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I came across the following passage in Dan Brown’s fiction, “Inferno”:

[...] their physical being and cosmic importance shrinking to the size of a mere speck in the face of God … an atom in the hands of the Creator.

Until a man is nothing, God can make nothing out of him. Martin Luther had spoken those words in the sixteenth century, but the concept had been part of the mind-set of builders since the earliest examples of religious architecture.
p. 52

I’m not clear with the meaning of “Until a man is nothing, God can make nothing out of him.”

Does it mean until a man recognizes himself as a being no more than nothing, God cannot help him?

Would you put this line in plain English so that I can understand the gist of the quote?

15

Your surmise appears to be correct.

Unfortunately, I only was able to find this quoted, not in English translations of Luther himself, however, where it is quoted, it is better understood, if the quote is extended to include previous sentence:

"God creates out of nothing. Therefore, until a man is nothing, God can make nothing out of him." // Christianity Today.

I would interpret this that until a man is humble and understands himself to be nothing, he is not ready to listen to and accept God's will.

Please note that according to other answers to this question, the quote might only reflect Dan Brown's idea of what Martin Luther said and is not neccessarily in any way a correct rendition or intepretation of Luther's words themselves.

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    It might be worth spending some more time to verify that Luther actually said this. Christianity Today is not a reliable source. Neither, for that matter, is Dan Brown. – user111 Dec 4 '17 at 16:10
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    It seems the passage would be less ambiguous (though also less poetic) were the final clause to read "God cannot make anything out of him." Being able to make a man into nothing is very different from being unable to make him into anything. ;) – Wildcard Dec 4 '17 at 16:11
  • @Hamlet I agree. I was unable to find anything, perhaps because it actually isn't by Luther, according to Patrick Hartmann's answer. However, since Dan Brown imagined he is quoting Luther, a quote to a more extended version of this misquote seems to be appropriate in context of the original question. – Gnudiff Dec 4 '17 at 17:42
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    @Gnudiff might be worth editing your answer to make that clearer. – user111 Dec 4 '17 at 17:57
11

It is a more direct way of phrasing a reasonably common biblical theme (e.g. 2 Kings 4:6) of "empty vessels".

Not only in Judaeo-Christian scripture, but in many religions and philosophical writings it is repeated that one must become an empty vessel, to be filled with either knowledge, Holy Spirit, or other things regarded as good.

This concept transcends to modern day, as can be seen for example in training of the soldiers: "first your break them, empty them of their previous emotions, believes, allegiances, and then you fill them with discipline, training etc.", which while questionable thing to do, is very much real.

The idea of "unlearning" permeates our society, be it education system, military, religious or even workplace situations. In a religious context, the quote "Until a man is nothing, God can make nothing out of him." is a less metaphoric way of putting the same concept into words.

10

The words are not literally Luther's and even the idea behind does not quite fit his thinking.

First for the literary reference: WA 43, 176, 12. Luther says there: "ego nihil sum" (I am nothing) and explains how this is the prerequisite that God can work with man.

However, saying "until" is completely wrong. For Luther man was, is and always will be nothing before God. It is God who lifts this nothing above nothingness. Compelled by the Holy Spirit (and in comparison to the requirements of the Law) a sinner will come to faith in Christ. These are the four soli: By the Grace of God alone we are saved (sola gratia) if we accept the offer by faith alone (sola fide). Our access is Scripture alone (sola scriptura) and it is all done by Christ alone (solus Christus). As Luther would say it with Heb 12:2: Christ is the author and finisher of man's faith. Therefore there is never an "until" in Luther's thinking: man was, is and always will be nothing.

So Dan Brown, as with so many other things in his writings, misunderstood Luther or simply didn't use the time required for proper research.

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    Or didn't care if he got it right. – user14111 Dec 5 '17 at 8:29
-1

It means a man must give up all of his self-importance and pride in order to be a servant of God, that as long as he (emotionally) hangs on to what he was before finding God, God cannot (or will not) transform him into what he should be with God. It is a demand for surrendering yourself to God's will completely without reservations as to what God may do with you.

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    Heyo, welcome to the site! This is an interesting viewpoint, but do you think that you could perhaps include some explanation of why you think that this is what it means? Thanks. – Mithical Dec 4 '17 at 19:39

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