Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel

LutherKnown for starting the Protestant Reformation in 1517, Martin Luther was first and foremost a pastor who deeply carried for those around him. This pastoral heart shines brightly through the countless letters Luther wrote to friends, acquaintances and governmental leaders. Luther’s letters also give readers insight into his theology as he never wrote a systematic theology book.

The book “Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel” is a collection of these pastoral letter centered around eleven spiritual topics. The first six of these topics were read as part of this class along with portions of two others. As Luther typical wrote his letters in Latin or German with portions in Greek or Hebrews, the letters have been translated by Theodore G. Tappert, professor of history at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, into English.

The first two chapters form a pair of sorts with the first chapter displaying letters of comfort for the sick and dying while the second chapter focuses on consolations for the bereaved. The third chapter of the book centers on letters of cheer for the anxious and despondent. After this, the collection has another pair with the fourth chapter dealing with instructions to the perplexed and doubting and the fifth with admonitions to steadfastness and courage. Chapter six highlights Luther’s compassion as it records his letters of intercessions for those in trouble or need. While collection includes five additional spiritual topics, only portions of chapter ten and eleven were read. These chapters dealt with suggestion for problems facing clergymen and exhortations concerning rulers and the state accordingly.

The thing that stood out to me the most was Luther’s concept of the supremacy of God. In adopting a theology of salvation based upon the supremacy of God above everything else, Luther must maintain that all sickness, disease, illness or pain must either come directly from the hand of God or, at the very least, by his permission. This view of God leads Luther to tell one sick friend that he is to “patiently bear the blows of his [Jesus’] kindly hand” (pg 29) while to another, his own mother in fact, Luther writes “know that this sickness of your is his gracious, fatherly chastisement” (pg 33). These comments, while written to comfort, actually seem to me to do the opposite as they place the pressure of the illness upon the party to whom it is addressed (i.e. if the aliment is to be viewed as punishment from God, than the sick person must have done something bad and, therefore, is ultimately responsible for their current situation).

Interestingly enough this view sickness and pain takes a backseat when Luther writes to those in depression or in need of courage. For them Luther talks about the evil one who fights against the people of God and plagues the mind of believers (pg 121, 147, and others). It is almost as if Luther’s theology includes aspects of Gnosticism in that it separates the physical world from that of the spiritual or mental world. The pains and downfalls of the physical world are, in this view, punishments from God to be borne with patience and courage. Troubles of the mind and/or spirit, on the other hand, are due to the evil one’s attacks and most be fought against through prayer, reading of the Scriptures, faith and communion. This dualistic view of world doesn’t seem to fit my understanding of the Scriptures as I see both the physical and spiritual/mental world combined into one complex world created by God, given over to the evil one by Adam and Eve and redeemed by Jesus the King. To that end, I believe that the attacks of the evil one could take any form – physical as well as spiritual and/or mental – while God the Father is one who takes the evil directed towards us and turns them into good. God is, therefore, not the author of evil nor one who sits idly by allowing His children to be attacked by the evil one.

In conclusion, while I don’t agree with the theology of Martin Luther, his pastoral letters as collected by Theodore Tappert in the book “Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel” do provide a unique insight into the life of a great follower of Jesus. The letters also provide a deeper understanding of Luther’s theology, especially in how it looks in pastoral situations. To that end, this is a worthwhile book that moves one out of theoretical and into real life.