Luther and the Euro crisis

From Lutheranism to its depths to Lutheranism in its shallows. . .

The BBC, of all media, has a feature on the influence of Luther and Lutheranism on Germany’s reactions to the current economic crisis in Europe.  This is at best a cultural influence, to be sure, not a theological one, but it’s worth noting, especially for a nation whose word for “job” is “calling” (Beruf), a legacy of the doctrine of vocation:

Exactly 500 years ago, one of Europe’s greatest thinkers was getting increasingly worried that good German money was being wasted.

Cash was heading to the Mediterranean, subsidising a bunch of badly behaved foreigners.

The 16th Century German thinker was Martin Luther and he was desperate to stay part of that great European project known as the Roman Catholic Church, but equally desperate not to support those who were ripping off German believers to pay to build St Peter’s in Rome.

The unfairness of the abuses fed popular resentment until German patience finally snapped. Luther broke away from his beloved Catholic Church, “protesting” in that great rebellion we know as the creation of Protestant-ism, the Reformation.

Nowadays, Germans – even those who are Catholic or non-Christian – cannot escape the Lutheran past.

It’s also the Lutheran present. The most powerful woman in the world, Angela Merkel, is a Lutheran believer, the daughter of a pastor. The new German president, Joachim Gauck, is a former Lutheran pastor.

And that cliche of “the Protestant work ethic” – hardworking German taxpayers, even if they are not actually Protestant, continue to bail out the euro while being caught in a squeeze as acute as Luther in the 16th Century.

In their hearts, from Merkel to the car worker on the Volkswagen assembly line, the German people are desperate to be good Europeans, just as Luther was desperate to be a good Catholic.

But in their heads, most Germans suspect there may be something wrong – something morally wrong as well as economically dangerous – about giving money to those who, in the German view, have been at best reckless and at worst dishonest. . . .

[After describing an interview with Chancellor Merkel.]  I was struck by Mrs Merkel’s political genius – quiet, cautious, the Hausfrau of her nation, so unlike the noisier, catastrophic male German leaders of the first half of the 20th Century.

The puzzle now is when her political decision to be a good European collides with her Lutheran conscience not to reward bad behaviour or be reckless with money.

I wondered whether for Frau Merkel, like Martin Luther, another reformation in Europe might be on the cards – not tomorrow, perhaps, but one day.

HT:  ABC3Miscellany

And yet, the reason Luther started the Reformation was NOT economic, though arguably the economic issues made people more receptive to the Reformation.   And wouldn’t Germans be tight with their money even if they aren’t Lutheran?  Don’t Catholic Germans feel the same way?  Or Reformed or “Evangelical and Reformed” members of the state church?  And does ANY European country really want to bail out the irresponsible Greeks?

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Pete

    I don’t remember any “Big Fat German Weddings”. Most of ‘em were held in the church basement.

  • Pete

    I don’t remember any “Big Fat German Weddings”. Most of ‘em were held in the church basement.

  • SKPeterson

    This is symptomatic of a typical cultural geography which has manifested itself throughout European (and global) societies for thousands of years. This goes back to the old civilized v. barbarian, or good, virtuous Western Greeks against the rapacious and effeminate Persians, dichotomies in which we now have the moral rectitude of the northern Europeans contrasted with the dissolute Mediterranean types. Lutheranism or its cultural equivalent are simply the excuse or veneer to mask a rather shallow analysis of why some nations have what amounts to better institutions and outcomes as opposed to nations that have poor institutions poor outcomes as a result. This sort of analysis would argue that Greece is poor and on the margins of European society because of the twin evils of Orthodoxy and extensive domination by Islam via the Ottomans. The Greeks obviously became corrupted by their 1000+ years of imperial domination of the eastern Mediterranean and became further polluted by the onslaught of the Turks – who eventually became the Sick Man of Europe. Death, decline and decay are now their lot, consigned by fate to the ash heap of history. If only they’d have embraced Western Catholicism and had the benefits of the Reformation – Greece would now be an economic powerhouse.

  • SKPeterson

    This is symptomatic of a typical cultural geography which has manifested itself throughout European (and global) societies for thousands of years. This goes back to the old civilized v. barbarian, or good, virtuous Western Greeks against the rapacious and effeminate Persians, dichotomies in which we now have the moral rectitude of the northern Europeans contrasted with the dissolute Mediterranean types. Lutheranism or its cultural equivalent are simply the excuse or veneer to mask a rather shallow analysis of why some nations have what amounts to better institutions and outcomes as opposed to nations that have poor institutions poor outcomes as a result. This sort of analysis would argue that Greece is poor and on the margins of European society because of the twin evils of Orthodoxy and extensive domination by Islam via the Ottomans. The Greeks obviously became corrupted by their 1000+ years of imperial domination of the eastern Mediterranean and became further polluted by the onslaught of the Turks – who eventually became the Sick Man of Europe. Death, decline and decay are now their lot, consigned by fate to the ash heap of history. If only they’d have embraced Western Catholicism and had the benefits of the Reformation – Greece would now be an economic powerhouse.

  • Jon

    “Luther broke away from his beloved Catholic Church, ‘protesting’ in that great rebellion we know as the creation of Protestant-ism, the Reformation.”

    Um, no he didn’t break away. He was tossed out on his ear, branded a heretic, under a papal bull that would allow him to be taken dead or alive.

    This piece is rather shallow treatment of the Reformation.

  • Jon

    “Luther broke away from his beloved Catholic Church, ‘protesting’ in that great rebellion we know as the creation of Protestant-ism, the Reformation.”

    Um, no he didn’t break away. He was tossed out on his ear, branded a heretic, under a papal bull that would allow him to be taken dead or alive.

    This piece is rather shallow treatment of the Reformation.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    The temptation to generalize is great, but there are many factors to consider here. True, almost all the traditional Lutheran countries are doing better than average – Germany, Switzerland and the Scandinavian countries except Iceland, although Iceland managed to achieve quite a turnaround over the last 2 years. One could add to these Estonia and Latvia as well. But so are some Catholic ones – Austria, Luxemburg and, although they started from a low base and faced more difficulties, Poland and Lithuania. Similarly, the Flemish, and Catholic part of Belgium is doing quite well, as is the Dutch Reformed Netherlands, which, btw, is probably the last protestant European state to have an overtly Christian government and leader, in the person of Abraham Kuiper.

    I think the BBC is introducing an oversimplified narrative here – surprise!

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    The temptation to generalize is great, but there are many factors to consider here. True, almost all the traditional Lutheran countries are doing better than average – Germany, Switzerland and the Scandinavian countries except Iceland, although Iceland managed to achieve quite a turnaround over the last 2 years. One could add to these Estonia and Latvia as well. But so are some Catholic ones – Austria, Luxemburg and, although they started from a low base and faced more difficulties, Poland and Lithuania. Similarly, the Flemish, and Catholic part of Belgium is doing quite well, as is the Dutch Reformed Netherlands, which, btw, is probably the last protestant European state to have an overtly Christian government and leader, in the person of Abraham Kuiper.

    I think the BBC is introducing an oversimplified narrative here – surprise!

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    I think the strongest connection (such as it is) lies in this half-serious sentence:

    Cash was heading to the Mediterranean, subsidising a bunch of badly behaved foreigners.

    The rest of the article seems to hang on that. Tenuously.

    The puzzle now is when her political decision to be a good European collides with her Lutheran conscience not to reward bad behaviour or be reckless with money.

    Right. Because those sorts of attitudes are unique to Lutheranism, of course.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    I think the strongest connection (such as it is) lies in this half-serious sentence:

    Cash was heading to the Mediterranean, subsidising a bunch of badly behaved foreigners.

    The rest of the article seems to hang on that. Tenuously.

    The puzzle now is when her political decision to be a good European collides with her Lutheran conscience not to reward bad behaviour or be reckless with money.

    Right. Because those sorts of attitudes are unique to Lutheranism, of course.

  • SKPeterson

    I thought the best throw-away line was how the author just knows that Ms. Merkel is so different from the blustering male German politicians of the early 2oth Century (apparently Hitler, or the revolving door ministers of the Weimar Republic) and that this is due to her Lutheran background (why she’s just a hausfrau like good ol’ Katy Luther!). Because, there probably weren’t many Lutherans who were politicians in the Weimar Republic or members of the Nazi party. And those German Lutherans who were were probably a bunch of Greeks in disguise.

  • SKPeterson

    I thought the best throw-away line was how the author just knows that Ms. Merkel is so different from the blustering male German politicians of the early 2oth Century (apparently Hitler, or the revolving door ministers of the Weimar Republic) and that this is due to her Lutheran background (why she’s just a hausfrau like good ol’ Katy Luther!). Because, there probably weren’t many Lutherans who were politicians in the Weimar Republic or members of the Nazi party. And those German Lutherans who were were probably a bunch of Greeks in disguise.

  • http://simdan.com SimDan

    In other news, this guy blames Luther’s doctrine of the Two Kingdoms, and thus by logical extension vocation, for Nazi Germany…. http://gmdevotionals.wordpress.com/2012/02/11/how-many-kingdoms/

    *le sigh*

  • http://simdan.com SimDan

    In other news, this guy blames Luther’s doctrine of the Two Kingdoms, and thus by logical extension vocation, for Nazi Germany…. http://gmdevotionals.wordpress.com/2012/02/11/how-many-kingdoms/

    *le sigh*

  • Joanne

    As I’ve found, whenever Germany has a really big problem you can usually find a Brandenburg Hohenzollern at the crux of it. Albrecht’s family wanted him to have the Archbishopric of Magdeburg, then they wanted Halberstadt, and then they wanted Mainz, a really large prize. And every church office costs lots of money, because the office comes with money-making territories. Albrecht’s main residence was at Halle, only a few miles from Wittenberg during Luther’s residence there.

    The deal was, you pay the church for the office, and then you make the most money you can off the territory that comes with the office. That’s why they called them bishop princes. But Albrecht and his family wanted more sees than they actually had the ready cash for, and they turned to the Fuggars of Augsburg, a large banking family, for several loans to pay the quite handsome fees (higher fees than usual because lots of church rules were being broken).

    The three parties to this banking loan scheme were the Brandenburg Hohenzollerns, The Church (Pope’s office), and the Fuggars. Now, all 3 knew that Albrecht and his family could not pay off the loans and that the Pope would have to help them raise the money by selling indulgences. So good German money would flow to the Fuggars in Augsburg, who also lent to the Pope, but very carefully because so many Popes went bankrupt, and some of the indulgence money went directly to Rome, to ostensibly rebuild St. Peter’s. It seems some pope or other had pulled down the former St. Peter’s in a fit of pique. Today, the Constantinian Basilica built in the 300s, would be one of the most historic buildings in Christendom, but it wouldn’t be the ab/fab art museum they have there now, the cost of which is the physical cause of the Reformation staring us right in the face.

    Now, nobody liked the Hohenzollerns, and nobody in Germany, that is no other prince, was obliged to pay the Hohenzollern’s debts, so those in a secure position, vis-a-vis the Hohenzollern’s, the Fuggars, and the Pope, declined the gracious offer to have indulgences sold in their territories, even when offered a modest cut of the profits. Fredrick the Wise, of the Ernestine Wettin line, declined the offer and his subjects were spared the opportunity to build the new St. Peter’s. When his Wittenberg subjects were lured to Yterberg, just down the road and not within Frederick’s jurisdiction, to buy indulgences, the father confessor at St. Mary’s stadtkirche in Wittenberg grew very annoyed when his Beichtkinder blew him off with indulgences when he said they must repent.

    And, that’s when Luther came into the picture. It was really a very minor role, but it suited the needs of so many that the money continue to flow. It is interesting that Luther did send a copy of his 95 Debating Points to Albrecht just over in Halle, and that Albrecht immediately sent it on to Rome. And, I’ll bet the Fuggars posted a few notes around as well.

    Johan Tetzel, an instrument of the Inquisition, had the job of flogging the indulgences. He used questionable pressure in a few venues and wound up in jail, then died in 1519, less than 2 years after the 95 Debating Points. Tetzel was buried in the Dominican church, the University Church at the University of Leipzig, you know, the church that the communists dynamited in 1968 to much protestation. Poor Tetzel, trouble even sticks to his bones.

  • Joanne

    As I’ve found, whenever Germany has a really big problem you can usually find a Brandenburg Hohenzollern at the crux of it. Albrecht’s family wanted him to have the Archbishopric of Magdeburg, then they wanted Halberstadt, and then they wanted Mainz, a really large prize. And every church office costs lots of money, because the office comes with money-making territories. Albrecht’s main residence was at Halle, only a few miles from Wittenberg during Luther’s residence there.

    The deal was, you pay the church for the office, and then you make the most money you can off the territory that comes with the office. That’s why they called them bishop princes. But Albrecht and his family wanted more sees than they actually had the ready cash for, and they turned to the Fuggars of Augsburg, a large banking family, for several loans to pay the quite handsome fees (higher fees than usual because lots of church rules were being broken).

    The three parties to this banking loan scheme were the Brandenburg Hohenzollerns, The Church (Pope’s office), and the Fuggars. Now, all 3 knew that Albrecht and his family could not pay off the loans and that the Pope would have to help them raise the money by selling indulgences. So good German money would flow to the Fuggars in Augsburg, who also lent to the Pope, but very carefully because so many Popes went bankrupt, and some of the indulgence money went directly to Rome, to ostensibly rebuild St. Peter’s. It seems some pope or other had pulled down the former St. Peter’s in a fit of pique. Today, the Constantinian Basilica built in the 300s, would be one of the most historic buildings in Christendom, but it wouldn’t be the ab/fab art museum they have there now, the cost of which is the physical cause of the Reformation staring us right in the face.

    Now, nobody liked the Hohenzollerns, and nobody in Germany, that is no other prince, was obliged to pay the Hohenzollern’s debts, so those in a secure position, vis-a-vis the Hohenzollern’s, the Fuggars, and the Pope, declined the gracious offer to have indulgences sold in their territories, even when offered a modest cut of the profits. Fredrick the Wise, of the Ernestine Wettin line, declined the offer and his subjects were spared the opportunity to build the new St. Peter’s. When his Wittenberg subjects were lured to Yterberg, just down the road and not within Frederick’s jurisdiction, to buy indulgences, the father confessor at St. Mary’s stadtkirche in Wittenberg grew very annoyed when his Beichtkinder blew him off with indulgences when he said they must repent.

    And, that’s when Luther came into the picture. It was really a very minor role, but it suited the needs of so many that the money continue to flow. It is interesting that Luther did send a copy of his 95 Debating Points to Albrecht just over in Halle, and that Albrecht immediately sent it on to Rome. And, I’ll bet the Fuggars posted a few notes around as well.

    Johan Tetzel, an instrument of the Inquisition, had the job of flogging the indulgences. He used questionable pressure in a few venues and wound up in jail, then died in 1519, less than 2 years after the 95 Debating Points. Tetzel was buried in the Dominican church, the University Church at the University of Leipzig, you know, the church that the communists dynamited in 1968 to much protestation. Poor Tetzel, trouble even sticks to his bones.


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