Luthers Story about a Faithful Woman

					                                 CHAPTER 1

                    Luther’s Story about
                     a Faithful Woman
Over the course of twenty-four years, Luther often recounted the tale of a
faithful woman who in the face of the demonic proclaimed her faith with the
simple phrase “I am a Christian.” The frequency with which this story ap-
pears in Luther’s works indicates the theological importance he gave to her
simple confession. He referred to the story in a variety of genres, including
theological treatises, class lectures, sermons, and table talks. This chapter ex-
amines the story in its various forms. 1

            The Babylonian Captivity of the Church
The earliest of Luther’s writings to include the story is The Babylonian Captivity
of the Church. This theological treatise was written in the heat of the controver-
sy between Luther and the papacy that broke out in 1517 following Luther’s
Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences. Luther argued
in The Babylonian Captivity that the Roman papacy had taken the Christian
community into captivity by relegating to itself the sole authority to interpret
the Scriptures. It had perverted the meaning and practice of the sacraments
and snatched away the liberty that these give to all Christians.
      The title of the treatise recalls the exile of the Jews under the Babylonian
Empire in 586 B.C.E., but Luther was reading “Babylon” through the lens of
the book of Revelation, in which the ancient Babylonian conquest was a
symbol of the reign of the “beast,” the Antichrist, the tool of Satan. By 1520
Luther had come to the conclusion that the Antichrist was not any individual
pope or person, as others had feared in the past. Rather the papacy, the sys-
tem by which the Western church, Luther’s church, was structured, had
become the tool of Satan. 2 From Bernard of Clairvaux, Luther had taken the


idea that there were three epochs of church history: the time of persecution
when Christianity was illegal, the time of struggles between orthodoxy and
heresy, and the time of the Antichrist that would arise from within the
church. For Bernard, the time of the Antichrist was still in the future; for
Luther, it had come. 3 Luther understood himself to be living in the terror of
the end of time. 4 His goal in writing the treatise was to announce God’s re-
lease of the captives by returning them to the Scriptures and sacraments so
that their faith would be strengthened for the massive fight they had to face.
     The Babylonian Captivity was published on October 6, 1520. Four days later
Luther received the papal bull Exsurge Domine signed by Pope Leo X on June
15, 1520. The bull threatened Luther with excommunication if he did not
recant all his writings. Under these circumstances it is not surprising that
Luther found the words of an anonymous virgin comforting: “We . . . read of
a certain holy virgin who in every time of temptation made baptism her sole
defense, saying simply, ‘I am a Christian,’ and immediately the enemy recog-
nized the power of baptism and of her faith, which clung to the truth of a
promising God, and fled from her.” 5
     Luther placed this story in the section of The Babylonian Captivity in which
he argued that baptism is permanently efficacious so that the function of
penance is not to replace a broken baptism but to lead a broken person back
to the promises received in baptism.

                         Sermon on St. Anthony
Luther told the story again in 1522 in a sermon he wrote for the feast day of
St. Anthony of Egypt. 6 In the sermon he speaks of a holy virgin responding
directly to Satan in times of temptation in remembrance of her baptism:
“Thus we read about that holy virgin who opposed every temptation and any
other evil with nothing but her baptism, saying this brief word to Satan and
his evil assault, ‘I am a Christian,’ as if she were saying, ‘I am baptized and I
believe, therefore you can do nothing, Satan, because the word of invincible
promise stands against you: Whoever believes [and is baptized will be
saved—Mark 16:16].” 7 The sermon as a whole lifts up St. Anthony of Egypt
(d. 356) as a good role model because he maintained “spiritual happiness
[letitia spiritualis]” in the face of adversity, instead of falling into spiritual sad-
ness or despair, driven by a bad conscience or the fear of death. Luther tells
the story of the holy virgin to illustrate how to remain spiritually happy in such
circumstances: by relying on the word and promise of God in one’s baptism.
                                    LUTHER’S STORY ABOUT A FAITHFUL WOMAN       7

          Lectures on the First Epistle of St. John
In Luther’s 1527 lectures on 1 John 2:20 and 5:2, the virgin receives the name
Mechthild and becomes a nun. Specifying these particulars was an interesting
move on Luther’s part, since it located her in Germany. “Mechthild” in vari-
ous spellings was a common name for medieval German-speaking women.
     It seems hardly coincidental that Luther returned to this comforting story
at this particular time. The year 1527 was one of the worst of his life. Luther
was very ill, suffering difficulties with his circulatory system that left him
dizzy and faint. He thought he was going to die. Luther was so convinced of
this that he contacted his pastor, Johannes Bugenhagen, to perform the last
rites for him. He wrote in a letter, “I have been through more than a whole
week into death and tossed back and forth in hell. . . . I have lost Christ total-
ly and have been shaken by the floods and storms of desperation and of blas-
phemy against God.” 8
     Luther survived only to stare in the face of death soon again when the
plague struck Wittenberg. Most of the students and faculty left the city for
Jena, where classes were held temporarily. Luther chose to stay in Wittenberg,
however, in order to confront Satan.
     By now Luther was a married man and father. Naturally he was worried
about his one-year-old son and his wife, Katarina, who was pregnant with
their second child. Life in the Luther household in plague-ridden Wittenberg
was desperate. Martin and Katie’s home became a makeshift hospital. Among
the patients were the wife of Luther’s doctor and the sister-in-law of his for-
mer colleague Andreas Karlstadt. Georg Rörer, the faithful scribe of so many
of Luther’s lectures, sermons, and table talks, was also living there with his
pregnant wife, Hanna, as was the family of Hanna’s brother, Johannes
Bugenhagen. After suffering a miscarriage, Hanna succumbed to the plague
and died on November 2, 1527. Her death occured less than a week after
Luther’s lecture on 1 John 5:2, in which he repeated the story about the
woman facing the devil. 9
     Luther chose to lecture on 1 John that year because “John directed his
readers to Christ in the flesh as opposed to Antichrist.” The consolation and
strength radiating from John’s letter “was needed in times of crises, both per-
sonal and world-political. It . . . was of great help at that time when tempta-
tions and troubles of conscience were most severe.” 10 On the seventeenth of
September, Luther wrote a letter to the people of Halle consoling them for
the murder of their pastor, Georg Winkler, who died the previous April for
the cause that Luther championed. That same day Luther lectured to a small

group of students who met in the Luther home on 1 John 2:20: “But you
have been anointed by the Holy One, and all of you have knowledge.” Fol-
lowing are comments on the text that Luther shared with his students on that
difficult day.

      Therefore we are Christians out of faith alone, by which I put
      [Christ] on and he puts me on and through this I lay all my un-
      happiness on him, while he lays all his good things on me. . . .
      When a virgin was attacked by Satan, she always responded like
      this: “I am a Christian.” If anyone says this word seriously, it is
      certain that Satan will not stay for long because he knows what
      it means, it smokes the roast well. If you speak sincerely, you
      are not afraid of death. If you are a Christian, you have the
      anointing of the Holy Spirit, Christ with everything, which is to
      say that I cling to Christ; if you want to damn me for my sins, I
      don’t know anything about it because Christ bears in himself
      the sins of the world. The only thing lacking about it is that we
      don’t believe it. 11

This translation is mine from the notes of Georg Rörer. The version of Luth-
er’s lectures on 1 John published in the American Edition of Luther’s Works
was not translated from Rörer’s notes but from Johann Probst’s notes. The
story presents a bit differently in this version. The main difference is that the
woman is no longer referred to generically as a virgin, but is named: “Thus
whenever Mechtilde was being hindered by the devil, she is said to have
replied: ‘I am a Christian. For I believe.’” 12
     “Mechtilde” becomes “a nun” in Luther’s lectures on 1 John 5:2: “By this
we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his
commandments.” Following are Luther’s comments on that text.

      Satan fights to the maximum against this. He would gladly
      conquer that faith so that the terrified heart would speak as if
      it did not believe this, because he is a skilled artisan of ficti-
      tious sins which are not sins: “Ah, you don’t believe, you don’t
      love,” and he fashions sins . . . so that we might be terrified by
      them. It happens to me this way . . . . For this reason the Fa-
      ther gives the Spirit, 2 Corinthians 1[:22], he gives us God’s
      powerful weapons. If you take hold of any sentence of scrip-
      ture, you are safe; it is a miraculous protection, as Paul said so
                                   LUTHER’S STORY ABOUT A FAITHFUL WOMAN    9

      well: the power of God [2 Corinthians 10:4], “a strong tower”
      [Psalm 61:3]. A nun said nothing but: “I am a Christian.” . . . If
      you say this vocal, literal word, you have already occupied a cita-
      del and seat in his reign. 13

Here Luther is emphasizing one of his key insights about the struggle with
the devil: One cannot rely on one’s feelings in this struggle but must rely on
what has been given to us from outside of ourselves, in this case the
scriptural promise that one is a child of God by faith. 14

                         Lectures on Isaiah
In 1528 Luther returned to the story of Mechthild in his lecture on Isaiah
40:28: “He does not faint or grow weary.”

      The prophet is . . . saying: “We get tired and are worn out by
      Satan’s plotting and cunning tricks. But you have a God who
      does not get tired. He will set you free from the incessant
      stratagems of Satan.” . . . Thus a certain nun by the name of
      Mechtild kept repelling the onslaughts of Satan with one word:
      “I am a Christian.” So I, too, must say: “I am dead, but Christ
      lives; I am a sinner, but Christ is righteous, because I believe in
      Jesus Christ and was baptized in His name.” Thus when we are
      fatigued, let us run to the fresh and untiring Christ and not re-
      main with ourselves. 15

     In his lecture on Isaiah 52:12, Luther paused on the phrase “The Lord
will go before you,” which reminded him of Mechthild.

      The most honest consciences . . . must always withstand Satan
      by means of the Word. So the nun Mechtild replied to the at-
      tacks of Satan, “I am a Christian.” To be a Christian, however,
      means to be moved by neither good works nor bad works. If
      you have done ill, commit it to Christ. If you have done well,
      commit it to the same. Therefore we must oppose the devil and
      his attacks in Christ alone. It is He who goes before me and
      gathers me; it is He who preserves me by grace alone. 16

                 On the Fifteen Gradual Psalms
The story appeared next in 1532 in Luther’s lectures on Psalm 132:9: “Let your
priests be clothed with righteousness, and let your faithful shout for joy.” These
lectures have come down to us in two forms. One is the notes of Georg Rörer
handwritten in a mix of German and Latin. The other is a more polished ver-
sion published in Latin. There is an interesting difference between the two with
regard to our story. In Rörer’s sketchy notes the story goes like this:

      One speaks about a certain nun (God saved many in Babylon)
      who, whenever she was tempted by the devil to despair and dis-
      trust said, “I am a Christian.” Thus a child should reply to the de-
      vil, not disputing for a long time, but: I am a Christian. Not [I
      am] pious, but I am baptized. He cannot pollute the Gospel, the
      sacrament, baptism. Here I accept the opulent promises of the
      divine mercy. God does not deceive or lie because he gave bapt-
      ism, the sacrament, and the word, spoken to me by his minister,
      my brother. One word chases the devil away: I am a Christian
      [Christiana sum]. Thus we have no reason to be sad. 17

     The story is much shorter in the published version and the nun is identi-
fied as a girl [puella]. The aside about God saving many in Babylon (a refer-
ence to the papacy, as in The Babylonion Captivity of the Church) is omitted. The
shorter version also includes that after saying, “I am a Christian,” the girl
“rested in that strength.” And it continues with “Indeed one must not bring
up many things with Satan if he exposes sins; you do rightly if you expose
baptism to him, which he certainly cannot deny that you have. Likewise, if
you expose to him the word that was spoken in the reign of grace, how can it
deceive you, since it is the word of God?” 18

                    Table Talks from the 1530s
In 1534 Luther’s friend Johann Feldkirch was ill, dying, and frightened. He
complained to Luther that the devil was destroying his faith; he was afraid
that God had abandoned him and was not listening to his prayers. Luther
began a long talk intended to comfort him by noting that the devil always
attacks us where we are weakest, seeking to make bodily suffering into spiri-
tual suffering. Desperate thoughts that God is alienated from us in our
suffering do not come of our own doing. They are driven into us by the
devil. They “are impressed on us, not born in us.” 19
                                  LUTHER’S STORY ABOUT A FAITHFUL WOMAN       11

      Using distinctions learned from Aristotle’s philosophy, Luther went on
to categorize the violent thoughts imposed on people by the devil as “acci-
dents,” not “substance.” Accidents are characterizations that are not central
or essential to one’s being. They may come and go. In contrast, God’s prom-
ise is our substance; it makes us who we are at our core. “We should prefer to
be a hundred times sicker than to go without the treasure” of that substance,
exclaimed Luther. But retaining the treasure requires a fight. When we sin or
are sad, the devil strikes this thought into our hearts: “God is angry.” And if
we pray for liberation, the devil strikes again: “Yes, and when will it be?” 20
Luther assured Feldkirch that he was not alone in this type of experience. “It
happens to me daily,” Luther told him.

      May our God support you, so that you have no need! One reads
      of a certain nun Megdilla; when she was tempted and had noth-
      ing by which to drive Satan away, she said: I am a Christian. Be-
      cause this Word has everything in it. So you say: If everything is
      in it, then I believe that Christ still lives. I am indeed baptized.
      The gospel pleases me. I am not an enemy to the sacraments
      and to Christ himself, but I consider him to be truly the savior.
      The devil can’t bring anything up against that. 21

     Yet because God dwells in darkness and faith cannot see through it, the
devil tries to convince us in times of trouble that the God we cannot see
hates us. Luther warned Feldkirch that the feelings stirred up in people by the
devil “are tricks with the accidents, by which he wants to take away the sub-
stance; but because I believe in Jesus Christ, the Lord of life, that is my sub-
stance. If I leave myself there the sickness turns out well, whether it leads to
life or to death. . . . Leave the accidents alone!” Because Christ stands, Luther
urged Feldkirch to comfort himself with this substance, which is our “joy,
hope, and strength, and which supports the heart.” 22
     In order to overcome, Feldkirch would have to surround himself with
others who could speak about Christ. “Don’t eat alone with the devil,”
Luther advised, “because he is this kind of disputer: Where he can get his
head in, he creeps in after it with his whole body. So, join your siblings!” This
communal strategy is in place “so that we might not glory in ourselves, as if
we were powerful, but so that we might glorify the truth of Christ in us . . . .
God will not leave you.” 23 The devil attacks us because we are not yet his.
“Resist this! For the one who is in us [Christ] is greater than the one who is in
the world [the devil]. . . . The devil] may be angry about it and make me sad,

but my victory stands, because Christ lives.” Luther pressed Feldkirch to
think about Christ, not about his own feelings. “You are our member,” he
assured his friend,

      and we together with you belong to the body redeemed by the
      blood of Christ, washed in the blood of Christ and then joined
      by word and sacrament to the society of the church. . . . Don’t
      let the devil in the room. Say, “You may not enter here. Here
      the Lord Jesus will reign, in whom I am baptized. I am staying
      there!” So the devil takes himself off and the peace of the heart
      remains. 24

                   Sermons from 1537 and 1538
In 1537 Luther became the substitute preacher at Wittenberg’s parish church,
St. Mary’s, while his pastor, Johannes Bugenhagen, was instituting church
reform in Denmark. Luther began by preaching on the Gospel of John,
including John 1:14, which was a favorite of his: “And the Word became
flesh and lived among us. . . .” Luther argued that this sentence should not be
used as a magic formula but should have real meaning for Christians. To illu-
strate the point he offered this statement as equivalent: “I am a Christian, of
the same flesh and blood as my Lord Christ, the Son of God. You settle with
Him, devil!” 25 Then he gave the example of the “holy nun” in its briefest
form, adding a personal comment: “I am inclined to believe this story; for
many a pious soul was kept wonderfully in the true faith through God’s grace
while in the papacy.” 26
     Luther continued to express amazement that God could save even a nun
who was under the papacy (or, one might add, a monk like himself). On Jan-
uary 5, 1538, Luther told the story again, this time in a sermon dedicated to
Elisabeth von Brandenburg, the wife of the Elector. The text was Galatians
3:25-27: “But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a discipli-
narian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many
of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.”
Luther began first by discussing how one becomes a child of God. Although
through Adam and Eve the devil first prevented humans from living eternally
in paradise as God’s children, the Son of God has come in person,
submerged our sin in himself, and snuffed it out in his body. Thus Christ has
taken our sin away and, risen from the dead, has given us his Holy Spirit so
that we may share his life as children of God eternally. The devil is displeased
                                  LUTHER’S STORY ABOUT A FAITHFUL WOMAN      13

with this because he begrudges humans life. So he seeks to rob us of life,
freedom, and our heredity as God’s children. Luther encouraged people to
hold fast to their eternal life in Christ, like the martyrs, even if they were
bodily condemned.
     Luther next brought up a problem. If we look at ourselves and see our
own weakness, it may seem impossible that we are children of God. He re-
sponded to the problem by asserting that this filial status is not based on what
we do; it is based on “the one who has acquired us, who is Christ, the Son of
God, full of eternal righteousness, life, and joy.” 27 Nothing is impossible for
this God. By baptism one puts on Christ, and this clothing not only looks good
on us but also cleanses us so that we are pure in front of God. The Holy Spirit
is at work in the children of God, sweeping out sin until the last day comes.
But if we take sins such as miserliness, adultery, and fornication lightly, then
we clothe ourselves and others with the devil instead, who does not want
anyone to be free from sin. The devil hunts people by setting tyrants and false
teachers on them so that “we feel as if God were aggrieved and did not want
to remit sins.” 28 Luther pointed to Ephesians 6:10-17 to argue that God
wants people to fight back and defend themselves with the weapons of the
Spirit, saying by faith, “I am baptized and clothed in Christ.” Thus the devil
fights in vain with Christians. It serves only to strengthen their faith and in-
crease their holy life. Although they sometimes feel the prison wall of the law
around them, they may push against it with their beautiful clothing and burst
through. Then Luther told the now familiar story, but he added a new dimen-
sion to the story in this telling.

      One reads the example of a nun. God saved his own in every
      kind of life. Metildis had spiritual temptations—first fleshly
      and worldly. She asked God to take them away and give her
      what he wanted. So he sent her spiritual ones. The devil im-
      pressed on her wrath, death, that she was damned. Then she
      was constrained to learn, when the devil with an arrow and
      blows drove in something other than the doctrine of Christ, to
      say, “Nevertheless I am a Christian.”. . . In this way, when the
      devil comes, he is strong, but when I grasp this word by faith:
      I am a Christian, the devil feels it and the tempted person feels
      this power. 29

    Adding a personal touch, Luther commented on the fact that no one can
escape from the prison of the law until “Christ comes and speaks through a

Christian. So, likewise, when I am sad I remember the consolations that I
heard from pious people like Staupitz.” 30 Luther lamented that the teaching
about baptism and the gift it brings, namely Christ himself, was neglected. He
thought one could not say enough about it, so that those who hear might take
hold of baptism by faith and put Christ on. Wearing Christ makes all Chris-
tians one. As a consequence, Luther said, all are equal in God’s eyes. “No one
can say that a man is better than a woman.” 31 Luther insisted that creating
distinctions and rankings among Christians was the work of the devil. But
among Christians, he said, there is no judgment of each other as long as we
keep on the innocent clothing we put on at baptism.
     As in his previous telling, Luther identifies the main character as Metildis.
What is new in this version is that Metildis’s first temptation was not to
despair, as Luther indicated before, but to “fleshly and worldly” things. For a
long time Luther had been critical of monasticism’s tendency to focus only
on the sin of unchastity and to ignore the very serious sin of faithlessness.
This was the sin to which Metildis was tempted after the temptation to un-
chastity was removed from her. German theologian Heinrich Bornkamm
wrote that for Luther, “sin is much more than [unchastity]; it is not to believe
in Christ and in the new life from him. Therefore the strongest remedy
against sin is to reflect on the Word of God.” 32 Luther revisited this theme
once more in 1540 as a separate story.
     In March 1538 Luther returned to the main story in a sermon on Invocavit
Sunday, which is the first Sunday in Lent, when the introit, or entrance hymn,
begins with “He shall call [invocavit] upon me.” The text for the day was the
account of Jesus’ temptation by the devil after his baptism, which is found in
Matthew 4:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13. Luther placed the nun’s story in his discus-
sion of Jesus’ second temptation in Matthew’s Gospel, in which the devil says
to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down” from the temple.
Then the devil quotes Psalm 91:11-12: “For he will command his angels con-
cerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you
up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” Luther warned his
hearers about the devil who comes with the Bible in hand. He called this the
worst kind of temptation because in resisting the devil one feels that one is
going against the Scriptures. As a medieval person, Luther was well aware of
the “white devil,” Lucifer, the bearer of light, who appears good but whose
radiance blinds people so that they distrust God. Thus blinded, one cannot
see healing comfort in the Scriptures but can only hear an incessant and fatal
invitation to do more, endlessly to try to go above and beyond God’s basic
commandments, as if one could. The devil wants people to do two things: first,
                                  LUTHER’S STORY ABOUT A FAITHFUL WOMAN       15

to think that they need to sway God’s heart, and second, to trust that the chal-
lenges they set for themselves will do that. Luther insisted that if we do what
God has not commanded us to do, we will fall and break our necks. Jesus did
not take up the devil’s suggestion but quoted God’s law to him: “Do not put
the Lord your God to the test” (Deuteronomy 6:16; Matthew 4:7).
      Luther advised the people of the congregation to remain planted in their
vocations, living responsibly and faithfully. Guardian angels would keep them
in faith. But the guardian angels would desert them, Luther warned, if they set
out to assure themselves that they were God’s children, by making a
pilgrimage, for example, or by joining a monastic order. So “one reads of a
nun who had spiritual temptation and would have liked to feel that she could
understand. When she could not do anything more she said, ‘I am a Chris-
tian.’ That is a temptation that few people know. I have the word of God, I
am baptized. God gave me a word. I am staying there.” 33
     In June 1538 the focus of Luther’s sermon series on John’s Gospel was
the very familiar verse John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave
his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may
have eternal life.” Luther understood eternal life to be a clinging to Christ, by
which one entered trouble, death, and even hell with Christ, but also broke
through in victory to life. Luther laced the nun’s story throughout the sermon
as an example. Here, as in the published version of Luther’s lecture on Psalm
132, she emerges as a young person, a “little nun” [Nonnelein].

      Thus one reads a fine example of a nun (our Lord God has
      had quite a few in all positions who have been preserved and
      blessed). She had high anxiety over death and sins, as all who
      have not been stomach-servants have felt God’s wrath and
      judgment, because of which one sought refuge from them in
      the saints. Meanwhile, then, the little nun, too, feared God’s
      wrath and wanted to be blessed. So when the devil plagued
      her with his temptations to anxiety, she got into the habit of
      saying to the devil, “Leave me in peace, I am a Christian.” So
      the devil had to leave her in peace. This really seems like an
      easy thing and quickly learned. But make sure that one also
      speaks out of faith, as this little nun has done, because the
      devil did not greatly fear this word: I am a Christian, but ra-
      ther her faith, on which she relied firmly and said, “I am bap-
      tized in Christ and I trust in him alone because he is my life,
      salvation, and wisdom.” 34

    Later in the sermon Luther called upon his hearers when they
experienced anxiety to do as this nun had done, rather than relying on some
good work of their own. Luther ended the sermon with other examples of
Christians, including Bernard of Clairvaux who, like the woman in his story,
focused only on Christ, especially in the hour of death.

                   Seventh Sermon on Psalm 72
Luther lifted up the example of the nun again on March 7, 1540, in a sermon
on Laetare Sunday. The fourth Sunday of Lent is named Laetare after the call
in the text for the day to “rejoice” [laetare]. 35 Luther told the story in its brief-
est form to illustrate how Christians can deal with doubts about their being
children of God and can be restored to joy. Luther’s focus was Psalm 72,
particularly verse 16: “May there be abundance of grain in the land; may it
wave on the tops of the mountains; may its fruit be like Lebanon; and may
people blossom in the cities like the grass of the field.” Luther understood the
verse allegorically; both grain and grass were Christians, growing abundantly
in the sunshine of God’s word, even on the mountains, the inhospitable ter-
rain of the devil. “Thus when she was tempted, that nun used to say, ‘I am a
Christian.’ Whoever speaks this word seriously, etc. He [the devil] finds me
truly in sin without faith if I say, ‘I have done this or that, I have prayed.’
Then the devil has a good game. But in our Lord they have all been blessed,
praised, etc., not through themselves but through the Lord. That is, the name
of the Lord has been praised and all are blessed.” 36 By now Luther has told
the story so often that the initial words suffice as a reminder in the sentence
about making one’s confession seriously, ending the sentence with “etc.”

             Notes of Johannes Mathesius from 1540
In June of that same year, Luther told a strange story at his table about a nun
who may or may not have been named “Marhilda.” It bears no relation to any
of his “Mechthild” stories except for his sermon of January 5, 1538. In that
instance, Luther related that the nun was troubled by carnal temptations be-
fore struggling with spiritual ones. In this particular table talk, Luther made
fun of the church fathers for reducing all sin to lust, when, in contrast, the
devil’s worst temptations are to despair and blasphemy or hatred of God.

       They write about a nun Marhilda, unless I am mistaken: When
       tempted with lust she prayed to God that he impose on her a
       different temptation, no matter how oppressive it might be.
                                     LUTHER’S STORY ABOUT A FAITHFUL WOMAN         17

       Having been heard, she was tempted with blasphemy: God was
       going to damn her. She could not bear this, and she asked re-
       peatedly that she might go back to the other one. 37

      There is a good deal of confusion about the name of the main character
in Luther’s story. In the variants of the table talk she is called Mohlda,
Mechilda, and Moh(b)ilda as well as Mechtilde. 38 The editors of the Weimar
Edition inform us that the notetaker of this table talk, Johannes Mathesius, is
the one who added the words “unless I am mistaken” because he was unsure
of what he had heard. In a later version of this story falsely ascribed to Philip
Melanchthon, the nun’s name is Bachida. 39 This renaming was probably an
effort to clear up the confusion of the nun’s identity. It does not help, how-
ever, because there is hardly any information about anyone named Bachida. 40
      I found the story in Johannes Herolt’s Sermones discipuli de tempore et de sanc-
tis cum promptuario exemplorum. 41 Herolt (d. 1468) belonged to the Order of
Preachers (Dominicans). In this collection of sermons on the church year and
the saints, he included a section of anecdotes as an aid to other preachers.
The stories were not his own; he said that he gathered them from many
sources, but he did not name the sources. There are no page numbers in the
book, but the anecdotes are at the end, arranged alphabetically. Our story
appears under the heading “Temptatio” and is entitled “Virgo que primo ha-
buit temptacionem carnis & postea fidei” (“A virgin who first had fleshly
temptation and then temptation of faith”). Here is my translation:

       In Frisia the devil tempted a certain religious and cloistered
       virgin through incitement of the flesh and when she kept ask-
       ing with tears that the incitement might be taken away from
       her an angel appeared to her and said, “You can be freed from
       this temptation. Say this verse, ‘Conform my flesh to the fear
       of you,’ and you will be freed.” She did it. Withdrawing, the
       angel liberated her. And immediately the temptation to blas-
       phemy invaded her and she began to doubt the Christian faith
       and God. Then she began to call the divine name and in the
       same way beg to be freed. Appearing to her the angel said,
       “You want to live without temptation. It is necessary that you
       have one.” The virgin chose the first temptation inasmuch as
       resisting what is human is something other than resisting what
       is diabolical. 42

     In this story as passed on by Herolt, the virgin is anonymous. It seems
that the confusion over the virgin’s name in Luther’s story is due to the fact
that the virgin was not named in the original story. Even when Luther con-
flated this story about the virgin who was first tempted in fleshly and then in
spiritual ways with his 1538 story about “Metildis,” he gave it a different end-
ing. In this version “she was constrained to learn, when the devil with an
arrow and blows drove in something other than the doctrine of Christ, to say,
‘Nevertheless I am a Christian.’” 43 After 1540 Luther appears to have recog-
nized that these two stories were not about the same woman. Luther did not
speak about Marhilda with the same respect that he consistently showed for
Mechthild. Luther presented Marhilda as someone theologically misguided,
whereas he presented Mechthild as a theological role model, especially in the
way that she handled the temptation to despair.

                Table Talks from Various Years
Luther never told the Marhilda story again. In a table talk on February 18,
1542, Luther returned to the original story about the nun. The topic of dis-
cussion on that occasion was predestination. Luther began by summarizing
the kinds of thoughts that trouble people when they dwell on the idea that
God has predestined some to salvation and some to damnation. He consi-
dered it a callous response to conclude that because one’s salvation or damna-
tion has already been determined (even though one does not know which it
is), it makes no difference one way or the other what one does. More sensi-
tive people, he asserted, were troubled by the fact that they could not be cer-
tain of their salvation or of God’s love for them. Luther called this kind of
doubt the work of the devil. This troubled him greatly, Luther said, until he
was “freed from these thoughts by Staupitz.” Johannes von Staupitz was the
vicar general of the Observant Augustinian Order in the German-speaking
lands when Luther was a monk, and he was Luther’s mentor. 44 Luther cre-
dited Staupitz with teaching him to distinguish between what God has revealed
and what God has not. God has shown us what concerns us, and that is the
Son of God in the flesh, sucking at his mother’s breast and hanging on the
cross. What God has not communicated to us does not concern us, Luther
insisted, so we should not worry about it but leave it with God.

      Thus one reads of a nun whom the devil troubled with these
      most miserable thoughts. When he addressed her and attacked
      her with his fiery arrows, she said no more than this: “I am a
                                  LUTHER’S STORY ABOUT A FAITHFUL WOMAN       19

      Christian.” The devil understood her very well, for it was as if
      she said: “I believe in the crucified God who sits at the right
      hand of the Father, who cares for me, and who is accustomed
      to interceding for me. You wretched devil, leave me in peace!
      He has certainly redeemed me by his impenetrable image.”
      . . . He sent his Son in the flesh, he gave us the sacraments and
      his Word, so that one cannot doubt it. Let the voice of that nun
      occur to us in every temptation for unless someone places him-
      self here in this Christ, he will either despair of his salvation or
      become a blaspheming Epicurian. 45

     The leitmotif running through this table talk is Jesus’ assurance to Philip
in John 14:9, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” In other words,
those who know salvation in Christ may be certain that the eternal God has
willed salvation for them. There is no breach between the Son and the Father.

                         Lectures on Genesis
Earlier on the very day of this table talk, Luther had occasion to speak of the
virgin [vestalis] in his lecture on Genesis 26:9. In this text King Abimelech
confronts Abraham after he discovers that the woman he has taken into his
harem is not Abraham’s sister but his wife, Sarah. Luther excused Abraham’s
lie on the ground that it is rash to run into danger unnecessarily. Luther then
digressed from the text to discuss dangerous thoughts about predestination.
According to Luther, such thoughts lead to doubt and should be avoided.
Luther’s telling of the nun’s story in the Genesis lecture is very similar to how
it appears in the table talk that addresses these same matters. This may mean
that the students whose notes comprise the published Genesis lectures im-
ported the table talk. In any case, the anecdote goes like this:

      Thus on other occasions I have often mentioned the note-
      worthy example of a nun who underwent the same trial. For
      under the papacy there were also many godly persons who
      experienced these spiritual trials, which are truly hellish and
      thoughts of the damned. For there is no difference at all be-
      tween one who doubts and one who is damned. Therefore
      whenever the nun felt that she was being assailed with the fiery
      darts of Satan [cf. Ephesians 6:16], she would say nothing else
      than this: “I am a Christian.” We must do the same thing. 46

     Luther returned to “the nun Mechtild” in his lecture on Genesis 32:24:
“Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.” In his
rather extensive discussion, Luther makes the point that Mechtild’s struggle,
unlike Jacob’s, is with the devil, not with God, but that the response she gives
would be good even if her opponent were God.

       This picture of the conflicts and struggles in the saints is full of
       consolation. Elsewhere the example of the nun Mechtild is re-
       counted. She was vexed by the devil, because she knew or expe-
       rienced absolutely nothing about faith. This was a temptation to
       unbelief, which is a most bitter grief and torment of conscience.
       For hearts are consumed by trepidation and doubt, and expe-
       rience alone shows what this grief is; it cannot be declared in
       words. Nevertheless, that temptation was not yet equal to this
       struggle of Jacob. For it was not God who was fighting against
       her, as was the case here with Jacob, but the devil, who can
       drive men to unbelief, despair, and blasphemies against the Ho-
       ly Spirit. I myself, for example, have seen some, and especially
       women, who simply complained that they were damned and
       cast off, because they were vexed by Satan with the spirit of
            Now, the nun held nothing else up against this temptation
       except this statement: “I AM A CHRISTIAN,” that is, “I have
       been baptized in the blood of God’s Son; I have been fed with
       the body and blood of Christ. These things I firmly cling to;
       with this consolation I am content, even if God Himself were
       to speak otherwise.” 47

     “On Poltergeists” and “On the Devil’s Cunning”
In 1566, twenty years after Martin Luther’s death, Johannes Aurifaber pub-
lished a collection of Luther’s table talks and other discourses, which in-
cluded “On Poltergeists” and “On the Devil’s Cunning and Rage against Us
Humans.” 48 Aurifaber was an alumnus of the University of Wittenberg who
returned in 1545 to live with the Luthers. He functioned as Luther’s secre-
tary until Luther’s death the following year.
     For several reasons, there is some difficulty in discerning exactly when
the talks that Aurifaber recorded took place. Aurifaber did not arrange his
book chronologically, but topically. The stories, which are undated, are part
                                   LUTHER’S STORY ABOUT A FAITHFUL WOMAN        21

of section XXIV on the devil and his works. Aurifaber tells us that the selec-
tion on poltergeists was taken from Jerome Besold’s collection of Luther’s
stories, but this does not help much. Besold also lived in the Luther house-
hold from 1542 to 1546, but like Aurifaber, he did not limit his collection to
stories he heard firsthand, so it is possible that Besold, too, got this story
from someone else. I attribute these two table talks to the 1540s because, if
either Aurifaber or Besold took live notes on them at Luther’s table, it would
have been during these years.
     The discussion of poltergeists is fascinating on several levels. What I find
most interesting for purposes of our examination of Luther’s story is that
Luther failed to mention the faithful woman at all in this table talk He tells
her story as if it were his own. After telling a couple of anecdotes about the
devil’s invisible antics in Luther’s own house and elsewhere in Saxony, Luther
offered this advice:

       One cannot chase the devil away except by believing in Christ
       so that one says, “I am baptized, I am a Christian.” If one calls
       out the name “Jesus Christ” seriously, [the devil] will flee from
       the seed of the woman, Christ, because he fears him and he
       knows that he has ruined his teeth on him. Just as we bite our
       teeth into the apple, so he has ruined his on the seed. But our
       Lord God gave the devil power over us, so it is a temptation. 49

Here Luther is making reference to Genesis 3:15, where God tells the serpent
who tempted Eve, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and be-
tween your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his
heel.” In traditional fashion, Luther interprets this as a divine promise of the
salvation achieved painfully by Jesus. It is highly significant that here Luther
has identified so completely with our faithful woman that he has left her out
of the story entirely. It is also interesting that he has attached her story to the
story of Eve’s temptation. In doing so, Luther universalizes the tempted soul.
     The table talk continues with Luther’s story about two monks from a
Prussian convent who were bothered by the devil. The devil was finally de-
feated by the words from John 1:14, “Behold, the Word was made flesh.”
So, Luther concludes, when assaulted by the devil, call, “Help, dear Lord
Jesus Christ!” 50
     In the selection Aurifaber called “On the Devil’s Cunning and Rage
against Us Humans,” Luther again advises that people in dangerous situations
should hold up the cross in faith and pray, “Help, dear Lord Jesus Christ,”

because the devil cannot stand Jesus’ name. According to Luther, this should be
sufficient to fend off the evil one. “If the devil attacks you, say, ‘I am a Chris-
tian,’ as that virgin says, ‘I am baptized and called Christina.’ Then the devil
does not remain long.” 51 Here the virgin has reappeared as the protagonist of
the story, and she calls herself “Christina.” It is quite clear, however, that Luth-
er understood her name symbolically and did not mean to suggest that her giv-
en name was actually Christina. In chapter 3 we will see that this method of
repelling the devil was advocated by other popular medieval preachers too.

             Sermons on St. Michael’s Day
      and the Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity, 1544
Luther told the story two more times before his death. On both occasions
he related it in its briefest and simplest form. Luther preached on Revela-
tion 12:7-12 on the Feast Day of St. Michael the Archangel, September 29.
This text is about a war in heaven between Michael and his angels and the
dragon—“the Devil and Satan,” according to 12:9—and his angels. The
dragon’s forces are defeated and thrown to earth, after which a loud voice
in heaven says, “Now have come the salvation and the power and the king-
dom of our God and the authority of his Messiah, for the accuser of our
comrades has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before
our God. But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by
the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of
death.” Following Augustine’s teachings, Luther established that this hea-
venly war had its parallel on earth between flesh-and-blood Christians and
the devil. According to Luther, Michael, the one “who is like God,” was
Jesus Christ. Luther saw the battle fought over right and wrong teachings
about God in church history. But he also warned his hearers not to think
that the devil was only among others. The devil was also among and even in
them, but so was Christ. Luther preached, “For this reason I often give this
example of a woman [Muliere] who, when tempted, said, ‘I am a Chris-
tian.’” 52 These are Luther’s words according to Georg Rörer’s notes. The
published version of this sermon refers to a nun [Nonnen] “who recognized
Christ and who, when she was tempted hard by the devil and he would not
leave her alone, spoke no more than this word, ‘I am a Christian.’ Listen
well, devil. I am a Christian. The devil heard that and fled from her right
away.” 53
     On October 12, 1544, Luther made his final reference to “that nun” in
a sermon based on the apostle Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 1:4-7: “I give
                                  LUTHER’S STORY ABOUT A FAITHFUL WOMAN       23

thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been
given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in
speech and knowledge of every kind—just as the testimony of Christ has
been strengthened among you—so that you are not lacking in any spiritual
gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Luther joined
Paul in giving thanks for the faith of his hearers, which had made them free
and rich in Christ. He emphasized that even the poor have a great treasure
because they have Christ. “You cannot buy this with gold, but you have
God’s word, you believe, you are released from sins, assured of eternal life.
Now you should do nothing more than what that nun said when she was
tempted: I am a Christian. Yes, you are a Christian, so I will not stay here,
says the devil. Because to be a Christian means to be baptized in the blood of
Jesus Christ, released, certain through the blood, death, and resurrection of
Christ.” 54

     Theological Continuities and New Developments
For Luther the story of the woman vanquishing the devil with her confession
contained the essence of Christian faithfulness in a nutshell. “This Word has
everything in it,” he told Johann Feldkirch in 1534. Our survey has revealed
both continuities and new developments in Luther’s use of the story over the
course of twenty-four years. He consistently explained that the Christian’s
faith is in Christ as Savior, who is the embodiment of God’s Word. Since this
Word comes to people through external, tangible means, such as baptism,
Christians are securely rooted in Christ by God’s work alone, not our own.
This is our defense when the devil leaves us troubled within and tempted to
despair. Luther was absolutely consistent in tying the confession “I am a
Christian” to baptism, even though there is no mention of baptism in the
story itself. Luther liked the sincerity of the story. Indeed, for the woman’s
confession to work, it had to be sincere. One must make the confession in all
seriousness, as Luther appears to have done, when anxious, depressed, or
filled with doubt about one’s value in God’s eyes or one’s salvation.
      Luther was much less consistent in the way he identified the main char-
acter of the story. In the early 1520s she was simply a holy virgin. In the late
1520s she became Mechthild. By the early 1530s Luther spoke of her as a nun
under the papacy. In the late 1530s he briefly combined a second less serious
story with the original one, but quickly reverted to the first story in the early
1540s. While the virgin’s age is not discernible in the 1520s, during the 1530s
she appears to be a young person, a girl. She matured, however, and by 1544

was identified as a woman. On at least one occasion, Luther converted the
story about a faithful woman into a word of advice from himself without ref-
erence to a woman at all. (The diagram in the appendix includes the year, the
literary context, and the name Luther gives the woman in his many tellings of
this now familiar story.)
      From all of this it is clear that when Luther told and retold the story of
the nun and the devil, his primary interest was not the identity of the person
who said, “I am a Christian,” in times of desperation. Rather, he was interest-
ed in the theology tucked into the phrase and its use in situations of despair.
In 1542 a significant theological move in Luther’s application of the story
occured when Luther began to use the story as a way out of the anguish
caused by thoughts about predestination. The theological complex of demon-
ic attack, baptism, faith, and salvation that Luther saw wrapped up in the de-
fiant sentence “I am a Christian” will be explored in the next chapter.

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