Sunday, September 16, 2007

God's Word in Filthy Language

In a previous post, I quoted from Heiko Oberman's biography of Luther to illustrate how the Reformer's frequent talk of the Devil, while often extreme, usually served evangelical purposes. It turns out the same can be said for another of Luther's embarrassing traits: his penchant for scatological language. Indeed, talk of Satan and talk of crap often went hand-in-hand, usually as a way of expressing contempt for the adversary. Once, after professing his faith in Christ, Luther added: "But if that is not enough for you, you Devil, I have also shit and pissed; wipe your mouth on that and take a hearty bite." As Oberman writes, "Luther's language is so physical and earthy that in his wrathful scorn he can give the Devil 'a fart for a staff': You, Satan, Antichrist, or pope, can lean on it, a stinking nothing... A figure of respect, be he Devil or pope, is effectively unmasked if he can be shown with his pants down."

Luther's filthy language undoubtedly had something to do with his physical ailments. He suffered frequently from constipation, hemorrhoids and perhaps anal fissures. He once wrote to a friend that "after five days of constipation his bowel movement had caused him such pain 'that I nearly gave up the ghost - and now, bathed in blood, can find no peace. What took four days to heal immediately tears open again."

Most shocking of all, perhaps, is Luther's claim that he had his Reformation breakthrough while sitting on the toilet: "The Spiritus Sanctus gave me this realization in the cloaca." Catholic polemicists have seized on this comment as proof of Luther's depravity, and Protestant apologists have tried to explain it by saying he didn't mean the actual toilet, merely the study in the tower above it. But Oberman insists that we take Luther at his word:
"The cloaca is not just a privy, it is the most degrading place for man and the Devil's favorite habitat. Medieval monks already knew this, but the Reformer knows even more now: it is right here that we have Christ; the mighty helper, on our side. No spot is unholy for the Holy Ghost; this is the very place to express contempt for the adversary through trust in Christ crucified... Luther attests to the birth of Christ in the filth of this world. The Son of God was truly born into the flesh, into the blood and sweat of man. He understood men because He experienced - to the bitter end - what it meant to be human."
Luther was not some 16th-century Lyndon Johnson, using crude language to humiliate and intimidate. Instead, his goal was to express the profound earthiness of Christianity, the supreme condescension of God Incarnate who is "with us in mud and in work, so that his skin smokes." As Hamann understood well, God's Word often appears in filthy and vulgar language: "How the Holy Spirit humbled himself when he recorded the most trivial, and the most contemptible events on earth, revealing to man in his own language, in his own transactions, in his own ways, the mysteries and the ways of the deity."

15 comments:

WTM said...

Oberman did do quite a nice job with that material in the volume in question. However, it leaves us with the quandary as to how far past the bounds of what might be considered good taste we should take our rhetoric for theological purposes. It would actually be an interesting study to compare Luther and Calvin on this matter.

Thomas Adams said...

You make a good point - I don't think that we should necessarily replicate Luther's language or take it as normative. However, Oberman points out that Luther was not far beyond the bounds of his time; people generally used more “colorful” language back then. Also, I think that Luther was just being honest when he made these comments. He wasn’t going out of his way to offend people.

I’m not as familiar with Calvin, but I could guess that he practiced more decorum. This is probably due, in part, to differences national origin. Luther was a German with peasant roots, while Calvin was a sophisticated, urbane Frenchman. Also, they had very different personalities: Luther gregarious and impulsive and Calvin more restrained.

WTM said...

It would be interesting to conjecture, also, about the impact that Calvin and Luther's various illnesses had on their theological outlook (although I know that a lot of this conjecture has already been done).

And, while your characterizations of Calvin and Luther are generally correct, Calvin wasn't born the urbane almost aristocrat that he became. He was a provincial by breed who was fortunate enough to receive an aristocrats education.

D.W. Congdon said...

Thomas,

I really like this post. I have read very little Oberman, and I was not aware of Luther's use of scatological imagery. I am less concerned with the issue of "good taste." It seems to me that all dimensions of life, including the scatological, are included within the cosmic significance of Jesus Christ. If such language communicates effectively what needs to be communicated, then such language is justified by the gospel. It seems to me that Luther's language finds a precedent in Paul ("I consider all things shit that I may gain Christ").

Quixie said...

"It seems to me that all dimensions of life, including the scatological, are included within the cosmic significance of Jesus Christ. If such language communicates effectively what needs to be communicated, then such language is justified by the gospel."

All invective, all vitriolic language in fact, reflects more the character of the speaker than it does that which it purports to condemn. Always.

Ó

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