by Rev. Christopher Maronde
To those who have set themselves to read Luther’s works in either the original German and Latin or in an English edition, the task is somewhat overwhelming. The current American Edition of Luther’s Works is now up to seventy-nine volumes, and still counting. One Reformation scholar once quipped that Luther seemed to write down and publish every single thought that ever entered his head! With such a preponderance of material from the pen of Martin Luther, it would seem incredible that people could want more. But, in addition to all his ‘official’ writings, Luther had a constant following of students and colleagues who were writing down his more casual conversations. One of the most important places where this ‘paparazzi’ gathered information was at the table of Martin and Katherine Luther.
“A miscellaneous…crowd inhabits Dr. Luther’s home, and on this account there is great and constant disturbance.” So one of Luther’s friends reported in a 1542 letter. Luther’s home was not only for himself, Katherine, and their six children. There were always several students rooming there, and a constant stream of guests and colleagues of all sorts. The conversation could turn any of a multitude of ways, which makes Luther’s published “Table Talk” (found in volume 54 of the American Edition of Luther’s Works) very interesting reading.
One issue that Luther returns to again and again, both on his own volition and from the questions of others, is spiritual assault and ‘melancholy.’ In Luther’s day, the term ‘melancholy’ could indicate a wide variety of conditions from what we would diagnose as clinical depression to the worries, anxieties, and fears that one often feels when under the assaults of Satan, the world, and our own sinful nature. Luther speaks here not only as a pastor, but as a fellow Christian who has experienced the same kinds of temptations and melancholy. “I am of a different mind ten times a day.” (AE 54:16)
Luther’s approach to melancholy of all kinds is one of Law and Gospel, theological and practical, drawn from his own experience with spiritual assault. Luther first of all proclaims the Law, insisting that the Christian is to be filled with joy.
“A Christian should and must be a cheerful person. If he isn’t, the devil is tempting him.” (AE 54:96)
“To be gloomy before God is not pleasing to Him, although He would permit us to be depressed before the world. He does not wish me to have a long face in His presence.” (AE 54:16)
“No doubt God is thinking: What more can I do with this man? I have given him so many excellent gifts, and yet he despairs of my grace!” (AE 54:16)
Such Law sounds quite harsh to the melancholy soul, and thus it is not the last word that a pastor should speak. The Law commands us to be joyful before God, but it cannot bring such joy about. Joy in Christ, even in the midst of the temptations and persecutions of our enemies, can only come through the proclamation of the Gospel, and that is the healing balm that Luther then applies to the ailing soul.
“We are saints, that we are saved, and that this will be manifest when it is revealed. Since Christ accepted the thief on the cross just as he was and received Paul after all of his blasphemies and persecutions, we have no reason to despair.” (AE 54:17)
“Christ knows that our hearts are troubled, and it is for this reason that He says and commands, ‘Let not your hearts be troubled.’” (AE 54:96)
“God be praised, I grasp the First Commandment which declares, ‘I am your God. I’m not going to devour you. I’m not going to be poison for you.’” (AE 54:75)
Armed with the Gospel, the believer can then emphatically tell Satan to depart with all his accusations.
“I resist the devil, and often it is with a fart that I chase him away. When he tempts me with silly sins I say, ‘Devil, yesterday I broke wind too. Have you written it down on your list?’ When I say to him, ‘You have been put to shame,’ he believes it, for he does not want to be despised.” (AE 54:16)
“Thus I remind myself of the forgiveness of sins and of Christ and remind Satan of the abomination of the pope.” (AE 54:16)
There is also a piece of theological wisdom that Luther constantly employs.
“Those who are troubled with melancholy…ought to be very careful not to be alone, for God created the fellowship of the church and commanded brotherliness.” (AE 54:16)
“When you are assailed by gloom, despair, or a troubled conscience you should eat, drink, and talk with others.” (AE 54:17-18)
God has put His people into community, in fellowship with one another, precisely for those times when the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh drive us to depression and despair.
With Luther’s table talk, one must always realize that a sinful man is often simply giving advice. Certain phrases are not to be taken dogmatically, such as “If you can find help for yourself by thinking of a girl, do so,” or “Copious drinking benefits me when I am in this condition.” (AE 54:18) Other pieces of advice, such as “take care of your body in defiance of Satan, and the bad dreams will stop” (AE 54:18), are much more helpful than breaking the Sixth Commandment or getting drunk. As with all advice (and all of Luther’s Table Talk), we must sift the wheat from the chaff, and we must sort what comes from Scripture from what is simply words from men.
Those who gathered around Luther’s table were keenly aware that they were living in one of the greatest eras of Church history, and they were just as aware that they were almost literally sitting at the feet of one of the greatest theologians who had ever lived. There was a voracious desire to not miss anything that Luther said, on any topic, and we today are thankful that they set themselves to this task, bringing us the wisdom of this great man, on a great many topics, but especially one near and dear to his heart: the melancholy caused by our enemies, and the comfort and joy brought by Christ.
The Rev. Christopher Maronde is associate pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Lincoln, Neb.