04 October 2017
Luther at 500
The accidental Reformation

On 31 October 1517, an intensely introspective, spiritually serious and pastorally concerned Augustinian friar named Martin Luther wrote a letter to Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz about the way in which a fund-raising campaign for indulgences was being conducted under the archbishop’s auspices.

“I do not so much find fault with the cries of the preachers, which I have not heard,” Luther wrote. “But I do bewail the people’s completely false understanding, gleaned from these fellows, which they spread everywhere among the common folk.”

Here was a dutiful priest concerned that laypeople were being misled, a long-standing medieval lament among conscientious clergy. With his letter to Albrecht, Luther included a list of 95 terse Latin statements about contrition, repentance, divine forgiveness, indulgences, and the scope of papal authority pertaining to these matters.

University theologians routinely debated thorny issues pertaining to the Christian faith, seeking greater clarity and insight as they made their careers in the Church. Just a few weeks earlier, Luther had written similar theses, critical of scholastic theology; they fell flat and went nowhere. Not these 95. In touching on money and the Sacrament of Confession amid long-standing criticisms of clerical greed, they also touched a nerve.

If Luther also nailed these theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, as depicted in nineteenth-century triumphalist paintings, it was as thrilling as a faculty member today posting a memo to the departmental bulletin board. What mattered was that by the end of the year they had been printed four times, in different cities, inspiring both unexpected enthusiasm and sharp hostility. Because they concerned matters beyond his jurisdiction, Albrecht sent them on to Rome after consulting his theological faculty at the University of Mainz.

At the time Luther wrote his 95 theses, he was virtually unknown outside Wittenberg, an unremarkable town of some 2,500 souls, and was outside the circle of his fellow Augustinians in Germany. He had published almost nothing. All this changed very quickly.

By May 1521, when the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, formally condemned him as an outlaw, after being excommunicated from the Catholic Church by Pope Leo X, Luther was arguably the most famous man in Europe. Without question, he was by then the most widely published author since the advent of Gutenberg’s printing press in the 1450s: almost 300 editions of his many writings, in German and Latin, were published in 1520 alone.

In 1517, no one predicted or foresaw what was coming. Nor did anyone in 1521 know where things would lead. Catholic ecclesiastical and political leaders assumed that this heretic, and what he had stirred up, would at least be contained and controlled, just as the Cathars, Waldensians, Lollards, and even the Hussites had been in preceding centuries. It turns out they were wrong.

Luther thought the response to his “discovery” of what he called “the Gospel,” coupled with the polemical and political attacks on him by his diabolical, anti-Christian adversaries, augured an imminent apocalypse, the  End of the World as foretold in the Book of Revelation. It turns out he was wrong, too.

What happened instead was the sustained survival of an anti-papal, anti-Roman religious reform movement that we designate the Protestant Reformation. One man’s spiritual odyssey inspired a fractious movement in central Europe during the 1520s. It spread throughout the Continent and to the British Isles, forcing decisions in favour of one of its expressions or against them all in deliberate defence of Catholicism, which contributed in turn to robust Catholic renewal before and after the Council of Trent (1545-1563). The Reformation’s disruptions and transformations came to define an entire era, from around 1520 to around 1660, from the Luther Affair to the end of the Thirty Years’ War and the English Revolution.

Christianity in the sixteenth century was not just “religion” as we usually think of it - a combination of religious beliefs, shared practices of collective worship, and individual devotional practices among those who choose to be religious. Because sixteenth-century Christianity was more than religion in this sense: shaping and intended to shape politics, morality, education, economic practices, social relationships, and the culture at large, the Reformation affected virtually everything. Because its most zealous advocates, as well as its most ardent Catholic opponents, thought the issues involved were literally more than a matter of life and death, with eternal salvation and damnation at stake, they argued over them endlessly and demonstrated their willingness to kill and die for them.

Individuals today differ in their retrospective assessments of sixteenth-century Christians, whether they despise or admire them, or like some but not others. Yet, whatever our judgements and whether we are religious or not, all of us in the early twenty-first century are living with the tangled, unintended outcomes of attempts to address the perpetual doctrinal disagreements and recurrent religio-political violence of the Reformation era.

The impact of the Reformation did not end in the sixteenth or seventeenth century. Western modernity, in terms of its dominant ideas, practices, and institutions, is the long-term, uneven series of responses to the problems inherited from the Reformation era. Our present is the product of that past. In profound ways, the Reformation made our world. But there is no reason to think any of its leading protagonists would have liked where we have ended up, or the directions in which we seem to be heading.

That is one reason why it is puzzling to observe some of the ways in which this Reformation quincentenary is not simply being acknowledged and analysed, but celebrated. Martin Luther and John Calvin as precursors to twenty-first-century Europeans and North Americans? That’s very odd. The reformers’ emphasis on liberation, for example, touted repeatedly this year as somehow linking them to us, is diametrically opposed to the preferential individual autonomy to believe whatever you want and live however you please that is now taken for granted, a central value enshrined and protected in all Western democracies. Luther’s freedom of a Christian was simultaneously a lifelong bondage of never-finished, selfless service to others in gratitude for God’s unmerited gift of salvific faith through grace. That’s a long way from “do your own thing”.

Considering the vitriol with which Luther, Calvin and other Protestant reformers, like their Catholic adversaries, denounced even rival Protestant interpreters of God’s Word, there is no reason to think that they would have expressed anything but horrified contempt for the championing of diversity, open debate, free inquiry, toleration and modern democracy - or for religion as a personal, private, individual matter that ought not to try to influence politics, education, culture, and society. Nor is there any reason to doubt they would have attributed to the defenders of modern liberal individualism the same satanic inspiration they imputed to those who disagreed with them in the sixteenth century. Precursors to us? Heaven forbid.

We have ended up with individuals being able to believe what they please, buy what they want, and live however they wish within the laws of sovereign nation states in large measure because of the Reformation, but not as any direct outgrowth of it.

Luther and Calvin would recoil from what has transpired - although they might not be surprised, considering their views about the utter depravity and helpless sinfulness of human beings left to their own devices, apart from what they regarded as God’s transformative grace. Secularised, consumerist, individualistic, and relativist Western societies are the unintended, long-term outcome of the Reformation and the intellectual stand-offs and concrete conflicts that followed it.

If all the Christians who rejected Rome in the sixteenth century had agreed with Luther, things might have gone differently. But that is not what happened. Luther’s foundational principle was the sufficiency of God’s Word in Scripture as the sole standard for Christian faith and life. It justified, indeed demanded, rejection of papal authority and of the Church’s tradition and practices, wherever they conflicted with Luther’s own experience and reading of Scripture.

Whether we like it or not, sola scriptura  inspired a movement that Luther could not and did not control. Others accepted his scriptural principle but, right from the start, even in Wittenberg and already in 1521, disagreed with Luther about what the Bible meant and how it should be applied.

Because religion was more than religion, the results were explosive as the early Reformation spread through the towns and territories of central Europe in the 1520s. Unintended Protestant pluralism is coterminous with the Reformation itself and has never gone away; sola scriptura is at once Protestantism’s foundational cornerstone and its ineradicable stumbling block. It is also a key distant source for the “whatever” sensibility of our own age - the hyper-pluralism of rival religious and secular views about morality, values and politics.

During most of the Reformation era, between the Anabaptist Kingdom of Münster in the mid-1530s and the efflorescence of radical Protestant groups in England during the 1640s and 1650s, the vast majority of Protestant claims about God’s Word and will were contained, their proponents persecuted and marginalised, by Catholics and Protestants in power. Only Lutherans and Reformed Protestants secured the sustained support of political authorities; unsurprisingly, only their versions of Protestantism, like politically-backed Catholicism elsewhere in Europe, had a transformative effect on large populations over centuries in the process that historians call “confessionalisation”.

It is only in the modern period that the Reformation’s intrinsic individualism has been liberated from early modern political control and become visible in liberal democracies, nowhere more than in the United States since the late-eighteenth century. Luther’s “Here I stand” has been democratised in ways he would have detested.

In unprecedented ways, the Reformation inadvertently made Western Christianity into an intractable intellectual and socio-political problem. Instead of sustaining solidarity, as Durkheim said religion was supposed to do, Christianity provoked decades of disagreement and discord. After 1520, what was true Christianity and how was it to be found, known, applied, and lived? How could Christians who clashed over what they regarded as eternally ramifying aspects of human life coexist in relative tranquillity? The latter problem crescendoed through the religio-political conflicts of the era, from the 1520s to the mid-seventeenth century.

The basic answer that was eventually worked out was pioneered in the Golden-Age Dutch Republic, appropriated and adapted by the imperially expansive British and first institutionalised in the fledgling US. It entailed the de-facto redefinition of religion and restriction of its scope, coupled with politically protected individual freedom of religion.  This turned out also to imply freedom from religion, and being able to believe whatever you want and live however you wish - the results of which have become obvious in the past half-century with the progressive erosion of inherited views rooted in or linked to Christianity. In short, liberation in a modern or indeed postmodern sense, but entirely unlike Luther’s freedom of a Christian.

So, why the impulse to not just understand but celebrate the Reformation? Before we are aware of it, virtually all of us absorb the dominant binary macro-narrative of Western history over the past millennium: medieval/ backward/bad; modern/progressive/good. It is the presumptive cultural air we breathe.

At its stubbornly Whiggish fulcrum stands the Protestant Reformation: the Reformation must be good because, whatever its shortcomings, at least its leaders and adherents courageously constituted Protestantism as a progressive way station, headed in the right direction, away from the corrupt, controlling, clerical Catholic coercion of the Middle Ages and toward the Enlightened, rational, lay secular world of increasing modern individual autonomy and self-determination. Given the disjunction between the central values of the leading Protestant reformers and the dominant values of the contemporary West, it seems hard to account for the Reformation quincentenary as a celebration without this ur-narrative behind it.

However, modernity has brought and continues to offer up more than liberation construed as secularised self-determination. Provided one downplayed the human costs of nineteenth-century industrialisation, the putative advances of European and British civilisation and the murderous displacement of indigenous peoples in the US, some sort of progressive Western macro-narrative had  more to recommend it before 1914.

But the last century has brought two world wars, the Holocaust, other genocides, the disclosure of imperialist atrocities in European and British colonies around the world, destructive American military interventions, the threat of environmental disaster born of accelerated globalisation, deregulated consumerist capitalism and the manifest inability of foundationalist modern philosophy to deliver remotely on its ambitions.

To put it mildly, the record of Western modernity seems sufficiently mixed to inspire a more fundamental, differentiated analysis of the relationship of the past to the present since the Middle Ages.

And yet, despite it all, the tenacity of the progressive liberationist narrative is evident in its capacity to absorb the addenda of protean postmodern desires, whatever they happen to be - Foucault receiving the baton from Mill, as it were. Despite everything, it seems, individual autonomy must be maximised and extended. Ever renewed by never-ending technological wizardry, the summum bonum remains individual choice, regardless of what is chosen, our all-but-unquestionable societal building block for constructing the best of all possible worlds - a dogmatic article of a fundamentalist faith.

Narratives tell a story from a beginning to an end. But we don’t yet know the end of the story; life goes on. We don’t know what will happen, any more than Luther or his opponents in 1521 knew where their actions would lead. Are we making progress?

Whatever one’s criteria for answering the question, everyone attentive to real news knows that our chapter in the story now includes Brexit, a revitalised European far-Right, the presidency of Donald Trump and a bitterly divided, newly unpredictable United States, all embedded in the realities of global warming and socio-economic inequalities of orders of magnitude greater than anything that existed in the pre-modern world. Whether we like it or not.