Contend Earnestly: Martin Luther and Language

Friday, September 05, 2008

Martin Luther and Language

It seems as though language is becoming more and more a discussion these days on what is considered vulgar and what is okay to proceed from the mouth of a true Christian. I was once told that I should never be allowed to preach if I use the word "suck" or "crap." I proceeded to ask the person if they would please give me their list of acceptable words so that I could also become a legalist to place that yoke on other's necks as well.

Whether many want to admit it or not, Martin Luther, which is a hero to a lot of protestants, used some pretty vulgar images and words to get his point across. I have written about some shocking use of terms and images a couple of times in Refuting those Who Contradict and also Playing the Whore. Some of Luther's quotes, which I will not go into all of them are the following:
Luther advised people to "tell the Devil to kiss my ____"

He repeatedly said that if the Pope should send him a command to appear before him: "I shall _____ upon his summons"

He said that the monks are "the lice placed by the devil on God Almighty's fur coat"

When trying to explain how far God is or is not the author of evil, he says: 'Semei wished to curse, and God immediately directed his curse against David. God says, "Curse him not and no one else." Just as if a man wishes to relieve himself I cannot prevent him, but should he wish to do so on the table here, then I should object and tell him to betake himself to the corner.'"

My all time favorite is his response to Rome about their use of Aristotle's thoughts on reason. Luther exclaimed, "Reason is a whore."

He also mentioned, "When I (the Pope-a--) bray, hee-haw, hee-haw, or relieve myself in the way of nature, they must take it all as articles of faith, i.e. Catholics."

So, the question comes to us today as, "Why do you use harsh language or vulgar images to get your point across?" Although I wouldn't stand behind all the ways Luther spoke or gave images I do completely agree with his outlook on it, and I do think that too many people have pussy footed around using harsh biblical language to awaken the pagan from their slumber.

Below is Luther's own words for why he used such language:

I own that I am more vehement than I ought to be; but I have to do with men who blaspheme evangelical truth; with human wolves; with those who condemn me unheard, without admonishing, without instructing me; and who utter the most atrocious slanders against myself not only, but the Word of God. Even the most phlegmatic spirit, so circumcised, might well be moved to speak thunderbolts; much more I who am choleric by nature, and possessed of a temper easily apt to exceed the bounds of moderation.

I cannot, however, but be surprised to learn whence the novel taste arose which daintily calls everything spoken against an adversary abusive and acrimonious. What think ye of Christ? Was he a reviler when he called the Jews an adulterous and perverse generation, a progeny of vipers, hypocrites, children of the devil?

What think you of Paul? Was he abusive when he termed the enemies of the gospel dogs and seducers? Paul who, in the thirteenth chapter of the Acts, inveighs against a false prophet in this manner: "Oh, full of subtlety and all malice, thou child of the devil, thou enemy of all righteousness." I pray you, good Spalatin, read me this riddle. A mind conscious of truth cannot always endure the obstinate and willfully blind enemies of truth. I see that all persons demand of me moderation, and especially those of my adversaries, who least exhibit it. If I am too warm, I am at least open and frank; in which respect I excel those who always smile, but murder.

I find this to be a great quote to back up Luther's use of language and images that make some cringe. I see some modern preachers getting this and using this kind of understanding to wake up the sleeping modern evangelical that will sleep his way in the pew all the way to the fires of hell.

I would rather be questioned from the legalist (or ultra conservative) on my usage of language than watch those under my guard run straight into hell without a bold warning of their whoring after other gods.


Anonymous said...

Interesting topic Seth. I've been thinking about this a lot recently, specifically all of the accusations against Driscoll regarding the language he uses. I find this topic intriguing as the specifics are somewhat defined by culture. We’re given instructions as to the tone and intent of our speech but the specifics have been left vague (as a specific word’s relevance continually changes with culture). We know that we should be sound in speech, beyond reproach, that we should put aside abusive speech and we should avoid coarse jesting.

One other item for consideration…how much does the hearer have to do with whether or not language is offensive? Obviously we’re to mirror Jesus, strive to be like him in every way, but I can’t remember a time when I’ve heard Mark Driscoll use language that I found offensive. God saved me later in life (at age 31) and I spent ages 16 thru 25 swearing like a sailor so maybe I’m desensitized towards it, but I’d thought I’d throw that in the ring as well.

I hope you and the family are doing good, we need to get together for lunch soon. Go over a little business and a lot of personal. I can’t remember if I am set up so I’m doing this anonymously (but still identifying myself).


Anonymous said...

There's a lot to be said for cultural context. What I may blurt out to shaken someone on the street scene would make the hair curl on someone of a more refined cultural. So is it wrong to use the word d***h**d in one cultural scene and not in another?

Seems the Romanists don't like what Luther said at times:
"However outrageous to Christian feeling and abhorrent to Christian principle was his habitual filthy talk, it is far surpassed in vileness and obscenity when he treats of womanhood, a fertile theme for his dirty tongue and pen. On this subject he was quite at his ease and allowed himself singular license. In the Colloquia no fewer than a hundred pages are devoted to the fair sex. In this work he surpasses himself in vulgarity and shows his brutality in indecent references to women. No one could quote him in this respect without the blood rushing to his head. His warmest biographers are ashamed of his vulgar and unmanly references to women. The filthy expressions he recorded in his books were so habitual with him that he even used them in his own home before his companion and the children. "Certainly," Fr. Johnston says, "no Protestant woman can read them without - I will not say utter shame and womanly horror - but without indignation that any man, above all a spiritual leader and cleric at that, could speak of her sex with such ordinary common familiarity and courseness and vulgarity and downright obscenity; that could joke at her sex in its most sacred and venerable moral and physical aspects, taking a stable boy's unclean delight at rude witticisms over poor woman's physical differentiation from man; that could make her very body the inspiration of jokes - all evincing a cynical and vulgar contempt for woman as such; that could even have the vulgarity to lift the covers of the nuptial bed and disclose its sacred secrets to the gaze of others. Had any Catholic writer dared to utter a fraction of what Luther thus wrote and said, he would be an eternal and shameful reproach to the Church he so unworthily represented.""

Anonymous said...

This one is really funny to me Seth.

I was, unbeknowns to me, invited to speak to a group of people who were King James Onlyists. A friend went on a trip and would not be able to do his regular Thursday evening adult Bible study. He was going through the Book of Romans and I was to pick it up at Romans 13 and talk about civil authorities.

I was to teach on God's ordained authorities in the communities this fellowship was apart of.

I read these words from the ESV:

Rom 13:1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.
Rom 13:2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.

An individual in the group asked me if they could read those same verses from their Bible.

After they read this from the KJV I made a comment something like, those folks clearly are "damned" people!:

Rom 13:1 Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.
Rom 13:2 Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.

About three or four days goes by the Pastor called me and informed me that I wasn't needed to continue the Adult Bible study as they had found someone else to pick up the slack.

I didn't think anything about it until my friend came back and he called me and asked me what I had done?

What do you mean, I asked?

Oh, you really got some folks mad at you because of two things.

Two things, I asked, what two things?

You didn't come prepared to teach the Word with the Bible and you cursed and people were offended by those things.

Hmmmmm, what I exclaimed are you talking about? I came with my Bible reading from it as I went verse by verse through Romans 13 and I don't remember cursing. What did they say I said?

Oh, you used the word "damned" and that is a curse word.

And you used some translation that no one had heard of or use. We only use the King James Bible here. You know that it is the correct translation, don't you?

Oh, hmmmmm, ah, ok, I said, if I used the word damned in my conversation or Bible study, then I am truly sorry, it wasn't intentional on my part to cuss. And, yes, I was using my ESV translation when I was teaching on Civil authorities.

I went back to my notes for that evening lesson and reviewed Chapter 13 of Romans and was puzzled why I would cuss and use the word damned. Then it hit me and I remembered what I said after the person requested to reread the verses at Romans 13:1-2!

geeeesh, ooops, can I use the word geeeesh in here, Seth? :) Is ooops ok too?

Anonymous said...

Oh that Luther! He was a real sinner alright.

Not like a lot of these half righteous, half sinner types that wouldn't know the gospel or the depth of their own sin if it hit 'em right in their genteel kissers.

Better to hear the gospel purely preached and taught from a foul mouthed sinner, than to have the law heaped upon you from an upright godly man, or the Pope himself.

Seth McBee said...

I totally agree with you that it has to at some degree be about who you are talking to and where you are talking. There are words that I use that I personally probably wouldn't use in the pulpit and also try not to use words that I know offends certain people.'s good to see you dropping by to say hello...lunch soon would be great.


That is a funny yet terrible story. Damned isn't a bad word and if someone says it is mind as well throw hell in there as a bad word to. Brutal.


Looks like you are addicted to the crack that I sell here at contend earnestly...sorry for that ahead of time. And..great comment by the way...I completely agree.

Anonymous said...


You know exactly what you are give us the first hit for free and then you've got us...

Strong Tower said...

"There's a lot to be said for cultural context. What I may blurt out to shaken someone on the street scene would make the hair curl on someone of a more refined cultural. So is it wrong to use the word d***h**d in one cultural scene and not in another?"

I don't think it is contingent upon the cultural context. Luther was not speaking to the layman on the street or the unbelieving pagan, but to the Chuchmen, the high and pompous straight laced Academic class, the aristocracy where that language would necessarily be offensive to their sensibilities. The language wasn't meant to titillate but to remand the target audience back to the latrine from which they were dug. Not so seeker friendly.

Purposely using language to excite or to endear one to the audience is the abuse of it. Paul used a term for human excrement in the same way as Luther used his colorful discriptions of his enemies. The Lord said that he would spread bulls*** on the faces of Israel because of the BS that they were eating at their solemn feasts while at the same time calling the Lord's table dispicable. Colorfully in Job a descriptor is use for the wicked who like a ball of it is buried forgotten and composts away. But it says similarly that the beggar on whom He has mercy, is dug out of a pile of it. And speaking of the KJV, one who "pisseth up against a wall," is used in two ways. Benignly simply to mean a male and derogatorily, as in a man who is a "d***."

You can see where legalists go with the language, but the opposite is true of the antinomian's use, both are abuse. It is not used in either of these ways in Scripture, but it is used. Some words are vulgar always, others depend upon who is using them and of what they are speaking.

Luther was called an expert of scatological expression. Scatology is the science of the study of human feces. I suppose if you look at it in a scientific way, what he was doing was giving his scientific assessment of the subject of his inquiries in the terminolgy germane to it. It was technical language ;)

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