Martin Luther Myths

James Swan at has been kind enough to catalogue the top Martin Luther Myths.  Here is the entire list:


1. Luther Threw an Inkwell at Satan
   Recently I found a Jehovah’s Witness attempting to prove Luther was a psychopath. He brought up the story in which Luther hurled an inkwell at Satan. The story is not true. It first appeared towards the end of the sixteenth century, and is said to have been told by a former Wittenberg student. In this early version, the Devil in the guise of a monk threw an inkwell at Luther while he was secluded in the Wartburg. By 1650, the story shifted to Luther throwing the inkwell at Satan. Like any bizarre legend, the story morphed, and houses where Luther stayed had spots on the walls, and these were also said to be inkwells that Luther threw at the Devil.
2. Luther’s Evangelical Breakthrough Occurred in the Bathroom
   This same Jehovah’s Witness denigrated Luther by repeating a newer myth, that Luther’s understanding of Romans 1:17-18 came to him while in the bathroom in the tower of the Augustinian cloister. In the twentieth century, many approached Luther by applying psychoanalysis to his writings. Psychologist Eric Erikson took a German phrase uttered by Luther and interpreted it literally to mean Luther was in the bathroom when he had his evangelical breakthrough. Erikson concluded, from a Freudian perspective, Luther’s spiritual issues were tied up with biological functions. But, there was not a bathroom in the tower. The phrase Erikson interpreted literally in German was simply conventional speech. Luther really was saying that his breakthrough came during a time when he was depressed, or in a state of melancholy.
3. Luther Repented and Re-entered the Church on his Deathbed
   I’ve come across this one on popular Catholic discussion boards. No, it is not true. One of Luther’s early opponents popularized the account that Luther was a child of the Devil, and was taken directly to Hell when he died. Now though, more ecumenically minded Catholics hope for the ultimate in conversion stories. Luther died around 3:00 AM on February 18, 1546. His last words and actions were recorded by his friend Justus Jonas. Luther was asked, “Reverend father, will you die steadfast in Christ and the doctrines you have preached?” Luther responded affirmatively. Luther also quoted John 3:16 and Psalm 31:5. In his last prayer he said to God, “Yet I know as a certainty that I shall live with you eternally and that no one shall be able to pluck me out of your hands.” These are hardly the words of a Roman Catholic waiting to enter purgatory.
4. Luther’s Hymns Were Originally Tavern Songs
   Some involved in Contemporary Christian Music use this argument to validate contemporary styles of music being used in church: if even the great Martin Luther found value in contemporary music being used in Church, shouldn’t we likewise do the same? In actuality, Luther used only one popular folk tune, I Came From An Alien Country, changed the words, and named the hymn, From Heaven On High, I Come to You. Four years after he did this, he changed the music to an original composition.
5. Luther Spoke in Tongues
   Charismatic cyber-apologists have put this one out. They refer to an old quote from a German historian who stated, “Luther was easily the greatest evangelical man after the apostles, full of inner love to the Lord like John, hasty in deed like Peter, deep in thinking like Paul, cunning and powerful in speech like Elijah, uncompromising against God’s enemies like David; PROPHET and evangelist, speaker-in-tongues and interpreter in one person, equipped with all the gifts of grace, a light and pillar of the church…” Luther though held, “Tongues are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers. But later on, when the church had been gathered and confirmed by these signs, it was not necessary for this visible sending forth of the Holy Spirit to continue.”
6. Luther Added The Word Alone To Romans 3:28
   This is frequently brought up by the zealous defenders of Rome. Luther is said to have been so careless and outrageous with his translation of the Bible, he simply added words to make the Bible say what he wanted it to. Luther gave a detailed explanation of why the passage has the meaning of alone,and this explanation has been available online for years. This charge also shows an ignorance of church history. Roman Catholic writer Joseph A. Fitzmyer points out, “…[T]wo of the points that Luther made in his defense of the added adverb were that it was demanded by the context and that sola was used in the theological tradition before him.” Fitzmyer lists the following: Origen, Hillary, Basil, Ambrosiaster, John Chrysostom, Cyril of Alexandria, Bernard, Theophylact, Theodoret, Thomas Aquinas, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Marius Victorinus, and Augustine [Joseph A. Fitzmyer Romans, A New Translation with introduction and Commentary, The Anchor Bible Series (New York: Doubleday, 1993) 360-361].
7. Luther Was an Antinomian and Hated the Law of God
   Recently a friend wrote me and said charges about Luther being an antinomian were circulating in his church. Luther’s theology indeed has a place for the law of God and its use in the life of a Christian. The law for Luther was dual purposed: it first drives one to see their sin and need for a savior; secondly it functions in the life of a Christian to lead one to a correct understanding of the good one ought to do. Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Luther knows how important Moses and the law was in his theology. In Luther’s Small Catechism the Ten Commandments were placed first because he wanted people to understand that God is wrathful against sin. The negative prohibitions in the Ten Commandments clearly showed our need for a savior. Also in his Small Catechism, Luther suggests a daily regiment of prayer and includes a verbal reading of the Ten Commandments.
8. Luther Acted Like a Protestant Pope
   Catholic apologists perpetuate this one. They tend to reduce everything to a need for an infallible interpreter. They use highly rhetorical or polemical comments from Luther out of context, rather than those statements when Luther evaluates his value and his work. Toward the end of his life, Luther reviewed his work and stated, “My consolation is that, in time, my books will lie forgotten in the dust anyhow, especially if I (by Gods grace) have written anything good.” And also, “I would have been quite content to see my books, one and all, remain in obscurity and go by the board” [LW 34: 283-284].
9. Luther Was a Drunk
   The historical record nowhere documents Luther ever being drunk. It does provide evidence that he did drink alcohol, and that he enjoyed drinking. One needs only to survey the massive output of work that Luther produced to settle the matter that he was not an alcoholic, nor did he have a drinking problem. Luther preached and wrote against drunkenness throughout his entire life with vigor and force.
10. Luther Said Imputed Righteousness is Like Snow Covered Dung
   I saved this one for last, simply because I’m not sure if it’s a myth or not. It does seem to me like something Luther would’ve said: “Therefore let us embrace Christ, who was delivered for us, and His righteousness; but let us regard our righteousness as dung, so that we, having died to sins, may live to God alone” [LW 30:294]. “Explanation of Martin Luther: I said before that our righteousness is dung in the sight of God. Now if God chooses to adorn dung, he can do so. It does not hurt the sun, because it sends its rays into the sewer” [LW 34: 184]

11. Luther Had a Mental Disorder?
   The story goes that while listening to a Gospel lesson at mass on Mark 9:14-29 about an evil spirit being cast out, Luther fell to the floor in the choir of the monastery at Erfurt crying out, “It is not me, not me!” Luther is said to be crying out he was not demon possessed. Psychologist Erik Erikson wrote an entire chapter in his book Young Man Luther on this incident, concluding Luther had a mental disorder. The source for the story comes not from the pen of Luther, but rather from the writing of one of Luther’s earliest Roman Catholic opponents, Cochlaeus, who got the story third hand. Cochlaeus was devoted to destroying Luther. He would print anything he could find to use against him, whether true or not. Cochlaeus was convinced Luther was demon possessed and had been seen with the Devil. Cochlaeus stated of Luther, “…he knows the Devil well, and is in turn well known by him… he was even seen by certain people to keep company bodily with the Devil.”
12. Luther Said “Be a Sinner and Sin Boldly” Because Salvation is by Faith Alone and Works Do Not Matter
   More than a few Catholic authors have accused Luther of teaching a wanton lawlessness of sinning boldly. If justification is by faith alone, aren’t Christians then free to sin as much they want? In 1521 Luther wrote to Melanchthon and stated, “If you are a preacher of grace, then preach a true and not a fictitious grace; if grace is true, you must bear a true and not a fictitious sin. God does not save people who are only fictitious sinners. Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly, for he is victorious over sin, death, and the world.” Luther was prone to strong hyperbole. It’s his style, and this statement is a perfect example. Luther’s point is not to go out and commit multiple amounts of gleeful sin everyday, but rather to believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly despite the sin in our lives. Throughout his career, Luther taught that faith was a living faith. Luther stated, “Faith is a living, restless thing. It cannot be inoperative. We are not saved by works; but if there be no works, there must be something amiss with faith.” Luther also stated, “Accordingly, if good works do not follow, it is certain that this faith in Christ does not dwell in our heart, but dead faith.” Luther preached and taught this regularly.
13. Luther Took Books Out of the Bible?
   Luther’s translation of the Bible contained all of its books. Luther also translated and included the Apocrypha, saying, “These books are not held equal to the Scriptures, but are useful and good to read.” He expressed his thoughts on the canon in prefaces placed at the beginning of particular Biblical books. In these prefaces, he either questioned or doubted the canonicity of Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation (his Catholic contemporaries, Erasmus and Cardinal Cajetan, likewise questioned the canonicity of certain New Testament books). Of his opinion, he allows for the possibility of his readers to disagree with his conclusions. Of the four books, it is possible Luther’s opinion fluctuated on two (Hebrews and Revelation). Luther was of the opinion that the writers of James and Jude were not apostles, therefore these books were not canonical. Still, he used them and preached from them.
14. Luther Was “Extraordinarily Devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary”?
   Normally Catholics vilify Luther. But, when it comes to Mary, Luther becomes a leader all Protestants should learn a great lesson in Mariology from. True, Luther said some nice things about Mary. Luther though saw the idol medieval theology had created. His abandoning of the intercession of the saints and his doctrine of justification significantly changes his Marian approach. Therefore, Luther was not devoted in any sort of Roman Catholic sense to Mary. True, he used the phrase Mother of God, but did so intending the rich Christ-centered usage of Theotokos when discussing the incarnation or Christ’s Deity. He also uses the term simply as a synonym for Mary, which was common in the sixteenth century. Perhaps the most startling aspect of Luther’s Mariology is his lifelong belief in her perpetual virginity. While holding this belief, Luther will not have Mary’s perpetually virginity extolled. He condemns those who venerate this attribute, and notes that it exists only to bring forth the Messiah. He abandoned the Immaculate Conception sometime after 1527. In 1532 he preached, “Mother Mary, like us, was born in sin of sinful parents, but the Holy Spirit covered her, sanctified and purified her so that this child was born of flesh and blood, but not with sinful flesh and blood.”
15. Did Luther Really Say ” Here I Stand”?
   The most famous of all statements from Luther might actually be one he never said. Standing before Emperor Charles V and Papal authorities, Luther refused to recant of the charges made against him and the books he had written. Defying Church and Emperor, his famous speech ends, “Here I stand; I can do no other. God help me.” While the earliest printed versions of this historic event include these words, they were not recorded on the spot. Luther’s famous biographer Roland Bainton suggests, “The words, though not recorded on the spot, may nevertheless be genuine, because the listeners at the moment may have been too moved to write” (Bainton, Here I Stand, 144).

HT James Swan



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