Continuing a series of topical excerpts from my book “Beyond Creed: From Religion to Spirituality”
“The very feeble decrees of the Roman pontiffs which have appeared in the last four hundred years prove that the Roman Church is superior to all others. Against these stand the history of the last eleven hundred years. The text of divine Scripture, and the decree of the Council of Nicaea, the most sacred of all councils.”
Thus Martin Luther at the dawn of the Reformation.
Penitence must be taken as the dominant starting point of Luther’s thinking.
“The entire life of believers,” he declared, “is to be one of penitence.”
And what were the marks of this stance in the opinion of the monk turned firebrand?
“Mortifications of the flesh,” he wrote, “and hatred of the self.”
If one were to take this advocacy of abjectness as a counsel to prepare one for a life of worldly holiness, one would be very wrong.
Worldly holiness entails choice and compromise, negotiation and wisdom, the sorts of things that Jesus advocated in the Sermon on the Mount and that the Epistle of James reiterates in a later part of the canon.
But for Luther, as for Augustine, freedom in this life is a chimera:
“Free will after the fall,” says he, “exists in name only, and as long as it does what it is able to do, it commits a mortal sin.”
Luther did not draw his views from thin air. The text of divine Scripture, already alluded to, was the source of his central doctrine.
But we shall soon see that Luther, though he translated the Bible and gave it to the German people, was selective in his reading of it, confining his central theological premises to imputations based upon his very narrow reading not only of Scripture but of his central source, the Apostle Paul.
Here is Luther:
“The person who believes he can obtain grace by doing what is in him adds sin to sin, so that he becomes doubly guilty … It is certain that a man must despair of his own ability before he can receive the grace of Christ.”
What lies behind this utterance, of course, is vintage Paul — signed and certified canon, which is why it is dishonest to locate creedal messianism anywhere but in the seminal written documents of Christendom.
From the writing of Paul, Luther drew mainly texts that spoke to his own experience.
Indeed it might be said that Luther’s tormented spiritual journey, like Paul’s and Augustine’s, was the existential basis for many of the doctrines that came to dominate Protestantism.
We must possibly lay a portion of the pathological guilt of modernity at Luther’s feet.
Luther grew up understanding God to be stern, implacable and wrathful.
Such a deity could never be pleased and Luther’s striving for affirmation from this God was a succession of futilities.
Only in the most severe and sweeping understanding to be found in Paul did Luther locate solace.
Paul said that Christ took upon himself every jot and title of God’s seething rage at humankind’s paltry efforts to please Him.
To be justified by faith was, for Luther, to embrace ones righteousness as a gift, an act of grace, signed sealed and delivered “in Christ”.
If the mean-spirited God evoked by Luther was not the God described by Jesus, this fact did not unduly exercise the reformer.
Luther’s deity preserved the creedal messianic formula.
The formula provided a convenient foil against the winds of human freedom that were beginning to disturb the princes who were his patrons.
(Where one’s patron is, one’s heart may well be also!)
To preach a Lutheran gospel to a nation moving away from Rome and toward its own imperial notion of selfhood was to afford a gentle transition, comparatively speaking, a transition not different from the wedding of the
Nicaean consciousness to the purposes of secular Rome.
The transition was gentle because it liberated people from the most noxious Roman practices while maintaining without changing the underlying Pauline-Augustinian ideology.
Lutheran trinitarianism was a churchly response to the winds of free enquiry and change that were blowing through Renaissance Europe.
It was also a way of closing the door to a counter-concept of gospel based on the perception that, if one had to choose, Jesus was more likely a Jewish prophet healer preacher who died as a threat to the world as it was, and is, than he was a self-anointed sacrificial lamb who knew from the very dawn of time that God’s anger and its abatement was the reason for coming and telling parables and performing acts of upbuilding that suggested not God’s anger but His Love.
Luther had an existential problem and it became in some respects the sad existential problem of the nation he helped to create.
But Paul provided an out and Luther took it and in his genius elevated it to the very pinnacle of theological respectability.
It was perfect.
The church would survive as a staging area for those who gravitated to the new declension.
The rest of the world would, and could, go to hell.
Within this creedal messianic institutional framework, even the well-meaning doctrines that Luther promulgated were sullied.
The priesthood of all believers became an option in a church structure skewed to a new version of priestly and ministerial authority.
The freeing-up and making available of Scripture was more in name than in fact.
Luther did just enough to break with the Roman Catholic Church and not alienate the German Princes.
But Luther was not so obtuse that he could not understand what was taking place. Something within him enabled him to see the compromise.
His soaring intellect was required now to perform a human act of justification so that all would not be lost in a massive unveiling of sheer hypocrisy.
Luther was up to the challenge and his solution sealed the fate of Germany.
He drew upon Augustine but the construct was his own. It comes down to us as the infamous doctrine of the two realms.
For Luther, the realm of this earth was damned, evil, and fraught with deception and peril, condemned by God and overrun with the angry and the discontented.
The world was fallen and lost. Anyone who saw it differently was deluded.
Anyone who sought to tread a Godly path, independent of submission to Luther’s version of the truth, was a fool and mortally damned.
The earth was the first of Luther’s two realms.
The second realm was not this world at all.
It was the Roman Catholic Heaven, Augustine’s City of God.
Oh, it would be a Protestant version, cleared of the celestial bureaucracy and architecture posited by Rome.
The indulgence tollbooths were removed along with Purgatory.
Here, in this sanitized Heaven, the saints would find a perfection difficult to imagine and infinitely impossible to glimpse or attain in this world.
To enter this second realm one must simply be penitent and wait.
Waiting might involve turning to one of the new Protestant churches to hear homilies on one’s insufficiency, certain no major reference would be made to the notion that Jesus desired God’s will to be done upon this planet.
If one needed guidance in this world, where the major sins were so established as to be normative, why one could cite a host of minor sins and lesser vices, the performance of which should produce self- mortification while the principalities and powers remained undisturbed in their hellish pursuit of the major crimes.
In practice, Luther produced a privatized church that ceded without protest all worldly authority to the state.
In the case of Lutheranism, this meant subjection to the German princes.
One has only to read Hans Kohn’s devastatingly timeless works on nationalism to detect the neat mesh between the Lutheran doctrine of the two realms and the growth of an idolatrous celebration of the Germanic that has
certainly been one of the principal manifestations of evil in all of recorded history.
For Luther, the world being a bad place, one was compelled to use the sword to crush rebellions of any and all sorts.
The same omnipotent authority structure Augustine had posited to justify official killing was passed down intact to Martin Luther.
Since the peasants revolted against the princes on Luther’s watch, it was no surprise that the first major theologian of the Reformation sided with the princes. Given the doctrine that he had so laboriously promulgated on the basis of a highly selective parsing of Scripture, he could “do no other”.
A reading of the actions of the Lutheran church in Germany during the Hitler era bears out this seemingly harsh portrayal of Lutheran ideology.
The very self-abnegation that Luther required of his adherents was fertile emotional ground for the rise of a humiliated populace following the imposition of seemingly draconian terms following World War One.
Within Scripture, according to Luther, with certain exceptions, such as the Letter of James, there is a malevolent song that Luther never criticized. It is the song of virulent condemnation of the race and tradition from which Jesus sprang and whose prophetic vigor he manifested in full degree.
So when Nazis paved the way for the mass incineration of Jews, creedal messianism offered no defense.
Which is why the modern documentary to end all documentaries, Shoah, finally sits back and allows that ultimately it was Christian theology that fired the ovens.
Is this too harsh?
Say that ideas do not guide history and I will cede you a point.
Say that there were noble Lutheran exceptions and I will cede you a point, though I will argue that they were exceptions because they did not breathe the anti-Semitism inherent in the Lutheran declension.
Say that the charge may have been fair against some, but not against all of the good Lutherans who did not know what was happening at Auschwitz and Flossenberg, and I will tell you that such goodness can be measured by its practical adherence to the doctrine of the two realms today.
When things become incomprehensible and complex in the world, the instinctive ostrich reaction, the turning inward, the throwing up of hands, the see no evil hear no evil attitude — these too make up the shameful legacy and the effects of such behavior can destroy life as surely as the demonic flames of Hitler did.
What an incredible inversion! Here we have pristine and elevating terms like the priesthood of all believers and justification by faith alongside a performance which at many points is in total contradiction to the high value historians of the Reformation have placed on Luther’s contribution.
Surely now a more balanced history is in order.
Surely now it is time to see Luther whole and acknowledge what, in the baggage he carried with him, was noxious and what was not.
But measure that against the pain of the part of the church that rejected the Barmen Declaration out of hand.
Measure it against the pain of a world without moral compass, faced by a church whose founder saw no reason to provide it with one.
The Nazi depredations and excoriation of Jews as a scapegoat, and the proclamation of a Hun master race, must be seen as the most terrible confirmation of the power of creedal messianism to dull humanity, hamstring freedom and subject the world to lemming-like acquiescence.
The only answer to this is that of Jacques Derrida: We must see the need for a change of thinking, a sea change, as unprecedented. And the thinking we do must reject creedal messianism and its Lutheran incarnation, the doctrine of the two realms and the devaluation of the human.