From a discussion on the public, Protestant-moderated CARM Catholic Discussion Board. Martin Luther’s words will be in green. Evangelical E. L. Hamilton’s words will be in blue. Readers will see me working through the issue, giving Luther the benefit of the doubt from the outset, and eventually reaching my best-educated-guess conclusion.
I found one citation from Luther along these lines . . . My best guess is that it is a sarcastic, put-on type of comment from Table-Talk or similar sort of writing and rhetoric. Thus, context would be supremely important to get the sense of what he is trying to say. So I’m extremely skeptical of this being a literal belief of Luther’s. On the other hand (assuming for the moment that it is an authentic citation), it is a very interesting (and of course, prima facie, alarming and blasphemous) comment and I would like to learn more about what he meant, and to see context. It is from the Weimar edition of Luther’s Works in German (WA). Here it is:
Christ committed adultery first of all with the woman at the well about whom St. John tells us. Was not everybody about Him saying: “Whatever has he been doing with her?” Secondly, with Mary Magdalene, and thirdly with the woman taken in adultery whom he dismissed so lightly. Thus even Christ, who was so righteous, must have been guilty of fornication before He died. (D. Martin Luthers Werke, kritische Gesamtausgabe [Hermann Bohlau Verlag, 1893], vol. 2, no. 1472, April 7 – May 1, 1532, p. 33)
If anyone could find out more about this from some German-speaking Luther scholar, I would be most appreciative, and we could all correctly understand this strange quote, and truth would be the winner rather than innuendo and gossip and rumor.
From a WELS (Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod) Q & A page [link now defunct]:
A person who is determined to put Martin Luther in the worst possible light (as Peter Wiener evidently is) can use a quotation recorded in Table Talk. In the Spring of 1532, Luther said:
Christ was an adulterer for the first time with the woman at the well, for it was said, ‘Nobody knows what he’s doing with her’. Again [he was an adulterer], with Magdalene, and still again with the adulterous woman in John 8 [:2-11], whom he let off so easily. So the good Christ had to become an adulterer before he died. (Luther’s Works, American Edition, Volume 54, p. 154)
The editor’s footnote 100 on the same page reads:
What Luther meant might have been made clearer if John Schlaginhaufen had indicated the context of the Reformer’s remarks. The probable context is suggested in a sermon of 1536 (WA 41, 647) in which Luther asserted that Christ was reproached by the world as a glutton, a winebibber, and even an adulterer.
[I have a hard copy of this volume in my library, and have presented the text exactly as written there, and expanded it a bit from what was in the WELS quotation. The bracketed portions and italics are in the original.]
Clearly, the man who staked his life for time and eternity on Jesus Christ and magnified him in his preaching, teaching, and writing is not to be taken literally when he says, “Christ was an adulterer…”.
So, Luther actually wrote this, according to a very conservative Lutheran web page. It’s in Table-Talk, just as I suspected. And it is in the English translation of Luther’s Works. Apparently (and unfortunately) the context is not included in that edition. Perhaps it is in the German edition. Until that is clarified, I prefer to err on the side of caution and the benefit of the doubt and charity towards Luther, and agree that the above explanation may well be the correct one.
Another option is to hold that Luther was speaking in terms of Jesus bearing all our sins on the cross:
For he does not say that Christ became a curse on His own account, but that He became a curse for us. Thus the whole emphasis is on the phrase for us. For Christ is innocent so far as His own Person is concerned; therefore He should not have been hanged from the tree. But because, according to the Law, every thief should have been hanged, therefore, according to the Law of Moses, Christ Himself should have been hanged; for He bore the person of a sinner and a thief and not of one but of all sinners and thieves. For we are sinners and thieves, and therefore we are worthy of death and eternal damnation. But Christ took all our sins upon Himself, and for them He died on the cross. Therefore it was appropriate for Him to become a thief and, as Isaiah says (53:12), to be numbered among the thieves. And all the prophets saw this, that Christ was to become the greatest thief, murderer, adulterer, robber, desecrator, blasphemer, etc., there has ever been anywhere in the world. He is not acting in His own Person now. Now He is not the Son of God, born of the Virgin. But He is a sinner, who has and bears the sin of Paul, the former blasphemer, persecutor, and assaulter; of Peter, who denied Christ; of David, who was an adulterer and a murderer, and who caused the Gentiles to blaspheme the name of the Lord (Rom. 2:24). In short, He has and bears all the sins of all men in His body not in the sense that He has committed them but in the sense that He took these sins, committed by us, upon His own body, in order to make satisfaction for them with His own blood. (Luther’s Works vol. 26, p. 277; from Lectures on Galatians, Chapters 1-4 , commentary on Galatians 3:13)
The difficulty with that explanation, with regard to the 1532 Table-Talk quotation, is that in Lectures on Galatians, Luther is talking about Jesus bearing the sins of mankind on the cross, but in the earlier quote he is talking about Jesus being “an adulterer for the first time with the woman at the well.” In other words, this was a time other than when He was dying on the cross for mankind and bearing our sins, becoming accursed for us. That happens only at that time, not during His whole life.
Note the “reason” Luther gives for the charge of adultery: “for it was said, Nobody knows what he’s doing with her.” This — again — puts the alleged incident in the context of Jesus’ life before He dies on the cross. Luther continues: “Again with Magdalene, and still again with the adulterous woman in John 8 [:2-11]” (i.e., sequentially or chronologically during His life prior to His Passion). Luther: “the adulterous woman . . . whom he let off so easily” (this seems to imply that His action in so doing was indicative of His involvement in the adultery. Luther: “So the good Christ had to become an adulterer before he died.” This is all referring to supposed adultery before Jesus bore our sins.
Therefore, the attempt to make this solely a variant of the theme of Jesus’ bearing our sins on the cross does not (in my opinion) succeed, and some other explanation is needed which is much more plausible and satisfactory. I continue to give Luther the benefit of the doubt and don’t think he was speaking literally, but this scenario is ultimately unconvincing to me. It is also quite possible (as always with Luther) that he flat-out contradicted other statements of his, or that he vacillated and had different opinions at different times. Luther was not a particularly systematic thinker.
Bonnie, a Lutheran pastor’s [LCMS] wife, wrote to the Concordia Historical Institute about the quotation in question, and received this reply:
There is no evidence that I know of that would suggest Martin Luther thought that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married. There is, however, a comment that he made in his Table Talk, in which he stated that Christ had committed adultery with the woman at the well and with Mary Magdalene. The comment must be understood, however, in its proper context, for Luther was not saying that Christ had actually done these things but rather that he had been accused of such by the world (John 4). This goes to Luther’s understanding of the nature of the vicarious Atonement, Christ suffered for our sins even though he did not commit them.
Thus far, then, we have four possible opinions:
1) Christ was reproached by the world as an adulterer, glutton, etc., and this is what Luther referred to.
2) Luther was referring to Jesus’ taking of the sins of the world upon Himself on the cross.
3) A combination of #1 and #2.
4) Some (including Lutherans) have also speculated that Luther was drunk when he uttered what was recorded in Table-Talk.
#1 contradicts #2 insofar as either one is regarded as the sole explanation. They are different explanations, not merely variants of one theory. This is quite obvious: one has to do with the metaphysical theology of what occurred on the cross; the other is a slanderous accusation from the enemies of Jesus. #3 illustrates, I think, the uncertainty of the interpretation and speculation on the context, since both are combined (a sort of “cover all possible bases” outlook). #4 is the most speculative, but has some plausibility and would virtually explain the words in and of itself (Luther didn’t actually believe them).
It is quite possible, logically speaking, that both (#1 and #2) might have factored in the actual underlying meaning, whatever it may be (this is non-contradictory) — Luther would then be said to have had both notions in his head when he made his curious comment — , or that there is another plausible interpretation.
We simply don’t have the context of the remark (it doesn’t exist because it wasn’t recorded by the hearer), and one can only guess on that context in light of similar Luther utterances. One cannot be dogmatic without that context, no matter how much they may wish this to be the case, in order to avoid the scandal and prima facie unsavory nature of the remark.E. L. Hamilton offered a fifth scenario: a sarcastic reductio ad absurdum:
Thanks for posting this, since I was wondering myself about that stray remark in the Time article. I’d be very interested in seeing the context, but at this point I think there are still alternate explanations more charitable than “Luther got drunk and started spewing blasphemies”. After looking at the wording of the quote, I’m leaning toward the interpretation that the remark may have been part of a larger discussion of the absurdity of “guilt by association”. One can easily imagine Luther being accused of approving of adultery at some point in his life. (He certainly approved of breaking monastic vows of celibacy, and was opportunistically tolerant of bigamy.)
This is the sort of agitated discussion one might have during a late night of drinking. In that case, Luther would have just been engaged in a little reductio ad absurdum:
If being tolerant of adultery is worthy of the same guilt as committing adultery, well then, look, Christ is an adulterer too! All those nasty things you say about me are the same sorts of nasty things they said about Jesus! So I guess we’ll both be adulterers together, and hang the lot of you!
To me, that sounds like Luther, far more than the “sick joke” hypothesis does. So I guess I’d see it as being potentially part of a sarcastic rant, as opposed to being part of a developed theological argument, which would explain the sloppiness of the grammar and the poor choice of phrasing.
This is, I concede, a wild speculation based on my purely unscientific observation that 90% of Luther’s off-kilter rants are personally motivated by Luther’s defensiveness about any criticism of him. But it sounds at least credible enough that I would discourage any Catholic polemic along the lines of “Luther was a secret blasphemer who was just itching to defame Christ the moment he could use a pint of beer as an excuse”.
If someone could figure out the context of the remark, it would be much easier to sort out these options. Number 2 seems fairly problematic to me, since it doesn’t correspond well to the content of the quote. Luther doesn’t seem to be speaking about a general atonement, but about concrete events in Jesus’ long before the crucifixion. Number 1 is more plausible to me, I guess, but it still seems like Luther would be guilty of strange rhetorical overstatement.
I think this does sound plausible and characteristically like Luther. I mentioned sarcasm as a live option early on in the discussion, just as speculation, before I did much research on it. This is a good theory you propose. I’m impressed, and think it is a legitimate and respectable fifth option.
Your scenario is, I think, far more plausible than the “slander” and “theological / substitutionary atonement” theories, because they seem to stretch the language too far, arguably almost into desperate or special pleading territory.
In any event, the “certainty” felt by the proponents of those options is misplaced. There simply is no context, so no one can make an argument from context. No one can find out what it is, as far as I can tell. That’s what makes this discussion so interesting and difficult to definitively resolve. I saw the quote in the 55-volume set today.
It exists in perfect isolation, recorded as such, with no context before and after. The Table-Talk consists of many such sayings, some shorter than others. This is a shorter one. The complete lack of context is what causes people to appeal to sermons from four years later and so forth, in an effort to figure out what in the world Luther could have meant.
It’s not as if we don’t have an enormous body of evidence to support the orthodoxy of Luther’s Christology, and there is good anecdotal data corroborating his absolute hostility toward blasphemy of any sort. It just seems so hard for me to believe that there isn’t some deeper logic behind the remark. Granted, Luther being Luther, it may be rather convoluted and idiosyncratic logic.
But I don’t think anyone with even a modest familiarity with the vast corpus of Luther’s work (and that’s all I’d claim for myself) would want to dump it in the trash simply on the basis of some random weird quote dredged up from who knows what context. There is no question what Luther’s formal opinion of Christ’s sinlessness was– i.e., that Christ was sinless by nature, but “made sin” by imputation– since his whole theory of the atonement hinged crucially on that point.
Luther loved wild talk and hyperbole. That was just his nature. To some extent it was a symptom of the era in which he lived. To some extent it was a conscious imitation of the Scripture– Christ telling everyone to “hate his family”, or promising to tear down the temple, were most certainly viewed as bizarre behavior by the Jews. Whatever Luther was trying to say, I feel reasonably confident that he did not actually intend to teach that Christ committed adultery.
By the way, I’m not a Lutheran, and I don’t feel much need to defend his formal theology, which I reject on several important points. Morever, I think there’s plenty of room to criticize him ad hominem for, say, his botched handling of the Peasant’s Revolt, or his anti-semitism. I just don’t think that a “Luther as blasphemer” angle is likely to impress many Lutheran scholars as a serious-minded critique.
I’ve stated repeatedly that context for this statement has not been, and cannot be produced, due to the nature of Table-Talk, yet I think it is an relevant discussion because it is interesting to speculate as to what Luther really meant — just as Christians talk about what various biblical passages mean. No one I have yet found except rabid anti-Protestants think that he intended his remark to be taken literally. If that were the case, interpretation would be a simple matter.
E. G. Schwiebert in his exhaustive biography, Luther and His Times (unknown page) wrote:
. . . Copied by twelve table companions over a period of twenty-some years the Table Talks are often unreliable, of uneven quality, and written at varying periods of time. Certainly little, if any, of the material was copied in the Reformers presence. Rather, the copyists later recorded in their rooms their recollections of the evenings conversations. These recordings, purported to be the exact words of Luther, were often invented and embellished, and additional errors crept in later when the table companions began to copy stories from each other. In time it was difficult to know by whom and when the original might have been made. Melanchthon on one occasion warned some of the table companions as to the hazardous nature of such practice, realizing that posterity would read meaning into these conversations that Luther had never intended. Furthermore, where every topic imaginable was discussed and the conversation was spontaneous, it is difficult to distinguish jest from serious statement. It is hardly fair, then, to hold Luther responsible for all that has come to us in the Table Talks. Obviously, a careful checking against evidence from Luther’s own writings and additional sources is absolutely essential.
I agree with Dave that the statement is strange (and outlandish) enough to be worthy of further study, if there’s anything that can be reasonably determined (as opposed to merely speculated) about its context. I also think, of course, that it’s unlikely to pan out as a silver bullet of anti-Lutheran apologetics.
This is not a cut-and-dried case. That makes for good discussion, because one must get the gears in their head going round, to figure out intellectually stimulating things like plausibility structures (just as you did in your ingenious proposal of Luther’s intent, which I may still yet adopt).
Am I “Anti-Luther” or “Anti-Lutheran”? [Facebook, 5-28-09 / 1-6-15]
Top Ten Remarkable “Catholic” Beliefs of Martin Luther [Facebook, 1-19-15]
(originally 8-14-03; revised on 6-2-17)
Photo credit: Mary Magdalene, by Andrea Solari (1460-1522) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]