Bizarre Behaviour and Disturbing Statements Attributed to Martin Luther
Updated: Feb 6
Author's note: I have no interest in fighting with Catholics, nor in converting anyone from Roman Catholicism, especially if their cultural and national heritage is Catholic. Please do not mistake the intention of this article.
I have recently encountered some Catholic criticism of Protestantism which relies heavily on demonizing Martin Luther. The way this criticism is written indicates that the Catholic authors are under the impression that Protestants must view Martin Luther as practically infallible or as some kind of saint, and that demonstrating any of Martin Luther’s personal failings presents a veritable death-blow to Protestantism.
Personally, I find this attitude on the part of the Catholics somewhat bizarre since as a Calvinist, the importance I attach to Martin Luther pales in comparison to certain other Reformers. Martin Luther look a few baby steps, but later Reformers came much closer to completing the job.
There may be Protestants who hold Martin Luther in much higher regard than I do, but I do not think knocking Luther off some perceived saintly pedestal has the effect on them that the Catholics suppose. After all, God may use flawed men to achieve His purposes: “Is Saul also among the Prophets?”
Of course, if someone could be demonstrated to have been a perpetually unrepentant and extremely wicked man or blasphemer, or to have continually promoted wickedness, this would make it very hard to argue that in spite of all this the man was in general doing God’s work. Consequently, Catholic criticism of Luther tends to portray him as a veritable demon, a wanton drunkard with a sexual fetish for nuns who went around encouraging people to sin and fornicate and promoting various blasphemes that would turn the stomach of anyone, even a Protestant. Of course, this picture of Luther is built using isolated quotations without taking the full body of his work into consideration.
Many Catholics are, of course, naturally inclined to believe the worst of Martin Luther without compassion and without examining context too deeply. This is a similar to the frame of mind that Leftists have toward President Trump; they interpret everything he says and does in the worst possible way; they are willing to believe anyone who has anything bad to say about him. It’s called “Trump Derangement Syndrome”. In my opinion, a lot of Catholics have “Luther Derangement Syndrome”. You could probably quote something random from Saint Augustine, attribute it to Luther, and they would respond by clicking their tongues in disgust. I think this has more to do with simple laziness than anything else. Why bother looking too deeply into why someone you despise might not be as bad as you think he is?
In this article, I will be speculating about Luther's mental state and then responding to some disturbing statements attributed to Martin Luther and compiled by a Catholic here. I recommend looking it over.
After doing some research, I think that most of the things for which Martin Luther is criticized have been severely overblown and/or taken out of context. In my opinion, a critic who attempts to discredit Martin Luther by alluding to disturbing yet isolated statements may be dismissed without much ceremony because almost anyone could be portrayed as a monster using this cut-and-paste technique.
In my opinion, the strongest (and perhaps most valid) criticism of Martin Luther involves what might be described as his “unmanly” behaviour during his time as a monk. Whereas other men of a stronger disposition might have just gone to confession and then went about their day, relieved to have received absolution, Luther was known to attend confession for hours at a time, and to spend long periods tormented in his mind and soul over his unworthiness to stand before God. It is not hard to interpret such behaviour as unmanly or even effeminate. It is easy to imagine how such behaviour could seriously warp someone’s mind.
Most people, I think, would have difficulty imagining how someone could kneel in confession for hours on end unless maybe they hadn’t been to church in six months, they weren’t particularly invested in righteous living, and the priest insisted on being particularly thorough. How then could a monk of all people dredge up enough sins that it takes hours to confess them all? Such a man must surely be exceedingly self-absorbed and self-obsessed. A stronger man, revolted by such behaviour, might be inclined so slap such a weakling up the side of the head, telling him to “Get over yourself!” or even "Get a girlfriend!" if he wasn't cut out to be a monk. A stronger man (even a modern Protestant) might find Martin Luther’s behaviour both incomprehensible and incomprehensibly cringey.
In my opinion, it is likely that Martin Luther might indeed have benefited from a slap upside the head during this point in his life. Unfortunately, no one provided it.
I think I can present some insight into Luther’s behaviour which may engender at least some degree of empathy for the man, explaining how it might be possible for someone to spend hours in confession on a regular basis:
If a man is convicted that he must strive to be Christ-like, and he deduces that his mind should therefore be “perfect” and “orderly” as Christ’s mind surely is, he may convince himself that any momentary lack of perfection or orderliness in his thoughts is “sinful” and therefore needs to be confessed. He might convince himself that any momentary envisualization of the female form is “lustful” and therefore a “sin” that must be confessed. Likewise if he lets his eyes linger on the shapely curves of a beautiful woman for one tenth of a second longer than was necessary to merely register her existence. Also, if he believes he has been commanded to trust completely in Christ, he may convince himself that any momentary lack of confidence or despondency is a “sin” that must be confessed. If he believes it is a sin to lie, he may invent some impossible standard in his mind regarding absolute truthfulness in speech which forbids the use of metaphors or verbal shorthand, wracking his mind to figure out if he is indeed speaking the exact truth and not trying to deceive his listener (or himself) in some infinitesimal manner, making it virtually impossible to utter a complete sentence without “lying” and thereby committing a “sin” that must be confessed. Etc. Etc. Etc. The sins, both real and imaginary, build up rapidly, even perhaps while in the act of confession itself. Despondency builds up as well, leading to periods where he thinks “There is no hope of living righteously! And no point in trying!” He may then enter a period where he gives in to sin, from which he only tears himself away when the self-disgust grows too strong; he then confesses; and the cycle begins over again. The cycle may also include periods of torpor, a kind of self-torture in its own right, where the individual attempts to put an end to his “sin” by entering a kind of “zen state” or emptiness of mind.
It is possible that I am providing more insight into myself than into Martin Luther, but I think what I have described above at least sheds some light onto self-inflicted mental torture and how someone could potentially spend hours in confession even while living as a monk. I wouldn’t argue with someone if they described such behaviour as repulsive or unmanly, but in my opinion it is ultimately driven by a sincere desire to please God and a sincere revulsion toward sin.
Some of the bizarre and disturbing statements attributed to Martin Luther have to be understood in the context of the excruciating mental torture he subjected himself to as a monk. For instance, Luther is famous for preaching ‘faith alone’ and being quite forceful in denouncing the importance of good works, sometimes in ways that modern Protestants find disturbing.
In my opinion, Luther’s position on good works can be understood as the reverse swing of a "good works pendulum". The Catholic Church overemphasized good works, and Luther may have gone a bit overboard in his rejection of the Catholic position, completely understandable due to the years he spent as a monk torturing himself trying to achieve righteousness through good works.
One of the most disturbing statements attributed to Martin Luther is a passage in which he appears to state that Jesus committed adultery with multiple women, including the Women at the Well, Mary Magdelene, and the Woman Taken in Adultery. This statement is out of step with what Luther wrote elsewhere, and upon examination the statement turns out to be a badly translated fragment of a conversation recorded by one of Luther’s dinner guests. It is more likely that whatever Luther actually said probably had more to do with Christ “taking our sins upon himself”. He “became sin for us” so to speak. He “became an adulterer”. The original statement may also have been related to how the Pharisees considered Jesus to be a sinner since he sometimes associated with Roman collaborators and prostitutes.
In one statement, Luther says it’s OK to lie if it’s for “a worthy cause and for the sake of the Christian Churches.”
I'm not going to defend this statement, but I will say this is an odd criticism coming from a Catholic since I’m pretty sure that if you looked hard enough you could find Catholic law that states the same thing.
In another statement, Luther says, “The matrimonial duty is never performed without sin” (i.e. sex is sinful).
Again, this is an odd criticism coming from a Catholic, considering that official Catholic doctrine---heavily influence by Greco-Roman philosophy---basically says the same thing.
Luther also wrote some very shocking things about Jews, the strangest of which is that if a Jew came to him to be baptized, he would "baptize" him by tying a stone around his neck and throwing him off a bridge!
Luther’s Catholic contemporaries were just as unenthusiastic and vicious toward the Jews. To my knowledge, 16th Century Europeans had valid reasons to be angry with the Jews. For instance, if I recall my history correctly, around this period there there were Jews in Spain who pretended to be Christian in order to gain political power and undermine the government.
One statement from Luther, taken out of context, seems to indicate that Luther thought it was OK to commit adultery if your spouse never wants to have sex.
If the husband is unwilling, there is another who is; if the wife is unwilling, then let the maid come [in].
In context, however, Luther is clearly referring to divorce and remarriage, not to hopping into bed with a willing stable-hand or serving girl. (I am uncertain if the apparent crassness of the last part of the statement is present in the original German. The word maid is used to mean ‘young woman’ rather than ‘serving girl’ shortly before this excerpt.)
From a Catholic perspective, this is not much of an improvement, as Catholicism does not permit divorce under any circumstances other than infidelity on the part of the other spouse. Catholic law regarding divorce is derived from Matthew 19, where a group of Pharisees confront Jesus:
They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?”
He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.
And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”
I highly doubt I can add much to this issue considering the veritable oceans of ink that have no doubt been spilt analyzing it. All I can say is that the Catholic interpretation and application of this verse is almost certainly incorrect considering they fail to take the context into consideration, their application is contrary to Old Testament laws regarding divorce, and there are some rather obvious scenarios beside infidelity where I think a reasonable person would have to conclude that divorce is acceptable.
The context: As legalists, the Pharisees thought nothing of divorce so long as the niceties were observed. They thought they could behave abominably as long as they filled out the proper forms and legal documents.
I have also heard that some First Century Pharisees engaged in a bizarre form of sex tourism where if they were visiting another city, they could buy a prostitute and “avoid sinning” by going through the motions of marrying her and then legally divorcing her the morning after.
[There is of course more to the context which a First Century scholar could point it out, but I don't know much more than what I've stated above.]
Old Testament Law: Old Testament Law permitted divorce under a much broader range of scenarios besides infidelity. In my opinion, there cannot possibly be such a vast discrepancy between Old Testament and New Testament Law regarding something as basic as marriage.
Reasonable divorce scenarios besides infidelity:
- Spousal abuse.
- Spouse is a criminal or brigand.
- Spouse runs away.
- The marriage was never consummated.
Of course, the obvious question that presents itself is, “If there are exceptions to what Jesus said, then why didn’t He mention them? Why didn’t He mention spousal abuse?” In my opinion, the answer is because Jesus was arguing with Pharissa bunch of self-important professional nitpickers, who deserved nothing but a rhetorical brick to the face. Listing off a bunch of exceptions would have been counter-productive to His intent (of bashing them with a rhetorical brick). If He’d started listing off a bunch of exceptions, they probably would have twisted it to their own advantage.
I am not dogmatic about this, especially since I can’t recall reading much about this issue.
I am not particularly comfortable dogmatically agreeing with Luther that’s it’s OK to divorce your spouse if he or she never wants to have sex. I don’t think that’s quite such an “obvious” exception to what Jesus said to the Pharisees in Matthew 19. I think it might be possible to argue that perpetually refusing to have sex with your marriage partner could be described as a form of sexual immorality if a husband and wife indeed “own” each other’s bodies as practically all Christian leaders teach.
References (I recommend looking through these):