Luther’s personal struggle with Anfechtungen (despair, depression, anxiety) must be understood if we are to understand his advice to Jerome Weller. To understand his struggle, it is imperative to understand the view of Christian piety held during the medieval period in which he lived. It is foreign to modern ears to obsess about and fear condemnation from God for sin. Our modern piety is often focused upon fulfilling man’s purpose in therapeutic preaching, seeking to maximize the happiness of parishioners during their earthly lives. This was not the case in medieval piety and the pastoral care that grew out of it. Kolb and Arand helpfully explain that, “in medieval piety, preparing for that final word of judgment shaped a person’s entire earthly existence. Before that day, there might be a faint hope of escaping a guilty verdict if a person lived rightly. How one prepared for and survived that future encounter with God lay at the heart of the crisis of pastoral care and personal faith that brought about the Reformation” (Kolb and Arand 34).
Luther often struggled with Anfechtungen, which was for him “the recurrent ‘experience of being attacked by an awareness of how offensive I am to God, a consciousness of sin and evil'” (Kolb and Arand 50). Luther understood from his own experience that the Law terrified those suffering with this condition. They would attempt to resolve their fear through “piling up” their own works; and never finding enough merit they would dive into despair (Tappert 110). This personal experience of Anfechtungen in Luther’s life, and the help given to him by Johann Von Staupitz, deeply impacted his understanding of pastoral care.
Luther’s Pastoral Model
Luther was comforted during his difficult days as an Augustinian monk by his superior, the Vicar General Johann Von Staupitz. Staupitz’s pastoral care was built upon his theology. He pointed Luther both to “its content–the wounds of Christ, the unconditional nature of God’s grace–and its method–the assurance of God’s love through Jesus his Savior, given without requirement or restriction, simply because God is like that” (Kolb 40). Luther learned from Staupitz to comfort people with the grace and love of God revealed in the cross of Christ. This conviction was carried both into the pulpit and the private meeting. He was concerned that his parishioners, who struggled with assurance of God’s love for them, receive a pastoral word of absolution from their sins by way of both the general ministry of the Word and the personal speech of the pastor to the parishioner. As Kolb and Arand deftly state, “Because they believed that God’s Word is an active and living agent of his re-creative activity, they emphasized the importance of publicly proclaiming that Word and privately sharing it with others in the family circle and the wider circle of acquaintances” (Kolb and Arand 15-16).
Luther also learned from Staupitz that these temptations from Satan are useful to the Christian life. God has some good purpose in them for his servants (Tappert 85-86). Luther encouraged Jerome to “rejoice in this temptation of the devil because it is a certain sign that God is propitious and merciful to you” (Tappert 85). Luther saw Anfechtungen as indicative of God’s care for the believer in humbling him and pointing him to his need for the foreign righteousness of Christ. He also believed God was preparing Jerome for accomplishing “great things” as his servant (Tappert 86).
The Crisis of Pastoral Care and Luther’s Reformation
Luther’s central concern was always that of a pastor. Luther’s reform was all about cultivating proper faith and life in the people of God (Kolb 183). He did not see private pastoral care and counsel as a kind of specialty area of ministry separated from Word and sacrament, but as defining all of pastoral ministry (Wengert 4). The Reformation Luther led arose primarily out of pastoral concerns. As Robert Kolb has argued, “the Reformation Luther led with his colleagues at the University of Wittenberg arose out of the crisis of pastoral care that plagued the late medieval church” (Kolb and Arand 11).
Thus, we should not read Luther’s private correspondence with Jerome Weller outside the context of his personal experience with Anfechtungen, the care Johann Von Staupitz showed to him, nor the pastoral concern Luther exercised throughout his ministry. Luther himself appealed to the care he received from Johann Von Staupitz in his letter to Jerome. Luther was a pastor who wanted Jerome Weller to be comforted with the comfort he had received (2 Corinthians 1:4). He desired Jerome would be turned away from the tyranny of Satan’s demands that he fulfill the law, and from the despair that comes from the failure to garner enough good works to ever please God. He longed for Jerome to know and relish the grace and love of God in the cross of Christ. He hoped his friend would be reminded that the Devil’s tempting him was a sign of God’s loving care, and not a picture of God’s rejection. Luther’s advice to Jerome must be considered upon this foundation.
Robert Kolb and Charles P. Arand, The Genius of Luther’s Theology: A Wittenberg Way of Thinking for the Contemporary Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 34.
Theodore G. Tappert, ed., The Book of Concord the Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Philadelphia: Mühlenberg Press, 1959), 110.
Robert Kolb, Martin Luther Confessor of the Faith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 40.
Tappert, Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel, 85-86.
Robert Kolb, Luther and the Stories of God: Biblical Narratives as a Foundation for Christian Living (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), 183.
Timothy J Wengert, “Introducing the Pastoral Luther,” in The Pastoral Luther, ed. Timothy J. Wengert (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 4.