Pelagius, “Supreme Dimwit”?

If you think Martin Luther possessed the muse of smack talk, it may have been passed down to him from Jerome (whom, ironically, Luther didn’t particularly care for as a theologian). Here are a few excerpts from Jerome’s preface to his commentary on Jeremiah, written between 417 and 419 AD, in which he obliquely refers to Pelagius:

[My critics] suppose that they know something if they are able to disparage another man’s work, like the ignorant calumniator who recently burst onto the scene, who thought my commentary on Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians needed refuting. Nor does he understand, snoring with unbridled idiocy like he does, how commentaries work…

Nor does the supreme dimwit, loaded down with Scottish porridge,* keep in mind what we said in that same work…

* A reference to Pelagius’ portliness. (“Scottish” may have meant Irish at the time.)

Patrologia Latina 24:706-708

Luther’s Works (American Edition) 54:72, no. 445


Quote of the Week – Hus a Goose, Luther a Swan

I had read in more than one place about the reformer Jan Hus’s supposed prophecy that a hundred years after his death, a swan would arise who would (fill in the blank with reformatory activity). This of course was always applied to Martin Luther. Consider Johannes Mathesius’ usage of the story:

But the worthy martyr from Bohemia, Master Johann Huss, also prophesied about this doctor a hundred years before the fact, and hit upon the exact year he would arise and finally sing a nice little song to the Roman Church. “Today you all roast a goose,” said Master Goose in 1415, when the Council of Constance was about to burn him, “but more than a hundred years from now,” namely, once the year 1516 was counted off, “a purer swan will come, who will finally sing you a different little song,” which then happened – God be praised! For in 1516 Doctor Luther began to dispute against indulgences.

Similar to Elector Frederick the Wise’s alleged dream about Luther’s 95 Theses the night before he reportedly posted them, I have always wondered about the veracity of this prophecy.

I think I have found the answer, thanks to an article by Dr. Gottfried Herrmann of the ELFK in the Fall 2017 issue (vol. 114, no. 4) of the Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly. There Dr. Hermmann refers to Luther’s 1531 Commentary on the Alleged Imperial Edict. Luther composed this work in response to Emperor Charles V’s publication on November 19, 1530, of the final resolution of the Diet of Augsburg. In it the emperor “essentially reviv[ed] the Edict of Worms and [gave] the evangelicals a period of grace until April 15, 1531. In order effectively to root out abuses in the church, the emperor intended to persuade the pope and rulers to hold a council within six months. In the meantime the Protestant princedoms and cities should publish nothing further, should cease to proselytize, and should restore monastic and ecclesiastical properties.”

Toward the end of Luther’s Commentary, he himself cites the alleged prophecy (cited in the aforementioned article by Dr. Hermann):

St. John Hus prophesied about me when he wrote from his prison in Bohemia, “They will roast a goose now (for Hus means a goose [in Czech]), but in a hundred years they will hear a swan singing that they will have to put up with.” And that is the way it will be, if God wills.

In the Weimar Edition, this quote is footnoted by the editors as follows:

At the beginning of his imprisonment in Constance, at the end of 1414, thus a half-year before his death at the stake, Huss wrote to his friends in Prague the words that sound like a prophecy: “And this same truth has sent to Prague many falcons and eagles, which surpass the other birds in sharpness of vision, in replacement of the one weak and easily eliminated Goose. High above they are flying back and forth in this grace of God and snatching many birds for Christ Jesus, who will make them strong and will establish all his faithful” (Documenta Magistri Iohannis Hus ed. F. Palacky, Prag 1869, Epistolae Nr. 17, p. 40).

Johannes Mathesius, Historien / Von des Ehrwirdigen in Gott Seligen thewren Manns Gottes / Doctoris Martini Luthers / anfang / lehr / leben und sterben [Nuremberg, 1566], fol. 4

Lewis W. Spitz and Helmut T. Lehmann, eds., Luther’s Works, trans. Robert R. Heitner (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1960), 34:63ff, esp. pp. 65,104

Weimarer Ausgabe 30/3:387

Quote of the Week – Rubbing God’s Ears

Philipp Melanchthon traveled to a colloquy in Hagenau after Philip of Hesse’s bigamy became known and was causing a scandal for the Lutherans. (Luther had actually recommended this bigamy for pastoral reasons—definitely not his finest moment.) The sensitive Melanchthon was so troubled by the scandal that by the time he reached Weimar he had already become so sick that he could not continue the trip. He contracted a bad fever and was bedridden.

Luther personally went to see him and arrived in Weimar on June 23, 1540. He found Melanchthon deathly ill, unrecognizable, and unable to hear or speak. Luther later said in one of his table talks that Melanchthon’s eyes had already dimmed like a dead person’s. After Luther expressed his shock, Matthaeus Ratzeberger, court physician for Duke John Frederick I of Saxony and eyewitness to what happened, says that Luther went to the window in the room and prayed an especially bold and earnest prayer. Luther himself seems to have felt the need to explain the boldness of the prayer afterwards either to everyone in the room or privately to Ratzeberger:

Our Lord God had to stand there and take it from me there, for I threw the sack at his door and rubbed his ears with all the promises to hear and answer prayers that I could recount from Holy Scripture, so that he had to hear and answer me if I was going to trust his promises in other matters too.

Luther then took Philipp by the hand and said, “Cheer up, Philipp, you are not going to die.” He then gave him a short address.

Philipp seemed to regain his breath at this. When Luther ran to get him something to eat, Philipp refused it, so Luther threatened him: “Listen here, Philipp, here’s how it is: You are going to eat for me or I am going to put you under the ban.”

Melanchthon gave in, and from then on he began to recover.

Christian Gotthold Neudecker, ed., Die handschriftliche Geschichte Ratzeberger’s über Luther und seine Zeit (Jena: Druck und Verlag von Friedrich Mauke, 1850), pp. 103,104

Weimarer Ausgabe, Tischreden 5:129, no. 5407

Quote of the Week – Please Prove Me Wrong

This week’s quote comes from a long letter Martin Luther wrote to Elector Frederick the Wise, Duke of Saxony, on November 19, 1518. Luther historian Martin Brecht says that it is “without a doubt one of the greatest Luther letters” (Martin Luther: His Road to Reformation, p. 262). In it, Luther recounts his hearing before Cardinal Thomas Cajetan and defends his own words and actions there. After his accounting, and asserting that there was nothing he neglected to do except fulfill the cardinal’s demand to recant, he continues:

As for the rest, let the most honorable Legatine Lord [i.e. Cardinal Cajetan] or the supreme Pontiff himself condemn, teach, and interpret, but they should not merely say, “You have erred. What you said is wrong.” They should rather point out the error in my writings; they should show what I said that was wrong, cite the proof that they have, reply to the Scripture passages I have quoted; they should do the teaching they boastfully say they have done; they should instruct the man who desires, begs, wishes, and longs to be taught. Not even a [Muslim] Turk would deny me these things. When I am led to see that matters need to be understood in a different way than I have understood them, if I do not recant and do not condemn myself then, most illustrious Prince, then let Your Highness be the first to persecute me and expel me; let the men of our university [in Wittenberg] repudiate me; indeed, I invoke heaven and earth against myself, and may my Lord Jesus Christ himself destroy me. I too speak on the basis of certain knowledge, and not on the basis of opinions. I want neither the Lord God nor any creature of God to be favorably disposed toward me, if I do not conform after someone has taught me better than what I have learned.

Dr. Wilhelm Martin Leberecht de Wette, ed., Dr. Martin Luthers Briefe, Sendschreiben und Bedenken (Berlin: G. Reimer, 1825), no. 95, p. 184

Cf. St. Louis Edition of Luther’s Works, vol. 15, no. 238, col. 650.

Quote of the Week – Nurturing Hope

This week’s quote is excerpted from one of the table talks of Martin Luther recorded by his personal friend and secretary Veit Dietrich. The entire table talk, which treats of how a Christian deals with melancholy, is one of the more well known and worth a read (rf. no. 122, LW [AE] 54:16ff). At the time Luther spoke it, Johannes Bugenhagen was on a leave of absence and Luther himself was quite overwhelmed with all his additional duties.

Well then, that venomous spirit, he finds many ways to hurt us. I know I will see him one day, on the Last Day, along with his fiery darts. While we have pure doctrine, he cannot harm us, but if the doctrine gets ruined, then we are done for. But praise be to God, who has given us the Word, and on top of that has had his own Son die for us. He certainly did not do it for nothing. Let us therefore nurture the hope that we are saints, that we are saved, and that this will be clear when he is revealed. If he accepted the robber on the cross like he did, as well as Paul after so many blasphemies and persecutions, then we have no reason to doubt it, and in fact we all must then attain to salvation, like the robber and Paul did.

Weimarer Ausgabe, Tischreden 1:48-49

Quote of the Week – Sin, Death, and Hell Swallowed Up

I apologize for not sharing any quote last week. This week’s quote is taken from Martin Luther’s Tractate on Christian Liberty (1520). Luther originally intended this tractate as a devotional work to accompany a conciliatory letter to Pope Leo X, at the suggestion of papal nuncio Karl von Miltitz. Luther’s own German translation, On the Freedom of the Christian Person, is more widely read, but the original Latin is clearer and more complete (cf. LW 31:329ff).

[S]ince Christ is God and man, and is so in a person who has not sinned nor dies nor is condemned, for that matter is unable to sin, die, or be condemned, and his righteousness, life, and salvation is unconquerable, eternal, and omnipotent; since, I say, such a person shares in his bride’s sins, death, and hell, and on account of his ring of faithfulness even makes them his own and situates himself in them in no other way than as if they were his own and he himself had sinned – suffering, dying, and descending to hell that he might conquer them all – and sin, death, and hell are unable to swallow him up, then by necessity they have been swallowed up in him in an amazing battle. For his righteousness is greater than the sins of all people; his life is more powerful than all death; his salvation is more invincible than all hell.

Weimarer Ausgabe 7:55

Quote of the Week – Let It Rain Enemies

The following is taken from Martin Luther’s letter to Elector Frederick the Wise, penned at Borna and dated March 5, 1522. While Luther was “kidnapped” at the Wartburg Castle, his university colleague Andreas Karlstadt was rushing forward with all sorts of changes in worship that the people were not ready for. The neighboring Duke George of Leipzig in Albertine Saxony, a devoted Catholic, heard about the changes and vowed to put an end to them and to “the Lutheran heresy.” Thus Martin Luther decided to return to Wittenberg from the safety of the castle—at risk to his life, since he was still an outlaw—so as to put a stop to the hasty changes and restore order in Wittenberg, and to stop the slanders of Duke George. Elector Frederick the Wise did not want Luther to return, but here is what Luther had to say, as he was already on his way back to Wittenberg…

[T]he devil knows quite well that I did not [hide out in the Wartburg Castle] out of any fear. He could see my heart just fine when I entered Worms; he saw that if I had known that as many devils were lying in wait for me as there are tiles on the roofs, I still would have jumped right into their midst with joy.

Now Duke George is still far from the equal of a single devil. And since the Father of boundless mercy has made us gallant lords over all the devils and death through the gospel, and has given us such a wealth of confidence that we may dare to address him, “Dearest Father!”, Your Electoral Grace can see for himself that it is the greatest insult to such a Father not to trust him enough to know that we are also lords over Duke George’s wrath.

I know this much about myself at any rate: If affairs were the same in Leipzig as they are in Wittenberg, I would still ride right in, even if (Your Electoral Grace will pardon my silly speech) it rained nothing but Duke Georges for nine days and each one were nine times as furious as the one we have. He treats my Lord Christ like a doll-man woven out of straw; my Lord and I can certainly endure that for a while.

Weimarer Ausgabe, Briefwechsel 2:455