The Real Luther by Franz Posset

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James Swan

Puritan Board Freshman
Executive Director of Concordia Publishing House Paul McCain kindly sent me over their new book, The Real Luther by Franz Posset. There is a not-so-subtle irony at play here. I am a staunchly Reformed person reviewing a Luther book written by a Roman Catholic published by Lutherans. This is indeed ecumenicism with irony.

Why would a conservative Lutheran publishing company release a book by a Roman Catholic scholar? This was the first question that popped into my mind when Reverend McCain announced the forthcoming book. Reverend McCain responded they did so because it is "a very fine book" and I'd have to see so for myself.

Dr. Posset appears to be strongly motivated by underlying ecumenical concerns. He points out early in the book that the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification promoted Christian unity between Lutherans and Catholics who together confess salvation is "By grace alone, in faith in Christ's saving work and not because of any merit on our part" (p. xiv). In an older blog entry, Reverend McCain echoes many of the same concerns I have for this document, noting that the precise formula is rather "justification by grace alone through faith alone" and this "is the only way to avoid obscuring the glory and merit of Christ" that the Joint Declaration betrayed.

Part One: Toward the Anniversary in 2017 (pp. 5-42)
Simply because Dr. Posset affirms this slippery ecumenical formulation doesn't mean he's not able to write an accurate and helpful book on Luther. It's very obvious from his credentials that he's well learned in Luther, being himself the associate editor of Luther Digest. If one were to simply rely on the Internet-anti-Luther polemic put forth by Roman Catholic apologists, one would think it impossible for a Catholic to write a fair or helpful book on Luther. Posset though is one of a number of modern Catholic writers that avoid and decry the vilifying caricature of Luther presented in generations past. These recent Catholic scholars have gone far beyond attacking Luther the person by seeking to truly understand him as an honest theologian. One hundred years ago a book entitled The Real Luther from a Roman Catholic would have attempted to prove Luther to be the spawn of Satan. Today, Catholic Luther scholarship often functions very similar to Protestant scholarship: Luther had his faults, but Luther was also a theologian of the highest rank; a profoundly religious man, a true Christian who lived by a deep faith in Jesus Christ.

Challenging The Reformation Day Story
There's a lot to be thankful for with this book. First of all, it's not simply revisiting the Luther story outlining his life from birth to death. That book has been written thousands of times. If someone is looking for a straight nuts and bolts biography of Luther's life, this isn't the book for you. This book is for someone familiar with Luther's story. Perhaps you've read Bainton or Oberman's biography, or perhaps have seen one of the Luther movies. You know the basic outline of Luther's life, and you know who some of the key players were. If that's the case, you'll find this book interesting. It will challenge some of the basic historical facts, but not in a confrontational way in which a Roman Catholic author attempts to tear Luther apart in order to have Rome triumph in the end.

The first section of the book scrutinizes the facts and myths of Luther's early years, but not with tedium and dryness. Older Catholic sources have attempted to do the same, but their accounts are often top heavy, droning on for what feels like a small eternity. One need only compare Posset's book to say, anything on Luther written by Hartmann Grisar. Posset sifts the data in a concise reader-friendly manner.

For instance, one tedious Luther debate handled aptly is that made popular by Erwin Iserloh's The Theses Were Not Posted: Luther Between Reform and Reformation. Here Posset concisely sifts through the evidence to determine if the Luther of legend heroically posted his Ninety-Five Theses to the Wittenberg door. Posset also inquires as to how exactly the document disseminated across the land, and what exactly was its correct title? Posset notes the differences between Melanchthon's account and Luther's written statements, but not with indicting either Reformer of fraud. Posset though presents Melanchthon as following hear-say in perpetuating the "door" story, when in fact it would be prudent to simply accept Luther's own account of what transpired October- November, 1517. Posset also brings out the interesting fact that Luther never referred to this document as the Ninety-Five Theses, and the popular commemoration of "Reformation Day" wasn't even celebrated on October 31 but rather on June 25. This lasted up until the 19th Century.

Posset's Use of Primary Sources
His handling of the historical sources is also refreshing. Pointing out how difficult it is to actually handle the primary sources correctly is not mentioned enough by scholars! I can think of very few books that so openly describe what a scholar must really know in order to read Luther as purely as possible. I've had many people over the years suggest I write a book on Luther, but when one reads Posset's overview of what one needs to know to do so, you'll understand why I've refrained. Let's put it this way: It's a lot more complicated than simply learning German.

In many Luther related historical treatments one typically will find references to Luther's Table Talk. With this source one can supplement the historical record with juicy tidbits. These tidbits are often portrayed as a glimpse of the real Luther. While earlier Catholic writers like Grisar pointed out that they aren't certain fact, he went on to heavily use them, and in the end the reader of his books probably considered them fact. Posset though does no such thing. It's refreshing therefore to read a Catholic scholar turn away from heavy reliance on Luther's Table Talk, a trait Old Catholic sources gravitated to. Probably half of my Catholic Luther studies involve tracking down obscure Luther quotes, and more often than not, they find their way back to the Table Talk. Luther didn't write the Table Talk. The statements contained therein are purported to have been made by Luther. Posset though rightfully argues that the Table Talk does not qualify unconditionally as a primary source (p. 1, 30-31). With insight he states "the real distortion of the Luther image occurred with the Table Talk" (p.30) and that the Table Talk should be read for entertainment rather than as a serious historical guide. Posset himself seems to have undergone a transformation on this score. In an earlier work he appears to have accepted the truthfulness of the legend of Luther killing a man in a duel found in the Table Talk. This episode is said to have provoked Luther to become a monk. With his current book, Posset leaves it as an ambiguity (p. 51) and I've been assured he no longer believes it. Posset's emphasis on using the Table Talk without any corroborating historical evidence is a point his fellow Roman Catholics need to hear. While it's true scholarly Catholics have realized this for quite a while, in practice many Catholic laymen still gravitate to this unreliable source exclusively.

The Protestant Sainthood of Luther
Posset argues for dismantling the image of Luther "without the halo" saying "If we want to get to know the historical Luther, present-day 'Protestant triumphalism' needs to be toned down" (p. 35). That's true enough, particularly as he locates the genesis of this image in medieval Catholic iconography. In doing some research a few years ago, I came across perhaps the height of this image (Robert Scribner, Incombustible Luther: The Image of the Reformer in Early Modern Germany). Scribner documents the way that many turned Luther into a saint after his death. Stories circulated that paintings of Luther refused to burn (Luther's special saint miracle was his incombustibility). It's here though where some sort of ecumenically fair comment from Posset would have been most appropriate. The same sort of disclaimer should be applied to those Roman Catholics likewise consider to be saints. Some sort of statement leveling the playing field would have been a certain sign that underlying commitments were not formulating his view of "The Real Luther." I would have liked to know exactly what presuppositions served to inform his view. Is this Catholic scholar of the opinion that determining the "real Luther" is the same process one should use with all canonized saints? Or, does Roman Catholicism get a free pass in which the saints are not to be scrutinized in the same way? Are stories verifying the saints taken as fact when they may indeed by myth? I would've appreciated a brief discussion of his Roman Catholic presuppositions on this matter.

Catholic Scholar Hubert Jedin pointed out long ago, Roman Catholicism never condemned Luther by name at Trent. He argued no official judgment on Luther exists by which a loyal Catholic is bound. If I'm going to read a book on Luther by a Roman Catholic, I'd like to know exactly where he thinks Luther stands. Posset argues, "We come closer to the real Luther if we keep the following things in mind: First, let us employ the working hypothesis that Luther is neither exclusively and consistently a rebel or heretic nor exclusively and consistently a saint" (p. 36). Rather than simply choosing one, Posset includes them all. Was he deliberately vague? Here would have been a useful spot where the author could have expressed his view on Luther precisely. For instance, Catholic scholar Jospeh Lortz said many insightful and kind things about Luther, but also said he was rightly condemned as a heretic. Is Luther a heretic or not in this author's mind? Some pop-Catholic apologists have no problem locating Luther in hell. Others don't know. Others think he's at least in purgatory. Here the author could have shown us how far (or not) his ecumenicism goes.

Part Two: Philip Melanchthon's Memoirs as Guide
In order to get to the "real Luther" Posset uses Melanchthon's short biography of Luther. Who better to know Luther than his closest friend? Posset considers this "the best available source for biographical data" (p. 44). Keep in mind, what's focused on here is Luther pre (and including) 1517. What this means is that Posset considers Melanchthon an honest biographer.

One interesting fact in this section is in regard to Luther's entering the monastery. True to his use of sources, Posset considers Luther's thunderstorm vow to St. Anne an unreliable Table Talk entry "thirty-four years removed from Luther's decision to join the friars at Erfurt" (p.53).

Sola Scriptura?
The most interesting section of this book so far has been Posset's treatment of Luther and the Scriptures. He mentions in passing, "As an aside, on the eve of the 'Reformation' there was a canonistic tradition supporting the assertion of the supreme authority of Scripture over councils or ecclesiastical authorities"(p. 63). He then argues that the reformed friary Luther joined had Constitutions, and this document is still extant. In Chapter 17 of the Augutinian's Constitutions "the following directive is given which suggests the meaning of the maxim Scripture Alone"

[A friar] is to read the Sacred Scripture avidly, listen to it devoutly, and learn it fervently. Sacram scripturam avide legat, devote audiat et ardenter addiscat.

Posset states,

The notions "Scripture principle" and "Scripture alone" are often used as watchwords to distinguish Protestants from Catholics. However, the notion "Scripture principle" is an invention of the nineteenth century and "Scripture alone" as a fundamental concept is much older than Luther, although known primarily as a post-Reformation slogan. As to Luther's biblical theology that follows from the focus given by his order's Constitutions, one should not get trapped in the later theological debate about Scripture and Tradition at the Council of Trent. For the historical Luther the issue was not so much Scripture versus Tradition, but biblical theology versus philosophical theology.

The expression "Scripture Alone" is not found verbatim anywhere in the historical Luther's vocabulary. The young friar simply faithfully obeyed the directive that was given him through the Constitutions. The priority of the Scriptures has a long pre-Lutheran tradition inside and outside of his order. What was new with the developing Reformer is his determination and also his radicalism in the handling and employing of the Scripture principle which he had inherited from the tradition in his religious order, with its practice of Scripture meditation to which any young novice was introduced.

The real Luther wanted to read the Bible without philosophical (Scholastic) filters, and thus without a specific hermeneutics: "Luther demanded for the interpretation of the Scriptures quite a special theory of understanding—namely none." Luther wanted to read the Bible "with closed eyes" (clausis oculis), i.e., closed to any philosophical speculation or other influences such as private revelations, etc., in strictly following the monastic tradition of reading the Sacred Page in the prayerful way of lectio divina, reading it "avidly, listening to it devoutly, and learning it fervently."

He was convinced that Scripture can interpret itself. The eminent Lutheran theologian Gerhard Ebeling (1912-2001) clarified what Luther meant by "Scripture alone" (even as it is not verbatim Luther's own slogan). He meant to express with this concept the self-sufficiency and clarity of the biblical message that brings us life as it is the living, spoken Word of God.

He did not want a "rational" but an "orational approach," praying over the Scriptures instead of reasoning about them (ratio). Luther himself used the paradoxical expression of "reading" the Scriptures clausis oculis and to chew (ruminare, ruminate) on the Word of God alone. Luther was thinking of Saint John, his favorite evangelist, and declared that with closed eyes Saint John sees farther than we do as he remains with the Word of God alone. (p. 67-68).
Perhaps in this early period Luther was indeed more concerned with freeing Biblical interpretation from philosophy, yet not long after that, "Tradition" was indeed an issue.

One final point of interest is the debate over Luther's subjectivism. Catholic historian Joseph Lortz criticized Luther for his subjectivism, individualism, and one-sidedness. Posset though argues "Luther's drive to reforming Bible studies and pastoral care was not caused by 'subjectivism,' a typical Catholic charge..." (p.73). He notes "The issue deserves to be discussed in terms of hermeneutic, but not of psychology" (.73).

These are only a few issues that jumped out at me, particularly since the author is Roman Catholic. Posset cover a lot more territory in this second section than these particular issues. Again, one may think such statements coming from a Roman Catholic theologian are outrageous, but that simply means you've read too much of the Catholic Answers type stuff. A lot of Roman Catholic scholarship is far removed from the simplistic hostile polemic.
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