Monday, August 22, 2016

Luther: We are living in Sodom and Babylon, everything is daily getting worse

Here's a Luther quote from the book, Henry O'Connor, Luther's Own Statements Concerning His Teaching and Its Results: Taken Exclusively from the Earliest and Best Editions of Luther's German and Latin Works (1884), p. 56.

"About a year before his death, Luther confesses: "We are living in Sodom and Babylon everything is daily getting worse" [De Wette V. 722].

This quote is typically used by older generations of Rome's defenders as proof of the failure of the Reformation (or something like Luther's regrets or concession to the failure of the Reformation, etc.).  O'Connor uses it to describe the "Results of Luther's Teaching," specifically the "Moral Results" that there was a "Lower State of General Morality."

Luther's Own Statements Concerning His Teaching and Its Results is an old small anthology of Luther quotes peppered with vilifying commentary from O’Connor. In an early edition of this work, the author was so sure of his effort he originally titled the book, "The Only Reliable Evidence Concerning Martin Luther." The author claims to have compiled the quotes from the original sources: “Nearly two-thirds of the matter contained in this pamphlet is taken from the original editions of Luther’s own Works, as published in Wittenberg, under the very eye of the Reformer of Germany himself”(p. 3) He says “I have taken special care not to quote anything, that would have a different meaning, if read with the full context”(p.5).

Other forms of this quote can also be found:
Above all the disintegration of moral and social life, the epidemic ravages of vice and immorality, and that in the very cradle of the Reformation, even in his very household, nearly drove him frantic. "We live in Sodom and Babylon, affairs are growing daily worse", is his lament (De Wette, op. cit., V, 722) [Catholic Encyclopedia. Link].
The "great work of the Reformation," i.e. of real reform, to which Luther appeals unless he was prepared to regard it as consisting solely in the damage done to the Roman Church surely demanded that, at least at Wittenberg and in Luther s immediate sphere, some definite fruits in the shape of real moral amelioration should be apparent. Yet it was precisely of Wittenberg and his own surroundings that Luther complained so loudly. The increase of every kind of disorder caused him to write to George of Anhalt: "We live in Sodom and Babylon, or rather must die there; the good men, our Lots and Daniels, whom we so urgently need now that things are daily becoming worse, are snatched from us by death" (March 9, 1545, " Briefe," ed. De Wette, 5, p. 722, letter called forth by the death of -George Held Forchheim, to whom the Prince was much attached) [Hartmann Grisar, Luther 4:215].

The footnote "De Wette V. 722" refers to page 722 in the fifth volume in a set of Luther's letters edited by Dr. Wilhelm Martin Leberecht de Wette (5 vols., Berlin, 1825-8), Dr. Martin Luthers Briefe, Sendschreiben und BedenkenPage 722 can be found here.

As Grisar mentioned above, this is a letter to Prince George of Anhalt, March, 9, 1545 in regard to the death of George Held, pastor of the church in Forchheim. Prince George was one of three brothers whose territories were favorable to the Reformation (See LW 38:142).

To my knowledge, this letter has no official English rendering in any of the collections of Luther's writings.  However, a lengthy section of it is included in John Scott, The History of the Church, pages 517-519.

Grace and peace to you in Christ! So then, most illustrious prince, our friend Heldus is gone, leaving us to lament him! O my God, at a time when we have need of many holy men to comfort and strengthen us by their prayers, their counsels, and their assistance, thou takest away even the few that are left us! We know, O God, that the prayers and the labours of the departed, who most ardently loved and zealously served thy Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, and was most useful to thy church, were well-pleasing in thy sight.—Certainly I myself placed great confidence in his prayers, and derived great consolation from them. How severe a wound then must you have suffered, most excellent prince, by the removal of one with whom you lived on terms of such faithful and endeared friendship. But it is well with him. Gathered to his fathers and to his people, he finds more and better companions there than he has left behind. But our lot is trying, who live, or drag on a sort of dying existence, here in Sodom and Babylon, and find the number of good men diminish in proportion as the state of things, daily declining towards what is worse, requires an increase of them. But the wisdom of God is to be adored, who, when he is about to accomplish something great, and surpassing our hopes, first seems to annihilate all expectation, and to reduce us to despair: as it is written, He bringeth down to the grave, (ad inferos,) and bringeth up again. He does this, to teach us the exercise of faith, hope, and love towards him; and that we may learn to esteem things not seen above those which do appear, and against hope to believe in hope, and to depend on him who calleth things which are not as though they were. Then, while he takes away from us all his most pleasant gifts, and exhibits himself to us as if his kindness and his loveliness had come utterly to an end, at that very time he is thinking most especially, and I might almost say anxiously, the thoughts of love towards us. By means like these it is that the old man is slain—the body of sin destroyed. —Wherefore comfort yourself, most excellent prince, according to the rich measure in which it has been given you to know God the Father and his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, and to meditate on all the operations of his hands. It shall be my prayer, that the God of all consolation would confirm and strengthen you by his Holy Spirit, until the appointed end of these trials be accomplished. For, as it is said in Jeremiah, He doth not willingly grieve the childen of men. And Augustine says, God would not permit evil to exist, if he had not some greater good to bring out of it.—We are yet in the flesh, and know not what to ask or how to ask it; that is, to ask what is good for us: but He, who is able to do above all we ask or think, careth for us: he can do for us beyond what the narrowness of our hearts allows us to desire, or even to imagine. But it is necessary, in order to his doing this, that he should first take from us those things which we think we cannot do without; or at least think that their absence would occasion us great injury or great danger. Scripture abounds with examples to this effect. Adam and Eve were almost intoxicated with high expectations from Cain: God deprived them of both their sons, and almost reduced them to despair: but then He that quickeneth the dead, and createth all things out of nothing, gave them another seed, and an unfailing posterity. Abraham promised himself great things from Ishmael, Isaac from Esau, Jacob from Reuben, his first born; but all these hopes must receive a death-blow, that new and immortal hopes might take their place. God is mighty and faithful: he promises and he performs.— Let us bewail our departed friend then, because his light is lost, as the son of Sirach says, yet not to himself but to us. To him his light burns more brightly, and shall burn for ever. Soon too our light shall fail here, but be rekindled and perfected in that better state, through him who is at once our Light and our Life. Amen! In Him may your highness ever fare well !"

At the beginning of this entry I cited three Roman Catholic historians referring to this letter. O'Connor used it to describe Luther's confession to the negative moral results of his teaching. The Catholic Encyclopedia used it to demonstrate "the disintegration of moral and social life," and "the epidemic ravages of vice and immorality... in the very cradle of the Reformation, even in his very household, [which] nearly drove him frantic." Hartmann Grisar (the tamest of the three) used it to demonstrate that Luther's was not a "great work of the Reformation" or of "real reform" because at Wittenberg (Luther's place of residence), he "complained" about the behavior of the general population. One wonders if any of these three men actually read this letter- which was overtly pastoral in nature devoted to the needs of someone else. It was not a letter of Luther complaining or bemoaning his own personal situation in Wittenberg. It isn't even certain if Luther was referring to Wittenberg in this letter or if he was referring to the general state of the world (it appears to me he may have simply meant the later).

Henry O'Connor immediately goes on to state:
The town of Wittenberg was the principal scene of father's activity. It was there that he resided. It was there, if anywhere, that the results of his teaching ought to have made themselves felt. Now, about seven months before his death, Luther wrote to his wife, "Away from this Sodom (Wittenberg)... I will wander about, and sooner beg my bread than allow my poor old last days to be martyred and upset with the disorder of Wittenberg" (Luther's Letter to his Wife, July, 1545, de Wette 753-) (p.56).
For O'Connor, this is documentary proof for the following: 
Every reasonable person will agree with me, that Luther can only have been a Reformer chosen by Almighty God, if his teaching caused an increase of virtue and a decrease of vice. If, however, it can be plainly shown, that in consequence of his teaching there was, on the contrary, an increase of vice and a decrease of virtue, we must come to the conclusion, that Luther had not the sanction of God for the work which he undertook (p.50). 
I've covered this notion from O'Connor previously. This sentiment captures the gist of  the earlier generations of Rome's polemicists. They are correct that towards the end of his life Luther lamented over Wittenberg to the point of briefly leaving (see LW 50:273-281). Set aside the notion of Luther's despondency over Wittenberg for a moment and consider the following:. Is O'Connor's argument biblically true? Were those chosen by God in the role of prophets, teachers, or preachers guaranteed the results of "an increase of virtue and a decrease of vice"? Think of the Old Testament prophets. They typically came with messages that the people did not heed, nor want to hear- and this provoked God's judgment. If one were to evaluate their calling and ministry based on O'Connor's paradigm, we could throw out more than a few prophets. Consider some of the early churches in the New Testament as well. Corinth was given a rather pure dose of apostolic teaching, was it not? When one reads 1 and 2 Corinthians, the moral state of the church described by Paul is less than stellar. Latter on in an an early post-biblical document, 1 Clement, we find the Corinthian church still in disarray. Or, take the argument and apply it to Rome's infallible magisterium and pick a century or a recent decade.

As has been expressed in a number of other Beggars All entries, Luther had no expectations that the Gospel would transform the masses of society. For Luther, it was the end of the world. Things were going to get worse. The Gospel was going to be fought against by the Devil with all his might. The true church was a tiny flock in a battle against the world, the flesh, and the Devil. He hoped the people would improve with the preaching of the Gospel, he often admitted he knew things were going to get worse because of the Gospel. 


Unknown said...

Luther's quote was very apt to the situation. This was really used by the old generation to indicate the failure during the time of reform. But considering this quote really it suit with almost all life situation.Success is not all the thing sometimes we may be defeated and that becomes our experiences to win next time.
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James Swan said...

This was really used by the old generation to indicate the failure during the time of reform

Yes, that's correct. Now with these old Roman Catholic sources available online, they live again.