Before 1900 Luther scholars with the exception of a few like Julius Köstlin shunned Table Talk. The existing copies of Aurifaber gave little reassurance of being original and undoctored. In the decades before and after 1900 however, scholars found more than 30 nearly contemporaneous manuscripts of Table Talks by the assorted recorders. Confidence in Table Talk increased 100-fold.
In 1963 Luther tyro Roland Bainton offered cautiously, “The trained historian looks somewhat askance at the Table Talk because it reports Luther only at second hand, and a comparison of the variant versions discloses discrepancies. Nevertheless, it is not for that reason to be rejected, but rather to be used with caution.” [Roland Bainton, In Studies on the Reformation. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1963), 67]
Theodore G. Tappert, editor/translator of 1967 Table Talk of Fortress Press (Volume 54 of Luther’s Works),xxiii, notes “…Table Talk is less reliable than writings which we have from Luther's own hand but not on this account to be dismissed as fiction.”
What about recent stalwarts?
Lewis Spitz, Luther and German Humanism (Variorum: Aldershot, 1996). Spitz used Table Talk to favorably assess Luther’s appreciation of Classical authors.
Heiko Oberman, The Reformation: roots and ramifications trans. Andrew C. Gow (London: T & T Clark, 1994), 18, stated “Its (Table Talk) value as a source has up to now been unjustly underestimated.”
They are even more confident of a prudent use of Table Talk. And what of Martin Brecht, author of the recent definitive three-volume biography of Luther?
Although its transmission does leave much to be desired, the Table Talk provides a valuable glimpse into Luther's life, thought, and speech. It is thanks to Cordatus that not only theological statements were preserved, but also casual and joking comments..
[Martin Brecht, Martin Luther: Shaping and Defining the Reformation 1521-1532 (Fortress Press, 1990) 432-433.]
In a very recent work, two Luther scholars stated:
This attention to the setting and the audience is especially important when you are reading the table talk; the comments they record were often made after people in the Luther household had all been drinking the excellent (in Luther's opinion) beer brewed by his wife, and were chatting about current events or gossip they had heard. Some of Luther's most colorful statements about women or sex appear in the table talk, but these may not reflect his most considered opinions.[Susan C. Karant-Nunn and Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks, Luther on Women: A Sourcebook (Cambridge Un. Press, 2003), 5]
In summary, Table Talk should be valued as a source for Martin Luther and the historical figures around him.
Q. Should Table Talk be used if the point can be made from another source, like a letter?