Luther’s Revolution
July 16, 2017 9:19 PM   Subscribe

 The Reformation did a lot more than transform Christianity. - " This paradox—that the Reformation could birth a peasant revolt while its instigator rallied behind the princes—is a picture of Protestantism’s confusing political legacy in miniature. Protestantism arguably brought about many of the preconditions for the Enlightenment and liberalism, and at the very least introduced Europe to a headier skepticism of authority than had prevailed before. (Indeed, Roper credits the Reformation with sparking the secularization of the West.) On the other hand, the release of significant portions of life—namely politics and economics—-from the purview of religious authority may have expanded certain freedoms, but it didn’t result in a betterment of conditions for the most disadvantaged, even as it helped transform the Christian message into something far more internal and private than that of the earlier Church."  By Elizabeth Bruenig
posted by the man of twists and turns (24 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
 
I was just reading about Martin Luther and indulgences the other day in Sarah Chayes’s book Thieves of State (2015), which describes how corruption threatens global security. She quotes #27 (of his 95 theses): “They preach only human doctrines who say that as soon as the money clinks into the money chest, the soul flies out of purgatory,” then adds “In other words, just by handing over some money to buy an indulgence, a person could, in a single brief transaction, go through all the steps that guaranteed passage to heaven... The [Catholic] church had stumbled on a huge business… This was the context in which Luther composed his theses... Without doubt, the Reformation – which ignited wars and toppled kingdoms, in one of the most sweeping upheavals in Western history – was a revolution against kleptocracy.” (pages 174+177)
posted by LeLiLo at 10:19 PM on July 16 [12 favorites]


But if there is one conclusion to be drawn from Roper’s book—as well as from two other recent works, Alec Ryrie’s Protestants: The Faith That Made the Modern World and John C. Rao’s anthology Luther and His Progeny: 500 Years of Protestantism and Its Consequences for Church, State, and Society—it’s that Luther himself was more catalyst than creator.

There's a quote out there that's been scratching at the back of my mind as I read this - I can't for the life of me remember the where and the who of it - to the effect that we tend to view revolutions as the beginning of something, whereas in reality they are more usually the end/culmination. I remember years ago, the first time I read a book on the Reformation (it was William Durant's doorstopper), it actually began with Wyclif and other figures of the 1300s, almost two centuries before Luther nailed up his Theses. Much of what the latter was saying had been said many times before - what was unique was the times in which he was speaking, in which Rome was feeling particularly fragile and testy, in which both the nobility and peasantry of Germany were, in their different ways, feeling their oats. It's as if there were a warehouse full of dynamite that people kept stopping in front of to light a cigarette - the dynamite keeps getting older and more unstable, and eventually someone happens to drop a match just so.

Not sure how I feel about the contention farther down the article that you can draw a clear line between Luther's Reformation and the dawn of modern capitalism, liberalism, and secularism. It seems rather like the ghost of Max Weber come back for a second round. There are other ways of drawing that line - either back to Catholicism, as Fukuyama does in The Origins of Political Order, where he examines the way in which familial and property rights evolved during the Middle Ages, or placing it farther on, with the breakdown of the model of Davidic sacred kingship that Luther and his noble followers seem to have had in mind (the prince as anointed head of the church, with the clergy subordinate to him, is arguably as long a way away from a "secular" political order as is papal supremacy), in the Enlightenment period.
posted by AdamCSnider at 10:37 PM on July 16 [14 favorites]


"[Luther] is caught somewhat flat-footed by the trajectory of the revolution he launched. Roper notes that major fractures would begin to appear among Luther’s followers less than a year after he defended himself at the Diet of Worms in 1521; three years later, the Peasants’ War broke out, a popular uprising fueled by the anti-authoritarian thrust of Luther’s ideas ... . he eventually endorsed the cause of the princes, declaring the rebels “mad dogs” up to “pure devil’s work.” “With this stance,” Roper writes, “the social conservatism of Luther’s Reformation became apparent.”"

When I first started seriously engaging with Luther in Protestant seminary (after regular European history in high school and a Catholic undergrad theology degree that covered the Reformation but didn't go deep), this was what struck me the most about Luther -- his utter consternation when people carried his ideas to their logical extremes. I think where it first struck me was he insisted people should be able to interpret the Bible on their own, and then people started doing that, and he was utterly horrified by the results -- "No, no, you're interpreting it wrong!"

Which is also, to follow the theme of the piece, one of the major problems with democracy in modern societies. I totally believe people should have self-determination! BUT THEY KEEP SELF-DETERMINING WRONG. (I'm not as surprised by that outcome as Luther is, though.)

"Not sure how I feel about the contention farther down the article that you can draw a clear line between Luther's Reformation and the dawn of modern capitalism, liberalism, and secularism."

Yeah, I can grasp the outlines of the argument just from familiarity with the general (and tentative) literature that's gone before, but I'm curious to go read the book and see how well it's argued.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:51 PM on July 16 [24 favorites]


I haven't read these books, but the implied view of non-Protestant sects-- Catholicism and Orthodoxy-- seems a bit overblown. Did they exert more control over society? The prototypical modern revolution occurred in Catholic France; the next in Orthodox Russia. Did Protestants have a monopoly on capitalism? It was invented in Italy and the French were pretty good at it. Did it foster free thinking? The French were as involved as the English in the development of modern science.
posted by zompist at 11:02 PM on July 16 [9 favorites]


I always read book reviews keeping in mind that the author will at some point make unsupported claims thus subtly referring the reader to those books to find out; that's the whole point of newspaper reviews, to sell books and to motivate the reader to buy them, unlike in research or scholarly articles where the intent is to substantially engage, evaluate, critique the content/author of the book.

Having said that, the best part of this piece is the last paragraph, final 2 sentences. It's basically implying that Protestantism came full circle, because it has ultimately recreated authoritarian conditions in secular, capitalist modernity in even more absolute terms.
posted by polymodus at 12:08 AM on July 17 [7 favorites]


I think where it first struck me was he insisted people should be able to interpret the Bible on their own, and then people started doing that, and he was utterly horrified by the results -- "No, no, you're interpreting it wrong!"

Yeah, I've only read a little about the Reformation, but I remember reading something about a few years ago about how the Protestants were sort of embarrassed by the Anabaptists, because people saw them as this regrettable, backwards group. I was researching a paper on European witch trials, and the historiography of that subject is interesting. You can see how the narrative around witchcraft and witch trials has been shaped by the broader rift between Catholicism and Protestantism over the years. Various historians have argued, among other things, that the dramatic increase in witch trials was a direct result of the Reformation, or because of the Counter-Reformation, or simply because of broader social factors in Europe at that time (that last one being the one I'm most inclined to agree with).

Someone recommended a paper to me, years ago, arguing that the field of religious studies, and the way we talk about religion in general, was influenced, early on, by anti-Catholic sentiments, but I lost it and haven't been able to find it since. Does that sound at all familiar to anyone?
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 1:14 AM on July 17 [1 favorite]


This is a little bit of deraillery, but I can't help noting that Johann Ecks wrote a set of criticisms of Luther's 95 Theses that Eck called "Obelisks". Luther responded by annotating them with "Asterisks":

But to cut the matter short, as you are so furious against me, I have sent some Asterisks [3] against your Obelisks, that you may see and recognize your ignorance and rashness.

Asterisk & Obelisk...
posted by chavenet at 2:50 AM on July 17 [28 favorites]


He found his Dogmatix boarish.
posted by quinndexter at 3:17 AM on July 17 [11 favorites]


Apropos to the Reformation and particularly shapes that haunt the dusk's comment about Anabaptism, I would recommend to everyone this absolutely bonkers episode of Hardcore History, which details how Anabaptists (and not the kind I learned about Sunday School growing up in a Mennonite church) took over the city of Muenster and briefly established a totalitarian theocratic city-state.
posted by ropeladder at 4:14 AM on July 17 [10 favorites]


... this was what struck me the most about Luther -- his utter consternation when people carried his ideas to their logical extremes. I think where it first struck me was he insisted people should be able to interpret the Bible on their own, and then people started doing that, and he was utterly horrified by the results -- "No, no, you're interpreting it wrong!"

The Articles of the Peasants even has a bit that says something like "We're terribly sorry if we've misinterpreted anything and if we have, please just tell us and we'll stop revolting" (seriously, that's a fairly accurate paraphrase) and Luther's like "fuck it, just kill them".
posted by hoyland at 4:28 AM on July 17 [11 favorites]


But to cut the matter short, as you are so furious against me, I have sent some Asterisks [3] against your Obelisks, that you may see and recognize your ignorance and rashness.

@lutherdatruther @flippinecks OMG 16th c. twitter so fighty! ... & when did 140 chrcrt lim. start? #pleaseletGodliveandreignoverus
posted by the quidnunc kid at 4:41 AM on July 17 [4 favorites]


Yeah, to further the modest derail about the Anabaptists: The only thing I know about the Second Helvetic Confession is the line at the end of Chapter XX which I heard paraphrased as "We are not Anabaptists, and we have nothing to do with them."
posted by Huffy Puffy at 5:24 AM on July 17 [1 favorite]


Which is also, to follow the theme of the piece, one of the major problems with democracy in modern societies. I totally believe people should have self-determination! BUT THEY KEEP SELF-DETERMINING WRONG.

The necessary condition of democracy is the possibility of getting it wrong, which is why my head all but explodes when people point to bad or unjust policies as evidence that we aren't in a "real" democracy.
posted by jpe at 5:32 AM on July 17 [5 favorites]


What an interesting review-essay; thanks for posting it! I was raised Lutheran, and part of the process of extricating myself from religion (sorry, Mom!) was discovering how awful Luther could be (though I still love singing "Ein feste Burg").

This paragraph particularly struck me:
This view of the gap between God and man helps explain Luther’s allegiance to the German princes: His theology, from the start, imbued worldly goings-on with far less spiritual significance than the Catholic Church had, and it did so in order to make Christianity a more “democratic” religion, one in which individuals enjoy unmediated access to God. But Luther’s Reformation didn’t simply undermine the church’s particularly exploitative practices; it also envisioned a rift between heaven and earth that, in Catholic thought, wasn’t nearly as wide or intractable. The “inner man should have faith in God,” Roper writes of Luther’s theology, “and we cannot arrive at faith through works of the outer man.” Each person, then, is a kind of self in a shell: One’s body is immersed in the profane and mundane grind of daily life, but one’s innermost soul is withdrawn and can be focused on heaven.
It reminded me both of Belinsky's "reconciliation with reality" (the brief period at the end of the 1830s when under the influence of Bakunin's interpretation of Hegel he decided might = right and everyone should submit to the tsar because he represented the force of History and Reality) and of the Shi'ites' centuries-long withdrawal from politics (finally ended by Khomeini's theory of the Guardianship of the Jurisprudent)—and the statement "Protestantism is, at heart, a love affair with God" is equally true of Shi'ism (a lot of Persian poems that look like passionate love poetry can equally well be interpreted as religious devotion). Lots of food for thought!
posted by languagehat at 7:36 AM on July 17 [6 favorites]


I've always been fascinated with the earlier history of Christianity, if I hadn't been more interested in how Japan industrialized in such short order and with no real outside help I'd have gone for Christian history.

Unfortunately most of what I studied ended just at the Reformation, so this article is delightful to me! And I definitely agree with AdamCSnider revolutions aren't beginnings; they're climaxes. I didn't study the Reformation itself much, but I did study the period prior to it, and it is clear that the Church was ripe for revolution.
posted by sotonohito at 9:30 AM on July 17


"I was raised Lutheran, and part of the process of extricating myself from religion (sorry, Mom!) was discovering how awful Luther could be (though I still love singing "Ein feste Burg"). "

I find most ELCA Lutherans these days are quite proud of their acknowledgement of Luther's part-time terribleness. Like, it's a badge of intellectual honesty and honor that they can simultaneously revere (some of) his teachings to the point where they take his name, but recognize that other times he was an utter shitlord, and that's okay because they can deal with intellectual complexity and human imperfection, and maybe it's even good because they're not tempted to make him an idol! (Well I mean not "good," it'd be better had he sucked less, but you know what I mean.)

I was very lucky to get my Reformation theology class in seminary from a very prominent scholar of Luther (David Steinmetz) who was also a gifted and amusing lecturer, one of my future reading projects is "enough Luther to do the man justice," maybe after I finish all these presidential biographies I've got stacked up. Anyway one of the primary things I remember from Steinmetz was that he was always joking that you can always find Luther on both sides of every issue, which is largely true. He contained multitudes. More multitudes than most people!

(I also want to read a whole bunch about Philip Melanchthon because I am profoundly interested in history's sidekicks and the guys who put the ideas into action. There's no Reformation without Melanchthon slapping Luther's ideas into useful order and publicizing them and systematizing them. Also Melanchthon is a cool name.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:08 AM on July 17 [16 favorites]


Asterisk & Obelisk...

That joke took a lot of Gaul.
posted by Strange Interlude at 11:30 AM on July 17 [14 favorites]


if revolutions are climax, what happens after? a return to the same? something unrelated and new?
posted by rebent at 1:06 PM on July 17 [1 favorite]


rebent, depends. Sadly most often what happens is a period of chaos and horror followed by something worse than came before and a long slow non-revolutionary crawl towards something better if you're lucky. And if you're unlucky another buildup of pre-revolutionary pressure followed by yet another bloody and horrible revolution in a few decades.

We Americans have a skewed view of revolutions because our own was one of the very few in the modern world that actually did immediately produce a government better than had existed previously. I'd argue that from 1500 on there were only two revolutions that actually produced functional governments that were an improvement on the status quo: the US revolution and the Meiji Restoration [1].

Mostly you wind up with a situation like Cuba where after the initial glow of the revolution has faded you find same essential situation just with different people at the top. No one serious will argue that Batista was anything but a brutal dictator exploiting Cuba for his own interests. But likewise no one serious will argue that Castro was anything but a brutal dictator exploiting Cuba for his own interests. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

You also, somewhat less commonly but not quite so rarely as the American example, get a less stable situation that changes by non-revolutionary pressure into something better. I'd argue that France experienced this sort of outcome. After decades of bloody and horrible revolution, counter-revolution, military coup, counter coup, and so on they eventually managed to use non-revolutionary pressure to change the last would be dictatorial government into something better.

[1] Note, some/many people who study Japanese history will state that the Meiji Restoration was not a revolution of any sort. Others argue it was. There are good arguments to be made both directions, but I think the side arguing that it was a revolution are correct.
posted by sotonohito at 1:33 PM on July 17 [9 favorites]


Protestantism is important, and it let to many wars and political changes, but I'm not convinced that it was really necessary for the creation of modern liberalism and capitalism. Some protestant countries became extremely successful in economic terms, but that success can be explained in other, geographic and economic, ways.

The article mentions that Protestantism influenced Law, especially regarding contracts -- are there concrete examples of this?
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 1:45 PM on July 17 [3 favorites]


Unlike pretty much everyone else with a math PhD, I'm not a mathematical descendant of Gauss. However, I am a mathematical descendant of Melanchthon. That's pretty much irrelevant here, but I do find it oddly pleasing.

(Man, that should have been my interesting fact about myself in that MeTa thread the other weekend.)
posted by hoyland at 4:29 PM on July 17 [3 favorites]


Somewhere I sense a treaty_of_westphalia.txt
posted by runcifex at 10:59 PM on July 17


Luther Blissett - Q (the book) it's about that period 100% recommend (very long, and has bloodthirst and longeurs but gripping basically, doesn't start bloodthirsty suddenly lurches that way and stays it after about a fifth in) (sorry if others mentioned)
posted by maiamaia at 2:23 PM on July 18


So ropeladder's comment got me totally addicted to Hardcore History and I'm listening to all of it, and now that I'm binge-listening, "Thor's Angels" spends a good 20 minutes on the baptism of Clovis I, the first Christian (Catholic) king of the Franks in 508 A.D., and this Dan Carlin makes the point that Clovis I "is splitting just as many heads open with his axe after he converts to Christianity as before when he was a pagan" (and I'm transcribing from memory, but that's pretty much it). Earlier in the episode he says the early Christian fanatics in the Roman Empire are refusing to serve in the Roman army. "If Clovis is the weld point between Thor and Jesus, Thor becomes Jesus as much as Jesus becomes Thor. The figure of Jesus becomes someone that's armed, and warrior-like himself."

Don't know how much credence to grant to that, but it really makes you wonder how much Christianity has been distorted through the ages through being the tool of nationalism, and Dan Carlin is really adamant that the Byzantines of the period, and even after, don't present Jesus as a "warrior god".

Kinda casts modern Protestant beliefs in a new light. Incarnation of Thor.
posted by saysthis at 3:17 PM on July 20


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