Sunday, September 02, 2007

Luther: Man Between God and the Devil

On WTM's recommendation, I've been reading Heiko Oberman's impressive biography Luther: Man Between God and the Devil. As the title implies, Luther's vivid conception of the Devil figures prominently in the book, perhaps because one of Oberman's goals is to present Luther in all of his glorious strangeness. Here we do not encounter the tame and enlightened Luther of latter Protestant hagiography, but the bold, brilliant, shocking, and apocalyptic monk who turned Christendom upside-down. Regarding Luther and the Devil, Oberman writes:
"Luther's world of thought is wholly distorted and apologetically misconstrued if his conception of the Devil is dismissed as a medieval phenomenon and only his faith in Christ retained as relevant or as the only decisive factor. Christ and the Devil were equally real to him: one was the perpetual intercessor for Christianity, the other a menace to mankind till the end. To argue that Luther never overcame the medieval belief in the Devil says far too little; he even intensified it and lent to it additional urgency: Christ and Satan wage a cosmic war for mastery over Church and world. No one can evade involvement in this struggle...

"There is no way to grasp Luther's milieu of experience and faith unless one has an acute sense of his view of Christian existence between God and the Devil: without a recognition of Satan's power, belief in Christ is reduced to an idea about Christ - and Luther's faith becomes a confused delusion in keeping with the tenor of the time."
It's not surprising that latter generations of Lutherans have often been embarrassed by Luther's apparent obsession with the Devil. He sometimes sounds like one of those paranoid street-corner preachers who see the Devil everywhere. For modern folks, the Devil is either nonexistent or understood in a thoroughly demythologized way. Thus, Luther's worldview is bound to regarded as strange at best and dangerous at worst. After all, wasn't fear of the Devil behind all of those gory witchhunts? But Oberman is quite sympathetic towards Luther on this point. He stresses that Luther's talk of the Devil was usually done, not to terrify, but to comfort; it served evangelical and pastoral purposes. Take the following passage from Luther's Table Talk:
"[Luther said:] When I awoke last night, the Devil came and wanted to debate with me; he rebuked and reproached me, arguing that I was a sinner. To this I replied: Tell me something new, Devil! I already know that perfectly well; I have committed many a solid and real sin. Indeed there must be good honest sins - not fabricated and invented ones - for God to forgive for God's beloved Son's sake, who took all of my sins upon Him so that now the sins I have committed are no longer mine but belong to Christ. This wonderful gift of God I am not prepared to deny, but want to acknowledge and confess."
To which Oberman writes: "Luther's purpose is not to spread fear but to strengthen the resistance of the faithful.... As a rule [these stories of the Devil] have a point to make: the reporting of battles past is to instruct and prepare the younger generation for the prospect of the fierce opposition which will always threaten the preaching of Gospel... They are not meant as horror stories to keep the overly audacious in line but as consolation and strength to timid and tired souls."

Oberman assumes that modern people are no longer capable of taking the Devil seriously, at least not to same extent as Luther. Satan's gone and he's not coming back. Which raises an interesting question for Lutheranism today: given the centrality of the Devil to Luther's thinking, are we really capable of understanding this man? More importantly, is Oberman right is saying that "without a recognition of Satan's power, belief in Christ is reduced to an idea about Christ"? Is there any way to reclaim Luther's understanding of the Devil for the present age that isn't unbearably offensive?

3 comments:

Andy said...

I haven't read Oberman's book, but it seems to me that you can gain useful insight from Luther's attitude toward the devil even if you have a de-mythologized view of the devil.

The passage you quoted from Table Talk is very similar to the way Luther often talks about the devil in his lectures on Galatians. The devil comes to us and accuses us and tells us we are cut off from God. You don't need a goat-man with a pitchfork to experience that. I expect that all Christians are familiar with the experience. The thing to be recognized in Luther is that this is one of the things Christ frees us from.

I expect that many other such activities of the devil could be idenitified in Luther's writing and found in present day life. It would be an interesting project.

WTM said...

Glad to see you reading this very helpful and illuminating volume! Unfortunately, I don't have anything interesting to add with reference to the Devil. These are questions that continue to impose themselves upon my own thought.

Nick said...

I enjoyed the book very much. I am impressed with the decree that Oberman kept the book in historic context. It would be easy to take Luther's like as nothing but a religious message. Oberman showed the world the man Luther was.