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On W. H. T. Dau’s “Luther Examined and Reexamined.”
Reviewing a refutation of the Roman aspersions cast at Luther’s feet.
There is, perhaps, no figure in the annals of church history more revered or more ridiculed than Martin Luther. That thorny, pesky Augustinian monk turned Reformer has persisted for decades as the epitomization of Protestantism, with his writings being hailed and probed and scrutinized almost more than any other before or since. Colloquial knowledge concerning Luther abounds as he has become nearly a figurehead of ecclesiastical thought. As such, there still persists a bevy of misconceptions regarding his life and work, feeding the derogation that is often cast his way. Enter William Herman Theodore Dau, the late professor of Concordia Seminary and assistant pastor of Old Trinity Lutheran Church in St. Louis, Missouri, to assume the mantle of speaking on Luther’s behalf. That alone is a daunting assignment, considering Luther was very ready and willing express himself in his way. However, in the generations since the Reformation, with Protestantism itself enduring its bout schisms, the aspersions Luther and Lutheranism have borne have led to no small amount of uncertainty with what to do with Luther beyond the adoption of his more genial writings. It is into that uncertainty that Dau aims to speak in his work, Luther Examined and Reexamined: A Review of Catholic Criticism and a Plea for Revaluation.
In Luther Examined and Reexamined, Dau endeavors to entertain the long and storied censure of Luther on the part of a host of Catholic thinkers and theologians, only to dismantle their vilification by engaging with what the Reformer actually said. And whereas Dau’s polemic is largely intended for an audience of Catholics, there is much to be gleaned from this frank rebuttal, even for modern Evangelicals. In due course, Dau seemingly leaves no stone unturned in this reactionary tome, interacting with a vast array of critical commentators of Luther and Lutheran doctrine. He begins, rightly enough, by speaking to instances of gratuitous worship and vitriol for Luther himself, demonstrating how both are unfounded. He notes how silly it is that the very institution which venerates saints aims to “preach to Protestants about the sin of man-worship!” (3). Dau, then, proceeds to cite Luther’s own blushing confession: “I beg not to have my name mentioned, and to call people not Lutheran, but Christian. What is Luther? The doctrine is not mine, nor have I bene crucified for any one . . . I am not, and I do not want to be anybody’s master” (3).
From there, Dau moves on to speak to some of the blemishes in Luther’s storied legacy, making mention of some of the slander sent his way and refuting it, without also making light of it. Luther’s faith, like anyone else’s in all the ages of the church, is a faith despite himself. His life certainly proves this to be true. He, though not impervious to scorn, believed rightly enough in the truth and grace of the Word to render null the outright libel cast against him. What’s more, one is obliged to take into consideration the task which was set before Luther in his day. He was given the momentous occasion to make a stand for the truth of the Lord Jesus in era of christological darkness. The cemented tradition of the church in that era made it such that Luther’s assignment was, for all intents and purposes, a relative impossibility. Therefore, when he is raked over the coals for his coarseness and impassioned speech, one might do well to remember the obstacles with which he was zealous to overcome. “No one can be a true theologian without being polemical on occasion,” Dau asserts (201). Indeed, he continues, “if you think rightly of the Gospel, do not imagine its cause can be accomplished without tumult, scandal, and sedition” (18). The world in which the words of the gospel sound forth is not one that is congenial to its message. Conflict is sure to abound at the proclamation of God’s tidings of truth and grace and justice.
Nevertheless, Dau continues his tour of Luther’s biography and the chastisement he endured by taking note of his upbringing and calling to the Augustinian order of monks. He recounts the spurious criticisms of Luther’s time in the monastery as well as his “discovery” of the Bible. Eventually, he arrives at contemplating the misguided affronts to Luther’s theology, disproving the notions that the Reformer was a fatalistic antinomian blasphemer. “If Luther was wrong,” Dau notes, “in teaching the justification of the sinner by faith, without the deeds of the Law, then Paul was wrong, Jesus Christ was wrong, the apostles and prophets were wrong, the whole Bible is wrong” (99). Indeed, such is the conclusion to which one must come after examining Luther’s writings. He did not, as Dau makes clear, set upon an endeavor to establish a new dogma or new church. Rather, he aimed to show the manifest discrepancies of an institution which prided itself on a superior understanding Scripture. But, as the Reformer famously demonstrated throughout his oeuvre, the Scriptures were all but rendered null by the hubristic fury of the prelates of the church of his day. Christ’s Word and Work was sidelined by a church whose head was in the sand. Dau writes:
The Roman scheme of salvation might be called the ostrich method: it teaches men the foolish strategy of the bird of the desert, which hides its head in the sand when it sees an enemy approaching, and then imagines the enemy does not exist. (107)
W. H. T. Dau’s work in Luther Examined and Reexamined must not go unnoticed. Although, at times, the author can veer into lengthy and long-winded prose, one ought to feel indebted to his thoroughness. The German Reformer’s reputation being what it is, one will surely find a volume such as this entirely necessary. Dau, to be sure, is more than up for the task, robust and complex though it is. Indeed, Luther Examined and Reexamined remains one of the most excellent apologetic efforts for not only Lutheran doctrine but also Luther himself. The end of which is not necessarily to vindicate this revered stalwart of church history from all his flaws, but to denote that his is a faith not unlike those in the church today. That is, a faith founded upon and carried by the Word alone. It is in that way, then, that Luther remains an ambassador for Reformation history and doctrine. “The sublime figure,” Dau says, “of the courageous confessor of Christ that has stood towering in the annals of the Christian Church for four hundred years stands unshaken, silent, and grand, despite the froth that is dashed against its base and the lightning from angry clouds that strikes its top” (7). Such is how Luther ought to be remembered.
W. H. T. Dau, Luther Examined and Reexamined: A Review of Catholic Criticism and a Plea for Revaluation (St. Louis: Concordia, 1917).