Clarisse: One more question.
Montag: Another one?
Clarisse: Just a little tiny one.
Montag: What is it?
Clarisse: Do you ever read the books you burn?
Montag: Why should I?
If only such a question was asked of a particular monk in Wittenberg about five-hundred years earlier….
Had the two men been able to find a volume of Aquinas, they would have burnt that as well.
Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, by Tom Holland
December 1520. Martin Luther had been given sixty days to recant. He chose to use the time burning books, along with a colleague from the university, the theologian Johann Agricola.
I have covered this story often, the story of Luther and the Church and the Reformation which turned into a revolution. In this post I will stick to bits and pieces that are new to me or that just strike my fancy. For example, regarding the latter: Holland opens the chapter with this book burning, and I thought of the movie (no, I didn’t read the book…).
Further, to my Catholic friends: I know how you feel about Luther and the tearing apart of the Catholic Church that followed. Yes, it was a blow to Western society and to the Church. But, and to my Protestant friends: it was an inevitable blow. There really were corruptions in plain sight – and Luther’s criticism regarding the practice of indulgences was perhaps the one most upsetting to and dangerous for the Church hierarchy. To my Orthodox friends…I know, you are sitting, watching, with a gallon size tub of popcorn on your lap.
To all of you – just take it as history, as one of the most important events in Western history since the time of Christ.
In more than one place I have read that Luther really didn’t know much about Aquinas’ work. If he could not find a volume to burn, it would seem he would not have had one handy to have read.
He saw the then-current scholasticism that followed Aquinas, but this was something quite different. In any case, whether Luther might have appreciated Aquinas had he read and understood him is now secondary. He didn’t, and he hadn’t.
Luther did have a copy of the papal decree that condemned his teachings: “Because you have confounded the truth of God, today the Lord confounds you. Into the fire with you.” Canons, papal decrees, and anything associated with Aquinas’ philosophy had to go. Luther, who scorned the idea of thinking of himself as a lawyer, took for granted how much of the then-modern law owed to the work of those legal scholars whose books he so eagerly burned.
It really sounds no different than today, where enemies of Christianity take for granted that they are only able to speak freely against those in power due to Christianity, and only because they have access to Christian terms and concepts. Had someone not a Roman citizen spoken so brazenly to a citizen in pre-Christian times, it would have been off with his head, no questions asked.
Luther had his students build a float, loaded with parodies of papal decrees. After driving it around town to raucous cheers, he burnt the lot. A man dressed as the pope tossed his tiara into the fire. Luther was not a man given to understatement…or humility. But then, perhaps it took this kind of man to stand up to the significant issues then practiced by and defended by the Church.
Luther had opposed the burning of heretics, denouncing the practice as contrary to the will of the spirit. Three thoughts come to mind: first, he opposed this practice well before self-interest would have compelled him to do so; second, this stand, apparently, didn’t apply to books; third, many Protestants who came after Luther didn’t necessarily agree with his view.
Pope Gregory VII, Hildebrand, held a special place for Luther: “Hell’s brand, the mask of the devil, also called Gregory VII, is the Monster of Monsters, the very first Man of Sin and Son of Perdition.”
His papacy ushered in the last and fatal age of the world, motivated, according to Luther, by nothing except an appetite for power. It was a charge similar to that laid by Orthodox against Gregory’s time; it is also a charge that many apply to Luther!
On his way to Worms, he was greeted by welcoming committees in city after city; large crowds would gather, cramming into churches to hear him preach. Entering Worms, thousands gathered to catch a glimpse of him. Suffice it to say, if it wasn’t Luther, it would have been someone – those aggrieved by the papacy were many and the popular support for a reformer was evident.
Asked to recant, he asked for a day to consider. Legend has the “here I stand, I cannot do otherwise” line, which he may or may not have said. But what is consistently recorded from the time is sufficient:
“My conscience is captive to the Word of God, I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.”
Charles V was not swayed: Luther’s excommunication was confirmed, but the promise of safe passage was respected…for three weeks, after which he would be liable for ‘liquidation.’ He left Worms as both hero and outlaw. Then, halfway back to Wittenberg, he was kidnapped and taken into hiding. Luther, it seems, had vanished into thin air.
Then, the Peasant’s Revolt. Perhaps a hundred-thousand slaughtered. This would bring out more of Luther’s critics:
“There were many peasants slain in the uprising, many fanatics banished, many false prophets hanged, burned, drowned, or beheaded who perhaps would still live as obedient Christians had he never written.”
This accusation weighed on Luther’s conscience. And it was weight on his conscience that drove him into his struggles in the first place. He was desperate to not be held responsible for the death of so many. Therefore, he lashed out against the rebels so hysterically that even his admirers were taken aback.
But he knew what was at stake – it was the rebels, or it was the princes. He would have to choose one side or the other. And only with the support of the princes was there a chance for his great project of reformatio to blossom.
And what of these princes? Setting aside whatever theological disputes they might have had with Rome, there was another, perhaps far more important, reason to jump on Luther’s bandwagon:
Rulers inspired by Luther, laying claim to an exclusive authority over their subjects, were able to set about designing a model of the state that no longer ceded any sovereignty to Rome.
We really need to dispense with a couple of ideas: first, that prior to the Reformation, either the Pope or the prince was sovereign over the other; second, that the subsequent wars were Wars of Religion. To the first, authority was divided between Rome and the local prince, sometimes overlapping, often complementary, always in tension. To the second, the princes fought wars in order to monopolize authority in their territory; these were wars of state building, not wars of religion.
What Luther began would soon grow far beyond his control:
Luther had lit the match – but others before him had laid the trail of gunpowder. This was why, in the wake of his defiant appearance at Worms, he found himself impotent to control the explosions that he had done so much to set in train.
Every reformer had a story – a claim of authority, an appeal to the Spirit. A chain reaction of protest, almost none of which conformed to Luther’s bondage.
There is always something to protest….
Guy Montag: Do you remember what you asked me the other day? If I ever read the books I burn? Remember?
Guy Montag: Last night I read one.