Martin Luther debated many foes in his lifetime, but none troubled him as much as his nightly debates with Satan himself. For Luther, defending the Gospel was a fundamental battle with the devil, the spirit who “spoke through his enemies”.
This is a matter of theological conflict and we’re going to look at the rhetoric of Luther’s polemical treatises, the treatises where he attacks some theological opponent. Luther’s job, after all, is not to fight with swords, but with the [God’s] Word, as he says over and over again. Of course, he does use the Word to advise people who use the sword, to tell a soldier or a prince when they may fight with good conscience. He sometimes even takes credit for killing all those peasants in the Peasant War, because his word instructed the princes to kill those peasants.
This is a transcript from the video series Luther: Gospel, Law, and Reformation. Watch it now, on The Great Courses.
Martin Luther – Prayer, Preaching, and Writing
But, fundamentally, his job is about words and not swords. His job is prayer, preaching, and writing. They are mere words you might say, but they have changed the face of Europe, and thus Luther’s experience is that this really is God’s Word at work, and God’s Word makes a huge difference. It is not mere words. Luther’s job is just to preach God’s Word. God is the one who does something with it, does something powerful and transformative with the word of God because it’s his word, it’s his responsibility. So, Luther just preaches God’s Word and the rest is up to God.
I wish his polemical writings had a peaceful and unconcerned tone, but in fact it is not so.
This means that one of the most characteristic gestures of Luther’s polemical writings is to point out how wicked someone is being and then say we just have to let them go. We have to let them go their own way; it’s for God to deal with that person, not us. He’s not supposed to try to control everybody and transform everybody; he just preaches. But I wish that were so; I wish his polemical writings had a peaceful and unconcerned tone, but in fact it is not so.
Luther “flings filth” at his Opponents
Luther’s verbal attacks on his theological opponents are fierce. These attacks are bitter, they are abusive, and they leave lasting wounds—so we need to think about what’s going on with Luther’s vile and abusive language. If we’re going to get a good comprehensive fix on both what is destructive about Luther, as well as what is wonderful and great about Luther, we have to get a well-rounded picture, and we have to get this bit into the picture. Why is Luther so abusive toward his theological opponents? Why is he so nasty? Was he just getting bitter and pessimistic in his old age, wracked by illness and pain? Because he was, in fact, a very sick man for much of the last 15 years of his life. Did his illness make him impatient so that he lost his inhibitions and just let fly at his opponents? That may be part of it, but I think that can’t be the whole story.
Why is Luther so abusive toward his theological opponents? Why is he so nasty? Was he just getting bitter and pessimistic in his old age, wracked by illness and pain?
There’s a deliberate strategy of abuse in Luther’s writing. Luther, the writer, knows what he’s doing; he knows how to use words, and he’s accomplishing something quite definite with a rhetorical strategy of abuse. I need to give you one example of this, by the way, just so that you get some notion of how profoundly abusive Luther can be. Luther is, in fact, famous for scatological abuse, excremental abuse. Let me give you just one example; it’s hard to believe that this would be put in a theological treatise, but Luther says to one of his opponents (I’m paraphrasing now): “Why don’t you just do it in your pants, roll it up into a sausage, put that sausage around your neck, and then gobble it down.” Can you imagine this in a theological treatise? There it is, and there are a lot like it, especially in his later writings. You just have to read this stuff to believe it; it’s impossible to tell you that it’s there unless you read it. But that’s why I had to give you something just a little bit filthy.
Learn more about the meaning behind Martin Luther’s “Reformation”
Luther is flinging filth at his opponents all the time. Why? To start with, let’s go back to one of those dualities that Luther is always playing around with, this key distinction that he makes between faith and love. Remember, faith is inward; it’s faith in the Gospel that frees your conscience. Love is outward; it’s addressed in love and service to neighbor—so that means that in love you should never personally attack someone. Leave their person out of it; don’t attack people’s moral lives. Even when he attacks the pope, Luther does not satirize the pope the way Erasmus does. He doesn’t say: “You have all these illegitimate children; you’re greedy; you’re enriching your family; you’re fighting wars;” that’s not how Luther attacks his opponents.
Faith doesn’t back down on anything. Faith hangs on to the Word of God, and you don’t compromise when it comes to the Word of God…
He attacks them on the issue of faith, on the issue of doctrine, on Christian teaching, but here’s a crucial point. When you’re dealing in love with another person, you can compromise with them. Love does not stand on principle. Give up your principles for the sake of love of neighbor. But faith doesn’t back down on anything. Faith hangs on to the Word of God, and you don’t compromise when it comes to the Word of God. You don’t compromise the Gospel; you don’t compromise Christian teaching; so, in love you can compromise all you want. Give up your principles out of love of neighbor, that’s fine—but not with faith; no compromise, no backing down. That tells us a lot about Luther’s strategy.
Luther: Opponents were speaking for the devil
When he attacks his opponents, he’s not attacking their moral life; he is attacking their conscience. Luther is always writing about people’s consciences, but with his theological opponents, he basically says they’re lying against their conscience—and here’s the worst part, they’re speaking for the devil. With his Protestant opponents, he’s continually saying these people speak for the devil. Some of his Protestant opponents play into this.
For instance, Thomas Müntzer—this is the apocalyptic priest prophet who ended up leading part of the peasant rebellion because he said the spirit of God told him to create the new world of the end times by violently overthrowing the wicked. When Müntzer talks about the Spirit, Luther says: “I know about your spirit; it’s the spirit of rebellion and violence. It’s not the Holy Spirit. I know what’s in your conscience, Müntzer, not the Holy Spirit, but a spirit of violence. You have this voice speaking to you, and it’s a wicked voice, and you ought to know better.” You know that this voice isn’t God’s Word, so in your own conscience, you’re giving in to the devil. That’s the fundamental line of attack that Luther takes over and over again.
For instance, when he critiques Karlstadt, he says something just stunning, and this is typical of Luther’s rhetoric. He says: “It ought to surprise no one that I call him a devil. For I am not thinking of Dr. Karlstadt or concerned about him. [This is not about Karlstadt; this is not about the person. This is about faith.] I am thinking of him by whom Karlstadt is possessed and for whom he speaks,” namely the devil.
We’re going to have to talk about those midnight wrestles with the devil. For Luther, defending the Gospel against its enemies is always fundamentally a battle with the devil, the spirit who speaks through his enemies. We need to talk about how Luther thinks about this battle with the devil, why he speaks so persistently of his own battles with the devil, persistently and casually. It’s striking.
Part of it is this standard medieval notion that the devil assaults you with anfechtungen, as Luther calls it. That’s a standard medieval notion. If you’re lying on your deathbed, you’re afraid of judgment, and the devil whispers in your ear and says: “God wants to damn you; you’re a sinner; you’ve committed this sin and that sin, and therefore you should despair, and curse God, and die.” Everyone knows about that, so when Luther talks about these assaults of the devil, these temptations by the devil whispering in your ear, nobody’s too surprised by it. Luther doesn’t have to explain what he means.
One time at the dinner table, he said: “Earlier this morning, the devil was arguing with me about Zwingli.”
But there’s a distinctive way that Luther has of talking about the temptation of the devil that is pretty much Luther’s own. He’ll talk casually about the theological arguments he’s had with the devil; he’s got a lot of experience that way. One time at the dinner table, he said: “Earlier this morning, the devil was arguing with me about Zwingli.” He just drops that down and talks about something else. He’ll also mention that in his nighttime battles with the devil, “they’re much more bitter than my battles during the day; for my theological adversaries during the day, they only annoy me. They write these stupid theological treatises with these inane and inept theological arguments. I have to waste my time refuting them, in effect. But the devil,” he continues, “the devil is able to confront me with real theological arguments. The devil’s better at theology than my opponents.”
What experience with the devil does he have to say this? Most strange of all, most striking of all, is one treatise where he is writing against a Catholic practice in the Mass, and in the middle of it he says: “The devil woke me up at night with this argument against me,” and then there’s a five-page argument from the devil, deadpan. Luther does not present this as symbolic or something, a deadpan argument where it turns out the devil is right, and you can quote from any part of that five-page argument, and it’s Luther’s view that’s being presented by the devil, because at the end, Luther responds to the devil by saying: “Devil, you’re right, you’ve got me—that’s a good theological argument; I have to repent. I was participating in this Catholic practice and it was sin, it was wrong—so, you’re right, I’m wrong, but I’ll just confess my sins, so I win,” and thus he takes over the devil’s position because the devil’s argument was right.
Luther’s late-night arguments
What’s going on here? Let me make a few clarifying remarks. Luther does not have any sort of visual imagination of the devil, none of this superstitious stuff where you see this dark-eyed figure with a pitchfork, something like that. It’s always these arguments in the middle of the night. We, in fact, know that Luther was sick during the writing of this treatise, and he changed his mind on this point. We have his outlines where he actually changes his mind; so, I think in the middle of the night, he listened to the arguments of the devil, and he changed his mind. What’s that experience like? I think it’s actually one that a lot of us insomniacs have had.
If you’re an insomniac and you work with arguments for a living, like I do, you often wake up in the middle of the night with an argument running in your head, sometimes a critical argument against yourself, like: “Professor Cary, don’t you know that this interpretation of Luther you’re going to give in The Great Courses lectures is just wrong? Look at this text, look at that text, you can’t possibly say that that’s what Luther really thought. You’ve got it all wrong,” and you wake up in a sweat.
Luther’s good at generating theological arguments. I think he woke up all the time in the middle of the night with theological arguments attacking him, and it’s not at all surprising that in the medieval context, he attributes these arguments to the devil.
Luther’s good at generating theological arguments. I think he woke up all the time in the middle of the night with theological arguments attacking him, and it’s not at all surprising that in the medieval context, he attributes these arguments to the devil. I think that’s his experience of the devil. I think he respects the devil a whole lot more than his theological opponents because the arguments he gets in the middle of the night are really better arguments. That is why it’s so casual that Luther will so frequently talk about his experience of arguing with the devil.