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The Psychoanalysis of Luther: Escape from Pessimism

Fr Francis J McGarrigle SJ

For the lack of study of Luther's evolving pre-Protestant psychology, few of his religious children, in my opinion, really comprehend the mind of their father in God. To understand the Wittenberg theologian it little profits that we quote some sentences from his writings; for we can cite, as bias would prompt, expressions of deepest spirituality or of disgusting coarseness and even of obscenity; expressions of powerful literary conception or of the most arbitrary self-contradiction. It little profits too, that we dwell on Luther's moral life, which if proved one way or another, would prove but little. Of prime importance is his intellectual and psychic character, which gave to the Western world a new and far-reaching division.

Luther's change of religion was a dogmatic change, motivated by theological thinking which gradually evolved out of his own evolving psychology. His religion, and the religion of millions after him, was the product of his psyche's history. An elaborate doctrinal position does not spring into being in an hour, especially in the mind of a theology professor. Luther's spiritual life was the foundation of His thought; and in his own account of his spiritual evolution, from childhood on, we can see Lutheranism developing, just as we see the mature fruit-tree in the sapling's growth. Hence it is plainly contrary to fact to attribute Protestantism to such a fortuitous event as the indulgence affair or to a sudden thought of the salvific nature of "faith without good works ", which Luther is said to have had in "the tower" of his monastery.

Why then did he abandon the Catholic Church? Was it because he rejected the right of the Church to rule his religious teaching? Quite obviously; that is the meaning of ceasing to be a Catholic. But why did he come to the conclusion that he could not admit that authority, which he had from pulpit and from professor's chair and with his incisive pen always firmly proclaimed to be genuine? Was it the maturing conviction that doctrinal jurisdiction is unsupported by Scripture and by the early history of the Church? No; Luther up to the very end of his Catholic life had not occupied himself with that question, except to proclaim often and unequivocally the divine commission of the Pope as the Shepherd of souls. He constantly avers his sincere desire to remain submissive to the Church's spiritual direction, until Catholic protests made him finally realize that his views on sin, faith and salvation, compatible he thought with Catholic doctrine, would have to be preached outside the Church if they were to be preached at all.

To all appearances he would never have abandoned the Catholic fold and the rule of the Catholic Shepherd, if they only would have allowed him to preach his new ideas within the walls. He was true to type: the heretic who becomes a schismatic when he perceives that there is not room for his opinions within the Church.

His was not the mentality of Hus and of Wickliff, the leitmotiv of which was revolt against Rome's authority. As a professor, only a few years before his declaration of spiritual autonomy, Luther condemns the Husites, in his Commentaries on the Psalms and on Romans, as " heretics wilfully destroying what is holy". It was only after he realized that his fully organized doctrinal position placed him outside the pale that he adopted Hus's attitude of independence from all teaching authority. During the development of his concupiscence theory, which brought him eventually to loggerheads with Catholic theology, he preached submission to ecclesiastical guidance, first amongst his monastic brethren, secondly, for all religious teachers, and thirdly he avowed it most decidedly in his own case.

As a higher superior of the Augustinian monks and at a time when he was already thoroughly Protestant in a number of his tenets, his repeated and energetic insistence was on the obedience due to constituted monastic authority, of which he was a representative. In 1517 Luther nailed up his unorthodox Indulgence theses: sometime between 1513 and 1515 he writes in his Commentary on the Psalms that divine condemnation will fall on " all the proud and stiff-necked, all the superstitious, rebellious and disobedient, also, I fear, on our own Observantines [a party of his Augustinian brethren] who under a show of strict discipline are only loading themselves with rebellion and insubordination".[1] He goes on to revile them with a mixture of Biblical passages and coarse phrases, both of which came so readily to his vitriolic tongue. " Before, behind and within, they [Observantines] are a swine market and a sow-sty."[2] "Obedience and humility they have none . . . they set themselves above the small and insignificant things demanded by obedience."[3] "When they have to do works that are not to their liking, they are slow, rebellious, obstinate."[4] He denounces the claims of the Observantines for exemptions and dispensations because "it is impossible to dispense from obedience."[5]

In a sermon on St. Peter's chains, August, 1516, he exhorts to loyal allegiance to Peter's successors: "If Christ had not entrusted all power to one man, the Church would not have been perfect because there would have been no order and each one would have been able to say that he was led by the Holy Spirit. This is what the heretics did, each one setting up his own principle. In this way as many churches arose as there were heads. Christ therefore wills, in order that all may be assembled in one unity, that His power be exercised by one man, to whom also he commits it. He has however made this power so strong that He looses all the powers of Hell against it without injury. He says: ' The gates of Hell shall not prevail against it ', as though he added: ' They will fight against it, but they will never overcome it; ' so that in this way it may be made manifest that His power is in reality from God and not from man. Wherefore, whoever breaks away from this unity and order of the power, let him not boast of great enlightenment and wonderful works, as our Picards [Husites] and other heretics do."[6] In passing, it is not out of place to remark that experience has certainly borne out Luther's reasoning: his principle of private autonomous interpretation of the Scriptures, enuntiated a few years later in Protestantism, had in fact the effect of " each one setting up his own principle, and in this way as many churches arose as there were heads,"—hundreds of them in the United States.

In 1516 his Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, which only lately has been exploited, teaches that the rules which the Church gives to the clergy must be obediently observed.[7] The superiors in the Church have jurisdiction to condemn false teachers, however much they " utter their foolish cry: ' we have the truth, we believe, we hear, we call on God ' . .. No: we have an authority which has been implanted in the Church, and the Roman Church has this authority in her hands."[8] "Whoever declares that he is sent by God must either give proof of his mission by wonders and heavenly testimony, as the Apostles did, or he must be recognized and commissioned by an authority confirmed by heaven. In the latter case he must stand by her judgment and teach in humble subjection to such authority, ever ready to submit to its decision. He must speak what he is commissioned to speak and not what his own taste leads him to invent . . . Anathema is the weapon which lays low heretics."[9] He asks, where are the credentials of the heretics: "but disregarding credentials they foolishly say: 'We have the truth ' . . . as though this were sufficient to constitute one an envoy of God. . . . Thus was the authority of the Church instituted as the Roman Church still holds it."

It is clear then that up to the very last he did not realize that his tenacious support of his doctrine on concupiscence would eventually put him in the very position which he so plainly describes and so pointedly condemns. "Tu es ille homo. Ex ore tuo. . . ."

We should remark by way of a nota bene that it is quite plain that Luther had not a comprehensive and synthetic intellect. His talents, not at all mean, were rather in the sentimental and literary order than in the constructive and logical. His doctrines form no consistent body and they were preached without sufficient regard for their mutual compatibility, so that, as has often been noted, he abounds in self-contradictions. His warm imagination, his exaggerated rhetoric and his facile tongue run away with his logic and at times even with his sincerity. What Catholic to-day would demand subjection to the Church's spiritual rules more energetically than he did in a sermon of 1516? "The Church cannot err in proclaiming the faith; only the individual within her is liable to error.

But let him beware of differing from the Church; for the Church's leaders are walls of the Church and our Fathers, they are the eye of the body and in them we must see the light."[10] But while supporting the teaching authority of the Church he proposed and held doctrines openly condemned by the Church. His carelessness of thought and his garrulity are exemplified in many such passages as these: " The more terrible and abominable a blasphemy is, the more pleasing it is to God when the heart feels that it does not acquiesce in it, i. e. when it is involuntary."[11] According to him, the soul predestined to Hell, despite any amount of good works that it may do, should be resigned and " not trouble about such thoughts." He does not seem to see the incongruity of putting a soul in Hell through no fault of its own, and then of asking the soul to like it. But passing over the multitudinous details, the whole main theme into which his doctrine is developed," faith without good works", is a contradiction in its very statement. Is not faith a good work? Does he not do a good work, in Luther's way of thinking, who follows his injunction: "Whoever is filled with the fear of God and courageously throws and precipitates himself into the truth of the promises of God, he will be saved and be one of the elect"?[12]

As late as 1 September, 1518, despite the fact that he had run his course of doctrine so far afield, he still insists that he is in the fold of the Church's authority and assures his superior Staupitz: " I shall hold the Church's authority in all honor".[13] But in the following words we see that his theory of concupiscence is driving him into an impasse from which the only way out will be either a volte-face in doctrine or a definite refusal to live up to his assurances of personal submission to the Church's censorship.

The protests of Catholic theologians against his new doctrines on concupiscence, sin and faith are becoming continually louder, more frequent and more authoritative. The inevitable dilemma of heterodoxy in a Catholic is assuming shape: either personal tenets or submission to ecclesiastical control must be given up. It is becoming acutely difficult for him to acknowledge the truth of his own teaching: " The Church cannot err in proclaiming the faith. Only the individual within her is liable to error"[14] "All the heretics fell through inordinate love of their own ideas. Hence it was not possible but that what was false should appear to them true, and what was true, false . . . Wisdom in its original purity, can exist only in the humble and meek."[15]

On 4 September, 1517; Luther sponsored and presided at a public disputation in Wittenberg in which ninety-seven theses embodying his doctrine were defended. Although they contained a number of heresies, they terminated with the words: " In all these propositions our intention was to say nothing, and we believe we have said nothing, which is not in accord with Catholic doctrine and with ecclesiastical writers."[16]

After nailing up his ninety-five theses at Wittenberg, 31 October, 1517, he writes to Schultetus, Bishop of Brandenburg, assuring him of his perfect submission and of his readiness to follow the Church's guidance in everything. He asserts that these theses were in accord with the Scriptures, Catholic teaching and canon law, " excepting some canonists and a few scholastic theologians." In August 1518, he wrote his "Resolutions " on Indulgences—pronouncements still more heterodox than the "Theses"—and published two submissive letters, one to Bishop Schultetus and the other to the Pope. In the latter he expressed his desire to defend himself before authority against those who were calumniating him and declares that he will listen to Pope Leo's voice "as to the voice of Christ who presides in him and speaks through him."[17]

From his letter to Spalatin we see that when he was about to face trial before Cardinal Cajetan at Augsburg in October, 1518, he still believes that he is Catholic in his theological views: " if they can prove to me that I have spoken differently from what the Holy Roman Church teaches, I will at once pronounce sentence against myself and beat a retreat. . . .[18] But when the trial went against him and the Cardinal judge pronounced that he must, as a Catholic, withdraw several heretical propositions, he, like so many heretics before and after him, took the next step—" appeal to the Pope better informed." Soon foreseeing that the Pope will not admit his appeal, without waiting for an answer, he takes the next usual step on 28 November, 1518—appeal to a future General Council. He is now quickly running the course of rejected heterodoxy culminating in complete schism. On 11 December, 1518, he states his belief that the anti-Christ spoken of by Paul in his Epistle to the Thessalonians " rules at the Papal Court. I think that to-day I can prove that he is worse than the Turks."[19] On 5 July, 1519) at the Leipzig disputations in the Pleissenburg castle, Eck, pointing out that some of Luther's doctrines had been condemned explicitly by the Councils of the Church, drove him into the assertion, not merely that the Pope, but even that the Councils of the Church are not authoritative. Thus quickly dislodged from one untenable position after another, he was forced to surrender his last trench and to abandon completely the whole field of authority in religion. On that day Luther went into the Pleissenburg a Catholic and came out malgre lui a Protestant.

So we can set aside as groundless the explanation of the genesis of Lutheran religion as fundamentally and primarily a rejection of the authority of the Church and Pope. That rejection was an afterthought, the effect, not the cause of the new religion, which became "protestant" only when it would not be tolerated in the Catholic Church. Later on, in fact, the Wittenberg doctor says expressly that he began his controversy on Indulgences "as an unreflecting and stupid Papist."[20]

Whilst revolt against Rome was only the effect of Luther's religion, the Church's teaching on indulgences and the abuse connected with their dispensation were only the occasion for publication of the new religion. Indulgences as a doctrine and practice had practically nothing to do with Luther's determination to go another way in religious teaching. Long before the indulgence incident he had changed his views so fundamentally that he had committed himself to the championing of a new interpretation of Christianity, indulgences or no indulgences. There was a far broader and more basic attitude of mind in question. Indulgences were but a detail.

Another alleged cause of Lutheranism, implied in the very name "Reformation"—abuses—can be a justification for reformation of the practice only of religion, not for revamping the principles which have been abused. Medicine's worth is to be judged by its effects in those who take it; a law's worth is judged by the effects of its observance; a religion is to be judged by its effects in those who follow it. The one Judas out of twelve Apostles did not prove Christ's religion to be false. Neither did the one Judas, probably to be found in every twelve of the bishops fifteen hundred years later, disprove the Catholic tradition of Christ's religion.

Our Lord well said: "By their fruits you shall know them." But it is sophistry to judge of the tree by fruits which do not belong to it. Corruption was the fruit, not of Catholicity, but of the neglect of Catholicity. However, Providence has allowed that the flock will almost invariably be captivated by this sophistry when the shepherd gives occasion for it. The Reformation would never have taken place had not the widespread corruption of the clergy and of religious induced the scandalized masses to make a sophistical application of the truth: by their fruits you shall know them. When Luther denounced abuses as a Catholic, he was well aware that observance of Catholic principles, not a change of principles, was needed for reformation. He raised abuses into high relief only after his theoretical theology, which has nothing to do with abuses, had placed him in opposition to Catholic teaching.


If we study the evolution of Luther's spirit recorded in his writings taken in the historic sequence of his Catholic preparation of his Protestant doctrine, it becomes clear that the linchpin to all his psychology and to all his theological system was pessimism in his view of man's relation to God and a consequent endeavor to escape from that pessimism, first through a tentative theory of humble resignation to inevitable Hell, and finally through his definitive theory of faith justifying without the necessity of good works, which were to him an a priori impossibility. True, other factors potently influenced his spiritual development, especially those discussed in the earlier pages of this study; but they were at most the modus quo, the manner in which his pessimism, the id quod, manifested and asserted itself.

Concupiscence, or tendency to sin, is sin, grievous sin, continuous sin, universal sin; for all men are always subject to concupiscence: such is the primum movens and starting-point of all his theology. Far otherwise thought Luther than the great humanist percentage of Protestant clergy to-day who soft-pedal "fallen" human nature and its cause, original sin. For him, we were all born lost and we live always in a deepening and widening morass of sin; by the very fact that we live, we sin. Sin is closer to us than our breathing; it is not merely a disorderly activity of life: it is our life; it is our very nature.

His own portrayal of his soul's life is the picture of a character abnormally subject to fears and anxieties. At his first Mass, he tells us, he was so unnerved and panic-stricken that he would have rushed down and away from the altar had he not been held back. He was tortured by the fear, wholly groundless, of unwittingly sinning mortally by some mistake in the ceremonies.[21] His becoming a monk was the result of a vow inspired by lightning striking near him: "Save me, my dear St. Ann, and I shall become a monk."[22]

This uneasiness of soul in mature manhood can be traced back to impressions of a childhood of cruel treatment from his parents. He describes his father as a stern and harsh man. His mother too allowed herself to be carried to distressing extremes in her treatment of him as when she beat him to blood, as he narrates, merely because of a nut.[23] Poor Martin was further cowed and intimidated by the unreasonable brutality of his teachers, one of whom, he says, "struck him fifteen times in one morning." Heredity, environment and childhood impressions were certainly all that was needed to develop in him a spirit alien to peace. In fact, he tells us that during his youthful studies he was often beset by fits of depression and "self-despair" and that he was moved to keep his hasty vow of a monastic life in order to escape the severity of his parents.

After his entrance into the life of a religious, he seems to have transferred toward God his anxiety and fear previously felt toward his parents and teachers, and his worry complex developed as depression over God's judgment, predestination and his own sins.[24] Tangled up mentally in fears that his sins were not forgiven, he could never be satisfied, that he had properly confessed them, despite endlessly repeated confessions. The advice given to him in vain by his spiritual director was that he should remember that the Credo runs: " I believe in the forgiveness of sins."[25] "Do you not know, my son, that the Lord has commanded us to hope?"[26]

It is a significant lesson for self-opinionated, scrupulous persons, especially for religious and the learned, that Lutheranism would probably never have appeared had its founder not responded to such solid spiritual guidance by adhering more firmly to his own judgment, by "going his own way". The inevitable result was the increase of his morbid uneasiness. He was like a kitten entangled by a ball of yarn: every move of his now involved him still more inextricably. However, his extreme of religious scrupulosity, was at times replaced, as is usual, by the opposite extreme of temptations to throw over the religious life and its obligations entirely and by "violent movements of hatred, envy, quarrelsomeness and pride."[27] "I was unable to rid myself of the weight; horrible and terrifying thoughts stormed in upon me."[28] At times this frenzy of soul led, naturally, to promptings to despair and to blaspheme God. "When beset by the greatest temptations, I could scarcely retain my bodily powers, hardly able to keep my breath, and no one was able to comfort me."[29]

There was a way out of the forest of terrors—the only way —humble docility in complete obedience to his spiritual director; for in the spiritual, as in human life, God has intended that man, howsoever intellectual he be, must be guided by man. But talented, self-sufficient Luther would not go that way, and the result was the undoing of his nerves.

At a procession of the Blessed Sacrament in which he was deacon, he was seized with such terror that he was on the point of fleeing from it."[30] Dungersheim, well acquainted with Luther's community brethren, wrote in a work against his doctrine in 1531 the following incident: "His fearfulness manifested itself in an alarming manner one day during the reading at High Mass of the Gospel story of the man possessed. He fell to the ground in paroxysms and acted like a madman, crying out, 'It is not I, it is not I.'" This story from an opponent gains credibility from an account by his friend Melancthon concerning his crises of terror: " As he himself narrated and as many are aware, when considering attentively examples of God's anger or any notable account of His punishments, such terror overwhelmed him that he seemed about to give up the ghost."[31]

Out of such a mental soil, fertilized by habitual fears and harrowed by depressing worries, it was most natural to see a plant spring up and flourish, such as was his conviction that human nature is wholly and damnably evil precisely because it is human nature with its natural tendencies and concupiscences. In a word, for him every action of every man is grievous sin. This false idea of the essential and unavoidable depravity of man was indeed the simplification of his temptations and scruples. Moreover, he found some support for this view in some second-rate theologians' works; for there was much more vagueness then, much more indecision and lack of authoritative control in Catholic teaching of the schools, than after the Council of Trent.

Powerful confirmation of his persuasion of man's necessary perversity was seen by him in his knowledge of scandalous life amongst the clergy, nobles and people, both in his Germany and especially in Rome, which at the age of 27 in 1510 he visited on a mission as representative of the "Observantine" party of his Congregation in a dispute with the other Augustinians of Germany. Not only did he have subjectively in a pronounced degree the Northener's provincial lack of understanding of the Latin character; he also objectively experienced Rome at her worst, just after the reign of the capable but unworthy Pope, Alexander VI. The Rennaissance was at its flood; morals and integrity of the clergy were correspondingly at their lowest ebb. Luther had always proclaimed the divinely given authority of Rome over the universal Church in spiritual matters; and he had undoubtedly a noble idea of the Church's Head, which the doctrine of its supremacy connoted as congruous. But what a shock! Instead of the edification to which he looked forward, he found a scandalous state of things, heightened by gossip, we can depend upon it, far beyond the deplorable reality. For years the Daniels had been reading aloud the handwriting on the walls of the Roman palaces: A catastrophe must come on Babylon! It happened that Luther was to be Rome's Darius the Mede; but if it had not been he, it would have been another. Rome of Julius II was for the Reformer the experimental proof of his thesis, soon to be formulated, that wickedness is the very warp and woof of the human being; for in the Pope himself, human nature's spiritual head, and in his spiritual counsellors, the Cardinals, did not wickedness assert its complete dominion most flagrantly?

It is seemingly paradoxical, but in fact most intelligible, that Luther's despairing cry: all is sin, and his consequently increasing affirmation of the worthlessness of good works, should be intensified very noticeably by his personal differences with the "Observantine" faction of his order, which strove for a reform in the observance of their monastic rules. Before he had developed his concupiscence theory, he had championed their desire for a religious life with more good works in the form of careful observance of the constitutions under which they had vowed to live. Sometime after he returned from Rome he abandoned their cause and came to be their most bitter opponent, attacking them with fair and foul language, in season and out of season, in lecture hall, in pulpit, in writing. So it is not a groundless conclusion that he would not have thundered so loudly in the theological heavens against good works, had he not wished to hurl his lightnings on the monasteries of those who disagreed with him in their desire of a stricter fulfilment of the religious spirit of their order. This fact makes Luther's subsequent clamors for "reformation" (in itself something very much in order), nevertheless very much in bad taste in him who so resented reformation in his own religious family.


In Luther's writings we can perceive his sense of concupiscence deepening and gradually involving other issues It becomes progressively clearer that his sole escape from its damnation will eventually appear to him as "faith without good works"; and we can see its implications of helpless predetermination to evil and of inevitable predestination to Hell closing in upon him as entangling complications which will worry him to the end of his days.

During the year 1513 to 1515 in his "Commentary on the Psalms" on which he lectured, he goes off into fiery polemics against "the Little Saints", his "Observantine" brethren, because they think to be "saints by works." True, at this stage of his psychic development he asserts at times that we must do good works and resist temptations; but his growing insistence on grace alone is such that he would seem to dissuade his hearers from any ambition for good works and to have them leave all concern about salvation to the merits of Jesus Christ. Correspondingly his stress on the inevitability of mortal sin increases: "We are all a mass of perdition and deserve eternal death".[32] "Whoever is without God sins of necessity";[33] for he calls concupiscence "inconquerable".[34] It seems that even at this time he held that baptism "does not remove original sin";[35] and the idea is plainly developing in his mind that sins are not removed from us nor forgiven, but that while we remain in them, they are not imputed to us by God, who imputes to us instead the righteousness of Christ.[36] As yet he has not arrived at a categorical denial of freedom to choose what is right and good in spite of contaminating concupiscence; for he still asserts: "My soul is in my own power and in the freedom of my will I can lose it or save it by choosing or rejecting Thy law".[37] However, his quietist mysticism, which plays an influential role in his opposition to esteem of good works, leads him to say that the truly pious who are led by the Spirit, do not bother much about good works of fasting, vigils, prayers, works of charity, submission, obedience, and others such."[38] "Never desire", as Vicar he exhorts a brother in 1516, "a purity so great as to make you cease thinking yourself, nay being, a sinner; for Christ dwells only in sinners".[39]

Many of his assertions up to this time, and also later on, while open to an orthodox Catholic meaning, can also be given a heterodox meaning. That they were used in a heterodox sense is clear from further developments in his teaching.

In the beginning of 1516 Luther gave his lectures on the Epistle to the Romans and in them he takes decidedly the direction of future Protestant theology. Melancthon and other Protestant divines praise this commentary on Romans in these and similar words: "In the opinion of the wise and pious, the light of the new teaching broke forth, after a long and dark night, in the commentary on these epistles (i. e., Romans and Galatians).[40] Here his warning against estimation of good works becomes insistent: "He who thinks that the greater his good works the surer he is of salvation, shows himself to be an unbeliever. . ."[41] "The wisdom of the spiritual-minded knows neither good nor evil; it keeps its eyes always fixed on the word, not on works." "Let us only open our eyes, listen in simplicity to the word and do what it commands, whether it be foolish or evil, great or small."[42] He tells us that we are all born in wickedness and that we die in it: "by imputation alone of the merciful God we are just through the faith of His word."[43] Nevertheless, Luther is not quite ready to face the charge that he makes good works wholly negligible, and in self-contradiction he assigns a value to them in preparing us to be worthy of Christ and of the refuge and protection of his holiness.[44] At this stage he holds that "we cannot know whether we are justified or whether we believe"[45] and as yet the "joyful assurance of salvation" has not emerged from his evolving psychology. We can only be sure that we are "always wicked, always sinners", because enduring concupiscence is enduring sin, inveterate original sin which neither Baptism nor penance can wipe out.[46] "The pious know that sin' alone dwells in them, but that this is covered over and not imputed to them because of Christ . . . The beauty of Christ conceals our hideousness."[47] " Later in his Table-talk in 1536 he tells Melancthon that he realized that a contradiction was thus entailed: "Born of God and at the same time a sinner: this is self-contradiction." His answer is: "But in the things of God we must not listen to reason."[48]

"We must carry on a war with our desires, for they are culpable; they are really sins and render us worthy of damnation".[49] This in the mouth of a Catholic could be understood as laudable doctrine, for the word "desires" would be understood as voluntary desires; but in the mind of Luther there was understood "concupiscence", i. e., all desires, voluntary or involuntary. It is passing strange that he insists on reading the "non concupisces" of the Ten Commandments as: "Thou shalt not have evil tendencies," a command to do the impossible. And against all the laws of the meaning of words, not to say against the laws of justice, and still more of mercy, he puts this impossible command into the mouth of God. In the decalogue "non concupisces" is not general, for it refers expressly to the neighbor's wife and to the neighbor's property, nor does it prohibit more than a voluntary consent. Strange too, that Luther should have made the glaring mistake of understanding St. Paul, against frequent Pauline testimony, to signify: "All works whatsoever," when he speaks of "works" which do not avail to salvation. The context clearly shows that the Apostle meant only the ceremonial works of the Old Law now superseded by Christianity. The fact is that now no exegete of any importance holds Luther's interpretation of Paul.

Sin once committed is a dead albatross hung about the soul, which through all eternity can never free itself of its guilty burden: to this view of the soul's state Luther soon arrived from his fundamental starting-point: sin always remains in the soul because concupiscence always remains there.[50] God acts, so Luther deduces from the Epistle to the Romans, as if our crimes were not on our souls, when through grace He imputes Christ's sanctity to us; but our sins remain in fact, and forever. There is another reason, besides concupiscence and personal sin, why we are always in sin and always sinning, a reason rather opprobrious to God: because God has imposed on man a law which it is absolutely impossible for man to keep. "As we cannot keep God's commandments, we are really always in unrighteousness."[51] "Why do we hold concupiscence to be irresistible?" he asks in the Heidelberg Disputation, 1518, and answers: "Well, try to do something without the interference of concupiscence. Naturally you cannot. So then, your nature is incapable of fulfilling the law."

Man is wholly evil through original sin; his every act is a grievous sin. Sin, the evil in nature, completely dominates and obliterates the good which there might have been therein; so man cannot do better than avoid offending God by as complete a passivity as possible. This conclusion to quietism is but another aspect of Luther's pessimism, the child of his own soul, which he attempts to lay at the doorstep of Catholic mystics, especially of Tauler, from whom, so he often says, he has his inspiration in theology. "Let us tell God:... How glad we are to be sinners, that Thou mayest be justified in us... how glad we are to be unrighteous, that Thou mayest be our righteousness."[52] His hazy, high-flown, spurious mysticism had a very great influence on his psychology and in it he takes refuge against the many inconsistencies and crudities which his theology carries in its train. Its characteristic unreasonableness, together with his penchant to find mortal sin in everything, leads him into extravagant assertions, e.g. we may not love God except for His own sake; to love Him for His goodness to us personally is to mortally offend Him: "He may not even love God on account of His grace and His gifts, but only for His own sake; otherwise this would be a forbidden indulgence in the grace received and he would insult the Father even more than he did before," i. e., when in sin and sinning.[53]

Following on the heels of these ideas is the inevitable consequence which Luther was at length forced to admit under pain of rejecting his whole theory of concupiscence from which it springs: the will has not freedom to choose good actions rather than sins. "Our will is like the saw and the stick. . . Sawing is the act of the hand that saws, but the saw is passive; the animal is beaten, not by the stick, but by him who holds the stick. So the will is nothing, but God who wields it is everything."[54] Hence Luther will not listen to the idea that God sees the final lot of each of us something "depending in any way on our free will."

Then follows the appalling consequence of a determinist Christianity: a frightful vision of a fatalistic God predetermining His own creature to the eternal torments of Hell, regardless of any amount of good will or good works of the unfortunate victim. God wills each man's destiny, according to the Wittenberg Doctor, with an "inexorable and firm will". "Where is free will? Man has no free will to do good. . . God makes those who are to be damned, voluntarily to be and to remain in sin and to love iniquity. . . Why does God give them commandments which He does not wish them to keep, yea, hardens their will so much that they desire to act contrary to the law? Is not God in this case the cause of their sinning and damnation? Yes, that is the difficulty which has in fact the most force; it is the weightiest of all. But to it the Apostle makes a special answer when he teaches: God wills it, and God who thus wills is not evil."[55] To this we must remark that God predetermining, i. e. forcing, a soul to voluntarily sin, seems very much like God making square circles. Certainly, the mere reassertion of a self-contradicting God-provocateur is not much of an answer to the difficulty which he himself has justly raised against his determinism. Nor is there much humanity in his reply to the soul which rather naturally complains: "It is a hard and bitter lot that God should seek His glory in my misery! See!" Luther rejoins, "there we have the wisdom of the flesh! My misery, 'my', 'my',—that is the voice of the flesh! Drop the 'my' and say: Be Thou honored, O Lord!" His assurance to souls, affrighted by their inevitable predestination to Hell, that for the truly wise acceptance of eternal punishment is a source of "ineffable joy",[56] seems more a mockery than anything else.

It is only the morbid promptings of his own abnormal soul that he describes[57] when he portrays the pangs of the soul in despair because of God's "frightful ire" glorifying itself in the torture of his creatures whom He positively wishes to torture, and who could by no good actions of theirs escape their dreadful fate. But the God of his lurid theology not only forces to sin those whom He has foredoomed to Hell; He also forces the elect to a certain amount of sinning, which is good for them. "God often, especially in our day, incites the devil to plunge His elect into dreadful sins beneath which they languish, or at least allows the devil to hinder their good resolutions, making them do the contrary of what they wish to do, so that it becomes plain to them that it is not they who will or perform what is good."[58]

In 1519 appeared Luther's commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians, his favorite epistle, or as he himself characteristically expresses it, "The Epistle to the Galatians is my Epistle, to which I have plighted my troth: my own Katy von Bora" [the nun whom Luther married].[59] Here is well manifested the evolution of his theology when, a Catholic in name, he had left Catholic principles far behind. Here the Protestant religion reaches its definitive form. Together with a still more emphasized sinfulness of concupiscence, God's predestination to eternal woe becomes more inexorable and more regardless of human endeavor, for the tree of human nature has become for him entirely rotten: root, branch and leaf. But he has found a new escape from the appalling pessimism of his theology. His paradoxical shunning of Hell, or, as he termed it, "humility", by which we are supposed to be glad of our foreordained damnation, has been substituted by the less obviously paradoxical "faith," the sole requisite for salvation, toward which good works profit us nothing.

In this "Faith" Luther's psychology has found its best escape from the haunting pessimism of unavoidable sinfulness entailing inevitable damnation. His psychic process of evolution has had, in resume, these phases: Childhood experiences gave him an anxious spirit fearful of parents and of masters. In his religious life he exchanges the object of his fears and anxiety: God is feared in place of his parents; sin takes the place of boyhood naughtiness; scruples and dread of eternal punishment are substituted for uneasiness and dread of parental punishment. His scrupulous soul is so bewildered in its fear of God that he sees sin in everything, and for this view he finds passages in St. Paul which seem to afford a foundation. But plainly Christianity cannot leave him bogged in such a morass of pessimism into which he thinks its doctrines have led him. So he seeks a way out, first tentatively in "humility" or cheerful acquiescence to being damned, then definitively in the idea of "Faith," the persuasion that we are not damned.

Final though it is in his theology's evolution, this "faith"— all that is needed and all that can contribute to salvation,— will nevertheless undergo considerable development during his Protestant years. It will become more a sentiment of being "right with God" and less an assent to a body of truths. It will become more individualistic and more subjective. Luther will become the prophet of a subjective religion and of a subjective God, the theological Kant of future ages. Only in the last fifty years are Protestants en masse carrying out the consequences of his individualistic "faith" by discarding from religion the factor of a corporate Church as meaningless. In the last generation Protestants in general have come to realize that Lutheran faith does not logically require you to believe a special set of doctrines as long as you feel "right with God," or as the self-contradictory expression has it: "as long as you live and act rightly, it does not matter much what you believe". How this adage, which is general amongst his spiritual progeny, must make Luther writhe in his grave. He who so stormed against the worth of good works, he who so vigorously proclaimed that it does not matter much what your works are, as long as you believe his doctrine, gave to men principles which have led to completely negative his "faith without good works" so that it has become "good works without faith."


1 Werke, Weimar, 4, 122.

2 Briefwechsel 1, 75.

3 Werke, 4, 306.

4 Ibid., 1, 61.

5 Ibid., 3, 174.

6 Ibid., 1, 69.

7 Scholia Romana, Ficker, 290, 317.

8 Ibid., 248.

9 Ibid.

10 Werke, 3, 170.

11 Schol. Romana, 227.

12 Schol. Rom., 212.

13 Briefwechsel 1, 223.

14 Werke, 3, 170.

15 Werke, 4, 83.

16 Werke, 1, 228.

17 Briefwechsel 1, 200.

18 Briefwechsel 1, 240.

19 Briefwechsel I, 316.

20 Op. Lat. var., 4, 328.

21 Op. lat. exeg., 6, 158; Colloq., ed. Bindsell, 3, 16.

22 Colloq., 3, 187.

23 Tischreden, ed. Forstemann, 4, 129.

24 Briefwechsel 8, 159.

25 Melancthonis Vita Lutheri, 5.

26 Op. lat. exeg., 19, 100.

27 Werke, 8, 660.

28 Briefwechsel 8, 160.

29 Coll., Bindseil, 2, 295.

30 Tischreden, Forstemann, 2, 164.

31 Vita Luth., 5.

32 Werke, 3, 343.

33 Ibid., 354.

34 lbid., 4, 207.

35 bid., 497.

36 Ibid., 3, 171, 175.

37 Werke, 4, 295.

38 Ibid., 172.

39 Briefwechsel I, 29.

40 Vita Lutheri, p. 6.

41 Scholia Romana, Ficker, 241.

42 Ibid., 243.

43 Ibid., 44.

44 Ibid., 132.

44 Ibid., 89.

46 bid., 108 f.

47 Ibid., 114.

48 Tischreden, Weim., 2, 420.

49 Ibid., 178.

50 Ibid., 109.

51 Ibid., 124.

52 Ibid., 59.

53 Ibid., 137.

54 Ibid., 225.

55 Ibid., 212.

56 Ibid. 212, 223.

57 Werke, I, 557.

58 Ibid., 228.

59 See Kostlin Kawerau, 1, 275.

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