Saturday, April 23, 2016

Another Thing Luther Didn't Say

As we have often observed, many of the best things Martin Luther ever said were in fact said by somebody else.  Likewise Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde and Winston Churchill.

An ELCA synod celebrated Earth Day this year by posting a pretty little meme to Facebook:

The sentiment is lovely. After all, traditional Christianity has long spoken of reading the "Book of Nature," meaning that God is revealed in the Creation.  But did Luther ever say this?

Some Facebook discussion ensued, little of it supported by research.  "How beautiful," said one.  "Doesn't sound like Luther," said another.  "Natural theology be damned," snorted a third.  That sort of thing, which substitutes opinion for fact.

One participant suggested, perhaps a bit wistfully, that this was a paraphrase of a remark from Luther's 1527 essay That The Words "This is My Body" etc. Stand Fast Against the Fanatics.  The precise passage she cited goes like this:

The Scriptures teach us ... that the right hand of God is not a specific place on which a body must or may be, such as on a golden throne, but is is the almighty power of God, which at one and the same time can be nowhere and yet must be everywhere. [....] 
On the other hand, [the power of God] must be present in essence at all places, even in the tiniest tree leaf.  The reason is this:  it is God who creates, effects, and preserves all things through his almighty power and right hand, as our Creed confesses.  [LW 37:59, alt.]

This is Luther the ubiquitarian at work, and as such it represents a somewhat polemical position, over against the Swiss Reformers who argued that Christ, sitting at the right hand in celestial glory, could not reasonably be said to be present also in the terrestrial bread and wine.

But saying that Christ can be present in the whole Creation at once is not quite the same as saying that the message of salvation can be discovered in nature.  Not to mention that the words are entirely different.

So what is the actual source of "trees, flowers, clouds and stars"?

Funny story, with an emphasis upon "story.".

In the early 1860s, a popular novelist and poet named Elizabeth Rundle Charles was asked by an editor to write a book about Luther's life.  The result was The Chronicles of the Schoenberg-Cotta Family (1862), a curious novel that pretends to tell the story of Luther through the yes of his neighbors.  It is available on Project Gutenberg, if you are interested.

In the voice of a neighbor girl, Else, Charles tells a tale about sitting with Katie during the Doctor's absence at the Coburg in 1530. Luther using the family garden as a sort of living catechism:

It is delightful too, [Frau Luther] says, to listen to the heavenly theology [her husband] draws from birds and leaves and flowers, and the commonest gifts of God or events of life. At table, a plate of fruit will open to him a whole volume of God's bounty, on which he will discourse. Or, taking a rose in his hand, he will say, "A man who could make one rose like this would be accounted most wonderful; and God scatters countless such flowers around us! But the very infinity of his gifts makes us blind to them." 
And one evening, he said of a little bird, warbling its last little song before it went to roost, "Ah, dear little bird! he has chosen his shelter, and is quietly rocking himself to sleep, without a care for to-morrow's lodging; calmly holding by his little twig, and leaving God to think for him." 
In spring he loves to direct her attention to the little points and tufts of life peeping everywhere from the brown earth or the bare branches. "Who," he said, "that had never witnessed a spring-time would have guessed, two months since, that these lifeless branches had concealed within them all that hidden power of life? It will be thus with us at the resurrection. God writes his gospel, not in the Bible alone, but in trees, and flowers, and clouds, and stars." 
And thus, to Mistress Luther, that little garden, with his presence and his discourse, has become like an illuminated Gospel and Psalter.

In context, this actually does sound more like Luther.  It is less about finding salvation in nature than about finding in nature images of the salvation we have encountered in the external Word.  Rundle, who had certainly read a great deal in preparation for her book, may very well have had a source in Luther's works.  or she may have invented this from whole cloth.

Until somebody comes up with something better, though, we are going to call this one a phony.  So far as the evidence goes, Luther neither said nor wrote the words to which people have been heedlessly appending his name for lo these 150 years.

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