The following is a paper submitted for the Doctor of Ministry course entitled “Humor and Storytelling in Preaching: From the Bible to Today.” The course was taught by Dr. Sam Lamerson at Knox Theological Seminary in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The oil painting is Luther preaching by Lucas Cranach, the Elder available from http://www.wga.hu/html_m/c/cranach/lucas_e/14/5luther.html.
So a theologian, a lawyer and a doctor walk into a bar, each enjoys a beer, and each have to go to the bathroom. Even before becoming intoxicated, these three didn’t say much worth repeating—except to make fun of it. Martin Luther (1483-1546) would agree. Theologians, lawyers, and physicians, as well as philsophers, were Luther’s favorite targets for ramblings concerning things that they know nothing and upon which Genesis is silent. Likewise, Luther ridiculed theologians and papists, especially the pope himself, for their silly allegories where Genesis calls “a spade a spade.”1 Luther repeats their foolish notions, especially if going to the bathroom is involved, in order to mock the ideas. The bathroom is a reminder of our humanity, our limitations as creatures, and death itself.2 Luther believed that in the state of innocence “there was no stench in excrement” because Adam and Eve enjoyed life without death and everything that comes with it.3 It strains credulity to think that Luther then unintentionally picked comedic examples involving fragrant dung so often. Thus one important reason Luther had for using satire, sarcasm, ridicule, and other forms of humor in his lectures on Genesis was to encourage his students to be humble—to confess ignorance when they don’t know how to understand what Genesis is saying and to turn away from the temptation to speculation where Genesis is silent and the creation of unbiblical and fanciful allegories where Genesis speaks.
Luther’s Lectures on Genesis ridicules senior theologians as childish when they veer from what is clear in Genesis 1. Discussing how difficult the chapter is to understand, Luther cites Jerome as saying that among the Hebrews no one under thirty was allowed to read it or to explain it to others. Luther then says, “Not even with this practice, however, did the Jewish Rabbis achieve anything worthwhile; for in their commentaries men twice thirty and even older prattle most childishly about these extremely important matters.”4 Regarding Genesis 1:6, Luther said, “Ambrose and Augustine have rather childish ideas. Therefore I commend Jerome, who maintains complete silence on these topics.” Against such theories, Luther said: “Rather than give approval to these inept thoughts, I for my part shall confess that I do not understand Moses in this passage.”5While Luther ridicules Ambrose and Augustine for their “rather childish ideas” and sarcastically commends Jerome here for keeping “complete silence on these topics,” elsewhere he praises Augustine for similar reticence:
What was God doing before the beginning of the world? Was He in a state of rest or not? Augustine relates in his Confessions that someone had answered to this effect: “God was making hell ready for those who pried into meddlesome questions,” obviously, as Augustine says, to frustrate any injurious effect of the question.6
Augustine’s fiery reply fits perfectly in Luther’s Lectures because it was both serious and humorous. At times the modern reader might wish Luther had maintained complete silence on certain topics and more often confessed ignorance as to Moses’ meaning, but he humbly said that seeing “there is no guide we can safely follow in this area…we do the best we can.”7 The heretics, he said, “Do their thinking about God with the same sureness with which they argue about a pig or cow.” This Luther thought was insane and dangerous.8 Luther understood that the task of the theologian is fraught with danger. He said, “If we want to walk in safety, let us accept what the Word submits for our reflection and what God Himself wants us to know. Let us pass by other things – things not revealed in the Word.”9
Commenting on Genesis 2, Luther expanded his ridicule of theologians to include lawyers and doctors. Speaking of the command not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, he said:
This sermon was delivered on the sixth day; and if, as the text indicates, Adam alone heard it, he later on informed Eve of it. If they had not fallen into sin, Adam would have transmitted this single command later on to all his descendants. From it would have come the best theologians, the most learned lawyers, and the most expert physicians. Today there is an infinite number of books for instructing theologians, lawyers, and physicians; but whatever we learn with the help of books hardly deserves to be called dregs in comparison with that wisdom which Adam drew from this single Word. So corrupt has everything become through original sin.10
Thus Luther sarcastically imagines that had the state of innocence continued then Adam would have passed along the one commandment not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil to his descendants and “from it would have come the best theologians, the most learned lawyers, and the most expert physicians.” Luther is being both serious and humorous. For Luther, the fall means a loss of knowledge or wisdom. He often mocks the many books of philosophers, theologians, doctors, and lawyers. Comparing them to Adam, Luther says at one point:
What an ocean of knowledge and wisdom there was in this one human being! Moreover, although Adam lost much of this knowledge through sin, I nevertheless believe that everything still to be found in the books of all the wise men who have written for the many centuries since scientific pursuits had their first beginning could not equal that wisdom which still remained in Adam later on but gradually became fainter in his descendants and has been almost blotted out.11
Apart from the other quips about books, one might take Luther at face value when he calls the authors “wise men,” until he says Adam’s wisdom “has been almost blotted out.” Luther does not hide his disdain for the so-called “knowledge” and “wisdom” of the philosophers, lawyers, physicians, and theologians. Indeed, Luther puts it even more clearly when discussing the origin of humanity:
Accordingly, if Adam had persevered in innocence, it would have been unnecessary to instruct his descendants about their origin, just as it was unnecessary to instruct Adam about the creation of his Eve, because the moment he saw her, he himself was aware that she was bone from his bones and flesh from his flesh. That kind of knowledge of themselves and of the remaining creatures would have remained also among the descendants of Adam. All would have become aware at once of the final and efficient cause about which we now have no more knowledge than cattle have.12
Theologians, laywers, physicians and philosophers “now have no more knowledge than cattle have” regarding human origins. It does not get any clearer than that. So why do philosophers speak to things that they know nothing? Luther explains it with the example of rainbows:
Why, then do rainbows develop sometimes in one way, sometimes in another? A philosopher, I am sure, will figure out something, for he will regard it as a disgrace not to be able to give reasons for everything. But he certainly will never persuade me to believe that he is speaking the truth.13
Later Luther jokes: “Hence the German proverbs about the young doctor of medicine who needs a new cemetery, the jurist who recently took over a public office and starts wars all over the place, and the young theologian who fills hell with souls.”14 The sober doctor, lawyer, and theologian show themselves to be like drunken fools who lead the blind and both fall into a pit.
Among the more humorous examples of speaking where Genesis is silent involve dung. Discussing the sea monsters brings Luther to reflect on mice and flies since even ships at sea carry them. Aristotle argued that some animals are produced by their like and some by their unlike and that mice are the latter since they originate from mice but also from decay. The theory was that the decayed moisture was kept warm by the sun and an animal created with the parallel suggested of dung beetles being created from horse manure. Luther did not buy the theory. He believed God created all these. The sun would not bring anything into being unless God said, “Let a mouse come out of the decay.”15 But this is not the only silly example. Luther says the following about the ark:
It is likely that Noah and the birds occupied the uppermost part, the clean animals the middle part, and the unclean animals the lowest, although the rabbis would maintain that the lowest was used for putting away the manure. I myself believe that the manure was thrown out, perhaps through the window. Since there were so many animals in the ark for more than a year, it was necessary to get rid of the manure. … We shall put aside countless other questions. What was the nature of the air in the ark, since that mass of water, especially when it went down, gave off a great and pestilential stench? Where did they get the water they drank?16
In such ways, Luther silences questions Genesis does not answer and makes fun of the philosophers and theologians who still want to speak.17
While Luther had commended Jerome for staying silent when other philosophers and theologians were speculating, Luther also calls Jerome and Origen silly for their allegories. Speaking of the Garden of Eden, Origen took paradise to be heaven, the trees to be angels, and rivers to be wisdom. Luther says, “Such twaddle is unworthy of theologians.” They are being silly, Luther contends, because they seek Eden on earth when it no longer exists so they think some other meaning for this paradise is necessary.18 Speaking of silly allegories regarding the flood, Luther feigns,
The pope deserves praise for piety and learning in the matter of allegories when he thunders thus from his exalted position: ‘God made two large luminaries, the sun and the moon. The sun is the papal office, from which the imperial majesty derives its light, just as the moon does from the sun.’ Oh, such audacious insolence and such villainous desire for power!19
Luther made up his own allegory and then says about the raven sent forth from Noah’s ark,
Now let anyone who wants to do so enlarge on this allegory and investigate the peculiar features of this bird. It is an impure animal, black and gloomy in color, with a hard beak and an unpleasant and doleful voice. It scents carrion from any distance, and for this reason men shudder at its voice as though it were a sure sign of an impending funeral. It feeds on carrion and like places that are horrible because they are used for public executions. Even though we do not apply all these features individually to the Law, yet who is not aware that they fit the papists, priests, and monks very well? These men were not only richly fed as a result of the consciences that were murdered through their false doctrine; but they also drew on carrion for their support by making use of vigils, anniversaries, holy water at graves, and even of purgatory to provide money. In fact, their concern for the dead brought them greater gain than their concern for the living. They are truly ravens, for they live on carrion and screech dolefully while they sit on it. These characteristics fit the papists and the ravens well; but truly the entire ministry of the papacy, even at its best, does nothing but mangle and murder consciences.20
In this way, Luther silences those who make allegories ignoring what Genesis speaks of history.
Gritsch, Eric W. “Martin Luther’s Humor.” Word & World, 32, no.2 (Spring 2012): p.132-140.
—–. The Wit of Martin Luther. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006.
Luther, Martin. Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 1-5. Vol. 1 of Luther’s Works. Edited by Jaroslav Pelikan. Translated by George V. Schick. St. Louis: Concordia, 1958.
—–. Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 6-14. Vol. 2 of Luther’s Works. Edited by Jaroslav Pelikan. Translated by George V. Schick. St. Louis: Concordia, 1960.
1Martin Luther, Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 1-5 (v.1 of Luther’s Works; ed. Jaroslav Pelikan; trans. George V. Schick; St. Louis: Concordia, 1958), p.5. The translators note that this is their attempt to render the German-Latin pun appellat Schapham scapham, which Luther calls a proverb.
2Cf. Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (New York: Free Press, 1973), Kindle.
3Luther, Lectures on Genesis, v.1, p.110.
11Ibid., p.120. See also: “But here a question arises about which the books of all the sophists make foolish statements and yet clear up nothing,” Ibid., p.113.
13Martin Luther, Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 6-14 (v.2 of Luther’s Works; ed. Jaroslav Pelikan; trans. George V. Schick; St. Louis: Concordia, 1960), p.147.
14Quoted in Eric W. Gritsch, The Wit of Martin Luther (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006), p.48.
15Lectures on Genesis, v.1, p.51-52.
16Luther, Lectures on Genesis, v.1, p.67, 69.
17This is not to mention the selfish and ambitious nun Luther pictures with cow dung on her head when she thinks it is a crown of gold. Cf. Gritsch, Wit, p.50.
18Luther, Lectures on Genesis, v.1, p.90-91; cf. the mention of foolish allegories on p.184.
19Ibid., v.2, p.152. He says further, “When the pope declares that the sun is the papal office and the moon is the emperor, then not only is the application silly and foolish, but even the basis is evil and wicked. Such allegories are thought out and devised, not by the Holy Spirit but by the devil, the spirit of lies.” Ibid., p.156.