Table Talk of Martin Luther

Table Talk of Martin Luther

by Martin Luther, Thomas S. Kepler

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"The Bible is alive," declared Martin Luther, "it speaks to me; it has feet, it runs after me; it has hands, it lays hold of me." The Protestant Reformation's most prominent leader possessed a gift for evocative speech, and he was as articulate and outspoken in private as he was in public. Fortunately for posterity, some of Luther's loyal followers took note of his


"The Bible is alive," declared Martin Luther, "it speaks to me; it has feet, it runs after me; it has hands, it lays hold of me." The Protestant Reformation's most prominent leader possessed a gift for evocative speech, and he was as articulate and outspoken in private as he was in public. Fortunately for posterity, some of Luther's loyal followers took note of his informal speeches.

The Table Talk of Martin Luther consists of excerpts from the great reformer's conversations with his students and colleagues, in which he comments on life, the church, and the Bible. Collected by Antony Lauterbach and John Aurifaber, Luther's close associates, these absorbing anecdotes reveal the speaker's personality and wisdom. An informative introduction by editor Thomas S. Kepler describes the circumstances under which this book came into existence and the remarkable story of its initial translation into English. This text is based on the acclaimed English translation by the literary critic and essayist William Hazlitt.

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The Table Talk of Martin Luther

By Martin Luther, Thomas S. Kepler, William Dazlitt

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2005 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-14993-6




THAT the Bible is God's word and book I prove thus: All things that have been, and are, in the world, and the manner of their being, are described in the first book of Moses on the creation; even as God made and shaped the world, so does it stand to this day. Infinite potentates have raged against his book, and sought to destroy and uproot it—king Alexander the Great, the princes of Egypt and of Babylon, the monarchs of Persia, of Greece, and of Rome, the emperors Julius and Augustus—but they nothing prevailed; they are all gone and vanished, while the book remains, and will remain for ever and ever, perfect and entire, as it was declared at the first. Who has thus helped it—who has thus protected it against such mighty forces? No one, surely, but God himself, who is the master of all things. And 'tis no small miracle how God has so long preserved and protected this book; for the devil and the world are sore foes to it. I believe that the devil has destroyed many good books of the church, as, aforetime, he killed and crushed many holy persons, the memory of whom has now passed away; but the Bible he was fain to leave subsisting. In like manner have baptism, the sacrament of the altar, of the true body and blood of Christ, and the office of preaching remained unto us, despite the infinitude of tyrants and heretic persecutors. God, with singular strength, has upheld these things; let us, then, baptize, administer the sacrament, and preach, fearless of impediment. Homer, Virgil, and other noble, fine, and profitable writers, have left us books of great antiquity; but they are nought to the Bible.

While the Romish church stood, the Bible was never given to the people in such a shape that they could clearly, understandingly, surely, and easily read it, as they now can in the German translation, which, thank God, we have prepared here at Wittenberg.


The Holy Scriptures are full of divine gifts and virtues. The books of the heathen taught nothing of faith, hope, or charity; they present no idea of these things; they contemplate only the present, and that which man, with the use of his material reason, can grasp and comprehend. Look not therein for aught of hope or trust in God. But see how the Psalms and the Book of Job treat of faith, hope, resignation, and prayer; in a word, the Holy Scripture is the highest and best of books, abounding in comfort under all afflictions and trials. It teaches us to see, to feel, to grasp, and to comprehend faith, hope, and charity, far otherwise than mere human reason can; and when evil oppresses us, it teaches how these virtues throw light upon the darkness, and how, after this poor, miserable existence of ours on earth, there is another and an eternal life.


St. Jerome, after he had revised and corrected the Septuagint, translated the Bible from Hebrew into Latin; his version is still used in our church. Truly, for one man, this was work enough and to spare. Nulla enim privata persona tantum efficere potuis-set. 'Twould have been quite as well had he called to his aid one or two learned men, for the Holy Ghost would then have more powerfully manifested itself unto him, according to the words of Christ: "Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them." Interpreters and translators should not work alone; for good et propria verba do not always occur to one mind.


We ought not to criticise, explain, or judge the Scriptures by our mere reason, but diligently, with prayer, meditate thereon, and seek their meaning. The devil and temptations also afford us occasion to learn and understand the Scriptures, by experience and practice. Without these we should never understand them, however diligently we read and listened to them. The Holy Ghost must here be our only master and tutor; and let youth have no shame to learn of that preceptor. When I find myself assailed by temptation, I forthwith lay hold of some text of the Bible, which Jesus extends to me; as this: that he died for me, whence I derive infinite hope.


Let us not lose the Bible, but with diligence, in fear and invocation of God, read and preach it. While that remains and flourishes, all prospers with the state; 'tis head and empress of all arts and faculties. Let but divinity fall, and I would not give a straw for the rest.


The school divines with their speculations in holy writ, deal in pure vanities, in mere imaginings derived from human reason. Bonaventura, who is full of them, made me almost deaf. I sought to learn in his book, how God and my soul shall become reconciled, but got no information from him. They talk much of the union of the will and understanding, but 'tis all idle fantasy. The right, practical divinity is this: Believe in Christ, and do thy duty in that state of life to which God has called thee. In like manner, the Mystical divinity of Dionysius is a mere fable and lie. With Plato he chatters: Omnia sunt non ens, et omnia sunt ens—(all is something, and all is nothing)—and so leaves things hanging.


Dr. Justus Jonas remarked at Luther's table: There is in the Holy Scriptures a wisdom so profound, that no man may thoroughly study it or comprehend it. "Ay," said Luther, "we must ever remain scholars here; we cannot sound the depth of one single verse in Scripture; we get hold but of the A B C, and that imperfectly. Who can so exalt himself as to comprehend this one line of St. Peter: 'Rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ's sufferings.' Here St. Peter would have us rejoice in our deepest misery and trouble, like as a child kisses the rod."


I have many times essayed thoroughly to investigate the Ten Commandments, but at the very outset, "I am the Lord thy God," I stuck fast; that very one word, I, put me to a non-plus. He that has but one word of God before him, and out of that word cannot make a sermon, can never be a preacher. I am well content that I know, however little, of what God's word is, and take good heed not to murmur at my small knowledge.


I have grounded my preaching upon the literal word; he that pleases may follow me; he that will not may stay. I call upon St. Peter, St. Paul, Moses, and all the Saints, to say whether they ever fundamentally comprehended one single word of God, without studying it over and over and over again. The Psalm says: His understanding is infinite. The saints, indeed, know God's word, and can discourse of it, but the practice is another matter; therein we shall ever remain scholars.

The school theologians have a fine similitude hereupon, that it is as with a sphere or globe, which, lying on a table, touches it only with one point, yet it is the whole table which supports the globe. Though I am an old doctor of divinity, to this day I have not got beyond the children's learning—the Ten Commandments, the Belief, and the Lord's Prayer; and these I understand not so well as I should, though I study them daily, praying, with my son John and my daughter Magdalen. If I thoroughly appreciated these first words of the Lord's Prayer, Our Father, which art in Heaven, and really believed that God, who made heaven and earth, and all creatures, and has all things in his hand, was my Father, then should I certainly conclude with myself, that I also am a lord of heaven and earth, that Christ is my brother, Gabriel my servant, Raphael my coachman, and all the angels my attendants at need, given unto me by my heavenly Father, to keep me in the path, that unawares I knock my foot against a stone. But that our faith may be exercised and confirmed, our heavenly Father suffers us to be cast into dungeons, or plunged in water. So we may see how finely we understand these words, and how belief shakes, and how great our weakness is, so that we begin to think—Ah, who knows how far that is true which is set forth in the Scriptures?


No greater mischief can happen to a Christian people, than to have God's word taken from them, or falsified, so that they no longer have it pure and clear. God grant we and our descendants be not witnesses of such a calamity.


When we have God's word pure and clear, then we think ourselves all right; we become negligent, and repose in a vain security; we no longer pay due heed, thinking it will always so remain; we do not watch and pray against the devil, who is ready to tear the Divine word out of our hearts. It is with us as with travellers, who, so long as they are on the highway, are tranquil and heedless, but if they go astray into woods or cross paths, uneasily seek which way to take, this or that.


The great men and the doctors understand not the word of God, but it is revealed to the humble and to children, as is testified by the Saviour in the Gospel according to St. Matthew, xi. 25: "O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes." Gregory says, well and rightly, that the Holy Scripture is a stream of running water, where alike the elephant may swim, and the lamb walk without losing its feet.


The great unthankfulness, contempt of God's word, and wilfulness of the world, make me fear that the divine light will soon cease to shine on man, for God's word has ever had its certain course.

In the time of the kings of Judah, Baal obscured the brightness of God's word, and it became hard labour to destroy his empire over the hearts of men. Even in the time of the apostles, there were heresies, errors, and evil doctrines spread abroad by false brethren. Next came Arius, and the word of God was hidden behind dark clouds, but the holy fathers, Ambrose, Hilary, Augustin, Athanasius, and others, dispersed the obscurity. Greece and many other countries have heard the word of God, but have since abandoned it, and it is to be feared even now it may quit Germany, and go into other lands. I hope the last day will not be long delayed. The darkness grows thicker around us, and godly servants of the Most High become rarer and more rare. Impiety and licentiousness are rampant throughout the world, and we live like pigs, like wild beasts, devoid of all reason. But a voice will soon be heard thundering forth: Behold, the bridegroom cometh. God will not be able to bear this wicked world much longer, but will come, with the dreadful day, and chastise the scorners of his word.


Kings, princes, lords, any one will needs understand the gospel far better than I, Martin Luther, ay, or even than St. Paul; for they deem themselves wise and full of policy. But herein they scorn and contemn, not us, poor preachers and ministers, but the Lord and Governor of all preachers and ministers, who has sent us to preach and teach, and who will scorn and contemn them in such sort, that they shall smart again; even He that says: "Whoso heareth you, heareth me; and whoso toucheth you, toucheth the apple of mine eye." The great ones would govern, but they know not how.


Dr. Justus Jonas told Dr. Martin Luther of a noble and powerful Misnian, who above all things occupied himself in amassing gold and silver, and was so buried in darkness, that he gave no heed to the five books of Moses, and had even said to Duke John Frederic, who was discoursing with him upon the gospel: "Sir, the gospel pays no interest." "Have you no grains?" interposed Luther; and then told this fable:—"A lion making a great feast, invited all the beasts, and with them some swine. When all manner of dainties were set before the guests, the swine asked: 'Have you no grains?'" "Even so," continued the doctor, "even so, in these days, it is with our epicureans: we preachers set before them, in our churches, the most dainty and costly dishes, as everlasting salvation, the remission of sins, and God's grace; but they, like swine, turn up their snouts, and ask for guilders: offer a cow nutmeg, and she will reject it for old hay. This reminds me of the answer of certain parishioners to their minister, Ambrose R. He had been earnestly exhorting them to come and listen to the Word of God: 'Well,' said they, 'if you will tap a good barrel of beer for us, we'll come with all our hearts and hear you.' The gospel at Wittenberg is like unto the rain which, falling upon a river, produces little effect; but descending upon a dry, thirsty soil, renders it fertile."


Some one asked Luther for his psalter, which was old and ragged, promising to give him a new one in exchange; but the doctor refused, because he was used to his own old copy, adding: "A local memory is very useful, and I have weakened mine in translating the Bible."


Our case will go on, so long as its living advocates, Melancthon, and other pious and learned persons, who apply themselves zealously to the work, shall be alive; but, after their death, 'twill be a sad falling off. We have an example before us, in Judges ii. 10: "And also all that generation were gathered unto their fathers; and there arose another generation after them, which knew not the Lord, nor yet the works which he had done for Israel." So, after the death of the apostles, there were fearful fallings off; nay, even while they yet lived, as St. Paul complains, there was falling off among the Galatians, the Corinthians, and in Asia. We shall be occasioned much suffering and loss by the Sacramentarians, the Anabaptists, the Antinomians, and other sectaries.


Oh! how great and glorious a thing it is to have before one the Word of God! With that we may at all times feel joyous and secure; we need never be in want of consolation, for we see before us, in all its brightness, the pure and right way. He who loses sight of the Word of God, falls into despair; the voice of heaven no longer sustains him; he follows only the disorderly tendency of his heart, and of world vanity, which lead him on to his destruction.


Christ, in Matthew, v., vi., vii., teaches briefly these points: first, as to the eight happinesses or blessings, how every Christian ought particularly to live as it concerns himself; secondly, of the office of teaching, what and how a man ought to teach in the church, how to season with salt and enlighten, reprove, and comfort, and exercise the faith; thirdly, he confutes and opposes the false expounding of the law; fourthly, he condemns the wicked hypocritical kind of living; fifthly, he teaches what are upright and good works; sixthly, he warns men of false doctrine; seventhly, he clears and solves what might be found doubtful and confused; eighthly, he condemns the hypocrites and false saints, who abuse the precious word of grace.


St. Luke describes Christ's passion better than the rest; John is more complete as to Christ's works; he describes the audience, and how the cause was handled, and how they proceeded before the seat of judgment, and how Christ was questioned, and for what cause he was slain.

When Pilate asked him: "Art thou the king of the Jews?" "Yea," said Christ, "I am; but not such a king as the emperor is, for then my servants and armies would fight and strive to deliver and defend me; but I am a king sent to preach the gospel, and give record of the truth, which I must speak." "What!" said Pilate, "art thou such a king, and hast thou a kingdom that consists in word and truth? then surely thou canst be no prejudice to me." Doubtless Pilate took our Saviour Christ to be a simple, honest, ignorant man, one perchance come out of a wilderness, a simple fellow, a hermit, who knew or understood nothing of the world, or of government.


In the writings of St. Paul and St. John is a surpassing certainty, knowledge, and plerophoria. They write as if all they narrate had been already done before their eyes.

Christ rightly says of St. Paul, he shall be a chosen instrument and vessel unto me; therefore he was made a doctor, and therefore he spake so certainly of the cause. Whoso reads Paul may, with a safe conscience, build upon his words; for my part, I never read more serious writings.

St. John, in his gospel, describes Christ, that he is a true and natural man, à priori, from former time: "In the beginning was the word"; and "Whoso honoureth me, the same honoureth also the Father." But Paul describes Christ, à posteriori et effectu, from that which follows, and according to the actions or works, as, "They tempted Christ in the wilderness"; "Take heed, therefore, to yourselves," &c.


Excerpted from The Table Talk of Martin Luther by Martin Luther, Thomas S. Kepler, William Dazlitt. Copyright © 2005 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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