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LUTHER AND LYING, New Zealand Tablet, 26 July 1917
LUTHER AND LYING
That Luther was guilty of many conspicuous faults of taste and temper is admitted by his most ardent admirers. But a more delicate point which has been much discussed of recent years is the question of his intellectual honesty. Was he a truthful man ? The work Luther unci Luthcrtum, published in 1904 by Father Denifle, seems to have been written with the direct purpose of answering this question in the negative. The distinguished Dominican made out a very damaging case and the vehement outcry raised by the divines of the Fatherland showed plainly enough that the blow had got home in a sensitive spot. Probably, however, it should be admitted that Denifle did sometimes press the charge of conscious deception too far, and it is to be noted that the rather uncompromising language used was in a good many instances quietly modified in the second edition. • But the Lutheran defence, even as represented in Kohler's I titer u»d die Luge, is a weak one. It rests for the most part upon such pleas as that the charge of conscious perversion of the truth has not been made out, or that Luther merely echoed the calumnies of others, or that bis recollection of his early life had grown blurred and indistinct. We may remember the usurper in ''The Tempest" " Who having unto truth by telling of it Made such a sinner of his memory To credit his own lie, he did believe He was indeed the Duke." So the Wittenberg professor seems by degrees to have persuaded himself into a view of many incidents in his past' history which is demonstrably in contradiction with the ascertained facts. Such, for example, is the account he gave. of the Bible, as a book .practically unknown to his student contemporaries : such again, the story of his discovery of the real meaning of '''the justice of God" (Rom. i. 17), a meaning, as he afterwards untruly alleged, which contradicted the teaching of all the scholastic doctors ; such, his assertions regarding the value set upon the vows of religion apart from belief in Christ; such again, the exaggeration of his numberless diatribes against the vice and profanity which reigned at the Papal court. Of course when Luther declared that in Rome Masses were said with such scandalous haste that ten in succession occupied less than an hour, he may not altogether have intended his hearers to take him seriously. " But he also knew that some of them did take such utterances seriously and he was quite willing that the cause of the Evangel should be promoted by these extravagances. ° Moreover, statements . of fact represent only one class of the prevarications with which the Reformer stands charged. He is accused of garbling texts and of falsifying his translations, the most famous examples
being the insertion of the word “alone” in Rom. iii. 28: “Man is justified by faith alone without the works of the law.” It is asserted also that he taught very lax doctrine when formally discussing;the permissibility of lies of excuse, and he certainly made no scruple about circulating calumnies against his opponents, though he had made no attempt to verify the reports. Whatever may be the weight of each of these counts taken singly, in the bulk they leave a decidedly unfavorable impression, and the laborious vindications of such writers as Sodeur, Walther, or Kohler somehow make the reader feel that a cause which requires so much explanation and apology cannot be fundamentally a sound one. But it is impossible to discuss the details here, and even the well-known case of the bigamy of Philip of Hesse, in which Luther avowedly recommended the Landgrave to conceal the fact by “a good round lie,” is too complicated for summary statement. Suffice it to note that such ardent American panegyrists as Dr. P. Smith and Professor McGiffert, after much setting forth of extenuating circumstances, come round in rho end to the frank admission that the incident was “the greatest blot” on Luther’s career. But difficulties similar in kind meet us at every turn. Let us take, for example, an instance, hardly noticed by either Denifle or Grisar, from Luther’s relations with Henry VIII. The English King in 1521 attacked Luther’s sacramental doctrine by the publication of his Assert to, which won him the title of “Defender of the Faith.” Luther had the book in June, 1522, and published two pamphlets in reply, one in German, and the other, more copious and argumentative, in Latin. The former appeared in July, the latter in November. The language of both is characteristically violent. Luther calls the English king blasphemer, blockhead, hypocrite, slanderer, babbler, sacrilegious robber, wretched scribbler (>u I serai) ills libnfe.e'), monster of folly, chosen vessel of Satan - he ranks him among asses and Thomistical swine, among the dregs, filth, and offscourings of impious and sacrilegious men, he makes him creep and snore and vomit and belch and drivel, and with an audacity almost sublime, he winds up his Latin pamphlet by claiming credit for ‘‘abstaining from the virulence and lies of which the King’s book is lull.” Two years later, however, the Reformer was told that Henry’s allegiance to Catholicism was shaken. Hoping to gain a convert for the cause of the “New Learning” he accordingly wrote to Henry expressing regret for the “pamphlet which I published foolishly and precipitately, not of my own motion but at the behest of certain men who were not your Majesty’s friends” ; and adding: “If your Serene Majesty wishes me to recant publicly and write in honor of your Majesty, you will graciously signify your wish to me and I will gladly do so.” Now if we may call things by their names, the excuses thus made are simply untrue. It is an obvious case of the common or garden lie of convenience. We need not profess to be horrified ; Luther had been equally disingenuous in his dealings with Leo X., but this is just the sort of insincerity to which the man of high principle will not stoop, though the unscrupulous partisan thinks nothing of it. It was not true that Luther had published his pamphlets against Henry precipitately. Upon the Latin edition, the only one circulating outside of Germany, he had spent no less than five months. Again, while it is of course possible that friends may have encouraged him in this onslaught, it is certain both from the nature of the work and from his surviving correspondence that his heart was thoroughly in the task before him. To represent himself as having written at the behest of others was a flagrant insincerity. As Dr. P. Smith ( English Historical Review, xxv., 662) remarks in reference to this incident: “Although Luther was certainly sincere in his wish for reconciliation, one can hardly blame Henry for regarding the letter as a piece of artful hypocrisy.” Equally characteristic of the Reformer were the calumnies he retailed about all whom he regarded as enemies. Henry he accused of stealing the crown of England by murder; of Tetzel he declared with equal
untruth that he had been sentenced to death by the Emperor Maximilian for gross immorality ; ■of Erasmus he pretended , though he had reason to know the contrary, that he died the death of an unbeliever; of Sir Thomas More, one of the noblest characters of that or any other age, Luther did not scruple to say: “He was not executed for the Gospels sake, but that he was a cruel tyrant who shed the blood of many innocent Christians whom he tortured in prison With strange instruments,” There is a widely prevalent opinion among historians, however, that the martyred More was the gentlest of men. The general conclusion, must be that Luther was a man to whom the idea of truth for truth’s sake meant nothing at all. He may not have set out deliberately to deceive, but the mood, or often enough the fierce passion, of the moment habitually distorted his perceptions and warped his judgment. At the time of his marriage Luther, writing to different correspondents, gave seven different reasons for the step he had taken. To one he declared that he had married because his father wished it, to another he explained that he wanted to put an end to certain gossip, to a third he described his nuptials as due to pity for the forlorn situation of 'Catherine Bora, and so on. Of course a man’s action may often be determined by a mixture of motives, but the conscientiously truthful person detects this and says :so. The laxer moralist gives the first plausible reason that comes into his head. In this matter again Luther bore a curious resemblance to that modern heresiarch, Mrs. Eddy, the foundress of Christian Science. Both ialike illustrated that type of character which without being designedly untruthful is entirely reckless of truth. They were too self-absorbed, too much in the grip of the storm of feeling which possessed them at the moment to scrutinise the data of memory or to weigh the consequences which might be deduced from what they said. The mere fact that some episode of past history was felt to be antagonistic to present feeling, for -example Mrs. Eddy’s early indebtedness to Dr. Quimby, or Luther’s religious outlook under monasticism, was enough to obliterate the past from their memory Any reminder of these forgotten years was brushed aside as an impertinent intrusion, something utterly insignificant beside the business of the moment and above all, beside the new revelation which they regarded as their own creation and handiwork. One may explain such temperaments, but one does not trust them. It is not to a character of this type that we can look for guidance in the supreme problems of faith and morality. — Herbert Thurston, S.J., in America.
LUTHER AND LYING, New Zealand Tablet, 26 July 1917
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