The Next Faithful Step
Martin Luther's "Table Talk"
Martin Luther’s relationship to the Reformation that he initiated was always complex. He grew in his roles and functions as a reformer as the Reformation itself grew. As he himself put it once, “God knows I never thought of going so far as I did. I only meant to attack indulgences. If anyone 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.”1
It is probably as a pastor that we should see him at first, horrified at the danger to his flock from the indulgence preachers, who offered full remission of sins in exchange for monetary contributions to Rome. His training as a Bible scholar and theologian supported him well, and catapulted him into the realm of imperial politics and finally global influence. His marriage, as a former monk, to the escaped nun Katerina von Bora in 1525 was simultaneously an act of loving devotion and of Reformation bravado. The household that developed around them for the next twenty years, before Luther’s death in 1546, was a place where all of these roles would play themselves out in public and private settings—and at the dinner table in particular.2 The Luthers exercised extensive and generous hospitality; church leaders, diplomats, scholars, impoverished family members, and refugees were constantly in and out of the huge building that had been Luther’s Augustinian monastery in the old days. Luther’s big personality took full advantage of the stimulating company, and dinner conversation was lively and meaty. Providentially for us, a sequence of students who stayed at his home, and who were well used to taking notes when Luther spoke, jotted down what they heard; various editions of Luther’s “table talk” have been in print ever since.
Luther sets an example for those who would like to explore the dynamic of a brown bag working lunch, or a theological round-robin discussion in a semi-casual environment—though Luther is a hard act to follow. His reputation as a strong leader as well as a strong personality ensured the seriousness of the discussion at his table. He often got things going, we are told, by asking those present about current issues or debates, or he commented on current events or recent news. In that sense he did not often set the topic himself. The result is that discussion ranged widely, from the intensely personal, through the political and pastoral, to theology and the Bible. The over-all impression of reading the Table Talk is not dogmatic, pastoral, or political, but rather an astonishment at the variety, consistency, and depth of a uniquely Christian witness. Some examples:
On David as author of the Psalms: “Dear God, what people those were! This David was a husband, king, warlord, almost crushed by political affairs and submerged in public business, and yet he wrote such a book!”3
On historical precedents for the Reformation: “In his controversy with the Pelagians, Augustine became a strong and faithful defender of grace. Gregory was leprous when it came to ceremonies; he considered it a mortal sin to break wind. Ambrose was a straightforward defender of faith against a reliance on works; if he had been involved in controversy he would perhaps have excelled all others.”4
On choosing what to preach: “I adapt myself to the circumstances of the common people. I don’t look at the doctors and masters, of whom scarcely forty are present, but at the hundred or the thousand young people and children. It’s to them I preach, and to them I devote myself, for they too need to understand.”5
To a visitor who asked whether a liaison is to be judged fornication if neither the man nor the woman is married: “Paul makes no distinction between fornication and adultery. I can’t make a law for you. I simply point to the Scriptures. There it is written. Read it for yourself. I don’t know what more I can do.”6
On the death of Elector John Frederick, a long-time supporter of Luther’s: “The ringing of bells sounds different from usual when one knows the deceased is somebody one loves. Our good-for-nothing windbags have been wanting to rule. Now they have their chance.”7
On a planned edition of his collected works: “I’ll never consent to this proposal of yours. I’d rather that all my books would disappear and the Holy Scriptures alone would be read. Otherwise we’ll rely on such writings and let the Bible go.”8