In 2017 there will be various activities to observe the 500th anniversary of the event commonly taken as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Planning has already begun. I have just received an invitation to participate in the 2017 German Protestant Church Assembly, the huge biennial Kirchentag, which will in that year meet in Berlin. In a German periodical there just appeared a large advertisement for 2017 tours by bus or train through Lutherland, the states of Saxony and Thuringia where the Reformation began. In the issue of July 8, 2015, The Christian Century published two articles by well-known Protestant theologians urging that the anniversary should be observed in a spirit of repentance rather than in the usual feisty celebration. The assumption here is that the big schism in Western Christendom constitutes a grave sin for which both Protestants and Catholics bear common responsibility. There has been some discussion of making the 2017 Kirchentag a joint Protestant-Catholic confession of guilt; as of this writing, no decision has been made on this (the Saxon state tourist board would of course be delighted). A beginning was already made in 2010, when the Lutheran World Federation apologized to the Mennonite World Conference for the bloody persecution, applauded by Luther himself, of the Anabaptists (from which the Mennonites are an offspring). More recently Pope Francis I apologized to the Waldensians (a tiny proto-Protestant group, mostly surviving in northern Italy) for the savage persecution their ancestors suffered between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries at the hands of the Roman Catholic Church. I have no doubt that Pope Francis would be happy to extend the apology to larger Protestant groups north of the Alps. In the meantime, just a few days ago, he apologized to the indigenous peoples of the Americas for their oppression by the conquistadores of Catholic Spain.We live in an age of official apologies for historic crimes. After all, President Obama has apologized to Muslims for the atrocities committed by the Crusaders, and to blacks for the slave trade. [For the latter apology he went to Senegal to the Island of Goree, from which the slave ships sailed to the Western Hemisphere. Goree was also the place where Arab slave traders sold their captive Africans to Portuguese and other Christian sea captains; it was not quite clear on whose behalf and to whom Obama was apologizing.] But I don’t want to continue with this fascinating explosion of mea culpas. Some of them were admirable and deeply moving; others were a bit absurd. I will just refer to the book by Thomas Berger, War, Guilt, and World Politics after World War II (I don’t see why I should refrain from mentioning an excellent book just because the author is a son of mine!) What I do want to deal with, in rather broad strokes, are two questions: What actually happened in 1517 in this somewhat remote area of eastern Germany? And what were the enduring consequences?As every alumnus of Lutheran Sunday schools knows, on October 30, 1517, Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk and junior theology professor, in a dramatic gesture nailed his “95 Theses” to the entrance door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. Actually, he did and he didn’t: He did put up his “Theses” in that location. But the action was hardly dramatic. The location was that of the university bulletin board on which professors announced topics which they wanted to have publicly discussed. Nor was the content of his document terribly inflammatory. He did offer a sharp criticism of the practice of selling indulgences by preacher celebrities like the Dominican Johann Tetzel (1415-1519)—years in purgatory forgiven upon payments of specific fees. Theoretically, if the Church had endorsed Luther’s criticism and stopped the practice, history might have taken a different course. But Luther also questioned the Pope’s authority to issue indulgences in the first place (fee or no fee), and mentioned the Pope’s economic interest in the practice (much of the income went to pay for the renovation of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome). What seemed at first a relatively modest call for reform, which probably was what Luther then intended, very quickly morphed into a fundamental challenge to the basic assumptions of the Roman Church. Fortunately or unfortunately, Luther’s “95 Theses” came out not long after the invention of the printing press. The “Theses” and other writings by Luther became tracts, which were rapidly disseminated across German-speaking Europe and beyond. What happened is one of the most instructive cases of the interaction between individual obsessions and much larger, much more mundane interests. The story began with the lonely struggle of one man to overcome his deep sense of total unworthiness and to find acceptance from an overpowering God. The result of this struggle was his rediscovery of the Apostle Paul’s belief in the power of undeserving grace, which led to Luther’s challenge of the whole salvation machinery of the Roman Church. And that in turn led to a split across the middle of Western Christianity. Of course other interests intervened in the development from Luther’s monastic cell to the devastating wars of religion—notably the irritation of the German princes at the earthly powers asserted from Rome, and the princes’ greedy desire to appropriate the vast real estate properties of the monasteries (the Reformation conveniently abolished monasticism).Luther may have hoped that the Pope would be swayed by the eloquence of the “95 Theses”. Instead Leo X, who rightly understood that this uppity provincial monk was dangerous far beyond the matter of Tetzel’s unsavory business enterprise, reacted with savage force. In 1520, after Luther had refused the demand that he recant his errors, the papal encyclical Exsurge Domine condemned him as a heretic. The Emperor Charles V, the most powerful ruler who ruled territories stretching across the world, followed by imposing the “imperial ban” on Luther, who could now be killed by anyone under legal immunity. The dramatic climax of this uneven contest of will came in 1521, when the Emperor convened the Diet (Reichstag) in the city of Worms; the Emperor would preside in person. Luther was ordered to appear. He was afraid to come, with good reason (not so long ago, in 1415, the Czech reformer Jan Hus, who also refused to recant his alleged heresies, was burned at the stake during the Council of Konstanz). Luther later related that he thought to himself, “Little monk, little monk, who are you to defy Pope and Emperor”. Even so, he did. Again he refused to recant. According to Lutheran tradition he said “Here I stand, I can do no other”. He probably did not literally say these words. After explaining that he trusted neither popes nor councils and would only recant if convinced by Scripture or clear reason, he concluded (dramatically enough) by saying “My conscience is captive to the Word of God… It is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.” Luther avoided arrest by fleeing Worms and took refuge in the Wartburg (a castle owned by one of his princely protectors). He stayed there for about a year, during which he began his translation of the Bible into German. He then returned to Wittenberg, which by then had become the headquarters of a powerful alliance of German states ready to challenge the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire (then and for quite a while afterward under the control of the Habsburgs). And thus, what the American writer Paul Goodman described as “a conspiracy of junior faculty at a provincial university” became the centerpiece of a gigantic power struggle at the center of international politics for several centuries.How is one to assess the empirical consequences of the Reformation that began in 1517?Clarification: The question concerns the empirical assessment: The consequences, many if not most of them unintended by Luther and his companions, for the social and cultural development of Europe and beyond. My assessment here will be attempted within a strictly secular discourse, that of the antiseptic objectivity of the social sciences. This approach must obviously be different from a theological assessment: Did Luther contribute to a deeper understanding of the Christian faith? Or did he generate a distortive one? Put simply: Was Leo X right or wrong in excommunicating the author of the “95 Theses”? As a social scientist I cannot even begin to ask, let alone to answer such theological questions. It so happens that I am a Lutheran myself (though not like those whose Lutheranism is expressed in a narrowly dogmatic form—I have described them as Southern Baptists with better music). I have never understood why it should be so difficult to have a strong faith commitment and to bracket it while one does objective social science (any more difficult than playing Mozart today and Country Western tomorrow). In any case, what I have to say about the empirical impact of the Lutheran Reformation and its enormously variegated Protestant progeny (Calvinist, Anabaptist, Anglican) would be no different if I were a Buddhist or an atheist.The role of Protestantism in the shaping of the modern world has been debated for a very long time. Any assertions on this topic will necessarily be hypothetical. I will limit myself to four, which enjoy rather broad scholarly support. As a non-historian, I have been influenced by the works of Karl Holl, Ernst Troeltsch, Werner Elert and Max Weber (all long dead before I could say “justified by faith, not by works”), and by many conversations with George Forell, the great American Luther scholar.1. Individual conscience as a central moral and political value. Luther had no intention to propagate this crucial value of the modern democratic creed. Note that in his statement at the Diet of Worms he said that he cannot act against conscience, but only insofar as conscience is “captive to the Word of God”. Thus the understanding of conscience, religiously informed or not, as a fundamental human right is a secularized offspring of the Reformation. But it is an offspring all the same, and Luther defying “Pope and Emperor” in the name of conscience is a plausible democratic icon.2. Different from both Catholicism and Calvinism, Lutheranism insisted on a sharp distinction of Law and Gospel. The original reason for the distinction was to make sure that Christianity was not understood as a new code of law. This, however, opened a space for the secular, both in the mind of individuals and in the social order. Implication: Natural science is emancipated from theological tutelage. Implication: There are no Christian institutions other the Church that preaches the Gospel; strictly speaking, there are no Christian states (Luther: “I would rather be ruled by a just Turk than by an unjust Christian”).3. A morality based not on the quest for sainthood, but on responsible concern for one’s neighbor. Strictly speaking, there are no Protestant “saints”: Every Christian is “both just and a sinner” (“simul iustus et peccator”), justified by God’s grace, not by saintly actions. The priesthood or the monastic life are not (as in traditional Catholic parlance) the only Christian “vocations”; every lawful occupation, carried out conscientiously, can be a “vocation” or “calling” in the full religious sense of the word. I think that Weber was right in seeing this Lutheran concept of “vocation” as the first step toward the “Protestant ethic”, which was a causal factor in the genesis of modern capitalism. The further enhancement of the concept by Calvinism need not concern us here.4. The genesis of the modern conception of sovereign nation states. This consequence cannot be traced to Luther himself, but it unintentionally resulted from the Lutheran Reformation. The Thirty Years’ War between Protestants and Catholics, which had devastated Europe and caused enormous bloodshed, ended in 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia. It consisted in a number of international treaties, signed by both Protestant and Catholic powers in Muenster and Osnabrueck in northern Germany. Its formula of peace was accepted reluctantly and out of practical necessity by the signatories. The formula was simple and of historic import: “Eius regio eius religio”/”whose rule whose religion”. In other words, the ruler decides the religion of his realm; those who don’t like the decision have to leave. To our contemporaries this sounds awfully like religious or ethnic “cleansing”, but it must then have been an attractive alternative to either massacre or forced conversion. But, I suppose without the signatories’ intentions, this laid the legal groundwork for what political scientists call the “Westphalian state system”: Every state is sovereign within its own borders, in religion or anything else. In the two centuries after 1648 this further meant that states increasingly became nation states. That development does have Protestant roots: Luther’s translation of the Bible not only codified the German language, but strengthened the feeling of German nationality (very much as the King James Authorized Version of the Bible standardized the English language and laid the linguistic foundation of English nationalism). Again I will refrain from making value judgments as to whether these developments have been mostly good or mostly bad.There can be little doubt about Luther’s stature as an agent (sometimes intentional, sometimes not) of historic change. To say this is not necessarily an act of homage. He did have some appealing qualities—personal courage, a lively sense of humor, strong devotion to his wife and children. I, for one, find his sense of unworthiness quite disturbing—did he really need Paul’s liberating faith in God’s redeeming grace to be freed from the terror of a wrathful divinity? And then there are the two darkest spots in his later years: his endorsement of the murderous suppression of the Peasant Rebellion, and, worst of all, his viciously anti-Semitic tract Of the Jews and their Lies. Both aberrations were caused by resentful disappointment, against the Jews for not joining his movement (after all the trouble he took in studying Hebrew!), and against the rebels for misunderstanding the Gospel as a call for revolution.A loyal reader told me the other day that she looks forward to my jokes and hopes that there will be at least one in every post. I don’t think that I can promise this. But I like to meet my readers’ expectations, so I will include with a Lutheran joke:Two Lutheran pastors die on the same day and arrive together at the entrance to hell. After the devil-registrar has filled out the intake form, he says: “Okay. I will now take you to the Lutheran section of hell”“What?” says one of the pastors. “There is a Lutheran section of hell?”“Oh yes,” says the devil- registrar. “In a few minutes you will meet Dr. Martin Luther himself.”One pastor turns to the other: “Dammit! So it’s works after all!”
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Published on: July 15, 2015
Anniversaries500 Years of Protestantism
There can be little doubt about Luther’s stature as an agent of historic change, whether intentional of not. To say this is not necessarily an act of homage.