Martin Luther

Luther is not to blame for the problems of modernity

[…] I dissent from Casey Chalk’s genealogy of modernity. He goes on to argue that this notion of the autonomous, emotivist self can be traced to Martin Luther. In part this is because Chalk depends upon Jacques Maritain’s Three Reformers: Luther, Descartes, Rousseau for his reading of Luther.

Luther is simply not the great apostle of subjectivism that Maritain claims he is. It may well be that subjectivism is where the Protestant Reformation led, but it was certainly neither Luther’s intention nor his own stated position.

The debate with Zwingli over the reality of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist is the most obvious example of his concern for objective truth detached from the individual’s own beliefs, though one might also point to his notion of conscience as formed by the Word of God in the context of the Christian life, not as some principle of autonomous personal judgment. Whether Luther’s positions on these issues proved stable in the long run is a matter for debate. The point is that he was wrestling with how to balance objective truth and personal commitment (an issue found throughout the New Testament). He was not arguing for human beings as isolated, atomized human beings.

This points to a deeper difficulty with Chalk’s genealogy. In presenting Luther as the beginning of the problem, Chalk opts for the standard Catholic triumphalist opening: the Protestants are to blame. But Luther does not emerge from a vacuum. Philosophically, he is the heir of late medieval nominalism (a Catholic phenomenon). He achieves public prominence by asking for a debate about the sale of indulgences (a Catholic practice). Wondering about whether the sale of indulgences as exemplified by Tetzel represents the teaching of the Church seems wholly reasonable for a Catholic pastor concerned about the financial fleecing of his congregation.

And the crisis of authority that Luther represents is not of his own making. The corruption of the papacy and the chaos of the fifteenth century shattered papal authority. Astute theologians might respond by saying that we are not Donatists, that the corruption of the men who lead the Church and even the corruption of the papal bureaucracy do not negate the truth of the gospel. That is true at a theoretical level. But in practice hypocrisy undermines credibility. It is not surprising that at the start of the sixteenth century there was a crisis of popular authority with regard to those who claimed to be Peter’s successors and Christ’s representatives on earth and yet who ostentatiously indulged the sins of the flesh. If Luther was wrestling with the question of religious authority, it is in large part because the religious authority of his day had so signally failed in its task. Perhaps modernity is the fault of a failed papacy and not a Saxon friar?

We can complicate the narrative of authority yet further. The advent of the printing press and the rise of cities and trade served to reconfigure social structures across Europe. Power, once tied to land, started shifting more toward capital. The marketplace rose in prominence, challenging old hierarchies. Increasing levels of literacy served to remake and energize self-consciousness. Even if, purely for the sake of argument, one were to allow that the thirteenth century represented a rather harmonious period in which church and state, and faith and reason, lived together in perfect harmony, that world depended upon a social framework that required material conditions that technology and trade simply swept away. There is no medieval solution to the problems of modernity. Read the full article by Carl Trueman at First Things.