Martin Luther’s Marriage and Family Life as a School of Character for the Christian

Martin Luther is an exceedingly interesting, humorous, warming, and comforting character to study. He is a man who had an immense personality. Anybody who reads him can be as quickly sobered by his statements as they are brought to laughter by what he writes. Martin Luther is so often able to describe the human condition in a remarkably well manner. One sees this especially in Luther when it comes to his marriage and family life. Luther was a very caring and compassionate father to his children and a loving and devoted husband in the way that he treats his wife, Katherina von Bora. He would remark in the early years of his marriage, “I am rich, God has given me my nun and three children.” Luther very much viewed marriage as a School of Character for the Christian.

It is both Luther’s strong convictions and his tenderness which lutherhelped him shape German family life for centuries. Numerous historians attest to his influence on the family. Bainton writes that Luther shaped the Protestant parsonage: “If he could not reform all Christendom, at any rate he could and he did establish the Protestant parsonage.”[1] He further states that “The Luther who got married in order to testify his faith actually found a home and did more than any other person to determine the tone of German domestic relations for the next four centuries.”[2] Grimm also writes that, “this marriage proved to be a blessing for Luther and did much to further the traditions of a new institution, the Protestant parsonage. Luther did more than any other person to hallow the Christian home in Germany.”[3]

This post, in honour of the 499th anniversary of the Reformation, will demonstrate Luther’s great influence upon Protestant family life.

Why Did Luther Get Married? 

That seems like a bit of an odd question to ask, but it is a very important one considering the time in which Luther lived. Luther, for many years before he himself got married, had actively encouraged other clergy to get married.[4] This was a very radical thing for Luther to do, especially as he himself was a monk. Clerical marriage had been forbidden by the Church for centuries. Marriage was deemed to be something that the less godly people partook of. Witte writes this regarding the Roman Catholic view of marriage during the Medieval Ages,

After the Fall, marriage remains a duty, but only for those tempted by sexual sin. For those not so tempted, marriage is only an inferior option. It is far better and far more virtuous to remain celibate and to contemplate. For marriage is an institution of the natural sphere, not the supernatural sphere.[5]

So one sees that those who remained celibate would be viewed as the higher and more perfect Christians, while those who married were the more carnal and sinful Christians. Thus, marriage was normally looked down upon as being both vulgar and unspiritual.

However, in opposition to this, Luther had quite strong words regarding those parents who encouraged their children to be celibate. Indeed, he actively supported marriage. He stated:

They [i.e. the parents] deter their children from marriage and entice them into priesthood and nunnery, citing the trials and troubles of married life. Thus do they bring their own children home to the devil, as we daily observe; they provide them with ease for the body and hell for the soul.[6]

Yet, while Luther promoted marriage for the clergy and condemned those who encouraged celibacy, he himself had no intentions of marrying. Luther’s reasons for not doing so are explained in his own words. He writes, “I am disinclined to it, because I am every day expecting death as inflicted upon a heretic. I do not wish to obstruct God’s work in me, nor rely upon my own heart for comfort. It is my hope that I shall not be permitted to live long.”[7]

So when Luther finally decided to get married there seem to be several primary reasons for him doing such.

1. The Practicality of Getting Married

The first reason was very much just the practicality of it. Luther had been involved in freeing twelve nuns from a cloister. While he had succeeded in finding husbands for all of them he failed to find one for Catherina von Bora (he appears to have been a bit of a matchmaker). After an attempt to marry her off to a man called Nurnberger had failed, Luther tried to have her married to a Dr. Glatz. She stated that she would either marry Amsdorf of Magdeburg or Luther, not Glatz.[8]

2. To Please His Parents

Luther does not seem to have thought much about what Catherina had stated until he talked about it with his parents. Bainton writes that his father took it as a “realistic proposal. His desire was that his son should pass on the name.”[9] This is perhaps the second reason that Luther decided to get married: he wanted to please his parents. Luther wrote,

I married to gratify my father, who asked me to marry and leave him descendants. . . . I was not carried away by passion, for I do not love my wife that way, but esteem her as a friend.[10]

3. To Display the Sincerity of His Faith 

Perhaps the reason that was most influential in Luther’s decision to get married was to display his faith. It was to show that he practiced what he preached: that he was not afraid of getting married. It was his hope that in doing so he not only would prove his enemies wrong, but also strengthen the faith of other men (including Bishop Albert Mainz[11]). This is evidenced quite strongly in the first announcement Luther wrote regarding his upcoming marriage. Apparently Luther wrote that “he will take ‘his Katie’ to wife ‘to spite the devil.’”[12] So as one can see, Luther did not marry first and foremost for love. Indeed, he wrote, “I am not infatuated . . . though I cherish my wife.”[13] Sears also writes that “at first, Luther was not particularly pleased with Catharine, because he ‘supposed she was proud and haughty.’”[14]

Luther Found Much Joy in Marriage:

That being said, marriage really seems to be something that Luther enjoyed. Smith writes that “the marriage did indeed turn out happily. After his hard experiences in the monastery, Luther’s whole nature blossomed out in response to the warm sun of domestic life. A true instinct for the best side of the man has made artists love to portray him surrounded by wife and children.”[15] Luther would come to write, “I would not change my Katie for France and Venice, because God has given her to me, and other women have much worse faults, and she is true to me and a good mother to my children.”[16] So while love was not an immediate concern for Luther when it came to marriage, he did come to love his wife very much. Luther writes “Katie, you have a husband who loves you; many an empress is not so well off.”[17] Bainton further writes that Luther “paid her the highest tribute when he called St. Paul’s epistle to the Galatians ‘my Katherina von Bora.’”[18] As the story goes, Luther began to get worried about the amount of devotion he was giving to his wife. He stated, ‘”I give more credit to Katherine than to Christ, who has done so much more for me.’”[19]

The Luther Household: 

It is certain that Katie had a lot to do in her responsibilities as a wife for Luther. Besides having the massive household and grounds of the Augustinian Cloister (Lutherhaus) to take care of, she had to ensure that her family was fed. This was no small task, especially considering Luther’s extreme generosity. Bainton writes this concerning his liberality,

His giving was so prodigal that Lucas Cranach, the artist and banker, refused to honor his draft. Luther’s comment was, ‘I do not believe I can be accused of niggardliness.’ He was irritatingly blithe. ‘I do not worry about debts,’ he said, ‘because when Katie pays one, another comes.’ She watched him, and she needed to watch him.[20]

So, in order to provide for the needs of the residents of Lutherhaus, the Luther family practically had a small farm. They had numerous animals, a fish pond, a large garden (which Luther took care of), and a large orchard.[21] Katie even brewed her own beer, much to the delight of Luther.[22]

So it certainly seems that Katie was equal to the task of caring for the Luther household. One gets a sense of Katie’s devotion and her dedication from a time during the winter of 1539 – 40. She had suffered a miscarriage which resulted in her falling gravely ill. But Smith recounts that when the crisis was past her energy returned faster than her strength, and one of the most realistic accounts of her tells how she crawled around the house with the aids of her hands before she was able to walk upright.”

when the crisis was past her energy returned faster than her strength, and one of the most realistic accounts of her tells how she crawled around the house with the aids of her hands before she was able to walk upright.[23]

While the business of taking care of the agricultural side of things certainly made the household busy enough, the Luther household was also quite often full of children and guests. On June 8, 1526 Katie and Luther had their first child born into the world.[24] They named him Hans and he was the first of six children. They also had “Elizabeth (1527), Magdalena (1529), Martin (1531), Paul (1533), [and] Margaret (1534).”[25] On top of that they brought up “eleven of his orphaned nephews and nieces”[26] and boarded relatives, student boarders, visitors, and servants.[27] This then was most certainly a very busy and noisy household.

However, Martin Luther greatly loved and cherished his children. This is evidenced best by Luther’s own words. He writes, “The youngest children are always the most loved by the parents. My little Martin is my dearest treasure. Hans and Lena can now speak and do not need so much care, therefore it is that parents always love the little infants who need their love the most.”[28] Though Luther, unsurprisingly, does have a few comments regarding screaming children, in one of them he states,

What cause have you given me to love you so? How have you deserved to be my heir? By making yourself a general nuisance. And why aren’t you thankful instead of filling the house with your howls.[29]

Speaking of noise, mealtimes could especially be clamarous affairs. The students, eager to keep learning from Martin Luther, would gather around the table with pen and paper and write down the words of their teacher. These writings were compiled after the death of Luther and published into a book known as Table Talk. Table Talk is a wonderful picture into the life of Luther. The frankness and coarseness of Luther’s saying  in his Table Talk, tells the reader a lot about his personality. However, Luther would often get so caught up in talking and answering questions, that he would forget to eat, much to chagrin of his wife. As the story goes,

While he was talking in an inspired way during dinner, his wife said: ‘Why do you keep talking all the time instead of eating?’ He replied: ‘I must against wish that women would pray before they preach. Say the Lord’s prayer before you speak.’[30]

Luther on Family Worship: 

Prayer and worship were indeed key aspects to Luther’s idea of family life. Luther himself began each day with his own private prayers.[31]  In fact, Veit Dietrich wrote these words concerning Luther’s prayer life, “No day passes that he does not give three hours to prayer, and those the fittest for study.”[32] After Luther’s own private prayers he “joined the family to say the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and a Psalm.”[33] As part of this family worship, Luther also encouraged the celebration of a family Christmas with much making of music and song.[34]

Luther’s Theological Views on Marriage and Family:

Much can also be said about Luther’s view on marriage and the family from a theological standpoint. It is important to remember that Luther married out of principle: to prove that he certainly believed himself that marriage was right and proper for a member of the clergy. The rather comical thing is that this was a marriage between an ex-monk and an ex-nun. One can just imagine the outrage this would have caused and indeed did cause. For example, Erasmus wrote, “When a monk marrieth a nun, we may expect antichrist will be born.”[35]

When it came to the institution of marriage itself, Luther viewed as one of highest blessings from God. He writes, “Next to God’s Word there is no more precious treasure than holy matrimony. God’s highest gifts on earth is a pious, cheerful, God-fearing, home-keeping wife, with whom you may live peacefully, to whom you may entrust your goods and body and life.”[36] This very much gave a positive aspect to marriage that greatly contrasted the Roman Catholic Church’s negative view of marriage.

While being liberal in regard to who could marry, Luther was very conservative, traditional, and Biblical when it came to the structure of the family. For Luther the man was the head of the household and the woman was subject to his rule.[37] He argued this on the basis that Adam was created first then Eve (I Timothy 2:13).[38] While there is only one mention of Luther using corporeal punishment on his wife (a boxing on the ears[39]) one must not get the impression that Luther was a tyrant. As Smith argues, “it is probable that Luther gave in as often as not: – ‘As we were sitting in the garden, Jonas remarked that the women were becoming our masters . . . . Luther said: ‘But we have to give in, otherwise we would have no peace.’”[40] Furthermore, Luther once remarked to Katie, “in household affairs I give you the entire control, my authority being unabated.”[41]

Furthermore, the family is supposed to be very much a single independent unit according to Luther. Witte writes that “the family was seen as an indispensable social unit alongside the church and state, with its own sphere of authority and responsibility and its own moral and pedagogical task within society.”[42] This would fit very well with Luther’s condemnation of the Roman Catholic teaching that matrimony was a sacrament. In rejecting marriage as a sacrament[43], Luther was reasserting the independence of the family from the church: it is a separate unit from the church and must operate within its own sphere. This does not mean that the family was to act contrary to the wishes of the church. Rather the family was to work alongside of the church. It was the family’s duty to “teach all persons, particularly children, Christian values, morals, and mores.”[44]

Furthermore the family was supposed to be devoid of individualism. This is especially true when it came to the marriage of the children of the family. Bainton writes that “there was no room left for the exercise of unbridled individualism. Matings should be made by families; and whereas parents should not force children to repulsive unions, children in turn should not, because of infatuations, resist reasonable choices on the part of their elders.”[45] Furthermore, in a reaction against individualism, the family was to be together. Luther disliked being away from his home on trips, he “preferred to be more in his own family circle.”[46] Even when he absolutely had to travel he would take his wife with him, who was “often his companion in his study.”[47]

Bainton further argues that Luther saw marriage primarily as a school for character.[48] Family life, in all its trials, in all its squabbles, in all its difficulties, was to strengthen the Christian and draw him closer to God. Marriage taught the Christian to exercise “fortitude, patience, charity, and humility.”[49] As Luther stated, “I must have patience with the Pope, ranters, insolent nobles, my household and Katie von Bora, so that my whole life is nothing else but mere patience.”[50] In viewing family in this way, Luther destroys the notion that married Christians are somehow less Christian. Luther instead shows that in married life the Christian is brought to a greater understanding of Christian virtue. Hence, Luther is able to remark this regarding one of his children,

Hans is cutting his teeth and beginning to make a joyous nuisance of himself. These are the joys of marriage of which the pope is not worthy.[51]

Luther also influenced marriage from a law aspect. He took the responsibility of marriage away from the church and gave it over to the state. This resulted in the formation of state run marriage courts and thus also the formation of marriage laws. This is especially the argument of Witte who demonstrates that with the advent of Protestant views regarding marriage law courts to deal with the issue marriage start springing up[52], as well as Protestant law schools.[53]

Conclusion:

Luther greatly influenced German views of marriage and family life in numerous ways. By arguing that marriage is not a sacrament he brought marriage outside of the confines and control of the church. In many ways this established the family as a separate unit outside of the church. Furthermore, Luther’s belief and practice that marriage is a blessing from the Lord greatly encouraged people to get married, as it made marriage a positive thing, and not something negative for a Christian to do. Thus, it was because of Luther’s views on marriage and family life he was able to say, “I am rich, God has given me my nun and three children.”[54]

Bibliography

 Atkinson, James. Martin Luther and the Birth of Protestantism. Atlanta, Georgia: John Knox Press, 1981

Bainton, Roland. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. New York: Abingdon Press, 1950

Durant, Will. The Reformation: A History of European Civilization from Wyclif to Calvin: 1300 – 1564. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985

Luther, Martin. The Table Talk of Martin Luther. Edited by Thomas S. Kepler. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker House Books, 1979.

MacKinnon, James. Luther and the Reformation. New York: Russell and Russel Inc., 1962

Sears, Barnas. Life of Luther. Green Forest, Arizona: Attic Books, 2010

Smith, Preserved. The Life and Letters of Martin Luther. New York: Barnes and Noble Inc., 1968

The Reformation: A Narrative History Related by Contemporary Observers and Participants. Edited by Hans J. Hillerbrand. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1978.

Witte, John. “The Reformation of Marriage Law in Martin Luther’s Germany: Its Significance Then and Now” in Journal of Law and Religion, Vol. 4, No. 2 (1986): 293 – 351

Spangenberg, G.A. “Martin Luther and music.” Image, 1866. Available from Virtual Museum of Protestantism.http://www.museeprotestant.org/en/notice/martin-luther-and-music/ Accessed April 4, 2016

Footnotes

[1] Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. (New York: Abingdon Press, 1950), 286

[2] Ibid, 298

[3] Harold Grimm, The Reformation Era: 1500 – 1650 (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1963), 177

[4] Preserved Smith, The Life and Letters of Martin Luther. (New York: Barnes and Noble Inc., 1968), 172

[5] John Witte, “The Reformation of Marriage Law in Martin Luther’s Germany: Its Significance Then and Now” in Journal of Law and Religion, Vol. 4, No. 2 (1986), 301

[6] Quoted in ibid, 293

[7] Quoted in Barnas Sears, Life of Luther. (Green Forest, Arizona: Attic Books, 2010), 380

[8] Bainton, Here I Stand, 288

[9] Ibid, 288

[10] Quoted in Smith, The Life and Letters, 176

[11] It was Luther’s hope that in him getting married, Mainz would also get married as well. Bainton, Here I Stand, 288

[12] Smith, The Life and Letters, 174

[13] Quoted in Bainton, Here I Stand, 288

[14] Sears, Life of Luther, 382

[15] Smith, The Life and Letters, 178 – 179

[16] Ibid, 179

[17] Quoted in Smith 179

[18] Bainton, Here I Stand, 293

[19] Ibid

[20] Ibid, 292

[21] Ibid

[22] Ibid, 293

[23] Smith, The Life and Letters, 181

[24] Bainton, Here I Stand,  293

[25]  James Atkinson, Martin Luther and the Birth of Protestantism. (Atlanta, Georgia: John Knox Press, 1981), 248

[26] Smith, The Life and Letters, 355

[27] Bainton, Here I Stand, 294

[28] Smith, The Life and Letters, 352

[29] Ibid, 353

[30] Ibid, 180

[31] Atkinson, Martin Luther, 250

[32] Ibid

[33] Ibid

[34] Sears, The Life of Luther, 395

[35] Quoted in ibid, 384

[36] Quoted in Atkinson 247 – 248

[37] Bainton, Here I Stand,  299

[38] Ibid

[39] Smith, The Life and Letters180

[40] Ibid, 181

[41] Quoted in Sears, The Life of Luther390

[42] Witte, “The Reformation of Marriage Law”, 296

[43] Luther first argued that this had no basis in Scripture [James MacKinnon, Luther and the Reformation. (New York: Russell and Russel Inc., 1962), 260] and second argued that marriage is an earthly institution and no grace is conferred by God when a person is married (Witte, “The Reformation of Marriage Law”, 312). Therefore, marriage cannot be a sacrament.

[44] Ibid, 308

[45] Bainton, Here I Stand, 299

[46] Sears, The Life of Luther, 394

[47] Ibid

[48] Bainton, Here I Stand, 300

[49] Ibid

[50] Quoted in Smith, The Life and Letters, 181

[51] Quoted in Bainton, Here I Stand, 293

[52] Witte, “The Reformation of Marriage Law”, 315

[53] Ibid, 318

[54] Smith, The Life and Letters, 179

Is God Sovereign Over Evil??

Is God in control of the evil that happens in this world? Is He sovereign over evil? Does He predetermine all the evil in the world?

These are pertinent questions that came up recently in one of my Historical Theology classes. We had been discussing Aquinas’ proofs for the existence of God as presented in his Summa Theologia. As Aquinas noted, one of the common objections that are brought up with reference to the existence of God is the problem of evil. How can a good, omnipotent, all-knowing God allow evil to exist?

Eventually, the conclusion was reached by the professor that God does not actively will evil, but rather simply allows it (part of the basis for this was a misinterpretation and translation of Romans 8:28). So that while God is not sovereign over evil, He is sovereign in making evil work out for the good of the believers.

This answer, I would posit, is more based upon our emotional feelings regarding who God is and what God should do: it is not based upon the consistent picture we get of God in the Bible. We do not like the idea that God predetermines the evil in this world. We do not like the idea that the perfectly good God orchestrates the tremendous atrocities that exist in society today and have existed in history. We see the evil in the world and despise the fact that God could have anything to do with that. We, in our pride, like to maintain our own personal freedom and think that God has no control over our actions.

Yet the Bible is consistently clear on this issue; God is in control of all the evil that happens. He is sovereign over it all. Here are a just a few verses that illustrate this fact:

  • 2 Thessalonians 2:11-12: And for this cause God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie: That they all might be damned who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness.
  • Isaiah 6:10: Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and convert, and be healed.
  • Deuteronomy 2:30: But Sihon king of Heshbon would not let us pass by him: for the LORD thy God hardened his spirit, and made his heart obstinate, that he might deliver him into thy hand, as appeareth this day.
  • Joshua 11:20: For it was of the LORD to harden their hearts, that they should come against Israel in battle, that he might destroy them utterly, and that they might have no favour, but that he might destroy them, as the LORD commanded Moses.
  • John 12:40: He hath blinded their eyes, and hardened their heart; that they should not see with their eyes, nor understand with their heart, and be converted, and I should heal them.
  • Acts 2:22 – 23: Ye men of Israel, hear these words; Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you by miracles and wonders and signs, which God did by him in the midst of you, as ye yourselves also know: Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain
  • Amos 3:6: Shall a trumpet be blown in the city, and the people not be afraid? Shall there be evil in a city, and the Lord hath not done it?
  • Romans 9:18: Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth.

To say that God is not in control of the evil in this world presents numerous interpretation problems with the Bible. How can any of these verses be interpreted if one says that God is not in control of evil?  Nor can these problems be done away with the claim of Marcion that the God of the Old Testament is not the same as the God of Jesus Christ. There are numerous New Testament passages, spread throughout the New Testament writings, that state that God is in control of evil and predetermines it by His sovereign hand.

Yet how does God retain His goodness if He causes evil in this world?

God retains His perfect goodness in all this because He is fundamentally good. God is perfectly righteous and holy. He can in no way be morally responsible for our own personal sin. We must not make the mistake of forcing our own rational limited human understanding of moral responsibility on to the infinite Lord and Creator of the Universe. We simply cannot do that.

Furthermore, God retains His moral excellence because He has revealed His will of command to us. We know in our hearts what God demands of us. This is even true of those who know nothing of Christianity and have never read the Bible. The Apostle Paul attests to this fact in Romans 2:14: “For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves.” God demands that we keep that law. It is our duty to keep that law. God holds us responsible to keep that law.

We as humans are responsible moral agents. While God is in control of our actions (He is even in control of all the hairs of our head as Jesus Christ states in Matthew 10:28!), we maintain our moral responsibility. We have a rational intellect that God has given us and we are responsible for the use of it, God is not. In this life, we act as moral agents. We make decisions. We have a will. In this life, we do not notice the fact that God has predetermined all that we will do, yet He has. And yet, we are still responsible for all our actions, for God will judge us on the Day of Judgment. We will be held accountable for all our actions.

Difficult to understand? Yes. Frightening to think of? Yes, especially for the unbeliever. But this is what the Bible teaches. Much of it has to be accepted on the basis of humble faith. This is who God is.