And though this world with devils fill’d
Should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath will’d
His truth to triumph through us.
• Martin Luther, trans. Frederick Hedge
Brother Martin lived in God’s presence, but they were generally three, for the Devil was seldom absent.
• G.W. Foote
• • •
The world in which Martin Luther lived and led a Reformation was a magical one in which spirits filled the common imagination. The woodcut above by Lucas Cranach (1512), who later did many illustrations on behalf of Reformation causes, pictures a folkloric world of dark woods and the threatening presence of mythic creatures like the werewolf, here seen devouring a peasant woman’s family. Halloween was not a dress-up holiday to them, but an ever-present imaginative reality.
In Heiko A. Oberman’s remarkable study of the Reformer, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, the author contends that we cannot understand the good monk without accepting that he was a man “raised with the devil.” Oberman argues that it was not only his mother, whom Luther’s enemies described as a backwards peasant woman who introduced young Martin to a world full of demons. Indeed, the rumor they spread included the tale that the boy was conceived in a bathhouse through intercourse between his mother and the Devil himself! But belief in spirits and witchcraft and the devil were not simply the superstitions of ignorant peasants. Oberman says even the most erudite humanists of the time maintained such beliefs.
Today, I share with you a quote from Heiko A. Oberman, setting forth Luther’s mindset.
Luther’s world of thought is wholly distorted and apologetically misconstrued if his conception of the Devil is dismissed as a medieval phenomenon and only his faith in Christ retained as relevant or as the only decisive factor. Christ and the Devil were equally real to him: one was the perpetual intercessor for Christianity, the other a menace to mankind till the end. To argue that Luther never overcame the medieval belief in the Devil says far too little; he even intensified it and lent to it additional urgency: Christ and Satan wage a cosmic war for mastery over church and world. No one can evade involvement in this struggle. Even for the believer there is no refuge — neither monastery nor the seclusion of the wilderness offer him a chance for escape. The Devil is the omnipresent threat, and exactly for this reason the faithful need the proper weapons for survival.
There is no way to grasp Luther’s milieu of experience and faith unless one has an acute sense of his view of Christian existence between God and the Devil: without a recognition of Satan’s power, belief in Christ is reduced to an idea about Christ — and Luther’s faith becomes a confused delusion in keeping with the tenor of his time.
Attempts are made to offer excuses for Luther by pointing out that he never doubted the omnipotence of God and thus determined only narrow limits for the Devil’s activities. Luther himself would have been outraged at this view: the omnipotent God is indeed real, but as such hidden from us. Faith reaches not for God hidden but for God revealed, who, incarnate in Christ, laid himself open to the Devil’s fury. At Christmas God divested himself of his omnipotence — the sign given the shepherds was a child “wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger” (Luke 2:12) . To Luther Christmas was the central feast: “God for us.” But that directly implies “the Devil against us.” This new belief in the Devil is such an integral part of the Reformation discovery that if the reality of the powers inimical to God is not grasped, the incarnation of Christ, as well as the justification and temptation of the sinner, are reduced to ideas of the mind rather than experiences of faith. That is what Luther’s battle against the Devil meant to convey. Centuries separate Luther from a modern world which has renounced and long since exorcised the Devil, thus finding it hard to see the difference between this kind of religion and medieval witchcraft. But Luther distinguished sharply between faith and superstition. He understood the hellish fears of his time, then discovered in the Scriptures the true thrust and threat of Satan and experienced himself the Devil’s trials and temptations. Consequently he, unlike any theologian before or after him, was able to disperse the fog of witches’ sabbath and sorcery and show the adversary for what he really was: violent toward God, man and the world. To make light of the Devil is to distort faith. “The only way to drive away the Devil is through faith in Christ, by saying: ‘I have been baptized, I am a Christian.”’
It is not a unique, unheard-of thing for the Devil to thump about and haunt houses. In our monastery in Wittenberg I heard him distinctly. For when I began to lecture on the Book of Psalms and I was sitting in the refectory after we had sung matins, studying and writing my notes, the Devil came and thudded three times in the storage chamber [the area behind the stove] as if dragging a bushel away. Finally, as it did not want to stop, I collected my books and went to bed. I still regret to this hour that I did not sit him out, to discover what else the Devil wanted to do. I also heard him once over my chamber in the monastery.
The final passage, with its pointed formulation and its underlying expression of contempt for the Devil, was amazing at the time and is overlooked today: “But when I realized that it was Satan, I rolled over and went back to sleep again.” It is not as a poltergeist that the Devil discloses his true nature, but as the adversary who thwarts the Word of God; only then is he really to be feared. He seeks to capture the conscience, can quote the Scriptures without fault, and is more pious than God — that is satanical.
When I awoke last night, the Devil came and wanted to debate with me; he rebuked and reproached me, arguing that I was a sinner. To this I replied: Tell me something new, Devil! I already know that perfectly well; I have committed many a solid and real sin. Indeed there must be good honest sins — not fabricated and invented ones — for God to forgive for His beloved Son’s sake, who took all my sins upon Him so that now the sins I have committed are no longer mine but belong to Christ. This wonderful gift of God I am not prepared to deny [in my response to the Devil], but want to acknowledge and confess.
Luther’s purpose is not to spread fear but to strengthen the resistance of the faithful. Like Christ, the Devil is omnipresent. He acts and reacts, is drawn and challenged by anything that smacks of Christ and true faith. Here is found a radical deviation from the medieval concept of the Devil, according to which the evil one is drawn by the smell of sin, the sin of worldly concern. In Luther’s view, it is not a life dedicated to secular tasks and worldly business that attracts and is targeted by the Devil. On the contrary, where Christ is present, the adversary is never far away: “When the Devil harasses us, then we know ourselves to be in good shape!”. . .
What can we learn from Luther and his thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, and actions regarding the Devil and the spirit world? Are these to be viewed merely as remnants of a bygone age of medieval superstition? Or does he have things to say which can inform and assist us in our lives today?