Nobody likes to be wrong. On the other hand, Christian believers certainly know that they are not perfect, and thus can and do make mistakes. Confessional Lutherans are especially aware of this since we do not look to or trust our own feelings, opinions, knowledge, or decisions for our eternal salvation. We know that God, by the working of the Holy Spirit through the precious Means of Grace, has “decided” for us! This, of course, is great comfort in times of trial, temptation, and doubt, as it allows us to focus on Christ, His work, and the gracious working of God, instead of on our imperfect selves.
Understanding that we are not perfect, that we make mistakes and errors in thinking, speaking, and doing, also means we are always learning, always growing, and always evaluating our thoughts, words, and actions. Indeed, this includes pondering, questioning, and re-learning the great truths of our faith. I believe this is one reason why Martin Luther encouraged people to never stop reading and learning even the simple Small Catechism.
Let’s admit it – who hasn’t had at least a fleeting thought maybe for just a few seconds in their life that maybe, just maybe, Zeus was on some ethereal Mt. Olympus moving people around like chess pieces and capriciously laughing it up with the the other “gods” as we puny humans go about our silly pointless lives, all for their amusement?! Of course, such thinking is absolutely wrong. And such fleeting thoughts do not make us hell-bound pagans. And why do we have such thoughts? Because we are imperfect human beings. But what keeps us from running off a cliff at times likes these? Nothing else than the sure, solid, rock of God’s eternal Word, and the sweet comfort of His Holy Sacraments, that’s what!
And each time we go back to that Word and study it, and perhaps read what others, like Luther, have written about it, we very often learn a new insight, and come away with a better and deeper understanding. This is that Luther did throughout this entire life. In his preface to a later edition of his writings he talks about this learning and growing. He admits freely to having written and said some wrong things earlier in his career. And he begs later readers not to judge him too harshly for these misstatements.
If it can happen to Luther it can happen to any one of us. Most certainly, let us always hang on to the great treasures and truths of our faith. Let us learn them anew and grow in our understanding. But let us also understand that our formulations of these truths can, as even in Luther’s case, sometimes be, let’s say, not completely accurate and as precise as they might be; that sometimes we need to re-state them, improve on them, or even back-track on them in some way. And let us give each other the time and patience to do this work without spite, rancor, or accusations of heresy.
Who knows, someday we may have to ask future generations to excuse our misstatements too. Let’s pray they will be as gentle with us as I’m sure we all are with our dear Father Martin!
DR. MARTIN LUTHER TO THE CHRISTIAN READER
PREFACE TO EDITION OF 1545
Above all things I beseech the Christian reader and beg him for
the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ, to read my earliest books very
circumspectly and with much pity, knowing that before now I too
was a monk, and one of the right frantic and raving papists. When
I took up this matter against Indulgences, I was so full and
drunken, yea, so besotted in papal doctrine that, out of my great
zeal, I would have been ready to do murder -- at least, I would
have been glad to see and help that murder should be done -- on
all who would not be obedient and subject to the pope, even to
his smallest word.
Such a Saul was I at that time; and I meant it right earnestly;
and there are still many such to-day. In a word, I was not such a
frozen and ice-cold champion of the papacy as Eck and others of
his kind have been and still are. They defend the Roman See more
for the sake of the shameful belly, which is their god, than
because they are really attached to its cause. Indeed I am wholly
of the opinion that like latter-day Epicureans, they only laugh at
the pope. But I verily espoused this cause in deepest earnest and
in all fidelity; the more so because I shrank from the Last Day
with great anxiety and fear and terror, and yet from the depths of
my heart desired to be saved.
Therefore, Christian reader, thou wilt find in my earliest books
and writings how many points of faith I then, with all humility,
yielded and conceded to the pope, which since then I have held and
condemned for the most horrible blasphemy and abomination, and
which I would have to be so held and so condemned forever. Amen.
Thou wilt therefore ascribe this my error, or as my opponents
venomously call it, this inconsistency of mine, to the time, and
to my ignorance and inexperience. At the beginning I was quite
alone and without any helpers, and moreover, to tell the truth,
unskilled in all these things, and far too unlearned to discuss
such high and weighty matters. For it was without any intention,
purpose, or will of mine that I fell, quite unexpectedly, into
this wrangling and contention. This I take God, the Searcher of
hearts, to witness.
I tell these things to the end that, if thou shalt read my books,
thou mayest know and remember that I am one of those who, as St.
Augustine says of himself, have grown by writing and by teaching
others, and not one of those who, starting with nothing, have in a
trice become the most exalted and most learned doctors. We find,
alas! many of these self-grown doctors; who in truth are nothing,
do nothing and accomplish nothing, are moreover untried and
inexperienced, and yet, after a single look at the Scriptures,
think themselves able wholly to exhaust its spirit.
Farewell, dear reader, in the Lord. Pray that the Word may be
further spread abroad, and may be strong against the miserable
devil. For he is mighty and wicked, and just now is raving
everywhere and raging cruelly, like one who well knows and feels
that his time is short, and that the kingdom of his Vicar, the
Antichrist in Rome, is sore beset. But may the God of all grace
and mercy strengthen and complete in us the work He has begun, to
His honor and to the comfort of His little flock. Amen.
Works of Martin Luther, Adolph Spaeth, L.D. Reed, Henry Eyster Jacobs, et Al., Trans. & Eds. (Philadelphia: A. J. Holman Company, 1915), Vol. 1, pp. 10-11. This text was converted to ascii format for Project Wittenberg by Allen Mulvey and is in the public domain. You may freely distribute, copy or print this text. Please direct any comments or suggestions to: Rev. Robert E. Smith of the Walther Library at Concordia Theological Seminary.