Getting your head around Luther’s insults

With all the attention lately on the 500 years celebrating the Reformation (see my earlier post on this here) I thought it might be good to uncover one of the more unusual (and indeed humourous) aspects of this great event.  If you are familiar with any of the history of the Reformation and in particular, the writings of Martin Luther, you would have at some time come across Luther’s insults.  It can’t be helped – they’re everywhere.  Here are a few samples:

“You are the worst rascal of all the rascals on earth!”
From Against the Roman Papacy, an Institution of the Devil, pg. 341 of Luther’s Works, Vol. 41

“Perhaps you like to hear yourself talk, as the stork its own chattering.”
Against the Heavenly Prophets from Vol. 40 of Luther’s Works.

“Take care, you evil and wrathful spirits. God may ordain that in swallowing you may choke to death.”
From Against the Heavenly Prophets, pg. 111 of Luther’s Works, Vol. 40

“All Christians should be on guard against your antichristian poison.”
Defense and Explanation of All the Articles from Vol. 32 of Luther’s Works

So what’s the deal?  Surely he didn’t say (as in write) these things publicly.  He would never get away with it.  Well actually he did, and so did many of his opponents.

In order to appreciate Luther’s insults (and yes, they can be appreciated) you need to understand the context and culture in which they were spoken.[1]  Luther was simply a product of his time.  INSULTING was a common rhetorical device used with polemical[2] literature in the 16th century.  Luther was defending pure doctrine against impure doctrine and trying to guide the church of his day back to the gospel and the  “faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).  His insults however, went a little too far sometimes and bordered on the unseemly.  Fortunately his wife Katherine was more than capable of handling this.  When his language was too foul, she would say, “Oh come now, that’s too raw” (can’t you just picture it?).

Katie Luther

When asked to retract his works at the Diet of Worms in 1521, Luther spoke openly about what he had written and the people he spoke strongly against.  Concerning his insults, Luther said,

I have written a third sort of book against some private and (as they say) distinguished individuals – those, namely, who strive to preserve the Roman tyranny and to destroy the godliness taught by me.  Against these I confess I have been more violent than my religion or profession demands.  But then, I do not set myself up as a saint; neither am I disputing about my life, but about the teaching of Christ.  It is not proper for me to retract these works, because by this retraction it would again happen that tyranny and godlessness would, with my patronage, rule and rage among the people of God more violently than ever before.

It is clear from this explanation that Luther was using the common rhetorical device of insults (he terms them “violence”) to defend pure doctrine against tyranny and godlessness.  For all you pro-Reformation people out there, you might say “Go Luther!”  For those of you are who are not so “pro” (or perhaps, just neutral), relax and exhale.  Or better still – laugh along with us.

So what would this kind of “insulting” look like if it was in action today?  Well (subtitled – “A curiously Christian webcomic) came up with a suggestion.  But before I elaborate further, if the above content bothered you then you probably better stop reading.

Posing as Luther, they (I assume there’s more than one culprit involved here) have created a fanciful twitter feed belonging to the infamous Joel Osteen (if you don’t know who he is you are most blessed).  Osteen preaches a man-centered prosperity gospel that tells people God wants them to be happy, healthy and wealthy.  His messages always have a positive, feel-good vibe that people just love and I can’t stand.  He’s rich and famous and also happens to be, in my lowly view, a heretic.

Here’s some samples from the supposed twitter feed:

Ouch!  Imagine seeing that come up on your twitter feed!  Or how about this one:

Synonyms for “fawner”: leech, parasite, groveller, greaser.  You get the point.

Yeah – sock it to him Luther.  Here’s another:

Say what???   Yep – I had the same reaction.  So I looked up pusillanimous and found this: “lacking courage or resolution; cowardly; faint-hearted; timid” (you can check out the pronunciation here.)  I’d love to know what it was in German, and why on earth the translators didn’t pick an easier word.  Here’s one more for the road:

If you’re keen for more, you can head to the real deal “Luther Insulter” webpage and get insulted yourself, as much as you want.  Simply click on the picture below.  Have fun!

[1] I give credit to Tyler Rasmussen’s explanation on his “Luther Insults Explained” (

[2] Polemic: a controversial argument, as one against some opinion, doctrine, etc.

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