More Stuff that Martin Luther Didn’t Say


Martin LutherA little more than a year ago, I wrote this blog post, expressing my annoyance that Martin Luther is often incorrectly associated with certain liberal ideas such as a mistrust of organized religion and the subjectivity of biblical interpretation. Seriously, Martin Luther is among the most misquoted historical figures of all time. According to the Editor’s Introduction to the Augsburg Confession in the 2006 publication of the Book of Concord, the time-honored tradition of grossly misquoting Luther dates back to 1519 in a book written by John Eck for the purpose of turning people against Luther. But I think that some of the current non-Lutheran viewpoints associated with Luther actually have the opposite purpose; they come from some people’s desire to claim that Luther’s reforms were heading in the direction that certain current denominations are going. At any rate, Luther never wanted the Bible to be subject to personal interpretation and he by no means believed that religion is a one-on-one individualistic relationship with God that doesn’t have anything to do with church. That’s basically what I said in the aforementioned blog post from last summer.

It has come to my attention since then, though, that Martin Luther’s name has also become associated with transcendentalist ideas. There are a number of popular bogus Luther quotations that get posted all over the internet, and I am aware of one particular facebook page that bears Martin Luther’s name, but has posted the words of Romantic-era transcendentalist poets with the assertion that they have some connection to Luther’s teachings. I later unfollowed that page after noticing that the admin had done that kind of thing on several occasions, but I am disturbed to know that such a page exists and that there are many people who repost those things with the idea that those heretical (or, at best, heterodox) quotations are profound, true, and consistent with Lutheran beliefs.

Transcendentalism is the philosophical idea, associated with Romantic-era literature as well as with a few much older beliefs, that nature is itself divine. Depending upon who is being quoted and what the context of the statement is, transcendentalists may assert either that there is no God apart from the natural world, that God speaks to us directly through the natural world, or that He can be studied by immersing oneself in the natural world. Transcendentalism can be rectified with various different beliefs about what God or the gods are like, but it is not consistent with biblical Christianity. In all fairness, I suppose it is technically possible for someone to be a Christian with a transcendentalist point of view, but this cannot be supported by scripture and is not in keeping with Lutheran doctrine. (I am here defining “Christian” as a person believing in the existence of the triune God, viewing the Bible to be God’s Word, and having faith in the salvific work of Jesus Christ, who was both true God and true man and who lived a sinless human life and died on the cross and rose from the dead to pay for the sins of all humankind so that we may have eternal life in heaven.)

Luther quoteThere are several fake Luther quotes out there that speak about finding God in nature. The most famous of these is “God writes the Gospel not in the Bible alone, but also on trees, and in the flowers and clouds and stars.” Another one, which is very similar and perhaps is just a variation on the same quotation, says, “Our Lord has written the promise of resurrection not in books alone, but in every leaf in springtime”.  There are others out there on the internet that are along the same vein. Not only have the people of the internet been unable to cite a source for these statements, but they don’t even sound like Luther. Martin Luther’s rhetoric is not known for being cutesy and fluffy. He certainly had a way with words, but he often used it to disagree with people who taught false doctrine. Basically, if you can use a quotation as the caption for a beautiful and inspirational picture of the natural world, either it’s probably not a Luther quotation, or you’re probably pretty bad at captioning your pictures. Here’s a website that gives genuine Luther quotations. (I would like to point out for the record that Luther did not specialize exclusively in insults and name-calling; he also had much of importance and significance to say about God.)There’s also a twitter page where someone posts these Luther insults in response to false doctrine that Joel Osteen puts on Twitter. Frankly, I think that Martin Luther would approve of this posthumous use of his words. It’s very much in keeping with the way he used them when he was alive. It’s certainly more consistent with Luther’s personality and his beliefs than are vague transcendentalist statements about finding God in nature.

I have no doubt that Martin Luther was as capable as anyone else of acknowledging the beauty of certain aspects of the natural world, and that he appreciated the fact that God had created that beauty. You don’t have to look any farther than the Small Catechism (for example, the explanation to the first article of the creed) in order to see that Luther saw creation and every good thing in it as a direct gift from God. But there’s a big difference between acknowledging that God created something good and thinking that he communicates with us through it.

It is commonly said by Christians of all denominations that we can see God’s hand in the natural world, and this is certainly true to some extent, but God does not literally speak to us through nature. In fact, the existence and beauty of the world around us obviously does not constitute proof of the existence of God, because if it did, there would be no atheists or agnostics. Even if someone was to conclude that there is a God just by looking at plants and rocks and shining lakes and majestic sunsets, they wouldn’t be able to know anything else about God from those sources of information.

Jesus on the CrossOne truth that we can learn from the natural world is that people aren’t the only beings that experience disease, destruction, and death. Even in a relatively wild and untouched place, there will be plants and animals that suffer and die and rot, and that may suffer and/or look ugly in the meantime. While it’s true that the creative hand of God can be seen in nature, the destructive effects of sin are also written there very clearly. And nature doesn’t tell us which is which; if it wasn’t for the actual real Word of God, we would have no way of knowing that God gave us a perfect world and that it was sin that damaged it. Many people actually do see the imperfection of the world as evidence that God either doesn’t exist or that he isn’t entirely benevolent. Those are the doubts that come from ignoring the Biblical teachings about sin. Furthermore, the natural world doesn’t inform us that this destruction caused by sin isn’t the end of the story, that God has already fixed things for us. There is nothing in nature that tells us about Jesus’ incarnation and death and resurrection. To receive all of that crucial information, we need the real Word of God, which is the Bible. And Luther never said anything to the contrary; he firmly believed in Sola Scriptura.

Anyone who claims that Luther said or believed otherwise is misrepresenting him. And anyone who says or believes otherwise themselves is placing faith in something other than God by reading divine messages into something that God has never said He would use to communicate with us. It’s essentially a belief in omens and signs, no different than in many pagan religions. At best, it’s a form of superstition that shouldn’t blend with Christianity, and at worst, it’s a completely non-Christian religion that is particularly evil because it falsely calls itself Christianity.

Why I Don’t Think “Go Tell It on the Mountain” Is an Awesome Christmas Hymn

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A lovely mountain in New Zealand

A lovely mountain in New Zealand

Don’t get me wrong; I really love Christmas music, but there are a few Christmas songs in particular that just annoy me. The two that come to mind specifically are “Do You Hear What I Hear?” and “Go Tell It on the Mountain”. In both cases, I think that the main reason I don’t like them is that, as a child, I was forced to sing them a few too many times when I would have much preferred to sing something like “Savior of the Nations Come”, which was always a favorite of mine. You know, something with Jesus in it. “Do You Hear What I Hear?” never even mentions Jesus. The first time I had to sing it in Sunday School, I had no idea what it had to do with Christmas or Advent or God. (Fun fact: it was written in 1962 and probably actually alludes to the Cuban Missile Crisis, and I’m not even making that up.) I still hold to my little-kid opinion that a song isn’t really church music if it doesn’t have Jesus in it. Granted, the song “Do You Hear What I Hear?” is the only pseudo-religious Christmas song I can think of offhand that doesn’t mention Jesus at all, but an awful  lot of Christmas favorites are much more shallow than the awesomest of the hymns in the hymnal.

Baby JesusI mean, where’s the cross in hymns like “Away in a Manger” or “Silent Night”? Where’s the law and gospel; where’s the part that tells about what cute little Baby Jesus did when he grew up? As certain English professors would say, where’s the “so-what”? “Away in a Manger” and “Silent Night” are beautiful songs, and maybe I shouldn’t be complaining about them, given the fact that my sisters and I had a good time singing them all the way to and from church on Wednesday night. (But that was just because my sisters didn’t know the words to “Comfort, Comfort, Ye My People” and I didn’t know the Christmas song they like that’s either in Spanish or Portuguese, they can’t remember which one.)Christmas carols, even shallow and/or secular ones, are perfectly valid ways of enjoying the holiday season. I’m just sayin’, you don’t really appreciate the awesomeness of Jesus’ birth unless you keep in mind that he grew up and lived a sinless life and died for the sins of the world and rose again from the dead.  Only a few favorite Christmas carols have all that in them.

From "The Sound of Music"

From “The Sound of Music”

“Go Tell it on the Mountain” technically isn’t any worse than certain other Christmas hymns that I actually do like. In fact, I just checked and it even has the word “salvation” in it, and the word “salvation” is a good sign. It’s just that you have to get through an awful lot of lines about the mountain before you get to the salvation line, and after that, you’re back to singing about the mountain again. Not only does this song not bring to mind the cross for me, it doesn’t even bring the manger to mind. All I think about is that scene at the end of “The Sound of Music” with the song “Climb Every Mountain.” That’s another example of a beautiful song that doesn’t have Jesus in it and consequently isn’t good church music. (Fortunately, to the best of my knowledge, no one has argued that it is.)

Good FridayThis is what I have to say about that song: Go tell what on the mountain? “Jesus Christ is born” is a good message, but you don’t want the “Jesus Christ” part to be overshadowed by the “Go tell it on the mountain” part. I have the same complaint against the principle that the sole goal of the church is to recruit new members. That’s technically true; evangelism is of the utmost importance, but it’s important to remember that the word “evangelism” means “good news” and that attracting people to the church building isn’t really evangelism unless they’re hearing that good news there. If I was visiting an unfamiliar church and heard a sermon that was just about the importance of evangelism, I’d feel like I had accidentally walked into a meeting of the advertising department in a business. I probably wouldn’t be interested in coming back again. For the benefit of non-Christian visitors, Christian visitors, and members alike, church should be more about what we believe (that Jesus died to pay for our sins) than about what we’re going to do to persuade more people to come to our church. Faith comes from hearing the Word, so the Word is what people should be hearing.

Maybe it’s a bit unfair to hold all that against a cute little children’s Christmas song like “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” But think of it this way: Martin Luther’s idea of a cute little children’s Christmas song was “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come”, which is all about Jesus and the incarnation and salvation. Twentieth and twenty-first century little children are just as capable as sixteenth century little children of understanding and liking hymns with some depth and substance to them. I can say this based upon personal experience, for I used to be a little child myself in the not-so-distant past. ‘Twas in those aforementioned days when I was saddened by the fact that grownups thought I should be singing “Go Tell It on the Mountain” when there were other hymns I liked better.

If you want to sing “Go Tell It on the Mountain” this Christmas season, go ahead. It’s not an evil song. In fact, it’s certainly better, both in terms of religious significance and in terms of aesthetic coolness, than a lot of Christmas songs I could name.  But don’t forget that Christmas is about more than images of mountains and/or Baby Jesus; it’s about the God who became human and died on the cross for us.

Merry Christmas

Stuff that Martin Luther Didn’t Say

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I am a Lutheran, but I usually don’t like hearing about Martin Luther in an academic context. For some reason, history hasn’t really remembered Martin Luther with a great degree of accuracy. In all fairness, the European history course that I took a little over a year ago did an adequate job of describing Lutheranism, although there was one time when my professor said, “For the sake of this discussion, let’s put Calvin, Luther, and Zwingli all into one category.” I highly disapprove of putting Calvin, Luther, and Zwingli all into one category, but at least in that particular class, the textbook and the professors never grossly misquoted Luther.

There was one time, though, that a student grossly misquoted Luther. The professor had asked how Luther believed that people attained forgiveness, and the class collectively answered that Luther said salvation came from faith. Then the professor asked how Luther defined faith, and there was an awkward silence. Half of the class kept their mouths shut because they were curious to hear what everyone else would say, and the other half of the class kept their mouths shut because they hadn’t done the reading and weren’t very familiar with Luther, so they had no idea what the answer was. Eventually, the boy in the back of the classroom who thought he knew everything spoke up and said that faith was when someone makes a personal decision to give their life to God. The professor gave him a look and asked, “Is that what Luther said?” Then the girl in the front of the classroom who thought she knew everything (that would be me) decided not to keep her mouth shut anymore, stuck her hand in the air and yelled something that was a fairly close paraphrase of Ephesians 2:8-9. (The aforementioned girl really should make sure she memorizes stuff better, because the bible shouldn’t be paraphrased when it could be quoted) In this particular case, the girl who thought she knew everything was right, but she did have quite an advantage there, since she was already a Lutheran.

Anyway, I think that the misunderstanding of Luther that I’ve heard most often is that he believed that the Bible is subject to personal interpretation and that personal faith has nothing to do with the church. There was a certain book I intended to quote here, but I have it packed up right now. Anyway, that book discussed Luther as just another Renaissance thinker, and implied that he believed that every Christian is supposed to flip through their Bible, privately choose their own favorite verses, and decide for himself (or herself) what he (or she) believes. In fact, if I recall correctly, that book actually said that Luther was against organized religion. If it didn’t say that, it was certainly implied.

That’s totally not what Martin Luther was saying. He disagreed with a lot of specific teachings and practices of the Roman Catholic church, but he had nothing against organized religion. This is what he had to say about church services:  “…A Christian has need of baptism, the word and the sacrament not as a Christian (for, as such, he has them already), but as a sinner. But, above all, the Order is for the simple and for the young folk who must daily be exercised in the Scripture and God’s Word, to the end that they may become conversant with Scripture and expert in its use, ready and skillful in giving an answer for their faith, and able in time to teach others and aid in the advancement of the kingdom of Christ. For the sake of such, we must read, sing, preach, write, and compose; and if it could in any wise help or promote their interests, I would have all the bells pealing, and all the organs playing, and everything making a noise that could.”- Martin Luther, The German Mass and Order of Divine Service, 1526.

Here is a picture of Martin Luther not saying, “Hey guys, the Bible means whatever you want it to mean! It’s all totally subjective, so who cares what anyone else believes?”

And it is also totally untrue that Martin Luther believed that the Bible was open to any and all interpretation. It’s true that he translated it into German so that more people could have access to it themselves, but that wasn’t so that they’d have the freedom to manipulate the meaning of certain texts by redefining certain words and phrases. Luther wanted to spread the objective truth; he didn’t want to subjectify truth. (Spellcheck tells me that subjectify isn’t a real word. I don’t care. It just goes to show that it wasn’t what Luther was trying to do, because if he was, it would absolutely be a real word now.) Anyway, you can tell that Martin Luther didn’t think that everyone was supposed to decide for themselves what to believe, because if he did, he wouldn’t have had so much to say about theology. Luther wrote loads of stuff; if you compare the quantity of his work to that of someone like Shakespeare, you’d have to conclude that Shakespeare probably spent most of his time sitting around and playing scrabble, except that scrabble hadn’t been invented yet.

The point of this is that people shouldn’t think of Martin Luther as some kind of 16th century hippie whose primary belief was that authority and structure are evil. Also, (and more importantly) people shouldn’t think of Jesus as some kind of 1st century hippie whose mission was to sit around holding a sign with some cliché about love and peace. But that can be the topic of a blog post for another day.