This word of the day is one beloved by confessional Lutherans. Martin Luther often referred to his Reformed, Anabaptist, or Calvinist opponents with this term. It was nearly a nickname. Luther’s use of the term has been noted and reported by many, but I’ve never seen an explanation of why Luther chose this particular word to hang on those groups. From what I’ve read, I can hazard a couple of guesses.
One possible reason might be the etymology of the word. As you can see below, the word has to do with being wild or mad. Luther also was fond of referring to the Reformed and Calvinist churches as the fanatics or the fanatical spirits. If you’ve ever locked horns with a Reformed person (which is the predominant strain of Christianity in America today), you know why. The chief characteristic of the Reformed is that they tear away at God’s good gifts of the Word and the Sacraments. It’s in the blood of the Reformed to tear away and smash, because that’s what they did once the Lutherans freed them from the yoke of the papacy. Some of that was good (things like the invocation of the saints had to be excised, they were contrary to sound doctrine), some of them were not divinely appointed and so it was merely unwise to junk them (e.g. the liturgy, the church year, vestments, etc.), but the worst was when their doctrine turned against God’s Word and the Sacraments. They refuse to listen to what God says and instead prattle on with their own thoughts and writings, as Luther perceptively pointed out in the Smalcald Articles (one of the Lutheran Confessions.) The schwarmerei insist that baptism doesn’t really save anybody, it’s just water; that Jesus can’t possibly be present in the bread and wine of the Holy Supper, because it insults human reason so therefore Jesus’ clear words “this is My body” are a lie; that God’s Word is a book of rules or that it lacks any power without our adding to it with gimmicks, modern technology, or other vain attempts to appeal to the old Adam. We need to add something to God’s Word in order to make it work, they insist (whether in words or by their actions.) This is nothing short of calling God a liar and tearing away energetically at the very foundations of the Christian faith, whether they realize it or not. If God’s Word is not effective without any human help, if what God promises about the sacraments is not true, then no one can be saved. That kind of an attitude and an approach is dangerous to faith, whether they mean it maliciously or they’re simply misguided. So that’s one possible explanation, the wild or mad way in which they oppose the truth of the Scriptures.
One of the meanings given below is “extravagant enthusiasm.” When used in this context, enthusiasm has a very specific meaning. It’s the tendency to sideline, ignore, or turn away from God’s Word and to listen to something or someone else — your own feelings, writings or thoughts or ideas of men, what someone else like the pope tells you to believe, etc. The Greek roots of the word enthusiasm actually mean “a god inside you”, and that’s how enthusiasts, those who do not take God’s Word as the final authority for all of faith and life, behave. Either you’re a Christian who believes in and follows God’s Word, or you’re an enthusiast. Period. Enthusiasm comes in a multitude of different flavors and forms. The official teachings of the Roman Catholic church are enthusiasm, for example, for they hold that only the Pope has the authority to interpret Scripture. The Pope sits in judgment and authority over the Scriptures. That’s just one example. The natural condition of the human heart is to be an enthusiast — to ignore God’s Word and deny its truth.
What enthusiasm does, in effect, is to treat God’s Word and the Holy Spirit as separate — which they never are, and which Scripture never does. It seeks the Holy Spirit in some other way, whether it’s by following the rules of men, sitting quietly in a dark room and waiting for the Holy Spirit to fall out of the sky and hit you on the head, or any number of different ways.
Luther hit that nail right on the head in the Smalcald Articles, one of the last things he wrote in his life. The following passage is one of those bedrock sections of the Confessions that crystallizes without a doubt what Lutherans are and what they believe:
And in those things which concern the spoken, outward Word, we must firmly hold that God grants His Spirit or grace to no one, except through or with the preceding outward Word, in order that we may [thus] be protected against the enthusiasts, i.e., spirits who boast that they have the Spirit without and before the Word, and accordingly judge Scripture or the spoken Word, and explain and stretch it at their pleasure, as Muenzer did, and many still do at the present day, who wish to be acute judges between the Spirit and the letter, and yet know not what they say or declare. 4] For [indeed] the Papacy also is nothing but sheer enthusiasm, by which the Pope boasts that all rights exist in the shrine of his heart, and whatever he decides and commands with [in] his church is spirit and right, even though it is above and contrary to Scripture and the spoken Word.5] All this is the old devil and old serpent, who also converted Adam and Eve into enthusiasts, and led them from the outward Word of God to spiritualizing and self-conceit, and nevertheless he accomplished this through other outward words. 6] Just as also our enthusiasts [at the present day] condemn the outward Word, and nevertheless they themselves are not silent, but they fill the world with their pratings and writings, as though, indeed, the Spirit could not come through the writings and spoken word of the apostles, but [first] through their writings and words he must come. Why [then] do not they also omit their own sermons and writings, until the Spirit Himself come to men, without their writings and before them, as they boast that He has come into them without the preaching of the Scriptures? But of these matters there is not time now to dispute at greater length; we have elsewhere sufficiently urged this subject. (Smalcald Articles, Part III, Article VIII Of Confession)
Luther points out that Adam and Eve’s downfall lay in their no longer listening to God’s Word. That’s the devil’s favorite trap, and he’s been working variations on it since the world began.
Luther was toward the end of his life and in fairly poor health when he penned these words, and he’d been fighting against the enthusiasts’ mindset for most of his adult life, so you can understand why he spoke so sharply here. Such sharpness is at times necessary and proper in defense of the truth.
I mentioned reasons before, but I’ve only given one so far. The other possibility is that the term schwarmerei pictures the furious activity of those who don’t take God’s Word at its word. A wise pastor once told me that early on in his ministry, he realized that he could try to do all the work himself, or he could let God do the work through His Word. He told me he decided to let the Word do the work, and he counseled me to do the same. I’ve seen the fruit that this godly attitude bore in his life and ministry, and I’ve determined to do the same. The pastor’s workload of caring for souls can quickly become crushing if you let it. People need so much and the power of any one individual, no matter who he is, is limited. Much better to let God do the work through His Word. He’s promised always to accomplish exactly what He desires through His Word (Isaiah 55:10-11); all He asks us is that we are faithful and use His Word faithfully.
The negative flip side of that is the hard work the schwarmerei feel compelled to do. If you try to be a pastor or a Christian all on your own…that’s hard work. A lot of hard work. You can make it for a while on your own, I suppose, but sooner or later you’ll hit the wall and be faced with your own inadequacy and inability to overcome. At such times the power of the Word is my only consolation. One of my classmates was fond of saying, “If I didn’t believe in the power of the Word, I’d go dig ditches.” There just would be no point without that going for us.
So the schwarmerei race around, futilely trying to accomplish what only God can, and using tools that are not God’s tools in the bargain. They work as industriously as bees that swarm, which is why the symbol of the beehive is often associated with enthusiasts. That symbol goes with hard workers, too, but that much hard work isn’t needed. Do the hard work of being faithful, and the rest will fall into line. It’s fitting that the Mormons chose the beehive as one of their favorite symbols. They like it because it reminds them of how hard they’re supposed to work — but it’s really symbolic of their enthusiasm, too. They ignore the Bible and even their own scriptures, instead paying attention to the living prophet — sheer raving enthusiasm as a guiding principle. They don’t pay any attention to the Bible because they’re used to their Bible being rewritten every time the prophet opens his mouth, so to speak. Enthusiasm comes in a myriad of forms.
So there you have it: my guesses as to why that term became used for those who deny the efficacy of God’s Word, that it always accomplishes what it promises. And now, the word itself that started me on this whole chain of musing:
word of the day for Thursday, March 3, 2011
1. Extravagant enthusiasm.
2. Excessive sentimentality.
From Schwärmerei (enthusiasm), from schwärmen (to swarm, to be wild or mad about). Earliest documented use: 1845.
“True fulfillment flowed solely from whatever they had in common, for that was always a condition of schwarmerei.”
Jonathan Thomas; Midnight Call and Other Stories; Hippocampus Press; 2008.
[I’m not sure why they cite the earliest recorded usage as 1845…Luther was using the term much earlier than that. The Smalcald Articles were written in 1537 or ’38, if memory serves…obviously the word-a-day people who put together this one weren’t Lutheran.]