Busting a Myth About Martin Luther

The way this famous alleged phrase of Luther is used today is a distortion of Luther’s teaching on soteriology and justification.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, “Portrait of Martin Luther,” 1532
Lucas Cranach the Elder, “Portrait of Martin Luther,” 1532 (photo: Public Domain)

Martin Luther, according to what is commonly assumed to be true, supposedly wrote that justified man is a “snow-covered dunghill.” Strangely enough, however, the documentation of the saying (if, in fact, it is authentic) seems to be very difficult to find. In 2005, I did extensive research, trying to find this citation in Luther’s writings, and completely failed. A few years ago I decided to revisit the topic, to see if anything new could be found.

I ran across a fascinating book by Robert William Dent called Proverbial Language in English Drama Exclusive of Shakespeare, 1495-1616. I contains an entry for the phrase, “A dunghill covered with snow (etc.).” Some of the listed references come close to the exact notion, but not quite. Two of them appeared to contain precisely the same idea: 

  • 1610 Stoneham Treatise First Psalme 153: These their vertues are done by the wicked first, for shew, as Hypocrites, like a dung-hill covered with snowe.
  • 1616 T. Adams Soul’s Sickness I, 494 f.: He [a hypocrite] is ... a stinking dunghill covered over with snow.

I managed to find both works in either Internet Archive or Google Books. The first, A Treatise on the First Psalme, by Mathew Stonham (alternate name spelling), was published in 1610 in London. The exact citation can be seen on page 153 at Google Books.

I was unable to find out much about this man, other than that he was born in 1571, lived till at least 1641, was puritanistically “inclined” and was a “Minister and Preacher in the Cittie of Norwich” (found on the title page). The Reformed Books Online site recommended his commentary. This more or less proves that he was a Calvinist — if he was not, this site likely wouldn’t recommend him.

What is interesting is that Stoneham’s reference (like Adams’) is strictly referring to the pretense of hypocrites — not at all to the doctrine of imputed justification (as Luther supposedly used it, and as the reference today is commonly understood). Thus, if these two passages were the origin of the assumption in use today, their original intent and meaning and context have been considerably modified. Consulting the immediate context of Stoneham’s reference, one can clearly observe Stoneham issuing blistering condemnations of hypocrisy, similar to Jesus’ excoriation of the Pharisees. The archaic English is fun to read, too.

I found quite a bit more about the Calvinist Anglican Thomas Adams (1583-1652). A Puritan’s Mind website provides a fairly extensive biography of him, written by Joel R. Beeke, of Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His relevant work is included in a 1909 volume devoted to an edited collection of his sermons. The context of his remark shows that it had to do with hypocrisy and an empty Christian observance without works. The sermon was about Jesus’ parable of the two sons (Matthew 21:28-32). Here is the quotation in context (some quotation marks and the italicized phrase in question added):

Words are but vocal interpreters of the mind, actions real; what a man does we may be sure he thinks, not ever more what he says. Of the two, give me him that says little and doth much. Will you examine further who are like this son? They that can say here in the temple, ‘Lord, hallowed be thy name;’ scarce out of the church-doors, the first thing they do is to blaspheme it: that pray, ‘Thy will be done,’ when with all their powers they oppose it: and, ‘Incline our hearts to keep thy laws,’ when they utterly decline themselves.
These are but devils in angels feathers, stinking dunghills covered with white snow, rotten timber shining in the night; Pharisees cups, ignes fatui, that seem to shine as fixed in the orb, yet are no other than crude substances and falling meteors. You hear how fairly this younger brother promiseth; what shall we find in the event? But he went not. What an excellent son had this been if his heart and tongue had been cut out of one piece! He comes on bravely, but, like an ill actor, he goes halting off. It is not profession, but obedience, that pleaseth God. ‘Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into heaven; but he that doth the will of my Father which is in heaven,’ Matt. vii. 21. ... 
All these are short, are nothing, may be worse than nothing; and it is only actual obedience that pleaseth God. Beloved, say no longer you will, but do; and the ‘doer shall be blessed in his deed,’ James i. 25. 

Both Martin Luther and John Calvin taught the supreme importance and necessity of works in the regenerate Christian’s life. Luther strongly opposed antinomianism (an extreme faith-alone position — a notion that works in the Christian life were essentially irrelevant) and he closely connected faith and works. They did differ from Catholicism insofar as they categorized the works as part of sanctification only, not justification. Nevertheless, the way this imagined use of an alleged phrase of Luther is used today can only be described — in the final analysis — as a distortion of Luther’s teaching on soteriology and justification.

Whether this is the origin of the widespread story about Luther using this illustration remains conjectural. But I have not found a better explanation thus far, or even any explanation at all, solidly documented. This theory seems to me not only possible but plausible. In this scenario, these citations would have been the actual origin of the phrase in question — at least in the English language. The idea was then superimposed onto Luther’s theology, probably originally by Calvinists, seeing that that was the milieu in which the phrases occurred, because of certain utterances of his that seemed harmonious with it, and over time, folks falsely assumed that Luther was the originator of the word-picture.

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