Luther’s Projection of His Depression & Crises Onto St. Paul

Luther’s Projection of His Depression & Crises Onto St. Paul November 15, 2016
Statue of Martin Luther [public domain / Pixabay]

I don’t maintain any particular position as to Luther’s mental health, though I understand that it is pretty much the consensus of historians that he at least suffered fairly regular (if not cyclical) bouts with severe depression, wrestling with the devil (actually or imagined), etc. His overscrupulosity in the confessional and generally during his monastery days is also common knowledge and may, I submit, possibly suggest neurosis or personality disturbances (or, shall we say, eccentricities) of some sort. His extreme dogmatism and nasty language also suggest some things, at least to my mind (and I majored in sociology and psychology in college).

But even if he were bipolar or whatever, so what? Millions suffer from this malady, and it is now known to be largely if not wholly chemical in nature. One cannot be held responsible for chemicals in one’s brain going awry. I’m much more concerned (as a Catholic and an apologist) with the theology of Luther, not the person. If he was a sinner, so are we all. I do think it is relevant to point out significant instances of sin and hypocrisy, and this is all the more necessary in light of what I have called Protestant “pseudo-hagiography” of their beloved founders.

It is plausible (at least to some degree) to assert a connection between his psychological state(s) and his theological positions. This doesn’t have to be designed or construed as “anti-Luther” at all. It’s simply common sense: our experiences are part of the overall matrix or framework in which we form and cultivate our theological beliefs.

I hasten to add that I wouldn’t hold serious depression or wrestling with the devil or the dark night of the soul, or tormented conscience per se against anyone, having experienced, years ago, severe depression and existential angst myself (shortly after that I converted to evangelical Protestantism and have never experienced it again). I’m also quite familiar with satanic persecution and would never mock Luther’s seeming preoccupation with the devil (as even many of his sympathetic biographers do, showing a certain anti-supernaturalistic bias). I went through all kinds of terrible things just in the last few months when I was writing my latest book. Those engaged in ministry or some sort of spiritual work ought to be routinely acquainted with such “attacks,” or so I would assume (Ephesians 6:12-13).

Therefore, it is unimportant to me in the scheme of things, that Luther had such struggles. On the other hand, he attempts to co-opt St. Paul (so typical of the Protestant approach) as experiencing the same spiritual angst and concern and uncertainty concerning a gracious God. He clearly projects his own experience onto Paul. But this is manifestly untrue: Paul was very different in this regard from Luther, despite the Lutheran “CPA’s” comment in a recent post on related aspects of this question:

The Pontificator has recently voiced a sentiment I’ve heard expressed before: that Luther’s agonizing search for a gracious God was a personal eccentricity, or perhaps a sickness of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but in any case not a question that would have made sense to the Apostle Paul from whom Luther sought to find the solution to his great question.

I cited my good friend Al Kresta, a Catholic author and talk-show host, in my book, A Biblical Defense of Catholicism. His words are quite relevant to the present discussion, and form a reply to the above:

Unlike the modern evangelical Protestant revivalistic preaching tradition, the Apostle Paul was not preoccupied with his acceptance as a sinner before a holy and righteous God. That was Luther’s crisis. Protestants have tended to read Paul through the lens of Luther’s experience.

1. . . . Luther said he feared God but clung to the Apostle Paul. All the constitutive elements of the classic Luther-type experience, however, are missing in both the experience and the thought of the Apostle.

Unlike Luther, Paul was not preoccupied with his guilt, seeking reassurance of a gracious God. He was rather robust of conscience, even given to boasting, untroubled about whether God was gracious or not (Philippians 3:4 ff.; 2 Corinthians 10, 11). He knew God was gracious. He never pleads either with Jews or Gentiles to feel an anguished conscience and then receive release from that anguish in a message of forgiveness . . . Paul’s burden is not to “bring people under conviction of sin” as in revival services. Forgiveness is simply a matter of fact.

When Paul speaks of himself as a serious sinner, it is . . . very specifically because . . . he had persecuted the church and missed God’s new move – opening the covenant community to the Gentiles (1 Corinthians 15:9-10; Ephesians 3:8; Galatians 1:13-16; 1 Timothy 1:13-15).

What is now set right in his life is not that he is no longer trying to work his way to heaven, abandons self-exertion and now trusts Christ; it is rather that he now sees that God has inexplicably chosen him to reveal this new and more inclusive covenant community made up of Jew and Gentile . . . (Ephesians 2:11-3:6).

2. Paul’s arguments against works of the law are not fundamentally arguments against human participation in or human cooperation with the saving purposes of God but arguments against Judaistic pride that sought to define membership in the covenant community by reference to Jewish marks of identity, such as circumcision, Sabbath-keeping, etc. and not fundamentally faith in Jesus as Messiah . . .

Contrary to the pronouncements of popular preachers, first century Judaism did not believe in salvation by works. They believed that they were God’s elect people by grace; lawkeeping was their response to God’s grace. Salvation was understood to be granted by God’s electing grace, not according to a righteousness based on merit-earning works. But most Protestant scholars since Luther have read Paul as saying that Judaism misunderstood the gracious nature of God’s covenant with Moses and perverted it into a system of attaining righteousness by works.

Wrong! Luther’s experience was not Paul’s. New Testament scholars, for the most part, now understand “works of law” not as synonymous with human effort but as the activities by which the Jews maintained their distinct status from the Gentiles . . . . .

For Paul, these boundary-defining features distinguished Israel in the flesh (Romans 2:28) and encouraged Jews to boast in their national identity (Romans 3:27-29; Galatians 2:16; 6:13). They were obstructing the extension of God’s grace to the nations through Christ. In so doing, they were undermining their very purpose of existence: all the nations were supposed to be blessed by the offspring of Abraham (Genesis 12:3; Deuteronomy 4:6; Isaiah 66:20). So when Paul says of the Jews that “they sought to establish their own righteousness” (Romans 10:3) he doesn’t mean that they were trying to earn their salvation through human exertion but that they arrogated to themselves the authority to set the conditions by which believing Gentiles could be regarded as full members in the new covenant community. They rejected the authoritative apostolic teaching that the Gentiles and Jews constituted one body (Acts 15:1,24; Galatians 1:7; 2:12; 5:10; Ephesians 2-3:13) and they sought to thwart God’s inclusion of the Gentiles by insisting that Gentiles first become Jews through circumcision, etc., rather than through faith in Jesus, who is the “aim” or “end” of the law (Philippians 3:2; Galatians 5:6; 6:15; 1 Corinthians 7:19; Romans 10:4). They were retrogressive . . .

(pp. 41-43; footnotes incorporated into the text)

CPA then interjected the following response:

One should compare like with like. If we are going to compare Paul with Luther, then we need to compare them in similar stages of their religious life. Paul’s life has the phases: Pharisee, conversion and period of maturing, public ministry. Everything we know about him comes from the last phase. Luther’s life has the phases: Catholic monk (up to 1517 or so), preacher of justification by faith alone within the church (1517 to 1521 or 1530, leader of a Lutheran church (1530 to his death). Almost everything about Luther’s “temptations” come from the first phase and the early part of the second. So a direct comparison of Luther in his monk’s cell confessing for six hours and Paul confidently preaching to the Corinthians is simply missing the point.

The point is not, was Paul a tormented conscience in his epistles? because Luther certainly wasn’t in the 1530s and 1540s, but does Paul show in his letters the traces or marks of having gone through similar episodes of temptations, somewhat analogous to those Luther shows in his mature published works of his third phase as leader of the Lutheran church. By its nature this is not the kind of thing that can be proven in an open and shut case, although I find important analogies, especially in passages like Romans 7:7-25, 9:1ff, 2 Corinthians 12:7ff., etc. Indeed the Jewish case against Paul (1 – he was an overscrupulous neurotic; 2 – he didn’t understand the system he was revolting against) is remarkably similar to the Catholic case against Luther.

I replied:

First of all , this is factually incorrect. Your second phase of Luther’s life ends in 1530, and you claim that his main struggles come from the first and early part of the second (1521 on). That’s not what Heiko A. Oberman thinks, as evidenced in his acclaimed biography Luther: Man Between God and the Devil (New York: Doubleday Image, 1992, translated by Eileen Walliser-Schwarzbart from the 1982 German edition):

At eight in the morning on July 6, 1527 [making Luther about 44 years old], Luther had pastor Bugenhagen summoned. He complained to him that he was suffering the most agonizing spiritual distress that he had ever experienced . . . (p. 321)

He continued to be troubled by doubts about the Evangelical truth. What frightened him was that he did not know whether he could live up to it: “For more than a week I have been thrown back and forth in death and Hell . . . I almost lost Christ completely, driven about on the waves and storms of despair and blasphemy against God. But because of the intercession of the faithful, God began to take mercy on me and tore my soul from the depths of Hell.” Thus Luther wrote to Philipp Melanchthon on August 2, 1527, in words that provide immediate insight into his experiences. Luther was wrestling to find the merciful God!

This comes as a complete surprise and does not fit the traditional picture of the Reformational discovery. It had, after all, looked as if, after much grumbling and cursing and desperate struggling, Luther had achieved the breakthrough in 1518 (possibly earlier, but not later) that had opened the gates of paradise to him – once and for all . . .

In October he was still haunted by anguish and urgently requested Melanchthon to remember him in his prayers of intercession since he himself was a “miserable worm,” plagued by the spirit of sadness . . . Luther was looking for the gracious God whom he had already been preaching and teaching for so long. The Devil had thrown him back to the monastery: “I have known these tribulations since my youth; but I never expected that they would so increase.” . . . The tension did not ease until the spring of 1528. (pp. 323-324)

You would have us believe that all this was over (for the most part) in the early 1520s, but Oberman details this existential angst occurring for nine months or so in 1527-1528, with Luther being surprised that the same old stuff “would so increase.” So much for your scenario . . . (essentially a version of the standard myth of the Tower Experience that Oberman alludes to, leading to a liberated Luther, who then understood Pauline grace and so could be freed from the Roman tyranny over consciences and share this momentous truth of the supposedly newly-discovered “gospel” of sola fide with everyone else).

The point is not, was Paul a tormented conscience in his epistles? because Luther certainly wasn’t in the 1530s and 1540s,

I wouldn’t be so sure. Spring 1528 at age 44-45, ten years after he figured out Faith Alone suggests that he was exceptionally troubled in conscience and a bit spiritually unstable, as submitted above, and that this was more or less an ongoing phenomenon. Roland Bainton, author of the very famous biography, Here I Stand (New York: Mentor, 1950) offers the same picture:


At the outset the recognition is inescapable that he had persistent maladies . . . perhaps the severest upheaval of his whole life came in the year 1527. The recurrence of these depressions raises for us again the question whether they may have had some physical basis . . . (p. 281).

Bainton casually mentions a possible “correlation between his many diseases and the despondencies” (p. 281). He notes:

The content of the depression was always the same, the loss of faith that God is good and that he is good to me. (p. 282)

His agony in the later years was all the more intense because he was a physician of souls. . . . The great problem for him was not to know where his depressions came from, but to know how to overcome them.(p. 283)

Note that Bainton doesn’t make any indication whatsoever that such problems were confined to Luther’s early years. In fact, he states the contrary:

Luther felt that his depressions were necessary. At the same time they were dreadful and by all means and in every way to be avoided and overcome. His whole life was a struggle against them, a fight for faith. (p. 283; emphasis added)

All this being the case, according to Bainton, I should think that it is actually quite charitable and merciful towards Luther to posit that his troubles may have been chemical in nature (speculations of possible clinical depression, bipolar condition, etc.). That way, essentially they weren’t his fault, and not the result of the inconsistency and incoherence of his doctrine, lack of faith and trust in God, or some other thing where he could be blamed. Rather, he wakes up feeling lousy and in an anxious crisis, as any who have experienced depression can readily understand. The fact is that something psychologically serious and very troubling to Luther was going on here, based on serious Lutheran or otherwise Protestant, non-Catholic Luther scholarship.

You also miss the point about this Paul-Luther comparison business. Apart from being off in your chronology (and even overall picture) of Luther’s life vis-a-vis his psychological outbreaks of doubt and paralyzing fear, you overlook an obvious fact: when Luther co-opts Paul for theological purposes, it isn’t the “early, pre-scriptural or pre-Christian Paul,” but precisely the Paul we know from the Bible. So your speculations on the nature of the “early Paul’s” psychological nature and degree of spiritual confidence is a non sequitur.

Luther attempts to project his own ongoing angst onto Paul by pretending that Paul teaches extrinsic justification; a radical discontinuity between law and grace, the utter futility of works as pertains to salvation (and merit) and all the other Lutheran distinctives, and that he is in a constant struggle to accept God’s grace and to emotionally appropriate what he knows in hisa heart of hearts to be true. Luther does so unsuccessfully because it just doesn’t fit: it’s the “square peg in a round hole” routine.

But like my friend Al Kresta noted, Protestants tend to read Paul through the lens of Luther (rather than biblical, Pauline Christianity through the lens of Paul apart from Luther’s distortions of same).


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Meta Description: Luther’s experiences and frequent depression can be analyzed to some extent in relation to their influences on his theology & exegesis.

Meta Keywords: Luther & bipolar, Luther & depression, Martin Luther, Luther & Paul, faith alone, sola fide, Luther’s soteriology, Luther & salvation

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