Sunday, July 01, 2007

The Mythical Luther

James Swan has written an excellent summary, with responses, of some of the myths Catholic e-pologists frequently circulate and recirculate about Martin Luther. I'm copying it and posting it here as it deserves to be repeated.

Ten Martin Luther Myths

I regularly get e-mail from people I don't know asking questions about Martin Luther. I've even had people contact me in the hopes I will help write their research papers for school (I will not!). Recently, I was sent a few Luther questions, and I was amazed certain myths still circulate. Despite the explosion of cyber-information, here are ten that somehow still survive.

1. Luther Threw an Inkwell at Satan
Recently I found a Jehovah's Witness attempting to prove Luther was a psychopath. He brought up the story in which Luther hurled an inkwell at Satan. The story is not true. It first appeared towards the end of the sixteenth century, and is said to have been told by a former Wittenberg student. In this early version, the Devil in the guise of a monk threw an inkwell at Luther while he was secluded in the Wartburg. By 1650, the story shifted to Luther throwing the inkwell at Satan. Like any bizarre legend, the story morphed, and houses where Luther stayed had spots on the walls, and these were also said to be inkwells that Luther threw at the Devil.

2. Luther's Evangelical Breakthrough Occurred in the Bathroom
This same Jehovah's Witness denigrated Luther by repeating a newer myth, that Luther's understanding of Romans 1:17-18 came to him while in the bathroom in the tower of the Augustinian cloister. In the twentieth century, many approached Luther by applying psychoanalysis to his writings. Psychologist Eric Erikson took a German phrase uttered by Luther and interpreted it literally to mean Luther was in the bathroom when he had his evangelical breakthrough. Erikson concluded, from a Freudian perspective, Luther's spiritual issues were tied up with biological functions. But, there was not a bathroom in the tower. The phrase Erikson interpreted literally in German was simply conventional speech. Luther really was saying that his breakthrough came during a time when he was depressed, or in a state of melancholy.

3. Luther Repented and Re-entered the Church on his Deathbed
I've come across this one on popular Catholic discussion boards. No, it is not true. One of Luther's early opponents popularized the account that Luther was a child of the Devil, and was taken directly to Hell when he died. Now though, more ecumenically minded Catholics hope for the ultimate in conversion stories. Luther died around 3:00 AM on February 18, 1546. His last words and actions were recorded by his friend Justus Jonas. Luther was asked, "Reverend father, will you die steadfast in Christ and the doctrines you have preached?" Luther responded affirmatively. Luther also quoted John 3:16 and Psalm 31:5. In his last prayer he said to God, "Yet I know as a certainty that I shall live with you eternally and that no one shall be able to pluck me out of your hands." These are hardly the words of a Roman Catholic waiting to enter purgatory.

4. Luther's Hymns Were Originally Tavern Songs
Some involved in Contemporary Christian Music use this argument to validate contemporary styles of music being used in church: if even the great Martin Luther found value in contemporary music being used in Church, shouldn't we likewise do the same? In actuality, Luther used only one popular folk tune, I Came From An Alien Country, changed the words, and named the hymn, From Heaven On High, I Come to You. Four years after he did this, he changed the music to an original composition.

5. Luther Spoke in Tongues
Charismatic cyber-apologists have put this one out. They refer to an old quote from a German historian who stated, "Luther was easily the greatest evangelical man after the apostles, full of inner love to the Lord like John, hasty in deed like Peter, deep in thinking like Paul, cunning and powerful in speech like Elijah, uncompromising against God's enemies like David; PROPHET and evangelist, speaker-in-tongues and interpreter in one person, equipped with all the gifts of grace, a light and pillar of the church..." Luther though held, "Tongues are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers. But later on, when the church had been gathered and confirmed by these signs, it was not necessary for this visible sending forth of the Holy Spirit to continue."

6. Luther Added The Word Alone To Romans 3:28
This is frequently brought up by the zealous defenders of Rome. Luther is said to have been so careless and outrageous with his translation of the Bible, he simply added words to make the Bible say what he wanted it to. Luther gave a detailed explanation of why the passage has the meaning of alone,and this explanation has been available online for years. This charge also shows an ignorance of church history. Roman Catholic writer Joseph A. Fitzmyer points out, "...[T]wo of the points that Luther made in his defense of the added adverb were that it was demanded by the context and that sola was used in the theological tradition before him." Fitzmyer lists the following: Origen, Hillary, Basil, Ambrosiaster, John Chrysostom, Cyril of Alexandria, Bernard, Theophylact, Theodoret, Thomas Aquinas, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Marius Victorinus, and Augustine [Joseph A. Fitzmyer Romans, A New Translation with introduction and Commentary, The Anchor Bible Series (New York: Doubleday, 1993) 360-361].

7. Luther Was an Antinomian and Hated the Law of God
Recently a friend wrote me and said charges about Luther being an antinomian were circulating in his church. Luther's theology indeed has a place for the law of God and its use in the life of a Christian. The law for Luther was dual purposed: it first drives one to see their sin and need for a savior; secondly it functions in the life of a Christian to lead one to a correct understanding of the good one ought to do. Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Luther knows how important Moses and the law was in his theology. In Luther's Small Catechism the Ten Commandments were placed first because he wanted people to understand that God is wrathful against sin. The negative prohibitions in the Ten Commandments clearly showed our need for a savior. Also in his Small Catechism, Luther suggests a daily regiment of prayer and includes a verbal reading of the Ten Commandments.

8. Luther Acted Like a Protestant Pope
Catholic apologists perpetuate this one. They tend to reduce everything to a need for an infallible interpreter. They use highly rhetorical or polemical comments from Luther out of context, rather than those statements when Luther evaluates his value and his work. Toward the end of his life, Luther reviewed his work and stated, "My consolation is that, in time, my books will lie forgotten in the dust anyhow, especially if I (by Gods grace) have written anything good." And also, "I would have been quite content to see my books, one and all, remain in obscurity and go by the board" [LW 34: 283-284].

9. Luther Was a Drunk
The historical record nowhere documents Luther ever being drunk. It does provide evidence that he did drink alcohol, and that he enjoyed drinking. One needs only to survey the massive output of work that Luther produced to settle the matter that he was not an alcoholic, nor did he have a drinking problem. Luther preached and wrote against drunkenness throughout his entire life with vigor and force.

10. Luther Said Imputed Righteousness is Like Snow Covered Dung
I saved this one for last, simply because I'm not sure if it's a myth or not. It does seem to me like something Luther would've said: "Therefore let us embrace Christ, who was delivered for us, and His righteousness; but let us regard our righteousness as dung, so that we, having died to sins, may live to God alone" [LW 30:294]. "Explanation of Martin Luther: I said before that our righteousness is dung in the sight of God. Now if God chooses to adorn dung, he can do so. It does not hurt the sun, because it sends its rays into the sewer" [LW 34: 184]


  1. AnnoyedPinoy7/01/2007 4:17 PM

    I'm a Reformed and Charismatic believer who highly respects what Martin Luther did in re-discovering the truth of God, and advancing the Kingdom of God. But we all have to admit that he made some really strange and even un-Christlike statements. For example, we all know about his anti-semitic statements. As I understand it, his comments were primarily directed against the RELIGION of Judaism (and only by extention the people of the Jew) and not directly against the ethnicity of the Jews. Whether that's true or not, I don't know.

    Also, his statements condemning "Reason" can be answered by the fact that Luther was denouncing what we would call the "magisterial" use of reason, rather than the "ministerial" use of reason. But apparently he still made other strange comments that are a bit embarassing even for a charismatic like myself. I'm glad that as a Protestant Evangelical I don't have to defend Martin Luther in everything he said/wrote; as if he were infallible when speaking ex cathedra (or even out of the toilet [grin]).

    The following [alleged] quotes of Luther come from these webpages

    "At Poltersberg, there is a lake similarly cursed. If you throw a stone into it, a dreadful storm immediately arises, and the whole neighboring district quakes to its centre. 'Tis the devils kept prisoner there."

    "I myself saw and touched at Dessay, a child of this sort, which had no human parents, but had proceeded from the Devil. He was twelve years old, and, in outward form, exactly resembled ordinary children."

    "In Switzerland, on a high mountain, not far from Lucerne, there is a lake they call Pilate's Pond, which the Devil has fixed upon as one of the chief residences of his evil spirits...."

    "The Devil, too, sometimes steals human children; it is not infrequent for him to carry away infants within the first six weeks after birth, and to substitute in their place imps...."

    "...two devils rose from the water, and flew off through the air, crying, 'Oh, oh, oh!' and turning one over another, in sportive mockery...."

  2. Thanks for this excellent expose. The reason for number four is that people were confusing bar form with a bar tune. Bar form is simply aaba, such as "Come, Thou Fount." It has nothing to do with taverns. As you point out, Luther wrote most of the tunes himself.

    What is so fascinating about number 6 is that Fitzmyer is a Roman Catholic scholar. Fortunately, he is a very honest one. :-)

  3. There's a very good piece in Spurgeon's autobiography regarding anecdotes. In an age where polemicists were not careful in checking claims, and many claims went unchallenged, it is sometimes hard to sort out the true from the false. It's easy to take as fact scurrilous rumour (witness the oft-repeated assertion that Caligula slept with all of his sisters), or misreported heresay (the same emperor making his horse a senator). In general, we must be careful with statements that sound close to those about someone else (for example, Surgeon sliding down the rail of his pulpit, when the same story was told of Rowland Hill), or those that suggest a dramatic last-minute change of mind (any deathbed conversion story).

    We may lose a lot of picturesque stories, but the truth is better by far.

    And yes, Luther said some things that were bad. Very bad. He was a man, and the best of men are men at best. Luther, like Calvin, Zwingli and Cramner, supported the link between the church and the state, for example, perpetuating the persecutions of heretics by the state, something most modern Christians would abhor.

  4. I spent part of my life in a Lutheran church. A couple of these are yet perpetuated among some Lutherans. Specifically, I remember being told about the inkwell, the tavern songs ("bar" tunes - ha) and his dislike of the book of James because he had a hard time reconciling it with Ephesians 2 (the distortion of which is #7 here). An additional one they add is the supposed quote, "When I fart in Wittenberg, they smell it in Rome" suggesting that it's okay to be just a little bit vulgar.

  5. Martin Luther on "Drinking the Eucharistic Blood with the Pope":