The Protestant Reformation was not all great. The Reformation (16th and 17th centuries), initiated by Martin Luther, is credited with the creation of the individual, and fostering the Enlightenment. This is the usual sketch, and its correct as far as it goes. I’m going to look at the good parts and the not so good parts. First, the good parts.*
The good parts of the Reformation
Many people know about Luther’s 95 theses, stuck on the church door in Wittenberg. In it he attacked the Catholic church’s practice of selling indulgences, which allowed the dead to get out of purgatory faster, a toll road for sinners. The practice was corrupt to the core. While his attack on the corrupt church helps explain Luther’s appeal, it is even more important to understand how Luther’s own religious experience lessened the fear that most people lived under five hundred years ago.
It’s difficult for most of us to grasp Luther’s sense of guilt and dread in the face of an angry God (Marty, loc 105). Of course, it was not just Luther’s dread, but almost all who believed in the Christian God, which means almost everybody. People trembled at the thought that when they died, Jesus would judge them, sending some to heaven and others to the fiery flames of Hell, including many who led exemplary lives, but had less than exemplary thoughts. That includes most of us. Since God knows our every thought, as well as sees our every act, there is no escape.
While it’s easy to make too much of Luther’s emphasis on faith over acts, he offered a solution to this dread-filled world. Stop paying so much attention to yourself, and focus on the love of God. God loves you and wants to forgive you. God is pleased with you regardless of your acts. We are pleasing to God because of the trust he has inculcated in our hearts, not because of the works we do. All you have to do is believe.
Like most great ideas, it’s simple. Christ came not to judge us, but to save us from the consequences of our sins. One of Luther’s best lines was that if you are going to sin, “sin boldly,” but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly, for he came to give his life to save you from the wages of sin.
But Luther still had a problem. How to truly believe, and even more important how to know that you truly believe? For he had his own doubts, what he called Anfectungen, best translated as spiritual crises. The answer was Sola Scriptura, through scripture alone. The Christian scriptures are the only source of authority, and each individual is able to make up his own mind about the meaning of the Bible. In one simple phrase, Luther set aside the church as the authority that interpreted the scriptures.
So that ordinary people could read the Bible, Luther translated the scriptures from Latin, the language of scholars and clergy, into German. He seems to have considered the following passage from Romans 3:28 particularly important.
So we now maintain, that man becomes justified without the work of the Law, through faith alone.
It was Luther who added the word “alone” (Roper, p 196). The recent invention of the printing press made his version widely available for the first time.
All this would have made no difference, of course, if large numbers of people had not already lost faith in the established church. But it was Luther who gave them an alternative, what he called justification, God’s righteous act of removing guilt and the penalty of sin through faith in Christ’s atoning sacrifice. Faith justifies the sinner. In other words, God forgives the truly repentant sinner.
And how do we know this? How do we achieve certainty? Martin Marty (loc 1739) says we know this through a “leap of faith.” It’s not just Kierkegaard who recognized that in the end the only certainty is belief–that is faith. Faith is fragile, but reason was “the whore,” as Luther called it, slave to our desires. Sola Scriptura did not liberate men to interpret the Bible anyway they want. It meant that faith will lead the faithful to interpret scripture in the same way, as it was meant to be read.
A surprising liberation
If everything we do is tainted with sin, then piling up good deeds is pointless. So is asceticism, or self-denial. The pleasures of the flesh are good in themselves, a gift from God, and so we should share in them almost as if they were a sacrament.
He made his point by using imagery that shocked: The mother suckling the baby and washing diapers, the farmer at work, the couple having sex were as likely to be engaged in God–pleasing activities as was any nun engaged in prayer. (Marty, loc 1385)
Luther liberated not only the mind from the teachings of the church. He liberated the body too. Not being good (though that helps), but having faith in the justification of sin is the true key to the kingdom.
The not so good parts of the Reformation
A consequence of Luther’s emphasis on the base and sinful nature of man was that God was set not just higher, but so distant from human understanding that only faith could save us. That’s fine, but it had the consequence of severing the human from the divine world. It became less important to transform the world, a task that was left to temporal authorities. This explains how Luther could tolerate the repression and greed of various feudal princes.
Each person, then, is a kind of self in a shell: One’s body is immersed in the profane and mundane grind of daily life, but one’s innermost soul is withdrawn and can be focused on heaven. (Bruenig)
In the long-term, the rupture of heaven and earth helped empty the world of religious meaning. If human works made no difference to one’s salvation, then this world had no, or at least less, moral significance. This, of course, goes against the teachings of Christ, who said that the person who doesn’t care for the poor, the sick, the hungry, and the stranger doesn’t care for him (Matthew 25:34-46). But Luther’s separation of realms helps to explain how easy it is for some Protestants to see the world of economics as morally irrelevant.
These are tendencies, of course, and practice is more complex. Many Protestants actively opposed slavery and segregation, and speak out against our unwelcome mat to immigrants. Nevertheless, these tendencies are reflected in basic, even unquestioned, assumptions of Americans.
By separating the political and economic spheres from the realm of spiritual consideration, Protestantism not only inaugurated our secular age; it also helped—at least in the view of some of its critics—to give the market free rein. (Bruenig)
Catholic teachings, on the other hand, at least in theory make of economics a moral and religious realm.**
Luther was unaware of the consequences of the revolution he had launched, and the result would surely have astonished him. What Luther contributed, more than anything else, was a vast separation between sinful man and loving God, which left him without a positive account of what the state can do to help its citizens (Roper, p 408). By making individual conscience the ultimate arbiter, Luther contributed little to the idea of a moral community, even one inspired by the teachings of Christ.
* In a previous post on Luther, I paid less attention to the contemporary legacy of the Reformation; less too to the details of his religious argument. I paid more attention to his psychology, and his virulent antisemitism.
Elizabeth Bruenig, The Reformation did a lot more than transform Christianity. The Nation, July 12, 2017. https://www.thenation.com/article/martin-luthers-revolution/
Martin Luther, A sincere admonition to all Christians to guard against rebellion. 1522.
Martin E. Marty, Martin Luther: A Life. Penguin, 2004.
Lyndal Roper, Martin Luther. Random House, 2016.