THE WIT OF MARTIN LUTHER by Eric W. Gritsch

Humor is often misunderstood, inappropriately used, or frequently misdirected. Luther’s humor is an area that has “escaped” scholarly research for decades. Eric Gritsch, professor emeritus of Church History at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, addressed that void in a sampling of citations published in Lutheran Quarterly, entitled “Luther on Humor” ( LQ 18:4 [Winter 2004]:373-386). The humor of Luther is more than being funny, it points to the reality of one’s relationship to God and the world, sometimes liberatingly ludicrous and at other times absurdly incongruous, but always recognizing one’s limitations in this life because of the life to come.

Acknowledging the integral part humor played in the life and writing of the reformer, Gritsch begins with observations on how Luther integrated witticisms into his various activities as a powerful resource for reforming Christ’s church. Luther’s academic and monastic training included the idea that scatological language, followed by prayer, was the first line of defense against Satan. Luther’s tower/toilet experience proved world changing for the despondent monk who found serenity alone in God’s gracious justification. Noting Luther’s jesting already in his Ninety-Five Theses, Gritsch cites Luther’s waggish polemics against his varied opponents, whether addressing Erasmus of Rotterdam, Ulrich Zwingli, or the papacy.

Gritsch illustrates Luther’s use of humor and wit through numerous citations of Luther’s biblical interpretations, his expressions of pastoral care, and his encounters with his own mortality. Psalm 2:4 provided Luther with a profound perspective of human foibles and divine discretion. An eternal joy underscored Luther’s scriptural perspective in which there was always a divinely comedic element, particularly in Genesis and Galatians. Gritsch shows the oft times facetious element in Luther’s pastoral care, although he was sought by many for advice. Luther also had a “gallows humor” (66), suggests Gritch, by which Luther mocked that which was most serious, at least from a human perspective.

Eternal life is at the heart of Luther’s humor. The deep eschatological edge to Luther’s wit, which Gritsch discloses, is the consequence of Luther’s theology of the cross. In chapter 3, “Smiling through the Mean Meantime,” Gritsch illustrates Luther’s penultimate thinking in which he can joyfully face life’s anxieties by anticipating eternal joys. Survival through this life’s troubled times involved laughing, smiling, and even mocking. For example, he described himself at sixty as being “alt, kalt, und ungestalt” (“old, cold, and mutilated,” 101), and always ready to meet his Savior. As Gritsch notes in his postscript, “Humor creates the freedom to laugh at one’s own idiosyncrasies and not succumb to either a bitter-faced piety or useless theological calculations. One should let God be God…” (115).

No one should expect a book of jokes when reading this book, yet a deeper sense of divine comedy will come through…a joyous perspective which grows from a deep faith in Christ. Although Luther did make derogatory comments and used his pen to ridicule his opponents, Gritsch reports that Luther avoids that so-called Schadenfreude (joy at other’s hardships). Recognizing Luther’s perspective as chauvinistic by contemporary standards, Gritsch underscores the fact that even his remarks about his wife, Katie, grew out of a deep respect for her charm, intelligence, and business acumen. A five-and-a-half page appendix of “witticisms of Martin Luther” concludes this book and provides several proverbial epitaphs and entertaining quotations from Luther’s pen.

Keeping one’s faith in times of distress often requires a sense of humor, as Luther exhibited, knowing that God laughs in the face of Satan’s defeat. Not the darkness of death, but the dawn of eternity is at the heart of this work of pastoral and historical reflection by Eric Gritsch. This little booklet, more than merely an account of Luther’s humor, is a beneficial devotional tool for Lutheran pastors and laity who seek the Lord in a refreshingly clear and intriguingly comforting depiction of Luther’s theology of the cross as he also displays a “theology of freedom.” Gritsch’s prefatory conclusion serves as a fitting end to this review: “His wit relaxed anxious minds and annoyed angry foes. May it continue to do so today” (x). Amen!

Timothy Maschke
Grafton, WI

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