A BOOK IN PROGRESS [PART 9]: MARTIN LUTHER’S ACCIDENTAL REVOLUTION
October 14, 2011 § 7 Comments
Continuing the series of extracts from the book that I am writing on the history of moral thought, we have reached Chapter 10, which looks at the Renaissance and the Reformation and at the impact of both on moral philosophy. This excerpt is about Martin Luther’s theology and about the ambiguities of the Reformation, an intensely conservative religious reaction against the spirit of reason that Aquinas had introduced into Christianity that was nevertheless also the source of a radically libertarian revolution, the harbinger of a liberal modernity.
‘Here I stand. I can do no other’. Martin Luther’s famous response to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, defending his right to challenge the authority of Pope on the basis of his personal convictions sounds to a modern reader as a ringing endorsement of personal conscience, individual freedom and free will. Whether Luther actually spoke those words remains uncertain. What is certain, though, is that it was never his intention to defend freedom of will. Luther dismissed as blasphemy the very concept. ‘Free will, after the fall, exists in name only, and as long as it does what it is able to do, it commits a mortal sin’, as he put in his Heidelberg Disputation, a famous debate within the Augustinian Order. Indeed he barely believed in any kind of freedom. When Luther insisted that ‘I can do no other’, he was defending not his freedom of will but his lack of freedom to believe and to act. He could do no other because he was compelled to do as he had.
Luther was the Petrarch of the Reformation, its Pico and its Erasmus too, its founding father, its voice and its soul. The Reformation, that great schism in sixteenth century Western Christendom out of which Protestantism emerged, was as historically transformative as the Renaissance. It is usually seen as the great leap forward, not just in Christianity but also in modernity. ‘Why can’t Islam have its own Reformation?’, is a common question asked by those who wish to suggest how backward is Islam compared to Christianity. The Reformation was, however, a deeply contradictory movement, or set of movements. It was as reactionary as it was revolutionary, as constraining as it was liberating. Luther’s view of human nature and of human freedom was as earth to the fire of Pico and Erasmus. And yet the Reformation he launched helped create a society in which Renaissance values could bear fruit.
Luther was born in1483 in Eisleben in the Holy Roman Empire, in what is today eastern Germany. His father, a miner and smelter, had hoped better for his children and provided them with an education. Martin had been training for the law when, according to his own account, he was, on a summer’s day in 1505, caught in a horrific thunderstorm. Afraid that he was going to die, he screamed out a vow, ‘Save me, St. Anna, and I shall become a monk’. St. Anna was the mother of the Virgin Mary and the patron saint of miners. He survived the storm and kept his vow. Within two weeks Luther had entered the Augustinian Monastery at Erfurt.
Luther’s thunderstorm story is in keeping with the Christian tradition of theatrical conversions to a life of faith such as that of Paul and of Augustine. As with Paul and Augustine, the drama of a sudden religious transformation provided a means of making sense of a longstanding personal trauma, a personal trauma that came also to have historical resonance because the psychological agony of the individual came also to mirror a deep-rooted social distress. In the monastic life Luther discovered the stability and assurance that seemed lacking outside. Salvation, he came to believe, was not something that humans could strive for, but was simply a gift of God. The most important Christian truth was, for Luther, the doctrine of justification – God’s act of declaring a sinner righteous – by faith alone through God’s grace. Traditional Christian teaching held that the righteous acts of believers are performed in cooperation with God. Luther insisted that righteousness came not from within at all but entirely from God. ‘Faith alone’, he wrote, ‘makes someone just and fulfills the law’.
The story that almost everyone knows about Martin Luther is of his nailing of the famous Ninety-Five Theses to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg. This was a public challenge to the Pope, and to the Church, from which there could be no going back, the moment at which the division of Western Christendom became inevitable, and the Reformation was launched. At the heart of the Theses was a stinging criticism of the practice of granting indulgences, remission of temporal punishment for sins granted after the sinner had performed good work which increasingly included a payment to the Church. It was through such payment that the Church financed many of its great building projects in the Renaissance. In 1516, the Pope dispatched to Germany a Dominican friar, Johann Tetzel, to sell indulgences to raise money to help rebuild St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Luther was outraged. He wrote to his bishop, Albert of Mainz, protesting at what he saw as the purchase of salvation. Enclosed with his letter was a document entitled Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences, which we now know as The Ninety-Five Theses. ‘Why does the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build the basilica of St. Peter with the money of poor believers rather than with his own money?’, he asked in one of the theses.
In 1520, Pope Leo X issued a rebuttal entitled Exsurge Domine that demanded that Luther retract 41 errors. Luther refused and in 1521 he was excommunicated. Luther publicly burnt the bull of excommunication in Wittenberg, cheered on by a large crowd of townsfolk to whom he had become a hero. In April of that year, Luther was ordered to appear before the Diet of Worms, a general assembly of the estates of the Holy Roman Empire, in the Rhineland town of Worms, over which Emperor Charles V presided. Again Luther refused to recant. The Diet declared Luther an outlaw, banning his literature, requiring his arrest and making it a crime for anyone to give him food or shelter. The verdict was unpopular with German princes, many of whom sympathized with Luther. Frederick, the Elector of Saxony, arranged for Luther to be given safety in Wartburg Catsle, where he began his great German translation of the Bible.
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‘I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.’ So declared Luther at the Diet of Worms. This was a challenge not just to the Pope and to the Holy Roman Emperor, but also to Aristotle and Aquinas. Aquinas had seen reason as a spark illuminating the path to God. Not so, insisted Luther. Reason may be used to question human activities and institutions, but not to light up the divine. Humans could learn about God, Luther maintained, only through revelation.
This idea of two realities, the reality of God, given by revelation and the reality of the empirical world, given by direct experience, had already been expounded by William Ockham, a British Franciscan friar born shortly after Aquinas’ death. For Ockham, all human knowledge came through our senses. Reason could be applied only to such sensory knowledge, that is to the understanding of concrete particulars. Ockham was a nominalist. Nothing, he insisted, existed except as individual entities; universals were human creations that subsisted only as mental concepts and possessed no reality outside of human language and mind. The human mind possessed no divine light, as Aquinas had taught, by which the intellect could move beyond the senses to make sense of universals. Anything beyond the senses, such as the existence of God, could be revealed only by faith. This was true not just of God’s existence but of His laws too. The moral rules by which God wished us to live could not be understood by reason. They, too, had to be taken on faith.
Luther linked Ockham’s argument about the two realities, and the need to accept moral codes on faith, to a view of human nature darker even than Augustine’s. Humans were degenerate to the last fibre of being. Neither desire nor reason could be trusted to lead humans to moral safety, for both had been corrupted in the Fall. Were they not, Luther thundered, then Jesus would have died without cause:
If we believe that Christ redeemed men by his blood, we are forced to confess that all of man in lost; otherwise we make Christ either wholly superfluous or else the redeemer of the least valuable part of man only; which is blasphemy and sacrilege.
The only true moral rules are divine injunctions, such as the Ten Commandments. These had to be accepted on faith and unquestioningly followed. They could be justified on the basis neither of reason nor of desire. Any attempt to do so would lead to moral disintegration. It was an argument similar to that of the Islamic Traditionalists in their struggle with the Rationalists. There could be no rational accounting of God’s word. Human reason was too weak to comprehend God’s plan. But Luther being a Christian added a Christian twist to the argument. Human reason cannot understand God’s commands because it has become enslaved by sin. We can only follow God’s law by acting against reason. Nor could following God’s moral rules ever satisfy our desires, for our desires, too, have been corrupted with the rest of human nature. There always exists, therefore, an antagonism between what humans want and what God commands humans to do. Strict adherence to God’s law is, nevertheless, insufficient to ensure salvation. Luther is clear that nothing humans do can ensure salvation. Salvation is not a state to be achieved; it is a state to be received through God’s grace. God’s law allows human communities to survive by limiting moral chaos and the consequences of sinfulness. It does not make humans moral. It simply constrains their capacity for immorality. All humans can do is close their eyes, shut out reason and desire, accept God’s word on faith and hope for the best in the next world.
Do the gods love the good because it is good, Socrates had wondered in Plato’s Euthyphro, or is it good because it loved by the gods? Unless the gods love something for no good reason, then they must love something as pious because it inherently possesses value. But if it inherently possesses value, then it does so independently of the gods. Luther’s answer, like that of Muslim Tradionalists, was unambiguous. There was no rhyme or reason to God’s law. Humans had to accept God’s idea of the good simply because God tells us it is good not because they could justify it through reason or through any external measure. Morality was indeed arbitrary. That was the whole point of it.
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The Reformation was an intensely conservative religious reaction against the spirit of reason that Aquinas had introduced into Christianity, a reaction that found its voice in the terrifying, transcendent God of the Old Testament, the God that had thundered at Moses ‘Draw not nigh hither’. Aquinas believed that all humans participated in God’s nature and that all possessed a certain God-given autonomy of will. The reformers insisted on the absolute sovereignty of God over His creation and saw the human race as a ‘teeming horde of infamies’, as Calvin put it, whose innate sinfulness degraded any autonomy except for the autonomy to be wicked.
And yet, despite the Reformation’s mordantly reactionary soul, its rebellion against the Catholic Church was also the source of a radically libertarian revolution, the harbinger of a liberal modernity. The paradox of the Reformation is that a movement that deprecated autonomy and will, insisted on the unlimited sovereignty of God and sought solace in unquestioning faith also helped create a world that came to celebrate individualism, foster agency, and take secularism to be the social norm.
Luther insisted on the ‘priesthood of all believers’. Religious authority was torn away from any external institution and rested solely in the individual believer, each interpreting the Bible according to his own private conscience, each fostering his own personal relationship to God. For all his dismissal of free will, Luther’s rebellion was an assertion of individual conscience against the monolithic authority of the institutional Church. The Reformation, as historian Richard Tarnas has observed, ‘marked the standing forth of the individual in two senses – alone outside the Church and alone directly before God.’
It was, of course, not just Luther who could hear the inner voice. The individual, and his conscience, was looming large throughout sixteenth and seventeenth century culture, fostered by the Renaissance celebration of the dignity of Man. The entanglement of the Reformation and the Renaissance limited the Augustinian bleakness of the Lutheran vision. Protestantism flourished in many forms, and many Protestants had a view of human nature less dark than Luther’s. At the same time, the social changes engendered by the Reformation eased the way for the more optimistic Renaissance vision.
The biggest social change came out of a second paradox at the heart the Reformation. A movement that sought to restore faith to the centre of life helped ironically to engineer the modern secular world. For Luther, nothing that humans did on Earth was relevant to what happened to them in the next world. Neither good works, nor moral acts nor yet penitence provided the key to salvation. Faith and grace was all that mattered. So what sort of laws should guide human conduct in this world? Since there was no point in designing rules of conduct to get humans into the next world, so such rules could simply reflect the needs of this. Hence the Reformation created the possibility of a secular space defined by laws that defended political rather than divine order.
It was an argument that clearly appealed to monarchs and princes, as well as self-confident cities such as Nuremburg and Zurich, chafing at the constraints imposed by Papal power. By the thirteenth century, the Church had achieved an unprecedented level of political authority in Western Europe. This power was institutionalised, and given theological justification, by Pope Innocent III in his decree Sicut universitatis conditor issued in 1198. ‘Just as the moon derives her light from the sun, and is inferior to the sun in terms of its size and quality’, the decree proclaimed, ‘so the power of the king derives from the authority of the pope.’ Few kings saw themselves as moons to the Pope’s sun, particularly so as the Church had long since ceased to be very sun-like. It was riddled with corruption, shot through with sleaze, and had become a machine for minting money and grasping power.
In 1492, Pope Alexander VI, a member of the Borgia family, managed to bribe his way to the Papacy, despite having several mistresses and at least seven known illegitimate children. It was only the most shocking instance of the immorality that defined the Church. Forty years earlier, Duke Amadeus VIII of Savoy had managed to get his son appointed as the bishop of Geneva. He was eight years old. If the higher clergy was lacking any sense of moral virtue, the lower clergy was often illiterate, uncouth and ignorant. Little wonder that huge resentments had built up against Papal power. The so-called ‘magisterial Protestantism’, the Protestant rebellion led by the elite, swept through much of northern and central Europe, from the Swiss cantons, and the German speaking lands of the Holy Roman Empire, to Bohemia, Poland and the Baltic states to the east and through the Netherlands to England and Scotland to the north.
As the new faith spread, it diversified and new forms of Protestantism emerged. On mainland Europe Lutheranism was joined by the Reformed Church, rooted partly in the ideas of the Zurich priest Huldrych Zwingli, and Calvinism, which grew out of John Calvin’s teaching in Geneva and soon became the dominant Protestant movement on the continent. There were smaller movements, too, such as the Huguenots in France and the followers of Jan Hus in Bohemia. In England, a highly distinctive form of Protestantism, Anglicanism, evolved that spoke to local political and social needs and that maintained many of the traditions and practices of the Catholic Church. England’s imperial expansion over the next few centuries would eventually make this highly local version of Protestantism one of the most influential.
Magisterial Protestantism wrenched power away from the Pope to carve out a space for secular rule. It did not, however, abandon the idea of God as the ultimate source of political authority. Rather, God was now called upon to authorise the rule not of his religious but of his secular representatives on earth. Monarchs claimed absolute sovereignty by virtue of the ‘divine right of kings’ to rule. It was righteous, Aquinas had suggested, to depose an unjust king. Not so, argued the new Protestant monarchs who insisted that they were not subject to the will of the people, or of any other Estate of the realm; only God could judge the king. Attempts to unseat the king or to restrict his powers ran contrary to the will of God and hence were sacrilegious. The doctrine of the divine right of kings had older roots in theology, but it was through the Reformation that it acquired new resonance. English kings, such as James I and most notoriously Charles I, invoked it to dismiss attempts by both nobles and commoners to gain more power. Catholic kings, too, such as Louis XIV of France, rested their authority upon the doctrine.
There was another paradox too. Luther had insisted that actions in this world had no bearing on one’s reception in the next; hence the possibility of creating a secular space. In practice, however, the spread of Luther’s message led not to the greater separation of church and state but to their greater fusion. As kings and princes cleaved to the Reformation as a means of gaining power, so the institutions of faith and the institutions by which they enforced their rule became barely distinguishable. In England, for instance, Anglicanism became the ‘Established’ church, and the sovereign the ‘defender of the faith’, but only of the faith as defined by Anglicanism. A similar process could seen in many of the new Protestant states. A movement that began by asserting the right of every individual to interpret the Bible as they wished soon realized that this would lead to religious and social anarchy. Each of the various strand of the new faith established its own institutions to enforce its particular doctrines and rituals and to eliminate heresy, often on the pain of death. And a movement that had begun by challenging the corruption of the Catholic Church through its acquisition of secular power, and had insisted on the distinction between divine law and worldly law, soon fused church and state as a means of defending the power of both, the church sheltering in the bosom of princely power, the state gaining legitimacy through the warrant of God.
Magisterial Protestantism was not the only form of Reformation challenge to the existing order. There were more revolutionary versions of the Protestant rebellion, too. Inspired by ideas of individual conscience and secularism, many sought to challenge the power not just of Popes but of monarchs too. Perhaps the most important of these were the Anabaptists, so called because a literal reading of the Bible led them to insist that no divine warrant existed for the practice of infant baptism and that all adults had to be re-baptised.
The differences with magisterial Protestantism were far greater than such seemingly trivial doctrinal distinctions. The Anabaptists saw the social order as corrupt as Luther had seen human nature. Most Christians viewed the conversion of the Roman emperor Constantine as a watershed in the history of the church; it was the moment Christianity had come in from the margins and had became a social force. The Anabaptists also saw Constantine’s conversion as a watershed but for very different reasons. It was the instant that Christianity had compromised its integrity through an accommodation with imperial power. To cleanse themselves of that compromise, Christians would have to disengage themselves from the social order. Anabaptists refused to swear oaths to a secular authority, opposed the death penalty, decried wars, and condemned private property as unchristian.
The Anabaptists built up a strong following in German-speaking lands and in the Low Countries, even taking control of the town of Munster in 1534. Similar movements flourished in other countries. In England, for instance, there were the Levellers and the Diggers. The Levellers were a political movement during the English Civil Wars that emphasized popular sovereignty, extended suffrage, equality before the law and religious tolerance. They held to a notion of ‘natural rights’ that they believed were expressed in God’s law and considered liberty to be the innate property of every individual. Their demands were expressed in a series of manifestos called An Agreement of the People, published between 1647 and 1649, that were at the heart of the famous Putney Debates.
The Diggers were a group of agrarian communists led by Gerrard Winstanley who took his cue from the Book of Acts: ‘All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.’ ‘In the beginning of time God made the earth’, Winstanley argued in his pamphlet The New Law of Righteousness. ‘Not one word was spoken at the beginning that one branch of mankind should rule over another, but selfish imaginations did set up one man to teach and rule over another.’
The emergence of such movements was deeply unsettling to the Protestant elite. Luther was as conservative in his politics as he was in his faith. He supported the ruthless suppression of the revolutionary movements. In 1524 the Peasants’ War broke out, a popular revolt in German speaking lands against oppressive taxes and land laws. Some 300,000 peasants took part, demanding the end to serfdom, the abolition of cattle tithes and death taxes, and the right to use ‘common fields, forests and waters’. The uprising was brutally put down by the ruling classes, some 100,000 peasants losing the lives in the slaughter.
The peasants had used the Bible to support their grievances, and in turn, to justify their rebellion. Poorer clergy, led by Thomas Muntzer, supported the peasants’ demands and encouraged their revolt. But the leaders of the magisterial Reformation, Luther and Calvin in particular, took up arms against the peasants. In 1525 Luther published his essay Against the Murdering Thieving Hordes of Peasants, berating the rebels for the use of violence but defending the right of princes to use force to suppress the revolt because the peasants had ‘become faithless, perjured, disobedient, rebellious, murderers, robbers, and blasphemers, whom even a heathen ruler has the right and authority to punish’. ‘Anyone who is killed fighting on the side of the rulers’, Luther insisted, ‘may be a true martyr in the eyes of God’.
In time, Protestant ideas of ‘justification by faith’, of individual conscience and the ‘priesthood of believers’, and of the separation of secular work and divine salvation, all helped feed the radical democratic spirit. But fusion of the reactionary soul and the revolutionary spirit that drove the Luther’s rebellion ensured that modern liberal democratic societies developed as much in spite of the Reformation as because of it.