Tuesday, January 1, 2013

A Couple Luther Quotations

Luther had the same problem as Augustine: he lived too long and wrote too much. Each solved the problem in accordance with his personality. Augustine very systematically reviewed his works and published the Retractiones. Luther simply put forth a quip in the introduction the Jena collection of his works: that he wished only his Catechism for children and the De Servo Arbitrio would survive.

This is why I'm so down on ever trying to "prove" a doctrine with quotations from Luther. Which Luther are you quoting? The author of the Small Catechism or the author of the Babylonian Captivity or the author of Against the Jews and Their Lies or the guy sitting at his dining room table holding forth for the students or the guy yelling at the congregation in Wittenberg that he is "your bishop"?

This does not diminish the genius of Luther or his status as the chief theologian of the Augsburg Confession. It should just make us cautious. Luther must be approached not as a source of proof texts but rather as 1) a source of thought-provoking theological discussions and 2) a source for telling us just what Luther was thinking on a given topic on a given day. To ask more of the works of Luther that are not referenced by name in the Confessions is asking too much.

To that end, here are two Luther quotations on topics that continue to be...unresolved. Again, I don't see either as a proof text. They are simply interesting data to add to the discussion. One is from the Table Talk and deals with questions of receptionism and reservation. The other is from the marginal note of Luther's 1545 Bible at Matthew 1:25 and deals with the semper virgo. Thanks to various friends for passing them on.

From the Table Talk:

When the doctor [Martin Luther] was asked whether the sacrament can be carried to the sick, he replied, “We don’t think it should be done. To be sure, one must allow it for a while. The practice will probably be dropped, if only because they have no ciborium."   What should be done about it? In our churches, too, there’s debate about whether the [elements of the] sacrament should be carried to another altar for consecration. I put up with it on account of several heretics who must be opposed, for there are some who allow that it’s a sacrament only while it’s in use; what is left over and remains they throw away. That isn’t right. We let somebody consume it. One must never be so precise [and say that the sacrament remains a sacrament when carried] four or five steps or when kept so-and-so many hours. What does it matter? How can one bless the bread for each and every one? We also retain the practice of elevating the sacrament on account of several heretics who say it must be done so. It must not be done so, for as long as one is engaged in the action even if it extends for an hour or two or even if one carries it to another altar or, as you do” (he said this to Cordatus), “across the street, it is and remains the body of Christ.”
LW 54:407

Marginal Note at Matthew 1:25 in Luther's Bible (1545):

It should not be understood that Joseph knew Mary afterwards. Rather this is a manner of speaking in the Scriptures. As in Genesis 8, the raven did not come back “until the soil dried out;” the Scripture does not mean that the raven came back after that. So also it does not mean to say that Joseph knew Mary afterwards.


  1. Good Father,
    I would share a thought or two, which might serve to provoke conversation. These are neither sedes doctrinae nor the norma normata of the symbols. On the other hand, I suggest that they are something more than merely reflective of what Luther thought at a given moment. For in both cases they give witness to what we know to be his long-standing positions.

    The first quote is an example of what we see elsewhere in both Luther's works and practice, namely, the classically broad view of the usus, which stands in stark contrast to the Phillipist narrow view.

    The second quote also exemplifies what we find elsewhere in Luther, in both "early" and "later" Luther, namely, the classic view of the Virgin Mother's virginity.

    I suggest, too, that both the view represented in the former and that represented in the latter quote are consonant with the Symbols.

    Finally, a thought on the 'unresolved' nature of the topics of these passages. The topic of the eucharistic presence was as much in dispute in Luther's day as it is today (hence the reference to certain heretics, etc), but the topic of Mary's lifelong virginity, I sugest, was hardly considered unresolved in Luther's day. It was never a problem to resolve. Only later was it seen as a problem which needs to be resolved.

  2. Thank you Father Curtis for your helpful post. And thanks to Dcn Gaba for again clearly and simply restating the Church's default setting on Our Lady's proper designation as Semper Virgo.

  3. We always like Luther best when he says something that agrees with us.


  4. Luther in these passages does not agree with me. Rather, I agree with him. And I agree with him not because he advocates these views, but for the sames reasons he holds them (reasons I won't take the time here & now to expound). Nevertheless, it is of immense value, I think, to discuss the witness these quotes give to the evangelical and catholic tradition of the Church of the Augsburg Confession.


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