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date: 27 March 2017

Martin Luther's Views on Bodies, Desire, and Sexuality

Summary and Keywords

In the 21st century, philosophy of biology and studies in sexuality are dominated by the contrasting views of idealist deconstructionism and materialist naturalism. Not unlike the nominalists and scholastic realists of Martin Luther’s day, contemporary philosophers, scientists, theologians, and sociologists debate whether human constructs form all that is known or if the material world gives rise to truths about bodies, desire, and sexuality. In the context of the medieval debate, Luther rejected philosophy as an adequate discipline in the most important discussions concerning human nature. He turned away from speculative philosophy to focus on evangelism of the Gospel. The heart of Luther’s reformation was his insistence on the truth of the Incarnation and the justifying grace of God given through Christ’s death and resurrection. Luther’s evangelical proclamation, rooted in the Gospels, the letters of Paul, and in the early fathers of the church, especially Augustine, reoriented many issues of the medieval church, including views concerning the body, desire, and sexuality.

Luther’s understanding of the Incarnation had specific ramifications for his views concerning the body, sensuality, desire, and sexuality. From Luther’s reading of scripture and his pastoral and familial work in the world, he came to expound that humans are bodily creatures with physical needs, driven to provide for these needs by desire. Human need for relationship is also driven by desire. As Christ befriended, healed, fed, and washed the bodies of those he met, so too the Christian is called to human relationship with others and the bodily service of the neighbor. This is also true in romantic relationship, which has a bodily element for Luther, who rejected sexual abstinence as a human virtue.

Luther’s understanding of justification is critically important to this discussion. Luther knew that sin wreaks havoc in all human relationship, including loving sexual relationships. Because sin, for Luther, is centrally a problem of unbelief, a problem that manifests in false pride or despair, the solution to sin is not the law but faith in God’s redeeming grace. What justifies desire and sexuality is not obedience to the law but faith, which allows God’s love to flow from the lover to the beloved. While a civic use of the law can aid lovers who seek to know how best to care for each other, it is by faith that the lovers’ desire is justified. Indeed, through faith, the lover’s desire for the beloved becomes utterly for the beloved’s sake, a desire that teaches the lover about the absolute love of Christ. In this way, marriage, including the mutual sexual desire of the spouses, is a schoolhouse of faith, which while ever sinful is also justified.

Luther has no doctrine or treatise specifically on bodily desire and sexuality. An attempt to create such a doctrine would be wrongheaded. However, Luther’s theological claims concerning the Incarnation and God’s justifying grace through Christ reframed the discussion of these issues in his day. Contemporary discussion and debate about sexuality would profit from a careful examination of Luther’s re-formation of the discussion of these issues.

Keywords: Martin Luther, bodies, desire, sexuality, love, Augustine, Incarnation, justification, Brautliebe

Unlike many contemporary philosophers, theologians, and social scientists, Martin Luther did not write a formal thesis on the nature of the body, the vocation of desire, or the purpose and use of sexuality. Indeed, in his Disputatio de homine (Disputation on Human Nature), Luther’s main philosophical point is that philosophy knows nothing of the human person.1 Worn out early in his career by attempts to classify creatures in terms of essence, cause, and accident, Luther urges his students to put aside such studies and undertake “new studies and learn Jesus Christ and him Crucified.”2 Thus, the scholar who wishes to understand Luther’s view of the body, desire, and sexuality must begin not with a systematic philosophy of biology and sexuality study, but with Luther’s evangelical theology. Luther’s central concern as an academic and as a theologian was the same as his concern as a pastor: to proclaim that the human person is justified by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ. The centrality of the Incarnation in Luther’s evangelical theology informs his view of the body and sensuality. The insistence on justification only through God’s grace informs his view of desire and sexuality. This article will examine the ways that Luther’s theology of “Jesus Christ and him Crucified,” illuminates his view of bodies, desire, and sexuality.

Luther’s View of the Incarnation: God’s Body

To begin, Martin Luther is a preacher of the Incarnation. In order for God to be known by human beings, God had to become knowable to human beings. Human beings are embodied creatures who grasp the world through sensuality. Thus, the body is the place where human beings meet God. For Luther, there is no knowing the Deus Absconditus. For humans, there is only God manifest in the flesh: the babe in the manger, the teacher on the Mount, the miracle worker by the Sea of Galilee, the crucified victim on the cross, the resurrected body at Easter, the presence in the Eucharist, and the Word of God in scripture. In all of these places God becomes manifest in a bodily way to the embodied human being.

This is not an innovation of Martin Luther’s. Certainly it is the mark of Christianity that it is the religion of the Incarnation. The early fathers of the church and the Nicene council understood the importance and scandal of proclaiming that the flesh is the key to salvation. Luther, as an Augustinian monk, was well aware of Augustine’s post-Nicene struggle to move from Platonic idealism to a philosophical outlook reoriented by the Incarnation. Indeed, the young Augustine left the church because of its simple anthropomorphic understanding of God. He claimed he was able to return only after reading the books of the Platonists. Augustine says in the Confessions that his first reading of Genesis left him with the impression that the book was “quite unworthy.”3 Thus, he was easily seduced by the Manichees, who, mocking the view that God would have hands and other organs like a human being, promised a more intellectual theology. Importantly, Augustine does not leave the Manichees later for Christianity but for Platonism, which he claimed helped him leave the false idea that he should imagine God as a “physical being” of any sort.4 Crucial to Augustine’s intellectual conversion was his ability to think beyond the physical to grasp a God who is the Truth, to recognize knowledge in his mind rather than through the flesh. “Whatever you feel through the sense of the flesh you only feel in part. It delights you, but it is only a part and you have no knowledge of the whole.”5 But crucial to the young Luther is Augustine’s final reconversion back from Platonism to Christianity, in which Augustine realized that he can only know with the mind because God became knowable in the flesh. Luther’s understanding of the possibility of knowledge is informed by Augustine’s recognition that truth can be grasped only by grasping that mediator between God and the human Jesus Christ. This final conversion of Augustine is the epistemological key for all Western Christian theologians after Augustine, including Luther. This is the proclamation that the human heart can grasp God only by grasping Christ.

So deeply does Luther hold this key tenet of the later Augustine that he turned the young Augustine’s faith crisis on its head in his Lectures on Genesis. While Augustine balked at what he considered the simplemindedness of the anthropomorphism that can be read in a literal reading of Genesis, Luther found that anthropomorphism is the only way that the human mind can understand God, the Creator. Luther responded to concerns about such anthropomorphism in his Lectures on Genesis, where he denounced the papal decree of condemnation of anthropomorphism.

“Give me the most learned doctor—how else will he teach and speak about God? And so a wrong was done to good men. Although they believed in the omnipotent God and their Savior, they were found guilty because they said that God has eyes, with which He beholds the poor; that He has ears, with which He hears those who pray, etc. How can this nature of ours understand the spiritual essence of God? … When God reveals Himself to us, it is necessary for Him to do so through some such veil or wrapper and to say ‘Look! Under this wrapper you will be sure to take hold of Me.’ When we embrace this wrapper, adoring, praying, and sacrificing to God, there we are said to be praying to God and sacrificing to him properly.”6

While the young Augustine found it critical to make the move to understand that God is beyond all images, Luther was bound to the mature Augustine’s foundational epistemological point, that only through God’s revelation can humans know God. This is clear in the oft-quoted passage of Luther from his Lectures on Galatians.

“You must put away all speculations about the Majesty, all thoughts of works, traditions, and philosophy—indeed of the Law of God itself. And you must run directly to the manger and the mother’s womb, embrace this infant and Virgin’s Child in your arms, and look at Him—born, being nursed, growing up, going about in human society, teaching, dying, rising again, ascending above all the heavens, and having authority over things. In this way you can shake off all terrors and errors, as the sun dispels the clouds. This vision will keep you on the proper way, so that you may follow where Christ has gone.”7

It is not through speculative philosophy nor through study of the law that a human being can know God or find comfort. Rather, Luther told the seeker to look to sensual, fleshy images: the vision of the nursing baby, the feel of the hand of the healer, the sound of the tongue of the teacher, the taste of the bread of the Eucharist, the smell of the beaten corpse of the crucified, and the sound, vision, and touch of the resurrected rabbi whose hand still bears the wounds of the nails.

Knowledge and Bodies

Luther’s view here is, of course, wholly in concert with Augustine’s view. While Augustine was on fire to know the whole of truth and see it naked without any covering, he preached that this truth was knowable only because of the Incarnation.

Truth by which the world is held together, has sprung from the earth, in order to be carried in a woman’s arms. Truth, on which the bliss of the angels is incorruptibly nourished, has sprung from the earth, in order to be suckled at breasts of flesh. Truth which heaven is not big enough to hold, has sprung from the earth, in order to be placed in a manger.8

If there is an innovation in Luther’s preaching about the Incarnation, it is only that he insists on reminding the congregation of the ordinariness of Jesus’ body. Luther preached on Christmas Eve,

Then there are some who express opinions concerning how this birth took place, claiming Mary was delivered of her child while she was praying, in great joy, before she became aware of it, without any pains … but we must stay with the Gospel text which says she gave birth to him … There is no deception here, but, as the words indicate, it was a real birth. Now we know, do we not, what the meaning of ‘to bear’ is and how it happens. The birth happened exactly as to other women, consciously with her mind functioning normally and with the parts of her body helping along, as is proper at the time of birth, in order that she should be his normal natural mother and he her natural normal son. For this reason her body did not abandon its natural functions which belong to childbirth. 9

Luther continued by insisting that Christ’s infancy and Mary’s mothering were also like that of all human babies. “In the same way she nurtured him in a natural fashion with the milk from her breasts.”10

The importance of these excerpts lies in the proclamation that bodies, though messy and fragile, are not intrinsically evil or the cause of error. Rather, bodies are capable of the closest possible human relationship with God. This is a theology that Luther held against the scholastic realists, the nominalist philosophers, and the radical Protestant theologians. Those thinkers gave priority to mental ideas over fleshy sensibility. For Luther, the philosopher’s idea that the mind makes a noetic leap from images to truth is misguided. Rather, the Christian understands that ideas are held in the heart only insofar as they enter through the flesh. While this understanding of the bodily nature of revelation is certainly scriptural, Luther was well versed in Augustine’s articulation of this epistemology, which is central to his thinking about bodies.

The possibility of knowledge was the central concern of the young Augustine both before and after his Christian conversion. His incarnational epistemology was a key part of his apologetics against both academic skepticism, which claimed that nothing could be known by the human mind, and Gnosticism, which claimed that truth was esoteric, contradicting sense experience. Augustine’s understanding of epistemology became foundational for Western Christianity. His epistemological solution was explained as a theory of illumination but is grounded in the incarnational image of Christ as a teacher. This icon was key for Augustine. The Incarnation is proof that the truth wanted to be known. Recognizing the limits of the human mind, the truth became that which could be known by a human mind. Augustine explained,

“All other things may be expressed in some way; He alone is ineffable Who spoke, and all things were made. He spoke, and we were made; but we were unable to speak of Him, His Word by Whom we were spoken is His Son. He was made weak, so that He might be spoken by us, despite our weakness.”11

Thus, for Augustine the Incarnation is what makes human communication possible. Only because God chose to redeem human tongues, ears, and minds by speaking with a human tongue and touching with a human hand can humans hope to hold truth in words and sensation. While Augustine maintained that the Platonists helped him to relinquish anthropomorphism, he ultimately asserted that only because of Christ’s anthropomorphism as a human teacher can he, or anyone, come to truth. Thus, Augustine explained the ultimate difference between Platonists and Christians,

“In the same [Platonic] books I also read of the Word … But I did not read in them that the Word was made flesh and came to dwell among us … But they do not say that he dispossessed himself, and took the nature of a slave, fashioned in the likeness of a human, and presenting himself to us in human form;”12

Augustine insisted that the human can know truth only if there is a mediator, a teacher, who is both truth and flesh.

“I could not find this means until I embraced the mediator between God and [humans], Jesus Christ, who is a [human], like them, and also rules as God over all things, blessed for ever. He was calling to me saying I am the Way; I am Truth and Life. He it was who united with our flesh that food which I was too weak to take; for the Word was made flesh so that your Wisdom, by which you created all things might be milk to suckle us in infancy.”13

Because of the abyss between the fluctuating and fallible human mind and eternal truth, a human cannot know the truth in itself, but only the truth made manifest in Christ. “I used to talk glibly as though I knew the meaning of it all, but unless I had looked for the way which leads to you in Christ, our Saviour, instead of finding knowledge I should have found my end.”14 Because of the Incarnation, humanity has truths written in human language truths which can be read with bodily eyes and heard with bodily ears.15 According to Augustine, the Creator gave humans the senses by which they may know things and became sensible through the Incarnation so as to be known by those senses.16 This is clear in scripture not only when Christ teaches and preaches but also when Christ touches, heals, feeds, and washes the bodies of those in his presence.

Luther, as an Augustinian, found it necessary to preach this view to the Scholastics, who attempted to derive the essence and accidents of things through logic, to the nominalists, who claimed there is no truth beyond human naming, and to the radicals, who preached that the sacraments only symbolically aid the mind toward truth. Truth can be known and experienced in the flesh, because God chooses to make truth visible through the Word and sacraments. This is seen in Luther’s firm position on the Eucharist which he articulated in The Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ—Against the Fanatics. “For we have before us the clear text and the plain words of Christ: ‘Take, eat; this is my body, which is given for you … ’ These are the words on which we take our stand.” 17 In contrast, the radicals or fanatics claimed that “it is not fitting that Christ’s body and blood should be in the bread and wine. Second it is not necessary.”18 But Luther is clear: to say it is not fitting is to apply a human standard to God’s standard. This would be to deny the appropriateness of the fragile baby in the manger and the broken body on the cross. Thankfully, God does not find material flesh inappropriate, for if God were not to be made manifest in fleshy ways, then the embodied human could not know God.

Luther reminded the radicals that all ideas are communicated in fleshy ways and that speech is even more transient and fragile than bread and wine. Speech is “not more than a breath of wind.”19 That one can “capture so many hearts with words”20 is a miracle that finds no explanation without faith in a God who allows truth to be expressed in the sound of human language. It may well be called miraculous that sound waves pushed through the lips of the preacher can contain ideas held in the mind of one person and, by entering the ear, transfer those ideas into the mind and heart of the listener. Luther called the radicals to examine why they believe that Christ can be truly found in words and yet not be able to believe that Christ can be truly found in bread.

“I have a small voice, and there are several hundreds or thousands of ears, yet every single ear perceives the complete and entire voice. I do not distribute it, so that each ear has only a part of it, but each one has all of it. The fanatics see this, and do not consider it a miracle. Indeed, if we had never seen it, it would be the greatest of miracles. Now if my voice can accomplish this so that it fills all ears, with each receiving as much of it as the other, and my word is distributed so widely, should not Christ be able to do so all the more with his body? How much easier it is with a glorified body than with a bodily voice!”21

Luther continued to make this point saying,

“I preach the gospel of Christ, and with my bodily voice I bring Christ into your heart, so that you may form him within yourself … You must answer that you have the true Christ, not that he sits in there, as one sits on a chair, but as he is at the right hand of the Father … Now I can accomplish this again, that the one Christ enters into so many hearts through the voice, and that each person who hears the Sermon and accepts it takes the whole Christ into his heart … This we must ever confess, and it is a daily miracle. Indeed, it is as great a miracle as here in the sacrament. Why then should it not be reasonable that he also distributes himself in the bread?”22

That humans can speak of Christ and understand Christ in their hearts and minds by listening to speech demonstrates that Christ can be contained in human speech. That Christ can be in a material thing like bread is no less fitting than that Christ can be in a material thing like a sound wave issued by the vocal cords and lips of the preacher. That Christ is made manifest to the human being is the lynchpin by which God is knowable in any way.

Theology of the Cross and the Fragility of Bodies

“Again I preach the gospel of Christ with my bodily voice I bring Christ into your heart, so that you may form him within yourself.”23 Thus, Luther, like Augustine before him, demanded the recognition that human learning is a bodily process and that the truth can be known only if it makes itself manifest to that bodily process. Moreover, Luther meant by the body the whole of the human person, the material flesh, the mind, and the heart. The whole of the human person is what Luther means by body; the whole is fragile. This fragility is important.

When Luther told his students in 1515 that they should free themselves from the grip of philosophy and take up the study of Jesus Christ, crucially he added “and him Crucified.” For Luther, the greatest stumbling block for philosophy and the firmest foundation for Christian theology is not simply the body of Christ but the broken body of Christ. “The world is hostile to this article and finds it intolerable.”24 Luther confessed, “It is not an easy matter to believe this. To believe that Christ was crucified for us, that he died and was damned for us, requires the power of God.”25 The theology of the Incarnation includes the view that God is manifest in Jesus as rabbi and miracle worker and in Jesus as prisoner and victim of humiliation, torture, and murder. This is difficult to believe, because it is difficult to see glory in death, to see God in suffering, to see truth in fragility and in brokenness. Yet the theology of the cross proclaims that God is not only in healthy flesh but in tortured flesh too.

“Therefore I ignore the mockers who declare: Oh, how can He help when He is dead and buried? … He was to assume the form of an accursed and damned man, yes, of a serpent, and become the Savior of the world. The world seeks to be saved by good works, but it pleased God to help humans in this way. The world would regard His Son as a vile worm, but He would nevertheless save all who believed in Him.”26

For Luther, like many Christian theologians before and after him, Christ’s death has ontological significance. Luther used the early Christian metaphor of Christ’s dying body as a worm hanging on the hidden hook of life, the light that destroys darkness and death. Christ’s death destroys death, for death cannot destroy life; darkness cannot destroy light. Luther is clear in his lectures on the Gospel of St. John that “Christ wants to prevent us from thinking of Him as separate from the Father … Furthermore, Christ tells us how He destroys death and how I am rescued from death. He will be death’s venom.”27 Certainly, the resurrection is important to understanding the significance of the Crucifixion. The horror of the Crucifixion demonstrates God in every bit of human life and death. There is no space, no place, where God is absent. The power of God and the destruction of death is made visible in the resurrected body at Easter. Especially important to Luther is that Christ’s resurrection is bodily. Christ eats and drinks with his apostles; he still bears the wounds in his hands, feet, and heart. All flesh is taken up in the resurrection: the flesh that eats, drinks, and suffers.

The Fragility of Flesh and the Justification of Desire

Humans are creatures of flesh, creatures with sensual desire. This is a key part of Luther’s anthropology, as seen in the Lectures on Genesis. While the pre-Christian Platonists saw the human mind as a separate being fallen into a material body, Luther maintained with Augustine and with scripture that human beings are created as embodied, their physical life in accord with their spiritual life. Before the Fall there was no sin in eating, drinking, and procreating; these activities did not deter or obstruct the human from the spiritual life.28 In Luther’s anthropology, the desires to eat, to drink, to touch the physical world, and to procreate are not in themselves perverse. Luther explained in his Lectures on Genesis,

“Before the fall Adam was not to live without food, drink, and procreation. These activities of physical life—like eating, drinking, procreating, etc.,—would have been a service pleasing to God; we could also have rendered this service to God without the defect of the lust which is there now after sin, without any sin, and without the fear of death. This would have surely been a pleasant and delightful life, a life about which we may indeed think but which we may not attain in this life.”29

What makes desire or appetite perverse is sin. Luther explained,

“But after the Fall, death crept like leprosy into all our perceptive powers, so that with our intellect we cannot even understand that image. Adam would not have known his Eve except in the most unembarrassed attitude toward God, with a will obedient to God, and without any evil thought. Now, after sin, we all know how great passion is in the flesh, which is not only passionate in this desire but also in its disgust after it has acquired what it wanted.”30

After the Fall, sin is pervasive in the world and in the bodies of human beings. Luther taught that “we cannot even understand” what desire may look like without “any evil thought.” Yet faith proclaims that the whole of the human person will be redeemed in the final resurrection. Luther preached,

“God having quickened, justified and saved you spiritually, he will not forget the body, the building or tabernacle of the living spirit; the spirit being in this life risen from sin and death, the tabernacle, or the corruptible flesh and blood garment must also be raised. It must emerge from the dust of earth, since it is the dwelling-place of the saved and risen spirit, that the two may be reunited unto life eternal.”31

The body along with its desire and its sexuality was created good and will be saved. While the fall has spread sin like a leprosy, God’s grace justifies and saves the whole of the human person. This view has specific implications for Luther’s understanding of desire and sexuality.

Certainly the view that the fallen human person is justified by grace is Augustinian, as Luther himself claimed in his Lectures on Romans and in his response to Emser’s understanding of the spirit and the law. Luther quoted Augustine’s On the Spirit and the Letter with confidence.32 However, subtle differences in Luther’s view of sin from Augustine’s correlate to emphatic differences in Luther’s view of desire and sexuality compared with the views of other medieval thinkers and even Augustine himself. Augustine, when discussing caritas and cupidas, often discussed the Latin terms in relation to the Greek words eros, philia, and agape. For Augustine, the desire for earthly pleasures, which he transliterated from the Greek as philokalia, is a sister to the desire for divine truth, philosophia.33 Like Socrates, in Plato’s Symposium, Augustine suggested that both the lover of physical bodies and the lover of transcendent ideas are really attracted to Beauty itself. The difference between the lustful hedonist and the pure philosopher is that the hedonist does not realize that the creature is made beautiful only insofar as it participates in True Beauty.34 Once the hedonist is able to look at the creature as a sign of the transcendent, the hedonist may recognize that what they truly love is that which gives goodness and beauty to the creature. In other words their lust for the particular is reoriented to love of the divine.35 This Platonic understanding as articulated by Augustine is taken up in many medieval thinkers, including Abelard, who urges Heloise, who cries out in passionate love toward him, to reorient her love toward Christ.36 Generally, Augustine and those Western Christians who followed him insisted that the celibate has greater virtue than that of the married lover, because the celibate correctly recognizes that his true love is for God alone.

In contrast, Luther took a different approach to the issue of sin and sexuality. Moving away from a Platonic understanding of desire, Luther simply spoke of natural desire in the creature. The desire for Adam and Eve, for example, is a desire of the creature for the creature, not simply a sublimated desire for God. This natural desire had no shame before the Fall. After the Fall, Luther explicated, there is no right orientation on the part of the lover that will purify love. Only faith in God’s justifying grace can justify the desire of the lover. In this way, Luther’s views differed from the views of medieval thinkers who believed that desire was either intrinsically evil or good based on its object or orientation. This disagreement with the Scholastics is well noted, as Luther as early as 1515 insisted that their philosophical urge to understand the essence, cause, and value of things in themselves goes against St. Paul’s admonition against vain philosophy.37 Importantly, Luther also disagreed with the nominalists, including William of Occam and Gabriel Biel, whom he found Pelagian in their insistence that humans’ orientation can make them right with God. For Luther, justification happens only because of God’s grace, a position he finds both in the letters of Paul and in the anti-Pelagian writings of Augustine. Failing to believe this in faith is the source of all sin.

This understanding of sin is key. For Luther, sin is rooted in unbelief, fear of death, and the anxiety that one must find a way to save one’s self through works. In contrast, Adam’s desire and sexuality before the Fall is pleasing to God, for it bears no mark of the defect of lust, which is born in part from the fear of death.38 Lust, for Luther, is not the love of the creature that should be directed toward God. Nor is lust another name for sexual desire that defies reason, as Augustine claimed. Rather, lust is a desire formed in disbelief of God’s grace and in a hubristic trust in one’s own self-sufficiency. This unbelief is the mark of the Fall that stains desire. What justifies desire is God’s grace. What allows a person to desire rightly is to recognize in faith that God’s grace has saved one. Thus for Luther there is not a hierarchy of loves, no ladder of love by which one orients oneself toward the divine. Rather, trusting in the grace of God, the lover’s desire is transformed and freed by the agape of God. While Augustine suspected that the lover, in faith in grace, will feel only friendship toward the beloved and, perhaps, a well-ordered and rational desire for reproduction, Luther insists that the lover may well feel sexual passion for the beloved. What justifies that passion is not reason, orientation, or order but faith in God’s transforming grace.

To reiterate, Luther insists that the law cannot purify desire or rescue the human being fallen in sin. Rather, the law serves to increase the desire to sin and to increase sin itself. Luther credited Augustine with this view. In the Confessions, Augustine wrote that the more he considered the law, the “more bitterly than ever I twisted and turned in my chain.”39 Augustine argued that the law increases the sweetness of sin, so that rather than purifying his desire or removing his lust, the law simply made “his inner self” into a “house divided against itself.”40 Augustine, in the Confessions, noted that the sinner is like a child before a strict parent, eager to break a rule simply for the delight in breaking a rule. Luther added that the sinner before the law can also behave like the adolescent who obeys but is simultaneously angry at the parent who tries to control him. This type of sinner, while not breaking the letter of the law, breaks the spirit of the law by false righteousness, which manifests itself in a wrath against the neighbor who has fallen short of the law and against God, whom one feels one no longer needs.41 Self-righteousness makes the sinner’s eyes blind to the neighbor’s need and their own dependence on God’s grace. Thus the sinner, anxious to justify themselves, finds the law only multiplies sinfulness. Only through faith in God’s grace can the sinner begin to be transformed to love.

Justification of Desire and Sexuality

Certainly, Luther’s view is rooted in an understanding of justification that he shared with Augustine. While many medieval thinkers looked to the African doctor’s influential discussions of desire in Contra Academicos, Beata Vita, and On the Good of Marriage, Luther depended on Augustine’s theory of justification in On the Spirit and the Letter to make a different case. Luther stressed that the cause of sin is not wrong orientation toward the creature rather than the Creator but disbelief that God’s grace truly justifies. The sinner, bereft of faith in God’s love, is compelled to find a personal source of satisfaction, thus looking to use the beloved as an object rather than to simply love the beloved. Such is clear when examining Luther’s turn from the Latin terms cupidas and caritas to the use of the German words Hurenleibe and Brautliebe: the whore’s desire and the bride’s desire.42 Both of these desires are sexually charged and oriented toward the beloved, but the whore’s love is the temporary desire to make use of a person, while the bride’s love is the love of the whole person. Luther writes in A Sermon on the Estate of Marriage,

“Natural love is that between father and child, brother and sister, friend and relative, and similar relationships. But over and above all these is married love, that is, a bride’s love, which glows like a fire and desires nothing but the husband. She says, ‘It is you I want, not what is yours: I want neither your silver nor your gold; I want neither. I want only you. I want you in your entirety, or not at all.’”43

Luther’s Brautliebe is not a purified desire that is rightly oriented by the will’s obedience to the law or the intellect’s comprehension of Platonic metaphysics. The redemption of the whore’s love is not intellectual reorientation. Rather, Hurenleibe is a desire that is marred utterly by the belief that the human can, through human action, find satisfaction on its own accord. This self-assurance must be replaced by the recognition of one’s utter dependence on God. Luther was firm that this humility comes only from reading scripture, for reason offers the false hope that human beings can save themselves through works. Once human lovers accept that they are saved only by God’s grace and not works under the law, then love and desire are justified as love is reformed by faith. In faith, the love of the lover flows from God through the lover toward the neighbor. Importantly, the love of the lover for the neighbor is not a sublimated love for God but rather a true and sincere love that flows from God through the lover to the beloved.44 So great is this love that Luther suggested that the lover will want to cover the neighbor’s sins with righteousness, as Christ did for us. 45 Because of the prevalence of sin that is unbelief, such security that allows one to offer one’s own righteousness for the sake of another can occur only as a gift of God’s grace. In this sense, all true love is a gift of God. “But if God is ours than everything is ours.”46 This is especially true of the most passionate feelings of love. In this way, Luther explained, in love formed by faith the lover learns more deeply about the love God has for each human being. In experiencing Brautliebe, the bride feels in her heart a love akin to the love Christ has for her. This recognition increases her faith. As such, love and sexual desire are part of the schoolhouse of faith in marriage.

However, Luther acknowledged that even in the most passionate of loving relationships, sin remains. “The temptation of the flesh has become so strong and consuming that marriage may be likened to a hospital for incurables which prevents inmates from falling into graver sin.”47 The lover thus must be attentive to considering the beloved’s welfare. Indeed, the justified lover ought not to “immediately turn it into an occasion for the flesh and think that now all things are allowed them.”48 Rather, the civic use of the law may be an asset to the lover. With this use of the law in mind, there are certainly many places where Luther spoke to the proper treatment of the spouse and sexual relationship. However, it is crucial that for Luther this use of the law is not to purify the relationship but only to help the lover focus on the needs of the beloved. Indeed, Luther insisted that lovers should not boast as if they are saved by works or “quarrel so noisily about trifling and unnecessary matters.”49

Impact of Luther’s Ideas

Luther’s preaching of justification reformed the medieval discussion of desire and sexuality away from a discussion of works toward a discussion of faith. In this way, Martin Luther’s evangelical preaching about the justifying love of God known through faith in the incarnate Christ reformed more than medieval theology. Luther’s view radically changed the place of marriage, sexuality, and desire in Christian society. While Western medieval Christianity had emphasized Paul’s suggestion that the life of celibacy was most valued, Luther insisted that the human does not earn value by actions. Freed from the law, the human being can reap the benefits of natural feeling and human relationship. While some Western modern Protestant theologians and post–Vatican II Roman Catholic thinkers suggest that marital love is a righteous work, Luther insisted that passionate love is a gift of God.

Luther emphasized that the joy of love is that it refutes the hubris that one earns love. The lover, when formed by faith, recognizes that the value of the beloved comes from the love that flows from Christ through the lover. Moreover, when love is formed in faith, the sensual delight of love can serve as a schoolhouse of faith, reminding the lover of the love of Christ for both the lover and the beloved. This view of Luther’s emanated from his view of human bodies and human desire, which was informed by his theology of the Incarnation and faith in justification by grace. Those who wish to take Luther’s view seriously in the context of contemporary debate must recognize that any discussion of the nature of bodies, the vocation of desire, and the ethics of sexual relationship must first begin with Luther’s understanding of the Incarnation and justification and proceed using the law, both scriptural and philosophical, only in its first use. To do so is to acknowledge that all faithful human lovers are simultaneously sinners and justified saints.

Review of the Literature

Over the last five hundred years, a great deal of secondary literature has been generated concerning the works of Martin Luther. However, there has not been a great deal written specifically about Luther’s view of bodies, desire, and sexuality. This is appropriate, as Luther was not a systematic thinker interested in creating doctrinal texts on these issues. Having preached “Christ Crucified,” Luther believed that he had reminded Christians of the context in which Christian ethics must be set. Specific views of body, desire, and sexuality could be left to the conversations of philosophers, scientists, and ethicists, who may use reason to best study nature in order to serve human beings. Most literature about Luther’s views has honored this position of Luther’s, focusing rightly on his evangelical theology. Within that context there have been a few areas of study that will be of note to readers interested in bodies, desire, and sexuality.

First, a few books have specifically discussed Luther’s understanding of desire in the context of Western intellectual history. This is a necessary part of intellectual history, as too many histories of the philosophy of love fail to mention how Luther’s view of God’s love radically affected later Western views of romance, marriage, and sexuality. Anders Nygren’s famous Agape and Eros (Harper & Row, 1969) and Carter Lindberg’s recent Love: A Brief History through Western Christianity (Blackwell, 2008) both spend considerable time discussing Luther’s view of love and desire. In interesting ways, Lindberg and Nygren diverge in their histories by taking different positions concerning Luther’s view of desire and love while both noting the importance of Luther’s understanding of God’s justifying love as primary to all human love.

Second, because Luther was one of the first major Western Christian theologians to marry, nearly every biography highlights aspects of Luther’s own foray into romantic love in his marriage and family life. These details can also be found in biographies of Katherine von Bora. Of specific note are, of course, Roland Bainton’s Here I Stand and Heiko Oberman’s Luther: A Man between God and the Devil. Also, highly influential not only in Luther studies but more importantly in psychology was Erik Erikson’s Young Man Luther. In the recent surge of biographies since the five hundredth anniversary of his birth, readers may be pleased to find many newly expounded touching details of Luther’s life as husband and father.

Third, in the last quarter of the 20th century, when historical scholarship turned toward changes in social structures, there was born a strong interest in the study of how the Reformation generally affected ideas about gender, love, marriage, and sexual ethics. This was a popular area of research and writing. A recent example of such work can be seen in Merry Wiesner-Hanks’s Christianity and Sexuality in the Early Modern World: Regulating Desire, Reforming Practice.

Finally, many contemporary discussions of Lutheran sexual ethics are being published. Many of these are valuable explorations of ways in which Luther’s theory of justification can ground discussions about sexual ethics, which can then occur according to secular reason or biblical mandates. These works, for example, Fritz Oehschlaeger’s Procreative Ethics, are an important next step for those interested in considering how Luther’s evangelical theology may speak to contemporary issues involving bodies, gender, sexuality, marriage, and politics.

Primary Sources

Luther was a prolific writer. Moreover, his students and friends began to transcribe his lectures, disputations, and even table conversations. The result is that the contemporary reader has a vast library of Luther’s works to peruse. The reader specifically interested in understanding the view of Luther on bodies, desire, and sexuality may begin with the following sources. In order to understand Luther’s thinking on any subject, the reader should begin with understanding his conception of justification. This can be found most concisely rendered in On Christian Liberty, a booklet Luther wrote in order to clarify his position, although it emanates through all of his works. Luther explains how this understanding of justification specifically affects philosophical attempts to understand the nature of the human person in The Disputation on Human Nature. Specific discussion of bodies, desire, and sexuality can be found in A Sermon on the Estate of Marriage and in Luther’s copious Lectures on Genesis. Certainly, discussions of these issues can be found in a great many of Luther’s other lectures, sermons, and disputations, but these sources will give the reader a place to begin deeper research into the subject.

Further Reading

Lindberg, Carter. “Luther’s Concept of Love: A Critique of Anders Nygren’s Interpretation of Martin Luther.” PhD diss., University of Iowa, 1965.Find this resource:

Lindberg, Carter. Love: A Brief History through Western Christianity. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2008.Find this resource:

Nygren, Anders. Agape and Eros, trans. Philip Watson. New York: Harper & Row, 1969.Find this resource:

Plummer, Marjorie Elizabeth. From Priest’s Whore to Pastor’s Wife: Clerical Marriage and the Process of Reform in the Early German Reformation. Farnham, U.K.: Ashgate, 2012.Find this resource:

Wiesner-Hanks, Merry. Christianity and Sexuality in the Early Modern World: Regulating Desire, Reforming Practice. New York: Routledge, 2000.Find this resource:


(1.) “We say that philosophy knows nothing at all of homine [the human being].” Martin Luther, Disputation on [Hu]Man. (Disputatio de homine), LW 34:137.

(2.) Martin Luther, Lectures on Romans, LW 25:362.

(3.) Augustine, Confessions, III.5, trans. R. S. Pine-Coffin (New York: Penguin Books, 1961).

(4.) Augustine, Confessions, IV.2.

(5.) Augustine, Confessions, IV.2.

(6.) Martin, Luther, Lectures on Genesis, LW 1:15.

(7.) Martin Luther, Lectures on Galatians, LW 26:30.

(8.) Augustine, Sermon 185.1 in Sermones, trans. Edmund Hill, in The Works of St. Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century, Part III, vols. 1–10, ed. John E Rotelle (New York: New City Press, 1990).

(9.) Martin Luther, Christmas Eve Sermon, LW 52:11.

(10.) Luther, Christmas Eve Sermon, LW 52:12.

(11.) Augustine, Ennarration in Psalmum, xcix, 6, CC, 39, 1396–96, as quoted in The Mirror of Language, Marcia Colish (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1968), 34.

(12.) Augustine, Confessions, VII.9.

(13.) Augustine, Confessions, VII.18.

(14.) Augustine, Confessions, VII.20.

(15.) “Your Word, the Beginning, made Itself audible to the bodily ears of humans, so that they should believe … It is there that I hear your voice, O Lord, telling me that only a master who really teaches us really speaks to us: if he does not teach us, even though he may be speaking, it is not to us that he speaks. But who is our teacher except the Truth which never changes?” Augustine, Confessions, XI.8.

(16.) “You, O Lord my God, gave me my life and my body when I was born. You gave my body its five senses, … and you implanted in it all the instincts necessary for the welfare and safety of a living creature.” Augustine, Confessions, I.7.

(17.) Martin Luther. The Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ—Against the Fanatics, LW 36:335–336.

(18.) Luther, The Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ—Against the Fanatics, LW 36:338.

(19.) Luther, The Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ—Against the Fanatics, LW 36:339.

(20.) Luther, The Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ—Against the Fanatics, LW 36:339.

(21.) Luther, The Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ—Against the Fanatics, LW 36:339–340.

(22.) Luther, The Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ—Against the Fanatics, LW 36:340.

(23.) Luther, The Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ—Against the Fanatics, LW 36:340.

(24.) Luther, Sermons on the Gospel of John, LW 22:333.

(25.) Luther, Sermons on the Gospel of John, LW 22:344.

(26.) Luther, Sermons on the Gospel of John, LW 22:343.

(27.) Luther, Sermons on the Gospel of John, LW 22:255. See also LW 22:256—“In Acts 2:24 St Peter says that death was not able to hold Christ, since deity and humanity were united in one Person.”

(28.) “This would have surely been a pleasant and delightful life, a life about which we may indeed think but which we may not attain in this life.” Luther, Lectures on Genesis, LW 1:56–57.

(29.) Luther, Lectures on Genesis, LW 1:56–57.

(30.) Luther, Lectures on Genesis, LW 1:62.

(31.) Martin Luther, Sermon on Easter Wednesday, Text: Colossians 3. 1–7, in Sermons of Martin Luther, trans. and ed. John Nicholas Lenker, vol. 7, 220 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988).

(32.) See LW 25:22, 242–244; LW 39:175–181. See also Markus Wreidt, “Augustine and Luther-Revisited,” in The Devil’s Whore: Reason and Philosophy in the Lutheran Tradition, ed. Jennifer Hockenbery Dragseth, 39–45 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2011).

(33.) See Augustine, Contra Academicos, II.7, in Against the Academics and The Teacher, Trans. Peter King (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing House, 1995).

(34.) “Men, exclaim that they are happy when they embrace the beautiful bodies, deeply longed for, of their wives or even harlots, and shall we doubt that we are happy in the embrace of truth? Men exclaim that they are happy when with throats parched with heat, they find a fountain flowing with pure water, or being hungry, find a copious meal all ready prepared, and shall we deny that we are happy when truth is our meat and drink?” Augustine, De Libero Arbitrio, in Augustine’s Earlier Writings, trans. and ed. J. H. S. Burleigh, 2.13.35 (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1953).

(35.) “How sweet at once it was for me to be rid of those fruitless joys which I had once feared to lose, and was now glad to reject! you drove them from me, you who are the true and sovereign joy. You drove them from me and took their place, you who are sweeter than all pleasure, though not to flesh and blood, you who outshine all light yet are hidden deeper than any secret in our hearts, you who surpass all honor though not in the eyes of men who see all honor in themselves. At last my mind was free from the gnawing anxieties of ambition and gain, from wallowing in filth and scratching the itching sore of lust. I began to talk to you free, O Lord my God, my Light, my Wealth, and my Salvation.” Augustine, Confessions, IX.1

(36.) See The Letters of Abelard and Heloise, trans. Betty Radice (New York: Penguin Classics, 1974). Especially the “Personal Letters”: Letter 1 of Heloise to Abelard, in which she pledges her love to Abelard; Letter 2 of Abelard to Heloise, in which he insists that she must love him only insofar as he can be a guide to Christ; Letter 3 of Heloise to Abelard, in which she says that she loves Abelard as Abelard; and Letter 4 of Abelard to Heloise, in which he urges her to see his castration as a grace that reminds them both of their need to love Christ.

(37.) Luther, Lectures on Romans, LW 25:360–362.

(38.) See Luther, Lectures on Genesis, LW 1:56–57.

(39.) Augustine, Confessions, VIII.2.

(40.) Augustine, Confessions, VIII.8.

(41.) See Luther, Lectures on Genesis, LW 1:280: “They will think that they have done God a service to kill you. Priests and kings filled Jerusalem with the blood of the prophets. They regarded it as zeal for the Law … Today the popes and the bishops are just as cruel. It is not enough for them to have excommunicated us … to have shed our blood; … But this pharisaical hatred daily assumes larger proportions, since it is cloaked with the appearance of piety.” See also Luther, Lectures on Galatians, LW 26:228–233. “When reason hears this, it is immediately offended and says: ‘Then are good works nothing? Have I toiled and borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat for nothing?’”

(42.) I am indebted to Carter Lindberg’s analysis of this issue, which he presents clearly in his dissertation “Luther’s Concept of Love: A Critique of Anders Nygren’s Interpretation of Martin Luther” (PhD diss., University of Iowa, 1965).

(43.) Martin Luther, A Sermon on the Estate of Marriage, LW 44:9.

(44.) Martin Luther, Christian Liberty, trans. W. A. Lambert, 34 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1957).

(45.) Luther, Christian Liberty, 34.

(46.) Luther, A Sermon on the Estate of Marriage, LW 44:10. Luther also wrote, “Now such affection, love, and concern for righteousness is not possible for us to attain with works; it must be experienced in our hearts, there the conscience in faith feels all certainty, desire and love in righteousness as a child may feel to his mother and a man to his bride.” WA 10I, 1, 1, 297, 2–16. As quoted in Lindberg, 109.

(47.) Luther, A Sermon on the Estate of Marriage, LW 44:9.

(48.) Luther, Christian Liberty, 35.

(49.) Luther, Christian Liberty, 35.