This year is the 500th Anniversary of what is often seen as the decisive act that set off the Reformation: when Martin Luther, a monk and theology professor, nailed ninety-five theses to the church door in Wittenberg. A few years ago, I was travelling through eastern Germany and made a point of stopping in Wittenberg to see Luther’s House, and the experience only increased my admiration of this flawed, stubborn, but nevertheless courageous, inspired, and often down-to-earth man. He has gone down in history as one of the great breakers of dogma, though, like many people with that kind of achievement, he was also instrumental in setting up new counter dogmas of his own.
I recently heard a talk about Luther given by church historian Judith Rossall, which also refined my understanding of the key events that led to the Reformation. In some ways, Luther was lucky: he managed to get away without being burned at the stake because of political protection from the Elector of Saxony, and because German national pride rallied people to his support against the trans-national papal bureaucracy. In some ways, then, the Lutheran Reformation resembled an early German version of Brexit. His defiance of the church’s authority also gradually grew as the argument became more polarised and more started being at stake. He started off only protesting against the selling of indulgences (a medieval church money making scheme where people paid for time off purgatory), but it was in 1519, when in a debate his position was compared with that of Jan Hus (a previous reformer who had been burned at the stake as a heretic) that he made his most courageous move, saying that he believed the condemnation of Hus was wrong and thus by implication questioning the church as an absolute source of authority.
It’s at that crucial point that I’d see Luther as moving out of the absolute positions that dominated the church of his time into a more creative and ambiguous zone. In his debate with Johann Eck, he was then asked what authorities he did accept. Only scripture and common reason, he said. From that realignment of authorities so much else in the Reformation followed, because Protestants were thus able to strip away 1500 years of accrued church dogmas dependent on tradition, on Aristotelian metaphysics that had been adopted by the church, or on the authority of the pope or the councils of the church. So much that was previously closed became open for re-examination, and that of course created a huge wave of creativity and thought.
Did Luther in any way achieve a Middle Way? In those heady early days in 1520’s Germany, when everything seemed to opened up, when new thinking spread quickly because of the recent invention of printing, and a whole new set of radical thinkers were further sparked off by him, it’s easy to think that he might temporarily have got somewhere near it. All sorts of customs were re-thought: church governance, the eucharist, monasticism, the marriage of priests, the role of saints, the sacraments. Most of all, the door was thrown open to individual judgement, enabling individuals to bring their own thinking to bear on religious matters rather than simply accepting the authority of the church. In the longer term that emphasis on individual judgement was extremely important in stimulating the enlightenment and the rise of scientific method and democratic politics. If you want to understand why the Middle Way has in effect been practised more in the West than in the East where it was first explicitly formulated, look to some of the effects of Martin Luther.
However, Protestantism today is polarised between liberals who have come to terms with the enlightenment, and much more numerous fundamentalists who take Martin Luther’s invocation of the authority of scripture as a new basis of absolutism. Despite its value in supporting individual judgement, the narrower legacy of the Reformation is the allegiance of individuals who believe that absolute truths can be represented in the words of a book. Until the development of Biblical criticism in the nineteenth century, Protestants continued to ignore all questions about the human origins of the Bible or the ambiguities of its interpretation. While Protestants influenced by Luther thus built the church and its meaning anew, they also rapidly created the new rigidities of puritanism, repression of the imagination, spiritual accountancy and sectarianism. Iain McGilchrist writes disapprovingly about the Reformation because of its degree of dependence on the left hemisphere, and he’s certainly right that much of Luther’s legacy seems to have consisted in people adopting abstracted absolute beliefs that were strongly identified with a limited group who shared them, and were the focus of obsessive loyalty. Along with the enlightenment and individual thinking, another indirect legacy of Luther is ISIS/ Da’esh and the kind of thinking it represents. Fundamentalism was invented by Protestants long before it was adopted by Muslims.
However, to understand the positive aspects of Luther’s complexity more fully, let’s go back to the motivations of the man himself. One of the other crucial conflicts in Luther’s experience that helped to give birth to the Reformation was the question of salvation. The idea of God’s grace, reflected particularly by St Paul in the book of Romans, is central to the early motivation of Christianity and the way that it differentiated itself from Judaism as early Christians perceived it. Luther apparently had a strong ongoing sense of sinfulness, being tormented by the ways that his varied motivations as a human being were inconsistent with his commitments to following God’s will. The Catholic Church of Luther’s time often seemed in practice to have gone back to the legalism that Christians tend to attribute to the Pharisees, in which we have to save ourselves by obeying the rules set by God. The medieval church reconciled this to Christian teaching about grace by saying that God’s grace still requires enough of a response from us to allow us to save ourselves. Even if we save ourselves from mortal sin and avoid going to hell, we will still have to sweat out our lesser sins in purgatory before we can be saved, and it’s this view of how sin is expiated that justified the sale of indulgences. Luther was still tormented by this, because he could never be sure that he had responded enough to God’s grace to be saved. Re-reading the book of Romans, however, he concluded that the church was wrong to believe that we saved ourselves at all: only God could save us. We were solely justified by faith, not by actions. We could only throw ourselves on God’s mercy.
The positive thing to note here is that Luther went back to his experience. Trying to open himself to God’s grace, he went back to the openness of the brain’s right hemisphere rather than being solely dependent on the representations of the left. Rather than just accepting that he couldn’t be sure of salvation under the church’s model of how it worked, he compared his experience of sinfulness to his experience of God and the experience of what he interpreted as God’s grace working in his life. He found that the church’s teachings didn’t fit his most profound and valuable experiences, so he gave those experiences higher priority, and had the courage to try to make new beliefs that were more adequate to those experiences. Of course, that could only be part of a long journey of developing beliefs that are more adequate to the conditions, and we can look back at it today and are struck by how far he was from any destination. But nor have we reached any final destination today. The Middle Way was a journey for him as it is for us, responding as well as we can to the conditions of each time and place.
Picture: Martin Luther as an Augustinian Monk, by Lucas Cranach the Elder (public domain)