Luther on Book-Showers and Big, Long, Shaggy Donkey Ears
"In time," Luther opined, "my books will lie forgotten in the dust." This was no lament on the Reformer's part. In fact, Luther found much "consolation" in the possibility -- or rather likelihood -- that his literary efforts would soon fade into oblivion. The dim view he apparently took of his own writings was intimately related to the high view he took of Sacred Scripture. Indeed, his high view of Scripture resulted in a rather dim view of all other writings, not just his own. "Through this practice [namely, writing and collecting books]," he wrote, "not only is precious time lost which could be used for studying the Scripture, but in the end the pure knowledge of the divine Word is also lost, so that the Bible lies forgotten in the dust under the bench." Making the same point in more colorful terms, Luther complained of the "countless mass of books" written over time which, "like a crawling swarm of vermin," had served to supplant the place which should belong to "the Bible" in the life of the Church and her people. In sum, Luther judged that folk would be better off reading and hearing the Bible than reading and hearing anything which he or anyone else had written, and the last thing he wanted to be found guilty of was producing words which distracted anyone from the Word.
On this score, Luther discovered hope that his own works would be soon forgotten in the sheer number of publications competing with his own in his day. "My books... will not last long. There is especially good hope of this, since it has begun to rain and snow books and teachers, many of which already lie there forgotten and moldering. Even their names are not remembered any more, despite their confident hope that they would eternally be on sale in the market and rule churches."
A second reason Luther took a dim view of his works is that he understood rather well how literary accomplishments can foster pride. In this regard, the Reformer offers some harsh -- and, true to form, fairly entertaining -- words to those who become inflated on the basis of their publications. I suspect, though it would be difficult to prove, that he addressed a proclivity he discovered in himself with his words. "If... you feel and are inclined to think you have made it, flattering yourself with your own little books...; if you are highly pleased when someone praises you in the presence of others; if you perhaps look for praise, and would sulk or quit what you are doing if you did not get it -- if you are of that stripe, dear friend, then take yourself by the ears, and if you do this in the right way you will find a beautiful pair of big, long, shaggy donkey ears. Then do not spare any expense! Decorate them with golden bells, so that people will be able to hear you wherever you go, point their fingers at you and say, 'See, See! There goes that clever beast, who can write such exquisite books.'" If, in other words, you write with the intent of garnering man's praise, and/or find yourself thriving upon the same, then go the extra mile: deck yourself out like the ass that you are and really draw attention to yourself.
I would guess that Luther's acute sensitivity to the dangers of pride that exist to writers, and his warning against publishing towards the end of bolstering one's ego, hold special relevance in our day, where one needs merely an internet connection, rather than a willing publisher, to broadcast his/her literary words of wisdom. I suspect, in other words, that blog posts and tweets have exponentially increased the existence of that specific kind of pride which Luther names in the quote above. His words are, in any case, a worthwhile reminder of the perils that threaten anyone who finds himself or herself in a position to put words on paper (or screen) which others stand likely to read.
Luther also offers some wonderful advice on how to write in a way that isn't directed towards self-promotion and pride. "All other writing" -- that is, writing other than Scripture -- "[should] lead the way into and point toward the Scriptures," rather than lead from and obscure the same. Words written in the service of Christ, in other words, should lead others to "drink" directly "of the fresh spring" itself -- that is, the Bible.
In my judgment, Luther's works accomplish the very thing he here suggests should be wrought by "all other writing" -- they lead one into a fuller and richer appreciation of Scripture, and of the one whose person and work Scripture ultimately proclaims. Perhaps that's one of the reasons that Luther's books have far outlived his own expectations for them.
Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida.