Essay / Culture

Luther the Word-Wielder

Thank God for shorthand. Without it, the ready wit of Martin Luther would be lost to us. Some argue that Luther’s were the loose lips which sank the great ship; others hear him as a voice crying the wilderness who merely called a spade a spade. But he sure did have a way with words.

Imagine, then, a stout enough man in his mid-forties, finishing a good German meal, loosening his belt, leaning back and holding court.

Close to 5000 pages of what has come to be known as his ‘Table Talk’. Sample just a few choice lines taken down by Veit Dietrich, who lived at the Luther’s as amanuensis, between 1531 and 1533. If you like the taste, feast on Volume 54 of Luther’s Works.

‘Although I know this [i.e., that I am to rejoice in the Lord and expect good of him], I am of a different mind ten times in the course of a day. But I resist the devil, and often it is with a fart that I chase him away. When he tempts me with silly sins I say, “Devil, yesterday I broke wind too. Have you written it down on your list?” When I say to him, “You have been put to shame,” he believes it, for he does not want to be despised.’

‘Erasmus is an eel. Nobody can grasp him except Christ alone. He is a double-dealing man.’

‘The Epistle to the Galatians is my dear epistle. I have put my confidence in it. It is my Katy von Bora [first a nun, then his wife].’

‘True theology is practical, and its foundation is Christ, whose death is appropriated to us through faith….speculative theology belongs to the devil in hell.’

‘Peter Lombard was adequate as a theologian; none has been his equal. He read Hilary, Augustine, Ambrose, Gregory, and also all the councils. He was a great man. If he had by chance come upon the Bible he would no doubt have been the greatest.’

‘A preacher is like a carpenter. His tool is the Word of God. Because the materials on which he works vary, he ought not always pursue the same course when he preaches. For the sake of the variety of his auditors he should sometimes console, sometimes frighten, sometimes scold, sometimes soothe…’

‘Our Lord God must be a devout man to be able to love knaves. I can’t do it, although I am myself a knave.’

‘Sin doesn’t harm us as much as our own righteousness.’

‘Oh, if I could only pray the way this dog watches the meat! All his thoughts are concentrated on the piece of meat. Otherwise he has no thought, wish, or hope.’

‘The end of all heresy is the sword.’

‘Faith is, as it were, the center of a circle. If anybody strays from the center, it is impossible for him to have the circle around him, and he must blunder. The center is Christ.’

‘Philip [Melanchthon, known as a systematizer and civilizer of Luther’s thought] stabs, too, but only with pins and needles. The pricks are hard to heal and they hurt. But when I stab I do it with a heavy pike used to hunt boars.’

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