Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries Protestantism

Protestantism in search of Orthodoxy // Calvin’s erroneous views on Monasticism

Luther’s rejection of Monasticism

Fr. Georges Florovsky

Emeritus Professor of Eastern Church History Harvard University

Source: http://www.holytrinitymission.org/books/english/fathers_florovsky_4.htm#_Toc27729550

In the excerpt that follows, we shall follow Luther’s train of thought, from the time that he became a Papist Monk, through to the time that he himself turned against Monasticism.  We are enabled to observe in here certain of his serious deficiencies; for example, by lacking familiarity with Orthodoxy, he had reacted against the heresy of Papist “indulgences” by going to the other extreme, i.e., that of an “effortless salvation”; we can furthermore observe here the dramatic contradictions in his thoughts, when on the one hand he is seen to extol the historical Church, and on the other, to regard the Church as being “misled”.   This is the dramatic path of a heresy leader who abandoned the Papist heresy, only to introduce a worse one: Protestantism.

Luther's final rejection of monasticism derives from both his personal experience as an Augustinian monk and from his — to use his own words — new interpretation of Scripture which led to his theological positions. To understand the Reformation it is essential to understand Luther. To understand Luther it is essential to understand the totality of the situation in which he lived and his own personality. To be fair and to do justice to Luther and his thought would require one or two substantial volumes. Here, however, it is necessary to mention only certain highlights — and indeed this involves the risk of diminishing the fullness of Luther's total thought. The other alternative is to say nothing. But Luther's influence on the Reformation, his influence on Protestantism in general, his influence on the Roman Catholic Church, his influence on the social, political, and economic structure of his epoch, and his continuing influence on history and thought* in addition to his eradication of monasticism, is so strong that it cannot go neglected.

        Luther's experience of fear in his encounter with the thunderstorm is well-known. It was July 2, 1505. Luther had already received his magister artium in February of 1505. He had visited his family in Mansfeld. Returning to the University at Erfurt, Luther encountered a storm near the city of Stotternheim. A thunderbolt struck directly in front of him. Overcome by fear, Luther cried out to St. Anna and vowed to become a monk if protected from the storm. Such was not an unusual occurrence in mediaeval Christianity. But Luther has admitted to acute depression for as long as six months prior to his entry into a monastery. Luther suffered from such attacks of depression throughout his life. Of at least five monasteries in Erfurt Luther selected the Black Cloister monastery of the Augustinian Hermits. This monastery had an excellent reputation precisely for the cultivation of the ascetical ideal.

        Luther has made the comment that the Devil is very inactive during the first year of one's entry into monasticism. True, he was adjusting to a new, highly regulated life, a life in which all his time was governed and regulated. Despite that, it could very well be that his first year of monastic life passed without the tormenting attacks he later ascribed to the devil. His time was spent in confession, in reading the Latin Bible, in prayer, in meditation, in companionship, and in song. Luther loved singing. It had been a part of his early life and it was a source of joy that never left him.

        This quiet life was soon to be radically altered. The next thunderbolt struck when he celebrated his first mass. When he came to the words “We offer unto Thee, the living, the true, the eternal God,” Luther was seized by deep terror. He later wrote upon reflection that these words frightened him, terrorized him, for how could he, a miserable man full of sin and composed of dust and ashes, speak to the living, eternal and true God? It was, he writes, the “majesty” of God which filled him not only with awe but also with terror. Here is the beginning of his spiritual path, for he was always to be preoccupied with the reality of Divine Majesty. It filled him with terror, it repelled him. Yet he knew that somehow he must be reconciled with this Divine Majesty. And herein we find already the germ of the central doctrine of the Reformation — how is man reconciled with, how is man “justified” by God? There was nothing within him that could provide such a reconciliation with Divine Majesty. But the Church had a “way,” the Church had a “system.”

        The Latin Church at that time had a developed doctrine of the “treasury of merits.” The development of this system in the Latin West is interesting in itself, and it is something unique to the Latin Church. Such a doctrine was never developed in the Eastern Church. Our Lord provided the Church with an unlimited supply of “merits,” precisely because he was also God. In addition, the Virgin Mary had more “merits” than anyone could need for salvation. And further, the “merits” from the entirety of the saints added to this boundless “treasury of merits.” The Roman Church, always inclined to a more juridical and legalistic tendency than that of the Eastern Church, had developed a doctrine of the “right of transfer” of these “merits” from the “treasury of merits” to those persons in need of spiritual help on the road to salvation. The theory is deeper than many often portray it — rather, make a caricature of it. But in practice it was a theory which could easily be abused, as with most aspects of religious life. In the mind of the Roman Church the Pope was the “vicar” of Christ on earth by virtue of his succession from St. Peter. Since the keys to the kingdom and the power to “bind and loose” on earth was give to St. Peter, the Pope, as his successor, possessed the right and the efficacy to transfer these “merits.” The process of transferring these merits to someone in need was an “indulgence.” Luther accepted this system without question.

        His first shock appears to have come when he was visiting Rome in 1510. The Augustinian Order was required to send two persons to Rome because of a dispute. Luther was one of those who was sent. In Rome Luther cared little about anything historical, cared little about the “eternal city.” He used this opportunity to consider himself a pilgrim and to receive as many indulgences as he could for himself and for his family. The business of his order and his daily devotions took up time, but the remaining time was spent in the quest for indulgences. Rome offered more possibilities for indulgences than any other city in the world. For the first time it appears that a sense of some doubt about the efficacy of indulgences entered Luther's being from an experiential perspective. Still, he held to his faith. Luther was a serious man in quest of reconciliation with the Divine Majesty of God. The Italian clergy shocked him. He found them to be frivolous, lax, and ignorant. They could go through six or seven masses before Luther completed one. Their flippancy and blasphemy disturbed Luther but did not shake his faith in the Church. Luther later speaks of Italian clergy addressing the sacrament of the Eucharist in total unbelief and blasphemy — “Bread you are and bread you will remain, wine you are and wine you will remain.”

        Upon his return from Rome Luther was sent to the Augustinian monastery in Wittenberg, a town in which he would spend the rest of his life. There the head of the order was Dr. Johann von Staupitz, a man who was to be Luther's spiritual father. Luther later wrote that had it not been for Dr. Staupitz he would have sunk into hell. In addition to the system of indulgences, Luther used the sacrament of confession as a means to be “reconciled” with the Divine Majesty. Luther approached confession with the same seriousness with which he approached life in general. He confessed daily, often for six hours. He continued to search and research his memory to be certain that no sin had been forgotten. At times Staupitz became frustrated with Luther. At one point he told Luther that it was not God who was angry at him but Luther who was angry at God. Staupitz appears to have put his finger on a central problem in Luther's psychological make-up — he thought that Luther's preoccupation with sin was the indication of a “sick soul.” Luther fell into spiritual despair. He had nightmares, He trembled at the sound of the wind. His fear of death increased. Staupitz attempted to redirect Luther's attention away from every petty sin to the general condition of man. Staupitz in no sense rejected the penitential and confessional sacrament but he was a mystic and believed that one had to surrender oneself wholly to the love of God. Staupitz thought that Luther's over concentration, his obsession “to achieve merit” was somewhat arrogant, a form of self-assertion. Indeed, it was Staupitz who insisted that Luther “yield” to God rather than to “strive.” Luther did, in fact, attempt to implement this suggestion. But, as always, Luther fell again into despair — he felt alienated from God. As Luther later relates, he in fact did not really accept the mystical approach of Staupitz, though he did try to implement it. He did not accept it because he could not believe that Almighty God, the Divine Majesty, could in any way welcome the filth of impure man. Staupitz gave good advice to Luther. He continued to tell him that he was overcomplicating spiritual life and that the one needful thing was to love God. But Luther also tells us in his Commentary on Galatians — the text based on his lectures from 1531 — that Staupitz “was wont to say”: “I have vowed unto God above a thousand times that I would become a better man. But I never performed that which I vowed. Hereafter I will make no such vow: for I have now learned by experience that I am not able to perform it. Unless therefore God be favorable and merciful unto me for Christ's sake, and grant unto me a blessed and a happy hour when I shall depart out of this miserable life, I shall not be able with all my vows and all my good deeds to stand before him.”

        Moreover, Luther had a second problem. Not only could he not understand that Almighty God could love impure man but he also could not understand how impure man could love God, a God who is a consuming fire, a God who is angry, a God who judges and damns.

        His despair then brings him to the most frightening thought of all — what if God is not just? Luther spent much time reading St. Augustine and was influenced greatly by St. Augustine's doctrine of predestination and original sin. The thought of the possibility that God is not just is interconnected with his reading of St. Augustine, despite the fact that St. Augustine claims that the “justice of God” is preserved in predestination. St. Augustine did not teach the same doctrine of redemption that Luther would develop. Therefore, it was difficult for Luther to see any justice in predestination on the one hand and the Church's system of merit on the other. There was a gulf, an abyss, and it led Luther to despair upon despair. Staupitz had both helped Luther momentarily and also harmed him, for Staupitz was not only a mystic. He was also an Augustinian monk. To be an Augustinian monk did not necessarily mean that one accepted all aspects of St. Augustine's theology — especially not necessarily St. Augustine's doctrine of predestination. But this was not the case with Staupitz. Nor was it the case of the Augustinian order at Wittenberg. There was a strong Augustinian emphasis at the University of Wittenberg. In 1517 Staupitz released for publication a book on predestination — Libellus de executione aeternae praedestinationis. In the same year Staupitz published his book entitled Von der Liebe Gottes [On the Love of God], a book which emphasized election and “pure, unmixed grace.” Luther began to struggle with the doctrine of predestination as early as 1509 or 1510. At that time, however, he would have been inclined initially to interpret it as the Occamists did — that predestination is based on God's foreknowledge of man's conduct. But notes found in books which Luther was reading at that time reveal that he was already leaning toward St. Augustine's full doctrine of predestination. In brief, St. Augustine's doctrine of predestination was that man was eternally predestined to either paradise or hell, either eternally willed by God to be saved or to be damned — “predestined unto eternal death, predestined unto everlasting destruction.” The elect are not elected because of conduct or because they have believed but they are elected that they will believe and walk in proper conduct. It appears that in these early stages of grappling with St. Augustine's doctrine of predestination Luther held back at first only on the doctrine of irresistible grace. Luther's fear that he was predestined to damnation was the result of the influence of Staupitz and St. Augustine.

        Luther began to read St. Augustine and the Bible quite simultaneously from 1510 on. Luther's Commentary of Romans reveals that he had accepted the full teaching of St. Augustine on this subject. He was lecturing on Romans from November 3, 1515 through September 7, 1516. In 1515 Luther was also reading St. Augustine's De Spiritu et Littera [On the Spirit and the Letter], a work in which St. Augustine's view of grace, original sin, and predestination are taught in their fullest sense. Luther, like St. Augustine, believed that the human race was a massa perditionis. This is two years before the posting of his famous Ninety-Five Theses. Luther's Commentary on Romans consists of notes from his lectures and these very notes remained in manuscript form and unpublished until 1908. In these notes Luther clearly believes in the complete doctrine of predestination as early as 1515:”Here [St. Paul] takes up the doctrine of predestination or election... the doctrine... is full of sweet comfort for the elect and for all who have the Holy Spirit. But it is most bitter and hard for the wisdom of the flesh... If there would not be this divine purpose, but our salvation would rest upon our will or work, it would be based upon chance. How easy in that case could one single evil hinder or destroy it!... God allows the elect to encounter so many evil things as are here named, precisely to underscore that they are saved not by their merit, but by God's election, God's unchangeable and firm purpose.” These notes by Luther are extensive and cover the subject of predestination in a rather complete sense. It has nothing to do with good works, with the freedom of the will, for the free will is in utter bondage, is totally corrupted by sin. Luther's view on the subject never changed.

        In 1545 Luther wrote an Introduction to his Latin writings. Luther writes that it was while lecturing on Romans and Golations that a new understanding came to him: “I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners... as if indeed it is not enough that miserable sinners, eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the decalogue, without having God add pain to pain by the Gospel and also by the Gospel threatening us with his righteousness and wrath!... At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, 'In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, He who through faith is righteous shall live1. There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the Gospel; that is, the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith... Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates. There a totally other face of the entire Scripture showed itself to me.” In this same paragraph Luther writes that he had read St. Augustine's De Spiritu et Liner a [On the Spirit and the Letter]. St. Augustine, writes Luther, had a similar understanding but he “did not explain all things concerning imputation clearly.” Here it is clear that Luther combines St. Augustine's teaching on predestination, original sin, and grace with an Anselmian understanding of the “transaction” of the Incarnation and the Cross, with St. Anselm's doctrine of the atonement. To all this, Luther now adds a new dimension. This, indeed, is a radical revolution from the thought of early Christianity.

        After interpreting St. Paul with his “new” understanding, Luther writes: “Unless you give these terms this connotation, you will never comprehend Paul's epistle to the Romans, nor any other book of Holy Scripture. Beware, then, of all teachers who use these terms differently, no matter who they may, whether Jerome, Augustine, Ambrose, Origen, or their like; or even persons more eminent than they.” He writes further: “But this most excellent righteousness, of faith I mean (which God through Christ, without works, imputes to us)... consists not in our works, but is clean contrary: that is to say, a mere passive righteousness. For in this we work nothing, we render nothing unto God, but only we receive and suffer another to work in us, that is to say, God. Therefore it seems good to me to call this righteousness of faith or Christian righteousness, passive righteousness... For there is no comfort of conscience so firm and so sure, as this passive righteousness is... Why, do we then nothing? Do we work nothing for the obtaining of this righteousness? I answer: Nothing at all. For the nature of this righteousness is to do nothing, to hear nothing, to know nothing whatsoever of the law or of works.”

        Luther had developed and formed his basic theology before posting his Ninety-Five Theses. He certainly understood that his “new understanding” was in great contradiction not only with tradition but with Roman Catholic doctrine. Why does he wait before his proclamation of his new understanding? The answer is both simple and complex. One cannot but think that Luther waited for the correct opportunities rather than to risk a speedy excommunication.

        In 1521, after Luther had set the Reformation in progress, he appeared before the Diet of Worms. It would appear that between 1517 and 1521 Luther was hoping that the new movement would also help to unify Germany. The Diet of Worms was both the beginning and the end, as it were, of Luther's hope of a unified Reformation. The Edict issued by the Diet of Worms called for the arrest of Lutheran ministers. Luther's life seemed to be in danger. It was at this time that Frederick the Wise staged a mock arrest and put Luther in the Wartburg Castle under the disguise of “Junker George.” Until this time the Reformation had not really been brought home to the common man. That was about to change, for things were beginning to happen back in Wittenberg, and they happened with a quickness that not even Luther had expected.

        In 1520 Luther wrote The Babylonian Captivity of the Church and An Address to the German Nobility. In both works Luther had asserted that priests should be married — God had ordained marriage and it was Scriptural. In his typically ranging language Luther had said that it was better for a priest to have a wife even if it meant throwing out the entirety of canon law. While Luther was in protective custody in the Wartburg Castle, priests in Wittenberg began to marry. Then monks and nuns. Luther was astonished that monks and nuns were marrying because he considered this different than the marriage of a priest, a difference constituted by the fact that a monk and a nun had taken a voluntary vow. Yet he had already spoken out sharply against “vows” in The Babylonian Captivity of the Church. His language in that book certainly created the impression that he would support the renunciation of monastic vows. But he was deeply concerned, still not ready for this step — that is, for a monk or nun to renounce the vow and then marry. Perhaps things were getting out of hand? Perhaps things were going too rapidly? Perhaps this time the very action was wrong? Luther immediately immersed himself in the study of Scripture specifically to study the question of whether a monk or nun could break a vow and marry. His response came with the publication of his On Monastic Vows. His conclusion was that there was no Scriptural support for a monastic vow. The very notion created a distinction among Christians, a distinction which Luther considered to be thoroughly opposed to Scripture. There were no “higher orders” of Christians in the Scripture. The vow was therefore invalid. Luther commented that he now understood why God had allowed him to become a monk — so that he could testify against monasticism from his very own experience. The monasteries in Wittenberg now began to empty.

        Other changes quickly took place in Wittenberg. The Reformation was now involving the common man. In The Babylonian Captivity of the Church Luther had attacked the Roman Church's teaching that the mass was a sacrifice. It was not. Rather, it was a thanksgiving service. Ai this point Luther still permitted masses for the dead but only on very specific conditions. In Wittenberg, however, his friends and associates stopped saying masses for the dead. This led Luther to reconsider. His response was that no mass for the dead could be said, that the practice was wholly opposed to Scripture. Years later in one of his sermons — the one commenting on the text of the Gospel for the First Sunday after Trinity — Luther speaks his mind on this subject. “Shall we pray for the dead?... Now since it is uncertain and no one knows whether final judgment has been passed upon these sins, it is not sin if you pray for them. But in this way, that you let it rest in uncertainty and speak thus: Dear God, if the departed souls be in a state that they may yet be helped, then I pray that you would be gracious. And when you have thus prayed once or twice, then let it be sufficient and commend them unto God... But that we should institute masses, vigils, and prayers to be repeated forever for the dead every year, as if God had not heard us the year before, is the work of Satan and is death itself, where God is mocked by unbelief, and such prayers are nothing but blasphemy of God. Therefore take warning and turn from these practices. God is not moved by these anniversary ceremonies, but by the prayer of the heart, of devotion and of faith — that will help the departed souls if anything will. Vigils, masses, indeed help the bellies of the priests, monks and nuns, but departed souls are not helped by them and God is thus mocked.” These changes did not escaped the common man. Indeed, the entire social life at Wittenberg was involved, including that of Frederick the Wise. Frederick had a staff of twenty-five priests expressly for the purpose of saying masses for the dead. Serious changes were now taking place that would not only change the theology of the Church but would also alter the very fabric of the spiritual life of the common man. Violence broke out in Wittenberg.

        Luther was simultaneously ecstatic and depressed. Ecstatic because he now wanted to expedite the Reformation. Depressed because he was opposed to violence and civil disobedience, as he revealed by his actions during the Peasants' War in 1524-1525. But the essential break in theology had been made. And with it a great change in the form of spirituality. Asceticism and monasticism were rejected. Harnack, who is certainly not anti-Luther, has written accurately: “Luther demolished monachism, asceticism, and everything in the shape of merit.” “From [Luther's] attacks on the [Roman Catholic] doctrine of salvation and on monastic perfection there necessarily followed, for him, his attacks on the sacraments, on priestism and churchism and the ecclesiastical worship of God.” Another Protestant scholar has correctly described Luther's effect as that of a “demolition” of the monastic ideal of a “state of perfection.”

        What Luther himself has written on monasticism and asceticism would fill volumes. A sampling of his attitude is sufficient here. In his Brief Answer to Duke George's Latest Book Luther writes that “if ever a monk got into heaven by monkery, I too would have found my way there; all my convent comrades will bear me out in that.” And “God be praised that I did not sweat myself to death, otherwise I should have been long ago in the depths of hell with my monk's baptism. For what I knew of Christ was nothing more than that he was a stern judge, from whom I would have fled, and yet could not escape.”

        Luther's Commentary on St. Paul's Epistle to the Galatians was the result not of his early lectures on Galatians but of his lectures given in 1531. Luther himself considered it one of his most important books. “Of this difference between the law and the Gospel there is nothing to be found in the books of the monks, canonists, school-divines; no, nor in the books of the ancient fathers. Augustine did somewhat understand this difference. Jerome and others knew it not.” “The schoolmen, the monks, and such others, never felt any spiritual temptations, and therefore they fought only for the repressing and overcoming of fleshly lust and lechery, and being proud of that victory which they never yet obtained, they thought themselves far better and more holy than married men... they put righteousness in the keeping of their foolish and wicked vows.”

        “When I was a monk I thought by and by that I was utterly cast away, if at any time I felt the concupiscence of the flesh: that is to say, if I felt any evil motion, fleshly lust, wrath, hatred, or envy against any brother. I tried many ways. I went to confession daily, but it profited me not; for the concupiscence of my flesh did always return, so that I could not rest, but was continually vexed with these thoughts: This or that sin you have committed; you are infected with envy, with impatience, and such other sins; therefore you are entered into this holy order in vain, and all your good works are unprofitable... When I was a monk I did oftentimes most heartily wish that I might once be so happy as to see the conversation and life of some saint or holy man. But in the meantime I imagined such a saint as lived in the wilderness abstaining from meat and drink and living only with roots of herbs and cold water: and this opinion of those monstrous saints, I had learned not only out of the books of the sophisters, but also out of the books of the Fathers. For thus writes St. Jerome in a certain place: 'As touching meats and drinks I say nothing, forasmuch as it is excess, that even such as are weak and feeble should use cold water, or eat any sodden thing'. But now in the light of the Gospel we plainly see who they are whom Christ and his Apostles call saints: not they which live a single life, or [straitly observe days, meats, apparel, and such other things], or in outward appearance do other great and monstrous works (as we read of many in the Lives of the Fathers); but they which being called by the sound of the Gospel and baptized, do believe that they be sanctified and cleansed by the death and blood of Christ... Whoever then believes in Christ, whether they be men or women, bond or free, are all saints: not by their own works, but by the works of God, which they receive by faith... To conclude, they are saints through a passive, not an active holiness.”

        “Jerome, Gregory, Benedict, Bernard, and others (whom monks set before them as a perfect example of chastity and of all Christian virtues) could never come so far as to feel no concupiscence of the flesh. Yea, they felt it, and that very strongly. Which thing they acknowledge and plainly confess in many places of their books. Therefore God did not only not impute unto them these light faults, but even those pernicious errors which some of them brought into the Church. Gregory was the author of the private mass, than which there never was any greater abomination in the Church of the New Testament. Others devised monkery... The monks, being puffed up with this opinion of righteousness, thought themselves to be so holy because of their holy kind of life that they sold their righteousness and holiness to others, although they were convinced by the testimony of their own hearts that they were unclean. So pernicious and pestilent a poison it is for a man to trust in his own righteousness, and to think himself to be clean.”

        The attack on asceticism and monasticism is found throughout the writings of Luther. He considered this form of spirituality to be a monstrous perversion, an evil distortion of the essence of Christianity. It must not only be opposed but also eradicated. Therefore he freely brings up the subject whenever possible. His sermons seldom miss the opportunity to refer to this perverted corruption of Christianity. In 1528 Luther preached a series of sermons on the Catechism. In discussing the fact that God has given us everything, even our possessions, he asks: “But why has he given them to you and what do you think he gave them to you for? In order to found monasteries?” In another sermon given on the Gospel texts — the “Sixth Sunday after Trinity — Luther continues this line of thought. This time it is in connection with his commentary on Matthew 5:20-26, and in the context of behavior towards one's neighbor. “Now look at the kind of life we have led hitherto. We have been going to St. James, to Aix-la-Chapelle, to Rome, to Jerusalem, have built churches, paid for masses, and withal have forgotten our neighbor. This now is the wrong side up. The Lord, however, here says, Go and take the money with which you were to build a church and give it to your neighbor... It is not a matter of moment to God if you never build him a church, as long as you are of service to your neighbor. But all this is now being neglected, and only the contrary is observed. Oh, the miserable, perverted life that we have learned from the Papists! This is why no one wants to enter the married state, for nobody lends him a helping hand, nobody offers him any aid, so that he might support himself and get along. Hence it comes to pass that the one turns monk, the other nun, the third a priest, a thing we could indeed obviate... Thus they go along, forgetful of maidservants and manservants, and finally bequeath a legacy and go to perdition with their legacy.”

        Again in a sermon on the Catechism Luther says: “God has commanded you to pray... But do not pray the Lord's Prayer as the vulgar people do, as the vigils, the seven canonical hours, the Deus in adjutorium are prayed. This is nothing, and if all the monasteries and foundations were put together in one heap, they still would not pray for so much as a drop of wine.” And, “You simple people, note these three points! The little word 'believe' leaves no room for either works or monks' cowls.”

        In The Babylonian Captivity of the Church Luther writes: “Nor let any one face me with St. Bernard, St. Francis, St. Dominic, and others who founded orders, or augmented them... It is certain that not one of them was saved by his vows and his religiosity, but only by faith, through indeed all are saved. Pretentious lives, lived under vows, are more hostile to faith than anything else can be... I would suggest to those in high places in the church, firstly, that they should do away with all vows and religious orders; or at least not speak of them with approval or praise... This kind of life finds no testimony or support in Scripture, but has been made to look imposing solely by the works of monks and priests. However numerous, sacred, and arduous they may be, these works, in God's sight, are in no way whatever superior to the works of a farmer laboring in the field, or of a woman looking after her home... Vows only tend to the increase of pride and presumption.”

        In his Appeal to the Ruling Class Luther writes that “the pope must be forbidden to institute, or set his seal on, any more these Orders. Indeed, he must be ordered to dissolve some, or force them to reduce their number... The many different works and customs may easily lead men rather to rely on these works and customs than to care for faith... at the present time unhappily, the Orders... only torment themselves pitiably, worrying and laboring about their own rules, laws, and customs, without ever reaching a true understanding of what constitutes a religious and virtuous life.”

        That Luther identifies the “works” of Christian asceticism and monasticism with the “works of the law” addressed by Christ and St. Paul is clear from all his writings. In his sermon commenting on the Gospel text of Luke 15:1-10 — the Third Sunday after Trinity — Luther makes this identification. “This is what our monks do. They have gone about making faces at all who lie in their sins, and have thought: Oh, but this is a worldly fellow! He does not concern us. If, now, he really would be pious, let him put on the monk's cowl!' Hence it is for that reason that such hypocrites cannot refrain from despising those who are not like them. They are puffed up over their own life and conduct, and cannot advance far enough to be merciful to sinners. This much they do not know, that they are to be servants, and that their piety is to be of service to others. Moreover, they become so proud and harsh that they are unable to manifest any love. They think: This peasant is not worthy to unloose the latchet of my shoes; therefore do not say that I am to show him any affection'. But at this point God intervenes, permitting the proud one to receive a severe fall and shock that he often becomes guilty of such sins as adultery, and at times does things even worse, and must afterwards smite himself, saying: 'Keep still, brother, and restrain yourself, you are of precisely the same stuff as yonder peasant'. He thereby acknowledges that we are all chips of the same block.”

        In his sermon on the Fourth Sunday after Trinity Luther says, in commenting on Luke 6:36-42: “Consequently those wishing to live thus have retired into monasteries and have desired to become perfect. Hence all monasteries are founded upon the filth of the devil. For there are no people more avaricious and less benevolent than just those in the monasteries... the monks and priests have é entirely and completely twisted these works... having done no Christian work during their whole lives except the saying of masses... This text does not at all permit us to conclude from it that forgiveness of sins is obtained by works, for Christ here speaks to those who are already children of grace, and does not instruct them how to obtain by works, as the Papists dream, the forgiveness of sins, which they already had by race.”

        In his sermon on the text of the Gospel for the Sixth Sunday after Trinity Luther preaches: “What then must we do? You must do as follows: You must acknowledge that you are condemned by the law, and the devil's own property and that you are unable to rescue yourself by any power of your own. Therefore you must flee to God, pray him to change you, or all is lost and ruined. This was well understood and observed by those highly learned, but they argued thus: If we preach that the whole world is condemned and the devil's own, what is to become of the sanctimonious priests and monks, for then they too would be condemned? God forbid! Wait, wait, we will sharpen our tongues, bore a hole into the paper for our God, make a comment and say thus: Why, God never meant it in that sense, for who could keep it? He did not command it, but merely suggested it to such as wished to be perfect. Again, the perfect are not under obligations to be so. It suffices if they strive after perfection. Many large books, called Formas conscientiarum, treatises to comfort and acquit the consciences, have been written on this subject. Thomas Aquinas was about the leading heretic in this line. Later the same doctrine was confirmed by the Pope, and diffused throughout the world; this explains the later origin of Orders, which aimed at perfection. Well, God be praised that we have understood the error, so that we can avoid it.” When Luther says that one must “flee to God, pray him to change you,” it is an impossibility within his very own structure of thought. His very theological principle prohibits any “fleeing to God.” It is ironic that Luther, when he must “exhort” his flock, must fall back to human realism, to human ontology, and use language which the Christian Church has used from its inception, language used by our Lord, the Apostles, and those who followed.

        Luther's knowledge of early Church history and doctrinal tradition is sadly limited. During the Leipzig Debate in 1519 Luther met a formidable opponent in Eck, whose aim was to link Luther with John Hus who had been condemned by a general council of the Church, the Council of Constance. To link Luther with Hus was to force the admission from Luther that he not only did not accept the authority of the Pope but also rejected the authority of councils. Luther had prepared for this debate. Luther's main area of preparation was to prove that submission to the bishop of Rome was not a part of early Christian history. He found his “convincing material” by studying the Greek Church — but only in this one aspect. Luther was able to show that Greek bishops in the early centuries were not confirmed by the Pope and were not subject to the Pope. Eck continued to bring the debate to the issue of Hus. Luther attempted to continue to bring up his evidence from the Greek Church: “As for the article of Hus that 'it is not necessary for salvation to believe the Roman Church superior to all others,' I do not care whether this comes from Wyclif or from Hus. I know that innumerable Greeks have been saved though they never heard this article.”

        But that was in essence the deepest that Luther penetrated into the history and thought of the Eastern Church. Luther's attitude towards tradition was unpredictable. On the one hand he cares little about tradition, considering it to he the vehicle through which poisonous errors had entered the Church. On the other hand, when it suited his purpose, he upheld tradition — as evidenced in his debate with Zwingli on the Eucharist. His letter (April, 1532) to Albrecht, the Margrave of Brandenburg and Duke of Prussia contains an astonishing statement. “The testimony of the entire holy Christian church (even without any other proof) should be sufficient for us to abide by this article, and to listen to no sectarians against it. For it is dangerous and terrible to hear or believe any thing against the unanimous testimony, faith, and doctrine of the entire holy Christian church as held from the beginning for now over fifteen hundred years in all the world... To deny such testimony is virtually to condemn not only the holy Christian church as a damned heretic, but even Christ himself, with all his apostles and prophets, who have founded this article, º believe a holy Christian Church,1 as solemnly affirmed by Christ when he promised, 'Behold, I am with you all the days, even to the end of the world' (Matthew 18:20), and by St. Paul when he says, The church of God is the pillar and ground of the truth' (I Timothy 3:15).” By this very statement Luther's doctrine of salvation does not meet the test. He himself realized he was the one who “discovered” the “new understanding” of passive righteousness, of the doctrine of “by faith alone,” with all his own connotations. He was completely aware that not even St. Augustine supported him on his doctrine of “justification.” His entire attack on asceticism — in its proper spiritual form — collapses.

        Luther has said much about the “Fathers” of the Church, though he knew only a limited number of works from a small number of the Fathers. “The Fathers have written many things that are pious and useful, but they must be read with discrimination, and must be judged by the Scriptures.” Jacobus Latomus published one of his works against Luther in 1521. Luther received a copy of the work on May 26, 1521. He completed his Contra Latomum while at Wartburg Castle within a month's time. Luther speaks out on the subject of the “Fathers of the Church.” “Now you will say, 'Do you not believe then what the Fathers have said?' My answer is, Ought I to believe? Who has decreed that they must be believed? Where is the command of God in respect of that article of faith? Why do they themselves not believe their Fathers? Especially Augustine who wanted to be free himself and ordered all men to be free in the matter of all human writings. Or is it because these sophists have forced upon us this tyranny and deprived us of our liberty to such an extent that they have forced us into the position where we dare not oppose Aristotle (curse him!) but must submit to him. Shall we therefore be kept in this bondage for ever and never breathe in Christian liberty the right to return home again?' 'But,1 you say, 'they were holy men and elucidated the Scriptures.' But who has ever proved that the Scriptures have been elucidated by them? Suppose they obscured them?... I am not commanded to believe their fancies but the Word of God. One is our Master, Christ, and the Fathers are to be estimated in the light of the divine Scriptures to know who has elucidated them and who obscured them... 'But Scripture that is obscure needs clarification?' Put it on one side where it is obscure, hold fast to it where it is clear. And who has proved that the Fathers are not obscure? We are going to be brought back to the position of having your opinion in the form 'it seems to me... Or their opinion in the form 'the Fathers say...' But what did even the Fathers do except seek out the clearest and simplest testimonies of Scripture and offer them to men. Ï wretched Christians, whose Scripture and faith still depend on the glosses of men, and await their clarification! These things are worthless and blasphemous.”

        It was, of course, St. Augustine whom Luther read most. “Augustine pleased and pleases me better than all other doctors. He was a great teacher and worthy of all praise.” “Latina nostra ecclesia nullum habuit praestantiorum doctorem quam Augustinum.” He claimed that if St. Augustine were living during the Reformation that St. Augustine would support him, whereas Jerome would condemn him. “Although [St. Augustine] was good and holy, he was yet lacking in the true faith, as well as the other fathers.” “When the door was opened to me for the understanding of Paul, I was done with Augustine.” After St. Augustine Luther favors St. Hilary of Poitiers, basically for his work DeTrinitaie. “Hilarius inter omnes patres luctatorfuit strenuissimus adversus haereticos, cui neque Augustinus conferri potest.” Luther respected St. Ambrose mainly for his stand against Theodosius. But he found St. Ambrose's hymns, with the exception of Rex Christe, factor omnium — which he ascribed to Ambrose — of little value and his works lacking in substance. Prudentius is praised by Luther but only for his poetry. Tertullian he called “durus et superstitiosus” and oddly refers to him as the “oldest of the fathers.” Luther respected St. Jerome's work as a translator but despised him “because of his monkery”: “He ought not to be counted among the doctors of the church, for he was a heretic, although I believe that he was saved by faith in Christ. I know no one of the fathers, to whom I am so hostile as to him. He writes only about fasting, virginity, and such things.” Luther considered St. Jerome's commentaries of little value and asserts that St. Jerome loved Eustochium, that it was this that really created the scandal. Luther had no respect for Pope Gregory I, who was the author of the nonsense of purgatory and masses for the dead, who knew little of Christ and the Gospel, and who was altogether too superstitious. “His sermons are not worth a penny.”

        Luther's knowledge of the Greek Fathers was sorely inadequate, almost non-existent. In essence he knows nothing of any substance about St. Ignatius, St. Irenaeus, Origen, Eusebius, and St. Epiphanius. He does praise St. Athanasius as the greatest teacher of the Greek Church but adds that he was nothing special — ”obwohl er nichts sonderliches war.” He disagreed outright with Melanchthon's positive evaluation of St. Basil. Luther consider St. Gregory of Nazianzus to be “nothing” — “Nazianzenus est nihil.” He has little regard for St. John Chrysostom and seldom misses an opportunity to caricature him. Chrysostom “is garrulous, and therefore pleases Erasmus, who neglects faith, and treats only of morals. I consulted Chrysostom on the beautiful passage on the highpriest in Hebrews, but he twaddled about the dignity of priests, and let me stick in the mud.”


Article published in English on: 28-11-2007.

Last update: 10-12-2007.