Throwing Ink at the Devil

Years ago, when tourists visited the study of Martin Luther in the Wartburg Castle, the docent inevitably would point to the dark stain next to the desk of the Reformer and announce, “This is the ink stain left when Martin Luther threw an ink bottle at the devil.”  The story was so well-known that it was included in a famous collection of stories by the Grimm brothers (responsible for the publishing of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.)  An English translation reads:
[562] Doctor Luther at the Wartburg
Doctor Luther sat at the Wartburg translating the Bible.  The Devil did not like this and wanted to disturb the sacred work, but when he tried to tempt him, Luther grabbed the ink pot from which he was writing, and threw it at the Evil One’s head.   Still today they show the room and the chair where Luther was sitting.

Today, the tour guides at the Wartburg do not mention the incident and the stain to tourists.  The stain has, I have heard, either faded away or been removed by someone embarrassed by the perceived silliness of the story.   To most living in Western society these days, Luther’s attack on Satan with ink has been all but explained away by modern psychology.  A good example of this is the report of the “Tintenfass” affair by the museum in Wittenberg found under its “Legends About Luther” section:
Throwing the Inkwell
Since his childhood Luther was pestered by devils, evil spirits, and demons.   He reported about such occurrences during his later life as well, these fears of being attacked increased especially during his time of seclusion at the Wartburg, Luther ascribed his depressions and mood swings to these ‘evil spirits’.

This constant fear of Satan is normal for the late-Middle Ages and rooted in the religious upbringing within his home and at school.

Luther defended himself against this constant hostility through prayer, ‘happy song’ or more rigorously by throwing his inkwell.  Luther, awakened by the devil during the night, supposedly courageously defended himself against Satan by throwing an inkwell at him. (www.luther.de/e/tintenfass.html)


Despite the prevailing embarrassment to attribute attacks upon Luther (and any other Christian) to the person of Satan instead of our own mental facilities, Martin Luther gave very good advise to each of us when he said that he had “driven the devil away with ink”.

No, I’m not suggesting that the priests in The Exorcist should have followed the antics of the Three Stooges and fired ink from a fountain pen in the direction of Linda Blair. I think the Reformer actually meant something very different when he made the comment about hurling ink.

There are two reasons to believe that Luther may very well have thrown not wet ink but dried ink at Satan. First, Luther’s other writings suggest that all Christians should defend themselves from the attacks of the devil with such seemingly weak things as ink and paper. In The Seal and Pledge of the Holy Spirit, Brian Allison reports:

The devil sought to discourage [Luther], by making him feel guilty, through rehearsing a list of his sins. When the devil had finished, Luther purportedly said, “Think harder: you must have forgotten some.” And the devil did think, and he listed more sins. When he was done enumerating the sins, Luther said, “Now, with a red pen write over that list, “The blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, cleanses us from all sin.” “The devil had nothing to say.

Luther’s reliance upon the ink of Holy Scripture (especially the “red ink” revealed in the Bible) is one of his enduring legacies. The belief that the heart of each and every page of Scripture is the sacrificial blood of the Lamb is the touchstone of our own faith and the measuring stick by which we are called to evaluate what any Christian or Christian congregation believes, teaches and confesses.

Second, throwing ink at the devil did not originate with Martin Luther.  Jesus gives us an example to follow when he defends himself from the fiery darts of Satan by throwing ink from the Scriptures with the words: “It is written [in Scripture]!” (Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13) Bernie Gillespie, founder of “In Christ Alone! Ministries,” agrees with this understanding of Luther’s throwing of ink when he writes:

Christ, when tempted by the Devil, responded by throwing the words of sacred Scripture at him. His defense was an offensive proclamation of truth. The best response of any disciple of Jesus is to take the offensive and speak the words of eternal life into the darkness.

We are temped to be discouraged by the battle which makes many of our cherished friends causalities.  We feel weakened and tired with the struggle. Our calling is distant and the tasks of our ministry are weighty.  Our Enemy calls into question our preaching, teaching, and worship. He says, “No one is listening.  Who cares about the Gospel?”  Rather than succumb, that is the very moment to preach [more boldly].  We laugh at the Tempter as we throw the Promises of God in his lap.

Pastor Gillespie may be going a bit far when he prescribes “laughing” at the devil, throwing the Word of God into his lab is always our best defense. Saint Paul said so much when he wrote these inspired words to the Christians in Ephesus:

Therefore take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the equipment of the gospel of peace; beside all these, taking the shield of faith, with which you can quench all the faming darts of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the [W]ord of God. (Ephesians 6:13-17 RSV)

In the hymn of the Reformation, A Mighty Fortress, Luther seems to hide a great comfort of the 46th Psalm for all Christians in the words of the third stanza:

Though devils all the world should fill,
All eager to devour us,
We tremble not, we fear no ill,
They shall not over-pow’r us.
This world’s prince may still
Scowl fierce as his will,
He can harm us none,
He’s judged; the deed is done.
One little Word can fell him. (Lutheran Service Book 656)

What is that one little word that overturns and defeats the temptations and attacks of Satan and his hoard of fallen angels?  What “ink” from Scripture is the one great promise we have to throw at all doubts and fears that we have been saved and our salvation is secure in Christ and his sacrifice?  My suggestion?  Take a look at the one little Word revealed in John 1:14 and then 19:30.
- Pastor Daniel Harmelink