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Friday, January 27, 2012

Sin a Little

Pastor Joelle recently drew our attention to this passage from Martin Luther's 1530 letter to Jerome Weller. It has been making the internet rounds since it was broadcast on The Writer's Almanac by Garrison Keillor (the Lutheran world's favorite Episcopalian). We offer it here both to get a properly sourced text online, and because it's cool.

Weller was a young pastor who seems to have suffered from what we might call depression, but which in the old days was surely thought of differently. Luther counselled him:

Whenever this temptation comes to you beware not to dispute with the devil nor allow yourself to dwell on these lethal thoughts, for so doing is nothing less than giving place to the devil and so falling. Try as hard as you can to despise these thoughts sent by Satan. In this sort of temptation and battle contempt is the easiest road to victory ; laugh your enemy to scorn and ask to whom you are talking. By all means flee solitude, for he lies in wait most for those alone. This devil is conquered by despising and mocking him, not by resisting and arguing.

Therefore, Jerome, joke and play games with my wife and others, in which way you will drive out your diabolic thoughts and take courage....

Be strong and cheerful and cast out those monstrous thoughts. Whenever the devil harasses you thus, seek the company of men or drink more, or joke and talk nonsense, or do some other merry thing.

Sometimes we must drink more, sport, recreate ourselves, aye, and even sin a little to spite the devil, so that we leave him no place for troubling our consciences with trifles.

We are conquered if we try too conscientiously not to sin at all. So when the devil says to you : "Do not drink," answer him : " I will drink, and right freely, just because you tell me not to.' One must always do what Satan forbids. What other cause do you think that I have for drinking so much strong drink, talking so freely and making merry so often, except that I wish to mock and harass the devil who is wont to mock and harass me.

Would that I could contrive some great sin to spite the devil, that he might understand that I would not even then acknowledge it and that I was conscious of no sin whatever. We, whom the devil thus seeks to annoy, should remove the whole decalogue from our hearts and minds.

- Letter to Jerome Weller, summer 1530; from Preserved Smith, "The Life and Letters of Martin Luther," (NY & Boston: Houghton Mifflin/Riverside Press, 1911), p.324. [Paragraph breaks are my own insertion].

See? Cool.

Needless to say, the memorable part of this letter is "sin a little to spite the devil." But latter-day Lutherans, taught as we sometimes have been to separate Law from Gospel with a paring knife, may find that Uncle Marty does it with a rhetorical chainsaw. "Remove the whole decalogue?" From the guy who wrote the Catechisms? One thinks not.

What's more interesting, to us at the Egg, is the expression of a dynamic fundamental to Lutheran thinking, and often confusing to our dialogue partners. The idea is that we are free in most things -- to eat food sacrificed to idols, or not to eat; to fast in Fridays, or not to fast, and so forth. But the moment somebody forbids us, or requires us, the freedom disappears. This is the tricky way that adiaphora can inadvertently provoke a status confessionis.

Mind you, the peculiar quirk is often more of a sectarian reflex than a sound theological judgment. Strictly speaking, it only applies when the prohibition or requirement is made a matter of salvation. So, for example, when some Lutherans got all uppity about the historic episcopate as a condition for full communion with the (D&FMS of the) PECUSA, they were missing the point; mutual recognition of each other as true churches possessing true sacraments and true preaching had been achieved many years earlier. Except among a few -- largely ignorant and bigoted -- Anglo-Catholic extremists, there was no question concerning salvation, only good order. So no status confessionis was called for.

On the other hand, were we to negotiate with Lutherans, we would be very careful to make requests (which can be acceded to out of love) rather than to assert requirements (which must sometimes be rejected out of evangelical freedom). It just moves things along faster.


Anonymous said...

Father A., you are a gem! web

Daniel said...

In the second paragraph, Luther counsels Jerome to "joke and play games with my [Luther's?] wife and others." Is that a typo, or what the letter actually said? If it is what the letter actually said, then I'm curious about what circumstances would have made Katie Luther the person Martin thought of for Jerome to turn to for cheering up.

Father Anonymous said...

Not a typo; I noticed it too, and had the same question. Here's a guess:

The letter is from summer -- I think July -- 1530. Luther was at the Coburg, and the Diet of Augsburg was probably wrapping up after about 3 months. In any case the AC had been presented on June 25, and so there was a lot of heavy theological lifting to do.

Meanwhile, there is Weller, either a student or a very young pastor, back in Wittenberg struggling with his inner devils. At some point -- I'm unsure of the timeline -- he lived in the Luther household, and was tutor to some of the children. In that sense, Katy is the mother/older sister figure, a natural person for him to look toward for diversion.

It's even more natural, of course, during summer in a university town. There aren't as many young people around, and this particular summer the theological professors were away, creating Lutheranism as we know it.

Father Anonymous said...

Let me amend that idea slightly. Weller was the family tutor, but he was not as young as I thought -- about 30, same age as Katy.

Daniel said...

Thanks, Father A!