Luther Visualized 16 – Busyness and Health

Luther’s Busyness and Ill Health

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Predella of the Reformation Altar in Wittenberg, oil on panel, 1547.

The painting shows Luther preaching, of which he did plenty. From May 1528 to June 1529 and from October 1530 to April 1532, for example, the parish church’s regular pastor, Johannes Bugenhagen, was on leave introducing the Reformation in cities like Brunswick (Braunschweig), Hamburg, and Lübeck, and Luther had to take over his preaching duties in the meantime. Toward the end of 1531, Luther told his table companions, “I am extremely busy. Four people are relying on me, and each one of them was in need of someone all to him- or herself. I’m supposed to preach four times during the week, lecture twice, marriage cases need to be heard and letters need to be written, plus I’m supposed to work on books for publication.”

The pulpit from which Luther preached thousands of sermons in the Wittenberg parish church, today housed in the Lutherhaus museum in Wittenberg (© Red Brick Parsonage, 2013). The two reliefs are of the apostles and evangelists Matthew (left) and John (right).

Several details in the Cranach painting above merit further comment. The writing in Luther’s Bible is indistinct; regardless of his sermon text, he can and ought to point his audience to Jesus (John 5:39). The audience consists of people of every age; the gospel of Jesus is for all (Matthew 28:19,20; Mark 16:15; Luke 18:15-17). Cranach painted himself in the front of the male audience; he viewed the message of Christ crucified for sinners as one needed by him first (cf. 1 Timothy 1:15,16). Katy and little Hans Luther are in the front of the female audience; even the reformer’s son needed to be restrained and taught to stay still and listen. In spite of the fact that the great reformer himself is preaching, there are still some in the audience paying attention to the “picture-taker” and not to God’s Word. At his table in the evening of December 26, 1531, Luther told his companions, “My preaching is useless. It’s like a man who sings in a forest to the trees and hears only the glad-sounding echo in return.” And yet, as he went on to say, “although many people badmouth [gospel preaching], it is still good to preach Christ for the sake of the few who do not.”

In addition to the strain of his professional duties and callings as husband and father, Luther also suffered at various times from the following health issues:

  • Periods of depression occasioned by personal doubts, disease and death in his circle of family and friends, disturbances in the church, and the other health problems in this list
  • Constipation
  • Hemorrhoids
  • Ménière’s (pronounced mane-YAIRZ) disease
  • Recurring dizzy and fainting spells (likely caused by the previous)
  • Soreness in his teeth and throat
  • Recurring kidney stones (the most famous instance in February 1537)
  • Gallstones
  • Abscess on the lower part of one of his legs
  • Recurring colds
  • Diarrhea
  • Severe heart attack in December 1536
  • Dysentery
  • Abscess on his neck
  • Recurring headaches toward the end of his life
  • Gout
  • Arthritis
  • Loss of sight in one eye (cataract?)
  • Exacerbation of health issues from ill-advised treatments

Luther had definitely abused his body earlier in his life with, for example, his excessive fasting in the monastery. His life then changed drastically when he got married and went from not taking good care of himself to eating regular homemade meals prepared by his wife—a change to which his body probably never completely adjusted. But ultimately, it was the Lord who used these recurring health issues to keep Luther from becoming conceited, to show him the all-sufficiency of his grace, and to demonstrate that his power is made perfect in weakness (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:7-9).

Sources
E. G. Schwiebert, Luther and His Times (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1950), pp. 580,581,748-750

Kurt K. Hendel, Johannes Bugenhagen: Selected Writings, vol. 1 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), pp. 33-53

Martin Brecht, Martin Luther: Shaping and Defining the Reformation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990), pp. 204-211,429-433

Martin Brecht, Martin Luther: The Preservation of the Church (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), pp. 21-23,185-188,229-235

Weimarer Ausgabe, Tischreden 1:73, no. 154; 2:417-418, no. 2320

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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.

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.

Source
Weimarer Ausgabe, Tischreden 1:48-49

Luther the Matchmaker?

The following Luther story is often quoted in Luther biographies when talking about how Luther not only tolerated the note- and quote-takers in his house, but sometimes even encouraged them. However, the only English translation I’ve seen polishes Luther up (definitely not the first time that’s happened).

In my opinion, being faithful to Luther’s original rawness not only shows historical and factual integrity, but it also helps people to be more circumspect analysts of Luther – admiring only the admirable (of which there is plenty) and rejecting the reprehensible (which is also not lacking). In other words, it helps to keep Lutherans from being Lutherans for the wrong reasons. Presenting the original, raw Luther does not mean that one approves of him that way.

However, in this particular case, I really don’t see why the original was cleaned up. The original bares Luther’s heart better and is more entertaining.

I translated this story from the Weimar edition (WA) of Luther’s Works (Weimar: Hermann Böhlaus Nachfolger, 1913), TR 2:123, #1525. It was recorded by Johann Schlaginhaufen (his Latinized name is Turbicida – tur-bi-CHEE-dah) between May 7 and 13, 1532. Schlaginhaufen had been a student at the University of Wittenberg (enrolled in 1520) and was a regular guest in Luther’s home from late 1531 to 1532, when he became a pastor in the village of Zahna near Wittenberg.

After the doctor [Luther] had climbed into his bed, a man came to the door, sent by a widow of a pastor in Belgern to ask for a husband. Luther said to the messenger, “Give me a break! She is not seven years old any more! She’s the one who must look for a man she can take; I do not have any man to give her.” When the messenger had left, he laughed and said to me, “For God’s sake, Turbicida, I beg you, write that one down! Isn’t it a nuisance? Am I really their first option for getting husbands for the women too? I think that they must take me for a brothel keeper! Phooey on you, you dumb world! Friend, write it and note it!”