Rorate Caeli

Guest Article: Martin Luther 500 Years later: prophet or revolutionary? Key-points of a thought surprisingly current

Martin Luther 500 Years later: prophet or revolutionary? 
Key-points of a thought surprisingly current

By Fr Serafino M. Lanzetta

This day marks the quincentenary of Martin Luther’s protest with his 95 theses in Wittenberg. It is common to trace back to that 31st October 1517 – supposedly the day when Luther nailed his theses to the door of the Cathedral – the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, although not all historians share this view. In fact, the real Lutheran turning point is not to be found in Luther’s protest against indulgences, but rather in his “Tower experience” (or of “the latrine”, as Luther also puts it, cf. Table Talks, 3232c), which will represent the Durchbruch, the ‘compelling passage’ to the Reformation and will be ‘official’ with the year 1520, when Luther composed his De captivitate babilonica Ecclesiae, offering his new doctrine about sacraments in relation to grace.

The event of this anniversary has been greeted with unexpected emotion and enthusiasm in the Catholic world. For example, Cardinal Kasper, in a recent little book on Luther from an ecumenical prospective, has encouraged us to look at the former Augustinian monk as a new St. Francis of Assisi who wanted simply to live the Gospel with his brethren; Luther should be enumerated “in the long tradition of Catholics reformers that have preceded him”. Very recently, Msgr. Galantino, the secretary of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, said that “the [Lutheran] Reform was an event of the Holy Spirit”.

Also among writers and scholars Luther is praised as a ‘Catholic dissident’. This is the title of Peter Stanford’s book, in which he makes Luther, among other accomplishments, the prophet of Vatican II in foreseeing the equality of the people of God rooted in a ‘shared priesthood’ of all Catholics. “That’s pure Luther”, Stanford says, but perhaps not remembering that the common priesthood of all faithful is not a ‘shared one’ horizontally speaking, as for Luther, but it derives from a consecration of all people in Christ out of their Baptism. Above all this, common priesthood is ontologically distinguished from the Sacrament of Holy Orders and hierarchically subordinated to it in order to comply with its nature: exactly what Luther denied with his new theological vision of a Church without hierarchy (basically without the Pope) and without the Sacred Order, considered a source of power for the Romanists. Luther wanted a Church without the papal magisterium so as to interpret the Sacred Scriptures with no other mediation. He claimed his own authority based on personal understanding of the Bible. But the only way to tear down that Roman wall was to abolish the Sacrament of Orders and to state that everyone was a priest, a bishop and even a pope. The ‘shared priesthood’ of Luther is the result of this personal vision, putting together the search for a ‘magisterial free zone’ by calling on the Nobility of the German Nation and the sacraments.

However, one might wonder why this link between Luther and Vatican II? An American scholar, R.R. Gaillardetz, furnishes us with an answer: “The Second Vatican Council was an event of unparalleled significance in the history of modern Catholicism. One has to go back to the Protestant Reformation to find an event that matches Vatican II’s impact on Roman Catholicism”. Perhaps it is only about impact, but it is not honest anyway to assimilate Catholic teachings to Luther’s revolutionary view. Of this revolution, rather than prophecy, I wish to give some clues, agreeing with Richard Rex’s point: that of Luther was a new religion. In a recent piece in “The Tablet” (14 October 2017) he writes: “The Papal legate and theologian Cardinal Cajetan intuitively identified the seeds of a new religion in it when he met Luther at Augsburg in October 1518. […] As it turned out, Cardinal Cajetan got it right. It was a new religion” (see also his just published book, The making of Martin Luther).

Some hints on Luther’s interior torment

It is worth considering a detail of Luther’s life before approaching his vision. According to Heinz Shilling – a German historian whose biography on Luther is held as one of the most accurate – Luther prayed the rosary, meditated, sang the Psalms until getting exhausted. Yet these extenuating exercises of piety led him to despair since he believed not to be able to offer them as he should, becoming the object of God’s wrath without His forgiveness. It was not about mulieres, that is a problem of chastity, but a real deep moral suffering, like a knot that one can interpret as a distance from God. The “Tower experience” was not only light to his mind but also a liberation from a burden. His prayer to find a merciful God was finally heard. In the tower, he had an instantaneous comprehension of Romans 1:17: “The just man lives by faith” and could later recount, in one of his Table Talks: “When I learned that the righteousness of God is his mercy, and that he makes us righteous through it, a remedy was offered to me in my affliction” (n. 4007).

This new comprehension of the relationship between justice and mercy – of a justice to be now seen from mercy and only as something passive that renounces punishment – is indeed the new foundation stone of Luther’s Christian building. This experience was refreshing as well as convincing about the fact that mercy finally could be offered to him as justice through faith. Apart from this disputable theological position that makes justice withdraw into mercy to the point of losing its identity, what we notice here is the real turn: Luther made his subjective request of a merciful God into the architectural principle of his theology. This will mark a revolution in theology and in the history of thought, in a sense it will be the very beginning of Modernity: the precedence of the subject, then of conscience, over the object, over good and God himself. Here the primacy of the subject and conscience over truth and good will find its first root. In this view, Luther’s declaration at Worms before the Emperor Charles V of Augsburg (1521) is truly interesting:

“Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience” (Luther’s works, vol. 32: Career of the Reformer II, Fortress Press 1958, p. 112).

Cardinal Kasper won’t be happy with the designation of Luther as the father of Modernity for the fact that while Modernity is a big claim to freedom but ‘autonomously’, Luther’s freedom was instead in search of God. For that reason, he would not be the forerunner of the Modern way, but rather the last heir of the medieval thought about the religious unity of the societas christiana. My question is simply this: is there much difference between an autonomous freedom as precedence over truth, and a theonomous one as captive to the Word of God? There is only one difference in consideration of the different level upon which they lay: the former on a natural level and the latter on a supernatural one, but both are associated in the same precedence of the subject over the object, without the mediation of a metaphysical reason so dear to the medieval people. A freedom captive to the Word of God will also be called on to justify any sort of freedom, whether to contradict the perennial Magisterium of the Church or to apparently cover one’s sin or one’s weakness in search of a Christ beyond the Church and the sacraments.    

Nominalism or God’s arbitrium

Luther follows the Philosophical stream of Nominalism that he knew via the ockhamism of Gabriel Biel (1410-1495), becoming anyway his great enemy in relation to the doctrine of justification. Luther will declare that his “dear master” was William of Ockham (end of 13th Century – 1349/50), a Franciscan philosopher and theologian, who became professor at Oxford in 1319. For Ockham, the reality is inexpressible in its universality. All that exists is individual. Then there is no nature or essence, but things that exist are only singular entities, immediately created by the will of God. Since any individual being existing is directly linked to God’s will with no ‘reason’ in itself, this divine will cannot be but absolute, that is with no other reason than the fact of manifesting itself as it is, necessarily and with no understandable reason. The process of reasoning is ultimately useless because all we can know is the reality as plurality of individuals, but we never know the reason behind this plurality; our concepts to identify existing entities are simply conventional sounds for a pragmatic scope, only a flatus vocis. Therefore, the words that we pronounce would have no meaning because no link to the reality is given other than the fact of pointing to something. Is this assumption not a great deal today?

Luther will make this nominalistic view his own: only God is necessary and whatever he does is necessary and absolute, with no understandable reason. One cannot discuss what God has planned or does because there is no reason other than his divine will. Let us not forget that reason as such for Luther is of no value: it would take him back to consider a God beyond the simple (blind) acceptance of his healing mercy. This vision will be crucial for the problem of freedom.

The problem of free will or of a self-contradicting God

For Luther, in fact, “free will is a pure lie”. In the De servo arbitrio (1525) that Luther writes in opposition to Erasmus of Rotterdam, who had previously written De libero arbitrio against Luther, the German revolutionary acknowledges that Erasmus was right in pointing to the essence of all problems, the real thing: the problem of free will. Free will does not exist and is only a challenge of man’s pride to God. If one had the possession of free will, Luther explains, he could grasp God’s inscrutability. But since God is unfathomable, man is not free and whatever he does he his ‘obliged’ to do it. The obligation in the end comes from God’s necessity. In other words, free will does not exist, but necessity, and the only possible way to embrace this necessity is faith. Faith makes us accept even contradictions moving us to trust in Christ’s saving power.

Actually, it is the contradiction itself that justifies faith and makes man discover his creatureliness and his weakness before God’s majesty. For Luther God shows Himself for what He really is precisely in contraposition (or contradiction), i.e. sub contraria specie. Luther inaugurates a dialectical process, which is a polarization of the veiling and unveiling of the mystery. The power of God can only be understood in his total weakness and abandonment of the Cross, as the grace of his love is discovered in the rejection of it by the sin and offenses of mankind. The theology of the Cross is essentially a process of ‘revelation and concealment’ of God always under his contrary. Love requires hatred to be fully revealed to a soul, as faith its negation and to even be held in captivity by man’s doubts and sins. The more faith is obscure the more it is convincing. It could sound strange, but God can only be appreciated as God when his negation is affirmed. God’s negation is sin.

Christ can only be loved as a loving Saviour if he permanently fights against the devil. Strictly speaking one cannot have a clear idea of Christ without the devil. One cannot be saved by Christ from hell if Christ himself is not condemned by my sin to hell. Contradiction here has its final justification in a self-contradicting God, who in order to save me has to place Himself against Himself: the battle of sin and grace! This opens up the way to Hegel’s understanding of the life of the spirit (der Geist) as a dialectical process where the affirmation is overcome by the negation in order to find its synthesis in a wider and better good (the dialectical sum of good and evil).
This theological formulation of a contradiction elevated to a principle of knowledge is however the overturn of the so called ‘negative theology’ into a theology of a self-contradicting God: grace and sin can co-exist because, ultimately, they are rooted in God’s opposition of the intellect against His will. Therefore, humans are not free to choose not to sin, while God is not bound by any rational disposition to act other than his divine (arbitrary) will, infallible and immutable. Hence, we cannot do anything else than what God has established since eternity. Here there is the root of Calvin’s predestination theory.

Grace that covers sin: the problem of justification

The absence of freedom is the exaltation of faith. But a question arises: can faith be satisfied in not grasping anything of God’s own mystery, blindly accepting the mystery of an eternal divine disposition? Where is the freedom of faith to even step forward and say “I believe”? Faith is then not a free human act but imposed by necessity. This of course will facilitate the way to secularization, namely to give up faith in the name of freedom and laicization of a State. Nevertheless, the role of faith (without knowledge) in Luther’s religious system is interestingly of great value. What is this about? It is important to make reference first to original sin that for Luther is also and above all a “radical sin”, identified as the rebellion of flesh. Since man sinned against God and the inclination to sin – the concupiscence of flesh is so strong, man lives perpetually in sin. Whatever one does is sinful. “Every good work is sin” writes Luther against Latomus (one of the theologians of the university of Louvain), and “sin, as long as we live, inheres essentially in good works, just as the ability to laugh inheres in man” (Luther’s works, vol. 32, Against Latomus, cit., pp. 168-169.186-187). Out of original sin man is captive to sin as such. Nothing can help him be healed other than firmly believing that he has been saved by Christ. Faith is a “cordial trust”, the entrustment of one’s heart to God through Christ.

Moreover, faith is considered only as a personal effort, as the act of believing in God, more than the way to consent to truths to believe in order to be saved. Faith is the way to cordially believe that my sins have been forgiven and because of it justice is outpoured as forgiving love. Justice won’t be present in me as my inheritance – nothing can adhere to human nature other than my sin – but it will be granted to me insofar as I firmly believe. Justice precisely belongs to Christ and is given to me as a temporal loan, whose duration is up to the intensity of faith. In a sense, it is faith that produces grace and no longer grace that produces faith. But what about the first infusion of faith in Baptism by grace? If faith is necessary as the alternative to freedom, Luther has to conclude that grace is as necessary as faith. This is the same as to say that grace is no longer a gift but a right! But if a right grace is no longer, because grace means gratuitousness.

Luther’s vision of human nature is one of deep pessimism: a man is condemned by the absence of his free will to commit sins that infect permanently his soul. No medicine, no hospital is able to heal a sinner so that he can finally go back home and be a happy person. The man of Luther is permanently condemned to live in a field hospital, where only first aid and short term therapy are granted: a full check-up and intensive therapy are not in use simply because they would have no effect on the sick. They simply have no meaning.

Is this theology with its strong philosophical background a reform of Catholic doctrine or rather the start of a new belief? I definitely agree with Richard Rex: it is a new religion.