Wednesday, 5 May 2010

The anxious Luther

The German word that Luther used to describe his struggles is anfechtung. Anfechtung is a word that does not easily translate into English. Scaer points out that Luther’s concept of anfechtungen is a multifaceted concept that incorporates the ideas of undergoing a period of testing by Satan; of being tested by God who measures the depth and sincerity of faith and brings it to a higher level; and that with anfechtung a person endures real suffering and pain. In this blog I want look at three features of Luther’s anfechtung.

Firstly, it is significant that Luther’s anfechtung persisted over the duration of his life. Bainton notes that there is just one respect in which the young Luther appears to have been different from other youths of his time, ‘he was extraordinarily sensitive and subject to recurrent periods of exaltation and depression of spirit.’ Similarly, Stephen Nichols notes that a series of spiritual crises marked Luther’s early life of study. However, Luther’s struggles were not simply a feature of his early life—for example in 1527 the experienced reformer endured a frightful period of anfechtung of which he later wrote, “for more than a week I was close to the gates of death and hell.”

Secondly, we ought to observe that Luther’s anfechtung was religious in nature. Bainton comments upon the fact that the content of Luther’s depressions was always the same, ‘the loss of faith that God is good and that he is good to me.’ Nichols points out how the young Luther was haunted by a medieval sculpture of Christ—depicted as a judge with a sword clenched between his teeth and a piercing stare—that he encountered daily at the university in Erfurt. Atkinson says that while Luther entered monastery life to find peace with God, the closer experience of God which he sought turned out to be a torment and even worse alienation. Luther’s theological breakthrough concerning ‘that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith’ certainly brought emotional benefits but, as we have seen above, his struggles with anfechtung, reoccurred beyond that point.

Thirdly, it is worthy considering how Luther’s circumstances contributed to his anfechtung. The superstitious nature of medieval Christianity would have exerted a toll on a sensitive young man—when Luther was famously caught in a severe storm he feared that God had unleashed the very thunder from heaven to judge his soul. The many physical illnesses that Luther suffered surely affected his mood; however, the severe anfechtung that he experienced in his monastic life predate these physical ailments. The pressures of being a condemned heretic and having to live in exile must have contributed to the spiritual struggles he endured while at Wartburg Castle (1521). Similarly, the impact of the theological radicals, combined with the fact that Luther was still sleeping in his own bed, while his followers were dying for the faith, muct have been a factor in his anfechtung of 1527. However, Bainton writes that although ‘outward events affected him, the very nature of the dark night of the soul is that it may be occasioned by nothing tangible whatsoever.’

In seeking to understand the nature of Luther’s anfechtung we may want to engage with both theological and medical perspectives.

On the theological front, while Nichols is right to state that Luther’s theological breakthrough regarding justification marked a resolution to his long-endured struggles there is a sense in which it seems premature to speak of his struggles as being resolved, given that he would later suffer further battles with anfechtung. Luther’s experiences remind us that although a correct understanding of God’s saving grace should bring the troubled spirit much relief, those, like Luther, with a sensitive nature are not immune from further battles with anfechtung. In the church we have to realise that people’s emotional make-up, physical health, and outward circumstances may make them vulnerable to anxiety and depression, no matter how well they have grasped the truths of the gospel.

An interesting medical comment on Luther is provided by Ian Osborn in a book dealing with the issue of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Citing words found in Luther’s Commentary on Galatians, where the reformer talks of his days as a monk, Osborn points to Luther’s ‘excruciating scruples’ and his preoccupation with being certain that he had confessed all his sins. Osborn later points out that Luther can be described as ‘a melancholic’. It may be, as Osborn is suggesting, that if Luther lived in modern times he would have been diagnosed with a recognised psychiatric illness. This gives us further insight concerning the circumstantial factors that contributed to his anfechtung. It also gives us help when considering how to help people who struggle with similar mental health issues—for while Luther’s theological breakthrough did not make him immune from further bouts of anfechtung we will see in the next blog that teaching about God’s mercy and grace did bring him significant comfort, and was used by him to bring comfort to other fellow sufferers.


Larry said...

Osbornes biggest failure is to recognise the connection between physical ills and anfechtung. The devil uses both spiritual and the physical to drive one to despair in hope of Gods promises. For even physical ills ultimately reflect the law and judgment of God on the fallen man. In physical pain the anfechtung is in the abandoned cry of derelection "why me God, where are you ". Thus he experiences the backside of God..God appears to have turned his back on the very opposite of the promise and giving of forgiveness of sin found in word and sacrament for one. This is why all trials Luther says should be kissed as the very treasures from heaven. Not in a monastic flagelating self made sufferings but that God is nearest in Christ in these when they drive faith to hold alone to his promises contrary to experience, reason or feelings. Hence the great comfort in the cry of faith "I'm baptized " ie faith alone in the worded water.

To whom it may concern said...

Larry, thanks for your comments. They are very interesting. Paul