Luther’s Insights Into Grief: His Pastoral Letters -- By: Michael Parsons

Journal: Global Journal of Classical Theology
Volume: GJCT 11:1 (Jun 2013)
Article: Luther’s Insights Into Grief: His Pastoral Letters
Author: Michael Parsons

Luther’s Insights Into Grief: His Pastoral Letters

Michael Parsons

Commissioning Editor for Paternoster

Associate Research Fellow at Spurgeon’s College, London

Abstract: R.A. Hughes, Lament, Death and Destiny (New York: Peter Lang, 2004) suggests that Luther, believing in divine providence, teaches that grief and lament are not only negative but actually blasphemous. He speaks of Luther saying that ‘humans should not complain to God, when afflicted’. The paper will examine Luther’s letters to bereaved friends. It discovers that the reformer actually encourages righteous lament in times of pain and desolation; that is, lament that stems from a pure heart, disposed to rest in God’s unfailing love, even at such times. It concludes with some pastoral insights gleaned from Luther’s letters.

In his remarkable work on Luther as a comforter, Neil Leroux underlines that ‘the “rhetorical situation” of consoling a bereaved person, particularly through a single letter, is a complicated and delicate matter’. Subsequently, he suggests several persistent themes in the reformer’s pastoral letters:

  • God, who knows better than we do, has taken the loved one;
  • God created us as feeling, loving creatures, who will naturally grieve over loss;
  • God, Christ and the Word are the best consolers;
  • A faithful death is better than a miserable life;
  • There is a need for moderation in grief.1

    The following short essay develops and qualifies these, and others. What does Luther say of grief, how does he respond to bereavement, and what consolation does he offer?

Luther’s Letters To The Grieving

To Bartholomew Von Staremberg, 1524

Late in 1524 Luther wrote to Bartholomew von Staremberg, whose wife Magdalene had just died.2 The reformer seems not to have known von Staremberg personally as he begins the letter explaining that a mutual friend had urged him to write ‘moved by Christian concern and loyalty’. Luther demonstrates some reticence, asking if the recipient might receive the letter ‘kindly’, and ‘in good part’—discerning the potential of arousing his anger, perhaps. On his part, he admits to second-hand knowledge of the situation, but that he had been assured that the recipient’s wife had been remarkable for her ‘love and fidelity’. However, Luther has heard that von Staremberg ‘has been trying hard to help her soul with services and good works, particularly with Masses and vigils’ and it is this issue in particular that he wishes to address.

After the introductory material Luther makes two careful, ...

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