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Was Martin Luther a Murderer?

March 30th, 2010
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The Jesuit priest, Father Mitchell Pacwa, has announced on the Eternal Word Television Network, that it is the intention of EWTN to produce an extensive documentary on the life of Martin Luther. In the course of discussing this project, on EWTN and elsewhere, Father Pacwa has indicated that they will be discussing the “fact” that Martin Luther was a murderer and this great sin is what drove Luther to such depths of despair and despondency that, in spite of the Church’s teachings, he could find no comfort and so arrived at his views as a result of his own unbalanced feelings of guilt. I thank Mr. James Swan for drawing this to my attention.

I have consulted with my colleagues here at Concordia Publishing House who in turn have sought out the opinion of one of the finest Luther scholars today: Dr. Christopher Brown. My colleague here, Rev. Dr. Benjamin Mayes, and Dr. Christopher Brown prepared the following statement on Father Pacwa’s assertions that I believe is very helpful. No doubt as EWTN pursues this documentary, as if they continue to insist on the veracity of this vile lie about Luther, we will all be hearing more about it. Our pastors and faithful laity need to be aware of this situation and able to respond to it. Here then is Dr. Brown’s and Dr. Mayes’ response. I should note that when, and if, I acquire more information about this situation, I will post it.

Was Luther a murderer?

In the early 1980′s, Dietrich Emme popularized the theory that Martin Luther entered the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt not due to his experience in a storm, but in order to escape prosecution after killing a companion (Hieronymus Buntz) in a duel in 1505 (Martin Luther: Sein Jugend- und Studentenzeit 1483-1505 [Cologne, 1982]). Emme’s work on this point has been widely dismissed in recent scholarship as piling one speculative conclusion upon another (e.g., Andreas Lindner, “Was geschah in Stotternheim,” in C. Bultmann, V. Leppin, eds., Luther und das monastische Erbe [Tübingen, 2007], pp. 109-10).

The “duel theory” relies on one of Luther’s Table Talk comments:

“By the singular plan of God I became a monk, so that they would not capture me. Otherwise I would have been captured easily. But they were not able to do it, because the entire Order took care of me” (D. Martin Luthers Werke: kritische Gesamtausgabe [Weimar Edition]: Tischreden, vol. 1 [Weimar: Hermann Böhlaus Nachfolger, 1912], p. 134, no. 326). Yet this refers to the Augustinian order’s protection of Luther from Rome in 1518, not a putative flight from prosecution for dueling in 1505.

If Luther’s “duel” were true, it would have been a matter of rather public knowledge, both casually, among students and the monks, and officially, both with whatever civil or episcopal authorities were supposedly trying to arrest Luther, as well as because a dispensation would have been required for Luther’s ordination (homicide being a canonical impediment for the sacrament of order). In other words, it would be practically unthinkable that when the Roman Catholic polemical biographer of Luther, Johannes Cochlaeus, was searching for data about Luther’s monastic career (and coming up with stories like Luther wailing in the choir) that such a “fact,” if true or even rumored, would not have emerged.

Dr. Christopher Boyd Brown, general editor, Luther’s Works: American Edition
Dr. Benjamin T. G. Mayes, managing editor, Luther’s Works: American Edition

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Categories: Martin Luther
  1. March 30th, 2010 at 14:02 | #1

    The other year I attended a lecture series at the local Alliance church in DVD format, the “Truth Project” with Del Tackett (obviously not Lutheran). I thought it was very good and was amazed how the local villagers sat through hours and hours of lectures and had frank discussion.

    We should have something like it to deal with Luther, Lutheranism, theology, catechism, history, apologetics, etc. How hard can it be? We have so many scholars. James Swan should not have to shoulder this practically single-handedly.

  2. March 30th, 2010 at 15:08 | #2

    I would think that if such a charge were true, the Roman church of the time would have used that bit of ‘opposition research’ in their ongoing campaign against Luther’s movement.

    Luther was discredited in some circles after his advice to Phillip of Hesse went public – I can’t imagine that someone wouldn’t have seized upon the idea that Luther was an actual murderer, even if simply ‘rumored’. Thanks for the heads up.

    • March 30th, 2010 at 16:00 | #3

      Yes, this is precisely the point. If there was even any remote possibility of this being true, his enemies would have pounced all over it. As it is, they made up all kinds of crazy stories about him!

  3. March 30th, 2010 at 15:13 | #4

    I suppose for Jesuits like Pacwa, there is always mental reservation!

  4. March 30th, 2010 at 16:50 | #5


    (Laughs)… “You know, maybe in all of this slander we should give Luther the benefit of the doubt here….”

  5. RK
    March 30th, 2010 at 20:00 | #6

    Despite what one may think of Dr. John Ankerberg’s and Dr. Walter Martin’s theology, the late Dr. Martin devastatingly took Father Mitchell Pacwa’s beliefs apart piece by piece on a series of face to face Ankerberg TV programs in the 1980′s found here:


    Also, in the same pro-Rome/anti-Luther vein as Pacwa’s, the following has been circulating on the web:

    Twenty One Reasons to Reject Sola Scriptura


  6. March 30th, 2010 at 20:18 | #7

    I put this in the same category with claims that Jesus was (pick one or more of the following) a gay activist, a community organizer, a married man who had a son, a married man who had a daughter, a spirit, a magician, a Marxist guerilla, a combination of several different people who lived in different centuries, an Aryan superman, a woman, and a space alien.

  7. Bethany Kilcrease
    March 30th, 2010 at 21:43 | #8

    Wow – this story is completely bizarre. I just gave a paper dealing with Evangelical Anglican and Anglo-Catholic perception of Luther in the 19th century. The big issue Anglo-Catholic (and Jesuit) authors tossed out to discredit Luther was the advice to Philip of Hesse regarding bigamy. Some of these people were good scholars and would have dug up murder had it been there. But, more to the point, just suppose he had murdered someone and entered the monastery to escape. So what? How does that have any bearing whatsoever on his theology? It would be a logical fallacy to say his insights were false because of an event in his past.

    Bethany Kilcrease

  8. Josh Venske
    March 31st, 2010 at 02:03 | #9

    Oh NO! Whatever will we do?!

    First, it seems like this is merely grasping at straws on the Jesuit’s part as is exhibited by the brief refutations already posted.

    Second, even if Luther had committed murder, does that destroy the Truth of Christ? The Solas and theology of the Reformation? No way! Even if Luther was a murderer, it would not have been the first time that God used murderers for his good purposes. Hmm. Moses, David, and Paul come to mind.

  9. Kelly
    March 31st, 2010 at 03:47 | #10

    Bethany: I gathered from this post that the murder speculation is used to explain just why Luther had such extreme Lutheran guilt, causing him to be so “imbalanced” and maybe tipping the scales too far in the “even our good works are sinful” and undeserved grace departments.

  10. March 31st, 2010 at 05:06 | #11

    Just a minor correction- Pacwa’s video series scheduled for 2017 is on the Reformation and not just Luther. While Luther will be prominent, I’m sure other subjects pertinent to that time period will be brought up as well.

    I’m very grateful for the work you and your colleagues spent in looking into this, and also the clarifying comments left on my blog.

    If Father Pacwa is really interested in a fair and balanced documentary on the Reformation, perhaps he could contact Concordia and consult with Dr. Brown and Dr. Mayes.


  11. Dennis Peskey
    March 31st, 2010 at 08:11 | #12

    Was Luther guilty of murder – yes. Is Father Mitchell Pacwa guilty of murder – yes. James 2:10 clearly indicts all of us, particulary as Good Friday approaches. As for me, I would give the true response to Father Pacwa from the Church – you are forgiven.

    • March 31st, 2010 at 10:48 | #13

      Yes, Dennis, this is most certainly true; however, this is not the appropriate response to public slanders about Martin Luther.

  12. March 31st, 2010 at 08:41 | #14

    I have been deeply troubled, over years of historical reading in areas that abutted on legend and myth, to see the number of “historians” who get away with assembling towering constructions of supposition–”If we imagine A, then B is very likely, which makes C extremely probable,” and then gesturing grandly at the swaying heap they’ve piled up, and announcing, “Now we have proved that King Arthur was a lesbian,” or something.

  13. Karyn
    March 31st, 2010 at 09:17 | #15

    Actually, if the translation is correct, Luther himself has expressly testified that he is not a murderer (in the sense that he did not commit this crime that has been prohibited by and is punishable under criminal and civil laws). Towards the end of his earthly life (1535-1545), Luther lectured on Genesis and in connection with the story of Joseph’s plotting brothers, Luther warned that believers will continue to feel their sins of the past even as they know they are forgiven. Luther says, “I know what happens to me when I recall how I have lived in the past. For although I know that my sins are forgiven me, yet this pukah, this stumbling block, continues to return: I cannot live without a sob, without shame and blushing. I exclaim: Shame on you! What have you done! I know, I AM NOT GUILTY OF VIOLATING ANOTHER’S WIFE, OF MURDER OR SIMILAR ENORMOUS SINS. THERE THE LITTLE DOG OF REGRET CANNOT BITE ME; but it does bite me because of other sins, even though my conscience has been hushed and the scar has healed.” [emphasis added] (W 44, 277 — E op ex 9, 116 — SL 2, 1107)

    – from “What Luther Says” anthology

    • March 31st, 2010 at 09:33 | #16

      Excellent Karen!! Thank you for this quote.

      The story has merit at all.

  14. Rev. Allen Bergstrazer
    March 31st, 2010 at 10:32 | #17

    It is important to refute such assertions when they come up. It is obedience to the 8th commandment. We often see how a pile of tantalizing speculations can turn into a theory and then the theory into ‘fact’ simply by repetition ala the Da Vinci Code. It also raises a flag for Lutherans in that we too should be sure that our differences are based on facts.

  15. March 31st, 2010 at 12:34 | #18

    Just happened to read this today, from Luther’s 1531/1535 Galatians Commentary (LW 27:47): “This should be a very pleasant comfort for us. For it is sure that the world hates and persecutes us for no other reason than that we present the truth of the Gospel. It does not accuse us of being thieves, adulterers, murderers, etc.; but what it despises in us is solely this, that we teach Christ faithfully and purely, and that we do not forsake the heritage of the truth. Therefore we should know for certain that our doctrine is holy and divine, because the world hates it to bitterly.”

  16. Richard
    March 31st, 2010 at 15:45 | #19

    Mr. Walker,
    King Arthur was a Lesbian? Whoa! Talk about paradigm shifts!

  17. Terry Maher (Past Elder)
    April 1st, 2010 at 00:08 | #20

    For as little as I think of EWTN, this is incredible. I never heard such nonsense even coming up in the preconciliar RCC. His inability to find comfort in the Sacrament of Penance (we didn’t have a “Sacrament of Reconciliation” then) I was taught was due to his woefully inadequate seminary formation, highly Nominalist in nature, wherein he though he was being taught the real deal when in fact he was being taught crap, and if there is a responsibility for his having to invent the Lutheran idea of “the cardinal truth on which Christianity stands or falls” is more our fault than his for having allowed spiritual formation and doctrinal teaching to sink to such a sad state. That’s what I was taught pre-Revolution, er, Vatican II.

    Somebody really ought to bring an oeverture before the floor at Houston than any viewing of EWTN will result in removal from the rolls of rostered clergy. They were bad enough, and quite apart from anything like mainstream postconciliar Catholicism in the parishes, not to mention having no support at all from the RCC itself, as it is.

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