A Minute With Martin
A Minute With Martin
Following his marriage to Katherine von Bora in 1525 until his death in 1546, Martin Luther and his family lived at the Black Cloister in Wittenberg after it had been abandoned by the monks who lived there before the Reformation.
It was a busy household, as not only Luther’s immediate family resided there but also a maiden aunt of Katie’s, various orphaned nephews and nieces, as well as students from the university and a flow of guests from near and far consisting of clergy and government officials.
The relaxed atmosphere following the supper hour made for energetic conversation among the guests. John Mathesius who was often present at these meals in 1540 left this description of what a typical night was like.
- “Although our doctor [Luther] often took weighty and profound thoughts to table with him and
sometimes maintained the silence of the monastery during the entire meal, so that not a word was spoken,
yet at appropriate times eh spoke in a very jovial way. We used to call his conversation the condiments
of the meal because we preferred it to all spices and dainty food.
When he wished to get us to talk he would throw out a question, ‘What’s new?’ The first time we let this remark pass, but if he repeated it—‘You prelates, what’s new in the land?’—the oldest ones at the table would start talking. Dr. Wolf Severus, who had been the tutor of his royal majesty of the Roman Empire, sat near the head of the table and unless there was a stranger present (like a travelling courtier) he got something started.
If the conversation was animated, it was nevertheless conducted with decent propriety and courtesy, and others would contribute their share until the doctor started to talk. Often good questions were put to him from the Bible, and he provided expert and concise answers. When at times somebody took exception to what had been said, the doctor was able to bear this patiently and refute him with a skilful answer. Reputable persons often came to the table from the university and from foreign places, and then very nice talks and stories were heard” (Luther’s Works vol. 54 p. x)
As one might expect, some people began to take notes of what Luther said—no surprise as they were often the same ones taking notes in his lectures during the day. While these weren’t intended for publication Luther was aware of the note takers and had occasion to tell them to make a note of a particular comment.
In the years after Luther’s death, these notes were complied and eventually included with his other works on matters of Scripture and theology.
For the next few instalments of A Minute with Martin we’ll look at a selection of items from the Table Talk edition of Luther’s Works as subject matter ranges all over the place, and Luther’s off-the-cuff commentary gives a unique insight to not only the subject at hand but also as to how his mind worked.
God Appears to Be Too Severe and Too Lenient
Table Talk No. 587
Summer or Fall , 1533
Our Lord God is always in the wrong, no matter what he does. He condemned Adam for disobedience when he ate of the fruit of the tree. Reason considers only the object of obedience, and so God is said to have gone too far. On the other hand, God freely forgives all sins, even the crucifixion of his Son, provided men believe, and this is also regarded as going too far. Who can bring these two into harmony—the greatest severity and the greatest liberty and indulgence (as it seems to reason)? Therefore it is said, ‘Become like children’ [Matt. 18:3]
page 105. Luther’s Works vol. 54—Table Talk. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967.
Luther notes how from the vantage point of human reason God seems to be either too harsh or too permissive with humanity—depending of course on the circumstance. As a scholar of Holy Scripture he was well aware it contained numerous examples of both, which people could and did use to advance their own particular position. Yet rather than try and give an in depth explanation as to how this was so, he offers counsel that is both simple yet profound—‘become like children’ i.e. have the faith of a child that God is good and faithful, regardless of whether we can fathom Him and His ways or not.
While Luther did have issues with philosophy and reason (or more accurately their misuse), one can see from his works that he understood our intellect as a gift from God—but it is a gift that has limits. One of those limits being that we can’t and won’t completely understand the ways and mind of God. Thus faith isn’t primarily a matter of understanding (although it has a role) but one of trust—that even when God doesn’t seem to make sense, we still trust that His grace and promises to us as His children are true.
Prayer and the Promise of God
Table Talk No. 358
Fall , 1532
When we pray, we have the advantage [of the promise] that what we ask will be granted, although not according to our wish. If it weren’t for the promise (James 5:16) I wouldn’t pray. God does well, moreover, that he doesn’t give us everything as we wish, for otherwise we’d want to have everything on our own terms. That our Lord God is the same in life and death I have often experienced. If our prayer is earnest it will be heard, even if not as and when we wish. This must be so or our faith is vain. Consequently it’s difficult to pray. I know well what a prayer requires of me. I haven’t committed adultery, but I’ve broken the first table (first table of commandments, the first three) against God’s Word and honor. On account of my great sins [against the first table] I can’t get to the others in the second table.
Page 52-52. Luther’s Works vol. 54—Table Talk. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967.
“Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.” James 5:16
In this article, Luther notes some important aspects of prayer. First of all, that while God hears our prayers, He may not answer them in the way we either wish or expect. This is an indication of His love and grace, doing what is best for us, not necessarily what we want which may not ultimately be best for us.
Secondly Luther notes that while St. James says it is the prayer of a “righteous man” that is powerful and effect, he knows he is not a righteous man in and of himself. His sinfulness is such that he can’t keep track the various ways he has broken the first three commandments, let alone begin to consider the other seven commandments. Now this doesn’t mean that God won’t hear his prayer, rather, Luther knows it simply means that not all his prayers are going to be in line with God’s will.
However that isn’t a reason for despair because Luther’s hope is not based on prayers getting answered as he wants. His hope is in Christ. Luther trusts that God is faithful and loving and that prayers will be answered as is best for him. He will continue to pray as best as he is able (sinful though he is), and like his salvation, will entrust the rest to the grace of God.
Many Things Not Recorded in Scripture
Table Talk No. 319
Moses wrote nothing about the creation of angels, first, because he wrote only about the creation of visible things, and, second, because he didn’t want to give occasion for speculation. Our Lord God did well to leave many things unwritten. Besides, we would have belittled what we now have and would have sought after the things that are higher.
page 44. Luther’s Works vol. 54—Table Talk. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967
In Luther’s time, it was widely accepted that Moses wrote the first five books of the Old Testament (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy). He notes that while there was a great deal of information given in the story of creation, there were also a lot details that weren’t included (such as the creation of angels)—and this is not necessarily a bad thing.
Then as now, there are people who think the Bible is somehow deficient because it doesn’t necessarily address every issue and item they think it should, whether it’s about creation or some other subject. Luther doesn’t find this problematic at all. In fact he sees it as evidence of God’s care for us. In Holy Scripture, God doesn’t necessarily provide us with what we want but with what we need (a theme Luther highlighted in an other item on God and prayer). Being fallen and sinful humans we can easily get distracted from crucial matters by less essential or even insignificant details. Thus while something like the creation of angels certainly may be a matter of interest for some, it isn’t essential for our salvation, and so was left out.
Once more Luther calls attention to God’s care for us. We may not get all our questions answered, but God will provide the necessary answers for our salvation.