LUTHER’S BONFIRE: A Conflagration of Ideas

Libraries are full of ordinary books stuffed with mediocre stories.  Mind candy, daytime soap operas in paper and ink, they titillate the imagination but are soon abandoned on the cranial cutting room floor.

 But every so often, one encounters an idea or a string of ideas—like pearls on a choker—stated with such profundity that they catapult across one’s cerebellum, knocking lesser theses off their comfortable perches, crashing into misconceptions, and inciting a riot of reevaluation.

 Such an essay is “Luther’s Bonfire” by the indomitable G.K. Chesterton.  I perused this essay on the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas (January 28) with the intent of selecting a few poignant quotes to share.  The problem is, every paragraph is so rich, so teeming with sensibility, that were I to highlight the best parts I’d run out of ink before Chesterton ran out of sentences.  Let me recommend the full essay, for lovers of wit and logic!

 What I can do, though, is give you the five-cent summary, just to get you started.  I’m afraid that, without being couched in Chesterton’s noble prose, it’s a bit inflammatory– but still true.

 Chesterton pits the theology of Aquinas against the personality cult of Luther—asserting that set side by side, the great map of the mind of Aquinas would dwarf the mind of Luther.  He further inflames by explaining that when Luther inserted a word into the scriptures, he would fend off his hecklers by exclaiming “Tell them that Dr. Martin Luther will have it so.”  Chesterton charged that Luther’s appeal lay not in theology:  “It is not, as the moderns delight to say, a question of theology.  The Protestant theology of Martin Luther was a thing that no modern Protestant would be seen dead in a field with….”

 Luther, the great Reformer, is said to have burned Aquinas’ Summa Theologica—his seminal survey of things social and moral and theological—as well as his other works on the nature of God and the world.  It’s hard to burn a book, Chesterton notes, but it must have been exceedingly difficult to burn such a mountain of books as Aquinas authored: 

 “All the close-packed definitions that excluded so many errors and extremes; all the broad and balanced judgments upon the clash of loyalties or the choice of evils; all the liberal speculations upon the limits of government and the proper conditions of justice; all the distinctions between the use and abuse of private property; all the rules and exceptions about the great evil of war; all the allowance for human weakness and all the provisions for human health:  all this mass of medieval humanism shriveled and curled up in smoke before the eyes of its enemy; and that great passionate peasant rejoiced darkly; because the day of the Intellect was over.  Sentence by sentence it burned, and syllogism by syllogism; and the golden maxims turned to golden flames in that last and dying glory of all that had once been the great wisdom of the Greeks.  One great central Synthesis of history, that was to have linked the ancient with the modern world, went up in smoke and, for half the world, was forgotten like a vapour.”  (Chesterton, G.K., “Luther’s Bonfire” Published in “The Heart of Catholicism: Essential Writings of the Church from St. Paul to John Paul II” compiled and edited by Theodore F. James, Ph.D.  Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division, 1997.) 

 Chesterton breathed a sigh of relief, though, because the loss was not permanent.  Little by little, book by book, authors and theologians were recovering what was lost, rediscovering and revealing Truth.

  • Walter P Komarnicki

    it reminds me of the movie Fahrenheit 451, so melancholy in its hatred of the idea.

    • Kathy Schiffer

      You know, Walter, I am one of the few people living who never saw that film! I now have an assignment: Go to Blockbuster. Rent the movie. Watch it.