Luther Visualized 5 – The Tower Discovery

Luther Rediscovers the Gospel

Martin Luther, from his preface to Tomus Primus Omnium Operum Reverendi Domini Martini Lutheri, Doctoris Theologiae, etc. (Wittenberg: Hans Lufft, 1545)

This is the seventh and final page of Martin Luther’s preface to the first volume of the first attempted compilation of his works, published in 1545. The page begins:

At last, by the mercy of God, as I was earnestly meditating days and nights, I started paying attention to the context of the words [in Romans 1:17], namely, “The righteousness of God is revealed in it [viz., the gospel], just as it is written: ‘The righteous person lives by faith.’” There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous person lives by a gift of God, namely by faith…

Sources
Lewis W. Spitz and Helmut T. Lehmann, eds., Luther’s Works, trans. Lewis. W. Spitz, Sr. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1960), 34:323-338

Weimarer Ausgabe, Tischreden 2:177, no. 1681 (recorded by Schlaginhaufen in 1532); 3:228, no. 3232abc (recorded by Cordatus in 1532); 4:72-73, no. 4007 (recorded by Lauterbach in 1538); 5:26, no. 5247 (recorded by Mathesius in 1540); 5:210,234-235, nos. 5518,5553 (recorded by Heydenreich in the winter of 1542-1543)

Martin Brecht, Martin Luther: His Road to Reformation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1985), pp. 221-227

Archeological excavation of the basement of “the tower,” © Red Brick Parsonage, 2013

The published preface mentioned above was the first time Luther made his gospel rediscovery public. From the Table Talk sources cited above, however, you can see that he had often talked about it privately with his friends before 1545. Most of Luther’s retellings focus exclusively on the content of his discovery. But the 1532 retelling, recorded by both Johannes Schlaginhaufen and Conrad Cordatus, is different. There Luther also makes a point of identifying the location (one gets the impression the group was near the site of the famous discovery at the time): “But when I was in this tower one time (in which there was a privy for the monks), I was speculating on those words [in Romans 1:17].” Another copy of Cordatus’ transcription has: “But when I was in this tower and sweating room…” And after describing his epiphany, he concludes, according to both of his transcribers, “The Holy Spirit introduced this art to me on this latrine” or “on this tower” or “on this latrine on the tower.”

What are we to make of this? I cannot make anything of it except to take Luther at his words. Consider the following:

  1.  The plain language of Luther’s description (with several references varying in explicitness) recorded by two different transcribers
  2. The effort at covering up the location in Johannes Aurifaber’s famous 1566 edition of Luther’s Table Talk, which has Luther concluding: “The Holy Spirit alone introduced this art to me” (emphasis mine). Such cover-up would be unnecessary if Luther’s companions understood that he was referring to his study, where scholars will frequently try to locate his discovery.
  3. We know that Luther’s study was on the third floor of the tower (Brecht, 227). The latrine, as you can see from the picture, was clearly not. How could Luther and his conversational transcribers confuse the two, or use the basement latrine to refer to the entire tower, including Luther’s study?
  4. We can only verify that Luther used the tower as his study from 1522 onwards (info marker outside the excavation), but his epiphany most likely took place in early 1518 (some scholars date it earlier).
  5. In all of his descriptions of his epiphany, Luther never once says he was at his desk or reading; he always says he was speculating or meditating.
  6. The ground floor of the tower had under-floor heating. The warm air from a small stove was led through the pictured conduit under the floor slabs (info marker). Considering that this conduit went right above the latrine, it would have indeed made it a “sweating room.”
  7. According to an info marker outside the excavation, at some point the tower was demolished and earth was deposited over the top for a garden, preserving the ground floor and basement underneath. (Ironically, it was in an attempt to plant another garden there that the latrine was discovered in 2004.) This fits perfectly with Georg Rörer’s copy of Schlaginhaufen’s transcript; either he or someone else wrote “in the garden” above “on this latrine.”
  8. According to an info marker outside the excavation, the tower with the latrine “could only be reached from the monastery” (later Luther’s house after the monastery was gifted to him). This accords with its description in Cordatus’ transcription as “a privy [or private place] for the monks.”
  9. Finally – and this is admittedly more speculative – the basement had another, larger room in addition to the latrine. Luther’s 1532 retelling took place in the summer between June 12 and July 12. Would it not make sense for Luther and his companions to be conversing in the basement to get away from the heat, thus enabling Luther to say in effect, “It happened right here” (without us having to imagine a more awkward setting)? To those who would think this unlikely due to some lingering smell down there, an info marker outside the latrine says, “A small drain served to take the sewage waste from the latrine out of the building. At the time it was in use, the land sloped down quite considerably from east to west and from north to south so that the majority of the sewage was washed away.”

Many of course who are convinced that Luther’s famous discovery happened on the toilet, and who are not sympathetic to his reforms and teachings, love to make crude jokes about “the 95 Feces” and Luther going to discharge his waste and having something even worse come out, namely Lutheranism. Never mind all that. The Bible consistently testifies that the triune God’s modus operandi is to bring order and glory out of disorder and shame (creation, Judah and Tamar, crossing of the Red Sea, the Messiah’s birth, etc.) and to hide the truth behind weakness, shame, offense/scandal, and foolishness (Jesus’ choice of apostles, crucifixion, the means of grace, the theology of the cross, etc.), so that only those who are earnestly and genuinely seeking the truth find and remain with the truth (Jeremiah 29:13; Matthew 5:6; 13:11-15). Luther’s tower discovery on the toilet, then, really isn’t all that surprising. If you want to find the truth, you often have to look in the least likely places, according to our natural human reason. And if you want to find the truth of the gospel in 1518, you have to look in the bathroom at a monk from an ordinary copper miner’s family performing one of life’s less attractive chores. If you care nothing for the truth, you will run away disgusted. But to those who love the truth, that bathroom is one of the most attractive places on earth.

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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, to 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.

Source
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.