Such is the case with Luther's recollection of a story from the fathers about St. Anthony. Luther loved the lives of the desert fathers, and on more than one occasion makes reference to them. But over time, his memory of those stories begins to change them subtly, to bring them in line with the views he developed in the Reformation.
I had quoted this story a little while ago in the context of another post. Here it is again:
"When blessed Antony was praying in his cell, a voice spoke to him, saying, "Antony, you have not yet come to the measure of the tanner who is in Alexandria." When he heard this, the old man arose and took his stick and hurried into the city. When he had found the tanner...he said to him, "Tell me about your work, for today I have left the desert and come here to see you."
He replied, "I am not aware that I have done anything good. When I get up in the morning, before I sit down to work, I say that the whole of this city, small and great, will go into the Kingdom of God because of their good deeds, while I alone will go into eternal punishment because of my evil deeds. Every evening I repeat the same words and believe them in my heart."
When blessed Antony heard this he said, "My son, you sit in your own house and work well, and you have the peace of the Kingdom of God; but I spend all my time in solitude with no distractions, and I have not come near the measure of such words."
Now here is that same story, as told by Luther (ht to Pr. Weedon on his blog):
"Anthony is amazed at the comparison and goes to Alexandria with the intention of seeing the man who is his equal in sanctity. I do not know what grand things he promises himself from that cobbler; but when he came to him, he found that he gained his livelihood by working with his hands and in this manner supported himself, his wife, and his children. So he said: “Please, my dear cobbler, I know that you worship God faithfully and serve Him truly. Tell me, therefore, what you do, what you eat, what you drink, how or when you pray. You do not spend entire nights without sleep when you devote yourself to prayer, do you?” “Not at all,” said the cobbler. “In the morning and in the evening I give thanks to God for His faithful protection and guidance. I ask for forgiveness of all my sins for Christ’s sake, and I humbly pray that He would guide me with His Spirit and not lead me into temptation. After this prayer I get busy with my leather and provide sustenance for myself and those who are mine. Besides this I do nothing except to beware lest anywhere I do something against my conscience.”
When Anthony hears this, he is amazed, and he realizes that self-chosen forms of worship are no worship and that therefore no trust at all should be put in them. This blessing not only happened to Anthony himself but is also a warning to all posterity—a warning by which God wanted to help His church, lest it indulge in self-chosen forms of worship, which always bring with them this pernicious pest of self-reliance, which must be crushed."
Some of the differences are minor; Anthony's tanner has become a cobbler, and has apparently acquired a family. Anthony's tanner mentions only his morning and evening prayer; in Luther's version the tanner's prayer is explicitly contrasted with the monastic hours.
But others are major. Can anyone imagine the mature Luther urging this form of prayer: "...before I sit down to work, I say that the whole of this city, small and great, will go into the Kingdom of God because of their good deeds, while I alone will go into eternal punishment because of my evil deeds. Every evening I repeat the same words and believe them in my heart"?
For Luther, Anthony is the proto-monastic, who is yet capable of recognizing the superiority of the peasant's Small-catechism faith and life. Luther claims that the peasant teaches Anthony the uselessness of self-chosen forms of worship (a key criticism Luther makes elsewhere against monasticism); but the historical Anthony never forswore the monastic life. The Lutheran peasant has a measure of certainty; Anthony's peasant has what we might call the "monstrum certitudinis": he is certain of himself that he is going into eternal punishment, yet keeps working. It would be much more accurate to say that he anticipates the words of St. Silhouan: "Keep your mind in hell, and do not despair."
Here already in the great Reformer we see the tendency so commonly found in his followers: to take the patristic witness and filter it through Lutheran dogma. Rdr. Christopher Orr has pointed out this selective reading on many occasions. Perhaps the only cure for this malady is to read the fathers by themselves, on their own terms.