My blog posts revolve around my interests and vocation as a historian: the intersection of history and contemporary church life, the intersection of history and contemporary politics, serendipitous discoveries in archives or on research trips, publications and research projects, upcoming conferences, and speaking engagements.
I sometimes blog for two other organizations, the Canadian Baptist Historical Society and the Centre for Post-Christendom Studies.
The views expressed in these blogs represent the views of the authors, and not necessarily those of any organizations with which they are associated.
Martin Luther’s Response to the Plague: Two Lessons for Those in Theological Education
By the early 1520s, Martin Luther (1483-1546) was a famous theologian in a new university at Wittenberg. He had achieved what most professors long for; adoring students, over-flowing classes, best-selling written works, rock-star status among the German populace, and a continent-wide reputation for innovative reforms. Love him or hate him, he had become one of the most important intellectuals of his day, rivalling and perhaps even dethroning the great Desiderius Erasmus.
Like many professors he had countless responsibilities, and his fame added to the burdens of his daily regimen. What could have killed him was the plague that struck in 1527. A pastor named Johann Hess wrote him for advice on whether or not Christians could flee from the plague, and Luther eventually responded. And in his response there are a few lessons for professors today.
First, Luther actually responded. As many professors in theological education know, the pressures to stick with our research agenda are compelling. Academic administration and the guild in general usually look down on “popular” writings, only crediting academic research and writing for advancement. Yet Luther took the time to write an extensive response entitled Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague (1527). Luther was a famous professor, but he was also a pastor who cared deeply for his flock. He not only took the time to write the pastor (and have the work published so all pastors could read it), he and his wife Katharina risked their lives to care for plague victims in their house.
Second, his advice took into account the frailties of the human condition. He urged leaders not to abandon their responsibilities, but he also recognized that not all were of equal faith; some were weak, and some were strong, and the weak could flee if they made arrangements for their flock. One size did not fit all, and there was to be no arrogant looking down at the weak of faith, for the strong were commanded not to condemn the weak of faith: "If someone is so strong in faith, however, that he can willingly suffer nakedness, hunger, and want without tempting God and not trying to escape, although he could do so, let him continue that way, but let him not condemn those who will not or cannot do the same." With his iconic status as the “Germanic Hercules” secure, Luther could have easily damned lesser mortals for their frailties and fear in the midst of the dangers, but he refused to look down at those who were anxious. Not known to many was Luther’s struggles with depression, and no doubt the realization of his own frailty made him compassionate of others' struggles. He also recognized the Bible’s teaching on the “stronger and weaker brother/sister” (Romans 15:1).
In these days of ongoing uncertainty and anxiety over the COVID-19 pandemic our students have ranges of fear and anxiety, many are bold and brave while others fearful and paralyzed. Luther’s example for us today it to take the time from our research to address the needs of our students, and, when necessary, to show humility, flexibility, and grace for those who find the situation unbearable.
4/14/2020 05:56:01 am
Wonderful post, Gord! Thank you for writing and sharing it. The fact that Luther both "actually responded," and did so with advice that took "into account the frailties of the human condition" gives me new insights into the man, and an appreciation, once more, for the lessons of history. Thanks for making those lessons real!
4/15/2020 02:11:03 pm
Thanks Patrica. One reason why I like Luther so much is the fact that he is so down-to-earth and human - faults and all.
4/14/2020 07:12:52 am
Thanks for sharing this post, Gord. Social media makes it so easy to condemn another person and it seems that many are quick to do so right now. Yet I wonder if we understand what the other person may be going through. Luther gives a wise response here and uses his influence in a positive way that reaches people where they are. This is a wonderful picture of offering grace in weakness.
4/15/2020 02:13:58 pm
Thanks Dr. Card!
4/17/2020 11:07:33 am
Gord, Thank you for sharing this very pastoral approach. I really appreciated it.
4/18/2020 12:03:38 pm
Leave a Reply.