Schwärmerei as Original Sin

Robert Kolb
Friday, September 1st 2017
Sep/Oct 2017

“They fill the world with their chattering and scribbling—as if the Spirit could not come through the Scriptures or the spoken word of the apostles, but the Spirit must come through their own writings and words.”

— Martin Luther

In 1537, at the behest of Elector Johann Friedrich the Elder, Martin Luther composed (with the help of colleagues and friends) a statement of faith that he said “should be publicly submitted and presented as the confession of our faith—should the pope and his adherents ever become so bold as to convene a truly free council,” in response to Pope Paul III’s call for a council issued in 1537.1 This document, written in German and later dubbed “The Smalcald Articles,” was essentially a collection of talking points for the evangelical princes of the Smalcald League as they prepared to testify their faith at a council that finally assembled in December 1545.2

One responded to the necessity of preaching the law in calling to repentance those Christians who had fallen into sin, contrary to the antinomian tendencies of one of Luther’s best students, Johann Agricola.3 Another defended the Wittenberg understanding of the location of the salvific power of the word in its oral, written, and sacramental forms. Luther was here thinking of Thomas Müntzer, another student whose spiritualist theology had offended his former teacher, at least as much as his leadership in the Peasant Rebellion of 1525. Luther compared the papacy’s claim to access to truth in the heart of the pope “above or contrary to the Scriptures or the spoken Word” to Müntzer’s alternative to relying on the external word. He compared this contempt for external forms of God’s word to the original sin in Eden:

This is all the old devil and old snake, who also turned Adam and Eve into enthusiasts and led them from the external Word of God to Spiritism and their own arrogance although he accomplished this by means of other, external words. In the same way our enthusiasts also condemn the external Word, and yet they themselves do not keep silent. Instead, they fill the world with their chattering and scribbling—as if the Spirit could not come through the Scriptures or the spoken word of the apostles, but the Spirit must come through their own writings and words.4

In this case, Luther used Enthusiasten, a word borrowed from the Greek for ecstatic religious experiences. Some years earlier, he had translated this term into German with his own construction from the verb meaning “to swarm” or, freely translated, “to rave”: Schwärmer.

The reformer coined the term to describe those whose ideas “swarmed” or flew about like bees. It became a polemical label for all his opponents, but throughout his career he continued to use it especially for those who confused the proper ordering of external and internal. As a consequence of this error, they did not share his understanding of how God works through the oral and written word and through both sacraments as means of grace.5

Luther’s equation of original sin and Schwärmerei stems from his understanding that God is truly present and active in the words of Holy Scripture and in the delivery of its message, especially the promises of forgiveness, life, and salvation given in the oral, written, and sacramental forms of his word.6 Thus God chose the writings of selected prophets and apostles to function as the ultimate authority for conveying the message that presents the reality of who he is and who his human creatures are designed to be. Because God’s word is by its very nature active—performative, (even more) creative, and re-creative—any other source of human perception of reality can only mislead if it deviates from what God has written through his chosen human coauthors.7 According to Luther, what ended the relationship of peace and trust between Creator and human creatures was precisely the failure to acknowledge God’s lordship by doubting his word. That doubt constituted the original sin, just as trust constituted the original righteousness that governed the human side of the divine-human relationship.

Three years before he wrote this definition of original sin in his addition to the Smalcald Articles, he lectured on Genesis 3 and described what had happened when the Deceiver confronted Adam and Eve. Rather than focus on “pride, lack of concern or just simple eating of the fruit,” Luther described the original sin—“the greatest and severest of all temptations”—in this way:

The serpent directs its attack at God’s good will and makes it its business to prove from the prohibition of the tree that God’s will toward the human creature is not good. Therefore, it launches its attack against the very image of God and the most excellent powers in the uncorrupted nature. The highest form of worship itself, which God had ordained, it tries to destroy. It is, therefore, vain for us to discuss this or that sin. Eve is simply urged on to all sins since she is being urged on against the Word and the good will of God.8

Luther explains:

Satan here poses the question to Adam and Eve in this way to deprive them of the Word and to make them believe his lie after they have lost the Word and their trust in God. Is it a wonder that when this happens, the human being later on becomes proud, that he has contempt for God and other people, that he becomes an adulterer or a murderer? Indeed, this temptation is the sum of all temptations. It brings with it the toppling and violation of the entire Decalogue. Unbelief is the source of all sins. When Satan brought about this unbelief by driving out or corrupting the Word, the rest was easy for him.9

Luther describes original sin in the traditional manner: “Sin comes from that one human being, Adam, through whose disobedience all people became sinners and subject to death and the devil.” He calls this “inherited sin” or “the chief sin.” His list of sins follows the Ten Commandments, but eight of the eighteen specific examples stem from the first commandment: “Unbelief, false belief, idolatry, being without the fear of God, presumption, despair, blindness, and, in short, not knowing or honoring God,”10 which are synonyms for the doubt and disregard of what God had to say to Adam and Eve, which the professor highlights in his Genesis commentary and comments on Psalm 51.

Luther believed that this doubt and disregard for the person of the Creator and what he has to say to his human creatures permeates the lives of the descendants of Adam and Eve, which was confirmed by his own honest evaluation of his life. His often-cited complaints about human reason, labeling it a “whore” and similar more developed criticisms,11 do not reflect the whole of Luther’s appraisal of rational thinking. He also considered it a good gift of God, necessary for the exercise of the callings he gives human beings in this world. His rejection of reason did not exclude its use as a servant in the study of Scripture, but he refused to permit human reasoning to define who God is and what it means to be human. He joined the definition of the Creator to the definition of the human creature, acknowledging that God is indeed a person who, while exceeding the ability of his creatures to grasp everything about him (i.e., “God Hidden” or Deus absconditus), is also “God Revealed” in Scripture and in Jesus Christ (Deus revelatus).12 Any attempt to probe into God’s person beyond his revelation will end only in human reason inventing an image of God. Luther found no usable depiction of God apart from that which is revealed in his relationship to his human creatures; likewise, his definition of what it means to be human is revealed in their relationship to God: to have no other gods before him and “to fear, love, and trust in him above all things.”13

Thus any attempt to define God, apart from how he has revealed himself in Scripture to be, only blurs (if not obliterates) the human being’s true understanding of God. Any attempt to interpret what it means to be human apart from viewing humanity as listening to the voice of the Creator, as he has revealed himself in Jesus Christ, will result in a distortion of what God fashioned in Eden. Aristotle’s definition of “human” as animal rationale constituted for Luther a fatal misconception at its very heart; for without the presence of the God who personally moves and shakes all things, the human creature is flawed and failing.14 The absence of a personal Creator in Aristotle’s anthropology made the movement generated by the Unmoved Mover subject to eternal laws. The laws that govern human life must be mastered by humanity in order to control their actions and, by extension, their own destiny. Luther’s training as an Ockhamist taught him that God had created law and order in his world according to his will. In Luther’s estimation, too much of the scholastic theology he had learned attempted to wrap biblical definitions of reality in an Aristotelian straitjacket.

Aristotle’s was not the only false theory of reality that Luther encountered: Müntzer and other Schwärmerei had operated with equally misleading frameworks. He recognized that in Eden the devil had exposed himself as the great deceiver, whose very nature it is to lie. His misrepresentation of who God is and what it means to be human lies at the heart of his murderous deception, as Jesus observed in John 8:44. His means of assaulting human trust in God and his word are manifold; believers are constantly confronted with assaults on the word in various forms, some taking the form of direct contradictions and others in subtle perversions of what God says in Scripture, so that the pious may remain pious in their own minds and in the sight of others while closing their ears to God.

Luther’s challenge from the Schwärmerei has its roots in a kind of medieval reform movement that occasionally surfaced during the five hundred years before the Reformation. These movements usually viewed the Bible as a moralistic path to salvation (rather than one dependent on sacred religious communion through the sacraments) and opposed the use of ecclesiastical law and tradition alongside Scripture. They were anti-clerical (since sacraments and hierarchy were closely intertwined) and premillennial, expecting the imminent introduction of the kingdom of Christ.

It was this spirit that moved the so-called Zwickau Prophets, who came to Wittenberg while Luther was at the Wartburg Castle in 1521–22, and who claimed to have received special revelations directly from the Holy Spirit, obviating the need to listen to the witness of Scripture. When Luther’s colleague at the Wittenberg theological faculty, Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt, began sharing at least some of their views and moved toward a swift and radical introduction of reform, Luther reacted with horror.15 Personally, he felt betrayed by a good friend. “Doctor Andreas Karlstadt has abandoned us and in addition has become our worst enemy,” he stated at the beginning of Against the Heavenly Prophets (1525).16 Karlstadt’s rejection of the true presence of Christ’s body and blood, his destruction of artistic works in the churches, and his reliance on the performance of many aspects of Mosaic ceremonial law violated Luther’s understanding of what God had revealed in Scripture.

Luther also criticized his failure to submit to the written word of God and his reliance on inner revelation. Luther emphasized the necessity of recognizing the relationship of the outward action of God and his internal working that creates trust in the promises of Christ:

When God sends for this holy gospel, he deals with us in a twofold manner, first outwardly, then inwardly. Outwardly, he deals with us through the oral word of the gospel and through material signs, that is baptism and the sacrament of the altar. Inwardly, he deals with us through the Holy Spirit, faith, and other gifts. But whatever their measure or order, the outward factors should and must precede. The inward experience follows and is brought about by the outward. God has determined to give the inward to no one except through the outward.

Luther points out that in Luke 16:29, Christ simply directed the living to Moses and the prophets. In Titus 3:5, Paul says that the baptismal promise involved in the washing of regeneration is God’s means of pouring out the Holy Spirit richly. In Romans 1:16, Paul states that the proclamation of the gospel is “God’s power for saving everyone who has faith.”17

By suggesting some direct access to God, the followers of Karlstadt were following a path Luther knew well from his use of mystical writings from the monastic piety that had contributed much to his own development.18 Using the language of the tradition of Johannes Tauler, much of whose work he highly appreciated, Luther identified people in Karlstadt’s camp as longing for an experience of “self-abstraction”:

But should you ask how one gains access to this lofty spirit, they do not refer you to the outward gospel but to some imaginary realm, saying, “remain in ‘resignation.’” A heavenly voice will come, and God himself will speak to you.

Further inquiry into what this state of resignation does cannot yield an answer. Luther appeals to his readers:

Do you not see here the devil, the enemy of God’s order? With all his mouthing of the words, “Spirit, Spirit, Spirit,” he tears down the bridge, the path, the way, the ladder, and all the means by which the Spirit may come to you. Instead of the outward order of God in the material sign of baptism and the oral proclamation of the Word of God, he wants to teach you, not how the Spirit comes to you, but how you come to the Spirit. They would have you journey on the clouds and ride to the wind. They do not tell you how or when, from where or what, but you are to share their experience.

The result of their creation of their own internal spirit is that they must devise a legalistic external order using biblical words.19 Against this Luther argues that “where Holy Scripture is the ground of faith, we are not to deviate from the words as they stand or from the order in which they stand, unless an express article of faith compels a different interpretation or order.”20 Presumed in this statement is that articles of faith are constructed out of scriptural texts and that they represent the clear consensus of the biblical writers that aids in the interpretation of individual passages in the Bible. This meant for Luther that “faith should and must rest on certainty, not on punctuation marks and capitals. Faith must have clear, distinct passages and altogether plain words out of Scripture as its foundations.”21

Even before he began to confront the Schwärmerei in central Germany, Luther recognized that Christians live on an eschatological battlefield, where Satan uses all kinds of “cunning and trickery” to ensnare and entrap. “Even if you are well armed at one place, he pounces on you at another place. . . . He never ceases but goes around and gives you no rest anywhere.” In his 1523 sermon on 1 Peter 5:8–9, Luther admonishes:

The true sword is your strong and firm faith. If you take hold of God’s Word in your heart and cling to it with faith, the devil cannot win but must flee. If you can say, “This is what my God has said, and I take my stand on it,” you will see that the devil will soon go away. Then defiance, evil lust, anger, greed, melancholy, and doubt all vanish. But the devil is crafty and unwilling to let this happen to you. He tries to wrest the sword from your hand. If he makes you lazy, so that the body becomes unfit and is inclined to unruliness, he soon tears the sword out of your hand, as he did to Eve. She had God’s Word. If she had clung to it, she would not have fallen.22

The devil comes as an angel of light (2 Cor. 11:14), making sense and seeming wise, blinding believers as a glistening, snow-white presenter of the truth.23 The antidote to such poison is found in returning to the text of Scripture. At the beginning of his sermon on the parable of the wedding banquet (Luke 14:16–24), Luther uses popular imagery to remind hearers that “whoever wants to battle against Satan dare not waver and sway to and fro but must be convinced of his cause and be armed with clear, certain written documents, for if the devil gets him on his fork through his unsettled notions, he will then toss him here and there as the wind does the dry leaf.”24

In preaching on Ephesians 6 in 1531, Luther told his Wittenberg congregation that the devil can be put to flight

above all when the Word is publicly presented from the pulpit, but also every Christian individually or with others is to be hearing, reading, singing, speaking, and meditating on the Word. For it has the power, when clearly and purely proclaimed and used, diligently learned, and earnestly meditated on. Then Satan or any devil can remain. For the Word reveals his deception and roguery which deceive people, with the intention of building false trust or false faith, sadness, or despair. For the Word reveals the Lord Christ, whom he crucified, but he collided with Christ and got burned, for Christ trampled on his head. Therefore, he is afraid and flees from his presence. That did him tremendous harm, takes many souls back from him, and weakens and destroys his kingdom. This Word of (or derived from) Scripture is “God’s might and power.”25

Luther never ventured to explain the mystery of the continuation of sin and evil in the lives of the baptized. Instead, he counseled fighting the root sin that is the origin of all other sins—doubt and defiance of God’s word—with the sword of the Spirit: the very word of God and all its derivative manifestations in oral, written, and sacramental forms. This doubt and defiance of God’s word had already come in papal claims to the right of ultimate interpretation, and it came now in the spiritualists’ claim of an inner word independent of God’s chosen vehicle of revelation in Scripture. For Luther, any rejection of the sole authority of the biblical text was the foundational error from which all other sins arose. Against this root of sin, Luther believed that God’s word endures forever.

Robert Kolb is professor of systematic theology emeritus of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, Missouri, and author of Martin Luther and the Enduring Word of God: The Wittenberg School and Its Scripture-Centered Proclamation (Baker Academic, 2016).

  1. Die Bekenntnisschrfiten der Evangelische-Lutherischen Kirche, ed. Irene Dingel (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2014), 770/771, 24–30 (hereafter cited as BSELK); The Book of Concord, ed. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000), 297 (hereafter cited as BC).
  2. That the document was not prepared for presentation as such, as is often said, is clear from its being cast in German. It was intended to present talking points for the evangelical princes of the Smalcald League when instructing their theologians who would be delegated to attend the council.
  3. BSELK 764/765, 13–33; BC 318–19. On Agricola, see Timothy J. Wengert, Law and Gospel: Philip Melanchthon’s Debate with Johann Agricola of Eisleben over Poenitentia (Grand Rapids / Carlisle: Baker / Paternoster, 1997); and also Joachim Rogge, Johann Agricolas Lutherverständnis (Berlin: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 1960); Steffan Kjellgaard-Pedersen, Gesetz, Evangelium und Busse: Theologiegeschichtliche Studien zum Verhältnis zwischen dem jungen Johann Agricola (Eisleben) und Martin Luther (Leiden: Brill, 1983); Ernst Koch, “Johann Agricola neben Luther: Schülerschaft und theologische Eigenart,” in Lutheriana, ed. Gerhard Hammer and Karl-Heinz zur Mühlen (Cologne: Böhlau, 1984), 131–50.
  4. BSELK 770, 24–30; BC 322.
  5. “Luther and the Schwärmer,” in The Oxford Handbook of Martin Luther’s Theology, ed. Robert Kolb, Irene Dingel, and Lubomir Batka (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 512.
  6. Robert Kolb, Martin Luther and the Enduring Word of God: The Wittenberg School and Its Scripture-Centered Proclamation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016), 75–97.
  7. Kolb, 54–74.
  8. D. Martin Luthers Werke (Weimar: Böhlau, 1883–1993), 42:110, 5–15 (hereafter cited as WA); Luther’s Works (St. Louis / Philadelphia: Concordia / Fortress, 1958–86), 1:146 (hereafter cited as LW); cf. Robert Kolb, “The Lutheran Doctrine of Original Sin,” in Adam, the Fall, and Original Sin, ed. Hans Madueme and Michael Reeves (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014), 109–27; and idem, “Martin Luther,” in T & T Clark Companion to the Doctrine of Sin, ed. Keith L. Johnson and David Lauber (London: Bloomsbury, 2016), 217–33.
  9. WA 42:110, 38–111, 35; LW 1:147.
  10. BSELK 746, 17–24; BC 310.
  11. Brian Gerrish, Grace and Reason: A Study in the Theology of Luther (Oxford: Clarendon, 1962); Theodor Dieter, “Luther as Late Medieval Theologian, His Positive and Negative Use of Nominalism and Realism,” in The Oxford Handbook, 31–48.
  12. Steven Paulson, “Luther’s Doctrine of God,” in The Oxford Handbook, 187–200.
  13. BSELK 862/863, 6–10; BC 351.
  14. Notger Slenczka, “Luther’s Anthropology,” in The Oxford Handbook, 212–17.
  15. Amy Nelson Burnett, Karlstadt and the Origins of the Eucharistic Controversy: A Study in the Circulation of Ideas (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).
  16. WA 18:62, 6–7; LW 40:79.
  17. WA 18:136, 9–23; LW 40:146.
  18. Volker Leppin, “Luther’s Roots in Monastic-Mystical Piety,” in The Oxford Handbook, 49–61.
  19. WA 18:137, 5–19; LW 40:147.
  20. WA 18:147, 12–26; LW 40:157.
  21. WA 18:150, 7–9; LW 40:160.
  22. WA 12: 395, 7–396, 20; LW 30:141–42.
  23. WA 34, 2:381, 33–382, 24.
  24. WA 12:598, 9–13; Sermons of Martin Luther (the Church Postil), ed. and trans. John Nicholas Lenker (1905; repr. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983), 4:33.
  25. WA 34, 2:405, 4–32. See Robert Kolb, “The Armor of God and the Might of His Strength. Luther’s Sermon on Ephesians 6 (1531/1533),” Concordia Journal (2017): 59–73.
Friday, September 1st 2017

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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