Thursday, February 01, 2007

Martin Luther: Lutherans can’t explain away his remaining trapped in fear

Ten years or so after his “Damascus road” flash of insight into being saved by grace alone, depending on your start date for counting, Martin Luther assembled his Small Catechism of biblical and post-biblical doctrines and documents.

For all of these, he developed interpretive explanations of what they really meant, or should really mean, in Christian life.

The first of these was the Ten Commandments.

For the First Commandment in non-Jewish reckoning, Luther said, “We should fear, love and trust in God above all things.”

For each of the remaining ones, his explanation began, “We should fear and love God …”

Hmm. If one were really free of the belief that we are “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” to flash forward ahead 200 years from Luther’s time, shouldn’t the word “love” have come first, as the primary motivation to live the Christian life?

Then “trust”?

Then “fear,” only because people aren’t perfect?


When I was growing up, and we had to learn all this as part of Lutheran confirmation instruction, I was told by dear old dad, who also happened to be dear old pastor, that, well, “fear” didn’t really mean “fear.”


You can’t hold Martin Luther up as a brilliantly creative translator of the Bible into German on the one hand, and claim he meant something besides fear when he used the word “fear” on the other hand.

Martin Luther was still, above all else, afraid of God. Afraid of God and ridden and riddled by anxieties, it’s no wonder he was morbid and morose more often than in-house biographies of the man will tell you.

(Nor will they tell you that much of the story of Oct. 31, 1517 is myth invented not just years but a decade or more after the fact.)


Paul T. McCain said...

Obviously, you are working through some personal issues and no doubt reflecting some of your own angst, but this truly is one of the more simplistic comments I've read on a blog site about Martin Luther.

Gadfly said...

First of all, interesting how you found my blog; and yes, I knew who you were before looking at your profile.

Did my brother send you here, or at least tell you about me? Wouldn't surprise me.

Don't you have enough to do with editing people like him, let alone worry about how congruent the inner and outer man is in all of your contributors? (I know that many of the "pi[iety] brothers" of seminary days could actually practice more real "sanctified living.")

Because I know that's not always the case. (And please, spare me the "we're all sinners" thoughts.)

Sometimes you think you're opening a can of somebody else's worms and they're actually your own...


As for my actual comments, just consider me as carrying "Young Man Luther" into middle age, as far as Luther and fear. Just look at other aspects of his life after he became the "first Lutheran." Hell, he could have used Erikson being beamed back 400 years, or some other counselor.

As for the myth? The first account of "Reformation Day" wasn't even written until after Luther was dead. Luther did apparently write his superiors a letter against indulgences, dated to Oct. 31, 1517; but, he would have asked their permission before posting anything on the castle church door, certainly at that relatively early point in his evolution.

Sorry, Paul.

Anonymous said...

This site doesn't have a lot of people commenting. Don't know if the last commenter (McCain) will even return.

Maybe Rev. McCain had a point in the commentary on Luther seeming "simplistic." I doubt this site was trying to be thorough about Martin Luther. And just because something isn't complete, or even if it's simplistic, doesn't mean that it doesn't contain a grain of truth.

Even those of us who value most of what Luther said, if we're honest with ourselves, will agree that Luther probably suffered from an anxiety disorder of some sort. That doesn't make him wrong. Anxious people are often far less content to simply "let something sit" than are others. After all, some of Luther's Roman Catholic "compadres" basically said, "Brother Martin, God's more gracious than what the church is telling us. Give your conscience a rest!!!" But Luther, being who he was, couldn't give it a rest. That doesn't mean God didn't work through the situation and Luther's unique "issues"---just like God used St. Paul's overzealousness and Jeremiah's gloominess. Sometimes desperate times call for not only desperate measures, but for people whose built-in quirks are right for that moment. (Luther's own wife chided him once for his depression---she dressed up in mourning clothes. When Luther asked what was up, she said God must be dead from the way Martin was acting!!!)

Luther was also far more than the sum of his anxieties. He appears to have had a phenomenal I.Q., from what independent observers can figure out in our times. And he was an exuberant nature-lover. (This seems to get lost now, too, as too many Lutheran 'thinkers' put out the word that if we all get too cozy with nature, we're all going to end up being little 'Henry David Thoreaus.' That's not fair either to the rich varieties of expression of the Bible itself or of Luther.)

It's now commonly thought that Luther probably didn't literally nail up the 95 Theses to the church door on October 31st---a nice mythology can grow up around many historical events. (Washington & the cherry tree, anyone???) The results of the 95 Theses can't be argued, anyway. (BTW, my person favorite, which isn't particularly doctrinal, was the one which starts out, "If the Pope, who is as rich as Croesus. . ." I like the dry humor & sarcasm of that one.)

There are lots of great Christians of all sorts out there---including Lutherans. In fact, if we Lutherans use our teachings well, we could be a very positive force to be reckoned with in this world.

McCain was (seemingly) sypmathetic enough to refer to your personal struggles. I think that shows an interesting contrast to other people to whom you refer. I think many of us have observed things that make us go "Hmmm. . ." Or have even stronger reactions.

I think you misnamed them to call them "pietists." If it's what I'm thinking, "anti-pietists" might be more the term. It would be unfair, though, to categorize McCain in that way. He is associated with a particular political arm of one of the Lutheran denominations. Yet, he will not go the anti-piety route himself. However, it's sad to say that the things held most dear to that particular politcal arm of that particular Lutheran group too easily lend themselves---are too easily distorted into---an anti-piety bent.

There are certain people in that group that, knowing what you know as an individual, you'd almost like to say, "Please, oh, please, oh, please, 'shut up'---at least for awhile---at least in the public arena." Only saying that would be uncharitable and probably futile. Please stop trying to appear in printed devotionals and on the radio. Please, after a serious period of quiet personal reflection over what you've done and how you're relating to others in the present, if & when you do return to the public arena, please do so without the seemingly pretentious tag-lines & e-mail addresses.

I also don't see how most of them really can be doing right by their families. I doubt that most of them who say they're still parish pastors are bright enough to devote that much time to cyber space and still be effectively carrying out pastoral duties and the duties of a husband and father? (A balance, full-spectrum Luther-phile would be looking at how all this squares with the idea of "vocation" which we all have and the "Table of Duties.")

And what's with the badge of honor some seem to wear in having shrinking parishes??? Like some perverse honor that "Only we're teaching the truth, so we're driving away those who aren't faitful."

Of course, there are foibles & pet issues in various types of Christian groups of various sorts.

Which is why I'm not going to give away my identity. There are some affiliations a person has where labels come too easily. (And when a person considers themselves a "moderate"---in both denominational & secular politics--well, that person seems to get 'beat up' by both 'sides' because if you're not exactly with that 'side', then you must be against that 'side.'

But, at least I'm not using my anonymity to take personal potshots, which is a very bad kind of anonymity. If I were going to do that, I could use the personal knowledge I have of some people to go to their own blogs and say, "Hey, buddy. . ."

Whether your atheist self likes it or not, you have people from your old affiliation PRAYING for you!!!

Hang in there.

"Sigh-Burr" LOOTH-Urn

Micky said...

About 3 years ago I dropped into a black hole – four months of absolute terror. I wanted to end my life, but somehow [Holy Spirit], I reached out to a friend who took me to hospital. I had three visits [hospital] in four months – I actually thought I was in hell. I imagine I was going through some sort of metamorphosis [mental, physical & spiritual]. I had been seeing a therapist [1994] on a regular basis, up until this point in time. I actually thought I would be locked away – but the hospital staff was very supportive [I had no control over my process]. I was released from hospital 16th September 1994, but my fear, pain & shame had only subsided a little. I remember this particular morning waking up [home] & my process would start up again [fear, pain, & shame]. No one could help me, not even my therapist [I was terrified]. I asked Jesus Christ to have mercy on me & forgive me my sins. Slowly, all my fear has dissipated & I believe Jesus delivered me from my “psychological prison.” I am a practicing Catholic & the Holy Spirit is my friend & strength; every day since then has been a joy & blessing. I deserve to go to hell for the life I have led, but Jesus through His sacrifice on the cross, delivered me from my inequities. John 3: 8, John 15: 26, are verses I can relate to, organically. He’s a real person who is with me all the time. I have so much joy & peace in my life, today, after a childhood spent in orphanages [England & Australia]. God LOVES me so much. Fear, pain, & shame, are no longer my constant companions. I just wanted to share my experience with you [Luke 8: 16 – 17].

Peace Be With You