We blogged about Luther’s advice about dealing with plagues, how we should “take courage in the fact that we are mutually bound together” and see the plague as an occasion “to test our faith and love.” In his Table Talk, Luther has other things to say about plagues.
He was thinking of the Bubonic Plague that killed half of the population of Europe two centuries earlier and that still would occasionally break out in Wittenberg, but what he says has resonance now in the far less deadly coronavirus epidemic. Table Talk is a compilation of Luther’s dinner conversation, in which his wit, insight, and lively personality come out most vividly.
I was especially struck by what he saw as “the greatest plague on earth,” one worse than the Black Death and certainly worse than the coronavirus:
XXXI. I have lived to see the greatest plague on earth—the condemning of God’s Word, a fearful thing, surpassing all other plagues in the world; for thereupon most surely follow all manner of punishment, eternal and corporal. Did I desire for a man all bitter plagues and curses, I would wish him the condemning of God’s Word, for he would then have them all at once come upon him, both inward and outward misfortunes. The condemning of God’s Word is the forerunner of God’s punishments; as the examples witness in the times of Lot, of Noah, and of our Saviour.
Repudiating God’s Word has certainly gone viral, spreading from person to person and infecting our institutions and our culture as a whole. The result is “both inward and outward misfortunes.”
Notice how Luther sees the transgression (“the condemning of God’s Word”) as being itself the punishment, much as St. Paul does in Romans 1.
Luther sees plagues as “the forerunner”–a type, a prophecy– of God’s eternal judgment after death. But, unlike many of his contemporaries, he does not see such diseases as God’s punishment, as such, nor does he believe that God directly caused them. Rather, he ascribes these sources of death to the Devil, someone often left out of our thinking today:
DLXXIII. No malady comes upon us from God, who is good, and wishes us well; they all emanate from the devil, who is the cause and author of plagues, fevers, etc.
DCXV. Our songs and Psalms sorely vex and grieve the devil, whereas our passions and impatiences, our complainings and cryings, our “alas!” or “woe is me!” please him well, so that he laughs in his fist. He takes delight in tormenting us, especially when we confess, praise, preach, and laud Christ. For seeing the devil is a prince of this world, and our utter enemy, we must be content to let him pass through his country he will needs have imposts and customs of us, and strike our bodies with manifold plagues.
DCXXXI. There are two sorts of tribulations; one, of the spirit; another, of the flesh. Satan torments the conscience with lies, perverting that which is done uprightly, and according to God’s Word; but the body or flesh, he plagues in another kind. No man ought to lay across upon himself, or to adopt tribulation, as is done in Popedom; but if a cross or tribulation come upon him, then let him suffer it patiently, and know that it is good and profitable to him.
People today are so unsettled about the coronavirus, despite its relatively low mortality rate and the relatively small number of people–so far–whom it has infected, because it damages our complacency. We are used to being comfortable and in control, with medical science keeping us healthy and our affluence empowering us to do as we wish, whether that means traveling the world or going out to a concert or sporting event. This coronavirus threat is a truth that we did not construct for ourselves! It is a reality that is imposing itself on the mental or virtual reality that we have come to inhabit. It takes away our freedom! It is an existential threat, not only to our existence but to the meaning of our existence as we have conceived it.
Luther vividly captures the existential fear that a plague can instill, using it as an example of the limits of free will. When facing a plague or famine or war, our condition is desperate and our vaunted freedom and will-power are not much help:
CCLXII. Art thou bold and stout, and canst thou carry it lustily with thy free-will when plague, wars, and times of dearth and famine are at hand? No: in time of plague, thou knowest not what to do for fear; thou wishest thyself a hundred miles off. In time of dearth thou thinkest: Where shall I find to eat; Thy will cannot so much as give thy heart the smallest comfort in these times of need, but the longer thou strivest, the more it makes thy heart faint and feeble, insomuch that it is affrighted even at the rushing and shaking of a leaf.
Finally, Luther takes up those scourges of war, famine, and pestilence. Of these, he says, echoing David in 2 Samuel 24, war is the worst and pestilence is the least:
DCCLXXVII. War is one of the greatest plagues that can afflict humanity; it destroys religion, it destroys states, it destroys families. Any scourge, in fact, is preferable to it. Famine and pestilence become as nothing in comparison with it. Pestilence is the least evil of the three, and `twas therefore David chose it, willing rather to fall into the hands of God than into those of pitiless man. [2 Samuel 24]
The translation I have been quoting from is by William Hazlitt, the son of the great English essayist of the same name, who also published a book called Table-Talk consisting of his reflections. The two Table Talks of the two William Hazlitts are not to be confused with each other.
UPDATE: Read this excellent account by Grayson Gilbert on how Luther lived out his convictions during the plague, staying in Wittenberg to care for the sick and the dying, with Luther and Katie going so far as to turn their home into a hospital where they personally–and at great risk to their lives–ministered to plague victims.