THE MYTH OF MARTIN LUTHER
And Why So Few Read His Works
In their ongoing debate with Catholics, Protestants are constantly winnowing the Church's teachings with increasingly finer-gauge sieves. Initial objections that are fairly easily set aside by referring to the appropriate Scripture -- issues like purgatory, graven images, "call no man father," and the veneration of relics -- inevitably give way to much finer points regarding conciliar teachings, translations and past sins of Church officials.
Which is fine. If the Catholic Church is the one true Church founded by Jesus Christ, and if it is truly his Mystical Body -- which we Catholics believe it certainly is -- then it can stand close scrutiny, especially by those whose questions are posed in the spirit of integrity, goodwill and an honest search for truth.
Unfortunately, while they subject some of the Catholic Church's most arcane theological writings to the closest, most minute inquiry, few of the protestant faithful seem willing to apply the same rigorous analysis to the teachings of their own denominations' founders. Indeed, many seem virtually unaware of the tenets their founders pronounced, apart
from the vaguest maxims or generalities.
In fact, it has long seemed to me that the conviction of many Protestant believers is animated more by their own -- mistaken -- impression of what the Catholic Church teaches than by their own theologies.
This is unfortunate. Because it allows some extremely tenuous -- and even destructive -- idea to go unchallenged. The best example might be the polemics of the father of the Reformation himself, Martin Luther.
Martin Luther: The man who is celebrated for calling into question the authority of a corrupt Church, for initiating religious freedom in an age of spiritual feudalism, for initiating free universal education, for freeing the Scriptures from the bondage of a dead language, for... Well, you get the idea.
But how much Luther has the average Protestant read? Or even the average Protestant clergyman?
Little, if any, I submit. Because if Protestants held Luther and his contemporaries to the same standard of proof they apply to the Church's teachings, they would be appalled at the size of the boulders their sieves would be working to strain.
As you may judge for yourself below, Luther was a troubled, surly, intemperate -- and occasionally even blasphemous -- man. Hardly the picture of a Spirit-led leader of the faith.
Does this sound outrageous to you? Inconceivable? I'm not surprised. In fact, I myself was surprised to discover Luther's true nature. But once you read his own words, his nature is undeniable.
In this document, you can review some of Luther's more surprising utterances for yourself. And don't think you can find them in any neighborhood Protestant bookstore, either. I had terrible trouble finding anything besides the great man's 'Small Catechism.' Even the highly sanitized anthologies of his work are not easy to locate -- if you can find them at all, it's usually in secular bookstores.
Why the scarcity of Luther's writings in mainstream Protestant bookstores? I cannot speak from first-hand knowledge. But if you read the passages below, you may suspect -- as I do -- that Luther has been silenced because his true theology is an embarrassment to his followers. They would much rather propagate the image of the benevolent bombast, the passionate leader, the enlightened patriarch -- because if people really know what Luther thought and taught, they would be appalled.
I can only conclude that his own 20th century followers have succeeded where the 16th century Catholic Church failed -- in the silencing of Martin Luther.
Since his work extends to more than 50 volumes, we won't even try to give an overview here. Instead, we'll be selecting some of his more surprising -- and, yes, inflammatory -- ideas. For the strength of a chain is determined by its weakest links.
Now, an objection by those who have not read Luther first-hand will be, "These passages are taken out of context, and therefore they cannot be trusted as accurate representations of Luther's thought." However I will give citations for each excerpt. Go to the source and see for yourself. You'll find that not one of these passages means anything apart from what appears here; indeed, I challenge you to try to imagine any context that could possibly change the meaning of these words.
Luther's meanings are all too clear.
A further objection is that other of Luther's writings can be cited that contradict some of what you find here. We would reply that self-contradiction does not make an individual more reliable, but less.
In any case, you be the judge... as we allow Luther to speak for himself.
Luther Said: 'Be A Sinner'
"Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong, but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. We will commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides... No sin can separate us from Him, even if we were to kill or commit adultery thousands of times each day." ('Let Your Sins Be Strong, from 'The Wittenberg Project;' 'The Wartburg Segment', translated by Erika Flores, from Dr. Martin Luther's
Saemmtliche Schriften, Letter No. 99, 1 Aug. 1521.)
Luther is actually saying that our actions -- even the most sinful actions imaginable -- don't matter! He is saying we can commit any sin we want -- willfully, presumptiously, purposefully -- and we will not separate ourselves from God! After all, we require nothing more than "faith" to be saved. What we do is incidental. Of course anyone familiar with Scripture will point out that this is not a Christian teaching. For throughout the Bible we are told that sin can and does separate us from God -- remember how he will separate the sheep from the goats, (Mt. 25:32) and the wheat from the tares, (Mt. 13:30), and the
bearing trees from the barren (Mt. 3:10.)
The writer of Hebrews is clear: We will be judged on how we live out our faith. And sin will ensure our judgment is harsh: "If we sin deliberately after receiving knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains sacrifice for sins but a fearful prospect of judgment and a flaming fire that is going to consume the adversaries." (Heb. 10:26-29.) For the redemption that Jesus earned for us -- a free gift -- is not imposed on the unwilling. We must choose it and embrace it and , very often, suffer for it. "'Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.'" (Mt. 16:24.)
Luther Said: Doing Good Is More Dangerous Than Sinning
"Those pious souls who do good to gain the Kingdom of Heaven not only will never succeed, but they must even be reckoned among the impious; and it is more important to guard them against good works than against sin." (Wittenberg, VI, 160, quoted by O'Hare, in 'The Facts About Luther, TAN Books, 1987, p. 122.)
You must be thinking, "What? Could he possibly have written what I thought I just read? 'It is more important to guard them against good works than against sin.'" Well okay, read it again, just to make sure. We'll wait.
See? You were right the first time. Luther cautions us against good and upright actions. He says, don't worry about sin -- Jesus will take care of it. But doing good -- that you'd better watch out for. Especially if you think being kind and generous and loving will affect your outcome at the final judgment.
In his hubris, he ignores verse after verse of Scripture -- New Testament and Old -- where we are told that the way we live out our faith will be the criterion upon which we will be judged. As Paul makes eminently clear in Rom. 2: 5-11, "...the just judgment of God, who will repay everyone according to his works." And again in 2 Cor. 5:10, "For we must all appear before the judgment seat... so that each one may receive recompense , according to what he did in the body, whether good
Luther was utterly and monumentally wrong -- wrong for the ages. Where does it say in Scripture that we can wreak unprovoked havoc on our brothers and sisters and cynically murder a thousand people a day and expect -- poof! -- to be saved? Nowhere, obviously.
Only true repentance can heal the rift that sin creates between the individual and God -- the kind of true repentance one evidences through facing one's sins squarely and honestly and saying them out loud in the sacrament of Reconciliation. And it is highly doubtful that a person like, say, Adolph Hitler -- the only man I can think of who ever came anywhere near the thousand-a-day murder quota that Luther stipulates -- would ever muster true repentance, even at the point of death. If he
did, of course, he would be saved. But imagine how big that 'if' would have to be. And Luther doesn't mention repentance, even in passing, anywhere in the passage.
Luther Said: There Is No Free Will
"...with regard to God, and in all that bears on salvation or damnation, (man) has no 'free-will', but is a captive, prisoner and bondslave, either to the will of God, or to the will of Satan." (From the essay, 'Bondage of the Will,' 'Martin Luther: Selections From His Writings, ed. by Dillenberger, Anchor Books, 1962 p. 190.)
"...we do everything of necessity, and nothing by 'free-will'; for the power of 'free-will' is nil..." (Ibid., p. 188.)
"Man is like a horse. Does God leap into the saddle? The horse is obedient and accommodates itself to every movement of the rider and goes whither he wills it. Does God throw down the reins? Then Satan leaps upon the back of the animal, which bends, goes and submits to the spurs and caprices of its new rider... Therefore, necessity, not free will, is the controlling principle of our conduct. God is the author of what is evil as well as of what is good, and, as He bestows happiness on
those who merit it not, so also does He damn others who deserve not their fate." ('De Servo Arbitrio', 7, 113 seq., quoted by O'Hare, in 'The Facts About Luther, TAN Books, 1987, pp. 266-267.)
All these passages come from a tract Luther penned, titled, 'De Servo Arbitrio ,' or 'Bondage of the Will,' in which the great reformer works hard to present the case that free will does not exist.
Scripture, of course, disagrees, in both word and spirit. In Sirach 15:11-20, we find: "Say not: 'It was God's doing that I fell away': for what he hates he does not do. Say not: 'It was he who set me astray'; For he has no need of wicked men... When God, in the beginning, created man, he made him subject to his own free choice. If you choose you can keep the commandments... There are set before you fire and water; to whichever you choose, stretch forth your hand."
So you see, the scripture is quite clear on the matter: "When God, in the beginning, created man, he made him subject to his own free choice."
But, you object, Sirach is 'apocryphal' -- Luther discarded it, questioning its canonicity. And no wonder, we respond, considering how directly it confutes his teachings. But we can also point to Deut. 30:19-20, in which God tells us: "I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live, by loving the Lord, your God, heeding his voice, and holding fast to him." So we see that man is more than simply free to choose; he is obliged to choose.
And earlier yet, in Gen. 4:7, God speaks to Cain: "Why are you so resentful and crestfallen? If you do well, you can hold up your head; but if not, sin is a demon lurking at the door: his urge is toward you, yet you can be his master."
And, finally, in John 15:15, our Lord pronounces his love for us, his followers: "I no longer call you slaves, because a slave does not know what his master is doing. I have called you friends..." Hardly sounds like the words of a rider to his horse.
As often happens, Paul has the final word: "But if, in seeking to be justified in Christ, we ourselves are found to be sinners, is Christ then a minister of Sin? Of course not!" (Gal. 2:17.) A more direct contradiction of Luther's pronouncement, "God is the author of what is evil as well as of what is good," is difficult to imagine.
Luther's position includes no accountability. No responsibility. No sense of learning or of being perfected through the course of our lives. No dignity even. Just the bleakest, most oppressive coercion which robs human life of any meaning whatsoever. What you do in your life -- even the love you evidence toward your neighbors -- means nothing, according to Luther. Your struggles, your suffering, your perseverance -- none of it amounts to anything. Your will is not even in your own hands.
Luther Said: The Individual Christian Is Subject To No Authority
"...every Christian is by faith so exalted above all things that, by virtue of a spiritual power, he is lord of all things without exception, so that nothing can do him any harm. As a matter of fact, all things are made subject to him and are compelled to serve him in obtaining salvation." (From the essay,'Freedom of a Christian,' 'Martin Luther: Selections From His Writings, ed. by Dillenberger, Anchor Books, 1962 p. 63.)
"Injustice is done those words 'priest,' 'cleric,' 'spiritual,' 'ecclesiastic,' when they are transferred from all Christians to those
few who are now by a mischievous usage called 'ecclesiastics.'" (Ibid., p. 65.)
Luther teaches that we don't need anyone between us, the community of believers, and our Savior. So he objects to ecclesiastical authority -- and the hierarchy which exercises it. God is with the entire congregation, he says, so why should we bother with a priest.
Sounds great. Until you realize that this position echoes that of Moses' sister, the prophetess Miriam, who protests in Numbers Chapter 12, "Is it through Moses alone that the Lord speaks? Does he not speak through us also?" For her rebellion against the authority established by God, she contracts leprosy. Thanks to Moses' intercessory prayer, she is cleansed.
And she is followed just a few chapters later by Korah, who incites the people against Moses and Aaron in the most disturbing words of all. They say, "Enough from you! The whole community, all of them, are holy; the Lord is in their midst. Why then should you set yourselves over the Lord's congregation?" Whereupon Korah and his followers were consumed by fire sent by the Lord. (Numbers 16.)
Luther Said: Peasants Deserve Their Harsh Treatment
"Like the mules who will not move unless you perpetually whip them with rods, so the civil powers must drive the common people, whip, choke, hang, burn, behead and torture them, that they may learn to fear the powers that be." (El. ed. 15, 276, quoted by O'Hare, in 'The Facts About Luther, TAN Books, 1987, p. 235.)
"A peasant is a hog, for when a hog is slaughtered it is dead, and in the same way the peasant does not think about the next life, for otherwise he would behave very differently." ('Schlaginhaufen,' 'Aufzeichnungen,' p. 118, quoted ibid., p. 241)
Perhaps Luther's darkest hour was his betrayal of the long-abused serfs during Münzer's Peasants' War of 1525. First, he naively fomented their unrest by publishing tracts such as 'On Authority,' in which he castigated the princely classes with invective such as, "People cannot, people will not, put up with your tyranny and caprice for any length of time." (Ibid., p. 223.) And, "...the poor man, in excitement and grief on account of the damage he has suffered in his goods, his body and his
soul, has been tried too much and has been oppressed by them beyond all measure, in the most perfidious manner. Henceforth he can and will no longer put up with such a state of things, and, moreover, he has ample reason to break forth with the flail and the club as Karsthans threatens to do." (Ibid., p. 225.)
Yet when the rebellion came, he turned coat, publishing the tract, 'Against the Murderous and Rapacious Hordes of Peasants,' which urged the ruling lords to "stab them secretly and openly, as they can, as one would kill a mad dog." (Ibid., p. 235.)
To underscore the coldness of the man, Luther was married on the heels of the tragic massacre that resulted. Erasmus, a contemporary, estimated that a hundred thousand peasants lost their lives. (Ibid., p. 237.)
Luther Said: Polygamy Is Permissible
"I confess that I cannot forbid a person to marry several wives, for it does not contradict the Scripture. If a man wishes to marry more than one wife he should be asked whether he is satisfied in his conscience that he may do so in accordance with the word of God. In such a case the civil authority has nothing to do in the matter." (De Wette II, 459, ibid., pp. 329-330.)
'Sola scriptura' has its consequences.
Luther Said: The Bible Could Use Some Improvement
"The history of Jonah is so monstrous that it is absolutely incredible." ('The Facts About Luther, O'Hare, TAN Books, 1987, p. 202.)
"The book of Esther I toss into the Elbe. I am such an enemy to the book of Esther that I wish it did not exist, for it Judaizes too much and has in it a great deal of heathenish foolishness." (Ibid.)
"Of very little worth is the Book of Baruch, whoever the worthy Baruch might be." (Ibid.)
"...the epistle of St. James is an epistle full of straw, because it contains nothing evangelical." ('Preface to the New Testament,' ed. Dillenberger, p. 19.)
"If nonsense is spoken anywhere, this is the very place. I pass over the fact that many have maintained, with much probability, that this epistle was not written by the apostle James, and is not worthy of the spirit of the apostle." ('Pagan Servitude of the Church,' ed. Dillenberger, p. 352.)
Reading these words of Luther, it's hard to imagine that he is the same man who so often claimed that he looked upon the Bible "as if God Himself spoke therein." How could he have claimed to believe in the inspired Word of God as the ultimate authority on religious matters if he placed himself in judgment of Scripture? In doing so, he quite clearly set himself up as judge over God himself.
Believe it or not, in his hubris Luther even presumed to rank the gospels: "John records but few of the works of Christ, but a great deal of his preaching, whereas the other three evangelists record many of His works, but few of His words. It follows that the gospel of John is unique in loveliness, and of a truth the principal gospel, far, far superior to the other three, and St. Paul and St. Peter are far in advance of the three gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke." ('Preface to Romans,' ed. Dillenberger, pp. 18-19.)
And he complained about the Book of Revelation: "to my mind it bears upon it no marks of an apostolic or prophetic character... Everyone may form his own judgment of this book; as for myself, I feel an aversion to it, and to me this is sufficient reason for rejecting it." (Sammtliche Werke, 63, pp. 169-170, 'The Facts About Luther,' O'Hare, TAN Books,
1987, p. 203.)
And finally, he admitted adding the word 'alone' to Rom. 3:28 of his own volition: "If your Papist annoys you with the word ('alone'), tell him straightway, Dr. Martin Luther will have it so: Papist and ass are one and the same thing. Whoever will not have my translation, let him give it the go-by: the devil's thanks to him who censures it without my will and knowledge. Luther will have it so, and he is a doctor above all the doctors in Popedom." (Amic. Discussion, 1, 127,'The Facts About
Luther,' O'Hare, TAN Books, 1987, p. 201.)
Here he is condemned by his own mouth. For John, in Rev. 22: 18-19, declares anathema anyone who presumes to change even a single word of Scripture: "I warn everyone who hears the prophetic words of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words in this prophetic book, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city described in this book." Luther, of course, didn't add or take
away mere words, but entire passages and books.
Luther Said: Persecute The Jewish People
"Jews are young devils damned to hell." ('Luther's Works,' Pelikan, Vol. XX, pp. 2230.)
"Burn their synagogues. Forbid them all that I have mentioned above. Force them to work and treat them with every kind of severity, as Moses did in the desert and slew three thousand... If that is no use, we must drive them away like mad dogs, in order that we may not be partakers of their abominable blasphemy and of all their vices, and in order that we may not deserve the anger of God and be damned with them. I have done my duty. Let everyone see how he does his. I am excused." ('About the Jews and Their Lies,' quoted by O'Hare, in 'The Facts About Luther, TAN Books, 1987, p. 290.)
It is very disturbing to contemplate the possible fruit born of the seeds of hatred sown by this man. If he was guided by any spirit, clearly it was not holy.
How is it so many people have followed the author of these dark, bleak teachings? There is only one explanation: They don't realize what Luther -- the real Luther -- actually taught. If they did, they'd would see that many of the ideas of the Reformation father run counter to both Scripture and good sense.
And I suspect that, from the seminary onward, Protestant ministers concentrate more on the perceived errors of Catholicism than they do examining the writings of their own founders.
If you doubt these passages, I urge you to go to the source. Finding Luther's writings is not easy, but with diligence it can be done.
May God bless those whose search for truth and lead them to sift with impartiality: "Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in faith. Test yourselves." (2 Cor. 13:5.) And may the God who created us all in his image bring us closer to his heart, where all truth is found.