I’ve been accused by some of being “anti-Luther” in ways in which I am not at all. I disagree as a consistent Catholic with several of his teachings; happily agree with others. But I do not subscribe to certain excesses of Catholic Luther polemics: especially of the sort that prevailed before Vatican II. Some Catholic historians, like Grisar, have a natural Catholic bias, but are not strictly “anti”-Luther. Others, like O’Hare, and Cochlaeus and Denifle, clearly are slanderously and venomously anti-Luther in a way that casts significant doubt upon the accuracy of their research.
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Here is a sampling of my own past words along these lines:
I readily admit that [Hartmann] Grisar had a Catholic bias and a bias against Luther which is excessive, . . . He has some obvious bias. (1-28-04)
I am [not] “anti-Luther” in the way that many Catholic critics (Denifle et al) have been. (2-22-04)
Patrick O’Hare’s book, The Facts About Martin Luther (like many Catholic treatments of a hundred years or so ago) is very intemperate and lacking in charity towards Luther, and I agree that (for this reason) it is not a very good or objective source. I used to cite it when O’Hare documented his claims from Luther’s own words, but no longer do at all. (9-25-04)
I would be wary of quotes (particularly isolated ones) from Heinrich Denifle (he had a notorious anti-Luther bias). If no context was provided, it is all the more questionable (as to the impression given). (2-22-07)
[I took out] out all references to and from Patrick O’Hare because I felt that his “anti-Luther” emotional bias was sufficient enough to cast doubt on the usefulness of citing him at all. My objection to O’Hare has to do with his unnecessary and obnoxious anti-Luther value judgments. (3-26-07)
Let’s consider for a moment criticisms of Patrick O’Hare, and my own difficulties with that same polemical Catholic author. (9-13-07)
Cochlaeus was venomously anti-Luther. (1-12-08; private correspondence)
Johann Cochlaeus, the 16th century “anti-Luther” biographer and polemicist [was] nasty and mean to Luther, I freely grant, . . . (1-15-08)
I have never ever relied on Cochlaeus for any argument with regard to ascertained historical facts about Martin Luther. I never had or read any of his material. It is true that Luther biographer Hartmann Grisar’s writings helped me to formulate a new understanding of what went on in the so-called “Reformation” but his were only one of many such writings from Catholics, including others like Karl Adam and Johannes Janssen (and Adam is even fairly well liked by Protestant polemicists); also non-Catholic historians like Will Durant.
Now, it’s true that my mention of Grisar in my conversion story in Surprised by Truth reads as if Grisar was the sole cause of my reversal on the basic merits of the “Reformation,” but like all short treatments of any complex idea (my story was the shortest in the book because I was the only one who actually adhered to the suggested length requirement!), it can always use more “fleshing-out.”
The two much larger “keys” — as I have always said; even again today on the radio — were development of doctrine and the issue of contraception. In fact, my most technical and theologically oriented conversion story (which was published in two magazines and in one of my own books) concentrated on development of doctrine as the one largest factor in my conversion, and never even mentions Grisar at all.
I have always maintained that Cardinal Newman and development of doctrine were overwhelmingly the largest reason for my conversion. That can be verified in my several written accounts and in spoken testimonies on the radio (as I said, this very day I stated this again, in a radio appearance).
I don’t discount Grisar’s Luther research because he has bias (a bias I have freely conceded, as seen above). Lots of people have bias (I would even say that all scholars do, if they are honest with themselves). The intelligent reader and researcher takes that into consideration. But we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. The question is: “how much bias turns one into an outright ‘poor’ researcher or scholar?”
Not a few Protestants think Grisar crosses that line; I do not. But I could just as reasonably argue that these critics of Grisar don’t like him at all because he criticizes their hero and the foundation-stone of their Protestantism, and they don’t like that. They want to talk only about Grisar’s bias and ignore (often) their own strong Protestant bias, and vested interest in having a certain perception and image of Luther (and a corresponding lower or lousy view of Catholicism).
I don’t deny Grisar’s Catholic bias, and I object to his painting Luther as an “evil” man (insofar as he does that, and I’ve seen him do it at times). But by and large, as far as I have been able to determine, his research (as the author of a six-volume biography of Luther) is accurate and sufficiently documented.
(originally 1-11-08; slightly revised on 6-30-18)
Photo credit: Johannes Cochlaeus (1479-1552): notorious anti-Luther polemicist [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]