Saturday, November 10, 2012

Luther's Prayers for the Dead

I recently checked in to see what Crossed the Tiber has posted, and came across this: All Soul's Day. Pray For the Church Suffering. The basic thrust of the post is that praying for the souls in purgatory is an historical practice of the church, the ancient church as well as...
16th century theologians: "Dear God, if the departed souls be in a state that they yet may be helped then I pray that you would be gracious. When you have thus prayed once or twice, then let it be sufficient and commend them unto God." (Martin Luther)
This Luther quote is indeed authentic, however, Luther eventually denied the reality of purgatory, so saying Luther allowed prayers for the dead is not the same thing as Luther allowed prayers for the dead in purgatory. While Luther early on believed in Purgatory, he soon denied it at his Reformation career progressed :
"When in 1518 [Luther] further explained his fifteenth thesis, he remarked: 'I am very certain that there is a purgatory,'... In the Leipzig debate of the following year purgatory was discussed at length...Luther there said he knew that there is a purgatory. The dispute was about the nature of the institution rather than its existence. The 'orthodox' Romanists contended for the meritorious character of the purging. But increasingly Luther could find no room for this figment in Scripture theology. By November 7, 1519, he had progressed far enough to write to Spalatin: 'It is certain that no one is a heretic who does not believe that there is a purgatory,' although he had still professed to believe in its existence in February of that year. In fact, also in the following year in 1520, he still holds to it. But thereafter his language becomes different until...he calls it a fabrication of the devil" [Plass, What Luther Says Volume 1 (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1959), p. 387-388 n.25.
As to the quote in question, it comes from the treatise, Confession Concerning Christ's Supper (1528):
But the pardons or indulgences which the papal church has and dispenses are a blasphemous deception, not only because it invents and devises a special forgiveness beyond the general forgiveness which in the whole Christian Church is bestowed through the gospel and the sacrament and thus desecrates and nullifies the general forgiveness, but also because it establishes and bases satisfaction for sins upon the works of men and the merits of saints, whereas only Christ can make and has made satisfaction for us. As for the dead, since Scripture gives us no information on the subject, I regard it as no sin to pray with free devotion in this or some similar fashion: “Dear God, if this soul is in a condition accessible to mercy, be thou gracious to it.” And when this has been done once or twice, let it suffice. For vigils and requiem masses and yearly celebrations of requiems are useless, and are merely the devil’s annual fair. Nor have we anything in Scripture concerning purgatory. It too was certainly fabricated by goblins. Therefore, I maintain it is not necessary to believe in it; although all things are possible to God, and he could very well allow souls to be tormented after their departure from the body. But he has caused nothing of this to be spoken or written, therefore he does not wish to have it believed, either. I know of a purgatory, however, in another way, but it would not be proper to teach anything about it in the church, nor on the other hand, to deal with it by means of endowments or vigils. Luther, M. (1999, c1961). Vol. 37: Luther's works, vol. 37 : Word and Sacrament III (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther's Works (37:369). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.
Don't be confused by Luther's comment about knowing Purgatory "in another way." This other way has nothing to do with the dead or those suffering after they died.

The difference between Crossed the Tiber and Luther certainly becomes apparent when the quote is put back into a larger context. Praying for the souls in purgatory with "vigils and requiem masses and yearly celebrations" are, according to Luther, "the devil’s annual fair."  In his Preface to the Burial Hymns (1542), he states, "Accordingly, we have removed from our churches and completely abolished the popish abominations, such as vigils, masses for the dead, processions, purgatory, and all other hocus-pocus on behalf of the dead" (LW 53:325).

This doesn't mean that there should not be any funeral services. Commenting on Rachel's tomb (Gen. 35: 20), Luther states:
"The fathers decorated sepulchers magnificently. They did not throw away the dead like the bodies of beasts, but they set up memorials of them for a perpetual and immortal reminder so that they might be testimonies of the future resurrection, which they believed and expected. Therefore funeral ceremonies and the funeral procession are to be retained, and likewise the weeping and sympathy, not that there should be prayers for the dead, as Lyra wishes, or that we should fear death, but rather that in death itself we should learn to exercise faith as it struggles against the terrors of death and think that we indeed die and are buried in dishonor but that we will rise again in glory" (LW 6:273).
The basic thrust of Luther's thought at times is that he won't stop someone for praying for the dead, however sparsely, but linking it to purgatory and the ceremonies and practices that had made it an essential was to be avoided:
But if anyone says: in this way purgatory will also be denied, I answer: if you do not believe in a purgatory, you are not therefore a heretic. The Scriptures know nothing of it. It is better that you disbelieve what is not taught in the Scriptures, than that you reject what is found in the Scriptures. Let the pope and papists be as angry as they will. They have made an article of faith of purgatory because it has brought them the world’s riches—and sent innumerable souls into hell, since they placed their reliance on works and consoled themselves with the thought that works would bring them release. God has given no command concerning purgatory; he has commanded you not to consult the dead nor to believe what they say. Accept God as more reliable and truthful than all angels, and let the pope and his papists keep silence, the more so since their doctrines are lies and deceit which do little to inspire faith in purgatory. I will not stop you if you desire to offer prayers for the dead. In my opinion purgatory is not our common lot, as they teach; I think very few souls get there. Nevertheless, as I said, there is no danger at all for your soul if you do not believe in purgatory. You are not obliged to believe more than what is taught in the Scriptures (LW 52:180).
I can certainly understand why a Roman Catholic would point out the few instances in which Luther allows for praying for the dead. Since it is an important practice in their system in regard to salvation, finding that Luther allowed for it to a degree serves as an apologetic. However, when Luther is placed in his context, and when Romanists are placed in theirs, praying for the dead simply doesn't mean the same thing. Crossed the Tiber concludes by stating of purgatory,
"I am no longer freaked out by it but am thankful to God for his grace and mercy towards us in that we have an opportunity to be purged of the last vestiges of sin that we are attached to before we step into His throne room."
Luther speaks quite differently. Commenting on the death of Electtor Duke John of Saxony, Luther stated:
"It is my hope that we too shall die this way and carry with us to heaven a poor sinner, if only we hold on to this cloak and wrap ourselves in the death of the Son of God and cover and veil ourselves with his resurrection. If we stand firmly upon this and never depart from it, then our righteousness will be so great that all our sins, no matter what they are, will be as a tiny spark and our righteousness as a great ocean, and our death will be far less than a sleep and a dream. Moreover, the shame of our being buried so nastily is covered with a dignity which is called the resurrection of Jesus Christ, by which it is so adorned that the sun is put to shame when it looks upon it and the beloved angels cannot gaze upon it sufficiently. We are graced and adorned with such beauty that all the other uncleanness of our poor body, such as death and the like, are as nothing. Hence, one must look upon a Christian death with different eyes, not the way a cow stares at a new gate, and smells it in a different way, not as a cow sniffs grass, by learning to speak and think of it as the Scriptures do and not considering deceased Christians to be dead and buried people. To the five senses that is the way it appears. As far as they can lead us, it brings only woe. Therefore go beyond them and listen to what St. Paul says here, that they are sleeping in Christ and God will bring them with Christ [as he brought with him the Savior, the devourer of death, the destroyer of the devil]. Learn to comfort yourselves with these words and instil in your hearts the fact that it is far more certain that Duke John of Saxony will come out of the grave and be far more splendid than the sun is now [cf. Dan. 12:3; Isa. 60:19] than that he is lying here before our eyes. This is not so certain as the fact that he will live again and go forth with Christ because God cannot lie. But take it to heart! For he who does not have this comfort can neither comfort himself nor be happy, but the more the Word escapes him the more the consolation also escapes him" (LW 51: 238-239).


Martin Yee said...

Hi James,

Great refutation again. Luther and the Lutherans owe you a great deal. Thanks!


Russ Rentler, M.D. said...

James, would you elaborate on Augustine's statement that was also in my article in light of Luther's later denial of the doctrine of purgatory?
"The universal Church observes this law, handed down from the Fathers, that prayers should be offered for those who have died in the communion of the Body and Blood of Christ when they are commemorated in their proper place at the Sacrifice"
Though Luther later came to a place that his theology would not allow for prayers and suffrages for the dead, how do we reconcile his development of theology with the teachings of the early Christians?

PeaceByJesus said...

Just reading this today, and thought it to be fitting here (as well as the CA Roast post):

We can see, in looking at Luther, great and glorious Luther, how Romanism tinged all that he did more or less; and the darkness of the age cast some gloom even over the serene and steadfast soul of Calvin; of each one of the reformers we must say the same; bright stars as all of these were, yet they kept not themselves untarnished by the sphere in which they shone. Every man is more or less affected by his age, and we are obliged, as we read history, to make continual allowances, for we all admit that it would not be fair to judge the men of former times by the standard of the nineteenth century.

Teaching is often judged, not by its own value, but by the prejudices which people may happen to have concerning the source from which it comes.

There is a tendency, among us all, I suppose, to choose some part of the truth, and attach undue importance to that, to the neglect of other truths.

Truth lies between two extremes, and man, like a pendulum, swings either too much this way or that.

The right way usually lies between two extremes: it is the narrow channel between the rock and the whirlpool. - Spurgeon (Backsliding Through Bias - Spurgeon .us)

Anonymous said...

Purgatory IS found in scripture! This is Hades/ Sheol/ Purgatory... Different languages, same thing. Even the parable of Lazuras suggests such a place, as does the decension of Jesus, after being crucified and the gates to Heaven were reopened.

James Swan said...

Hi Heather,

I typically don't engage tangents on particular entries, which is why I didn't engage Dr. Rentler above.

Purgatory, as you seem to understand it, is being read back into the Bible rather than exegeted out of the Bible.

Unknown said...

I'm puzzled why you responded to Heather and not Dr it not after all his article that you critiqued? It would seem that if anyone has a right to comment and to have that comment responded to, it would be him.

James Swan said...

There could have been a number of reasons. There are times when I I'm too busy to respond to blog comments that are tangential to the post in question.

At the time, had Dr. Rentler admitted he was presenting an inaccurate picture of Luther and made the necessary corrections to his blog entry, perhaps I would've taken his comment with more seriousness.

I just checked his entry, and it still appears to be in the same form as I found it in 2012.

PeaceByJesus said...

Old post I know, but if Luther still allowed for the possibility of a postmortem purgatorial existence and a prayer for the dead in 1528, then it would seem to militate against the charge that the primary reason Luther opposed the apocryphal books of the OT is that they taught doctrines he did not like, such as praying for the dead.

PeaceByJesus said...

Though Luther later came to a place that his theology would not allow for prayers and suffrages for the dead, how do we reconcile his development of theology with the teachings of the early Christians?

Seeing as Rome's own development of theology includes beliefs contrary to teachings of the early Christians, esp. those manifest in Scripture , the question is, how can Rome reconcile these?

The answer is that, as the CE states, the Catholic church judges them more than she is judged by them, but which extends to Scripture. For Rome has presumed to infallibly declare she is and will be perpetually infallible whenever she speaks in accordance with her infallibly defined (scope and subject-based) formula, which renders her declaration that she is infallible, to be infallible, as well as all else she accordingly declares.