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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28 Comments

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28 responses to “Steve Kellmeyer: A bad historian does not make a good apologist

  1. Son of Trypho

    Schutz
    You should put up some of his “historical” comments about Muslims for your readers to get an idea of where this fellow is coming from. Could be very enlightening for them.

    • Well, Filius, I started off putting together a few examples and then thought, no, I don’t want to do this, for reasons that become obvious after a little while. But one example that doesn’t mean I have to repeat the things he says about Muslims and will give the basic way he sees the world in general, that in his version of the Crusades for instance, he continually calls the Crusaders “us” and their Muslim oppenents “them” and speaks of the victories or losses of the Crusaders as victories or losses of the Church. In the same place he laments that the early crusading movements didn’t distinguish the Saracens from Eastern Christians & Jews, and says that they were supposed to be killing Muslims, not these “innocent” people.

      But here is another “safe” example of the way he does history – in reference to the “first Gospel”:

      “So they petition St Matthew, “Will you write this story of Christ down for us so we do not lose it?” So St Matthew writes the first gospel around 55AD. Now you may have heard differently from some other people. You may have heard that the Gospel of Mark is the first gospel. That is actually incorrect. It turns out that the Pontifical Biblical Commission in the early 1900’s which at that time had the charism of infallibility given to it by, by the Pope giving that power, who said that everyone had to assent to its teachings, taught that St Matthew wrote the Gospel, his Gospel, first. He wrote it in Aramaic. The idea that St Mark wrote the first Gospel is actually a Protestant teaching from the late 1800’s that is based in evolutionary theory, I don’t really have time to go into all of that in an hour talk, but it is essentially a canard, and it’s seeped its way into a lot of Catholic teaching but its not true. The Magisterium of the Church tells us that St Matthew’s Gospel is first and so do all the fathers and doctors of the Church who speak on the issue.”

      In this short comment, I don’t have time to go into all that, and I actually have some sympathy with the idea because of the tradition, but the way he argues it is a complete balls up.

      • Kiran

        The idea that the charism of infallibility can be communicated is so ridiculous, one does not know where to begin.

        He probably thinks creationism is dogma too, if he holds that.

        • Actually, there is a possibility that the Catechism of the Catholic Church contradicts Mr Kellmeyer. At para. 2759 we read “St. Luke presents a brief text of five petitions [cf. Lk 11:2-4], while St. Matthew gives a more developed version of seven petitions [cf. Mt 6:9-13].”

          That little word “developed” would seem to allow not only the possibility that Matthew’s text is later than Luke’s, but also that the text developed in line with “evolutionary theory”!

          • Kiran

            Also he confuses two distinct things: the imposition of obedience, and infallibility proper. One can be, and is, required to submit to many things, which are not declared by an infallible source, and which might in point of fact be wrong. And this makes sense. Disciplinary decisions often come under this ruling.

            For the record, here is the (old) Catholic Encyclopedia on the matter:

            “The Commission though formed like a Congregation is not a Congregation but seemingly of lower rank. Its decisions are approved by the pope and published by his command. Such approval, when given in formâ communi, does not change the nature of the decisions as emanating from a Congregation or Commission, nor does it make them specifically pontifical acts; much less does it imply an exercise of the pope’s personal prerogative of infallibility. Hence they are not infallible or unchangeable, though they must be received with obedience and interior assent, by which we judge that the doctrine proposed is safe and to be accepted because of the authority by which it is presented. These decisions are not the opinions of a private assembly, but an official directive norm; to question them publicy would be lacking in respect and obedience to legitimate authority. We are not hindered from private study of the reasons on which they are based, and if some scholar should find solid arguments against a decision they should be set before the Commission.”

            In point of fact, M-J Lagrange, the founder of the Ecole Biblique, was amongst its consultors, and seems generally to have supposed that Mark preceded Matthew, and certainly that there are two distinct Gospels of St. Matthew, the Aramaic and the later Greek.

            I myself, for the record, am of the opinion (though it is only an opinion) that the Aramaic Matthew precedes Mark, and the Greek Matthew succeeds it.

            Sorry for going of on a tangent. But this sort of thing does annoy me, rather.

  2. Paul

    This reminds me of one of my own prejudices. I can’t stand religious inspirational speakers. If something is true and valuable, it is worth writing down and being read as text. At a pinch, the author can read his text if that makes it more convenient.

    But a smiling, dancing demagogue in front of a cheering audience?? No thanks, pal.

  3. PM

    Telling lies and peddling distortions for God is never right, intellectually or morally – and the two faults are connected.

    What he writes about Luther is, as you say, just vilification. And dare I suggest that part of Luther’s problem was that he inherited a debased nominalist scholasticism that, oddly enough, underpins the voluntarism of many self-styled ‘conservative’ Catholics? (See Pinckaers on moral theology)

    Kellmeyer’s Muslim-bashing is more dangerous – the willingness in the US to rush headlong into the Iraq fiasco was encouraged by such thinking, and by a similarly cavalier disregard for accuracy and evidence.

  4. Christine

    Thanks, David, I haven’t had such a good laugh in quite a while. It probably sticks in people like Kellmeyer’s craw that if he bothered to investigate further Martin and Katie had a very successful marriage and Luther wrote some very tender things to his children.

    A year back in the Lutheran fold (not in communion with Rome, if you please) has opened my eyes to many things.

    Christine

    • I think you would find, Christine, that in actual fact, you are still in communion with the bishop of Rome in the way many lapsed Catholics are. You are just being very naughty! 🙂

  5. matthias

    I have askedmyfamily for Luther’s TABLE TALK as a Christmas present. I believe that it is quite earthy in parts ,but nevertheless shows what Luther was like.
    My experience of American Christian apologists, and as a boy growing up in a Protestant fundamentalist church ,we gotquite a few from over the Pacific ,their view of others were formulated by their mid western/Bible Belt cultural norms .I can remember one american pastor at the then Eltham Christian Fellowship making comments alluding to beards being worn as a sign of homosexual tendencies.! But their views on the RCC mirrored those of Kellemeyer’s in relation to Luther

    • Yes, Matthias, I think a lot of these ideas (“canards” to use Kellmeyer’s own expression) were derived from comments that come from the Table Talk. Everyone is more liberal with their words when they have had a bit to eat and drink and are among friends! Better theology is done in the outhouse than at the table generally!

  6. matthias

    Or as Luther said ,”when he fa—-the devil usually fled”. Imagine saying that to a busload ofMidwestern Baptists,or in fact to a car park of baptists in the suburb where i live Schutz

  7. Kiran

    In the meantime, I am convinced I should check out this Luther chap…

  8. I cannot be bothered with Luther myself, having heard him lionised in an equally absurd way by too many Protestants. However, bad history won’t help the Church or anyone. I hope you remembered to offer up your sufferings, David!

    • Aw, give him a go, Louise. He actually could write some very very nice things. His sermons on the Magnificat are devotional gems, and his Christmas sermons are excellent reading for this time of year. Read that stuff and I challenge you to find anything heretical in them. On the contrary, you will find your heart much warmed. And his translation of the Bible into German was a classic of the language. All most Catholics know is that he added the word “alone” to that verse in Romans about justification by faith. But his style was both beautiful and down to earth. I am not a very good reader of German, but I can read his bible no probs and derive much joy from it.

      • No, I think you can keep him, David. 🙂 You must give me credit for being so softened toward him that I no longer consider him a cad!

        In any case, we all know enough about history (I hope) to know that much (or perhaps all) of his complaints against the Church in the fist instance were perfectly legitimate. The Church needed reform, it just didn’t need the Reformation.

      • But you can tell me, David, I have heard (possibly wrongly) that Luther eventually relaxed his ideas on marriage and divorce. Is that true? Did he dispute the sacramental nature and indissolubility of marriage?

        • No, he never countenanced divorce. (Not as far as I know, anyway). The big scandal was that – following his “anti-tradition” reading of scripture, he was prepared, at least in one famous case involving the Landgrave Philip of Hesse (if my memerory serves me right), to condone polygamy rather than divorce. Henry VIII obviously hadn’t heard of that possibility, otherwise England would be Lutheran today.

          • That sounds vaguely familiar.

          • Kiran

            With regard to Henry, Henry was quite funny, and no mean twister-arounder of the Scriptures himself. But I think that he tried to be as Catholic as possible. (His ‘divorce’ from Catherine was not in his eyes a divorce. It was a dissolution of an invalid marriage, which the Pope refused to give) Sure he had his monumental array of character flaws, and he might have been flattered by one or other theological opinion, or found it convenient in weakness. Further, as he showed during the Pilgrimage of Grace, he was capable of skulduggery and lying on a scale surprising even amongst monarchs of England. But I don’t think he could have reconciled it to go that far from what he recognized as Catholic truth.

      • Son of Trypho

        Yes Schutz – but he also wrote some very unpleasant things too – such as alot of his later stuff on Jews. You really can’t dissociate the bad stuff from the good stuff and be intellectually honest.

        • Kiran

          But then again,

          (a) I have heard that some of his bad stuff is a very late medieval reaction against the disparagement of something very dear to his heart, and ours, namely the Virginity of the BVM.

          (b) Actually we dissociate bad stuff and good stuff all the time in the works (both words and deeds) of the saints. St. Jerome is the classic example, but one could adduce St. Cyril of Alexandria, Bl. John Duns Scotus, St. Vincent Ferrer, St. Cyprian, St. Hippolytus, and so on. A more recent example might be Ven. John Henry Newman, who famously was difficult to live with, and very self-conscious.

          Don’t get me wrong. I think there are a few other questions with Luther, and I certainly don’t think he is to be placed on a level with any of the above. But I don’t think there is anything wrong with reading his works. Similarly with Karl Barth, I am discovering. Much of what he writes is wonderful, even though he gets analogy of being, and consequently Thomas, and consequently Catholic theology, completely wrong. John Donne is probably an example closer to home for some of us.

        • On the contrary, I think it would be “intellectually dishonest” to let this “bad stuff” colour one’s over all picture of the man as a writer. He literally wrote volumes of stuff (check out a library which has the critical Weimar Edition of his works – 103 volumes in all, begun in 1883 and only completed in 2009). The stuff on the Jewish people, to which you allude, is a minuscle amount within these volumes of writing – a few paragraphs in his more heated moments. He has far more nasty things to say about the Papacy and the Turk and the Devil (his “unholy Trinity”). But even this is said in the heat of polemics. Seriously, if one is to be “intellectually honest”, one would take a proportional view of these passages which were in no way central to his spirituality.

  9. Kiran

    All of this reminds me of one of my old projects: a book called What the Church does NOT Teach. Alas it would be a little too long.

  10. Christine

    I think you would find, Christine, that in actual fact, you are still in communion with the bishop of Rome in the way many lapsed Catholics are. You are just being very naughty!

    David, my friend, ya got me! Whenever you use that “naughty” description I am grinning from ear to ear! 🙂

    Thanks for your kind words about Luther’s sermons and his translation of the Bible into German, which is considered a masterpiece. My Lutheran grandmother was a devoted student of Luther’s Bible and knew it well.

    There is an especially warm and tender aspect of Lutheran Christianity at Advent and Christmas, both of which were dear to Luther. We sang “From Heaven Above” last Sunday, a hymn I have always loved and missed as a Catholic, at least here in the U.S. It represents Luther at his finest.

  11. Actually, Luther did inform Henry VIII about the possibility of polygamy, but even the eventually syphylitic Henry was unable to stomach THAT tripe.

    David, if you have a problem with my writing, you could e-mail me. I’m happy to join in correspondence with you.

    But, if you just want to write on an Australian blog, in the naive belief that the target of your unhappiness won’t discover it, well… I guess that hasn’t worked out for you then. Poor sod.

    In any case, you now have my e-mail address.

    I’m sure you have the visceral integrity to discuss this with me off-line.

    I’m sure.

    • To any reader of this blog who has read this far, let it be known that I continued this conversation with Steve offline. I am not Steve’s opponent. We both seek the same thing here: the defence and the propogation of the faith. It is in the interest of doing this in a way that is “viscerally integral” that I made this post.