Flawed saints - Martin Luther

Martin Luther and John Calvin were seriously flawed saints. The flaws grew in the soil of very powerful and very different personalities.

“How different the upbringing of the two men—the one, the son of a German miner, singing for his livelihood under the windows of the well-do-do burghers; the other, the son of a French procurator-fiscal, delicately reared and educated with the children of the nobility. How different, too, their temperaments—Luther, hearty, jovial, jocund, sociable, filling his goblet day by day from the Town Council’s wine-cellar; Calvin, lean, austere, retiring, given to fasting and wakefulness. . . . Luther was a man of the people, endowed with passion, poetry, imagination, fire, whereas Calvin was cold, refined, courteous, able to speak to nobles and address crowned heads, and seldom, if ever, needing to retract or even to regret his words”.

Luther’s Dirty Mouth and Lapse of Love

But, oh, how many words did Luther regret! This was the downside of a delightfully blunt and open emotional life, filled with humor as well as anger. Heiko Oberman refers to Luther’s “jocular theologizing.” “If I ever have to find myself a wife again, I will hew myself an obedient wife out of stone.” “In domestic affairs I defer to Katie. Otherwise I am led by the Holy Ghost.” “I have legitimate children, which no papal theologian has.” His personal experience is always present. “With Luther feelings force their way everywhere. . . . He himself is passionately present, not only teaching life by faith but living faith himself.” This makes him far more interesting and attractive as a person than Calvin, but far more volatile and offensive—depending on what side of the joke you happen to be on. We cannot imagine today (as much as we might like to) a university professor doing theology the way Luther did it. The leading authority on Luther comments, “[Luther] would look in vain for a chair in theology today at Harvard. . . . It is the Erasmian type of ivory-tower academic that has gained international acceptance.” With all its spice, his language could also move toward crudity and hatefulness. His longtime friend, Melanchthon, did not hesitate to mention Luther’s “sharp tongue” and “heated temper” even as he gave his funeral oration. There were also the fourletter words and the foul “bathroom” talk. He confessed from time to time that it was excessive. “Many accused me of proceeding too severely. Severely, that is true, and often too severely; but it was a question of the salvation of all, even my opponents.”

We who are prone to fault him for his severity and mean-spirited language can scarcely imagine what the battle was like in those days, and what it was like to be the target of so many vicious, slanderous, and life-threatening attacks. “He could not say a word that would not be heard and pondered everywhere.” It will be fair to let Luther and one of his balanced admirers put his harshness and his crudeness in perspective. First Luther himself: I own that I am more vehement than I ought to be; but I have to do with men who blaspheme evangelical truth; with human wolves; with those who condemn me unheard, without admonishing, without instructing me; and who utter the most atrocious slanders against myself not only, but the Word of God. Even the most phlegmatic spirit, so circumstanced, might well be moved to speak thunderbolts; much more I who am choleric by nature, and possessed of a temper easily apt to exceed the bounds of moderation. I cannot, however, but be surprised to learn whence the novel taste arose which daintily calls everything spoken against an adversary abusive and acrimonious. What think ye of Christ? Was he a reviler when he called the Jews an adulterous and perverse generation, a progeny of vipers, hypocrites, children of the devil? What think you of Paul? Was he abusive when he termed the enemies of the gospel dogs and seducers? Paul who, in the thirteenth chapter of the Acts, inveighs against a false prophet in this manner: “Oh, full of subtlety and all malice, thou child of the devil, thou enemy of all righteousness.” I pray you, good Spalatin, read me this riddle. A mind conscious of truth cannot always endure the obstinate and wilfully blind enemies of truth. I see that all persons demand of me moderation, and especially those of my adversaries, who least exhibit it. If I am too warm, I am at least open and frank; in which respect I excel those who always smile, but murder. It may seem futile to ponder the positive significance of filthy language, but let the reader judge whether “the world’s foremost authority on Luther” helps us grasp a partially redemptive purpose in Luther’s occasionally foul mouth. Luther’s scatology-permeated language has to be taken seriously as an expression of the painful battle fought body and soul against the Adversary, who threatens both flesh and spirit. . . . The filthy vocabulary of Reformation propaganda aimed at inciting the common man. . . . Luther used a great deal of invective, but there was method in it. . . . Inclination and conviction unite to form a mighty alliance, fashioning a new language of filth which is more than filthy language. Precisely in all its repulsiveness and perversion it verbalizes the unspeakable: the diabolic profanation of God and man. Luther’s lifelong barrage of crude words hurled at the opponents of the Gospel is robbed of significance if attributed to bad breeding. When taken seriously, it reveals the task Luther saw before him: to do battle against the greatest slanderer of all times!

Nevertheless most will agree that even though the thrust and breakthrough of the Reformation against such massive odds required someone of Luther’s forcefulness, a line was often crossed into unwarranted invective and sin. Heiko Oberman is surely right to say, “Where resistance to the Papal State, fanaticism, and Judaism turns into the collective vilification of papists, Anabaptists, and Jews, the fatal point has been reached where the discovery of the Devil’s power becomes a liability and a danger.” Luther’s sometimes malicious anti-Semitism was an inexcusable contradiction of the Gospel he preached. Oberman observes with soberness and depth that Luther aligned himself with the Devil here, and the lesson to be learned is that this is possible for Christians, and to demythologize it is to leave Luther’s anti-Semitism in the hands of modern unbelief with no weapon against it. In other words, the devil is real and can trip a great man into graceless behavior, even as he recovers grace from centuries of obscurity.

Extract taken from John’s Piper book: The legacy of Sovereign Joy. 

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