Saturday, 17 November 2012

AronRa is no Luther Scholar!

Well for those of you who don’t know the person described by ‘The Thinking Atheist’ as “one of the internet’s most influential atheists” has uploaded a video of him doing another lecture. Yes. It’s AronRa and the video is called ‘The Failures of Creationism’. Now since I’m not a creationist myself I don’t have a problem with a great deal of the video because I think the theory of evolution is a good solid scientific theory and, like most Christians at the end of the 19th century in England, and indeed Darwin himself, I don’t think it contradicts anything in Christian doctrine one little bit.
I am, however, going to have to take AronRa up on his use, or perhaps I should say abuse, of the German reformer Martin Luther. This is not the first time I’ve had to correct AronRa on Martin Luther by the way. See this video for the last occasion I had to so. 

This is AronRa’s supposed methodology for truth claims:

“But if you’re going to tell me to believe it you’re going to have to substantiate it.” 

I don’t have any serious problem with that as a methodology. It’s sounds a little too evidentialist for my liking but I can work with it! 

Now in this recent video he uploaded he claims that Martin Luther said these words:

“Idiots, the lame, the blind, the dumb, are men in whom the devils have established themselves: and all the physicians who heal these infirmities, as though they proceeded from natural causes, are ignorant blockheads...”

You will, of course, notice that AronRa has provided no citation for his quote. This should immediately look curious to anyone who is a critical thinker.  Now I’m no Luther scholar myself and have only read about ten of his major works so I did the only thing any reasonable person would do. As soon as I saw the video I went to his channel and asked him to provide a source for the quote.  AronRa is still to reply to that request as of posting this video.

So instead of relying on AronRa I decided to do my own research. Fortunately Tekton had already done some searching on this and found what appears to be the key source on the internet which comes from someone called Don Morgan on the site ‘Positive Atheism's Big Scary List of Martin Luther Quotations’! The funny thing is that Don himself admits:

“Note: I am often asked for source citations for these quotes. Most of them come from "Luther's Table Talk" or from one of the several Luther biographies. Unfortunately, when I collected these quotes, I did so only for my own amusement and I didn't keep track of the exact citations.”
- Don Morgan

Now that is not a terribly encouraging start. It might be a coincidence that AronRa used exactly the same picture of Luther found on Morgan’s page or that might indicate this is where he got his quotation from. Not a hugely important matter either way but it could be where AronRa got his quote from. It would certainly help explain why he has no reference to Luther directly because Morgan lacks one too. 

Next I checked a search engine in an online version of Luther’s book ‘Table Talk’ and this brought up so such quotation. It’s at this point I’m definitely beginning to doubt the authenticity of the quote.
Now, as I said, I’m no Luther scholar but having read some of his books I don’t recall ever getting the impression Luther thought the way this quote suggests since I recalled passages where he talking about taking medicine himself. So I decided to look up some quotations from Luther that can be sourced. 

Reading through Luther’s book ‘Table Talk’ you can see some passages where the inconsiderate reader might have picked up this impression. For example, Luther says:

"I maintain that Satan produces all the maladies which afflict mankind, for he is the prince of death. St Peter speaks of Christ as healing all that are oppressed of the devil. He not only cured those who were possessed, but he restored sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, speech to the dumb, strength to the paralytic; therefore I think all grave infirmities are blows and strokes of the devil, which he employs as an assassin uses the sword or other weapon. So God employs natural means to maintain the health and life of man, such as sleep, meat, drink, etc. The devil has other means of injury; he poisons the air, etc.

A physician repairs the work of God when damaged corporally; we, divines, spiritually; we mend the soul that the devil has spoiled. The devil gives poison to kill men; a physician gives theriacum, or some other drug, to save them; so the creature, through creatures, helping creatures. Physic has not its descent and origin out of books; God revealed it; or, as Syrach says: 'It cometh from the Most Highest; the Lord hath created medicines out of the earth.' Therefore we may justly use corporal physic, as God's creature. Our burgomaster here at Wittenberg lately asked me, if it were against God's will to use physic? for, said he, Doctor Carlstad has preached, that whoso falls sick, shall use no physic, but commit his case to God, praying that His will be done. I asked him: Did he eat when he was hungry? He answered, yes. Then, said I, even so you may use physic, which is God's creature, as well as meat and drink, or whatever else we use for the preservation of life."

--Martin Luther, _Table Talk_ DXCVII, in _The Table Talk of Martin Luther_, trans. William Hazlitt (London: George Bell, 1875), 256-57.

Now notice how easily this could be misread. If one stops in the first sentence it looks like Luther is saying that all illness is directly of the devil. Here we have mention of the blind, deaf and dumb as in Morgan’s supposed quote as well. But the ending of the paragraph suggests the devil is not doing it directly but, as Luther puts it, “as an assassin uses the sword” – this means he is behind such illness but indirectly. This Luther makes even more clear in the next part where he declares that the physician repairs the physical problem which makes it quite clear Luther thinks physicians can help with illnesses. This is made even more explicit in another quotation taken from his work where he says:

“Generally speaking, therefore, I think that all dangerous diseases are blows of the devil. For this, however, he employs the instruments of nature."
(LW 54: 53, No. 360).
LW = Luther's Works [55 volume English Translation]

Thus Luther is stating that even when he is attributing illness to the devil he is not denying that there is something quite natural about the illness. This directly contradicts  the AronRa quote which further suggests it is not genuine. 

Now Luther continues, at the end of this quote, to state that some were asking him if it was against God’s will to use a doctor. Luther’s advice is pretty clear. He states that food solves the problem of hunger and that in the same way one should use a doctor if one is ill. This is a passage even the notorious Andrew Dickson White admits to. He says:

“Luther asked, "Do you eat when you are hungry?" and the answer being in the affirmative, he continued, "Even so you may use physic, which is God's gift just as meat and drink is, or whatever else we use for the preservation of life." Hence it was, doubtless, that the Protestant cities of Germany were more ready than others to admit anatomical investigation by proper dissections.”
Andrew Dickson White in ‘History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom’, CHAPTER XIII. FROM MIRACLES TO MEDICINE p. 248

This is a very interesting quotation since that book by White is clearly written with the intention of quote-mining huge numbers of Christian thinkers for the purpose of creating the impression of antagonism between science and Christian theism via the use of spurious quotations from either no source or secondary sources. 

 Furthermore, in Table Talk itself we find this passage:

“When I was ill at Schmalcalden, the physicians made me take as much medicine as though I had been a great bull. Alack for him that depends upon the aid of physic. I do not deny that medicine is a gift of God, nor do I refuse to acknowledge science in the skill of many physicians; but, take the best of them, how far are they from perfection? A sound regimen produces excellent effects. When I feel indisposed, by observing a strict diet and going to bed early, I generally manage to get round again, that is, if I can keep my mind tolerably at rest. I have no objection to the doctors acting upon certain theories, but, at the same time, they must not expect us to be the slaves of their fancies. We find Avicenna and Galen, living in other times and in other countries, prescribing wholly different remedies for the same disorders. I won't pin my faith to any of them, ancient or modern. On the other hand, nothing can well be more deplorable than the proceeding of those fellows, ignorant as they are complaisant, who let their patients follow exactly their own fancies; `tis these wretches who more especially people the graveyards. Able, cautious, and experienced physicians, are gifts of God. They are the ministers of nature, to whom human life is confided; but a moment's negligence may ruin everything. No physician should take a single step, but in humility and the fear of God; they who are without the fear of God are mere homicides. I expect that exercise and change of air do more good than all their purgings and bleedings; but when we do employ medical remedies, we should be careful to do so under the advice of a judicious physician."

--Martin Luther, _Table Talk_ DCCXXXIX, in Hazlitt trans., 316-17.

Please note the contrast. Whereas illness, disease and death are ultimately the work of the devil, Luther ascribes God as the author of medicine. Medicine is the gift of God according to Luther! This passage makes it quite clear how highly he viewed medicine. As a gift from god its status could not be any higher. Was Luther wrong to point out that the doctors of his day were fallible? Of course not! One does not have to read much about medicine at the beginning of the 16th century to know that Luther comes out looking quite reasonable that he did not believe everything doctors were claiming at that time. But notice his statement that “Able, cautious, and experienced physicians, are gifts of God.” It’s hard to think how he could have lavished any greater praise on them than that. For Luther, that was the ultimate praise. 

In conclusion let us imagine that AronRa’s quote is authentic. Well then it would need to be interpreted charitably in the context of these other texts. This would mean Luther was having a rant at less judicious physicians of his day. That way the passage could be reconciled with these other passages which can be sourced. However, in the absence of sufficient evidence that the quote is authentic and the positive evidence of quotations in Luther to the contrary we are justified in concluding that AronRa has, yet again, managed to misrepresent Martin Luther. The evidence suggests Martin Luther is owed an apology by AronRa on two counts by now. It will be interesting to see if he actually gets one won’t it?


  1. Do these atheists ever occur to them that arguing with creationists is really just wasting time? The vast majority of christians don't hold to it, specially the biggest denomination that is Catholicism. So in fact by arguing with creationists they are doing a disservice to themselves.

    1. Well I guess creationism is quite a big thing in their neck of the woods and it's a part of the culture in the United States. I don't think I would like living in the Bible Belt of the US much myself to be honest. So we should be thankful of attempts by atheists to denounce creationism. The problem is that people like AronRa appear to think that they can then just stumble into doing more serious theology without even reading a book. In this they then demonstrate their own ignorance of the huge wealth of theological writing which has been going on for millennia.

  2. The quote is authentic. You can find it in "The life of Martin Luther gathered from his own writings (1846)" by French Historian, Jules Michelet.
    You can find it in Google Books, page 321 withe the date cited as 14 July, 1528. Link below:

    1. Unfortunately that does not solve the problem and you appear too hasty in declaring the quote authentic on the basis of Michelet. Michelet is writing a series of *alleged* Luther quotations and he's doing so three-hundred years later. Just because he cites a specific date this does not make it anymore credible. There still exist serious doubts about the authenticity of the quote. Furthermore, contrary sentiments are found in Luther quotations which are regarded as more credible.


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