1483 – 1546
Martin Luther stands in history as one of those unique forces, an individual who by force of will and by his ideas changed the world fundamentally.
There are several ironies incumbent on Luther’s pivotal role in history: 1) he doesn’t really represent a break with the past, but rather a flash point where ideas and trends which had been smoldering in Europe for several centuries suddenly blazed aflame; 2) Luther initially saw himself as a great reformer of the Catholic church, a simple monk who thought the force of his ideas would single-handedly redirect the Leviathan of the church; in the end, however, he divided Christianity into two separate churches and that second division, Protestantism, would divide over the next four centuries into a near infinity of separate churches; 3) finally, Luther (and all the other reformers) saw themselves as returning Christianity to its roots, they believed that they were setting the clock back; in reality, their ideas irreparably changed the world and pushed it kicking and screaming, not into some ideal past, but into the modern era.
Luther was not a person you would want to have dinner with; he was temperamental, peevish, egomaniacal, and argumentative. But this single-mindedness, this enormous self-confidence and strident belief in the rightness of his arguments, allowed him to stand against opposition, indeed, to harden his position in the face of death by fire, the usual punishment for heretics. Luther became an Augustinian monk in 1505, disappointing his equally strong-willed father, who wished him to become a lawyer. He earned a doctorate in theology from the University of Wittenberg, but instead of settling down to a placid and scholarly monkish life or an uneventful university career teaching theology, he began to develop his own personal theology, which erupted into outright blasphemy when he protested the use of indulgences in his 95 Theses.
Indulgences, which were granted by the pope, forgave individual sinners not their sins, but the temporal punishment applied to those sins. These indulgences had become big business in much the same way pledge drives have become big business for public television in modern America. Luther’s Theses, which outlined his theological argument against the use of indulgences, were based on the notion that Christianity is fundamentally a phenomenon of the inner world of human beings and had little or nothing to do with the outer world, such as temporal punishments. It is this fundamental argument, not the controversy of the indulgences themselves, that most people in the church disapproved of and that led to Luther’s being hauled into court in 1518 to defend his arguments against the cardinal Cajetan. When the interview focused on the spiritual value of “good works,” that is, the actions that people do in this world to benefit others and to pay off the debts they’ve incurred against God by sinning, Cajetan lost his temper and demanded that Luther recant. Luther ran, and his steady scission from the church was set in motion. The Northern Humanists, however, embraced Luther and his ideas.
Luther’s first writing was The Sermon on Good Works, in which he argued that good works do not benefit the soul; only faith could do that. Things took a turn for the worse: Pope Leo declared 41 articles of Luther’s teachings as heretical teachings, and Luther’s books were publicly burned in Rome. Luther became more passionate in his effort to reform the church. His treatise, “Address to the Christian Nobility of Germany,” pressed for the German nation to use military means to force the church to discuss grievances and reform; “A Prelude concerning the Babylonish Captivity of the Church” literally called for clergy in the church to openly revolt against Rome.
In 1521, the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, demanded that Luther appear before the diet of the Holy Roman Empire at Worms. Luther was asked to explain his views and Charles ordered him to recant. Luther refused and he was placed under an imperial ban as an outlaw. He managed to escape, however, and he was hidden away in a castle in Wartburg where he continued to develop his new church.
Martin Luther, The Freedom of a Christian
In a more conciliatory effort, Luther wrote a letter to Pope Leo explaining the substance of his ideas, Von der Freiheit des Christenmenschen , “On the Freedom of the Christian,” from which your readings have been selected. This conciliation didn’t work (the treatise is not, in fact, very conciliatory, but somewhat arrogant), and Luther was excommunicated from the church in 1521. What had started as a furious attempt to reform the church overnight turned into a project of building a new church independent of the Catholic church. Nevertheless, this small work, “The Freedom of the Christian,” is the theological and ideological core of Luther’s thinking; the fundamental term of value, that center around which every other aspect of his thought rotates, is the concept of Freiheit, “freedom,” or “liberty.” This is not our concept of freedom, but in the eventual turn of time it will give rise to the notion of “individual freedom,” and later “political freedom,” and later “economic freedom.” Most of the European Enlightenment revolves around freedom and the project of “liberating” people: liberating them from false beliefs, from false religion, from arbitrary authority, etc.–that is, what we will be calling “liberation discourse.” Westerners still participate in this Enlightenment project today. This idea of “liberating” people, so common to the international politics of our own period, comes out of Luther’s idea of “freedom.”
When you read this treatise, ask yourself the following questions: What precisely does this freedom consist of? What is the nature of the individual? What are the two divisions of a human being? What value is attached to the “internal” part of the human being? How is this “internal” part free? Finally, how do you see this concept working in the world around you?