Luther Okayed Polygamy? No, But . . .

Luther Okayed Polygamy? No, But . . . June 10, 2024

Photo credit: Luther burns the Papal bull in the square of Wittenberg year 1520 (1885), by Karl Aspelin (1857-1922) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

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This is a response to anti-Catholic Reformed Protestant apologist James Swan’s article, “Luther: ‘I confess that I cannot forbid a person to marry several wives, for it does not contradict the Scripture’ “ (Boors All, 1-31-09). His words will be in green. Luther’s will be in blue.

This discussion is a result of a statement from the founder of Protestantism, Martin Luther, in his letter to Chancellor Gregory Brück on 27 January 1524. Swan notes that “Brück was a political figure-head (and supporter of the Reformation) in Electoral Saxony (LW [Luther’s Works] 49:50). The primary source is the collection of Luther’s letters edited by ” Dr. Wilhelm Martin Leberecht de Wette. It’s found in  Volume II:459. Swan provides a screen shot of the excerpt with some context. Here is the controversial statement in Latin and English (Google Translate, except for “sacred Scripture” at the end):

Ego sane fateor, me non posse prohibere, si quis plures velit uxores, nec repugnat sacris literis.

Of course I confess that I cannot prevent it if a man wants more wives, nor does it contradict sacred Scripture.

Swan likes to collect examples of Catholic apologists and others butchering the words of Luther, taking them out of context, etc. And that was his primary purpose in this article. He writes, “Rome’s defenders chastising Luther with this quote tend to make it mean more than was intended.”  Mine is to note that Luther made a demonstrably false statement about what Holy Scripture teaches. It’s two very different purposes. Swan majors on the minors and seeks to find Catholics saying stupid and false things about what Luther wrote (which certainly can be found; no doubt. Ignorance abounds on both sides). I want to highlight, on the other hand, what Scripture teaches about marriage and to wonder “aloud” why Luther was mistaken regarding that question. Which of the two endeavors is more important?

I’m all for locating and objecting to out-of-context citations or twisted interpretations of same. More power to Swan insofar as he proves that these errors occur. But I’m also an advocate of addressing the most important issue here: what Luther believed Scripture taught: in this instance, erroneously so. Swan actually agrees with us about this bottom-line issue, because he stated: “Do I agree with Luther? not at all, I would argue that even his exception is wrong, and that a case for monogamy can be made from the Bible.”

Swan cites the example of the early 20th century anti-Luther Catholic polemicist Patrick O’Hare, writing (interpreting the above words) that “Luther was an out-and-out believer in polygamy.” This is untrue. It’s problematic that he claimed that  Scripture didn’t “contradict” polygamy, which is a separate issue, and one quite troublesome, in my opinion. But he himself didn’t “believe” in it or “advocate” it, as we know from the larger context of these words of his.

For right after the words above, Luther wrote:  “I should not like to see this example introduced amongst Christians. . . . It does not beseem Christians to seize greedily and for their own advantage on everything to which their freedom gives them a right” (from: Hartmann Grisar, Luther Vol. 5, p. 72; in this work, the translation is “Holy Scripture does not forbid this”). In Audin’s translation of a part of this portion, Luther states: “there are many things permissible that ought not becomingly to be done: of these is bigamy.” Luther added in a 1526 letter:

[M]y faithful warning and advice is that no man, Christians in particular, should have more than one wife, not only for the reason that offense would be given, and Christians must not needlessly give, but most diligently avoid giving, offense, but also for the reason that we have no word of God regarding this matter on which we might base a belief that such action would be well-pleasing to God and to Christians. . . . a Christian . . . must have, in addition, a divine word that makes him sure, . . . For this reason I cannot advise for, but must advise against, your intention, particularly since you are a Christian, unless there were an extreme necessity, as, for instance, if the wife were leprous or the husband were deprived of her for some other reason. (cited in W. H. T. Dau, Luther Examined and Reexamined: A Review of Catholic Criticism and a Plea for Reevaluation, St Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1917, 103-104)

Again, we see that Luther was gravely mistaken about what Scripture taught (“we have no word of God regarding this matter”). Based on that false premise, he goes on to say that men can take on another wife if their wife is a leper or sexually depriving him for some other reason. The Bible plainly teaches otherwise:

Matthew 19:3-9 (RSV) And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” [4] He answered, “Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, [5] and said, `For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? [6] So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.” [7] They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?” [8] He said to them, “For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. [9] And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery.”

Mark 10:11-12 And he said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; [12] and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

Romans 7:2-3 Thus a married woman is bound by law to her husband as long as he lives; but if her husband dies she is discharged from the law concerning the husband. [3] Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies she is free from that law, and if she marries another man she is not an adulteress.

1 Corinthians 7:2-4 But because of the temptation to immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. [3] The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. [4] For the wife does not rule over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not rule over his own body, but the wife does.

Ephesians 5:31-33 “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” [32] This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church; [33] however, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.

1 Timothy 3:2 . . . husband of one wife . . . (same phrase in 3:12; Titus 1:6)

Luther, by denying that the Bible plainly and repeatedly teaches monogamy, offered a watered-down version of Christian teaching on the matter that wasn’t conducive to monogamy or faithfulness to one spouse. It’s much better to say (if indeed it is the case) that “Scripture forbids x,” than “Scripture doesn’t say one way or another about x.” The latter opens doors to all sorts of violations of the biblical prohibition of x.

Luther at the Diet of Worms in 1521 famously stated that he wanted to be convinced “by Scripture or plain reason.” So why weren’t the above clear Bible passages sufficient for him to understand that the Bible prohibited polygamy? Who knows?

The Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, one of the more traditional Lutheran denominations, shows no such confusion about Scripture and polygamy:

Recently on the WELS discussion page it was stated that polygamy is not a sin. Martin Luther was even referenced by one person. Is it true that polygamy is not a sin?

Polygamy is a sinful deviation from God’s design that marriage be between one man and one woman (Genesis 2:20-24; Matthew 19:4-6; Romans 7:2-3; 1 Corinthians 7:2; 1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:6). The fact that God did not intervene in people’s lives when they went beyond his design and will does not equate to approval on his part. The biblical narratives of those people who went beyond “one man, one woman” paint a home life marred by strife and troubles. Those narratives illustrate how God’s ways are always best—including what he says about his institution of marriage.

This is fascinating, given the fact that Luther assumed that Holy Scripture was able to be understood (even by a plowboy?) without any need of an authoritative interpretation from the Church (whose infallibility he denied). Yet he thinks Scripture doesn’t “contradict” or “forbid” polygamy and that there was “no word of God regarding this matter” (and in another translation, “there is not in the sacred texts the least word against those who take several wives at one time”; and another has, “nor is it in opposition to the Holy Scriptures”) — so that he couldn’t bring himself to “prohibit” (Latin, prohibere) or “prevent” it (Grisar’s translation has, “I can raise no objection”).

If Scripture is indeed so clear without the need of the Church, why is it that Martin Luther and one of the denominations that originated with him have diametrically opposed views with regard to polygamy? The WELS page even cited the same Scriptures that I did, in explaining the biblical argument against polygamy.

Lutheran Willard Bruce wrote a helpful article, “Polygamy and the Church” in the April 1963 edition of Concordia Theological Monthly (223-232). It never cites Luther’s words on the topic, by the way. He stated:

The 17th-century Lutheran theologian John Gerhard pronounced polygamy illicita ac damnata, “especially in the New Testament.” He argued: “Whatever is contrary to the original institution of marriage neither can nor should be tolerated among Christians. Polygamy is contrary to the original institution of marriage.” He defended the major premise by referring to Matt. 19:4, where Christ reiterated and confirmed the original institution of marriage and showed that the original institution is the criterion for deciding marriage questions. . . .

Gerhard also refers to Matt. 5:32 and 19:9, arguing that if it is adultery to dismiss one’s wife and marry another, how much more is it a sin to marry another while the first is retained. He cites Rom. 7:2 and 1 Cor. 7:39, which state that a woman is bound to her husband as long as he is alive. He reasons: If it is wrong for a woman to marry another man while her husband is alive (polyandry), then it is also just as wrong for a man to marry another woman or women during the life of his wife (polygyny). He refers also to 1 Cor. 7:2, “his own wife,” and “her own husband.” He quotes 1 Cor. 7:4 as showing that neither husband nor wife have the right to make their bodies available to any other person, as is done in polygamy; and he adds that it would be as wrong for them to do this by mutual consent as it would be for them to get a divorce by mutual consent. He cites 1 Tim. 3: 2 and Titus 1: 6, which, he says, refer not to virtues that belong only to bishops, but to virtues that bishops should have in common with all Christians. He also refers to the fact that marriage, as originally ordained, prefigures the relationship of Christ (who is One) and the Church (which is one). (Eph. 5:22-33). (p. 224)

So WELS and one of the greatest Lutheran theologians, John Gerhard, and myself (the lowly Catholic) all use the same Scriptures to prove the same argument (Scripture prohibits polygamy), but Martin Luther — no intellectual slouch — can’t figure this out (while thinking he knew enough to singlehandedly reject fifty Catholic practices and beliefs by 1520)? It’s a strange world, isn’t it? Truth is stranger than fiction once again.

Related Reading

Luther & Melanchthon: Bigamy of Philip of Hesse is Biblical (Hartmann Grisar) [2-14-07; abridged on 11-2-17]

Divorce: Early Church Teaching [Oct. 1998]

Biblical Evidence for the Prohibition of Divorce [2004]

Matthew 19:9 “Divorce Exception” Translation Bias [11-6-08]

Dialogue on the Matthew 19:19 Exception Clause & Divorce [11-10-08]

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Photo credit: Luther burns the Papal bull in the square of Wittenberg year 1520 (1885), by Karl Aspelin (1857-1922) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

Summary: Some Catholics distort Luther’s position: accusing him of advocating polygamy. He didn’t, but he wrongly & irresponsibly thought the Bible didn’t prohibit it.

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