Daily Archives: December 17, 2009

Steve Kellmeyer: A bad historian does not make a good apologist

Steve Kellmeyer

I do not like Mr Steve Kellmeyer’s approach to teaching church history. I picked up his Church History series a while ago when it was going free on Bridegroom Press, and have only just gotten around to listening to it. Like him, I teach an adult education course on the history of the Church, and so I was interested to see how he managed to contract the entire 2000 year history into the space of six sessions. I recently tried to do that at a Ballarat intensive course, and only got as far as Innocent III.

Mr Kellmeyer is a Catholic apologist, not a historian. He’s quite good at being an apologist, except that he is not likely to convince anyone except someone who is already a Catholic. And a certain kind of Catholic at that. And one who doesn’t know much either about Protestantism (or Islam, Mr Kellmeyer’s other favourite target) or history. He treats the whole of the history of the Church like a history of his favourite football club – or boxer, for that matter -and he describes it in terms of combat and victory. His version of history reads like a Catholic version of “Fox’s Book of Martyrs”. He has little sense of historical context, and tends to paint with a very, very broad brush. Everyone is characterised in terms of their religion, and their religion is their driving motivator – not their politics, for instance. To hear him on the history of Northern Ireland is a travesty.

I am particularly appalled by his characterisations of Muslims. He paints them all with the blackest of brushes. And one brush only. A foot wide. If he were to give his talks in Melbourne, he would be up on charges of religious vilification quicker than Danny Nalliah. (This is not a post about the rights or wrongs of our religious vilification legislation – please don’t go there for the time being, ok?).

In fact, I got a taste of what it must be like for a Muslim to listen to his rantings when I heard him speak of something a little closer to home for this particular Lutheran-in-communion-with-the-bishop-of-Rome. I was listening to his version of the history of the Reformation while making strawberry jam last night and turned it off soon after my Lutheran wife got home (not before she overheard him saying that Lutherans teach consubstantiation – an old furphy – which led to an interesting conversation between us). I am glad I did turn it off – because soon after the bit where I turned it off, this came in response to a question from his audience “Was Luther nuts?”

Was Martin Luther all there? He definitely suffered at least from scrupulosity, he was of the opinion that the devil came at you from out of the outhouse hole, and, interestingly enough, he also thought he did his best theological thinking while he was occupied in the outhouse. (laughter) So I’m not sure he was wrong! (more laughter). But he was a, he had problems with alcohol, he was certainly a drunkard by today’s standards, he was certainly a Bill Clinton kind of person, in terms of his sexual mores, he wrote on a number of occasions “Here I sit at my table besotted with wine, drunk again. Have not, I do not have it within me to be continent.” So, he’s not a very pleasant figure to behold from an historical perspective and the chances that he was nuts is not trivial. Honest Protestant historians know that, they don’t put it into their histories typically, they don’t care, because everyone’s a sinner, we’re all nothing more than filthy menstrual rags before God, so it doesn’t matter if Martin Luther is filled with sin, God spoke to him. That’s their position. Yep.

Umm. Where to start. This is the stuff one would expect to find in old-style Catholic polemics against Luther. But on the specific charges:

1) “He definitely suffered at least from scrupulosity”
True. At least in his early monastic phase.

2) “he was of the opinion that the devil came at you from out of the outhouse hole”
Luther was a realist about the devil, and, as a German, enjoyed scatological jokes and references. He also had, as far as we can tell, chronic bowel problems, which might explain this. But was this Luther’s theological opinion? Give me a break.

3) “he also thought he did his best theological thinking while he was occupied in the outhouse.”
Well, don’t we all do our best thinking while sitting in that particular location? Or in the shower/bath, etc.

4) “he had problems with alcohol, he was certainly a drunkard by today’s standards”
Did he? He enjoyed his beer and wine, not unlike the author of this blog, but does that make him a drunkard? If “today’s standards” are those of Americans from the bible belt, well, by those standards, even the popes of Luther’s day were drunkards. As for the statement that “he wrote on a number of occasions “Here I sit at my table besotted with wine, drunk again. Have not, I do not have it within me to be continent””, I’d like to see his references. I’ve certainly never read that in anything Luther wrote.

5) “he was certainly a Bill Clinton kind of person, in terms of his sexual mores”
Excuse me? As far as we know he never had sex with anyone other than his wife. Kellmeyer should read Luther’s Large Catechism on the sixth commandment.

6) So, he’s not a very pleasant figure to behold from an historical perspective”
Personally, I favour the judgement of Dairmaid MacCulloch in his book “Reformation: Europe’s House Divided”, where he says that one might expect to have a good night out with the German ex-monk, whereas no-one would expect to enjoy themselves in the company of the straight-laced reformer of Geneva, Calvin.

7) “and the chances that he was nuts is not trivial.”
There is absolutely no historical basis for assuming anything other than that Luther was perfectly sane. Madmen may have their day leading apocalyptic sects, but Luther (for almost 30 years) commanded a great deal of respect from a very large number of scholars, princes, pastors and ordinary lay folk. He may have been a heretic, but that doesn’t make him nuts.

8 ) “Honest Protestant historians know that, they don’t put it into their histories typically, they don’t care, because everyone’s a sinner, we’re all nothing more than filthy menstrual rags before God, so it doesn’t matter if Martin Luther is filled with sin, God spoke to him. That’s their position.”
Yes, Martin Luther was a sinner. That doesn’t mean that he did not also have a truly spiritual motivation for what he saw as his mission – again, even if his teaching was, by the judgement of the Church, heretical.

This is just too much. As I said, his attacks on Protestants are mild to his attacks on Muslims. He may be a powerful speaker, but this is hardly “speaking the truth in love”, and it certainly isn’t history.

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