October 19, 2017

Table Talk

Stephen Nichols
Table Talk


As a wedding gift to his favorite minister and renowned professor, Frederick the Wise turned over the keys to the stately Black Cloister, the former Augustinian monastery of Wittenberg, to Martin Luther. This became the Luthers’ home. He and Katie raised their children there, he would teach his students there, and people would come and stay there, including traveling dignitaries, theologians, and the faculty of the University of Wittenberg.

Luther had a very large dinner table, and it was always full of his family and students and faculty. Luther was never at a loss for words, and he would hold court at his table. Eventually, the students realized that what Luther was saying was noteworthy and they began to take it all down. At one point, Katie quipped that they should charge tuition for these meals because of all the teaching that Dr. Martin carried on over the dinner table.

Those dinner conversations were collected as a unique piece of literature known as Table Talk. It gives us some great insight into Luther and how he was truly a theologian of the people. He really had no interest in the ivory towers of academia. He was interested in the people of God and in bringing the Word of God to bear on people’s lives, and we see this clearly in Table Talk.

As you can imagine, the Table Talk writings range over a number of issues. They show Luther’s humor, they show his intensity, and above all they reveal his theology. Some of them are just interesting in terms of giving us insight into Luther. In one he says, “Thus the Italians made an arch to please the emperor. On one side was written, ‘Utrecht planted,’ because it was the birthplace of Adrian. On the other side was inscribed, ‘Louvain watered,’ because Adrian studied there. At the top was written, ‘The Emperor gave the growth,’ because he had made him Pope.” And Luther says, “Then a bad boy and came along and scribbled on the bottom of the arch, ‘Here God did nothing.’” There’s a lot of truth in that sarcasm of Luther as there is in much of Table Talk.

In a number of these Table Talk conversations we see Luther interacting with his family. He even engages the family dog—Tölpel was his name, which means “clumsy” or “tipsy” in German—and at one point he says, “Look at this dog,” and holds out a treat, and the dog is firmly and fully fixated on that treat. And Luther says, “Ah, if only we were as fixated on God’s promises and as committed to God’s promises as Tölpel is to that treat.” In a lot of these conversations we see Luther’s theology coming through. We see especially how Luther always wants to point our eyes to Christ. At one point he says, “Satan often said to me, ‘What if you are teaching by which you have overthrown the Pope, the Mass, and the monks should be false?’ He often assailed me in such a way as to make me break out in a sweat.
Finally I answered, ‘Go and speak with my God who commanded us to listen to this Christ. Christ must do everything.’”

So, this unique piece of literature, Table Talk, comes from Luther’s meals over the table over the decades in Wittenberg, and we can thank Dr. Martin for being such a great host.