Doing Theology in Difficult Times: Counsel from Martin Luther to Embattled Believers
One of my all-time super heroes is Martin Luther. He was not merely ‘The Reformer’ and a serious theologian, but he was a real human being – and this combination of heavy-weight theologian and honest-witty-human is that which puts him at the top of my heroes list. He was real – he was a real beer drinking, colourfully-mouthed, ex-monk, German Christian. He called a spade and spade and for that, his blunt, colourful and warm down-to-earth honesty and playfulness, he impresses me and millions like me.
Allow me to introduce you to the man by sharing some of my favourite quotations of his;
Coming to the startling realisation that a Catholic monk is not bound Scripturally to celibacy but that the institution of marriage is created by God and is therefore good and commendable, he prepared to marry the last of nine fugitive nuns, all the rest of which had husbands were procured for them. To Wenzel Link, Luther wrote, “Despite the fact that I was otherwise minded, the Lord has suddenly and unexpectedly contracted a marriage for me with Catharina von Bora” whom he affectionately, called “My Lord, Katie.” Note, God had arranged his wedding. And here is his wedding invitation to his friend Leonhard Koppe;
“Worthy prior and father, God has suddenly and unexpectedly caught me in the bond of holy matrimony. I intend to celebrate the day with a wedding breakfast on Tuesday. That my parents and all good friends may be merry, my Lord Catherine and I kindly beg you to send us, at my cost and as quickly as possible, a barrel of the best Torgau beer. … If it is not good, to punish you I shall make you drink it all.”
I love his sense of humour. It plays out often in his writings. And he joked about so much, even his own death;
“When I get home to Wittenberg, I will lie down in my coffin and give the worms a fat doctor to feed on.”
But let’s look at some of the more serious things he wrote…
Regarding the Bible, and his estimation of its value, this is what he had to say;
“The Word of God is the greatest, most necessary, and most important thing in Christendom.”
“The Bible is alive, it speaks to me; it has feet, it runs after me; it has hands, it lays hold of me… A simple layman armed with Scripture is to be believed above a pope or a cardinal without it.”
“For a number of years I have now annually read through the Bible twice. If the Bible were a large, mighty tree and all its words were little branches, I have tapped at all the branches, eager to know what was there and what it had to offer.“
“What is asserted without the Scriptures or proven revelation may be held as an opinion, but need not be believed.”
Regarding the studying of Scripture and the original languages of Scripture, he says;
“Without languages we could not have received the gospel. Languages are the scabbard that contains the sword of the Spirit; they are the [case] which contains the priceless jewels of antique thought; they are the vessel that holds the wine; and as the gospel says, they are the baskets in which the loaves and fishes are kept to feed the multitude. If we neglect the literature we shall eventually lose the gospel. . . .“
Regarding reading many books and specifically theological books, he offers some very helpful advice;
“The number of theological books should . . . be reduced, and a selection should be made of the best of them; for many books do not make men learned, nor does much reading. But reading something good, and reading it frequently, however little it may be, is the practice that makes men learned in the Scripture and makes them pious besides.”
“A student who does not want his labour wasted must so read and reread some good writer that the author is changed, as it were, into his flesh and blood. For a great variety of reading confuses and does not teach. It makes the student like a man who dwells everywhere and, therefore, nowhere in particular. Just as we do not daily enjoy the society of every one of our friends but only that of a chosen few, so it should also be in our studying.”
Listen to him praying about how he should preach – I’ve prayed this prayer often before I’ve got you to preach;
“Dear Lord God, I want to preach so that you are glorified. I want to speak of you, praise you, praise your name. Although I probably cannot make it turn out well, won’t you make it turn out well?”
His three-point lesson on how to get to the real meaning of a text is worth reading and applying consistently for I have found the same to be true:
“I want to point out to you the correct way of studying theology, for I have had practice in that….This is the way taught by holy King David…in the one hundred nineteenth Psalm. There you will find three rules, amply presented throughout the whole Psalm. They are Oratio (prayer), Meditatio(spiritual reflection), Tentatio (spiritual conflict: Anfechtung).
Firstly, you should know that the Holy Scriptures constitute a book that turns the wisdom of all other books into foolishness….Therefore you should straightway despair of you own reason and understanding…kneel down in your little room (Matt. 6:6) and pray to God with real humility and earnestness, that he through his dear Son may give you his Holy Spirit, who will enlighten you, lead you, and give you understanding.
Thus you see how David keeps praying in the above-mentioned Psalm, “Teach me, Lord, instruct me, lead me, show me,” and many more words like these. Although he well knew and daily heard and read the text of Moses and other books besides, still he wants to lay hold of the real teacher of the Scriptures himself….
Secondly, you should meditate, that is, not only in your heart, but also externally, by actually repeating and comparing…the words of the book, reading and rereading them with diligent attention and reflection, so that you may see what the Holy Spirit means by them. And take care that you do not grow weary or think that you have done enough when you have read, heard, and spoken them once or twice, and that you then have complete understanding….
Thus you see in this same Psalm how David constantly boasts that he will talk, meditate, speak, sing, hear, read, by day and night and always, of nothing except God’s Word and commandments. God will not give you his Spirit without the external Word; so take your cue from that….
Thirdly, there is tentatio, Anfechtung (tribulation or affliction). This is the touchstone that teaches you not only to know and understand, but also to experience how right, how true, how sweet, how lovely, how mighty, how comforting God’s Word is, wisdom beyond all wisdom.
Thus you see how David, in the Psalm mentioned, complains so often about all kinds of enemies, arrogant princes or tyrants, false spirits and factions, whom he must tolerate because he meditates, that is, because he is occupied with God’’ Word….For as soon as God’s Word takes root and grows in you, the devil will harry you, and will make a real doctor of you, and by his assaults will teach you to seek and love God’s Word. I myself…am deeply indebted to the papists that through the devil’s raging they have beaten, oppressed, and distressed me so much…they have made a fairly good theologian of me, which I would not have become otherwise….
There now, with that you have David’s rules. If you study hard in accord with his example, then you will also sing and boast with him in the Psalm, “The law of thy mouth is better to me than thousands of gold and silver pieces” (Ps. 119:72)….And it will be your experience that…the longer you write and teach, the less you will be pleased with yourself. When you have reached that point, then do not be afraid to hope that you have begun to become a real theologian….
If, however, you feel and are inclined to think you have made it, flattering yourself with your own little books, teaching, or writing…if you perhaps look for praise, and would sulk or quit what you are doing if you did not get it- if you are of that stripe, dear friend, then take yourself by the ears, and if you do think in the right way you will find a beautiful pair of big, long, shaggy donkey ears….”
And lastly, regarding afflictions (these ‘anfechtungen’), both in the flesh and in the world, I have to remind myself often of this truth of God from the pen of Herr Doktor. May this be as helpful to you as it has been to me, and particularly in these ‘plague filled days of difficulty and isolation;’
“Through the Gospel the Christian has come to learn of a gracious God in Christ Jesus; however his life experiences present to him a God who is still wrathful and who not only refuses to forgive sins, but reminds him of them. The hard, concrete experiences of life contradict what he had learned by faith. God on his side through the Anfechtungen is drawing the Christian closer to him and throughout the Anfechtungen always intends that they should be beneficial to the Christian. The Christian, however, interprets them as forms of God’s retribution for sins and as signs of his wrath. In desperation the Christian flees to Christ for salvation. In this God has accomplished his purpose of bringing the Christian closer to himself. Though the Christian can through faith conquer one Anfechtung – and indeed he must if he is to survive – he must face a lifelong series of Anfechtungen. Resurrection is the only permanent solution. Anfechtungen are an aspect of faith, not as that faith trusts in God and totally relies on him for all good, but as that faith faces realities in life and in the world different from those offered in the Gospel.