Martin Luther’s Impact

This is another post inspired by my honors first year seminar, “Explorations of the Western Canon.”  So far we’ve engaged the “age of religion” from Augustine to Aquinas, as well as humanism such as Petrarch, Dante, Boccaccio and Erasmus.    The Church reconciled the challenge from Aristotle by making him an authority, and embracing “faith and reason.”   Yet by making the material world now something worthy of consideration, they opened a Pandora’s box.

Nowhere was this more true in Italy.   Thanks to double entry bookkeeping and connections across the continent, the Medici family in Florence became the bankers to Europe, bringing lots of money into an already prosperous Florence, Italy.   With this money came a shift towards realism.   Rediscovering the classics led people to desire the good things – better clothes, homes and food.  Life increasingly became defined by the material rather than the spiritual, humanism gave way to the realism of scholars such as Niccolo Machiavelli (1469 – 1527).

The Church fell into this head first.   After a crisis of a divided papacy in the 1300s, the Church by the 1400s was corrupt, led often by Popes who killed rivals, had illegitimate children, and cared little about the Christian faith.   As corruption grew, disagreements with Christians north in the so-called “Holy Roman Empire” intensified.   The pious in the north saw what was happening in Rome, bristled at efforts to control them, and started to question whether or not devotion to God required devotion to the Church.

By 1517 this was a powderkeg.   Ideas from people like the Dutch humanist Erasmus, who wanted to reform the church (but would oppose breaking from it) could be passed along more easily than ever, thanks to the printing press.   Discontent grew, especially as Rome undertook a major new project: to rebuild St. Peter’s basilica and have earthly splendor to rival it’s claim of spiritual authority.   Should not the center of God’s home on earth demonstrate that glory with the most spectacular structures in the world?

That rebuilding gives us what we see today when we visit the Vatican and St. Peter’s — a grand cathedral, an ornate square, and a sense of majesty that overwhelms both the faithful and non-Catholics.   Yet building this monument to the Church and papal authority was not cheap.   They had to outshine every other cathedral and square in Europe; this had to be the centerpiece of western civilization.   The church had to raise money.

Luckily the printing press helped.  The Pope had often given something called an ‘indulgence’ to people who had done great favors for the church.  It amounted to time off from purgatory, the place where you worked off your sins before being admitted to heaven.   To the average materialist of the era, this meant license to sin a bit — pay the church and you can break God’s laws, at least a little.

Up in the more pious north in the German town of Wittenberg, an Old Testament Professor at the Church University was appalled at the practice, especially when an unscrupulous guy by the name of Tetzel came with a printing press ready to raise money for the Church (and take his own middle man’s share).

This professor, Martin Luther (1483 – 1546), was not your average monk.   Not only was he devout, but he lived in constant terror that he wasn’t really saved.   He feared that his belief was motivated by fear rather than love, and this would lead God to hate him.  He would go to confession sometimes ten or more times a day (no doubt irritating some of his colleagues).   When he heard what Tetzel and the Church were doing he was enraged.  If people think they can buy a right to sin they are likely damning themselves by showing disdain for God.  The Church was leading the faithful to Satan, he believed.

Angered, he wrote a list of 95 complaints against the Church, in Latin, and on October 31, 1517 hung them on the equivalent of the university bulletin board — the church door.   At that time he didn’t plan to lead a revolt, but after some colleagues took his complaints, translated them to German, and then used the printing press to spread them, the powderkeg exploded.   This gave people the rationale to break with the political authority of the church.

It also solved Luther’s crisis of faith.   When the church came back and demanded he recant and threaten excommunication (a threat they made good on), Luther had a revelation.   God said he was saved if he believed; he should trust God’s word.   The Church had made it difficult to see that by its rules, rituals and claim to mediate between man and God.   For Luther, one could have a personal connection to God.   For him this made the Pope the anti-Christ, trying to intervene in his relationship with Christ.

Luther thus stepped up his attacks on the Church and became the leader of a revolt against over a millennium of Roman Catholic authority.   Others such as John Calvin (1509-1564) would develop other alternatives to papal authority as the protestants (those protesting Church authority) rose.   Europe would be enmeshed in war and chaos for the next 130 years as the reformation spread, people sided either against or for the Church, and the Church undertook a major effort to reform itself and end the corruption that helped motivate the revolt.

When the dust settled in 1648 Europe entered a new era.   They created a new political entity, the sovereign state, to replace the old authority structure relying on tradition and the church.   The political power of the church collapsed.  Even in places remaining loyal to the Church, like France, Spain and the Hapsburg empire in Austria, political power was now clearly in the hands of local rulers.    The Church was increasingly relegated to attend to spiritual rather than material issues in a Europe becoming less spiritual as time passed.

Martin Luther no more caused the reformation than the assassination of Franz Ferdinand caused World War I.   His actions ignited a powderkeg that would have gone off sooner or later — dissent and dissatisfaction with Rome had reached a point that the system was doomed.   Luther happened to provide the spark.

This also marked the end of an era.   It was not only the end of Catholic dominance in the West, but also of the marriage of faith and humanism exemplified by Petrarch, Dante and even Erasmus.    While Luther himself distrusted reason and preached a more Augustinian emphasis on faith, the lack of a clear authority opened up paths to question knowledge about the world without risking heresy.   During the wars of reformation Aristotelian scholasticism would give way to Francis Bacon’s scientific method (1608), Galileo would challenge the Church’s sole capacity to interpret scripture (1615 – letter to Grand Duchess Christina), and we would move from the age of faith to the age of reason.   The world would never be the same.

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  1. #1 by Modesty Press on October 1, 2011 - 22:49

    It’s something humans do. We invent and revise religions. One doesn’t find squirrels first worshipping sacred nuts and then splitting into those who adore acorns and those who prize pistachios and then fighting squirrel wars over the right nuts to worship. Only humans are smart enough to engage in such hi-jinks.

  2. #2 by Alan Scott on October 2, 2011 - 02:17

    Scott,

    That whole period is fascinating . From Dante who put everyone he hated in different parts of hell, all the way up through the 30 years war in Germany . The power and wealth and corruption of the Roman Church in the 1500s makes for good reading . Many years ago I read the Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, who was a sculptor and jeweler in the 1500s. He gives accounts of local rulers and various Popes that he had dealings with .

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