the personal blog of Mateen Elass

Luther the Progressive? (Part 1)


This blog post and the next are the result of a challenge issued by a Christian favoring gay ordination. The claim by implication was that Martin Luther possibly equivocated on the
sinfulness of homosexual behavior, and if this is true then perhaps evangelical Christians need to rethink their unequivocal opposition on this issue.  I was surprised to learn that Luther has been enlisted by the pro-gay ordination lobby in its efforts to normalize homosexual behavior between consenting adults.  Yet I feel confident now after researching his writings that were Luther not presently occupied with more heavenly pursuits around the throne of God, he would be spitting lightning bolts upon seeing how his words have been twisted in the service of falsehood.

Here’s how the pro-gay argument goes.  In four key biblical passages dealing with homosexual behavior (Lev. 18:22; 20:13; 1 Cor 6:9; 1 Tim 1:10), Luther renders the original Hebrew or Greek texts with the German word “Knabe” (translated in modern German as “boy”).  In the two Leviticus texts, his translation says that one should not lie/sleep with a Knabe as with a Weib (= woman/wife).  In the two Pauline texts, Luther apparently coins
a new word (Knabenschänder, which literally translates as “those who defile boys”) to translate the also uniquely biblical Greek term “arsenokoitai” (literally “those who bed with males”) Hence their claim is that Luther understood these prohibitions/sins to apply specifically to pederasty (adult-child male-male sex), not generically to adult consensual homosexuality, and so Luther would not oppose the ordination of or marriage covenant for
practicing homosexuals.  It certainly is curious that Luther would use such a specific German term to translate a more generic Greek word.  On the face of it, one might be
led to conclude that indeed Luther was concerned more with defining pederasty as evil than with condemning all homosexual practice.  Even more curious is the fact that the
earlier German Zürcherbibel (Zurich Bible), published in 1531 (14 years before Luther’s translation became public), does not use Luther’s word in either of the Pauline texts but rather the more literally accurate phrase “mit Männern schlafen” (to sleep with men, i.e., males).  No one would accuse Luther of being ignorant of the full meaning of the biblical Greek term “arsenokoitai”, so why would he translate it with a German word seeming to mean only pederasty, rather than the more generic term indicating homosexual behavior of any kind?

If this were all we knew of Luther’s views on homosexuality, one might easily draw the conclusion that indeed Luther’s problem with same-sex relationships dealt only with
non-consensual or power-inequality sexual encounters (in this case due to age), not with committed partnerships among equals whether hetero- or homoerotic.  However, such is not the case.  In Luther’s other writings, especially dealing with Genesis 19 (Lot and the angels in Sodom) and Romans 1, Luther’s views on homosexuality itself are very clear.

In his work, Table Talk, Luther shares his understanding that male-female sexual attraction is part of God’s created/intended order, whereas male-male or female-female attraction is unnatural – that is, a perversion of God’s intention for human beings: “The longing of a man for a woman is God’s creation – that is to say, when nature’s sound, not when it’s corrupted as it is among Italians and Turks” (Luther’s Works, 54:161).  The reference here to Italians is a slam against the practice of sodomy apparently rampant among the Roman Catholic clergy, who of course were unmarried by vow.  The reference to Turks reveals Luther’s view that among Muslims the practice of sodomy was also widespread.

This understanding of homosexual inclination and behavior as a perversion of God’s original created order is seen even more clearly in his exposition of Gen 19:

The heinous conduct of the people of Sodom is extraordinary, inasmuch as they
departed from the natural passion and longing of the male for the female, which
is implanted into nature by God, and desired what is altogether contrary to nature. Whence comes this perversity? Undoubtedly from Satan, who after people have once turned away from the fear of God, so powerfully suppresses nature that he blots out the natural desire and stirs up a desire that is contrary to nature.” (Luther’s Works, 3:254-5)

Again in Table Talk we find a conversation between Luther and Melanchthon about “Italian marriages” as the two were travelling by cart to Torgau. Luther said:

These exceed by far all the lewdness and adulteries of the Germans.  The latter are nevertheless sins, but the former uncleannesses are satanic.  God protect us from this devil!  By God’s grace none of the native tongues of Germany was at all acquainted with this heinous offense” (Luther’s Works, 54:278).

Some scholars believe that “Italian marriages” was Luther’s codename for not simply for homosexual behavior, but specifically for pederasty, an evil he believed was not widely known in Germany (as native Germans had developed no word for it) until it was “imported” by the Catholic priests from Italy.  If this is so, his use of the word Knabenschänder to translate “arsenokoitai” might be a pointed reference to the sexual abuses particularly of the Roman Catholic clergy.

With regard to his exposition of the visit of the angels to Lot in Sodom (Gen 19), Luther writes:

I for my part do not enjoy dealing with this passage, because so far the ears of the Germans are innocent of and uncontaminated by this monstrous depravity; for even though disgrace, like other sins, has crept in through an ungodly soldier and a lewd merchant, still the rest of the people are unaware of what is being done in secret. The Carthusian monks deserve to be hated because they were the first to bring this terrible pollution into Germany from the monasteries of Italy” (Luther’s Works, 3:251-252).

For Luther, homosexual behavior was an “unspeakable” sin.  Hence, he does not deal with it much in his voluminous writings.  But in his lectures on Scripture, when he comes across pertinent texts, he does not hesitate to speak clearly.  Concerning 2 Peter 2:7, “And if He rescued righteous Lot, greatly distressed by the licentiousness of the wicked,”  Luther declares:

Was it not a great abomination that they not only whored and committed adultery but also committed such an unspeakable sin openly and brazenly, and did not spare even
the angels who came to Lot? And both young and old in all corners of the city were addicted to this sin” (Luther’s Works, 30:179).

Likewise with Romans 1:24-27, Luther writes concerning sexual sins against one’s own body and by extension those committed with the bodies of others:

“To uncleanness to the dishonoring of their own bodies among themselves. From the apostle this vice gets the name uncleanness and effeminacy. Thus we read in 1 Cor. 6:9: “Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, … nor adulterers, nor the effeminate, nor homosexuals, etc., will inherit the kingdom of God”; and in Eph. 5:3: “All uncleanness, or
covetousness, must not even be named among you, as is fitting among saints”; and in 2 Cor. 12:21: “They have not repented of the uncleanness, immorality, and licentiousness which they have practiced.” He also calls this a dishonor, or shame; for as the nobility of the body (at least in this respect) consists in chastity and continence, or at least in the proper use of the body, so its shame is in its unnatural misuse. As it adds to the splendor of a golden vessel when it is used for exquisite wine, but it contributes to its inelegance when it is used as a container for dirt and refuse, so also our body (in this respect) is ordained either for an honorable marriage or for an even more honorable chastity. But it is dishonored in the most shameful way when it not only violates marriage and chastity but also soils itself with that disgrace which is even worse.

“The uncleanness, or effeminacy, is every intentional and individual pollution that can be brought about in various ways…. I have called it “individual,” for when it becomes heterosexual or homosexual intercourse, it has a different name” (Luther’s Works, 25:165).

Of particular interest in this passage is the fact that Luther links this Romans 1 text on general homosexual behavior with the list of sins in 1 Cor 6:9.  This strengthens our claim that Luther does not see “arsenokoitai” as pederasty but as generic homosexual activity.

Tomorrow, we’ll consider three final passages from Luther’s writings and offer some suggestions and conclusions concerning the translations in question, on the basis of Luther’s own thoughts.