Martin Luther: “Our manner of life as evil as that of the papists”

Martin Luther: “Our manner of life as evil as that of the papists” August 23, 2017


Martin Luther, 31 December 1525 (age 42), by Lucas Cranach the Elder [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

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Version 1:

Our manner of life is as evil as is that of the papists. Wickliffe and Huss assailed the immoral conduct of papists; but I chiefly oppose and resist their doctrine; I affirm roundly and plainly, that they preach not the truth. To this am I called; I take the goose by the neck, and set the knife to its throat. When I can show that the papists doctrine is false, which I have shown, then I can easily prove that their manner of life is evil. For when the word remains pure, the manner of life, though something therein be amiss, will be pure also. The pope has taken away the pure word and doctrine, and brought in another word and doctrine, which he has hanged upon the church. I shook all popedom with this one point, that I teach uprightly, and mix up nothing else. We must press the doctrine onwards, for that breaks the neck of the pope.

(Table-Talk, London: 1872, translated by William Hazlitt, CCCCXII)

Dated Autumn 1533; quoted also by biographers Edwin Doak Mead and Heiko Oberman.


German source: WATr 1, 294.19-23, no. 624.

[William Hazlitt (1778-1830) was a Protestant, who would have no reason to exaggerate Luther’s statements in a negative direction. Edwin Doak Mead (1849-1937) also translates: “Our manner of life is as evil as that of the papists”. He was a staunch Protestant, and wrote, e.g., in 1888: “I do not love the Roman Catholic Church. There is much in it that I bitterly dislike and that I dread. . . . I have spoken more sharply of its bigotries and superstitions, past and present, than I have ever spoken of almost anything else.”]

Version 2:

Luther’s Opposition to the Popish Doctrine.

“The manner of life,” said Luther, ” is as evil among us as among the Papists; wherefore we strive not with them by reason of the manner of life, but for and about the doctrine. Wickliffe and Huss opposed and assaulted the manner of life and conversation in Popedom. But I (chiefly) do oppose and resist their doctrine : I affirm, soundly and plainly, that they teach not aright;—thereunto am I called. I take the goose by the neck,” said Luther, ” and set the knife to the throat. When I can maintain that the Pope’s doctrine is false (which I have proved and maintained), then will I easily prove that their manner of life is evil. The Pope hath taken away the pure word and doctrine, and hath brought another word and doctrine, and hanged the same upon the church. I startled whole Popedom only with this one point, in that I teach uprightly, and meddle with nothing else. We must press upon the doctrine, for that breaketh the neck of the Pope.

(Table-Talk, London, 1832, pp. 66-67)


Version 3:

No. 624: The Central Issue is Doctrine, Not Life, Fall 1533

“Doctrine and life must be distinguished. Life is bad among us, as it is among the papists, but we don’t fight about life and condemn the papists on that account. Wycliffe and Huss didn’t know this and attacked [the papacy] for its life. I don’t scold myself into becoming good, but I fight over the Word and whether our adversaries teach it in its purity. That doctrine should be attacked — this has never before happened. This is my calling. Others have censured only life, but to treat doctrine is to strike at the most sensitive point, for surely the government and the ministry of the papists are bad. Once we’ve asserted this, it’s easy to say and declare that the life is also bad.

“When the Word remains pure, then the life (even if there is something lacking in it) can be molded properly. Everything depends on the Word, and the pope has abolished the Word and created another one. With this I have won, and I have won nothing else than that I teach aright. Although we are better morally, this isn’t anything to fight about. It’s the teaching that breaks the pope’s neck. . . .”

(Table-Talk, in Luther’s Works, Vol. 54, p. 110)

[Note the toned-down references to immorality in Protestantism. Leading (Protestant) Luther biographer Heiko Oberman, however, translates as follows: “Life is as evil among us as among the papists, thus we do not argue about life but about doctrine. Whereas Wyclif and Hus attacked the immoral lifestyle of the papacy, I challenge primarily its doctrine.” Translation bias is seemingly alive and well, and not, alas, only among “papists”]

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