Luther in a Second Language

In reading Albrecht Peters’ Ten Commandments I was surprised by some of what he told me Luther believed, taught, or confessed. At first I thought this might be due to the translator, but it was Holger K. Sonntag whom I know to be a native German speaker and a faithful theologian. So, look out 2017. Us non-German speakers may be surprised by the German Luther.

First, Luther wasn’t a capitalist. “The law of supply and demand – ‘I may sell my merchandise at as high a price as I can’ – is not Christian.; whoever acts according to it is subject to eternal damnation. The Christian says, ‘I may sell my merchandise for as much as I am supposed to or as is lawful and equitable.’ The price of the merchant should not be established according to leeway of the free market, but according to one’s expenditure” (276). Footnote 147 on page 278 adds for good measure: “Therefore Marxist economic science characterizes Luther – whom Karl Marx ‘quoted most often in a positive sense among the bourgeois economists of Germany.’”  Hello Bernie Sanders; goodbye Donald Trump!

Second, Luther was a feminist. “Yet because of the fall, sin and God’s curse (Gen. 3:14ff.) now cling to the relationship of husband and wife. Genuine partnership became patriarchy” (249). Goodbye Phyllis Schlafly; hello Gloria Steinem!

The point being made is a tenet of evangelical egalitarian feminism. It’s true; Genesis 3:16 does describe that as result of the Fall the woman desires the authority of her husband as sin desired Cain (same Hebrew word), and the husband doesn’t want to take responsibility for his spouse but to tyrannize her. However, patriarchy is not a result of the Fall; it is God’s ordering of society. At least that’s how St. Paul argues. Adam was formed first then Eve is not an argument from the Fall but from the Order of Creation.

Third, Luther was a revolutionary, and you should prick up your ears on this one. “Rebellion against tyrannical authorities is a sign of a lack of patience and confidence that God rules even where he does not seem to keep a tight rein.” So far so good. This is the Luther we know. But Peters goes on, “An insurrection against tyrannical authorities, which might also be violent, is mandated first, where the authorities demolish the divine institutions and arch-hierarchies themselves – marriage and family, secular and spiritual authorities – in an open way, under the appearance of right [say by legalizing gay marriage and the killing of the unborn?]. In that case, they take on the dimension of the antichrist for Luther” (211). Good bye John Wayne; hello Alex Jones!

Fourth, Luther was a male chauvinist. Go ahead and try to reconcile this with Luther as feminist. This should make you realize that the compendium What Luther Says would have been more aptly titled Luther Says What He Feels Like. “’Even if they bear themselves tired and finally dead (the mothers with children), that does no harm; just let them bear themselves to death. That is what they are there for. It is better to live healthily for a short time than to live sickly for a long time’” (Fn. 158, 253). Two hellos and goodbyes are called for here. Goodbye LCMS “Be Well Program;” hello Tim McGraw “Live like you were dying.” Goodbye Barack Obama; hello Bobby Riggs.

Some afterthoughts. 1) The book gives precise citations in Luther’s German works but broad, to say the least, in the American Edition. For example, what Luther says about economics is cited as AE 45: 231-310. Luther the feminist as AE 1: 1-359. Luther the revolutionary AE 46: 81-137. Luther the male chauvinist AE 45: 11-49. The editors say that future editions will work to narrow these English citations down. 2) Thanks be to God that we have not made what Luther says a confessional norm. 3) Beware there are going to be plenty more things unearthed by German scholars that we English only people are going to be stunned by. Perhaps we should limit the celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation to him nailing the 95 theses to the castle church door. But then again, have you read all of them? See 10-31-2007 blog-post for more on this.

About Paul Harris

Pastor Harris retired from congregational ministry after 40 years in office on 31 December 2023. He is now devoting himself to being a husband, father, and grandfather. He still thinks cenobitic monasticism is overrated and cave dwelling under.
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