Thursday, May 28, 2020

Luther: The Soul is Not Immortal?

Did Luther deny the immortality of the soul? Here's the "go to" Luther quote proving he did:
"But I permit the Pope to make articles of faith for himself and his faithful, such as [1]The Bread and wine are transubstantiated in the sacrament. [2] The essence of God neither generates, nor is generated. [3] The soul is the substantial form of the human body. [4] The Pope is the emperor of the world, and the king of heaven, and God upon earth. [5] The soul is immortal, with all those monstrous opinions to be found in the Roman dunghill of decretals, that such as his faith is, such may be his gospel, such his disciples, and such his church, that the mouth may have meat suitable for it, and the dish, a cover worthy of it."
This sort of historical polemic is typical of Seventh-Day Adventists (SDA). According to this group, at death, a person enters "soul sleep."  The soul sleeps in a state of hibernation until the resurrection.  When awakened, it is reunited with its body. The soul is either sent off to eternity or permanently annihilated. Therefore, the immortality of the soul is denied. Seventh-Day Adventists apologetics often claim Luther as a representative of this entire eschatological paradigm.

In the quote, Luther says "the Pope" declared it an article of faith that "the soul was immortal."  This article of faith, according to Luther, is found "in the Roman dunghill of decretals." A plain reading of this quote does blatantly appear to prove Luther denied the immortality of the soul.  Contrarily, this entry will argue against this plain reading: Luther did not deny the immortality of the soul. There's an ambiguity in the quote that only make sense in the light of Luther's harsh criticism of the "articles of faith" of Fifth Lateran Council, a council that took place only a short time before he made this statement.

This Luther quote is a popular cut-and-paste.  The form used above includes bracketed numbers, very similar to the version found in the pro-Seventh Day Adventist book The Conditionalist Faith of Our Fathers Vol. 2 (1955), by Le Roy Edwin Froom.  On Page 73 Froom articulates the typical SDA interpretation of the quote:
The implication is clear: These were distinctive Catholic doctrines, expressing the Roman faith, and consequently consistent with Catholic dogmas. But they were at variance with the Protestant scripturalism proclaimed by Luther, for the Biblical concept of the nature and the destiny of man had been woefully warped by the Papacy.
Froom probably did not sift out this Luther statement himself. A cursory search demonstrates a lengthy history of use of this anglicized quote. The form can be found as far back as 1772. Interestingly, in both Froom and the 1772 text, both authors capitalize Luther saying, "THE SOUL IS IMMORTAL." What are the odds of that? Whoever translated this quote into English from the Latin did so at least over two hundred years ago and it's been cut-and-pasted in roughly this same form ever since, first in books, now in cyber-space.

Froom and many SDA writings correctly say the quote is from Luther's response to the papal bull Exsurge Domine, in particular, Luther's Assertion of All the Articles Wrongly Condemned in the Roman Bull, November 29, 1520. What they often don't tell you is Luther actually penned four responses in rapid fire to Exsurge Domine. The one being cited is the third: Assertio omnium articulorum M. Lutheri per bummam Leonis X.  To my knowledge, no complete English translation exists. The text can be found in WA 7: 131-132.

Probo hunc sic: i. Corint, iii. Fundamentum aliud nemo potest ponere praeter id quod positum est, quod est Iesus Christus”. Hic habes fundamentum ab Apostolis positum. At omnis articulus fidei est pars huius fundamenti, quare poni alius articulus quam positus est nullus potest, Superaedificari autem potest, ut idem dicit. Et ideo Papa debet nobiscum poni et super aedificari, non autem ponere: omnia enim credenda sunt in scripturis exposita plene.
 Permitto tamen, quod Papa condat articulos suae fidei et suis fidelibus, quales sunt, panem et vinum transsubstantiari in sacramento, Essentiam dei nec generare nec generari, Animam esse formam substantialem corporis humani, Se esse Imperatorem mundi et regem coeli et deum terrenum, Animam esse immortalem, Et omnia illa infinita portenta in Romano sterquilinio Decretorum, ut, qualis est eius fides, tale sit Euangelium, tales et fideles, talis et Ecclesia, et habeant similem labra lactucam et dignum patella sit operculum.
Nos vero, qui non Papani sed Christiani sumus, scimus, quod nihil est fidei et bonorum morum, quod non abunde in literis sacris sit expositum, ut neque ius neque locus sit alia statuendi ullis hominibus.
It's obvious how someone would arrive at the conclusion from this text that Luther denied the immortality of the soul. Luther does blatantly say it is found "in the Roman dunghill of decretals." This obvious interpretation though is faulty. The quote has to be understood in light of Luther's criticism of the Fifth Lateran Council, particularly it's decree that the soul is immortal formulated at the eighth session of December 1513 under the jurisdiction of Pope Leo X. 

The Latin text above comes from Luther's third response to Exsurge Domine from late 1520. He went on only a few months later to write a fourth, Grund und Ursach aller Artikel D. Martin Luthers so durch römische Bulle unrechtlich verdammt sind (March, 1521), in English known as Defense and explanation of All the Articles.  According to LW 32, Luther considered the fourth "'smoother and simpler' than the preceding efforts" (LW 32:5; cf. Smith, 442-443). In the fourth version, Luther addresses the issue:
Hence the experts in Rome have recently pronounced a holy decree which establishes that the soul of man is immortal, acting as if we did not all say in our common Creed, “I believe in the life everlasting.” And, with the assistance of the mastermind Aristotle, they decreed further that the soul is “essentially the form of the human body,” and many other splendid articles of a similar nature. These decrees are, indeed, most appropriate to the papal church, for they make it possible for them to hold fast to human dreams and the doctrines of devils while they trample upon and destroy faith and the teaching of Christ (LW 32: 77–78). 
The "experts in Rome" refers to the recent pronouncement by the Fifth Lateran Council.  Luther's Works contains an interesting footnote at this point which states, "Luther objects to the substitution of philosophical ideas concerning the immortality of the soul for the biblical teaching of the resurrection and the life everlasting." According to LW, Luther is condemning philosophical speculation in the guise of infallible church pronouncements. He’s not denying the immortality of the soul. He makes this clear in the use of comparison to the "common creed." and the biblical doctrine of "life everlasting." Lest this interpretation seem post hoc, consider Luther's similar statements on the Fifth Lateran Council and the immortality of the soul found elsewhere in his written corpus:
Whoever has been in Rome knows that conditions are unfortunately worse there than anyone can say or believe. When the last Lateran council was to be concluded in Rome under Pope Leo, among other articles it was decreed that one must believe the soul to be immortal. From this one may gather that they make eternal life an object of sheer mockery and contempt. In this way they confess that it is a common belief among them that there is no eternal life, but that they now wish to proclaim this by means of a bull (LW 47:37-38).
The Roman See should do away with the officia, and cut down the creeping, crawling swarm of vermin at Rome, so that the pope’s household can be supported out of the pope’s own pocket. The pope should not allow his court to surpass the courts of all kings in pomp and extravagance, because this kind of thing not only has never been of any use to the cause of the Christian faith, but has kept the courtesans from study and prayer until they are hardly able to speak about the faith at all. This they proved quite flagrantly at this last Roman council, in which, among many other childish and frivolous things, they decreed that the soul of man is immortal and that every priest must say his prayers once a month unless he wants to lose his benefice. How can the affairs of Christendom and matters of faith be settled by men who are hardened and blinded by gross avarice, wealth, and worldly splendor, and who now for the first time decree that the soul is immortal? It is no small shame to the whole of Christendom that they deal so disgracefully with the faith at Rome. If they had less wealth and pomp, they could pray and study more diligently to be worthy and diligent in dealing with matters of faith, as was the case in ancient times when bishops did not presume to be the kings of kings (LW 44:163).
Notice in the first quote, Luther charges the papists,  "they confess that it is a common belief among them that there is no eternal life," and then in the second, he says, "now for the first time decree that the soul is immortal."  Why would Luther make such statements about the Fifth Lateran Council?  He explains in various places that the papists of his day did not believe in the resurrection:
And the Turks perform the same holy works as some of our monks and hope for everlasting life at the Judgment Day, for, holy people that they are, they believe in the resurrection of the dead, though few of the papists believe in it (LW 46:177).
But so as to not erase everything [decreed in the Fifth Lateran Council], [Pope Leo X] left in that sweetest decree, namely that one must henceforth believe, or at least teach, that the soul is immortal. With this decree it was not their intention to provide for themselves, but for the wretched Church of God. For neither Leo himself nor his Curia believed this; and still today they do not believe it. Rather, they consider those who believe and confess it to be fools (LW 60:306). [footnote #19, "...[I]t has been argued that he rejected the doctrine of the soul's immortality to which he opposed belief in the resurrection of the body. Luther however, did not see the two teachings in opposition, and his argument here suggests that materially he accepts the council's position on this point while being doubtful of the faith of the Roman prelates."]
Just as the Sadducees believed, so do the Papists believe that there is no resurrection of the dead (LW 58:247). [Footnote: Luther argued that the need to dogmatize the doctrine of the immortality of the soul in the bull Apostolici regiminis of the Fifth Lateran Council was an indication that the Roman theologians did not believe in eternal life].
Luther did actually affirm the immortality of the soul in his writings. In "the philosophers, like Socrates and others," Luther says they rightly believed the soul was immortal, even though the proofs they used were done "so coldly that they seem to be setting forth mere fables"  (LW 15:59). Luther maintained attempting to prove its immortality simply by "human reason" was folly because "it is not a thing 'under the sun' to believe that the soul is immortal. In the world it is neither seen nor understood as certain that souls are immortal" (LW 15:59).

In regard to the biblical testimony, Luther says the Genesis account has it in the resting of God on the seventh day: "this also implies the immortality of the human race" (LW 1:80). When commenting on Ecclesiastes 3:19-20 that at death all go back to dust, Luther says,
This passage cannot be twisted to refer to the mortality of the soul, for he is speaking about things under the sun. The world, of course, cannot understand or believe that the soul is immortal. (LW 15:59).
SDA apologists do not deny that some souls go on into eternity. Their contention is that some souls do not, and are annihilated at the final judgment. In fairness to them, Luther does use the phrase "eternal death" liberally and often ambiguously.  For instance, "Those who do not believe, then, who do not receive Him, will be punished with eternal death" (LW 12:57). Does he mean annihilation or eternal conscious punishment? 

A survey of his writings suggests the later. In LW 76:412, Luther said that "the godless goes from life and feels death eternally." In commenting on 1 Thes. 4:13-18, he says that those without hope "must expect that after this life they will receive eternal death and the wrath of God in hell and must fear to go there" (LW 53:325-326). In expounding on the death of Jesus, he had to "taste" eternal death in the place of sinners, "He must suffer everything that a condemned sinner has deserved and must suffer eternally" (LW 12:127). By implication, Luther was not presenting a Christology in which Christ ceases to exist!  One of the most explicit passages from Luther on conscious eternal torment occurs in his treatment of Psalm 21:9 (cf. WA 5:590-591):
Ver. 9. — Thou shalt put them into an oven of fire in the time of thy countenance : the Lord shall swallow them up in his wrath, and the fire shall devour them.
The prophet here beautifully sets the circumstances themselves before our eyes : for this is exactly how it is with the wicked when the hand of God finds them out on a sudden, and visits them: for then they are taken, and find themselves in the midst of their straits, so that they would, if they could, flee from the sight of his wrath, or from this revelation of a just and angry God; but they cannot flee from it; and therefore, they call like them in Hosea x. 8, 'Ye mountains, fall oh us, and ye hills, cover us." But all is in vain; for they are compelled to endure that day and that revelation of eternal wrath; and then there begins fear, trembling, flight, and intolerable horror, which makes them to burn in that unspeakable eternal fire. All external fire is nothing when compared with this eternal fire: and therefore, David very appropriately describes them as being made like unto an oven of fire ; or, as we say in Latin, a fiery oven; which has not only fire all around it, but scorches and burns within. And thus Abraham, Gen. xix. saw Sodom and Gomorrah burning, and the smoke of them going up as from a furnace.
And this mighty and intolerable punishment God brings on men by his "countenance" only: that is, by the revelation of his wrath; as David here says, " Thou shalt make them like unto a fiery oven in the time of thy countenance." And 2 Thess. i. 9, "Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction, from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power." And Psalm xxxiv. 16, " But the face of the Lord is against them that do evil." In a word, this is that punishment which none can understand, nor have any idea of, but the damned who feel it: so that it is even awful to meditate upon the words of this verse, so appropriately and descriptively does David set the whole forth. — This oven is set on fire by the intolerable sight of God only, and is to burn to all eternity. For the day of Judgment will not endure for a moment only, but will remain for ever: it will never set: the wicked will be judged for ever and ever, and will be tormented for ever and ever, and the oven will burn for ever and ever: that is, the wicked will be tormented inwardly with the extreme of all straits and tribulation.
Did Luther deny the immortality of the soul? Not at all. True, Luther did at times advocate "soul sleep." He did so in somewhat undogmatic terms, at times cautioning his readers that we don’t have full understanding of this subject. Some times he advocates it clearly,  other times he says things that contradict it (see my entry here). This is only a cursory glimpse into his writings. Much more could be added, but what is presented is enough to demonstrate that some Seventh-Day Adventist apologetics are not presenting a clear picture of the historical record.


TommyK said...

James, Amazing how Satan and the Seventh Day Adventists will use the Reformers and their writings against the Papacy in a positive fashion to try and draw unsuspecting folks into their cult. Expose a heresy in the Papacy by using the Reformers; then turn around and throw more water into the wine. The book of Acts (Acts 16:16-17 Acts 8:9-24) has several accounts of false exorcists and people with ulterior motives positively acknowledging the Apostles - only to draw money and disciples to themselves and their false doctrines. As you know, just look at the Apostasy in the majority of Lutheran Churches; putting their Creeds in the closet while praising the Pope and allowing more and more liberalism into their Churches; yet they occasionally acknowledge Luther. The fact that Luther continually acknowledged eternal punishments refutes the Adventist claim that the soul is immortal and how they have taken his writings out of text. I have not researched for it; but it would not surprise me if the Jesuits have tried to distort reality and claim that Luther taught free-will. Thanks for the post in defending Luther against all the croaking frogs! Tommy

James Swan said...

Amazing how Satan and the Seventh Day Adventists will use the Reformers and their writings against the Papacy in a positive fashion to try and draw unsuspecting folks into their cult.

Yeah, one of the reasons why I look into these quotes is it's fascinating to see how people use the facts of history to support their own view.