The Theologia Germanica of Martin Luther
Anonymous; Translation, introduction, and commentary by Bengt Hoffman
Publisher: Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1990.
Classics of Western Spirituality Series. ISBN 0-8091-2291-X
The Theologia Germanica (also known as Theologia Deutsch and The Book of the Perfect Life) is a mystical pamphlet written in about 1350 by an anonymous author. Martin Luther first brought it to light, publishing the version that is the source of this translation in 1518. Other versions of The Theologia Germanica were discovered later, and so the phrase “of Martin Luther” is meant to distinguish this particular version.
The author is believed to have belonged to a movement called the Friends of God, a group dedicated to living a godly life in close personal relationship with God. Their members included priests, monks, nuns, and laypeople, without distinction of rank or sex. By emphasizing the “inner man” they hoped to attain an intimate union with God while in this very life. The high value they placed on humility might explain the anonymity of this and other works by the Friends, and also why the Theologia was written in colloquial German rather than Latin, the accepted language for theological subjects at that time. Among those considered to be Friends of God are the Flemish mystic Ruysbroeck and the German mystics Meister Eckhart, Johannes Tauler and Heinrich Suso.
The Theologia addresses a basic question: how can the imperfect become the Perfect.
Saint Paul says that, when that which is perfect comes, then that which is imperfect and partial is done away with.… Note now what the perfect and the partial are. The Perfect is a Being who has comprised and embraced in Himself and in His Being all that is. Without this Being and outside of it there is no true being and in it all things have their being since it is the core of all things. This ultimate Being is in Himself unchangeable and immovable, yet changes and moves everything else.
The Theologia might be described as a meditation on Saint Paul’s words. But of course, as the author points out, the Perfect cannot be described in words:
Creatures that are partial and imperfect can be comprehended, known, and described in words. But the Creator, the Perfect, cannot be comprehended, known, and described in the same manner by creatures, on account of their creatureliness. The Perfect must consequently be nameless because it is not any created thing.
Someone may ask: What is the state of a person who follows the true Light to the best of his ability? I must tell you frankly that it can never be fully described. For he who is not on this path is unable to put it in words. And he who is on the path and knows is equally unable to voice it. Whoever wants to know must wait until he becomes what he knows.
Therefore, the Theologia stresses that it is not enough to read about God and about saintly persons. One must experience the Perfect for himself, and this requires delving deeply into one’s self:
It may be commendable to ask, hear about, and gather information concerning good and holy persons, what they have done and suffered, or how they have lived and how God has worked and willed in and through them. But it is a hundredfold better that man deeply within himself learns and understands the what and the how of his life, what God is working and doing in him, and how God wishes to use him and not to use him.
Thus the saying is still true: No outgoing was ever so good that a remaining within was not better.
This inward turning is not theoretical; it is an experience to be “tasted.”
But if our inner being would make a leap into the Perfect, one would find and taste that the Perfect is limitlessly, endlessly, insuperably nobler and better than all imperfect and incomplete things.… By this experience we would lose our taste for the imperfect and partial; it would become as nothing.
The author poses the question whether “while still in the body the soul could possibly attain some insight into eternity and thereby have a foretaste of eternal life and eternal bliss”? He quotes Saint Dionysius (a sixth-century Christian mystic) to show that it is possible:
As far as beholding a divine mystery is concerned, you have to be detached from the sensual and from sensuality and all that the senses can grasp and reason may comprehend and know, including both created and uncreated things. Then you rise in a going-out of yourself, unconscious of the sense-bound and the reason-founded and move into union with that which is above all human existence and knowledge.
Indeed, the author says, this experience “may well occur so often in a person’s life that he becomes accustomed to looking into and seeing eternity whenever he so desires. And the glance is like no other. It is nobler, dearer to God, and worthier than anything that the creature can do as creature.”
The book describes again and again that Perfection lies in knowing God and forgetting the self. After all, the perfect, the Good, comes not from us, but from God.
For when the illusion and the ignorance turn into a realization of the Truth, the assumption that the Good comes from us will disappear of its own. Man will then say, “Look, I poor fool imagined that it was I but, in truth, it is and was God!”
Pride is to think that one’s worship, love and praise of God is done by, or comes from, the self, “as though God would otherwise remain unpraised, unloved, unhonored, and unknown.” Similarly, obedience to God is nothing but selflessness.
What, then, is true obedience?
I answer: Man should take little account of himself as though he were not. He should view all created things from the same point of view. What is real, then, and what should one hold on to?
I answer: one thing alone, namely that which we call God. Therein is verily true obedience.
Now it becomes clear what disobedience is: Man considers himself to be something and believes that he knows and is capable of something, seeks his own interest in the things around himself, is filled with self-love and the like. Man was and is created for true obedience and owes that obedience to God.
Humility also is simply to recognize that God is all and one’s self is as nothing.
Humility stems from the inner recognition made in the true Light that being, life, knowledge, wisdom, and power are truly rooted in God, not in the created world. The creature is of itself and has from itself nothing.
Indeed, the author makes loss of self the touchstone for becoming Perfect.
My many words on the subject can be summed up by a few: Cut off your self, cleanly and utterly.
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