Thursday, July 29, 2010

Luther's S#!t

Theology is a rough game. Perhaps we are mistaken, but it has always seemed to us that Lutheran theology is played with particularly sharp elbows.

We aren't alone in thinking this. Melancthon's acid prayer (to be "delivered from the rabies theologorum") speaks to a lifetime spent seeking to build bridges between people who preferred to stand on opposite banks of a river and throw stones. Of these, arguably the most committed to stone-throwing were the Gnesio-Lutherans, the self-appointed defenders of doctrinal purity within the Evangelical movement. To this day, it astonishes us that they succeeded in affixing labels like "pussyfooter" and even "traitor" to Melanchthon himself -- the guy who wrote the freaking Augustana.

Some of the blame -- okay, much of the blame -- rests properly with Luther himself. He was a towering genius, but he was also prone to writing nasty, vulgar, personal attacks. Consider his exchange with Erasmus, a misstep which may have cost the Reformation cause its brainiest ally. Luther knew this about himself, and admits it in many places.

Philip Schaff, the Swiss historian who served memorably as one half of the German Reformed seminary at Mercersburg, knew it as well. In his rambling history of the German Reformation, he puts it this way:
Luther’s polemics had a bad effect on the Lutheran Church. He set in motion that theological fury which raged for several generations after his death, and persecuted some of the best men in it, from Melanchthon down to Spener.
His blind followers, in their controversies among themselves and with the Reformed, imitated his faults, without his genius and originality; and in their zeal for what they regarded the pure doctrine, they forgot the common duties of courtesy and kindness which we owe even to an enemy.
He then adds in a footnote:
These champions of Lutheran orthodoxy were not simply Lutherisch, but verluthert, durchluthert, and ├╝berluthert. ...

They believed that Luther’s example gave them license to exhaust the vocabulary of abuse, and to violate every rule of courtesy and good taste. They called the Reformed Christians "dogs," and Calvin’s God "a roaring bull (
Br├╝llochse), a blood-thirsty Moloch, and a hellish Behemoth." They charged them with teaching and worshiping the very Devil (den leibhaftigen Teufel), instead of the living God. One of them proved that "the damned Calvinistic heretics hold six hundred and sixty-six tenets [the apocalyptic number!] in common with the Turks." Another wrote a book to show that Zwinglians and Calvinists are no Christians at all, but baptized Jews and Mohammedans.
The best line is from the ellipsis, but deserves to be savored in isolation:
They fulfilled the prediction of the Reformer: "Adorabunt stercora mea." ...
That is, They will worship my shit. Or dung, if you must. Either way, there's a fair description of the Gnesio-Lutheran impulse. Nor is the impulse restricted to one group; how many times have you heard "Well, Luther says ..." used to end a debate, as though there were no higher or more reliable authority?

Did he really say it? We hope so, but in all fairness, one never knows with Luther. The famous remark about planting a tree appears to be spurious. So far as we can tell from our friends at Google, Schaff's line is adapted from the Table Talk, and is otherwise reported as Adorabunt stercora nostra, et pro balsamo habebunt. That is, they will worship our, um whatever, and they will mistake it for perfume. Which just makes it better.

1 comment:

Fr. James of the Tonsure said...

This deserves a thread on the ALPB boards!