Friday, June 13, 2014

"The Wit of Martin Luther" by Eric Gritsch: A Review

There is perhaps no one more fun to read in church history than the Augustinian monk, Reformation hero Martin Luther. Luther had a wit that was legendary. Though both Martin Luther and John Calvin were great minds of theology, Luther is by far the more interesting to read. Luther's emotions bleed on every page and for that reason and others he remains one of the most quotable theologians in history. So it was with great anticipation that I picked up and read Eric W. Gritsch's book The Wit of Martin Luther.

Gritsch offers a somewhat brief look at Luther's sarcasm, wit, and humor and how that was used in his writings, preaching, and theology. The book is rich with witticisms (the author includes an appendix with a number of such witty statements by Luther that is fascinating) and theological insight. Here are a few examples:
"I resist the devil," Luther is quoted as saying, "and often it is with a fart that I chase him away." (7)

[To Erasmus he wrote] Compare with it, your book struck me as so cheap and paltry that I felt profoundly sorry for you, defiling as you were your very elegant and ingenious style with such trash, and quite disgusted at the utterly unworthy matter that was being conveyed in such rich ornaments of eloquence, like refuse or ordure being carried in gold and silver vases. (40)

[Commenting on Genesis 1:6] Rather than give approval to those inept thoughts, I for my part shall confess that I do not understand Moses in this passage. (45)

[But what] was the nature of the air in the ark since that mass of water, especially when it went down, gave off a great and pestilential stench? (47)

The devil has sworn to kill me, this I certainly know, and he will have no peace until he has devour me. All right, if he devours me, he shall devour a laxative (God willing) which will make his bowels and anus too tight for him. Do you want to bet? (94)
More could be added here, but you get the idea. Luther oftentimes used strong language that was scatological or even curse words. The author does not deal with these questions and their morality, but it is an important discussion. Gritsch shows that Luther felt that the Devil deserved such vile language for he himself is vile.

But one of my favorite use of humor and sarcasm in response to his worrisome wife:
I thank you very kindly for your great worry which robs you of sleep. Since the date that you [started to] worry about me, the fire in my quarters, right outside the door of my room, tried to devour me; and yesterday, no doubt because of the strength of your worries, a stone almost fell on my head and nearly squashed me as in a mouse trap. For in our secret chamber [the toilet], mortar has been falling down for about two days; we called in some people who [merely] touched the stone with two fingers and it fell down. The stone was as big as a long pillow and as wide as a large hand; it intended to repay you for your holy worries, had the dear angels not protected [me]. [Now] I worry that if you do not stop worrying the earth will finally swallow us up and all the elements will chase us. Is this the way you learned the Catechism and the faith? Pray, and let God worry. You have certainly not been commanded to worry about me or about yourself. "Case your burden on the Lord, and he will sustain you." (64)
A great way of dealing with worry.

Luther forces us to consider humor and the role it has in theology. Gritsch writes that:
There is overwhelming evidence from Luther's life and work to prove that for him at least, humor next to music, was the most effective way to endure the trials of the penultimate life. In this way of thinking and being, smiling, laughing and even mocking become the divinely inspired means of spiritual survival. Knowing of the happy end at the Last Day, Luther could remain cheerful in anticipating it. In fact, cheerful days reminded him of "the dear, sweet Last Day" - as he wrote to his wife during a trip filled with earthy happiness, though also with a heat wave! (84)
What a wonderful truth that makes theology come alive. We can all laugh and rejoice, in spite of our current circumstances, because of the blessed truth of the last day.

Consider also what Luther had to say about humor and theology:
Then it will come about that we shall laugh at the fury of the Turk, the popes, tyrants sects, heretics, and all of the adversaries of Christ's kingdom, as a comical spectacle. He who is able to do this everywhere and always is a true doctor of theology. (43)
There is a real profound truth there. If a Christian cannot laugh and rejoice, then their theology is off kilter. It is no accident that Paul encourages the Philippians to rejoice repeatedly. This does not mean that there are not times to weep and mourn and Scripture reveals that (Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, etc.), but if our hope is in Christ, we of all people ought to be able to at least smile.

Overall, this is a great book for fans of Martin Luther. Without some background into his life and theology, you will struggle to follow the book. The author makes the assumption that the reader is at least familiar with the Reformer. The one limitation of the book is that the author does not discuss Luther's struggle with deep depression. For a man who had such a strong sense of humor, he oftentimes struggled to get out of bed. Nonetheless, this is a helpful book that I have marked up repeatedly.

For more:
Luther: Beat the Gospel into their Heads Continually
Martin Luther on how John 1:1 Contradicts Modalism & Arianism
"Theology of the Reformers" by Timothy George: A Review
Martin Luther: The Reluctant Revolutionary
Luther on the Estate of Marriage
Martin Luther on the Secular/Sacred Dichotomy
"I fly Unto Christ": Luther on Imputation For When the Devil Accuses
We Preach Christ: Martin Luther, the Apostle Paul, and the Gospel of Jesus Christ "The Heroic Boldness of Martin Luther" by Steven Lawson: A Review
Luther on the Doctrine of Verbal Inspiration
Luther on the Doctrine of Biblical Inerrancy
The Real Divide:  Luther, the Reformation, and the Fight Over Perspicuity - Part 1
The Real Divide:  Luther, the Reformation, and the Fight Over Perspicuity - Part 2
The Real Divide:  Luther, the Reformation, and the Fight Over Perspicuity - Part 3
The Real Divide:  Luther, the Reformation, and the Fight Over Perspicuity - Part 4
The Real Divide:  Luther, the Reformation, and the Fight Over Perspicuity - Part 5
The Real Divide:  Luther, the Reformation, and the Fight Over Perspicuity - Part 6 
Martin Luther (1483-1546)
The 95 Theses, 490 Years Later
For Reformation Day:  An Insightful Documentary  
The Theology of the Reformers  
The Unquenchable Flame  
Christianity's Dangerous Idea 
"Five Leading Reformers"   
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