Greetings to all,
This will be the first of what should be weekly updates about what we are doing in class. My goal is to have these updates to you no later than Sunday afternoon, so if you do not receive one by Monday, do let me know. My purpose is to let you have a glimpse of the classroom so you can keep abreast of what we are learning and discussing. I hope you will join in the conversation with us as we move through the year.
We spent part of the first week reviewing and setting the context for the Reformation. For the new students, this meant entering a story somewhere in the middle, which can always be difficult. For some of the returning students, summer has understandably flushed some of their brains. Any student who feels shaky on the medieval and Renaissance period may want to look here and here, or perhaps other places in the “9th Grade” category in the archives here at astickinthemud.
As I mentioned at orientation, this class primarily involves understanding what it means to transition from the pre-modern to the modern world. We tend to use “modern” as a synonym for “good,” and indeed, students may feel that the changes from 1500-1850 represent a substantial improvement for mankind. However, others may just as legitimately feel that we lost a great deal of our Christian heritage as a result of this transition. Understanding both sides of this debate is one of the key goals of this class, regardless of where students stand on this transition.
The transition can be best understood I think in the following ways:
- The pre-modern world believed that time and space had a meaning of its own apart from our own actions, whereas the modern world, in the words of scholar Charles Taylor, believes in the homogeneity of time and space.
For example, some churches today have spaces that they use for basketball on one day, picnics on another day, and worship on Sundays. The meaning of the space depends on the meaning the people give it. The space has no “meaning” in itself.
The pre-modern world believed in sacred time (Lent, Paschaltide, Advent, etc.) and sacred space. No one would every think of playing basketball inside Chartes Cathedral. The space has a meaning apart from us, inherent in the nature of the space itself.
- The modern world puts a lot more emphasis on the individual than the pre-modern world, which had a more communal and historically oriented approach to meaning.
For example, many in the modern world feel comfortable with the idea than anyone can interpret the scriptures, which empowers the laity to read for themselves. On the flip side, however, the modern world has a harder time deciding which interpretation is correct. The pre-modern world had little concept of the individual and derived meaning and understanding from the past more so than the present.
No Church historian, whether Protestant or Catholic, believes that things in the Church in 1500 A.D. were fine. Many wanted reform in the Church and believed it was desperately needed. Among scholars and contemporaries, disagreements come in the following areas:
1. When did the problems in the Church begin? Some say that it began with the popes of the 15th century. Some say it began with the Great Schism of 1378. Some argue that it can be traced to the Avignon Papacy, or to the papal decree ‘Unam Sanctum.’ Some go as far back as the Investiture Controversy of 1077. Some reformers would want to go back further still, and argued that the problems began with Constantine in the 4th century A.D. How people answered this question influenced what they believe was the root problem the church faced.
2. What indeed was the root problem the Church faced? Was it a question of the ethics of the Church hierarchy? Was the issue mainly theological? Or was it the Church’s long involvement with politics? Or perhaps, all three? Each choice represented a new fork in the road, one that would involve different choices and divergent paths. For example, if you believed the Church’s problems to be recent, you likely would focus on the Church’s moral lapses. The further back one found the so-called “root” of the problem, the more theological and institutional the criticisms, the more radical the operation required to correct the abuses.
Another issue was not only how far reform should go, but, cut free from Church hierarchy, what criteria should they use to make theological decisions? What authority should tradition be granted? Is it just “What the Bible means to me?” If it is more than that, what is it? Reformers at the time did not always agree on this question, and the results of their disagreement would do much to shape events throughout Europe.
Despite its fairly innocuous beginning when Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenburg, the Reformation would snowball into a revolution. Martin Luther had all of the necessary qualities that revolutionaries need. He possessed great courage and great belief in his convictions. He had charisma and keen intelligence. The same qualities that make for good revolutionaries, however, do not make for good diplomats. This type needs patience, flexibility, and the ability to see many points of view. Historically speaking, very, very few have been good at both.* This too will have a significant impact on Protestantism in particular, and the history of Europe in general. Below I include some quotes from Martin Luther (and others) that illustrate Luther’s keen insights, sense of humor, temper, and stubbornness.
Next week we will see how the Reformation spreads throughout northern Europe, and the different guises reform takes. If we believe that religion forms the heart of any civilization, the religious upheaval in Europe in 16th century will have significant ripple effects into all areas of life. We shall examine some of these things next week.
*The only two I can think of are Nelson Mandela and George Washington. Can anyone else think of others?
I think his [95 Theses] will please all, except a few regarding Purgatory who make their money thereby. I perceive that the monarchy of the Roman high priest is the plague of Christendom, yet I hardly know if it is expedient to touch this open sore. — Erasmus in 1518
Most blessed Father, I offer myself prostrate at the feet of your Holiness, with all that I am and have. . . .I will acknowledge your voice as the voice of Christ, residing and speaking in you. — Martin Luther to Pope Leo, 1518
Dearest brother in Christ, your epistle, showing the keeness of your mind and breathing a Christian spirit, was most pleasant to me. Christ gave you his spirit, for His glory and the world’s good. [My advice] is that quiet argument may do more than wholesale condemnation. Keep cool. Do not get angry. — Erasmus 1519, in a letter to Luther
Luther’s books are everywhere and in every language. No one would believe the influence he now has on men. — Erasmus, 1521
Unless I am convicted by the testimony of Sacred Scripture or by evident reason . . . I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against my conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. — Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms, 1521
If we strike thieves with the gallows, robbers with the sword, heretics with fire, why do we not much more attack these masters of perdition, these cardinals, these popes, and this sink of Roman Sodom . . . and wash our hands in their blood? — Martin Luther, 1520
It would be better if every bishop were murdered, every foundation of every cloister rooted out, then one soul destroyed, let alone that all souls should be lost due to their trumpery and idolatry. – Martin Luther, 1521
Begone, unclean swine! Touch not the altars with your desecrated hands! The cup is full. See ye not that the breath of liberty is stirring? – John Hutten, German priest speaking to the Roman bishops
The common man is learning to think, and contempt of princes is gathering among the multitude. Men will not suffer your tyranny much longer. — Luther to the German princes
You lords, let down your stubborness and oppression, and give the poor air to breathe. The peasants, for their part, should let themselves be instructed, and [withdraw some of their demands]. – Luther to German Nobility
Forward! Forward while the fire is hot! Let your swords be ever warm with blood. . . . The godless have no right to live except as they are permitted to do so by the elect. – Thomas Munster, to his peasant army, 1524
In my former book, I did not venture to judge the peasants, since they had offered to be set right and instructed, [but they did not listen]. Any man against whom sedition can be proved is outside the law of God, so that the first who can slay him does right and well. Therefore let everyone who can smite, slay, and stab. There is nothing more devilish than a rebel. – Luther, ‘Against the Robbing and Murderous Horde Of Peasants.’ – 1525
He who will not hear God’s Word when it is spoken with kindness must hear the headsman when he comes with his axe. . . . Of mercy I will give no heed but to God’s will in His word. If He will have wrath and not mercy, what are you to do with mercy? Did not Saul sin by showing mercy upon Malek? — Luther, ‘An Open Letter concerning the Hard Book Against the Peasants.
Why should we pity men more than God does? – Philip Melancthon on the destruction of the Anabaptists
Anyone who is aware of [Anabaptist] teaching and preaching must give names to the magistrate, in order that the offender may be taken and punished. Those aware of such breeches of this order and do not give information, shall be punished by loss of life or property. – Edict of Saxony, 1528
Quotes from Luther on Various Topics:
All the articles of our Christian faith are in the presence of reason sheerly impossible, absurd and false. Reason is the greatest enemy faith has. She is the Devil’s greatest whore.
The Bible teaches us to feel, hope, grasp, and comprehend faith, hope, and charity far otherwise than mere human reason can.
The human will is a beast of burden. If God mounts it, it goes where He wills, and if Satan, it goes where he wills. Nor can it choose the rider.
Christianity is nothing but a continual exercise in feeling that though you sin, you have no sin. It is enough to know that the Lamb bears the sins of the world, whether we commit a thousand fornications a day or as many murders.
Man is as unfree as a block of wood, a lump of clay, a pillar of salt.
I do not admit that my doctrine can be judged by anyone. He who does not receive my doctrine cannot be saved.
Seek out the society of your boon companions, drink, play talk bawdy, amuse yourself. One must sometimes commit a great sin out of hate for the Devil, so as not to give you the chance to feel scrupulous over mere nothings.
Sin powerfully. God can only forgive a hearty sinner.
I eat like a Bohemian and drink like a German. Thanks be to God.
I seek and accept joy where I can find it. We now know, thank God, that we can be happy with a good conscience.
Our loving God wills that we eat, drink, and be merry.
Dances are instituted that courtesy may contracted between young men and girls. I myself would attend them sometimes, but the youth would whirl less giddily if I did.
I would not give up my humble musical gift for anything, however great. Next to theology, there is no art that can be compared to music, for it alone, after theology, gives us rest and joy of heart.
Christians need not altogether shun plays because there is sometimes coarseness and adulteries therein; for such reasons they would have to give up the Bible too.
If God can forgive me for having crucified Him . . . He can also bear with me for occasionally taking a good drink to honor Him.
My enemies examine all that I do. If I break wind in Wittenberg they smell it in Rome.
Punish if you must, but let the sugar plum go with the rod.
Take women from their housewifery and they are good for nothing. But there she can do more with the children with one finger than a man with two fists.
My Lord Katie (his pet name for his wife Katharine).
I wish you peace and grace in Christ, and send you my infirm love. Dear Katie, I was weak on the road to Eisleben, but that was my own fault. . . . now, thank God I am so well that I am sore tempted by fair women and care not how gallant I am. God bless you.
I never work better than when I am inspired by anger.
Luther the Anti-Semite?
I would not have the Gospel defended by violence or murder. Since belief and unbelief is a matter of everyone’s conscience . . . the secular power should be content to attend to its own affairs and constrain no one by force.
Since our fools, the popes, bishops, sophists and monks, those donkeys have dealt poorly with the Jews. Indeed, had I been a Jew and seen such idiots, I would rather be a hog than a Christian. I would advise everybody to deal kindly with the Jews.
And let whosoever can throw brimstone and pitch upon [the Jews]; if one could hurl hellfire so much the better. . . .And this must be done, so that our Lord will see that we are indeed Christians. Let them be driven like mad dogs out of the land.
Opinions of Luther
Luther is the ‘Morning Star’ of Wittenberg. – Mutantius, contemporary of Luther
Luther has all the fury of a maniac. – Mutantius, spoken about a year after the previous comment
If we judge greatness by influence – which is the least subjective test we can use – we may rank Luther with Copernicus, Voltaire, and Darwin as the most powerful personalities in the modern world. – Will Durant