Luther and the Mystics, Part Three

Posted on Posted in Theology

Luther’s other favorite mystic, along with St. Bernard of Clairvaux, was Johannes Tauler, a native of Strasbourg (which thrills me to no end, as we’re Strasbourgeoisie ourselves these days!). It’s a fitting geographical connection between Luther and a medieval Catholic mystic too, since Strasbourg was unusually peaceful between Lutherans and Catholics in the centuries following the Reformation—our own church, St. Pierre-le-Jeune, was actually shared by the Lutheran and Catholic congregations all the way till the 19th century, when Alsace under Prussian control was required to provide different building for churches of each confession. And the other St. Peter in town, St. Pierre-le-Vieux, is still shared by Lutherans and Catholics, though in their case with a wall down the middle of the building.

Johannes Tauler also used bridal imagery like Bernard (see for instance Sermon II in The Inner Way, though be prepared for some unpleasant racist imagery at the end of the sermon). I was particularly struck by this passage, though, from the end of Sermon V in The Inner Way:

“It is God’s nature to give; and He lives and moves that He may give unto us when we are humble. If we are not lowly, and yet desire to receive, we do Him violence, and kill Him, so to speak; and, though we may not wish to do this, yet we do it, as far as in us lies. That thou mayest truly give Him all things, see to it, that thou castest thyself in deep humility at the Feet of God, and beneath all created beings; that thou exaltest God in thy heart, and that thou confessest Him. The Lord our God sent His only-begotten Son into the world. God sent His Son in the fulness of time, for the sake of our souls, and that we might be filled with Him. When a soul is freed from place and time, the Father sends His Son into that soul to be born there. Nothing can hinder God in us, or us in God, if in our hearts we neither hang on to, nor cleave to time and place, nor exalt ourselves above time and place in Eternity, which is God Himself. Amen.”

Tauler places a lot of emphasis on the necessity of the soul’s preparation for God in the form of humility and self-abnegation, which is characteristic of Luther through the early and mid-1510s. But the passage that really characterizes Luther’s later thought is the first sentence quoted here: “It is God’s nature to give.” The shift that Luther makes in this decade leading up to what we now call the Reformation is putting less emphasis on human preparations and more on the divine gift. Forgiveness is a divine gift. Righteousness is a divine gift. Faith is a divine gift. None of these are our own doing. The mystics knew that—and Luther learned it from them. As he put it very beautifully in his 1528 “Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper”:

“These are the three persons and one God, who has given himself to us all wholly and completely, with all that he is and has. The Father gives himself to us, with heaven and earth and all the creatures, in order that they may serve us and benefit us… [T]he Son himself subsequently gave himself and bestowed all his works, sufferings, wisdom, and righteousness, and reconciled us to the Father, in order that restored to life and righteousness, we might also know and have the Father and his gifts. But because this grace would benefit no one if it remained so profoundly hidden and could not come to us, the Holy Spirit comes and gives himself to us also, wholly and completely.” (LW 37:366)

One thought on “Luther and the Mystics, Part Three

  1. My ancestors left Strasbourg in about 1774. I am told they were baptized in St Thomas church. Although I speak no German (nor French) I would like to visit the church and try to find records of my family prior to 1775. Is there anyone who can help me in this mission. I live in Virginia, USA. This would be a major once-in-a-lifetime trip for me. I appreciate any suggestions or help.
    Thank you,
    David Luther
    [email protected]

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