Sunday, January 01, 2012

Luther: There are almost as many sects and beliefs as there are heads

I received a mention over on the Catholic Answers "Non-Catholic Religions" forum recently: Luther - as many sects as heads? One my older blog entries from 2006 was cited: The Evils of Private Interpretation: "There are almost as many sects and beliefs as there are heads". In that entry I documented my trouble trying to track down a primary source for a polemical Luther quote. In 2007 I revisited this same obscure quote: Luther: Sola Scriptura Had a "Devastating Effect"? Then in 2010 I did  Luther: There are nowadays almost as many sects and creeds as there are heads.

I was surprised to see that one of the folks over on the Catholic Answers board actually located a primary source for this quote: WA 18, 547. This type of thing wasn't that easy to do back in 2006.  It was the Catholic Encyclopedia which eventually gave me enough clues to find some of the document the quote was taken from. Unfortunately, the Catholic Encyclopedia was a product of its time and its references are to sources available around one hundred years ago (or older). The Internet being the amazing thing it is, some of the older references to this quote are also now available. The Catholic Encyclopedia cites De Wette, op. cit., III, 61 as does Father Patrick O'Hare, The Facts About Luther).  Hartmann Grisar cites  Erl. ed 53, p. 342. Fortunately, The Letter of doctor Martin to the Christians of Antwerp (1525) is scheduled to be translated into English in a forthcoming volume of Luther's Works.

Not much has changed over the years. I did a brief search to see how this quote was doing bouncing around cyber space. On the Catholic Debate Forum the quote is used to show the following:

Luther realized and lamented on the errors he had caused, from time to time. But he turns back and moves on with a vengence. He jumped the fence often and what was truth one day was lies the next. He had wanted to repress "theological arrogance" but ironically his actions ushered in as bad or worse and Luther says so. [source] uses the quote to show that Luther "wrote of the result" of the "Protestant theory of Sola Scriptura." This convert story From Protestant Pentecostal to Catholic uses the quote to show "Luther quickly saw the devastating effect his action had wrought." This blogger thinks the quote shows Luther "was in agony over Protestant Sectarianism." And not be forgotten, Steve Ray pumped out the quote again in his 2009 "Why I'm Catholic." While searching around, I came upon this Catholic Answers discussion from 2009 in which I participated and the quote came up. I have no recollection of this discussion, but it was entertaining nonetheless.

In my earlier blog entries (noted above) I documented the lengthy search I had to do scouring Roman Catholic materials looking for the context of this quote. Steve Ray appears to be one of the main culprits, using the quote to claim Luther saw the devastating effect of sola scriptura. However if you read the extant English context I provided, Luther does not blame sola scriptura at all, but rather Satan. The letter was written to warn Antwerp of radical leaders and groups during the peasant uprising. The peasants had sporadic outbursts of violence previous to their great uprising in the spring of 1525. Luther was very aware of the peasant situation. He had personally visited some of the peasants and was almost killed by them. Charismatic radical leaders spurred them on, using religion as part of the motivation to violently revolt against the establishment. Luther was aware of these charismatic peasant leaders, and wrote against them, and also to warn Antwerp.

The new volume of Luther's Works (vol. 60) actually provides an answer from Luther on the basic charges against him as found in the above links. Luther's Preface to Urbanus Rhegius, Refutation of the Confession of the New Valentinians and Donatists at Munster to the Christians at Osnabruck in Westphalia (1535) addresses the charges that Luther was responsible for the Anabaptist radicals. Luther puts forth the popular charge that "these sects and tumult" come from the teaching of the Lutherans:
So, because many sectarians have come from Luther's teaching (as they say), Luther's teaching must be of the devil. [But] John himself says: "They are from among us, but not of our own" [1 John 2:19]. Judas came from among Christ's disciples. Therefore, Christ is a devil. And if they wanted to take themselves by their own nose, what has come from the pope? Read the histories regarding what they themselves (not to mention their disciples)did with the emperors themselves, etc.

It is obvious that no heretic has ever come from among the heathen they have all come from the holy Christian Church. Therefore, the Church would have to be of the devil too. Now it has been of benefit to the holy Church that she confesses that those who have come out of her are heretics, condemns them, and does not maintain fellowship with them. [But] it must do us Lutherans no good that we, too, make our own confession and (condemn all the sects (though they themselves deny that they have come from us) better than [the Papists] could do it themselves. [LW 60:88]
Luther goes on to point out the Bible itself was blamed when heretics used it: "A spider sucks poison out of the lovely rose, yet the little bee finds nothing bust honey in it. Can the rose help it that its sweet honey becomes the spider's poison?" Far from blaming sola scriptura for radicals and heretics, in his letter to Antwerp of 1525 Luther rightly blames the correct culprit: "The devil seeing that this sort of disturbance could not last, has devised a new one; and begins to rage in his members, I mean in the ungodly, through whom he makes his way in all sorts of chimerical follies and extravagant doctrines."

If Roman Catholics (and others) want to use this quote from 1525 correctly, they should at least admit Luther was not lamenting sola scriptura. Lamenting over radicals using the Bible incorrectly and the basic principle that the Bible is the sole and sufficient infallible authority for the man of God are two different things.


Tim Enloe said...

The notion of a multiplicity of sects has nothing to do with sola Scriptura. The Late Middle Ages were FULL of doctrinal diversity, because, contrary to the simplistic story Catholic apologists tell, the Church had left a number of very important issues undogmatized and there was an enormous amount of freedom to hold different positions on a variety of issues.

The papalists, being absolutists who wanted their every whim to be considered unchallengable law did not like this. About 60 years before Luther, Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini, soon to be Pope Pius II wrote:

Christianity has no head whom all wish to obey. Neither the Pope nor the Emperor is rendered his due. There is no reverence, no obedience. Thus we regard the Pope and Emperor as if they bore false titles and were mere painted objects…There are as many princes as there are households. - [Cited in Defensorium Obedientiae Apostolicae Et Alia Documenta, ed. and trans. Heiko Oberman, Daniel E. Zerfoss, and William J.Courtenay (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1968), pg. 8]

This has nothing to do with Luther or with sola Scriptura. It was a common complaint of the papalists prior to the Reformation, and it had to do with the systematic breakdown of their unjust claims to absolute monarchy over both Church and State.

James Swan said...


Great point. Thanks

Exactly what is the book "Defensorium Obedientiae Apostolicae Et Alia Documenta"?

I noticed some affordable used copies.

Tim Enloe said...

The book is a Latin/German text-facing English translation of a set of documents regarding debates on the limits of papal power in the post-Conciliar Movement era leading up to the Reformation. It's very good for illuminating just how controversial the assertions of papal power over the whole Church (and the State) had become in the decades leading up to the Reformation. Since much of the book deals with controversies in Germany, it helps to contextualize Luther's protests. For those inclined to make hasty polemical arguments against the Reformation, it helps to demonstrate that no, Luther did not just make a bunch of stuff up on his own authority. He was standing firmly in a well-established tradition of resisting unjust papal power.

James Swan said...

Thanks Tim, I'm going to pick up this book at some point.

Tim Enloe said...

Another excellent one if you don't already have it is Manifestations of Discontent in Germany on the Eve of the Reformation. More primary sources from the 15th century showing how reform efforts were repeatedly stymied by the popes and their creatures, and so how pressure especially in Germany continued to build. Reading sources like these tends to make the historically-minded person realize just how out of control the papalist system was for the last century before the Reformation, and so how justifiable the outbreak of the Reformation actually was.

Jose Denis said...

Do you have any non-germanic sources to support your premise? Supporting ones position citing German sources is feeble at best. Seems like the Germans have always been a controversial and trouble-making people.

James Swan said...

Do you have any non-germanic sources to support your premise? Supporting ones position citing German sources is feeble at best. Seems like the Germans have always been a controversial and trouble-making people.

Yes, if you look through a few of the links I put together previously, I did provide an English translation.

I hope that meets your approval.

steelikat said...

"Germans have always been a controversial and trouble-making people."

Outrageous! I'll have you know, I resemble that remark!