“Luther’s Works,” Volume 54, Table Talk, edited and translated by Theodore G Tappert, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1967.
A friend loaned me “Table Talk,” which is a compilation of notes various students of Luther’s made from the conversations around his dinner table at Wittenberg. It’s a fascinating look into a man in his unguarded moments. They reveal him to be incredibly well informed, consistent, and often profane. He deals with politics, theology, and ordinary life. These quotes also reveal how little we have changed in 500 years.
These are my favorite quotes from the book, with a comment or two of my own.
About Augustine and Justification
No. 85 Early November, 1531
“It was Augustine’s view that the law, fulfilled by the powers of reason, does not justify, even as works of the moral law do not justify the heathen, but that if the Holy Spirit assists, the works of the law do justify. The question is not whether the law or the works of reason justify, but whether the law, kept with the Spirit’s help, justifies.
“I reply by saying No. Even if in the power of the Holy Spirit a man were to keep the law completely, he ought nevertheless to pray for divine mercy, for God has ordained that man should be saved not by the law but by Christ. Works never give us a peaceful heart. Christ would never have been sad in spirit unless he had been pressed hard by the law, to which he subjected himself for our sake.”
The conflict between the law and grace is a theme Luther comes back to repeatedly; the key to his understanding of scripture and the essential difference between him and the Roman Church. It is easy for us all to fall back into thinking we must somehow earn our salvation. Luther insists that we are saved by grace alone. See also No. 1353 below.
Man’s Arrogance and Self-Assurance
No. 87 Early November, 1531
“It’s remarkable that men should be so arrogant and secure when there are so many, indeed countless, evidences around us to suggest that we ought to be humble. The hour of our death is uncertain. The grain on which we live is not in our hands. Neither the sun nor the air, on which our life depends, lies in our power, and we have no control over our sleeping and waking. I shall say nothing of spiritual things, such as the private and public sins which press upon us. Yet our hearts are hard as steel and pay no attention to such evidence.”
Have we become any more humble since then? I don’t think so. Today some of us think we can control the climate and the tides.
Judgment Concerning Peter Lombard
No. 192 Between February and March, 1532
“These are said to be the sons of nuns: Peter Lombard, the greatest theologian; Gratian, the greatest canon lawyer; and Comestor, the greatest historian of his times (all lived in the early 12th Century),. Peter Lombard was adequate as a theologian; none has been his equal. He read Hilary, Augustine, Ambrose, Gregory, and also all the councils. He was a great man. If he had by chance come upon the Bible, he would no doubt have been the greatest.
Ouch! This is what is known as a rapier wit. Luther must have been a formidable debater.
Administration of the Lord’s Supper to Convicts
No. 325 Sumer or Fall, 1532
When a certain Bohemian said that the sacrament ought not to be given to those who have been convicted of a public crime and have been condemned in a public trial because there is danger that they might not believe, Luther responded, “This doesn’t concern the one who administers. His only concern should be that he offer the true Word and the true sacrament. I don’t worry about whether he (the communicant) has true faith. I give the sacrament on account of the confession, which I have heard, the condition of his heart be what it may. I wager a thousand souls that the absolution and the sacrament are right. I must believe him when he says he is penitent. If he deceives me, he deceives himself. Nevertheless, the sacrament is true and the absolution is true. It is as if I were to give somebody ten pieces of gold, and he took them to be only ten coppers. The gold is right in front of his eyes. If he doesn’t know what he is taking, the fault is his and the loss is his.”
Hmmm. There are those who say Communion should be withheld from Nancy Pelosi and other politicians for their support of abortion. Luther seems to be saying that is between her and God, the pastor cannot judge what is in her heart.
Christ Taught Only in a Corner of Judea
No. 504 Spring, 1533
“The authority of Christ when he taught wasn’t so great as ours is today. He himself said, ‘Greater works than these will you do’ (John 14:12). He is the grain of mustard seed, but we are the bushes (Matt 13:31, 32). Accordingly he said ‘They were unwilling to bear me, although I taught in a corner, but you must bear me throughout all the world.’ To preach Christ is to offend the flesh, but to preach the flesh is to offend Christ.”
Too many of us still worry about offending “the flesh,” and we tone down the message so no one could ever possibly be offended. Is that what Jesus had in mind?
We Trust Men More Than We Trust Christ
No. 1353 Between January 8 and March 23, 2532
“The principal lesson of theology is that Christ can be known. Here the teacher shouldn’t be ashamed of learning from his student, nor the student of learning from his teacher. Christ is friendlier than we are. If I can be good to a friend, how much mire will Christ be good to us! When Satan leads me to the law I am damned, but if I can take hold of the promise, I am free. Peter said ‘Grow in the knowledge of Christ’ (II Peter 3:18) This isn’t a knowledge of the law, of dialectical skill, or of some other art, but it’s the knowledge that Christ is the most just and the most merciful One, in whom alone we dwell. Satan clouds this basic knowledge in our hearts in a remarkable way and causes us to trust an earthly friend more than Christ.”
Throughout the book, Luther sees Satan as a real living force who is constantly is trying to trick us into error. See also No 1379 below.
An Estimate of Pope Clement VII
No. 1359 Between January 8 and March 23, 1532
“The present Pope Clement is the wealthiest of all men and yet the most unhappy. He’s a thorough scoundrel. He has plotted many wicked things. So he said that before he’d stop (persecuting us Lutherans) he’s rather put the Turks on our necks. He’ll do it, too. Pray diligently, therefore, and remember this when I’m dead.”
I am not including most of Luther’s comments about the pope. It is hard for modern readers not to wince at the harshness of his condemnation. But we are accustomed to thinking of the Pope as a kindly old gentleman – sort of like a Santa Claus without the beard. But at the time, the Pope was probably the most powerful man on earth, controlling even kings and emperors, orchestrating wars, and killing off opponents. Luther’s resistance was incredibly courageous and probably made possible only because of the distraction of the wars against the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire, which was at the gates of Vienna. See also 2962b below.
Death is Caused by Satan, Not by God
No. 1379 Between January 8 and March 23, 1532
“The devil slays us all, for the Scripture says that he causes death and is the author of death (John 8:44). Satan put God’s Son to death.”
The doctor’s (Luther) wife said, “Oh, no, my dear Doctor! I don’t believe it.”
Then the doctor said, “Who would love our Lord God if he himself had a mind to kill us? He will not be a murderer because he commanded, ‘You shall not kill’ (Exod. 20:13)…. Everything that God makes he creates for life. He created things that they might be, and he called into being things that didn’t exist, as if they did (Rom 4:17). This means that life belongs to God’s purpose. But death has been introduced into the world through the devil’s envy, and on this account the devil is called the author of death. For what else does Satan do than seduce from true religion, provoke sedition, cause wars, pestilence, etc. and bring about every evil?”
This is an important answer to the people who wonder how a loving God could allow atrocities like the Newtown, CT shooting. God is love and God is life. Hatred and death belong to Satan.
Each Age Has Its Own Peculiar Temptation
No. 1601 Between May 27 and 31, 1532
“Young fellows are tempted by girls, men who are thirty years old are tempted by gold, when they are forty years old they are tempted by honor and glory, and those who are sixty years old say to themselves, ‘What a pious man I have become!’ ”
Yikes! People don’t change, do they? This is my favorite passage because it describes me to a tee.
Luther’s Career Was Not Planned by Him
No. 1650 Between June 12 and July 12, 1532
“God knows, I never thought of going as far as I did. I intended only to attack indulgences. If anybody had said to me when I was at the Diet of Worms, ‘In a few years you’ll have a wife and your own household,’ I wouldn’t have believed it.”
This is another theme Luther returns to repeatedly. He had no idea what a whirlwind he was reaping when he started.
The Place of Reason in Christian Life
No. 2938b Between January 26 and 29, 1533
Dr. Luther was asked whether, since it is necessary to exclude reason from articles of faith, reason has any value at all for Christians. He replied, “Prior to faith and a knowledge of God, reason is darkness, but in believers it’s an excellent instrument. Just as all gifts and instruments are evil in godless men, so they are good in believers. Faith is now furthered by reason, speech, and eloquence, whereas these were only impediments prior to faith. Enlightened reason, taken captive by faith, receives life from faith, for it is slain and given life again. As our body will rise (from the dead) glorified, so our reason is different in believers than it was before, for it doesn’t fight against faith but promotes it. Our speech, which used to be godless and blasphemous, now preaches, praises God, and gives him thanks. Thus my speech is different from what it once was; now it’s enlightened. So iron which glows from fire is different from iron that doesn’t glow. This is regeneration through the Word and occurs while the person and the members remain the same.
Interesting that this was written one hundred years before The Enlightenment, almost as if he was anticipating it.
The Pope and the Ecclesiological Problem
No. 2962b Between February 9 and 15, 1533
“The issue in the controversy over the papacy is that the pope boasts that he’s the head of the church and condemns all who don’t live under his power, for he says that although Christ is the (spiritual) head of the church, there must nevertheless also be a bodily head on earth. (I would gladly have conceded this to the pope if he had only taught the gospel.) In addition, he claims for himself the authority over the church and the Scriptures. No one may expound the Scriptures except the pope alone, who does it as he pleases. He boasts that he is lord over the church, and the church in turn is mistress over the Scriptures, and so everybody must submit to him. This was intolerable to me and provoked me to write against the papacy. Our opponents still admit today that our teaching’s true, but they defend themselves by saying that it’s not yet approved by the pope.”
This was not a new concern at the time, and it has never been fully resolved. This month in Modern Reformation Michael Horton quotes Pope Gregory from the sixth century – “He expressed offense at being addressed by a bishop as ‘universal pope’: ‘a word of proud address that I have forbidden…. None of my predecessors ever wished to use this profane word (universal)…. But I say it confidently, because whoever calls himself ‘universal bishop or wishes to be so called, is in his self-exaltation Antichrist’s precursor, for in his swaggering he sets himself before the rest.’”
Legal Problems Pertaining to Marriage
No. 3267 Summer, 1532
“The pastor in Zwickau wrote me (about) marriage cases. I’ll give him something to remember me by for implicating me in such matters that belong to the government! These are external things that are concerned with dowries and inheritances. What do they have to do with us? We advise people only in matters of conscience, and now the government wants to impose these other matters on us. What’s more, when our counsels and opinions displease them they don’t want to carry them out, no matter how good they may be. We’re shepherds of consciences, not of bodies and bodily matters. Nobody ought to subject himself to the burden of others; they’ll take care of them all right without us.”
So, how would Luther feel about the current issue of gay marriage? See also No. 4716 below.
A Story Serves as Parable of the World
No. 3645 Between November 1 and December 21, 1537
“A man once rented an ass to ride on. The owner of the ass went on foot next to the rider. When it got to hot for the rider of the ass, he asked the owner to ride so that he might walk in the shade alongside. The owner of the ass was unwilling to do this because he had rented the ass to him for riding and not the ass’s shadow. For the latter he would have to pay extra.
“This is a picture of the world, which doesn’t give anything for nothing, not even a shadow.”
Again, Luther had quite a sense of humor.
The Diets Prescribed by Physicians
No. 3801 April 2, 1538
On April 2 he (Martin Luther) sat at home and mentioned the rigid diet he had been prescribed by physicians as a consequence of which many men are debilitated. “It’s true (he said) that a good diet is the best medicine when it suits the individual, but to live medically is to live wretchedly.” Then he related some examples of deceased persons who starved themselves to death on the advice of their physicians. “I eat what I like and will die when God wills it. ‘The times fade away, and we grow old with the silent years.” (a quote from Ovid) When I now think of my contemporaries who are fifty years old, oh, how few they are. About every thirty years a new generation arises. We all belong in the ground, there’s no way around it.”
I like Martin Luther a lot. See also No. 4647 below.
The Quibbling of Sophists to Be Avoided
No. 4128 November 17, 1538
“The world must be considered carefully (Martin Luther said). It’s governed by opinions, and therefore it’s ruled by sophistical hypocrisy and tyranny. True religion is compelled to serve them as a maidservant. One must therefore be careful and beware of sophistry. Which consists not only of equivocation in words but flourishes under all circumstance, so that in religion it possesses a magnificent pretense under the guise of Holy Scripture. There’s more harm in sophistry than any man can perceive; our nature, which is prone to lying, can’t see the evil in sophistry at all. Plato offers a remarkable description of sophistry: People who can twist everything, repudiate the opinions of others, and draw conclusions on both sides after tha manner of Carneades are not to be praised. These are sly tricks. It’s the glory of a good character (on the other hand) to seek the truth and to rejoice on guilelessness.”
Sophistry is another plague in our time. It is good to know there is nothing new about it.
The Duty of Husband and Wife
No. 4408 March 17, 1539
He (Martin Luther) spoke of the estate of marriage in which each person must do his duty: “The husband should earn and the wife save. Accordingly the wife can make her husband rich but the husband can’t make his wife rich, for a penny saved is better than a penny earned. So thrift is the best income. Deservedly I am in the list of the poor, for I keep too many servants.”
This was written two hundred years before Ben Franklin appropriated “a penny saved is a penny earned.”
Luther Does Not Wish to Live Much Longer
No. 4647 June 11, 1539
On June 11 he (Martin Luther) went to Lichtenberg and had supper with the margrave’s wife in the evening. She addressed him in a very friendly way, wished him a long life, and expressed the hope that he could live another forty years. He replied, “God forbid! Even if God were to offer me paradise in order that I might last another forty years in this life, I wouldn’t want it. I’d rather hire a hangman to knock my head off. That’s how bad the world is now. It’s full of nothing but devils, so that one can’t wish anything better than a blessed end and to get away. Nor do I bother with physicians. I won’t embitter my life, which may last a half year, but in God’s name I’ll eat whatever tastes good to me.”
Luther was only 56 when he said this and he lived for another seven years.
Do Marriage Cases Belong in the Church?
No. 4716 July 23, 1539
We asked him what pastors should do in marriage cases, whether we can in good conscience stay away from these troublesome things. He replied, “It is my advice that we should by no means take this yoke upon ourselves. First, we have enough work in our proper office. Second, marriage is outside the church, is a civil matter, and therefore should belong to the government. Third, these cases have no limits, extend to the height, the breadth, and the depth, and produce many things that bring disgrace to the gospel.”
Again, it is interesting that marriage at the time was seen as something outside the church.
How to Preach in Three Brief Steps
No. 5171b Between August 7 and 21, 1540
Conrad Cordatus said to Dr. Martin Luther, “Reverend Father, teach me in a brief way how to preach.”
Luther responded briefly, “First, you must learn to go up to the pulpit. Second, you should know that you should stay there for a time. Third you must learn to get down again.”
He added nothing in addition to these words, and as a result Cordatus was quite angry. Yet at length it occurred to him that the doctor had hit the mark very well. Anybody who keeps this order will be a good preacher. First, he must learn to go up to the pulpit, that is, he should have a regular and a divine call. Second, he must stay there for a time, that is, he should have the pure and genuine doctrine. Third, he must also learn how to get down again, that is, he should preach not more than an hour (which didn’t please Pomeranus).
Cordatus didn’t get the joke. He asked for a brief lesson, so Luther gave him a brief lesson.