Monday, June 3, 2013

The Two Luthers

In my recent post entitled "The Spirituality of Silence", I included a quote from Luther which lampooned the monastic practice of silence.  I found that quote by looking through the index to Luther's Works for references to St. Benedict and monasticism, and I think I can safely say that the quote I included is a fairly typical remark from Luther on monasticism.   

For some time, I have been perplexed while reading Luther.  Since Lutherans like to refer to dichotomies (such as Law and Gospel), I use a dichotomy to help myself deal with Luther's writings.  It seems that Luther wrote from one of two viewpoints - the "Catholic Luther" or the "Scorned Luther".

The "Catholic Luther" is the Luther who wrote beautiful devotional pieces (e.g., the Commentary on the Magnificat) and catechisms that got right to the heart of the faith (e.g., the classic Small Catechism). These works by Luther expressed the faith of the Church, using the particularly Lutheran emphasis on what Christ has done for us, instead of on what we do for Christ.

Then, there is the "Scorned Luther" - when he was rejected, it seems as if he went beyond critique with the intent to reform, and degenerated into polemics and mockery.  This led him at times to throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water, in my opinion.  There are many examples - the Luther who was a monk became a fierce critic of monasticism.  The Luther who celebrated the mass began to call the Catholic mass an abomination. The Luther who reached out in a friendly way to the Jews became the Luther who wrote "On the Jews and Their Lies." 

As a Lutheran pastor, I am only bound to Luther's writings and beliefs to the extent that they are found in the Book of Concord.  Fortunately, Luther's writings that were included in the Book of Concord mostly fall into the "Catholic Luther" category (I use the word "mostly" becomes sometimes the Scorned Luther comes out - in the Smalcald Articles, for example).

Luther was brilliant but tormented, as well as faithful but flawed.   At times, it seems as if Lutherans cite his works as the definitive authority on a subject.  In the spirit of the "Catholic Luther", I would rather view his writings through the lens of the faith of the Church throughout the ages, instead of being the final word on what the Church has to say on any given subject.


  1. My family is German-American, mostly from the East Saxony area. The legend is that we are related to Martin and Katie. I believe it. I was named "Katherine" after an aunt and grandmother, but there are many "Katies" in the fam... but enough about me.

    My point is: I understand Brother Martin. He was just an ordinary man with above average intelligence, a slightly bad temper and the Germanic penchant to destroy things as part of the Creative Process. I get it. There were many "Luthers" before him and many after. He came forward because of politics.

    My second point is: Lutherans reject Saints. I understand that. Then why -- why in heaven's name -- does everything have to go back to Luther and his writings? It's beyond ironic: it's insane.

    It is time to re-unite the Church. plz help

    1. I am a Lutheran as a result of my Danish heritage. I think we're a little more mellow than Germans :)

  2. Yes, we Germans can be a fiery, driven bunch. My family, the Kahlers, came from Germany in 1847 as missionaries to the Indians in NY State. Got caught in an Iroquois/Mohawk uprising -- scalped, the works. (Hence St Kateri Tekakwitha). Fled into Canada. Next generation, Frederick August Kahler, came back and founded Trinity Church in Buffalo, NY. He is known as "the Father of English Lutheranism." His people said: "We make money in English; we pray in German!" He changed that. Tough cookie.