Saturday, February 13, 2010

Luther: People are Worse Than They Were Under The Papacy

Here's a point about the evils of the Reformation substantiated by a quote from Luther. The following is found in Catholic apologist Steve Ray's book, Crossing the Tiber: Evangelical Protestants Discover the Historical Church, footnote #97 on page 65-66:

According to Mr. Ray, Luther admitted his teaching made people worse, not provoking anyone to holiness. This is a typical charge. It is argued by many of Rome's defenders that Luther was vexed and agonized that his teaching made things worse. If Luther's teachings really were from God, wouldn't truth make people better? Another defender pf Rome cites it on his blog and also in his book Protestantism: Critical Reflections of an Ecumenical Catholic (2007), p. 92. He uses it as an example of "The Agony of Luther" over "the State of Early Protestantism."

Mr. Ray and friends cited Luther via Heinrich Denifle's Luther and Lutherdom. Denifle's use of the quote is longer:
Even in 1523, he had to acknowledge that he and his followers were become worse than they had been formerly, This he later repeats. "The world by this teaching becomes only the worse, the longer it exists; that is the work and business of the malign devil. As one sees, the people are more avaricious, less merciful, more immodest, bolder and worse than before under the Papacy." (p.25)
Denifle uses this quote to prove Luther "had to acknowledge that he and his followers were become worse than they had been formerly." Out of all the quotes I've looked at over the years, this one has a rich history of usage, and appears to have been very popular with older Roman Catholic apologetic works. I found at least a dozen or more older Roman Catholic authors using it, with many differing English translations.

Documentation and Sources
What's interesting about this quote is that it is available from two primary English sources. It's from a 1533 sermon that was written down by two people who heard it: Veit Dietrich and Georg Roerer. Dietrich's account can be found in Dr. Martin Luther's House-Postil, in the First Sunday in Advent sermon (Matthew 21:1-9). Roerer's version can be found in The Complete Sermons of Martin Luther Volume 5 (Michigan: Baker Books, 2000) pp. 25-30. Both accounts are very similar, except that Dietrich's is longer, containing additional material at the end. Scholars say Roerer's transcriptions are more exact and trustworthy (see p.15 of The Complete Sermons of Martin Luther Vol. 5 for more information).

This sermon wasn't preached at church to the general public. It was preached to his close circle of friends, family, and a few others at Luther's residence. The text of the sermon was Matthew 21:1-9. If you haven't read any of Luther's sermons, this would be a good one to begin with.

Luther first explains how the Jews expected a grand powerful king, not a meek man riding on a donkey. They expected a man of might and power like all earthly rulers. A king who could provide earthly riches and power, thrusting the Jews to a powerful place over all the nations. Rather, this man on a donkey had a different power: the forgiveness of sin and everlasting life:
For we are all poor sinners, but in baptism, and afterwards in our whole life, if we turn unto Christ, He comforts us, and says: Give me your sins and take my righteousness and holiness; let your death be taken from you, and put on my life. This is, properly speaking, the Lord Jesus' government. For all His office and work is this, that He daily takes away our sin and death, and clothes us with His righteousness and life.
Luther explains that a king with such extraordinary gifts should be most coveted, yet it is not:
"This announcement we should indeed hear with great joy, and every one should thereby be bettered and made more holy. But alas, the contrary is true, and the world grows worse as it grows older, becoming the very Satan himself, as we see that the people are now more dissolute, avaricious, unmerciful, impure and wicked than previously under the papacy." [Dietrich''s version]
"We must certainly receive this message eagerly and gratefully, by it becoming more pious and godly. Unfortunately there's the opposite side, that by this teaching the world becomes more and more hostile, wicked, and malicious; yet not through the fault of the teaching but of the people, thanks to the pernicious devil and death. Today people are possessed by seven devils, whereas before it was only one. The devil now bulldozes the people so that even under the bright light of the gospel they become greedier, slyer, more covetous, crueler, lewder, more insolent and ill-tempered than before under the papacy." [Roerer's version]
Notice in Roerer's version, Luther doesn't blame his teaching, but the people and ultimately Satan.
Luther goes on to say:
What causes this? Nothing else than that the people disregard this preaching, do not use it aright for their own conversion and amendment, that is, for the comfort of their conscience, and thankfulness for the grace and benefit of God in Christ; but every one is more concerned for money and goods, or other worldly matters, than for this precious treasure which Christ brings us. For the most of us, when we do not feel our misery, the fear of sin and death, would rather, like the Jews, have such a king in Christ as would give us riches and ease here on earth, than that we should comfort ourselves in Him in the midst of poverty, crosses, wretchedness, fear and death. The world takes no delight in this, and because the gospel and Christ do not give it what it desires, it will have nothing to do with Christ and the gospel.[Dietrich's version]
"Why so? Not through fault of the teaching but because the message is not met with thankful acceptance; people cast it to the wind and pay more attention to money and goods than to the blessed treasure which our Lord Christ brings to us." [Roerer's version]
In harmony with his earlier points, he explains people seek after earthly riches, not heavenly riches. Most people want the same powerful king the Jews expected, not the foolishness of Christ. With a pastoral heart, Luther warns:
Therefore our Lord in turn rebukes this world and says: Do you not rejoice in this, nor thank me, that through the sufferings and death of my only begotten Son, I take away your sins and death? Then I will give you sin and death enough, since you want it so; and where you were possessed of and tormented by only one devil, you shall now be tormented by seven that are worse. We see farmers, citizens and all orders, from the highest to the lowest, guilty of shameful avarice, inordinate life, impurity and other vices. Therefore let every one who would be a Christian be hereby warned as of God himself, joyfully and thankfully to hear and receive this announcement, and also pray to God to give him a strong faith, that he may hold fast this doctrine; then surely the fruit will follow, that he will daily become more humble, obedient, gentle, chaste and pious. For this doctrine is of a character to make godly, chaste, obedient, pious people.
Luther states those who accept this gospel will have fruit follow and "will daily become more humble, obedient, gentle, chaste and pious. For this doctrine is of a character to make godly, chaste, obedient, pious people." Then there are those who will not accept the gospel:
But those who will not gladly receive it, become seven times worse than they were before they heard it, as we see everywhere. And the hour will surely come when God will punish this unthankfulness. Then it will appear what the world has merited by it. Now, since the Jews would not obey the prophet, it is told to us that our King comes meek and lowly, in order that we may learn wisdom from their sad experience, and not be offended by His poverty, nor look for worldly pomp and riches, like the Jews; but learn that in Christ we have a King who is the Just One and Savior, and willing to help us from sin and eternal death. This announcement, I say, we should receive with joy, and with hearty thanks to God, else we must take the devil, with walling, weeping and gnashing of teeth."
I have to question exactly what Denifle was reading when he concluded that Luther's followers were worse because of the gospel. In context, it's the world which grows worse because of the gospel being preached. Those who accept the gospel are transformed by the gospel. Luther consistently held that the gospel would find great opposition, and would be attacked from all sides. The gospel would be used by the world as a license to sin and all sorts of evil because of Satan. The gospel would indeed make those of the world worse.

Steve Ray butchered the citation by leaving out the fact that Luther blamed the devil for people being worse. He actually took a quote being misused by Denifle, and added his own error to it. Why would there be an outbreak of holiness by those who hate the gospel already?

Was this quote an example of Luther agonizing over the state of early Protestantism as the Romanist claims in a published book? Hardly. Once again, these guys should read something in context before publishing.


Howard Fisher said...

Once again, you nailed it. Original sources need to be read carefully.

James Swan said...

Thanks Howard-

It's like fishing in a barrel. There is no shortage of quotes to put in context fired from the castle of Romanism.

Tim Enloe said...

This might possibly be approached from another angle, as well. Late Medieval piety was obsessed with a hyper-spiritualistic understanding of the Christian life in the world. This view emanated in no small part from the papalist system particularly as enunciated by the Gregorian Reformers of the 11th century, which profoundly denigrated "worldly" (i.e., temporal) concerns in favor of exaggerated "spiritual" ones that, in all honesty, NO ONE could live up to. (Indeed, an 11th century bishop who opposed Gregory VII sarcastically wondered where the pope was going to get the angels that he was trying to replace all the men with.)

The monastic orders took this hyper-spiritualism and ran with it, and the increasing theological and practical abuses of the doctrine of the cult of the saints left the ordinary Christian in consternation over how he could EVER live a holy life. The Renaissance started to break this hyper-spiritual outlook down by recovering a robust sense of the goodness of created, physical life - an emphasis which ultimately led to the Reformation doctrine of lawful and fully God-honoring temporal vocations for Christians. About a hundred years before the Reformation, new world-affirming groups such as the Brethren of the Common Life arose to combat the "monkish" (as Luther would later call it) concept of the Christian life.

As is often the case when extremist positions begin to be challenged, these attempts to correct the hyperspiritual status quo were bound to produce in some people overreactions in the opposite direction. It is well known, for instance, that the Renaissance's emphasis on recovering classical and Christian antiquity produced two streams of thought - one thoroughly Christian and the other increasingly neo-pagan in orientation. Similarly, I think, the outbreak of the light of justification by faith alone in the cultural context of the often grossly hypocritical hyperspirituality of the monks and priests was bound to produce overreactions in the direction of licentious spins on Christian liberty.

None of this has nothing to do with some supposed special and grotesque flaws in Reformation doctrine; it is rather just simply human. And at any rate, advocates of the disgustingly immoral papalist system of the 16th century really don't have any business pointing fingers at Reformation excesses. No one with their eyes open to both the witness of history and the witness of the present can actually believe that papalism necessarily produces a great deal more practical godliness than other paradigms.

Andrew Suttles said...

Nice post James. You should consolidate all your Luther myths in a single, easy-to-access document or web page for handy reference - a sort of "Luther-Snopes".

You may get heavier feedback on the piety of Rome after the debauchery reaches it's climax on Tuesday.