Issues with Luther: The Rabbit Hole of Doom!

A week or two back, I started writing about how to think about things that appear to be conspiracies but maybe are not. As is surprisingly often the case when writing about the afflictions of the modern world, this somehow brought me back to Luther. This is not as crazy as it may at first seem, as the pseudo-conspiracy under discussion was universal compulsory education, for which the first great champion was Luther. The catch: not only is Luther one of the most written about characters in history, not only did he write a haystack of papers himself,  but he’s also one of the most contentious figures ever. No matter what anyone says about him, there will be a small army to dispute it.

This makes saying much of anything about Luther with any confidence a bit tricky. One must, to a large extent, stick to the old school approach of reading what Luther wrote first, then, if there’s any time left, read what people say about him – otherwise, you’ll get swallowed whole by the dispute, wherein he is a saint or a demon and rarely anything else.

An example: Here is a semi-scholarly collection of writings by Catholics that criticize Luther harshly, put together by a James Swan. The essential claim, as quoted by the author:

“It took Roman Catholicism a long time to come round to giving Luther a cold and careful look. For over four and a half centuries, since the night that Luther nailed up his Ninety-five Theses against Indulgences on 31 October 1517, Roman Catholicism took an unrelenting line of vicious invective and vile abuse against Luther’s person, while virtually disregarding his vital and vivid religious experience, his commanding and irrefutable biblical theology, and his consuming concern to reform the Church according to the teaching and purpose of its founder, Jesus Christ. It is one thing to offer criticism; it is quite another to hurl scurrilous abuse: the former creates and maintains some relationships; the latter will deaden and destroy any relationship that exists.”

There’s no bias there, uh-uh.

One could spend days tracking down each of these sources, even aided by the internet. I tracked down one, an easy one, just for kicks: a reference to the entry in the Catholic Encyclopedia, written by  George Ganss. Swan quotes  James Atkinson approvingly, as giving an “accurate summary” of the entry:

“He declares that Luther inherited a wild temper from his father, who was an irascible man almost carried to murder by his fits of temper. Ganss denies that Luther ever had a true vocation to the monastic life; and suggests that in the monastery he became the victim of inward conflicts. He also claims that Luther was unfaithful both to the rules of his order and to the teaching of the Church, and that his infidelity brought on very deep depressions of a mental and spiritual kind. Ganss attributes Luther’s consequent despair to a false understanding of the Roman teaching on good works, and describes his break with the church as the product of reforming zeal that degenerated into political rebellion. The reformer is portrayed as a revolutionary who, in the enforced leisure of his sojourn at the Wartburg, broke down under sensuality; it is alleged that in his book On Monastic Vows, Luther pleads for an unbridled license.

Note that we’re not talking here of the accuracy of Ganss’ assertions – it’s all but impossible to verify without either picking a source and trusting it or doing a mountain of research. But it is possible to check if Ganss says what Atkinson says he says. For example:

“Ganss denies that Luther ever had a true vocation to the monastic life.”

The article:

“…it is evident that his vocation, if it ever existed, was in jeopardy,”

See a problem here? Whenever a priest leaves his vocation, a Catholic must almost reflexively wonder if that priest ever had the vocation in the first place. It’s actually a more generous reading: If Luther had a vocation and left it, that would be a worse thing than if he realized that he had mistaken his vocation in the first place.

But the more obvious problem: Atkinson’s statement is a flat lie. Ganss does not assert that Luther never had a vocation, but rather wonders if he did, for the reason stated above. Those are not the same thing at all. So, Atkinson effectively slanders a Catholic source he doesn’t like, and the semi-scholarly Swan doesn’t catch it.


“…it is alleged that in his book On Monastic Vows, Luther pleads for an unbridled license.”

The article:

A book that helped to depopulate the sanctuary and monastery in Germany, one that Luther himself confessed to be his most unassailable pronouncement, one that Melancthon hailed as a work of rare learning, and which many Reformation specialists pronounce, both as to contents and results, his most important work, had its origin in the Wartburg. It was his “Opinion on Monastic Orders”. Dashed off at white heat and expressed with that whirlwind impetuosity that made him so powerful a leader, it made the bold proclamation of a new code of ethics: that concupiscence is invincible, the sensual instincts irrepressible, the gratification of sexual propensities as natural and inexorable as the performance of any of the physiological necessities of our being. It was a trumpet call to priestmonk, and nun to break their vows of chastity and enter matrimony. The “impossibility” of successful resistance to our natural sensual passions was drawn with such dazzling rhetorical fascination that the salvation of the soul, the health of the body, demanded an instant abrogation of the laws of celibacyVows were made to Satan, not toGod; the devil’slaw was absolutely renounced by taking a wife or husband.

Well? Is “pleads for an unbridled license” a fair summary of this?

One can while away endless HOURS on this stuff – I have.

Be that as it may, my issues with Luther are entirely with what he, himself, wrote, not what various partisans have written about him.

History: As a college sophomore, read ‘Christian Liberty‘. At the time, I was not a practicing Catholic, having followed the common course of losing my faith in high school, yet, I suppose that since I had attended Catholic schools up to this point it could be argued that my biases were still Catholic. Be that as it may. I found this little essay utterly appalling, not so much for its content, but for Luther’s adolescent sneering and constant dishonesty. My 19 year old self was amazed that anyone could read this and not see it – that Luther simultaneously used conciliatory language while constantly baiting his readers; that he would one moment caricature and denounce the Church’s position and then pronounce his own unassailably obvious; that he would attack the foundations of the very concept of a church while claiming not to want to destroy it.

Also note that, immediately prior to reading Christian Liberty, we had all read Scripture, Augustine, and Thomas, among other things. Even though Luther was a highly educated man, he comes off as an angry, bitter rube by comparison. His summary dismissal of the Scholastics is telling – his form of ‘argument’ , really, nothing more than repeated louder harangues – would not stand up for a minute if subjected to the cool, logical analysis exemplified by Thomas.

Bondage of the Will, a copy of which fell into my hands as part of the Luther/Erasmus exchanges a few years later, demonstrates this clearly. Luther’s argument, such as it is, is challenged by very sympathetic Erasmus – and Luther proves incapable or at least utterly unwilling to engage. Luther will not lay out his arguments in cool, logical fashion. He will not, as the Scholastic tradition requires, restate his opponent’s position in a form his opponent will agree to. He will not repond, point b y point.  Nope – he merely restates his position louder and with ad hominem attacks.

So, I’ll tip my hand: having read some Luther, claims that he is an innocent victim of calumny and libel ring false. At worst, he’s getting as good as he gives.  Based on my admittedly small sample of what Luther has written, the assertion that he was a bitter, angry man with truth issues rings entirely true.

And that’s where the circle closes with an ominous *click*: Thomas, expressing clearly what is implied in Aristotle, states that the Truth is One. The God of Nature, the God of Scripture and the God of Reason are One. It is merely incoherent to suggest that any one aspect of truth trumps any other aspect. When Christ says He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, he doesn’t mean that all the little ‘t’ truths are now unimportant and can be ignored in light of capital ‘T’ Truth. Rather, in the way parallel to how we are members of one Body, small ‘t’ truths are a part of Truth that is Christ – and must be honored as such. There’s no lying for a higher good.  Claims of Truth when supported by lies are more than suspect. When Luther tells his tall tale about finding a lonely bible in the monastery and being the only monk reading it, he is simply lying to support his claims. As a priest he would have read Scripture every single time he offered Mass, and in fact his Augustinian order (like virtually every order that ‘s ever existed) prescribed scripture study to all monks and especially novices. His contemporaries were publishing reams of scriptural commentary, and the contemporary writings of the Church and its saints contain constant references to Scripture. So, his claims that Scripture was unknown and unstudied is a clear lie – the truth is that all previous scripture study tended strongly to support the Church’s position and so had to be ignored or dismissed.  The syllogism – which Luther would never deign to use – is something like:

The Church is evil and does not know the truth

Scripture contains the truth

Therefore, the Church does not know Scripture.

Since the Church does and always has known Scripture, Luther needs another argument. The only other one available is: “Because I say so” which Luther freely used to put down those who dissented against his reading of Scripture (and has since become the de facto explanation for many dozens of sects). That doesn’t look to good – so, he sticks to the lie that the Church doesn’t know Scripture.

This is the beginning of the claim that to be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.

So, hope to return to Confluences and Conspiracies soon, just as soon as I can back out of this rabbit hole.

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

10 thoughts on “Issues with Luther: The Rabbit Hole of Doom!”

  1. Without denying that this amounts to a “No True Christian” fallacy, it occurs to me that Luther might have been speaking metaphorically when he claimed Scripture was “unknown and unstudied”, using the image of the lonely unread Bible as a parable. Perhaps he was not claiming that Scripture went literally and physically unread, merely that its “real” Truth was going over the head, or in one ear and out the other, of everyone who tried except him.

    This is scarcely less arrogant, but it at least allows for the possibility of sincerity — and is certainly plausible enough to anyone who has ever taught literature; we have all seen examples of people who have laboriously read every word in a particular story, poem or novel, and yet could not tell you thing one about what any of it “meant” without the help of their local equivalent of Cliff’s Notes. Luther would certainly be acquainted with the phenomenon of Scripture-readings “bouncing off” people’s heads.

    1. That’s a reasonable point, and I could go with that if it were an isolated incident. But Luther relentlessly – again, in my admittedly small sample – pounds on his claims with both fists. He says the will does not exist – Erasmus points out that that claim makes nonsense of virtually all Scripture. Luther calls him names and repeats himself. This is considered ‘forceful’ or ‘fiery’. So, to give him a pass here – where he is essentially calling an army of scholars and saints fools – just kind of kicks the can down the road a few feet.

      But it is the generous interpretation.

  2. I have often wished that Luther and Thomas Aquinas were contemporaneous. The Angelic Doctor would have made Martin into mincemeat. “His commanding and irrefutable biblical theology??” St. Thomas would have had a field day.

    1. Nice thought, but it only works if both parties are reasonable. If your strategy is merely to respond to every challenge by calling your interlocutor stupid and evil and yelling ‘sola scriptura’ at the top of your lungs, well, you can’t loose.

      The loser is reason and truth.

      1. you’ve defended the truth with reason which is as noble as fighting dragons. We can hope that the glory of the knight’s battle persuades, as it is a reflected glory, but we cannot expect much civility out of the dragon.

    2. Peter Kreeft wrote an imaginary trialogue between C.S. Lewis, Martin Luther and Thomas Aquinas; I sadly can’t remember the title, but I believe it is online if you search under that combination of names. Kreeft’s Luther comes off a little more reasonable than the real man did, I think, at least at first.

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