick O'Hare cites both quotes:
That he was consumed by the fires of fleshly lust he admits himself. Even when engaged, as we related in another place, in the translation of the Bible, Luther, in the year 1521, while living in the Wartburg, to which place this "courageous Apostle" fled in the disguise of a country squire and lived under an assumed name, wrote to his friend Melanchthon to say: "I sit here in idleness and pray, alas, little, and sigh not for the Church of God. Much more am I consumed by the fires of my unbridled flesh. In a word, I, who should burn of the spirit, am consumed by the flesh and by lasciviousness." (De Wette, 2, 22)."
In the "Table Talk" he is recorded as saying: "I burn with a thousand flames in my unsubdued flesh: I feel myself carried on with a rage towards women that approaches madness. I, who ought to be fervent in spirit, am only fervent in impurity."
The quotes are very similar are they not? The only thing really missing from the first quote is "I feel myself carried on with a rage towards women that approached madness." In fact, when you think about it, this sentence doesn't even make sense in the quote in question. "Rage" in what way, a lustful rage? An angry misogynist rage? I don't recall any authentic statements from Luther in which he felt bound and overpowered by an insatiable, lustful desire for women, or a bitter hatred for women. Even the very Table Talk those against Luther like to quote from contains statements in which Luther candidly admits there were far greater temptations than the the lust of flesh that tempted him (See Table Talk No. 121). I wonder if maybe this sentence somehow or other got picked up along the way and added to this similar quote previous to it?

This similar quote does have an extant context. It's from a letter to Philip Melanchthon, from the Wartburg, July 13, 1521. Here is the relevant section:
Your letter has displeased me on two grounds: firstly, because I see that you bear your cross with impatience, give too much way to the affections, and obey the tenderness of your nature; and, secondly, because you elevate me too high, and fall into the serious error of decking me out with various excellencies, as if I were absorbed in God's cause. This high opinion of yours confounds and racks me, when I see myself insensible, hardened, sunk in idleness; grief! seldom in prayer, and not venting one groan over God's church. What do I say? My unsubdued flesh burns me with a devouring fire. In short, I who was to have been eaten up with the spirit, am devoured by the flesh, by luxury, indolence, idleness, somnolency. Is it that God has turned away from me, because you no longer pray for me? You must take my place; you, richer in God's gifts, and more acceptable in his sight. Here is a week slipped away since I have put pen to paper, since I have prayed or studied, either vexed by fleshly cares, or by other temptations. If things do not go on better, I will to Erfurt without any attempt at concealment, for I must consult physicians or surgeons." [source]
Alternate translation:
Your letter displeased me for two reasons: First, I realize that you carry the cross too impatiently; you give in too much to your emotions and as is your way you are just too gentle. Second, you extol me so much. You err tremendously in ascribing such great importance to me, as if I were so much concerned for God’s case. Your high opinion of me shames and tortures me, since—unfortunately—I sit here like a fool and hardened in leisure, pray little, do not sigh for the church of God, yet burn in a big fire of my untamed body. In short I should be ardent in spirit, but I am ardent in the flesh, in lust, laziness, leisure, and sleepiness. I do not know whether God has turned away from me since you all do not pray for me. You are already replacing me; because of the gifts you have from God, you have attained greater authority and popularity than I had. Already eight days have passed in which I have written nothing, in which I have not prayed or studied; this is partly because of temptations of the flesh, partly because I am tortured by other burdens. If this thing does not improve, I shall go directly to Erfurt and not incognito. There you will see me, or I you, for I shall consult doctors or surgeons. It is impossible that I endure this evil any longer; it is easier to endure ten big wounds than this small sign of a lesion. Maybe the Lord burdens me so in order to push me out of this hermitage into the public. [LW 48:256]
Without knowing exactly what Trevern was citing, it's hard to make any certain conclusions. I suspect the quote is botched— that the "rage against women" part is from some other writing, perhaps a Table Talk utterance. The Table Talk isn't technically a writing from Luther's pen. It's a record of what Luther is purported to have said written down by friends and students. It has a dubious history of editing. The bottom line is that it's used to corroborate something  Luther has written, or it confirms historical situations. If Trevern (or some other French source) put the quote together, Preserved Smith notes the earliest French version of the Table Talk was not published until 1844 (Gustave Brunet: Les Propos deTable de Martin Luther, revus sur les éditions originales et traduites pour la première fois en français). I did not locate the quote in this edition, and this French edition post-dates Trevern.

If some of the quote comes from Luther's 1521 letter, those like Father O'Hare read this letter in  a myopic way. They gravitates to one brief section and then make an inflammatory conclusion. Luther was not "consumed by the fires of fleshly lust" as O'Hare overstates. That is, Luther was not simply dreaming of wine, women, and song all day while hiding away in the Wartburg. A reading of the entire letter will prove that. If Luther was so consumed by lust, it seems odd that he would casually mention a number of his struggles in the beginning of the letter, but then go on for the majority of this long letter to a number of other political and spiritual subjects.

This is not to say that Luther was not really struggling with what he says he was struggling with. W.H.T. Dau long ago provided a fair and balanced view of Luther's stay at the Wartburg:
At the Wartburg, where Luther was an exile for ten months, his name was changed by the warden of the castle, Count von Berlepsch. This was done the better to conceal his identity from the henchmen of Rome, who by the imperial edict of outlawry had been given liberty to hunt Luther and slay him where they found him.
The sexual condition of Luther during the years before his marriage was the normal condition of any healthy young man at his age. Luther speaks of this matter as a person nowadays would speak about it to his physician or to a close friend. The matter to which he refers is in itself perfectly pure: it is an appeal of nature. Do Luther's Catholic critics mean to infer that Luther was the only monk, then or now, that felt this call which human nature issues by the ordination of the Creator? Rome can inflict celibacy even on priests that look like stall-fed oxen, but she cannot unsex men. Mohammedans are less inhuman to their eunuchs. Moreover, it must be borne in mind that Luther complains of this matter as something that disturbs him. It vexed his pure mind, and he fought against it as not many monks of his day have done, by fasting, prayer, and hard work. Yes, hard work! The remarks of Luther about his physical condition are simply twisted from their true import when Luther is represented as a victim of fleshly lust and a habitual debauchee. Luther's Catholic critics fail to mention that during his brief stay at the Wartburg Luther not only translated the greater part of the New Testament, but also wrote about a dozen treatises, some of them of considerable size, and that of his correspondence during this period about fifty letters are still preserved. Surely, a fairly respectable record for a lazy man!
Addendum (2017)
This blog entry is a revision of an entry I posted back in 2009. The original can be found here. Because so many sources are now available online, I'm revising older entries by adding additional materials and commentary, and also fixing or deleting dead hyperlinks. Nothing of any significant substance has changed in this entry from that presented in the former.

1 comment:

John8v36 said...

It just shows me that Martin Luther was human like the rest of us and was in fact tempted! :)