Saturday, October 29, 2011

Living, Dying and Being Damned

Many remarks by Martin Luther get tossed around, often without great care for their context. Upon closer examination, some of these prove to be spurious -- it seems he never offered to plant a tree just on the eve of the apocalypse. Others prove to be genuine, but still worth a little exploration.

Consider this:
Living, nay dying and being damned, make a theologian, rather than comprehending, reading, or speculating.
The original reads:

Vivendo, immo moriendo et damnando fit theologus, non intelligendo, legendo aut speculando.

The source in a 1520 lecture on Psalm 5:11 ("let all those that put their trust in thee rejoice," etc.), reprinted in the Weimarer Ausgabe, vol. 5, p. 163, lines 29-30. The source is often cited on web pages, although we suspect strongly that many of these sites are copying from each other.

We took a moment to confirm the citation, using the astonishing Internet Archive. More than a moment, actually, since the enormous file slowed our browser to a crawl. Thanks, Uncle Marty, for your legendary logorrhea.

Writers generally use the remark as a prooftext for what may be called the existential side of Luther's theology, the sense of personal struggle against sin, death and Hell. They are surely right to do so, at least within limits. (We stumbled over an LCMS document that seems to use it as a model for seminary education. No comment.)

What we have not seen mentioned is the context. The much-quoted remark follows a passage that says, very roughly, this:
I would want to be warned that it is said, from Italy all the way to Germany, in the Commentary on the Mystical Theologians of Dionysius: that it is merely an annoying display of one's own learning, not to truly be a mystical theologian, but to read, teach and understand this, or to understand and teach what the vision was.
Okay, that's a junk translation, and we apologize. But do you see the point? Both remarks make a distinction between a true theologian and merely learned person -- a useful distinction. But it is by no means original to Luther, who is here restating for his students a remark he has himself found in the writer now generally identified as Ps-Dionysius (or maybe a commentary on Ps-Dionysius).

This matters, at least a little, because so many Protestant theologians have an abiding hatred for the rehashed neoplatonism of Ps-Dionysius, with its ladders of being which extend from heaven straight through the earth, and which were used to reinforce the rigid social and ecclesiastical hierarchy of the Middle Ages. (Indeed, Ps-D. seems to have invented the word hierarchy). We had two different professors at two different seminaries who assigned this guy, merely in order to refute him.

We do not doubt that Luther himself eventually had some harsh words for Pseudo-Dionysius. He had harsh words for everybody, to be frank. But it may be useful to remember that one of Luther's most frequently repeated remarks, and one of lasting value, was intended as a no more than a reflection of something the other guy said first. We expect there's a moral in there, about listening to people we disagree with, and not throwing out the good ideas with the bad ones.

Happy Reformation Day, everybody!


Pastor Joelle said...

I'd like to know who actually told the gossiper to go put feathers on the doorsteps of all the people she gossiped about. That has been attributed to St. Francis and Martin Luther.
And d the answer to the question "what was God doing before he created the world" Either Augustine or Luther answer "looking for a switch to beat little boys that ask such troublesome questions.

Father Anonymous said...

I do love a mystery ....

The gossip story is also attributed to Rabbi Levi Tizhak [or Yitzchok] of Berditchev, and 18th-c. Hasid. It appears in a many Jewish books over the last 10 or 15 years, but I can't find an older reference. (I'd love it if he turned out to be cribbing from Luther, but the jury is still out on whether anybody ever said it before 1995).

But the before-Creation story is echt Augustine: Confessions, book 11, chapter 12. (He then spoils the joke, by saying, "But of course, I would never actually say this myself. Ahem.")

Pastor Joelle said...

Oh somebody told the feather story before 1995 - it's in a 1980s Augsburg Confirmation curriculum. "Affirm" and on the commandments I think. And it attributes to St. Francis I think. I will have to go look that up.

Now I'm really embarrassed I did not know that before creation joke was actually in Augustine's confessions.

Father Anonymous said...

I didn't either, until I looked it up. In fact, I was ready to bet he hadn't said it, on the grounds that it just didn't *sound* like Augustine. Which is why they call me Pastor Tin-Ear.