Friday, May 3, 2019

A Bolt of Lightning

Terrified by a bolt of lightning and roaring thunder that threw him to the ground, he reacted in characteristic medieval fashion: he made a vow to a saint, in this case St. Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary.  Luther promised St. Anne that if she preserved him in the thunderstorm, he would enter religious life.

Thus Luther left his study of law only a few short weeks after he began.  He kept his vow and was later ordained a priest, in 1507.

The opening chapter is entitled “The Reluctant Rebel.” Gregory describes Luther as an “Augustinian friar solemnly devoted to God.”  He toils in Wittenberg, an “obscure German town.”  He is anxious, but keeps his anxieties mostly to himself.  When he does express hints of frustration, these revolve around his tremendous workload – a workload that keeps him too often from prayers and Mass.  He does have time to chant the Psalms – all 150 of these every two weeks, cycling through them again and again.

This is Luther, just months before writing his Ninety-Five Theses.  He certainly doesn’t strike an image of a revolutionary or firebrand.  This is even after his visit to Rome – several years earlier – where he was dismayed to find others whose dedication was less serious than his own.

Luther had a political benefactor – Prince Frederick.  Frederick wanted a university of his own, in Wittenberg.  Luther would come to work at the university.  In the coming years, this relationship with Frederick will demonstrate the benefits of a decentralized political order as it existed during the medieval period; it is also likely true that this relationship with Frederick is what allowed the initial spark of Luther’s actions to turn into a movement that would shake Christendom.  But this is a story for a later post.

Luther was trained a scholastic – as had been the case for theological scholars for centuries.  Yet, new light had come by this time to Europe, and this light also affected Luther and others in the Church:

…Luther uses yet another method for approaching the Bible in his lectures: Renaissance humanism.

I think this distinction of scholasticism and humanism is worth a brief detour:

Scholasticism is a method of critical thought which dominated teaching by the academics ("scholastics", or "schoolmen") of medieval universities in Europe from about 1100 to 1700, and a program of employing that method in articulating and defending dogma in an increasingly pluralistic context.

Scholasticism is not so much a philosophy or a theology as a method of learning, as it places a strong emphasis on dialectical reasoning to extend knowledge by inference and to resolve contradictions.

Renaissance humanism is the study of classical antiquity, at first in Italy and then spreading across Western Europe in the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries. The term humanism is contemporary to that period, while Renaissance humanism is a retronym used to distinguish it from later humanist developments.

Renaissance humanism was a response to the utilitarian approach and what came to be depicted as the "narrow pedantry" associated with medieval scholasticism. Humanists sought to create a citizenry able to speak and write with eloquence and clarity and thus capable of engaging in the civic life of their communities and persuading others to virtuous and prudent actions. This was to be accomplished through the study of the studia humanitatis, today known as the humanities: grammar, rhetoric, history, poetry, and moral philosophy.

This was not – at least at the time – an either / or project.  There are entries for Lutheran scholasticism and Calvinist scholasticism to be found.  The following offers a clear and simple explanation of the primary difference – or at least the difference that had the most significant impact on philosophy and theology in separating the pre-modern period from the modern period.  Please forgive the long cite, but I don’t know how to reduce it and have it hold its meaning:

Humanism and scholasticism differ perhaps most distinctively in their views of the supernatural. Scholasticism was a method of study that existed for a handful of centuries and always included a faith in the supernatural; specifically, it was promoted and taught by Christian (Catholic) church fathers. In scholasticism, faith in spiritual things was an intrinsic understanding, and a large portion of study focused on theological works and their significance. Humanism, on the other hand, rejects the supernatural as a basis for study and work; instead, it places the emphasis on human reasoning and human achievement; students of humanism (whether Renaissance or modern humanism) do not study the supernatural or use it as a launch pad for discussion and teaching; instead, they study human works and ways of thinking, and they use the natural -- specifically, the human -- as the reference point for their conclusions.

Now…this is all pretty new to me, so if someone has a better view on the distinction and a concise source, I am open to this.

This shift corresponds precisely in time and type with the shift from a metaphysical foundation to an epistemological foundation in philosophy.  This is not to suggest that Renaissance humanists such as Luther had in their sights the elimination of what we today describe as supernatural; here, it seems, as in many other ways, the consequences of the Reformation would likely abhor the Reformers.  But more on this later as well.

Returning to Gregory: Erasmus, one of the leading European humanist scholars, publishes the Novum Instrumentum – the New Instrument.  It is an edition of the New Testament with columns of his Latin translation and earlier Greek sources, side by side.  There are countless deviations from the Latin Vulgate.  Luther begins using this text for his lectures.

Erasmus is critical of scholastic theology: too abstract and technical.  This is remote from the virtues at the center of Christian life:

He thinks classical languages and rhetoric are better equipped than Aristotelian philosophy to provide the intellectual foundation for the renewal of Christendom – a renewal for which so many conscientious Christians have been calling for so long.

Luther agrees that Aristotle’s philosophical categories hinder the understanding of God’s word.  But Luther doesn’t find salvation through the path suggested by Erasmus.  Human beings cannot be the agents of their own moral improvement – even with the help of classical languages and rhetoric.  Luther is influenced in part by his own experience of human weakness in the face of God’s commands.  Luther easily finds the God of judgement; it is more difficult for him to see the God of mercy.

Luther sees sin and shortcoming everywhere, from the top of the Church hierarchy to the lowliest parishioner; Christians do not practice the faith with enthusiasm; cardinals and bishops living elaborate lifestyles, nothing like the poverty and humility of Christian virtue; priests keep concubines, and lack meaningful theological or pastoral training.

In the face of this, Erasmus – as a humanist – emphasizes reform through erudition and education.  At this moment, the contrast in notoriety between Luther and Erasmus is overwhelming – Luther, virtually unknown, and Erasmus, highly respected throughout Europe as a scholar and theologian.  This would soon change.


In March 1517 the Fifth Lateran Council concludes without fanfare.  There was no indication that major institutional changes were needed or that substantial doctrinal changes were called for.  The Hussites and other pre-Lutheran reform movements had been dealt with, and voluntarily giving up certain aspects of their lifestyles was not in the cards for the priestly class.

In a few months, Luther would set wheels in motion in an attempt to rectify this lack of reform.


I will not go into detail regarding the political and sociological landscape of the time, as regular readers have been offered voluminous content from me in this regard.  Gregory does touch on this, and it will come into play in Luther’s mission – absent this socio-political reality, and Luther might have gone down in obscurity. 

The Holy Roman Emperor – unlike the Kings of England or France – could not simply coerce his subjects; he must negotiate.  The countless principalities and towns jealously guard their privileges. Boundaries of the dioceses and principalities do not coincide, complicating matters even further.

Prince Frederick wasn’t going to be pushed around.  This saved Luther.

1 comment:

  1. "Prince Frederick wasn’t going to be pushed around. This saved Luther."

    Not to get too far ahead of the story, but the push-and-pull between the church and government on the pro-Luther side also played out on the anti-Luther side. At the Diet of Worms, Pope wanted the Holy Roman emperor to condemn Luther as a heretic outright.

    However, when Luther requests a day to think over his answer as to whether he will recant, the emperor grants his request rather than force him to answer.

    It sent a clear message from the emperor that he would not be dictated to by the pope.