Friday, November 3, 2017

Thoughts on Luther's Reformation

Five centuries ago an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther nailed a defiant 95 theses to the door of a cathedral in Wittenburg, Germany. Thus, began the Protestant Reformation, a momentous cultural and religious movement that transformed Western civilization, decisively.

A century ago a German sociologist named Max Weber wrote one of the most read and quoted works about the influence of Protestantism. In his book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,  Weber argued that a new ethic, a new work ethic had allowed Europeans to produce and to accumulate wealth.

Previously, Weber argued, Christians had seen life on earth as a preparation for eternal life. They saw work in terms of subsistence, not in terms of wealth. Living a pious life and receiving an eternal reward was more important than getting rich. After all, Christ has said that it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter Heaven.

The pre-Reformation Church had sound scriptural basis for its view.

Weber’s work is read and studied because it makes sense. Protestant cultures tend to be more work oriented while Roman Catholic cultures tend to give greater weight to art and love and even drama. If you compare the Protestant North American countries with the Catholic South American culture, you cannot miss the fact that the value system is different and that those in the North are more prosperous than those in the South. The same applies generally in Europe where the prosperous North is often asked to bail out the impecunious South.

Like all generalizations this one needs qualification. More so since some researchers have attempted to disprove Weber’s thesis. See this supposedly seminal study.

Detractors suggest that all Protestant cultures are the same, but that is not what Weber argued. He singled out Calvinist theories, the ones that declared people to have been predestined for Heaven or Hell—before their birth--regardless of what they did or did not do on this earth. This was a variant on the Lutheran theory, to the effect that God could not be bribed by piety. And he would not be manipulated by corrupt clerics selling indulgences. Luther's God would decide who to admit and who to consign to damnation for whatever reason He wished. Call it a divine version of free will.

Not all Protestants are Calvinists or even Lutheran. Lumping them together is not necessarily useful. Also, different political leaders produced different policies and different attitudes toward business. One might say that Protestant cultures were more likely to make it easier for individuals to do business while Catholic cultures put more trust in large institutions, like the Church or the government.

In theological terms Luther wanted to discredit the Roman Church and to tell people that it was a corrupt intermediary between them and their God. In simple terms, Protestants were encouraged to read the Bible on their own, in the vernacular, while Catholics had to rely on a priesthood that told them the correct way to interpret it.

From there people have concluded that Protestantism is more individualistic while Catholicism is more communal, with a more centralized authority.

We should be skeptical of these opinions. For example, there are different kinds of individualism. They are not all the same and are not all created equal. One form of individualism tells you that you can participate in the marketplace by following the rules and respecting the players. Another kind tells you that you can do as you please and break the rules if they do not please you. Free to play the game and free to break the rules are not the same kind of free and they do not show the same kind of individualism.

The free market is not a free-for-all. This means that America’s current obsession over individual rights, the rights of the transgendered and of cocker spaniels, is not necessarily conducive to the free market. To imagine that the Chinese model of authoritarian capitalism is going to flounder because the nation does not practice liberal democracy simply shows a misunderstanding of freedom and individuality.

As for the cultural climate that gave rise to the Reformation, we cannot fail to notice that Europe at the time had seen a catastrophic plague destroy around half of its population. The plague arrived in the mid-fourteenth century and waxed and waned for over a century after it. The Church tried to fight it with prayer and this created conditions where people could question and doubt its authority. 

After all, Jesus Christ was a healer. He performed medical miracles. If the Church was really the proper and incorruptible intermediary through which Christians could appeal to their God… why was He not answering their prayers? Could it be because the intermediary had been corrupted.

In short, the Reformation found its cultural footing because Luther was judging the Church itself, was saying, in so many words, that it had failed a basic test… providing a healthy life for believers. If the Church was powerless, then, on pragmatic grounds, its claim to be the one true Church could be questioned.

Thus, pragmatic thinking, worldly thinking, was for the first time in the West applied to the Church.

After all, the theoretical basis for a market economy, as well as for science, is whether something works, whether empirical evidence can be allowed to prove or disprove it. When we are dealing with an ideology, especially a Platonist ideology, we are not supposed to allow evidence to refute any hypothesis, or, narrative. With the Reformation, mundane facts were first allowed to do so.

One must also note that the Reformation Europeans also ushered in an age of science and industry. The age of science was spawned by the Reformation. It allowed the radical thought that God could work his healing ways through antibiotics. Similarly, God could protect communities that armed themselves much better than communities that had disarmed and that were relying solely on prayer.

It becomes more complicated still. If the basis for capitalism and market economies lies in the concept of free will, we note that this concept enters the culture in the book of Genesis and that it became an important part of Christian theology through the work of Augustine. We recall that Luther was an Augustinian monk.

In the Bible and in Augustine free will is an ethical principle. It is about being free to take responsibility. It says that you are responsible for your actions, regardless of how tempted you were.

Surely, Luther knew about this. One might suggest that he was saving the theory at the expense of the ecclesiastical institution.

In addition, around two and a half centuries before Luther, Thomas Aquinas brought Aristotelian thinking into the Christian West. Following the Stagyrite, Aquinas saw human beings as rational beings. He provided the definitive rational basis for the Christian faith.

In addition, since Aristotle provided the basis for science, Aquinas also introduced a form of argument that sought to separate appearance from reality, to test hypotheses offered, most often, by the Church Fathers.

One cannot overestimate the importance of Aquinas in Western Civilization, but one must note that, at the least, his thinking was controversial, to the point where important church figures wanted him denounced as a heretic.

As you also know, when the Church embraced Thomas it tended to see his ideas as dogmas. When Galileo proved experimentally that Aristotle was wrong about the speed of falling bodies, among other things, Church leaders forced him to recant.

As long as the Church owned Aristotle, science could not advance. Once Luther loosened its grip, by offering a path that allowed people to seeing science as something that could be decided by experience and experiment, Western civilization metamorphosed into what it is today.


Jack Fisher said...

"One must also note that the Reformation Europeans also ushered in an age of science and industry. The age of science was spawned by the Reformation."

says the man confusing correlation with causation.

Jim Sweeney said...

Luther's nailing of written theses to the church door is myth, not fact. Even Wikipedia calls it legend. Christ founded but one Church, the R.C. Church with all its human imperfections.

And, btw, the correct pronunciation of "Protestant" is to emphasize the second syllable for that is what it is and what they are. Pro TEST ants. Bad people? Of course not. Just wrong.

Jack Fisher said...

Identity politics is always bigoted, stupid and intellectually lazy, moreso when it comes from people who should know better.

But if it makes protestants feel better about themselves, hey, u am de Man!

trigger warning said...

SS, yours is a common misreading of the Galileo controversy. It a long story, but in short...

At the time Galileo proposed his controversial interpretations of his astronomical data and argued for the Copernican heliocentric model, Ptolemaic geocentric astrophysics had been "settled science" for a tbousand years. It worked, too. Despite the nagging epicycles and skull-cracking mathematical arabesques, it successfully predicted eclipses, stellar motion, etc. Frankly, Ptolemaic astrophysics was a stellar intellectual achievement. Ptolemy was stuck with the wrong Einstinian reference frame based on what Progressive theorists today valorize as his "lived experience".

Like the chicken and the pig at an eggs and bacon breakfast, Aristotle was involved, but Ptolemy was committed. Had Galileo but followed advice and done the right thing by publishing his theory as theory instead of taking an opportunity to ridicule the sitting Pope who funded his work, the entire controversy would have been avoided and Galileo could have returned to his lucrative work as a defense contractor for the Venetian Navy.

It's worth noting that Galileo's theory of the tides was, even during his lifetime, a crackpot notion, trivally disproveable and worthy of mention on the crackpot science blog,, had such a thing existed back then.

Jack Fisher said...

In an alternate universe, meaning the one that I and everyone else I know lives in, Luther's reforms were one in a long series of reforms that happened to coincide with the rise of nationalism at the end of the middle ages. Note: Luther wanted to reform the RC Church, not start a new one, Henry VIII won for the monarchy the title "Defender of the Faith", meaning defender of the Roman Catholic faith against break away protestants.

But early on, the religious squabble was taken over by political goals: the right of Rome vs secular authority to appoint bishops represented practical control vast wealth and land, the northern Germanic princes used the Reformation as a part of their struggle for independence from the Holy Roman Empire; Henry VIII embraced protestantism as part of a dynastic struggle and a land grab, etc et al. Anyone who thinks the 30 Years War or 80 Years war -- the former a candidate for the most destructive war in history -- was fought over religion is having a stroke.

James said...

This is a subject somewhat dear to me and now at Luther's anniversary it would do the Liberals and the Conservatives well to contemplate it and it's implications.
First what Jack said just above is quite right, but I believe there is more. There is a long history of acting and speaking out against corruption in the Church from within and without. Almost forgotten now is John Hus, Wycliffe, Assissi,Savonarola, and many more. You have the Lollards, Albigesinians, Hugenots, etc. Luther I believe just happened to do his thing at exactly the right moment in time (the printing press, discovery of the new world, etc), though he was a brilliant man.
Now the part of the Liberals and the Conservatives. Roughly a period from about 500AD to 1500AD the Church was or claimed supremacy in all things spiritual and temporal. In the Temporal realm they were in every facet of society, work, politics, culture, etc. In the Spiritual realm the claimed to hold the key to the salvation of your soul, in other words eternity.You can't have a more complete control over people than that (the old Soviet Union's control would pale), but in the end it failed.
Well that's enough blathering for now, Liberals are finding out and Conservatives had better pay attention, nothing last forever, nothing.
In interest of disclosure, I am Catholic.

Anonymous said...

Schneiderman, brilliant brilliant brilliant piece until the last 2 paragraphs. Then you melt to nonsense conclusions. Otherwise it’s great stuff.

The idea the Roman Catholic Church held back Western civilization is absurd on its face. Only someone starting world history from the 95 Theses could make such a mistake.

Seems you have more Catholics reading this blog than you may think. I await IAC’s take on your flawed take.

To conclude, your analysis of the importance of Galileo is troubling. Galileo was a provocateur as much as a true scientist. But the science lobby today has turned him into a saint, which is ironic.

Anonymous said...

Okay James, you sound very Ares-esque in your analysis.

Would you care to opine on where the Roman Catholic Church is incorrect in its view of the eternal?

You talk a lot about the temporal, and then compare the Church to Soviet totalitarianism. That is sickening to me. That pisses me off. That tells me you have no idea what you are talking about.

Please explain what is more important than the eternal.

Question is: was the Church correct in its view of the eternal? Yes or no? If yes, what the hell are we taking about here? What could possibly be more important than the soul? If no, why are you really a Catholic? Are you a believer or a cultural Catholic? Your stance is pretty bold, friend.

And keep in mind your buddy Ares is thriving on the dissent in his usual way.

whitney said...

I thought Ares is a woman

Jack Fisher said...

James, as you are aware, with the collapse of the western Roman Empire and the withdrawal of Byzantine forces from Italy and north Africa, the western Church, based in Rome, was the last vestige of Roman culture and civilization in the former western empire. It inherited, by default, the functions of civil administration that the Germanic invaders adopted and made into their own. It is difficult to emphasize the importance of this influence both at the time, and through the present.

The face of Europe would be very, very different had not Frankish warlord Clovis allied with western Catholic, trinitarian Christianity instead of the Arian, unitarian form centered in Constantinople and adopted by all non-Frankish germanic confederations of the West. When Clovis he defeated the last Roman forces at Soissons he was one of many competing kinglets, by the time of his death, Europe was born out of the union of Roman Catholicism / Roman civilisation and the Merovingian dynasty and it was this unified Christendom that defeated the islams at the Battle of Tours.

As for the Reformation (and the Counter-reformation in Catholics lands), those were spiritual rebirths, but, they were dominated by politics of the day.

People will join the Forces, fight and die for many reasons, some of them good. But I guarantee you that the warlords and elites calling the shots will go to war over trade, wealth, land, dynasties or oil, but not over whether the Church should be selling indulgences.

In the interest of disclosure, I am a former Anglican, now Roman Catholic.

Kansas Scout said...

I found this interesting. I am a liberal Protestant Calvinist. I have read church history from a secular perspective and found it most illuminating. But I question the focus on Science and Industry. It's true these things were probably improved by Calvinist Protestantism but there is more to the story than that. Certainly the contemporaneous state of our society barely reflects it's history but it's still true that our culture and society were changed for the better. I know all the secular ideas of why the Reformation happened and what it did but as a believer I know there is more than those dynamics. The idea that a loving deity could unconditionally forgive and and bless us permanently changed the Western Psyche for the good. The idea of God remains relevant and for some of us, all important. I also don't think there was any doubt that the renaissance was made possible by the Reformation.

James said...

Well I've stirred up the hornet's nest. Jack of course you're right, the rebirth of the West wouldn't have happened without the Church. Anon I didn't mean to say that the Church and the old Soviet Union were one.
. and the same, they are two very different creatures, but the Church here on earth after JC and the Apostles became, was, and still is an institution ran by humans with all of the faults and strengths that entails. One fault which was central to almost all complaints was corruption within the upper reaches of the Church which did exist and was bad. In some cases the upper administration of the Church actively repressed dissent. I do not think that the Church is wrong about the eternal (I wouldn't be Catholic if I thought so). the reference to the old Soviet Union was just a comparison in the sense that of how controlled all facets of daily life, not of doctrine. As far as being AO II, well I am getting long winded.
PS. Jack you're right about motivations to fight, especially among the powers to be, but remember the powers to be then were very different culturally than what we have now.
PPS. Anon, In the spiritual realm I do think the Church is correct, but in the past they abused this for temporal gain which was wrong.

Jack Fisher said...

@James, we don't disagree except that the motivations and acquisition of power and wealth are ubiquitous in human history.

@Kansas Scout. The concept of a merciful God is catholic/orthodox, with the idea of sin as a separation from Him. The anthesis of standard protestant belief, such as the fire and brimstone of Jon. Edwards "Sinners in the hands of an Angry God", where humanity is thoroughly damned and just awaiting aeternal vengeance.

ProTip: the Renaissance began in Italy in the 14th century, before the Reformation, and is generally attributed to the rising economic fortunes of Italian city-states. It flourished in Catholic as well as protestant countries. There's nothing particularly scientific or science friendly in either the Reformation or Counter-reformation, the wars that followed were brutal beyond imagination (aggravated by plague and famine, up to 50% of of the populations of some regions of German died) , and if you see the hand of God anywhere, let me know. I suspect there are corners in Dante's inferno (nb: pre-reformation Renaissance) dedicated to the main protestant and Catholic players.

It is impossible to evaluate the Reformation except in the context of secular events, which overshadowed the actual religious reforms.

James said...

"the motivations and acquisition of power and wealth are ubiquitous in human history."
Absolutely. I'd only argue that it's power alone, all else (wealth included) flows from it. Roman history is a biggie for me also.

James said...

Anon 2,
Good point on the cultural Catholic, but no I'm not (I believe the "Guitar Mass is an abomination to civilization). I only said I was Catholic for disclosure not to deflect criticism.

Ares Olympus said...

Wow, too big of a topic for me to have much of an opinion. The main thing I learned from religion is continual schisms are the rule, and I'm glad we have freedom of religion (and freedom from religious rule) in the U.S.

My dad came from Scandinavian Lutherans, but rejected original sin as unreasonable and mean to children, probably his conclusion for being an only child, and later he got pulled into a couple feel-good new age cults in the 1970s and he wanted our family to move to California with his church. He also believed our history was too young, and the pyramids were 10,000 years old, probably with the help of Aliens, and Atlantis was a real place with technology exceeding our own, via crystal power, until they destroyed themselves. Or maybe he got all that from the Art Bell show in the 80s and 90s?

At least I learned what uncritical thinking looks like. Probably my dad's feeling oriented stream of consciousness would have gotten along great with i-always-need-to-feel-good-about-myself Donald Trump.

Stuart: This was a variant on the Lutheran theory, to the effect that God could not be bribed by piety. And he would not be manipulated by corrupt clerics selling indulgences. Luther's God would decide who to admit and who to consign to damnation for whatever reason He wished. Call it a divine version of free will.

I'm certainly partial to the idea that we can't earn our way to heaven, even if probably we can earn our way to hell. Probably I agree with my dad that reincarnation offers an acceptable purgatory, if we fail to learn what we need to learn the first time around. So if God interviews me at the gate and asks what I think I did in life to deserve heaven, I'll sincerely say "Surely I've not done enough. Maybe you should send me back to try again?"

And if God asks why I deserve hell, I could probably imprudently talk for hours, knowing God has the list anyway, but at least I'll have proved I was listening along the way, and I can get his perspective which ones I should really worry about. Apparently protestant guilt runs deep. Perhaps its genetic as much as cultural?

Anyway, maybe in another 500 years I'll learn my lessons, but then I'll probably get uppity and want to come back once more and start a religion or something, so maybe that'll be the final straw that sends me to hell?

Jack Fisher said...

AO, you have no idea what Lutheran theology holds, only a pathetic strawman version.

Anonymous said...

Printing press. The Church owned 1/3 of Europe, paid paltry taxes. Renaissance, 14th - 16th C.

Papal authority waning, Divine Right of Kings ascendant. Corruption, including simony & nepotism.

WCiv is not Islam. We learn and progress. But The Wars of Religion; 30 Years War were catastrophic.

BTW. I've read that Church Honchos told Galileo they agreed w/him. But wanted him to go slow, so as not to frighten the populace. - Rich Lara

Anonymous said...

The Protestant Reformation was a disaster for Christendom and Western Civilization. Luther and Calvin are rolling in their graves about what consumer Christianity has become, propelled by the strange concept of an individually-determined religious faith, never before tried in the annals of human history. My goodness, now the Catholic theologians were faced with Calvin’s playtime with double predestination. When the mainstream atheist journalists are instructing the Roman Catholic Church on institutinal and political correctness, we have reached a low point as a civilization. It’s not a hornets nest, James. It’s the truth. Jack, AO’s depth is impressive, no? Kansas Scout: the idea of a liberal Calvinist is worthy of a standup warmup act.

Nothing brings out the best in people like religion, huh?

Jack Fisher said...

I wouldn't want to speak for any of the 40,000 protestant denominations.

Ares Olympus said...

Jack Fisher said... AO, you have no idea what Lutheran theology holds, only a pathetic strawman version.

Apparently you thought I was putting down Lutheran theology? I thought I was putting down the new-Agers. The weakness of the protestants seems to be that their churches are dying and failing to inspire a new generation. It may be feel-good consumeristic religions are too attractive in our post-authoritarian do-your-own-thing world.

I did watch this video today after the topic which was interesting. I have no dislike for Luther at all and appreciate anyone who is willing to live his conviction. Martin Luther's Reformation | 500 Year Anniversary of the Reformation (Mike Wittmer, PhD)

If I was making any strawman, it is due to my inability to take any imagined afterlife seriously. No theology works for me that presumes to know what a soul is and happens when we shed this mortal coil. I do take the conscience very seriously, and an honest objective conscience however unachievable in practice, it seems something to strive for getting to know. And Christianity seems to have a lot to say about that so I listen as respectfully as I can.

Jack Fisher said...

AO, you are too incoherent for anyone reading your trip to get a firm grasp on whatever it is you're bleating at the moment.

And no one is interested in your inabilities.

Deana said...

I must say it is fascinating to read the accusations that Catholics still can make when one mentions the word “Luther.”

I recently read an essay in a Catholic publication in which the author grudgingly admitted that the indulgences had gotten “out of hand” (yes, really - that was his argument) but that if Luther had simply not let his temper get the best of him and had instead chosen to work within the confines of the Catholic Church, why he too might have been made into a saint.

I was dumbfounded. How could any one read Luther and conclude that sainthood was his heart’s desire? Agree with him or not, the man was plagued by feelings of guilt of his sin. He felt he could never confess enough, do enough, or follow God’s law enough to ever hope to enter heaven, much less become a saint.

And while most historians agree that it is quite likely that Luther did indeed nail his theses on the church door, it really doesn’t matter. What mattered was that they were printed and widely distributed and read.

If the Lord had intended for His people to only hear His words through the mouths of intermediaries, He never would have sent His Son Jesus to earth and have Him spend so much time talking directly with people.

Jack Fisher said...

Deana, given that Jesus lived in a small region of Judea and the last of the actual witnesses to His ministry died 2,000 years ago, and that everything you know about Him is through intermediaries, which of the 40,000 protestant denominations do you follow?

Deana said...

In the Great Commission, Jesus says “ALL AUTHORITY in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”

He does NOT say that all the people are to obey a human who had been chosen by other humans to lead the church. ALL humans and human institutions are by definition prone to sin and error. We are to obey God’s word. He specifically says He wants his WORD obeyed.

Sola scriptura. The divinely inspired word of God.

Frankly I seriously doubt that many of the theological arguments are of much concern to Jesus. For example, from a theological perspective, Mary was as human as every woman who has ever been born on earth. How else could Jesus have been “fully human”?

And yet, while I am not Catholic, I fully sympathize, understand and honestly appreciate the Catholic reverence for Mary. I don’t think that this is an issue that will in any way affect whether one spends paradise with Jesus.

But what does matter is that you as a human have ZERO ability to earn your way to heaven. We rely on God’s grace. And because of that extraordinary gift, we must work on earth for His glory, NOT because our work will bring any favor or advantage to us.

We are free, Jack. We are free in Christ. He spent His life teaching so many people who were illiterate and poor. Why else did He use parables other than to communicate and teach concepts in easy to understand lessons? All of this theological wrestling is interesting but it doesn’t change His message, His WORDS. He cared about regular people. No where in the NT does He say that you can be forgiven of your sins if you just give the church money. Like the Pharisees of Jesus’ time, the Catholic Church during Luther’s time was insisting that you had to follow all the laws and do all the right things to garner God’s favor. But if you didn’t, no problem, just give the church some money and you would be fine.

Do you ever stop and think about the burden that placed on people who took their faith seriously and were scarcely able to put food in the mouths of their children?

Where in your Bible does Jesus say that money buys forgiveness?

I’m sorry Jack but Luther was right. No one would ever have paid any attention to him had the Catholic Church of the 15-16th centuries not allowed itself to become so fully corrupted. There were MILLIONS of good and faithful Catholics who could not understand Latin or read. They depended on the church to tell them what Jesus expected of them and the church took advantage of them.

How long do you think the church would have let their tidy and profitable situation go on before coming clean with the people?

Jack Fisher said...

Your caricature of orthodox Christian belief on justification is tedious, wrong and blindingly ignorant. If the words aren't too big, you might want to read the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification by the Catholic Church's Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Lutheran World Federation in 1999 to get a grip.

I would remind you that there was no "bible" until the Church in the late 4th century decreed which texts would be included therein and that, no, the KJV was not handed down to Moses on Mt. Sinai.

So which of the 50,000 protestant sects do you follow?

Deana said...

Jack -

Attempts at condescension do not endear people to one’s cause.

The Catholic Church of 1999 was not the Catholic Church of 1517. Indulgences were very real, they were completely contrary to God’s word, and the Catholic Church had no interest in stopping that practice at the time, regardless of how much damage it caused the faithful in this life or the next.

The reason we pause to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation is NOT because we believe the Catholic Church of today is a force for evil or because we think it takes advantage of people today. It doesn’t. In so many ways, members of today’s Catholic Church are a tremendous force for good who shine a light on Jesus’ love and His command that we love and take care of our neighbors.

But that does not change the reality that existed in 1517. No Catholic should feel the slightest embarrassment over what the Catholic Church did to faithful Catholics half a millineium ago. Our task is ahead of us.

But the facts remain the facts. You can’t claim Luther was wrong in 1517 because of what the Catholic and Lutheran churches finally agreed on in 1999.

I personally am thankful for Luther. As you must know, many historians acknowledge he is one of the most influential people in all of world history, with consequences extending far beyond the theological sphere, influencing jurisprudence and the protection of individual liberties, economics, music, the expansion of literacy and education for the young, etc.

In closing, the only thing that matters, the only thing that makes the difference for a person and whether they will spend eternity with Christ is found in Matthew 22:36-40.

I wish you well and God’s eternal blessings.