Luther the Progressive? (Part 2)

As we conclude this short study of Luther’s teaching on the Bible and homosexuality, we consider three more passages before drawing our conclusions concerning his translation of “arsenokoitai” in 1 Cor 6 and 1 Tim 1.  Picking up from yesterday’s post………..

Finally, in one rather long passage, Luther ties together Genesis 19 and Romans 1 so as to apply them to the condition of the world of his day in an attempt to answer the question, “Which would be worse, to be ruled by the Papacy or by the Ottoman Empire?”  This section opens with Luther’s assessment of the residents of biblical Sodom struck blind by the angels, and claims that their physical blindness is mirrored by the pope’s and Ottomans’ (= Turks’) moral blindness in that they lightly regard heterosexual marriage but engage energetically in sodomy as if it were a blessed thing.  Luther concludes that all things considered, being ruled by the Muslim empire would be a slightly worse reality than
continuing under the control of Rome!

God visits them with the same plague, too, and smites them with blindness so that it happens to them as St. Paul says in Romans 1 [:28] about the shameful vice of the dumb sins, that God gives them up to a perverse mind because they pervert the word of God. Both the pope and the Turk are so blind and senseless that they commit the dumb sins shamelessly, as an honorable and praiseworthy thing. Since they think lightly of marriage, it serves them right that there are dog-marriages (and would to God they were dog-marriages), indeed, also “Italian marriages” and “Florentine brides” among them; and they think these things good. I hear one horrible thing after another about what an open and glorious Sodom Turkey is, and everybody who has looked around a little in Rome and Italy knows very well how God revenges and punishes the forbidden marriage, so that Sodom and Gommorah [sic], which God overwhelmed in days of old with fire and brimstone [Gen. 19:24], must seem a mere jest and prelude compared with these abominations. On this one account, therefore, I would very much regret the rule of the Turk; indeed, his rule would be intolerable in Germany” (Luther’s Works, 46:198).

There is no doubt that on this topic Luther spends most of his energy targeting the abuses of the Roman Catholic hierarchy.  This serves as one of his justifications for rejecting the authority of Rome, indeed even for his conclusion that the God of the pope and his priests is not the God of the Bible.  We have seen some of this focus in the quotations above, but here are a final few that drive the point home:

If the papacy still had the sanctity and austerity of life that it had at the time of fathers like Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine, and others, when the clergy did not yet have an evil reputation for simony, extravagance, pleasures, wealth, adultery, sodomy, and countless other sins but lived in accordance with the canons and decrees of the fathers, outwardly religious and holy, and even practiced celibacy—what, I ask you, would we have been able to do against the papacy?” (Luther’s Works, 26:458)

You must let yourselves be styled and judged before God and the world as procurers and harlot keepers. We shall depict for you in addition your Roman sodomy, Italian marriage, Venetian and Turkish brides, and Florentine bridegroom, so that you shall see and comprehend that our marriage has taken honest vengeance on your honorless chastity. The fact that perhaps some of you are not guilty of all such wrongs is none of our concern. The protector, defender, comrade, and accomplice should be considered the same as those who are themselves guilty, because they do not punish, ban, and shun such vices, as the gospel and your own law teach, but help these evildoers, back them, and join them in raging against us. By such support they make themselves partakers of all such outrages and are therefore no better than the guilty” (Luther’s Works, 34:48).

In light of all these statements, we can now return to our original question: Does Luther intend to send the message in translating “arsenokoitai” as Knabenschänder that he does not really believe Paul means to proscribe all homosexual activity but only pederasty?  The answer to this must be, “Hardly.”  Luther is clear in all of his statements regarding homosexuality that he sees this sexual inclination as a perversion of God’s created order.  As such, any practice of it is opposed to God’s will.  In fact, the practice is so vile, to his way of thinking, that it is better not mentioned in innocent company.  Why then does Luther use Knabe rather than Mann? As I hypothesized earlier, it is possible that he linked Knabenschänder specifically with the charge of “Italian marriages” among the Roman Catholic clergy, a reference perhaps particularly to pederasty.  If so, his use of “Knabenschänder” would plant the aberrant clergy whom Luther despised squarely in the center of the list of sins which disqualify one from the Kingdom of heaven.  But this is only a guess.

Another possible explanation is that “Knabenschänder” was a colloquial term of his day which accurately translated the Greek “arsenokoitai”, but which has been lost to us in subsequent history.  This is strengthened by the fact that in the Leviticus texts Luther sets up the contrast between Knabe and Weib.  Since Weib clearly means woman or wife, it is likely that Knabe has a range of meaning including “male or man” in Luther’s usage.  In our own English language, we use the terms “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” to refer to dating relationships even of persons far beyond the age of “boy” or “girl.”  Take for instance this recent online news story account: “Halle Berry celebrated her 45th birthday with loved ones in Malibu Sunday. Halle had both her boyfriend, Olivier Martinez, and her daughter, Nahla, along….”  Martinez is also 45.  If we can use “boy” in this sense in English, certainly it is possible that “Knabe” may have been used that way in the Middle High German of Luther’s day.  But again, this is only a guess.

We cannot know for sure what Luther’s intention was with his translation of “arsenokoitai” into German.  We do know for sure, however, what Luther’s view of homosexuality was, informed by specific biblical texts and his overall grasp of a biblical world view.  Were he in our midst today, it would be safe to say based on his writings that he would be leading the charge against the normalization of homosexual behavior in any form, especially in the context of the church community.

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6 Responses to Luther the Progressive? (Part 2)

  1. Viola Larson says:

    Mateen reading all of this it sounds like times for both the world and the church rarely change-it’s just a difference of how much the world enters the church. In church history the monastic orders constantly needed reform and reform did happen. I am thinking in particular of Cluny.

    Thank you for taking the time and trouble to clarify the Luther’s views.


  2. Dave Moody says:

    If Luther were alive today, I suspect he wouldn’t be much concerned with ‘tone’ when addressing officers who teach that God blesses such activity. He might even use the ‘A’ word when referring to such officers. Perhaps such fiery language is less helpful in our day and age, but one does wonder if we’ve lost the ability to speak confidently, and robustly regarding truth and falsehood in a public setting. Thanks for the history lesson…


    • Bill Parrish says:

      I agree whole heartedly with your assessment Dave. The “A” word would be appropriate as well. Just like you, I’m thankful for the patience Mateen has shown through this process to educate people like myself and others with well facts so we can better understand the issues. In Rev. 13:9 we read, “He who has an ear, let him hear.” The Holy Spirit is speaking, but who’s listening?


  3. Kay Nicholas says:

    Bill, I so agree with your comment The Holy Spirit is speaking , but who is listening? Thankyou Mateen for your researching. teaching and sharing,


  4. fwiw – Lutherans Concerned/North America (the pro-LGBT lobby in Lutheran circles) didn’t try to use the Luther translation issue because Luther can’t be used to support the pro-LGBT movement, as you have so adroitly shown.


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