Luther Against the Devil

by Heiko A. Oberman

Heiko A. Oberman is professor of medieval, Renaissance and Reformation history at the University of Arizona.

Excerpted from Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, was published by Yale University Press on February 15, 1990. Copyright © 1989 by Yale University. Reproduced by permission. This article appeared in the Christian Century, January 24, 1990, pp. 75-79, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Satan may be no doctor of theology, but he is very well trained in philosophy, and has had 6,000 years to practice his craft.

There is hardly any authenticated information about Martin Luther’s first 18 years, which led him to the threshold of the University of Erfurt. What we do have are memories used to illustrate and evaluate later experiences. These memories are colorful and vivid, but they are not in a real sense biographical data. As testimonies to what the older Luther looked upon as being formative for his childhood and school years, they are precious and revealing.

Sometimes apparently too revealing! Some reminiscences are rarely mentioned today, and if touched at all, are glossed over or dismissed as insignificant medieval remnants. But the legacy of Luther’s parental home entailed more than a proper respect for hard work and deep erudition; it included also the at once wondrous and scary world of spirits, Devil and witchcraft, which the modern mind has come to call superstition. It is indeed not immediately clear what one should make of Luther’s account of 1533 in which he so confidently takes for granted the existence of witches and witchcraft. Yet this too is part of the historical record:

Doctor Martinus said a great deal about witchcraft, about asthma and hobgoblins, how once his mother was pestered so terribly by her neighbor, a witch, that she had to be exceedingly friendly and kind to her in order to appease her. The witch had cast a spell over the children so that they screamed as if they were close to death. And when a preacher merely admonished his neighbor in general words [without mentioning her by name], she bewitched him so as to make him die; there was no medicine that could help him. She had taken the soil on which he had walked, thrown it into the water, and bewitched him in this way, for without that soil he could not regain his health.

If this story were not virtually forgotten, it would be grist for the mills of both Luther-disparagers and admirers. The witch’s tale fits perfectly into that tenacious tradition which continues to portray Luther’s mother as a backward peasant woman. It is she who is purported to have introduced young Martin to a world full of demons and to have put fear of the Devil into that soul already weighed down by his strong, willful father. The old bathhouse story of mother Margaret enjoying intercourse with the Devil would thus, in a new, psychological form, find its way into Luther’s biography: If Martin was not begotten by the Devil, he was at least raised with him.

But for Protestant partisans Margaret’s witch and Luther’s words serve to provide wonderful proof of the need for the Reformation, for progress along the drawn-out and thorny path from late medieval superstition to enlightened evangelical faith -- a path courageously paved by Luther, even though not followed by him to the end. In all modern classroom and textbook treatments of Luther, the Devil is reduced to an abstraction, be he a figment of mind or time. Thus the Evil One, as a medieval remnant, can be exorcised from the core of Luther’s experience, life and thought.

But the sources are as stubborn as Luther’s mother and cannot be silenced. To begin with, Luther’s mother cannot be held solely responsible for Luther’s realistic perception of the Devil’s machinations. Father Hans thought exactly the same way, and so did the miners in Mansfeld, who, far away from the light of day, were even more exposed to the artifices of the infernal powers -- spirits, demons and hobgoblins -- in the darkness of their mineshafts. Nor would Martin have learned anything different from the Brethren of the Common Life in Magdeburg or from the most erudite humanists of his time.

Luther’s world of thought is wholly distorted and apologetically misconstrued if his conception of the Devil is dismissed as a medieval phenomenon and only his faith in Christ retained as relevant or as the only decisive factor. Christ and the Devil were equally real to him: one was the perpetual intercessor for Christianity, the other a menace to mankind till the end. To argue that Luther never overcame the medieval belief in the Devil says far too little; he even intensified it and lent to it additional urgency: Christ and Satan wage a cosmic war for mastery over church and world. No one can evade involvement in this struggle. Even for the believer there is no refuge -- neither monastery nor the seclusion of the wilderness offer him a chance for escape. The Devil is the omnipresent threat, and exactly for this reason the faithful need the proper weapons for survival.

There is no way to grasp Luther’s milieu of experience and faith unless one has an acute sense of his view of Christian existence between God and the Devil: without a recognition of Satan’s power, belief in Christ is reduced to an idea about Christ -- and Luther’s faith becomes a confused delusion in keeping with the tenor of his time.

Attempts are made to offer excuses for Luther by pointing out that he never doubted the omnipotence of God and thus determined only narrow limits for the Devil’s activities. Luther himself would have been outraged at this view: the omnipotent God is indeed real, but as such hidden from us. Faith reaches not for God hidden but for God revealed, who, incarnate in Christ, laid himself open to the Devil’s fury. At Christmas God divested himself of his omnipotence -- the sign given the shepherds was a child "wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger" (Luke 2:12) . To Luther Christmas was the central feast: "God for us." But that directly implies "the Devil against us." This new belief in the Devil is such an integral part of the Reformation discovery that if the reality of the powers inimical to God is not grasped, the incarnation of Christ, as well as the justification and temptation of the sinner, are reduced to ideas of the mind rather than experiences of faith. That is what Luther’s battle against the Devil meant to convey. Centuries separate Luther from a modern world which has renounced and long since exorcised the Devil, thus finding it hard to see the difference between this kind of religion and medieval witchcraft. But Luther distinguished sharply between faith and superstition. He understood the hellish fears of his time, then discovered in the Scriptures the true thrust and threat of Satan and experienced himself the Devil’s trials and temptations. Consequently he, unlike any theologian before or after him, was able to disperse the fog of witches’ sabbath and sorcery and show the adversary for what he really was: violent toward God, man and the world. To make light of the Devil is to distort faith. "The only way to drive away the Devil is through faith in Christ, by saying: ‘I have been baptized, I am a Christian."’

The following chronicle of his own encounter with the Devil as a poltergeist has a clearly medieval ring:

It is not a unique, unheard-of thing for the Devil to thump about and haunt houses. In our monastery in Wittenberg I heard him distinctly. For when I began to lecture on the Book of Psalms and I was sitting in the refectory after we had sung matins, studying and writing my notes, the Devil came and thudded three times in the storage chamber [the area behind the stove] as if dragging a bushel away. Finally, as it did not want to stop, I collected my books and went to bed. I still regret to this hour that I did not sit him out, to discover what else the Devil wanted to do. I also heard him once over my chamber in the monastery.

The final passage, with its pointed formulation and its underlying expression of contempt for the Devil, was amazing at the time and is overlooked today: "But when I realized that it was Satan, I rolled over and went back to sleep again." It is not as a poltergeist that the Devil discloses his true nature, but as the adversary who thwarts the Word of God; only then is he really to be feared. He seeks to capture the conscience, can quote the Scriptures without fault, and is more pious than God -- that is satanical.

When I awoke last night, the Devil came and wanted to debate with me; he rebuked and reproached me, arguing that I was a sinner. To this I replied: Tell me something new, Devil! I already know that perfectly well; I have committed many a solid and real sin. Indeed there must be good honest sins -- not fabricated and invented ones -- for God to forgive for His beloved Son’s sake, who took all my sins upon Him so that now the sins I have committed are no longer mine but belong to Christ. This wonderful gift of God I am not prepared to deny [in my response to the Devil], but want to acknowledge and confess.

Luther’s purpose is not to spread fear but to strengthen the resistance of the faithful. Like Christ, the Devil is omnipresent. He acts and reacts, is drawn and challenged by anything that smacks of Christ and true faith. Here is found a radical deviation from the medieval concept of the Devil, according to which the evil one is drawn by the smell of sin, the sin of worldly concern. In Luther’s view, it is not a life dedicated to secular tasks and worldly business that attracts and is targeted by the Devil. On the contrary, where Christ is present, the adversary is never far away: "When the Devil harasses us, then we know ourselves to be in good shape!". . .

One delicate question -- one that might even be unfitting for any respectable home -- may lead back to Luther’s upbringing. The problem cannot be ignored: if a man is so obviously preoccupied with ideas about and visions of the Devil, does he not require a psychiatrist, or might he not be at least subject to psychological inquiry? In this case it would not be a question of father or mother fixations but of his surprising response to the Devil, which enlightened people find incomprehensible as well as extremely dangerous. Belief in the reality of Satan certainly promoted the frenzy of the witch hunts that seized all denominations and delayed the Enlightenment.

Now we must listen carefully to Luther and not turn away in embarrassment. Not torture and flames but profession of faith and scorn for the Devil are the proper weapons to use against Hell. Luther adds a coarse expression of his contempt for the satanic fiend to his avowal of Christ as the defender of Christianity: "But if that is not enough for you, you Devil, I have also shit and pissed; wipe your mouth on that and take a hearty bite." Is a man who still thinks and talks like this as an adult caught in the stage of development modern psychology terms the anal stage because of mistakes made in his early upbringing? Or is it perhaps just the drastic literal expression of the proverbial call: Devil, get thee behind me? Or is Luther’s age showing through; is he a boor who, in his anger and agitation no longer capable of self-control, casts off the academic whitewash and falls back into the language of his origins? That would be an explanation that could be based on his own words, for he knows: "What someone is used to and has been raised to, that he cannot conceal." He often speaks of his peasant ancestors -- they "were good peasants" -- so there might be good reason to suspect that childhood experiences broke through in the old Luther, experiences with manure and open cesspools. If this had been the case, in his old age Luther’s bent toward crude expressions would have grown into pathological wallowing in scatological language.

As reasonable as all this may sound, his parents’ mistakes, his primitive background, and psychological quirks so not constitute a sufficient explanation. Overlooked has been the fact that even as a young professor and monk, Luther, discussing the Devil at length for the first time, did not hesitate to use explicitly scatological language -- and at a highly official affair at that. Luther had been designated to preach the ceremonial sermon before members of his order on May 1, 1515. This illustrious occasion was the assembly of the chapter, the decision-making body of the Augustinian Observants in Gotha. Luther had chosen a theme with which the Brethren were familiar, since it was treated in the constitutions of the order (chapter 44). The sin of slander, in this case called backbiting, was described in the handbook as a work of the Devil. Luther insists:

A slanderer does nothing but ruminate the filth of others with his own teeth and wallow like a pig with his nose in the dirt. That is also why his droppings stink most, surpassed only by the Devil’s. . . . And though man drops his excrements in private, the slanderer does not respect this privacy. He gluts on the pleasure of wallowing in it, and he does not deserve better according to God’s righteous judgment. When the slanderer whispers: Look how he has shit on himself, the best answer is: You go eat it....

Luther’s ravings should not be suppressed out of embarrassed respect, and certainly not because they might no longer be considered proper today. Dealing so gingerly with him means not taking him at his word. Luther’s language is so physical and earthy that in his wrathful scorn he can give the Devil "a fart for a staff": You, Satan, Antichrist, or pope, can lean on it, a stinking nothing. When the therapist hears that Luther was already suffering from painful constipation in his monastery years, he is tempted to diagnose a psychological complex. In the total historical context, however, Luther’s scatology-permeated language has to be taken seriously as an expression of the painful battle fought body and soul against the Adversary, who threatens both flesh and spirit.

Sociohistorical research clarifies a further aspect of Luther’s idiom, or at least of its impact. The filthy vocabulary of Reformation propaganda was aimed at inciting the common man. A figure of respect, be he Devil or pope, is effectively unmasked if he can be shown with his pants down. Luther was certainly more than just a spokesman for a social class which hitherto had no voice. The "ass the Devil pinches" is more than a drastic phrase serving agitational ends. He was not merely trying to appeal to "the people" but was addressing the Devil himself when calling his words a "pack of stinking lies."

Luther used a great deal of invective, but there was method in it. As he explained in his election sermon of 1515, the Devil drags God’s name and his works of justification through the mud. Here lies the incomprehensible link between Devil, "Great Swine," Papal Ass" and "Antichrist." It is with shocking and provocative passion of youth, not the impotent rage of old age, that Luther advocated the only appropriate retort to the Devil’s dung: "You go eat it!"

We find here far more than upbringing and environment. Inclination and conviction unite to form a mighty alliance, fashioning a new language of filth which is more than filthy language. Precisely in all its repulsiveness and perversion it verbalizes the unspeakable: the diabolic profanation of God and man. Luther’s lifelong barrage of crude words hurled at the opponents of the gospel is robbed of significance if attributed to bad breeding. When taken seriously, it reveals the task Luther saw before him: to do battle against the greatest slanderer of all times! . . .

Luther’s autobiography, which appeared in 1545 as the preface to the first edition of his Latin works, has been the subject of exhaustive scholarly research. Nonetheless, Luther is not yet heard out, and his urgent admonition and warning has been missed: "Reader, be commended to God, and pray for the increase of preaching against Satan. For he is powerful and wicked, today more dangerous than ever before because he knows that he has only a short time left to rage."

"Today" means that Luther not only discovered the gospel but also roused the Devil, who is now raging terribly and gaining an unprecedented power of absolutely new satanic proportions.

This is no longer the Devil who, in a triple alliance with "sin" and "world," seduces the voluptuous flesh of man against his better "self." The medieval poltergeist is virtually harmless in comparison with this adversary, who, armed with fire and sword, spiritual temptations and clever arguments, has now risen up against God to prevent the preaching of the gospel. As long as the righteous God resides far away in Heaven, waiting for the end of the world, the Devil, too, will remain at the edge of world history. But the closer the Righteous One comes to us on earth through our belief in Christ, the closer the Devil draws, feeling challenged to take historically effective countermeasures. The Reformation symbol of Christ’s presence is not the halo of the saint, but the hatred of the Devil.

Transforming Luther into a forerunner of enlightenment means dismissing this warning of the Devil’s growing superiority as a remnant of the Dark Ages. But that would be to deprive Luther’s life of the experience of the Devil’s power, which affected him as intensely as Christ’s. Take away the Devil and we are left with the Protestant citadel, the "better self," the conscience, which thus becomes the site of the Last Judgment, where the believer, confronted with the laws of God, acknowledges that he is a sinner and declares himself at the same time to be righteous by virtue of Christ’s sacrifice.

It is precisely this conventional, conscience-oriented morality that man’s innermost self struggles to fulfill, and that Luther, to the horror of all well-meaning, decent Christians, undermined. The issue is not morality or immorality, it is God and the Devil. This patent encroachment on conscience desecrates the very thing that elevates man above the beasts -- his knowledge of the difference between good and evil. The two great turning points of the Reformation age, the Lutheran and Copernican revolutions, seem to have brought mankind nothing but humiliation. First man is robbed of his power over himself, and then he is pushed to the periphery of creation.

"The Spiritus Sanctus [Holy Spirit] gave me this realization in the cloaca." If this is the site of the Reformation discovery, man’s powerlessness is joined by ignominy. Must the trail of the Reformation be followed this far? There is a dignified way out: by cloaca Luther did not mean the toilet, but the study up in the tower above it. That, however, would be to miss the point of Luther’s provocative statement. The cloaca is not just a privy, it is the most degrading place for man and the Devil’s favorite habitat. Medieval monks already knew this, but the Reformer knows even more now: it is right here that we have Christ, the mighty helper, on our side. No spot is unholy for the Holy Ghost; this is the very place to express contempt for the adversary through trust in Christ crucified.

Christ in the privy helping one to resist the Devil is certainly anything but genteel. In their propriety later centuries recount only how Luther hurled his inkwell across the study at Wartburg Castle. If the Devil must be mentioned, than at least with scholarly decorum. There is no truth in that polite legend, and it masks the actual situation. Bluntly quoting Götz von Berlichingen (immortalized by Goethe in this form: ". . . er kann mich im Arsch lecken" [Faust, act 3]) , Luther attests to the birth of Christ in the filth of this world. The Son of God was truly born into the flesh, into the blood and sweat of man. He understood men because he experienced -- to the bitter end -- what it meant to be human.

As powerful as the Devil is, he cannot become flesh and blood; he can only sire specters and wallow in his own filth. The manger and the altar confront the Devil with the unattainable. Both the demonic, intangible adversary of God and the Son of God are present in the world, but only Christ the Son is corporeally present. Anyone who goes further, making the Devil into a living being, is superstitious. The cloaca is a revealing place. It unmasks the Devil’s powerlessness as well as man’s. Although far removed from propriety, it is the very place of faith, the Christian’s place in life.

Thus the final sentence in Luther’s Rückblick cannot be ignored without suppressing a facet of his belief. Where the gospel is preached and bears fruit, the Devil is there to get in the way --that is his nature, "today" more than ever! Fear of the Devil does not fit in with our modern era, for belief in the Devil has been exorcised by attractive ideologies. But in the process our grasp of the unity of man has been lost: living with the real Christ in one’s faith means being a whole person as opposed to an intellect that subscribes to a mere idea of Christ.

The Devil will readily help theologians to "elevate" the zealous, fighting, wrathful, loving God of Israel into the philosophical concept of an "Omnipotent Being."

For Luther the disembodiment of God into an impressive idea is one of the Devil’s decisive misdeeds. Satan may be no doctor of theology, but he is very well trained in philosophy and has had nearly 6,000 years to practice his craft. All the encouraging victories of God which occur prior to the Last Judgment melt under the Devil’s glare. Arguments are of no help against the Devil; only Christ can come to our aid. Satan’s wisdom is thwarted by the statement "the just shall live by faith" -- faith not in an idea but in a God who, under the banner of the cross, is fighting for a world the Devil, too, is trying to conquer. Satan’s power is not unlimited; he must stay within specified bounds, but until doomsday they encompass the whole world.