379. Lyndal Roper on Luther

Posted on 12 September 2021

How radical was Luther? We find out from Lyndal Roper, who also discusses Luther and the Peasants' War, sexuality, anti-semitism, and the visual arts.

Further Reading

• L. Roper, The Holy Household: Women and Morals in Reformation Augsburg (Oxford: 1989).

• L. Roper, "Martin Luther’s Body: The ‘Stout Doctor’ and his biographers," American Historical Review (2010), 350-84.

• L. Roper, "The Many Functions of the Letter: Luther’s correspondence with Spalatin," German History (2010).

• L. Roper, The Witch in the Western Imagination (Charlottesville: 2012).

• L. Roper, Oedipus and the Devil: Witchcraft, Religion and Sexuality in Early Modern Europe (Abingdon: 2013).

• L. Roper, Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet (London: 2016).

• L. Roper, Living I Was Your Plague: Martin Luther's World and Legacy (Princeton: 2021).


Marc 12 September 2021

I think y’all have misunderstood Luther’s use of the term “flesh,” which for him does not mean physical body, but rather, in line with the apostle Paul’s use of the term, the fallen, sinful nature. 

Actually I have just been reading Calvin for a future episode and was struck by the fact that he uses phrases like "carnal reasoning" which makes your point clearly. However I think it's more complicated than that (and here I should admit that I don't remember exactly what in the interview you're referring to - harder to check than a scripted episode where I could just search through the text!). Since Augustine - and Luther is obviously in Augustine's tradition - fleshly or carnal nature affects human nature as a whole. Hence phrases like the one I just mentioned in Calvin. But it would be a mistake to dissociate that too much from the body, I think: just consider that original sin is passed down through physical reproduction. In fact my sense is that Luther is pushing back against a quasi-Platonist, dualist theory of the human being such as we find in Erasmus and of course other Renaissance thinkers (especially in Italy), and insisting very much on the idea that humans are immanent, embodied beings. This also connects to his Christology of course and even, I think, sheds light on his rejection of Zwingli's symbolic take on the Eucharist. Anyway I would say that "flesh" means "corrupted embodied nature" not "fallen nature as opposed to the body."

To the contrary I think that Peter got it exactly right. I completely agree that biblical terms sarx and pneuma are very different than what soma and I-am-not-sure-what mean in Plato (and especially the neoplatonic tradition), but I am afraid that especially in the Catholic (and scholastic medieval) tradition this difference quite vanished, and most of the ancient Christian ascetic, Catholic, and unfortunately also Reformed tradition agrees with (completely non-Christian) tendency that "body is the grave of soul" and that the sanctification sometimes look to many Christians like denying of body (in the material not biblical meaning) in preference of spirit. How many Christians truly remember all the time that we believe in "the resurrection of body" and how many believe that "body is ephemeral and spirit is eternal"?

Karel Konečný 6 October 2021

Luther's thinking was based on biblical texts. The Bible texts state that the body is sinful and does not please God. Then God looks like a stupid God when he created such a body. When Luther or a monk has a desire to break free from the body, then he denies humanity, and is in the realm of pride as a superman. In fact, Luther was very emotional and very physical. This would mean that Luther was also quite false in his thinking.

Matěj Cepl 9 October 2021

In reply to by Karel Konečný

> The Bible texts state that the body is sinful and does not please God.

The Bible doesn't state almost anything, it is all interpretation, and this is exactly the interpretation I believe Luther had a problem with. Read for example https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00395ZYVI for description of the Church struggle exactly with this sentence and how the Christian Church is very different from almost all other religions in this point (perhaps except for Jews).

Thomas Mirus 11 October 2021

In reply to by Karel Konečný

The Bible certainly does not say that the body as such doesn't please God, rather, it says God looked on all He created and saw that it was very good. God is not stupid of self-contradictory. Your assessment of Luther is correct, though, as pride and slavery to the carnal tend to go together. 

Carnal is property of the people. A mentally mature person then behaves like a man or a woman. However, there are many people who lack that mental maturity. Without the physical qualities of man, man becomes inhuman.

Brad R 7 May 2022

It is gratifying that anti-Semitism should be a focus of reviews of philosophy and theology in this podcast. I think things are very different after Vatican II, when the Church accepts the Judaism of Jesus and matures out of its youthful desire to separate itself from Judaism, as manifested - yes, Peter - in its need to supplant the legend of the election of the Jews with one of its own, at their expense. It is the sense in which the child grows to accept its debt to its parent, rather than vainly supposing him eclipsed by his own emergence, and needing, honor-bound, to carry forward his legacy. To the extent that the Church views herself in this fashion, she is genuinely a successor tradition, running parallel to an unbroken Jewish one that continues alongside it and maintains an integral relationship to ritual of which Christianity has no need, to the extent that she constructs herself against it, preserving it in her disavowal of it while graciously acknowledging her debt.

The participation in the spiritual is one and the same, granted this acknowledgment of priority, which ought to obligate us, in turn, to be good hosts. 

There is another problem: not only the (Catholic) Church teaching on the antisemitism changed, but also our general perception of it changed. After the Holocaust it is not possible ignore the possible deadly end of every antisemitism. Everybody who presents openly antisemitic attitude implicitly at least silently approves or tolerates the Final Solution. Obviously, it wasn’t so before, so for example huge part (if not most) of the British intellectual elite before the war (including for example G. K. Chesterton and W. Churchill) were mildly antisemitic, and of course, I have suspicion that they would be strongly against the new more virulent and deadly antisemitism of the Nazi type (actually, both of them in fact German Nazism rejected).

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