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…

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.


Quote of the Week – Grace Means Unearned

The following is taken from Philip Melanchthon’s Apology (or Defense) of the Augsburg Confession, Article IV (Justification), verses 40 and 41:

Since then no one is able to keep God’s law by his own powers, and all are under sin and deserve to be condemned to eternal wrath and death, we are therefore unable to be freed from sin or to become upright in God’s sight through the law. Instead, forgiveness of sins and righteousness is promised through Christ, who has been given for us to pay for the sins of the world and who is the only Mediator and Redeemer. And this promise does not say that you have grace, salvation, etc. through Christ if you earn it. No, he offers forgiveness of sins purely out of grace, as Paul says, “If [forgiveness of sins] is by works, then it is not grace” [Romans 11:6]. And in another place: “This righteousness that avails before God is revealed apart from law” [Romans 3:21], that is, forgiveness of sins is offered for free.

Die Bekenntnisschriften der evangelisch-lutherischen Kirche, 2nd ed. (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1955), p. 167,168

Quote of the Week – Commands and Promises

The following is taken from Martin Luther’s closing reflections in The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (October 1520). Note that after suggesting here that prayer, the Word, and the Christian’s cross might “seemingly be numbered with the sacraments,” Luther does go on to say that, properly speaking, sacrament is a label best reserved for “promises that have signs attached to them,” namely baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The quote is shared here not so much for Luther’s reflections on the sacraments, but for his reflection on law and gospel as the two main and thoroughgoing doctrines of Holy Scripture.

There are several other things, besides these, that can seemingly be numbered with the sacraments, namely all those things for which a divine promise has been made, like prayer, the Word, and the cross. For in many places Christ has promised those who pray that he will hear and answer them, especially in Luke 11, where he invites us to pray with many parables [11:5-13], and says concerning the Word, “Blessed are those who hear the Word of God and preserve it” [11:28]. And who can count up how many times he promises help and glory to the afflicted, the suffering, and the humbled? Yes, who can enumerate all the promises of God, since all of Scripture has the purpose of inciting us to faith, driving with commands and threats in this place and alluring with promises and consolations in that one? For indeed everything written in Scripture is either command or promise; the commands humble the proud with their demands, and the promises lift up the humbled with their remissions.

Weimarer Ausgabe 6:571,572

Quote of the Week – The Saving Paradox

Little is known about the author of this quote, Peter Chrysologus (c. 406-c. 450 AD). He was appointed archbishop of Ravenna, Italy, around 433. He was a contemporary of Augustine, Jerome, and the heretic Pelagius. He cultivated a close friendship with Leo the Great and corresponded prudently with the heretic Eutyches. In a biography composed about 830, Abbot Andrew Agnellus used Peter’s cognomen Chrysologus, “the golden orator,” which was probably invented after Peter’s death so that the Western Church would have a counterpart to the eastern John Chrysostom, “the golden mouthed.” However, the quote below, taken from Sermon 40 on the Good Shepherd, is perhaps one of the best proofs that Peter’s cognomen is no embellishment whatsoever. Confessional Lutheran readers will be interested to learn that those most familiar with Chrysologus acknowledge him to have especially excelled in teaching the doctrines of the Incarnation, the Virgin Birth, and grace, and that some of his sermons on the Lord’s Prayer are extremely and eerily similar to Luther’s explanations of the petitions in the Small Catechism, right down to the Latin wording.

For the sheep the Shepherd goes to meet the death that was threatening the sheep, so that, by a new arrangement, he would take captive the author of death, the devil, by being taken captive himself; he would conquer him by being conquered himself; he would punish him by being slain himself; and by dying for the sheep, he would open the way for them to conquer death. For the devil, too, while pursuing a man, has run smack into God; while raging against the defendant, has run up against the Judge; has himself met with torture while inflicting punishment; he himself receives a sentence while giving one. And death, which lives by feeding on mortals, dies itself while devouring Life; death, which swallows the guilty, is itself swallowed up while gulping down the Author of innocence; and death, which was destroying all, perishes itself while trying to eliminate the Salvation of all.

Patrologia Latina 52:313,314