Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Gottesdienst at LRC and the Use of Quoting Luther

Two of us Gottesdienst Online editors also occasionally write for Lew Rockwell's website of the libertarian persuasion. Even if politics is not your ball of wax, usually has an article or two covering topics of general interest. And, unlike many other political-economic-cultural websites, Lew often posts articles from an overtly Christian perspective. For example, here is one of Fr. Beane's articles and here is my latest article.

I mention that by way of introduction to the topic that was the seed of that article: Luther and Lutherans.

I don't really like Martin Luther all that much. Well, that's probably not fair since I've never met him. Doubly unfair since I have not read every word he ever wrote. Trebly unfair since I have not read more than four or five biographies.

But of the fairly extensive amount of Luther that every Lutheran pastor has to do in preparing for the ministry and in what I have read since - especially the latest two volumes of Luther's Works to come out of CPH - there is just an awful lot that I do not like. I don't like his encouragement of state violence. I don't like his approval of bigamy - which lead directly to war and bloodshed. And I don't like his personal doctrine of the ministry (which, after reading vol. 69's series of Quasimodo Geniti sermons, I am fairly sure is the Wisconsin Synod's doctrine - I think they have Luther right; I just don't think Luther is right).

I like his Catechisms and the Smalcald Articles and the Bondage of the Will and the Great Confession Concerning the Lord's Supper. These are the only writings of his that achieved status as Symbols of the Churches of the Augsburg Confession (the latter two really are given quasi- if not full-confessional status within the 1580 BOC). I also like the Great Galatians Commentary and the Genesis Commentary. And I like a whole slew of other things he said and did.

I think he would have been a hoot to hang out with. And I think he was more than a bit of an ego-maniac (see the latest sermons to come out, vol. 58). I think he was a genius. I think he was an amazing preacher and exegete. I think he shot from the hip way too much.

But I don't think quoting his writings - especially the sermons and Table Talk - has any more or less weight than quoting any other great thinker in our tradition.

I loathe appeals to Luther's example, Luther's personality, and Luther's quips as if they settled an argument by force of incantation.

The best trick the Roman party ever did was stick us with the name Lutheran. We are stuck with it, no doubt about it. There's no getting around history. But we should at least be a little savvy. We shouldn't pretend in our debates that quoting a non-Confessional work of Luther is some big trump card. We should not allow researches into "Luther's Doctrine of X" to trump the clear teaching of the Confessions. We should, in sum, recognize that he was a great but flawed teacher of the Church - just like Augustine, Leo, Jerome, etc. - not the founder of a sect or a guru whose ipse dicit is the end of the story for all his "followers."



  1. Amen. Don't you think the Treasury of Daily Prayer, as much as I love it, quotes Luther far out of proportion to the number of fathers who could be quoted?

    Pr. Timothy Winterstein

  2. Rome suffered a similar abuse and confusion of St. Thomas. My reading of Aquinas gives no indication that he thought himself to be establishing dogma. He was simply theologizing, even speculating. But his brilliance was such that some mistook him for God Himself and the Summa became a replacement for God's Word rather than a reflection of God's Word. All reflections are somewhat distorted. We see in a mirror dimly. The Thomists do a disservice to Thomas. They force him into a role he did not want or probably even imagine. So also the Lutherans do a disservice to Luther in a similar way.

    Luther's brilliance and insight cannot be overstated. But his word is not God's Word. His opinions about economics, the role of the State, and even liturgical customs are often off balance. And the Church, for the most part, has been able to pick and choose from Luther, ignoring his bad advice and ideas, while taking up his great insights into the character of God's Grace, the two kingdoms, the sanctified vocations of all Christians, the role and authority of the Holy Scriptures, and, of course, the doctrine of justification.

  3. Free-market economist Murray Rothbard has written a history of economic thought that takes Luther to task for his opposition to usury. Your blog post is an appropriate corrective to Luther's position on that issue.

  4. We always want a quick, easy victory. We want our reflections to be the predominate way, our course of action to be the one that takes the foreground. And, instead of taking the time to show, demonstrate, and prove that our approach is the best, we often want the quick knock out blow. "See, Luther agrees with me" is an attempt at a knock out blow.

    Of course, the question I end up having is this: how often are we not arguing for doctrine, for dogma, but rather for reflections, for things aren't accounted as necessary and foundational. How often do we take our own approach to the wide freedoms God gives us and say, "This is how you should do it, this way and no other -- and see, ______ agrees with me."

    How often do we cease reflecting, even reflecting with other people, and instead try to dominate. "But Luther says" is so often a move of domination, which is sad. It places another authority other than Scripture. Oh well.

  5. I'm not sure the label "Lutheran" can be entirely laid at the foot of Rome. We named our Symbols "The Lutheran Confessions," after all, and we recognized then--and now, I hope--that in spite of Luther's well-known fallibility, he was a brilliant and evangelical theologian. Generally, to read him is to learn from him.

  6. This may be getting off topic, but what do you mean when you say the "Wisconsin Synod position" on church and ministry? What was Luther's position? And why do you consider them to be wrong?

    Just trying to learn -- kurt

  7. Fr. Hagen,

    I recommend picking up vol. 69 of Luther's Works and reading the Quasimodo Geniti sermons. They span Luther's entire mature career from the 1520s until 1543 (if memory serves - might be even later). There, Luther says that every Christian bears the same office as the Apostles. And he says so repeatedly.

    If I understand WELS correctly, that's what they teach too. I think it is certainly what John Brug teaches from what little I've read of his new book.

    I think both are wrong. I think that the Office of the Ministry is a real office with qualifications, authority, and duties not given to each and every Christian. I think Luther and WELS teach that the "office" is simple a bunch of functions than any Christian may perform given the needs of the moment based on his status as a baptized Christian.


  8. Dear BFE:

    The word "Lutheran" doesn't actually appear in the Lutheran confessions. Moreover, at least if the Triglot has it right, the title page itself mentions the words "Christian" and "Augsburg" - (and the name "Luther") but the word "Lutheran" doesn't appear even there.

    The word was certainly coined by our opponents as a way to label us as being something other than Catholic, but like many labels coined by opponents (e.g. Yankees, Rebels, Devil Dogs), the name stuck to us.

    I agree with you regarding Luther as a great teacher, but unfortunately, the name also leads many to believe that we hold Luther to be a kind-of oracle, almost a papal or prophetic figure, whose utterances are authoritative to us. There is even a certain subconscious acceptance of this claim among academic theologians and a lot of our pastors and laity as well. I think there is a need for balance.

  9. It is worth noting that Luther never meant for this to happen. Remember that whole "burn my writings except for Bondage of the Will and the catechisms" thing?

  10. "Generally, to read him is to learn from him." I agree with that statement, Rev. Dr. Eckhardt.

    Regarding the original post: Give me Dr. Luther over Rev. Curtis any day. :)


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