Lecture #5 - Martin Luther - 48:05 (mp3)
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To repeat, Luther was not a Northern humanist, but a man close to the popular piety of the North. To understand him, we have to look at his background, at his view of the church as a decaying institution, for his struggle of peace of soul, for his frantic looking for outward religious safeguards, and how he came into the monastery. All of this was very closely tied to the superstitions of the people themselves. Mosse says that Luther’s key discovery was the idea of faith and trust as a substitute for the kind of fear that was so typical of his development and that of the whole popular culture of the time. He accepted the existential condition of man’s sinfulness and fate. According to Luther, we must accept our fate and trust in our salvation, for Christ is always within us. Essential is man’s conscience that forms the relationship to Christ, and from which Christ works within him: therefore, your conscience does not really belong to you, but to Christ.
Luther thus cut through the framework of medieval theology. “Not reading and speculating but living and dying makes a theologian.” That is, his existential condition. Recently, much scholarship has tried to reestablish Luther as a humanist, and he was very educated indeed, but the central thing about him is his distinction between faith and the world, which is implied in his own personal discovery of faith. Faith is a matter of trust, of conscience. But the world itself is peopled with devils: Luther saw the world as essentially sinful. His whole point was that if we do not have purity of faith, the world would give in to sin. Therefore, he saw his enemies not just as personal enemies, but as agents of the devils, in a very literal way. He called for the extermination of radicals, witches and Jews. Through purity of faith, you can mitigate the evil in this world. The world of faith is one thing, but in the world, the here and now, Luther took a different attitude: he furthered reason and learning, believed in secular education, and was the first to call for compulsory education to make sure everybody could read scripture, but also for practical reasons. He also furthered the study of nature, nature as a reflection of God, but not an evil reflection, because God had given it to us to enjoy. Consequently, the great scientific advances took place in Lutheran, not in Catholic universities.
Unlike Calvin, Luther never constructed a system: It was Melanchton who systematized Lutheranism, not Luther himself. He was eventually pushed into reasoning things out, especially by the dispute with his Catholic adversaries. His tract of 1520 is certain on negative theological points, like the abolition of saints and things of that nature, but never positive: he does not say with what it should be replaced. His whole discovery of faith and truth prevented him from a positive theological construction, because faith was too personal. Everything was done piecemeal: Catholicism and Lutheranism were not easily distinguishable until 1540. The lines were not clearly drawn, either in theology and ideology, nor in politics. An equal indecision prevailed in Catholicism over politics.
These factors made for the considerable success of Lutheranism, since, as Mosse said, the excommunication of Luther was delayed, in part through the indecision of the Humanists and the Catholic Church, deepened by the political situation of the empire. Luther was “adopted” by the princes against the emperor. The Prince’s often had little to do with religious concerns. Catholic Bavaria strongly supported the Lutherans for purely political reasons. In 1529 at the imperial diet the Protestant minority declared that matters of faith can not be decided at imperial diets: what they were really saying was that every prince should decide his own and his people’s faith. They got away with it, because the alternative would give the emperor too much influence. This resolution established Protestantism in Europe. Luther’s possessed tremendous ability in the area of propaganda: he was the first to use the printing press and he used plain, popular language.
Of further importance was Luther’s close connection with the awakening stirrings of German nationality. He adapted folk songs to hymns, but above all, he appealed to anti-roman sentiments, and protested against the taxation that came from Italy. He mobilized anti-Italian sentiment especially among the more articulate classes. His translation of the bible, completed in 1534, was to make the Saxon court dialect the language of Germany. “I have endeavored to make Moses so German that no one would suspect he that was a Jew” was not a statement of modern nationalism, but of making the bible intelligible to common people. All this “folksiness” and propagandist abilities transformed a university movement into a popular one, from which friars emerged and captured the cities. All these factors made the Reformation successful, yet the problem of organization could not be shirked. Luther thus called on the princes to solve the dilemma: if salvation is through faith alone, why do you need regulation and order? St. Paul had said that the just shall be saved through faith alone, but he had also said “Obey the powers that be for they are of God.” How could faith and order be reconciled? One answer was that faith is an inward matter, and thus the outward world was a thing of indifference; therefore, you must accept whatever ruler you have. Inward faith was what mattered.
But Luther did not really believe in the strict alliance of throne and altar: more than anything he furthered the alliance through vagueness and thereby increased the power of the princes. Yet, he equally furthered the importance of the community. Wherever Protestantism established itself, it abolished the whole network of Catholic social welfare. You no longer had convents that served as insane asylums or hospitals: they were replaced by the parish. Parishioners had a social duty to look after the poor; the parish was for Luther the assembly of Christians. Luther’s idea of parish organization was more democratic than Calvin’s. Guardians had to be elected to look out for the poor, and also to fix prices. Thus the parish community came to be filled with a social duty it had never had before. All Reformers would propose these new ideas of community.
Luther never solved the problem of organization, but it was put into relief by Luther’s “fellow travelers”. They were the peasants who sought to appropriate Lutheranism to solve their own dilemmas; the big peasant revolt of 1525 was only one in a series of peasant revolts. It looked both forward and backwards: it was a protest against both the tightening of feudal dues, but it also wanted to go back to feudal times before the tightening-up of feudal dues. These were not modern revolts; Mosse warns the students not to read class consciousness into it. They were partly millenarian, partly simply a protest against worsening conditions. They were not directed by peasants, but by the small nobility, middle- class people, and intellectuals. The famous twelve articles of the peasants were not written by peasants at all, but by a Lutheran priest of middle-class descent. They implied a nostalgia for a rural innocence before the fall; the “real” feudal system, and evoked a great sense of community. The leaders of the revolt were ordinary elected officials- often an official of the rural lord. They did not always object to paying taxes, but wanted their own officials to collect them. If they had a clearly expressed ideology, they were what we would call Anabaptist. The real basis of Anabaptism is an emotional commitment which you made with “open eyes” in adulthood. Anabaptists see themselves as the people of the Holy Spirit who formed a community of the elect, a second, “real” Israel, which implied equality. Anabaptism was always a lower-class movement, for millenarianism entered into it easily. The Anabaptists were exemplified by one leader in particular, Thomas Muenzer. Muenzer’s doctrine was “continuous revelation,” God reveals himself to his elect every day, God’s revelation goes through his elect, who would transform the world for the Second Coming of Christ. It was the poor who would save the world, because the rich were too corrupt and enmeshed in the world. The rich had therefore to be slaughtered, because their presence prevented the Second Coming. We have the same revolutionary impetus and the same sentiment in the English Revolution, for instance in Robinson’s sermon to the departing Pilgrim Fathers.
Luther fiercely opposed them because you cannot really build a social order on this. The problem was that tomorrow, another revelation might take its place. Moreover, these Anabaptists rejected scripture to a degree: they thought they were filled with the Holy Spirit, and were not in need of scripture. Luther had no answer to the difficulty of the personal interpretation of scripture, unlike Calvin, who had a system of logic in which the bible should be read. The people who caused Luther and others the greatest trouble were those who got caught up in the peasant wars. The Reformation did not cause it, it paralleled it. The peasants wanted to elect their own priests, but also their own bailiff and tax collector. The Reformation strengthened not the individual in the 19th century sense, but partly the idea of authority, and partly that of community. Immediately, these “fellow travelers” made Luther more conservative, sent him fleeing into the hands of the princes and gave Lutheranism an ever more conservative bend.
The Lutheran Reformation springs out of popular culture and piety, but Luther was a humanist and his distinction between the world and faith had serious consequences: it played into the indifference of Lutheranism to outward forms of organization and government. (This was not the case in Calvinism). Secondly, Luther furthered the idea of community, and all of the Reformation gave that idea a social content which would in the end become national legislation. It was no accident that the first modern social legislation, the Elizabethan poor law, came in a Protestant country. It lifts to the national level what had existed on the community level. The peasant revolts’ revolutionary ideology had little to do with Lutheranism: it was grounded in medieval millenarianism. However, it came ever more to the surface with the Reformation. Millenarianism survived in underdeveloped regions, and would also go into the anarchist movement. In sum, indecision and the problems of the emperor helped the establishment of Protestantism. (Calvin never had a problem with how to construct a system, or in forming revolutionary elite that would change nations, and make the first great modern revolution. Luther was very reluctant to form this kind of elite).
Two final things: the intellectuals were themselves were not so far removed from popular beliefs- many dabbled in things like alchemy, and believed in the battle between God and the devil in nature. The Puritans believed in it. Secondly, in the end, popular piety would not disappear: when the Protestants attempted to abolish all of the “superstitious” practices, people would still cling to them, stream to Catholic regions to attend processions, covered their houses with images of saints, etc. In some regions they were more successful in ending this behavior than others, but in all border regions, Protestants would stream over: they did not and could not stop it. The only country where the Protestants initially succeeded was England, and there it needed a revolution. Finally: the popular culture, which so influenced Luther and was so important for the millenarians, continues to influence: Even in the age of industrialism, it would break out in underdeveloped regions of Europe. We still find it today in the host, the chalice, and the mass. Popular piety plugged into an urge for millenarianism and into the revolutionary ideas of the time in the hope for an “instant utopia” and looked back to a time before “the fall.” Secondly, it could manifest itself in religious superstitions. Luther came out of such a background; his parents had been unlearned peasants. Though he did eventually get an excellent humanist education, he remained close to popular beliefs.