Luther’s “wise Turk” quote that he didn’t say

Now that a Mormon is running for president and tends to be favored by Christian conservatives over his Christian liberal opponent, we are hearing more and more that famous quotation from Martin Luther:  “I’d rather be ruled by a wise Turk than by a foolish Christian.”  The problem is, no one has been able to find that famous quotation in any of the voluminous works of Luther.  It appears that the quotation is apocryphal.  I suspect it may have originated as an attempt to explain the implications of Luther’s doctrine of the Two Kingdoms, as in, “Luther would have rather been ruled by a wise Turk. . .” which then was recalled as “Luther said he would rather have been. . . .”  At any rate, I would love to identify the earliest occurrence of that quotation in print.  (If any of you could help with that, I would be very grateful.)

Anyway, despite his reputation as a political fatalist, Luther had quite a bit to say about foolish Christian rulers (just ask Henry VIII).  And he had a lot to say about the threat of being ruled by Turks, wise or otherwise, as the Ottoman Empire was then engaged in a major invasion of Europe, an Islamic jihad of conquest that had taken over much of Europe and that was finally turned back at the gates of Viennain 1529.

Anyway, the frequent commenter on this blog with the nom de plume of Carl Vehse has researched these issues.  Back in 2007 I posted what he put together on this blog, which, unfortunately, was when it was a sub-blog with World Magazine and so is no longer accessible.  So I think it’s time to post it again.  Carl has updated and tweaked the original article, which I post with his permission:

The Wise Turk quote

An August 26, 2012, updated version of an article located at http://web.archive.org/web/20071231154836/http://cranach.worldmagblog.com/cranach/archives/2007/02/draftthe_wise_t.html

In his January, 1997 editorial in First Things, “Under the Shadow,” Richard Neuhaus pointed out that despite the efforts he and others have made to show that Martin Luther never said, “I would rather be ruled by a wise Turk than by a foolish Christian” or anything like it (even in German), the alleged quote seems to crop up in articles, sermons, blogs, interviews, and even in testimony before a House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

The year 2012 is an election year and there are non-Christians on the presidential ballot. Thus political editorials in Christian magazines and websites, as well as the fifth-column media, are bound to repeatedly trot out this hackneyed phrase, misattributed to Martin Luther. Let’s be clear. The “wise Turk” quote is an urban legend, an old wives’ tale, just like the oft-repeated fairy tales that Luther threw an inkwell at the devil (or vice versa), or invented the Christmas tree, or that Billy Graham referred to Lutherans (or the Lutheran Church, or the Missouri Synod) as “a sleeping giant.”

This article is yet another Sisyphean attempt to drive a spike through this urban legend non-quote, and specifically to address the erroneous claim that the alleged quote is a loose paraphrase of the following excerpt from Martin Luther’s “An Open Letter to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation“:

“It is said that there is no better temporal rule anywhere than among the Turks, who have neither spiritual nor temporal law, but only their Koran; and we must confess that there is no more shameful rule than among us, with our spiritual and temporal law, so that there is no estate which lives according to the light of nature, still less according to Holy Scripture.”

As will be shown below the urban legend quote has absolutely nothing to do with this quoted excerpt from “An Open Letter to the Christian Nobility” and any such claimed paraphrase is quite unlikely to have been even loosely uttered (in German or Latin) by Dr. Luther elsewhere. The key points, as they should be for all phrases bandied about as being uttered by (or paraphrased from) Luther, are context, context, context. [Read more...]

Ascent theology

Useful and broadly applicable paradigms from Pastor Matt Richard:

During the time of Martin Luther there were theological presuppositions that had been ingrained in the lives, thoughts and actions of the people. For the sake of simplicity, two things summarized the theological culture and attitudes of the day: ascent theology and the theology of active righteousness.

It was commonly held from medieval teachings that mankind needed to ascend to God. It was taught that one needed to climb a metaphoric ladder towards a Holy and Righteous God through: pious good works, devotion to God, accomplishments, indulgences, holy living, penance, religious duties, etc… Eugene Klug comments on this saying,

“Ascetics (i.e. those trying to climb to God) desired to achieve more and greater conformity with the will of the holy God, climbing rung by rung the ladder of God-pleasing acceptance before the throne of the loving Lord and Savior.” (Note: Parentheses added)

People during the time of Luther saw themselves in a spiritual journey that required strenuous effort and endurance to elevate ‘self’ to the same level of God.

In ascent theology the emphasis is placed on mankind and the strategic goal becomes mankind’s climbing pursuit of God. As a result, man does not need a descending Christ; which means that Jesus becomes a simple model of holiness that needs to be emulated in the ascending journey. Consequently, how does one know if he/she has ascended enough? What are the best methods to ascend to God? What methods get the best bang for the buck?

The other presupposition that was commonly held during the time of Luther was the theology of active righteousness. Active righteousness simply taught that if one were to be considered righteous that he/she needed to achieve righteousness by the way of the Law and effort. For example: the Law says, “Do” and the person actively “Does it” which results in a presumed “Righteousness.”

The teaching of active righteousness goes right in line and is in harmony with ascent theology. Both put the emphasis on mankind’s efforts. Both have a starting point of mankind. Both appeal to the flesh. Both undercut the centrality of the work of God in Christ. . . .

According to some historians, the Heidelberg Disputation is considered as more important to the 16th century reformation than the 95 theses of 1517. The reason being, the teachings of the Heidelberg Theses adamantly argue against ascent theology and active righteousness and shows forth from scripture a completely contrary and opposite way of seeing the Christian life: descent theology and passive righteousness.

The theology of descent puts the emphasis on Christ and His strategic goal of drawing close to and pursuing mankind. As a result, man does not (and cannot) ascend to God; which means that Jesus is the one who descends to mankind as to rescues and bring sinners home to God. Consequently, one is granted confident assurance as scripture continually reveals the glory of the descending Christ to a bloody cross to completely atone for mankind, us!

The teaching of passive righteousness taught by Luther and the scriptures puts the focus on what Christ has accomplished on behalf of mankind. Passive righteousness simply teaches that if one is to be considered righteous that he/she needs to receive this righteousness by the way of the Gospel and Gift. The Gospel says, “Believe This And Receive It As Gift” because “Everything Is Already Done For You.” (Note Theses 26 of the Heidelberg Disputation)

via Steadfast Lutherans » The Laying Of Our Foundation: The Theological Framework Of The Reformation For The Church Today.

Lucas Cranach, cover story

The cover of Books & Culture, the Christian culture journal, features Lucas Cranach, and the cover story by Daniel Siedell is a review of a new book on the artist and patron of this blog.  The book is called The Serpent and the Lamb: Cranach, Luther, and the Making of the Reformation by the important Reformation scholar Stephen Ozment.  It breaks new ground in asserting the importance of Cranach and his art for Luther and for the Reformation.  A major emphasis is how Cranach embodied and communicated Luther’s doctrine of vocation.  I’m not quite finished reading Ozment’s book, but I plan to post on it for its own sake.   Here is an excerpt from the Books & Culture piece:

Far from being compromised or constricted, Cranach flourished in and through his relationship with Luther, in large part because both the artist and the theologian shared converging interests and concerns, which, upon their meeting, made their relationship especially rich and productive, both personally and professionally.

This relationship developed only after Cranach decided to move his workshop into Wittenberg. Growing weary of the tedious demands of the court and a lack of challenging painting commissions (not to mention inconsistent remuneration), Cranach moved into the bustling university town, renovating several buildings for his home and workshop. He soon became a leading figure in city politics and one of the largest owners of real estate in town. A savvy businessman and entrepreneur, Cranach owned Wittenberg’s only pharmacy and operated the most powerful printing press in the region, a press which would publish Luther’s German translation of the New Testament, completed while he was in exile in Wartburg, and would generate the pamphlets and other printed materials that spread the ideas of the Reformation. Cranach was also a skilled statesman, traveling to the Netherlands on a diplomatic mission on behalf of Frederick the Wise. Far from being seduced by Luther, then, it was Cranach’s robust and expansive public life and his wisdom in statecraft that served the younger, less politically astute Luther, ultimately winning him the protection and patronage he needed from Frederick.

Although Cranach shared Luther’s anti-humanist and anti-Renaissance “Augustinian” view of the sinfulness and weakness of humanity, the convergence between the two men was less doctrinal than it was social, in what Ozment calls the “second phase” of the Reformation. This social phase focused on the recovery of the spiritual integrity of all aspects of domestic family life, from rearing children to marital sexuality. The home had been subjected to excessive and burdensome interference from Rome, creating legalistic burdens for laity and the clergy that were impossible to follow, the crushing nature of which resulted in licentious behavior that undermined the integrity of the family. Luther’s emphasis on justification as a “passive righteousness,” which he would develop in his lectures on Galatians in 1531, was already worked out socially and culturally, liberating the laity and the clergy to enjoy a robust family life, including an intimate sexual relationship within the institution of marriage. Ozment shows how Cranach and Luther both were fulfilled by their families, embracing fully and boldly the creational blessings of marital and familial life. Luther’s famously earthy language about marital sexuality is echoed in Cranach’s beautifully seductive women, whose enchantment was part of the created order and whose sexuality could be celebrated as a divine blessing. “By excising the external girth of the High Renaissance woman,” Ozment writes, “he set free her inner mirth. The result was more engrossing than the direct touching of skin and flesh.” Cranach and Luther’s relationship was further deepened through their families, as they served as godparents to each other’s children. . . .

Ozment’s Cranach embodies a proto-Lutheran approach to culture and vocation. Apparently unconcerned with the burden of demonstrating or achieving his salvation through his work, Cranach was freed to use and enjoy his God-given talents as a painter, politician, businessman, and advisor. He is also a historical example of what James Davison Hunter has called, in To Change the World (Oxford University Press, 2010), “faithful presence.” The Serpent and the Lamb makes the convincing case that without Cranach’s faithful presence, the Lutheran Reformation would not have possessed the scope that it had.

I might just add that this vocational view of family life, including the affirmation of sexuality in marriage, is what we explore in our own latest book Family Vocation: God’s Calling in Marriage, Parenting, and Childhood.

Love that bears burdens

Jim Rademaker passed along this quotation from Luther from the collection Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional (June 20).  It’s a meditation on Galatians 6:2:  “Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.”  It relates to the purpose of every vocation, to love and serve one’s neighbor, which entails bearing other people’s burdens:

 EVERYWHERE LOVE TURNS it finds burdens to carry and ways to help. Love is the teaching of Christ. To love means to wish another person good from the heart. It means to seek what is best for the other person. What if there were no one who made a mistake? What if no one fell? What if no one needed someone to help him to whom would you show love? To whom could you show favor? Whose best could you seek? Love would not be able to exist if there were no people who made mistakes and sinned. The philosophers say that each of these people is the appropriate and adequate “object” of love or the “material” with which love has to work.

The corrupt nature – or the kind of love that is really lust – wants others to wish it well and to give it what it desires. In other words, it seeks its own interests. The “material” it works with is a righteous, holy, godly, and good person. People who follow this corrupt nature completely reverse God’s teaching. They want others to bear their burdens, serve them, and carry them. These are the kind of people who despise having uneducated, useless, angry, foolish, troublesome, and gloomy people as their life companions. Instead, they look for friendly, charming, good-natured, quiet, and holy people. They don’t want to live on earth but in paradise, not among sinners but among angels, not in the world but in heaven. We should feel sorry for these people because they are receiving their reward here on earth and possessing their heaven in this life.

This is priceless.  We are quite willing to love “friendly, charming, good-natured, quiet, and holy people.”  But we are called to love “uneducated, useless, angry, foolish, troublesome, and gloomy people.”  That is, people with burdens.

Giving Luther a hit record

A while back ago we blogged about that YouTube video of Lyle Lovett and other members of his LCMS congregation reciting the Nicene Creed.  Someone observed that on his latest album,  Release Me, he does a straight-up recording of Luther’s hymn “Keep Us Steadfast“:

Lord, keep us steadfast in Thy Word;
Curb those who fain by craft and sword
Would wrest the kingdom from Thy Son
And set at naught all He hath done.

Lord Jesus Christ, Thy pow’r make known,
For Thou art Lord of lords alone;
Defend Thy Christendom that we
May evermore sing praise to Thee.

O Comforter of priceless worth,
Send peace and unity on earth.
Support us in our final strife
And lead us out of death to life.

All of this gave Aaron Lewis a bright idea:

I was reading your post recently about Lyle Lovett’s rendition of Lord Keep Us Steadfast on his new album.
Why don’t you launch a campaign to help a song by Luther reach the top of the pop charts? We could start by having you encourage your readers to call radio stations and request that they play the song (it is on a major label so most stations should have the album). People can suggest others do the same on their facebook page/twitter &etc.
What do you think???

 I think it’s not very likely that the readership of this blog, however massive and well-connected, could pull that off, but, hey, I’m willing to try.  And we can all at the very least buy the track for 99 cents at Amazon or for $1.29 at iTunes, thus bidding up its prominence.  (Go to one of those sites to sample the recording.)  Though I myself, a big fan of Lovett and his alt country repristination of Western Swing, want the whole album.

“God hidden in the death of Christ”

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams (who has announced that he is stepping down) has some perceptive comments about Luther, the Reformation, and the Theology of the Cross:

“The Reformation put a question of the utmost gravity to all Christians, a question about the continuity and dependability of human response to God. It affirmed that the Church was capable of error; that no amount of scholastic tidiness could guarantee fidelity to God; that there was in the Church no secure locus of unquestionable authority. It pointed eloquently to human brokenness, the failure of reason and order. But it did so only to claim triumphantly that the Church’s security lay in this very failure, in the insecurity and un-rootedness which drove it always back to its spring in the Word made broken flesh. Against the self-sufficiency of Christendom is set – rightly and decisively – the cross. To Christians looking for a sign, an assurance, it offered only the ‘sign of the Son of Man’, God hidden in the death of Christ… Luther is a reminder to Catholic and Protestant alike that the strength of Christianity is its refusal to turn away from the central and unpalatable facts of human self-destructiveness; that it is there, in the bitterest places of alienation, that the depth and scope of Christ’s victory can be tasted, and the secret joy which transforms all experience from within can come to birth, the hidden but all-pervading liberation.” (p. 160-61)

via Rowan Williams on Martin Luther and the Cross-Shattered Church | Mockingbird.

The quotation is from his book Wound of Knowledge: Christian Spirituality from the New Testament to St. John of the Cross.


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