Martin Luther is without a doubt one of the most important persons in the history of the Western Civilization and would rightly belong in any top ten list of the most important Religious figures in history however this doesn't mean he is not one of the silliest men in History.
Now by being silly I do not mean that Luther was harmless for contrary to popular belief being silly doesn't mean harmless and silly beliefs can have murderous consequences. The witch craze for example.
The beliefs on which the Witch-craze was based, the pact with Satan, the Satanic Church, the Witches Sabbat, sex with Satan, were preposterous and silly in the extreme and yet tens of thousands were killed because of this silliness to say nothing of the oppression and terrorising of who knows how many.1
Here I will look at two aspects of Luther's silliness.
Now before I go on I must mention that the source of Luther's silliness which was his deep and seemingly bottomless reservoir of hate. The man was a very good hater, who responded to any sort of obstruction or disagreement from people by reaching deep into his reservoir of hateful bile. If any emotion dominated Luther it was his capacity to hate.2
Now what was the source of Luther's hate. It was I believe in a truly deep and vast self loathing, more or less hatred of the self. I will go further into this later.
One of the most striking examples of Luther's bile and hatred is his very unpleasant dispute with Erasmus over predestination. Erasmus had written a rather measured and calm critique of Luther's opinions about Free Will in a short book called On the Freedom of the Will, Luther responded with a much longer work called On the Bondage of the Will. Now Erasmus was one of the foremost intellectuals of his day and a man of wide learning and of a charitable, forgiving disposition. Further Erasmus disliked disputations and ranker and called for calm reasoned discussion.3
What Erasmus got from Luther was a stream of bile and viciousness. I am amused that so many Christian theologians seem to think so highly of On the Bondage of the Will, when it is basically a piece of polemical abuse which sadly has no humour and very little of the self depreciation that might make it palatable. Needless to say both Luther and Erasmus spends, from the modern point of view, inordinate amounts of space discussing philological minutia and the equivalent of how many Angels can dance on the head of a pin. It is quite boring. However if Erasmus was at least trying to be scholarly, Luther was engaging in a vicious polemic that did not even pretend to be fair to his victim.4
Has mentioned above to this day many are impressed with Luther's On the Bondage of the Will, saying it asserts strongly and magnificently the sovereignty of God etc. Actually I suspect that the authors are impressed with a bombastic, spittle filled explosion of incoherent rage. Which Luther's book so often reads like. For the book contains at least one clear and obvious silly argument.
Now Luther asserts that men have no freedom to accept or deny salvation but that God alone determines who will be saved and who will be damned and men have no say in the matter.
Luther than asserts that to deny the above is to deny that God is God, and also to deny this is to deny the saving grace of the resurrection etc. So far it has a certain perverse logic. Although just why should we accept that it is a denial of God's sovereignty if men can in some sense chose salvation? And just how does that deny God is God? Luther never really answers objections he just asserts that what he claims is obvious and to assert otherwise means one has been blinded by Satan. Whatever.5
However it turns out that Luther doesn't really believe in God's absolute sovereignty for he says:
But if we are unwilling to let this term go altogether—thought that would be the safest and most God-fearing thing to do—let us at least teach men to use it honestly, so that free choice is allowed to man only with respect to what is beneath him and not what is above him. That is to say, a man should know that with regard to his faculties and possessions he has the right to use, to do, or to leave undone, according to his own free choice, though even this is controlled by the free choice of God alone, who acts in whatever way he pleases. On the other hand in relation to God, or in matters pertaining to salvation or damnation, a man has no free choice, but is a captive, subject and slave either of the will of God or the will of Satan.6This gives the game away totally. Faced with the obvious fact that in day to day life people APPEAR to have the ability to choose Luther says we have that freedom. However Luther denies God's sovereignty in everyday life, probably because Luther could not bear the thought of God being responsible for the evil things that happen in day to day life. Yet Luther decides that certain things were important enough to God for God to predestine us and certain things so unimportant that God allows us freedom to choose.
Aside from the presumption of deciding what is important to God, there is the obvious problem that if God can allow us freedom in some areas, just why can't God allow us freedom when it comes to salvation? Luther's response such has it is amounts to God can't allow us freedom in those areas because they are too important.
Since Luther "knows" just what God would consider important, he "knows" what God would consider unimportant. Whatever. Also just how is denying God's power over unimportant things NOT denying God's power. Further if God allows us free choice in small things, why not large things and how is God allowing us freedom of choice denying God's sovereignty?
Thus Luther's On the Bondage of the Will contains a serious logical flaw or frankly what can only be called a silly argument.
Another silly aspect of Luther's thinking is his rather repellent hatreds. One of the reasons Luther so cordially hated Erasmus is, I suspect, because Erasmus was so cool, even tempered, and without much hatred or anger in him.
You see Luther was filled with a vast amount of self loathing. Luther thought continually on his sins and magnified them into a monstrous load of satanic poison. Luther found that he simply could not fulfil the clerical ideal of the "perfect" monk so he heaped coals of self loathing on himself. Luther decided that he along with all of humanity were utterly depraved beings deserving of eternal torture and suffering. Since Luther decided that he was utter scum the rest of humanity had to be utter scum like himself. So all of mankind was dragged down to the same level of wickedness that Luther felt he was at.
Now Erasmus was clearly NOT filled with self loathing and self hatred so of course he was evil to Luther. Further Erasmus contradicted emphatically Luther's belief that self loathing etc., was necessary to get on the path to equanimity.
Luther turned his self loathing outward into a vast torrent of words that reek of hatred and bile.
Luther was unable to fulfil the ideals of a clerical life and further Luther seemed to believe that on a fundamental level he and all of mankind were incapable of works that could please God and that God could never be pleased by mere humans and so some are saved only by the inexplicable grace of God who chooses to save some through inexplicable caprice.
Unable to do works that pleased God Luther turned to faith has the cardinal virtue and then asserted that faith would produce charity etc., although even so the works were meaningless in terms of salvation. Of course it is obvious from history that faith does not necessarily or even most times produces charity or good works. Let us look at Luther did his new faith in his salvation by grace produce good works? Did it produce a man brimming with charity and goodness? No it did not. Luther if any thing became angrier, more hate filled and vicious has he got older. The quiet faith of Erasmus eluded him, instead we got bile and hate filled screeds oozing with intolerance and hatred of his enemies or just about anyone who disagreed with him.7 Good works, love and charity signally failed to come from Luther after he found his faith and so refute at the source the silly notion that good works will proceed from proper faith.
Long ago the philosopher Nietzche noted this error:
Still this fundamental error is propagated through Protestant teachers: that only faith matters and that out of faith works must follow necessarily. This is simply not true...8We have had plenty of men of faith who have done terrible and wicked things. The fact is faith of whatever kind is no guarantee that the person will do good things. Attempting to save the notion by saying it has to be RIGHT faith solves nothing because it is all to easy to show examples of bad behaviour from men of all faiths. And frankly Luther's claim ignores the fact that all to frequently men of faith use their faith to justify and excuse their actions and at times their faith is the impetus to commit the bad action. I am absolutely sure that the inquisitors when they were burning people alive though this was what their faith compelled them to do.
But all of this flows from Luther's self loathing due in part to his inability, in his eyes, to fulfil the life of the ideal Christian Monk. Because of that he decided works don't count, only faith does. Not surprisingly faith alone was not quite sufficient to make Luther a kind charitable man, which goes to show faith is not enough.
Luther was one of the most important persons of the last 1,000 years but that did not prevent him from having silly ideas. As to whether or not the silly ideas mentioned here had consequences..
I don't know. Perhaps that is a topic for another time.
I don't know. Perhaps that is a topic for another time.
1. For a good over all look at the European Witch Craze see Trevor-Roper, H. R., The European Witch-Craze of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries and other Essays, Harper & Row Pub., New York, 1969, pp. 90-192.
2. See the thematic biography of Martin Luther by Richard Marius, Marius, Richard, Martin Luther: The Christian Between God and Death, Harvard University Press, Cambridge Mass., 1999. See especially Ch. 22 On the Jews, pp. 372-380, and Ch. 25 The Peasants' Rebellion, pp. 414-435.
3. For the basic documents, including the ones mentioned, see Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and Salvation, Editors, Rupp, E. Gordon & Watson, Philip S., Westminster Press, Louisville KEN., 2006. See also Marius, Ch. 27 The Attack on Erasmus, pp. 442-468.
4. IBID, Luther, On The Bondage of the Will, pp. 101-334, Erasmus, On the Freedom of the Will, pp. 35-100.
5. IBID., Luther and Marius, Ch. 27, pp. 442-468.
6. IBID., Luther, p. 143.
7. See Marius, Ch. 27, pp. 442-468 and Kaufman, Walter, Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ., 2013, pp. 342-350.
8. IBID., p. 349. Kaufman is quoting Nietzsche's The Dawn, (22), 1881.