The Real Luther

A Friar at Erfurt and Wittenberg

 Exploring Luther’s Life with Melanchthon as Guide

By Franz Posset

Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, 2011

     Having read so many dissatisfactory commentaries and biographies on Martin Luther recently, I determined not to spend any more time on modern ‘revolutionary’ theories regarding him. Personally, I believe that though Luther lagged behind Reformers such as Tyndale, Jewel, Bucer and Bullinger, on such doctrines as Justification, the Work of God’s Word on the Soul, Repentance and Christology, he is preferable to Calvin. However, my decision to ignore unimaginative new perspectives on Luther did not last long. This December, I was introduced to Franz Posset’s The Real Luther presented at a doctorial colloquium at Marburg University. Reading the book and listening to the members’ well-grounded views moved me to take up my pen in defence of Luther. Posset has done his best to cut the Reformer down to the size of the hollow, plastic, dwarf effigies lined up recently and presented as Luther’s image and likeness in the Wittenberg market place. A Roman Catholic and former doctoral student at Marquette Jesuit University, Posset boasts that he is, nevertheless, giving us the ‘Real Luther’. He seeks to show that all we know about him is that he once lived but is now dead. He then adds that even Luther’s birth and death cannot be dated exactly. Thus Posset’s Roman Catholic aim in teasing Protestants with the title ‘The Real Luther’ is to tell them that their hero is like Baal, a stone, metal or, in Luther’s recent case, an empty plastic idol, never having experienced flesh and bone.

How to write Reformation History

     Surprisingly, there are Protestants who are happy with a Luther minus his curriculum vitae. Prof. Markus Wried, for instance, who commutes between Goethe University, Frankfurt and Jesuit Marquette University, Milwaukee, USA, writes:

     ‘This work is a masterpiece of a subtle, thorough, and deep reaching presentation of well known (sic) sources. . . . . . The book is a very welcome contribution to the newly arisen discussion about Luther’s reformation breakthrough, his reception of patristic and medieval thought and finally a wonderful survey of recent dialogues about Luther’s posting of the theses to the door of the Palace Church in Wittenberg. Franz Posset analyses the sources meticulously while never loosing (sic) contact with the most recent research. Students and researches should read this book as a model for how to do Reformation History.’

     So here we have a Roman Catholic model for Protestants to follow when studying our Glorious Reformation. One wonders if Wried is being merely sarcastic, though he does warn us that Posset is subtle. Bernard of Clairvaux’s name is not on the title page, yet Posset aim throughout the book, as illustrated by the bishop, pontifical council advisor and two professors who provide his blurbs, is to empty Luther of all that Posset believes is myth and legend and fill Luther’s empty corpse with the spirit of saintly Bernard and medieval scholasticism. Far from being subtle, this is a very plumb attempt to bamboozle us to the detriment of both the historical Luther and the historical Bernard.

Posset builds too small a platform for his cut-down Luther

     The material which Posset produces to back up his theories is far to selective both in its subject matter and in the material he picks out of more detailed and broader works than his. One could have sympathy with his doubts concerning the nailing up of Luther’s theses and the compiling of his Table Talks if it were not for Posset’s dismissal of them without due solid argument either for or against. His petty, unqualified comments only grate. Obviously, there is much more to the real historical Luther than this, but Posset has either yet to discover such material or is holding back vital information for propaganda purposes. To dispense with the real Luther by limiting the amount of information needed to understand him is hardly a worthy scholarly procedure. What gold-washer would start sifting out plastic and throw back the nuggets?

Posset’s reasons for limiting his guides to Melanchthon

     So, too, we must also ask what purpose has Posset in using Melanchthon as his sole guide in filling out his life of Luther? Would we accept a biography of David limited to what we know of him from Jonathan? What are Posset’s criteria for limiting his examination of Luther’s historicity to a narrow selection of details found in Melanchthon’s brief Preface to Vol. II of Luther’s Works, and rejecting others found therein? Is this because Posset does not want to produce too much ‘Protestant’ evidence for the historical Luther or is it because he wishes to popularize his own translation of Melanchthon’s Preface by repeatedly informing us that he did the work all by himself. To put Melanchthon’s German into Latin would frighten off most scholars given today’s standards, but to put Melanchthon’s Latin into German or English could be attempted by most German theological students as such exercises form part of university matriculation requirements. So why advertise oneself in a post-doctoral, supposedly academic, work in this way? It appears that Posset’s repeated mention of his translation of Melanchthon’s Preface is not merely to blow his own trumpet. His major purpose is to show that Melanchthon introduced Luther to Bernard who, he believes, subsequently altered and influenced Luther’s entire life. Once Posset has established this ‘fact’, he can dispense with Melanchthon as his guide. As, however, Luther had lived many years before this alleged enlightenment came through Melanchthon, we presume that Luther was already well-developed in his theological stand and could adequately judge any contributions Bernard could make to the Protestant cause. Bernard, of course, had much to contribute. However Bernard never took the revolutionary reforming steps that Luther did and was thus merely a ghost of the ‘Real Luther’.

A preface which introduces two extreme interpretations

     In his Preface, Posset deals with the various verbal portraits of Luther extant which range from ‘a vomit from hell’ (RC) to a hero (Protestant) with little in between. Comments are made on Roman Catholic studies of Luther and of Posset’s own Ph.D. work on Luther’s catholicity and, again, his translation of Melanchthon’s Preface.

Demythologising Luther

     Posset’s Introduction gives an overview of what is to come. Posset explains that, in Part One, he has rejected much of former Luther scholarship in his search for the historical Luther, using Melanchthon as his Pathfinder. However, Melanchthon never made any pretension at being such a chronicler. Besides, when Melanchthon gives evidence concerning Luther’s nailing up of the 95 theses Posset rejects it on the grounds that Melanchthon could not have obtained the facts from Luther. No evidence or even sources are supplied to help the reader reach his own conclusions. This goes also for Posset’s nigh ridicule of the historicity of Luther’s Table Talk. Ever ambiguous if not ambivalent, Posset raises our hope of finding the historical Luther by claiming that Melanchthon was Luther’s ‘faithful theological secretary’, had access to ‘oral history’ and was Luther’s co-worker. He then takes away this hope by arguing that Melanchthon’s biography in his Preface to Volume II of Luther’s works differs from what Luther says in his Preface to Volume I. The instance given is that Melanchthon mentions Bernard whereas Luther does not. Though Posset questions much of what Melanchthon writes, he judges him absolutely authentic on Bernard’s influence over Luther, in spite of Luther’s own silence. Then Posset continues his promoting of Bernard in Part Two because Bernard, he claims, gave Luther the idea of justification by grace alone through faith alone. Part Three deals with Melanchthon and, once again, Posset’s translation of Melanchthon’s Preface. Finally, Posset promises a discussion concerning the dating of Luther’s visit to Rome in the Appendix.

Gearing up for the Luther Year 2017

     Under this title, Posset develops his theory that everything must be questioned which appertains to Luther’s life, besides the fact that he lived and died. The only thing lacking here is Posset’s evidence. We learn that though Luther called himself neither a Reformer nor a Protestant, he spoke of reforms and Reformation, which is hardly a profound thought as this goes for most Reformers until the terms became acceptable after their reforms. Posset again emphasizes with much overstatement that to talk of Luther’s 95 theses as his initial Reformation act is a ‘huge, misleading exaggeration’ as they were intended as a guide for pastoral care. One would think that the one fact does not shut out the other. Here, we catch Posset writing as if he accepts the historicity of the theses only to be disappointed again as Posset leaves historical verification for further speculation enveloped in the fog of dreams and myths.

How does one ‘affix’ theses?

     Posset’s discussion as to whether Luther’s theses were really ‘talking points’, ‘articles’ or ‘propositions’ is irrelevant to their reality. So, too, Posset’s lengthy speculation as to what ‘nailed’ or ‘affixed’ might mean or not mean and whether the affixing of the theses was on a door or some other church fabric is merely a space-filler. Here, Posset shows that his Latin is less reliable than that of an undergraduate theological student. Melanchthon’s use of ‘adfingo’ or ‘affingo’ easily allows for attachment by nailing, pasting, binding or whatever manner. It does not indicate the mode of attachment but the fact that a thing is attached. Perhaps again Posset’s restricted use of Latin is here merely to suit his polemics. Be this as it may, nailing up posters or bulletins on barn or church doors is a custom centuries older than Luther. Has Posset looked into this? Posset must rather prove that the Wittenberg Church door was never used for posting up bulletins etc., until the Luther alleged myth caused them to take up the custom. Posset seems intent here on taking our gaze from Luther’s real ‘propositions’ by making the mode of posting them more historically important than their message. Posset concludes that as Melanchthon did not mention the nailing up of the theses but only the affixing irrespective of mode, we can dispense with the story as a myth, albeit ‘concocted in good faith’! By this time I had ceased to take Posset seriously.

Was Melanchthon a liar?

     Next, in an effort to demonstrate that even his own chosen guide, Melanchthon is unreliable, Posset again shows presumed divergences between his statements and Melanchthon’s, claiming that he (Posset) sided with Luther because he did not believe he was a liar. Was then Melanchthon a liar? Why does Posset stick to Melanchthon’s reference to Bernard and make so much of it but rejects other evidence Melanchthon gives? The answer is that Posset accepts only that which serves his purpose. However, Posset’s own ‘evidence’ which he brings to play here is unworthy of the honourable title of ‘scholarly’.

Was Luther’s Table Talk penned by a drunkard secretary?

     In his section entitled ‘Embarking on Luther Research’, Posset repeats himself and again emphasizes that the historical Luther has been ‘obliterated’ and in the section following tells us again that he is not so naïve as to think Luther’s Table Talk is a primary biographical source. He is, however, naïve enough to make such a self-evident statement. He ‘proves’ this by asking us to imagine Luther’s secretary taking down notes whilst drinking gallons of beer! So Posset, throwing out the baby with the bathing water, tells us we can throw away Table Talk as a means of gaining any biographical data at all!

Luther the Blessed

     In his section entitled ‘Luther With and Without Halo’, Posset introduces his further parodies on Luther with a one-off drawing by Hans Balding Grien composed after Worms and depicting a Luther, still complete with tonsure, backed by the Divine Shekinah glory and a dove depicting the Holy Spirit. With a good piece of un-theological imagination, one might erase the dove and shrink the Shekinah down to the halo which Posset suggests it is, and use it as a basis for his theory of Luther veneration and what Posset calls ‘glorification’. A recent visit to the local cemetery revealed a number of ancient gravestones each with an almost identical Shekinah but the names engraved under them were those of quite ordinary, non-canonised citizens, not Luther’s. Posset, however, sticks to his glorified Luther theory by saying that Grien also painted the Virgin Mary and that an Augustine friar recognized Luther as a ‘Christian Angel. This proves, says Posset, that Luther in his lifetime was adorned with ‘elements of traditional Catholic iconography’. To seal this far-fetched interpretation in the mind of his readers, Posset introduces a little-known, undated text which refers to Luther as ‘the blessed Dr. Luther’ which, he claims, promotes Luther to the rank of ‘the blessed Virgin Mary.’ Posset obviously prefers this extreme view to the alternative he mentions which sees Luther as ‘a deformed, over-sexed, constipated, neurotic German’. Posset’s thoughts thus lie between two mythical, if not laughable, views of Luther which allows for no normal view in between. Both in literature and history, the numerous references to people of ‘blessed memory’ would make each ‘dear departed’ a Blessed Virgin’ if we took any notice of Posset’s bathos.

Luther’s alleged Sewer Experience

     Posset now fills the ‘in-between’ of his two extremes with four further ‘legends’ without further evaluation apart from suggesting that Luther’s famous Tower Experience was more down to earth and, indeed, cloacal or a Sewer Experience! Interesting enough, is Posset’s section on ‘Luther and the confessional’ in which he claims that Luther formed his Reformation views whilst not confessing his own sins but listening to the sins of others. He finds this theory ‘seductive’ but drops it as another myth.

The dangers of Luther research

     Posset now goes on to warn readers of the dangers found in Luther research, as if we have not had sufficient warnings enough via Posset’s special chosen examples and attempts at their evaluation. We must, Posset says, take Luther’s original German and Latin languages as our starting point. Who would have challenged this idea and why then does Posset place so much emphasis on his own quite questionable translation and use of such oddly sounding English words as ‘talking points’ as a better description than ‘theses’? Should he not practice what he preaches? Then Posset warns us against using older editions of Luther as if modern ones were automatically more reliable. Give me the old edited versions any day in comparison with, say, Posset’s ‘modern’ adaptations! Of course, Posset urges us, above all, to examine Luther’s comments on Bernard in modern editions, believing that we shall find these clearer than in the old. No edition is, of course, perfect, thus any research scholar has several on his desk for comparison, ancient and modern.

Posset’s idea of Sitz-im-Leben

     Posset says we must work out the Sitz-im-Leben and contextualisation of Luther’s works but he uses these terms unprofessionally. The Sitz-im-Leben is not a ‘setting in life’ as Posset presumes but describes how the text came to be and what is its purpose and function. It is not about who was skinning the rabbit or who was chanting Matins whilst Luther was writing as Posset appears to assume. Posset does, however, mention the need for necessary studies in Formgeschichte but after tempting us into thinking he is about to produce some professional analysis of this kind, he says Luther’s situation is too complex for that and cannot be dealt with in his book. One would have thought that a study of purpose and function in Luther would have brought us nearer the ‘Real Luther’ than playing about with unevaluated myths. Yet, immediately after rejecting a Formgeschichte, Posset boasts that he is using ‘the historical-critical method’. ‘Critical’, yes, but hardly ‘historical’.

Summing up Posset on Luther

     As Melanchthon’s Preface and Posset’s own translation form the main subject of the remaining part of his book, we may come to some sort of conclusion regarding Posset’s Luther here. Posset has created a saintly carcass, totally void of any positive, living form whatsoever, which he calls ‘Martin Luther’. He might just as well have called it Saint Martin’s Goose. He has entertained us with students’ Common-Room stories told in the less academic colleges but he has kept us from any scholarly appreciation of Luther in any real, living or meaningful capacity. In reality, Posset’s tract is a Streitschrift as in the pamphlet wars of the seventeenth century, though less serious. It is an exercise in superficial myth-making rather than myth debunking. It cannot be called a ‘popular’ essay as there is little ‘story’ behind it, nor form or shape. It certainly cannot be called a scholarly, academic work as it does nothing to further the cause of learning or give us deeper insight into Luther as a sinner, saint, scholar, Reformer or even as a mere man. Those who are in the dark concerning Luther will now feel more impaired in their vision than ever. This work will not do Posset’s reputation any good, or that of his university or publishing house. No book is without any use whatsoever. Library pioneer John Durie urged that a special section of his library should be reserved for useless books, explaining that they might come in handy for someone or something at some time or another, even if only to illustrate how things should not be done. Using such a book to steady a wobbly table comes to mind. Surely Posset’s book belongs to this category. At least, it preserves pictures of the ‘Unreal Luther’ should we ever require them.