Fred Clark, who blogs at Patheos.com has raised the interesting question of how we should approach theology of those whose lives seem to betray their thought. In his post A Whiskey Priest is Not the Same as a Nazi, Clark discusses the moral failings of Paul Tillich and John Howard Yoder, referencing a post by Roger Olson, also on patheos.com. Does it matter to their ideas that Tillich was a womanizer and Yoder an abuser? Does it matter that Luther advocated the slaughter of the peasants in the peasant's rebellion – suborned the bigamy of Philip of Hesse – wrote some nasty anti-Semitic tracts late in his life? What seems to be Clark's conclusion is:
Did Luther's anti-Semitism "affect" his theology, or did his theology foster his anti-Semitism? Yes, both. Did George Whitefield's slave-owning shape his otherworldly revivalism or did his otherworldly revivalism rationalize his slave-owning? Yes, both.
The assertion that the three nasty events highlighted in Luther's biography either "affected" or were "fostered" by his theology of the radical grace of God needs more than just the bare assertion to make it a convincing argument. Each of the events that are normally thought of as negatives in the Luther canon are, in fact, understandable in historical context. The anti-Semitism, for example, is more a product of Luther's old age, creeping senility and disappointment that the Jews did not wish to convert to his Evangelical view of God. The bigamy of Philip of Hesse needs to be seen in the context of Luther's political situation in 1539, probably more so than the context of the Reformation discovery.
The Peasant's Revolt is probably the incident that most closely derives from Luther's theology. Luther was not, despite the way we want to paint him, a radical modernist. He was a relatively conservative social thinker. Even while he acknowledged the justice of some of the complaints of the peasants, he found that he could not justify open rebellion against the princes – that the scripture did not allow for violent uprisings against secular authority. It was after touring the areas effected by the peasant revolts –and I think after meeting Müntzer – that Luther came to encourage the princes to treat the rebels as dogs and beasts and to kill them without mercy. Not a nice position, but not one we can't understand.
Nor is it a position we must adopt if we call ourselves Lutheran and admire, even find ourselves guided by Luther's theology.
First, as Lutherans we owe nothing in the way of fealty to Luther per-se. We are a confessional church and confess that a number of documents of the 16th century are foundational for our understanding of the Gospel. Only three of them are Luther's works – the Smalcald Articles, and the Small and Large Catechism. The rest of Luther's works are influential on contemporary Lutheran teaching more or less. Many clergy have Luther's works on their library shelves. Some have even read them. Luther's biography and theology are still part of seminary curriculum in both ELCA and Mo Synod seminaries. But how Luther is treated and how his theology is treated in relation to the theology of the church will, I'm sure, vary from seminary to seminary.
My seminary experience was that Luther was treated as a genius, as a speaker of the Word of God, and as deeply flawed human being. We read Roland Bainton's biography and Erickson's Young Man Luther. We did not gloss over the three major "flaws" in his career as a reformer, but came to see them as part of who Luther was. Because we are a confessional church, we didn't feel the need to swallow Luther's works "feathers and all." We looked for the insights that continued to ring true.
I think that's what we ought to do with Yoder, with Whitefield, with Tillich – as well as the Neibuhrs, Barth, Braaten, and all the rest.
My confirmation Pastor was a massive influence in my life. A Germanic "Herr Pastor" of great dignity of purpose, he demanded of the congregation and we – mostly – did what our Pastor thought best. But he was a horrible bigot. And he had a hunger for pornography. I'm sure he excused these flaws and reconciled them with his Christian faith (or more likely just ignored the porn and didn't see his bigotry). But he taught me the catechism in a way I've never forgotten, a way that has been sustaining. He instilled in me a love for liturgics without the fussiness that so often accompanies liturgical pomp. He also instilled a genuine desire to be a lifelong learner – and gave me a strong figure to rebel against. I'm grateful for all that, even while I know his bigotry is not of the Kingdom.
Last Sunday we read the parable of the Wheat in the Weeds. There Jesus admonishes the disciples to let the wheat and weeds grow together and let God sort out what's good and what's worthless in our lives and in the life of the church. For the subject of what we do about theologians with checkered biographies and inspiring theologies, it seems to me that we must let the wheat and the weeds grow together – discerning as best we can the weeds in their thoughts and their lives.