An appreciation of the Reformation

An appreciation of the Reformation November 1, 2017

1000 Years of German History Documentary 8: Martin Luther (1483 A.D)
As usual, I’d meant to have posted more on the Reformation leading up to the 500th anniversary tonight, including a series on Brad Gregory (only one post out in that so far). However, this is only the anniversary of the posting of the Theses, which is typically seen as the public beginning of the Protestant movement. So I’ll be posting more in the months–and years–to come, perhaps up to (or even beyond) the anniversary of the Peace of Augsburg in 1555. Since I’ll be 81 by then, this assumes that I will still be alive–and that we won’t all have been enslaved by robot overlords, or slaughtered by a supervirus, or uploaded into an AI, or doomed to nuclear annihilation as a parlor game for billionaire playboys.

But tonight I’m going to set polemic aside and write about what is worth appreciating in the Protestant Reformation, and in Luther particularly, since this is his night.

Luther’s 95 Theses were provoked by the public scandal of “indulgence-selling.” Technically no selling took place–it was a lot like the “recommended donations” Christian radio and TV stations list these days. In return for a donation to the Church, people were given certificates assuring them of a partial or complete (the latter depending on certain spiritual conditions) forgiveness of the “debt of temporal punishment” due to sin. (I am not going to explain all of that here and now. If anyone reads this and wants it explained, post a comment asking and I’ll be happy to oblige.) In other words, he was attacking a kind of popular religion in which people assuaged their fears of God’s judgment (particularly of purgatory) by ritual acts.

The theology that produced the Theses, however, had been forged in the crucible of Luther’s struggle with a very different strand of late medieval theology: an intense, internalized piety that did not rely on external rituals to pacify the conscience. In this rigorist theology, to be forgiven even in the sacrament of confession required genuine contrition and a love for God above all else. In the theology Luther was taught (a version of “nominalism” mediated by the fifteenth-century theologian Gabriel Biel), God had established a covenant that he would give grace to anyone who “did what is in them.” This was meant to be reassuring–do your best and God will do the rest. But since “doing what is in you” was understood to mean loving God with all your heart, Luther found that it was not, in fact, in him at all. What was in him, after many efforts, was a smoldering resentment against the God who would demand such things in the name of the Gospel.

In the Presbyterian church where I played the organ last Sunday, the pastor said (in what was on the whole an excellent sermon) that late medieval Christians thought they would be justified by keeping the commandments of the Old Testament law. This isn’t accurate. But from Luther’s point of view, it would have been an improvement. Jesus made the law more difficult by internalizing it. And it was this internalized law that Luther had received as the Gospel–the “new law” of love, understood as a command to love God and neighbor at the very threshold of the spiritual life.

Luther’s fundamental starting point, which he learned from his confessor and mentor Johann von Staupitz, was that God’s love for us precedes and causes our love for God, not the other way round. For Staupitz, this was expressed through traditional Catholic devotional practices such as meditation on the Passion (something that, of course, would be central to Lutheranism as well, if in a somewhat altered form). But as early as portions of his first Psalm lectures (1513-15), and certainly in his Romans lectures (1515-16), Luther was moving beyond Staupitz. Staupitz was working within the broad Augustinian consensus of medieval theology (and indeed was part of the rigorously Augustinian wing of that theology), in which we are acceptable to God by being transformed by charity, infused by God into our hearts. Luther found this insufficient, because he worried that his charity was not enough and his transformation was too imperfect. Hence, he began to formulate a radical “negative theology,” partly influenced by the German mystics, in which our only righteousness is our acknowledgment of our unrighteousness.

This is why, for Luther, the practice of selling indulgences, or indeed encouraging people to earn them as means of avoiding purgatorial punishment for themselves and others, was so abhorrent. It was not simply that such a practice was an “abuse” and exploited people (though Luther certainly cared about that) but that it defeated the whole purpose of repentance and, indeed, of purgatory. A truly repentant person would not run away from God’s punishment, but would throw himself on God’s mercy. Purgatory, as Luther saw it at this point, was a postmortem state of uncertainty about one’s salvation, just as hell was the state of despair about one’s salvation. When the soul acknowledged that it deserved hell, it would find itself in heaven. Indulgences were not just a financial scam–they were a spiritual scam, luring people into a nervous, self-justifying quest for spiritual comfort rather than the true peace that is only found when we stop trying to cajole God into accepting us.

Luther’s mature doctrine of justification by faith alone was not yet present in the Theses or in the broader critique of scholastic theology out of which they arose. I’ll write more about that theology (and the points where I disagree with it) later. But clearly Luther was right that much of the religion of his time–and of ours–is about trying to strike a deal of some kind with God, and that all such deals fundamentally miss the point and trap us further in the very doom we are seeking to escape.

In the film version of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the three heroes become trapped in something called “Devil’s Snare”–a vine that winds itself around its victims more tightly the more they struggle. (This happens in the book too, but they get out by lighting a fire–there’s good symbolism in that as well, to be sure.) Hermione calls out to the ever-nervous Ron, “Don’t struggle–relax.” Not an easy thing when you are being strangled to death by a sentient vine, but when he manages it, the tendrils loosen and he falls to the floor. Luther’s soteriology is, fundamentally, that we are all caught in the devil’s snare, and we only get out when we stop struggling. This is why he used extravagant, hyperbolic rhetoric such as the infamous advice to Melanchthon in 1521 to “sin boldly but believe yet more boldly.”

There are all kinds of criticisms that could be made of the way Luther interpreted and applied this concept. But for all of us who have suffered various kinds of spiritual anxiety, the fundamental insight is vitally important. Anxiety about salvation, the worry that somehow we may be displeasing God if we do or say or believe the wrong thing, is at the root of much of the evil Christians have done over the centuries. That’s why the focus on abuses and corruption is so wrongheaded, and so false to Luther, when talking about the Reformation. Much of the evil in the Church comes not from worldly prelates who don’t care about the things they profess to believe (though when that happens, it’s certainly harmful), but from people who are desperately, passionately attempting to secure their own standing with God, and who sacrifice other people on the altar of their own spiritual insecurities.

So here’s the fundamental truth in the Protestant Reformation, which Christians of all traditions should honor and take to heart: the sacrifice is already offered. The victory is already won. We do not have to convince God to save us. We have to refocus our attention from our own anguished self-importance to the objective, sovereign, unshakeable act of God in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Among all the theologians of the Christian Church, Luther may be the one who points most consistently and most inexorably to the Cross. And that is why we all need him.

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