The Protestant Revolution in Theology, Law, and Community (Part II)
Germanic Civilization and Nationalism
Although I agree with Berman that the underlying significance of the Ninety-five Theses was Luther’s call for the abolition of ecclesiastical authority and jurisdiction of the Roman Catholic Church, I will supplement his argument with an analysis of Luther’s Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation.4 In this treatise Luther offered a reform program of how to improve the Christian estate that no longer recognized the distinction between the laity and the clergy: to reform the practice, theology, and governance of the universal Christian church; to reform the German national church; to reform German social and economic policies. Undergirding this reform program was Luther’s nationalism that sought Germanic independence from Rome, for which his theology provided a usable outlet.
In reforming the practice, theology, and governance of the universal Christian church, Luther invoked his doctrine of the priesthood of all believers: “All Christians are truly of spiritual estate; and there is no other difference between them than of office alone . . . that is so because we have one baptism, one gospel, and one faith, and are all equally Christian (Eph. 4:5). For baptism, gospel, and faith make all spiritual and one Christian people.” There was no distinction of believers, especially between the clergy and public officials, for the “temporal power is baptized just as we are, and it has the same faith and gospel.” With respect to rulers, the prince was “ordained by God to punish evildoers and to protect the pious; hence, it should exert its office unhampered throughout the body of Christianity to whomsoever it may apply, be it pope, bishop, priest, monk, or nun.” For Luther, the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of church became subsumed by the state.
Since every person belonged to the priesthood of all believers, every person also was universally called. Not only princes were called by God to rule but also “the shoemaker, the smith, and the peasant” have their own “office and work of their craft and are all the same priests and bishops.” Furthermore, this universal calling did not make one profession superior to another: “Though we are all equal as priests, nobody must push forward and undertake to do (what we have all equal power to do) without our approval and election. For what is common, nobody must arrogate to himself without will and command of the community.” The theological basis for the doctrine of universal calling was the notion that the body of Christ consisted of a single unit: “Christ does not have two bodies, or two kinds of body, the one temporal, the other spiritual. There is one head; and it has one body.”
Thus in the first section of the Address, Luther elucidated two principles: the priesthood of all believers; and the universal calling that made every office in Christian society of equal importance. The obvious conclusion from these two principles was the worthlessness of the clerical office of the Roman Catholic Church. But also implicit was the corollary of individual authority in interpreting the Bible, which potentially could lead to anarchy, as demonstrated by the Radical Reformation. Figures like Zwickau, who claimed that he had communicated directly with God and no longer needed the Bible because of God’s grace bestowed upon him, were a serious political and social threat to Christian society. However, Luther was so preoccupied with the faults in Roman Catholic education and practice that he had ignored this problem of anarchy in the Address.
In the second series of reforms, Luther wanted to create a German national church that was independent of Rome. To accomplish this feat, Luther proclaimed that states should prohibit clerical payments to Rome, prevent foreign appointments to German offices, confirm bishops by neighboring dioceses rather than from Rome, decide cases within the state instead of ecclesiastical courts, halt Rome’s seizure of property, reduce mendicant monasteries to 10 percent of their present number, put an end to papal authority over the emperor except for spiritual matters, and so on. Luther also catalogued specific religious practices that should be abolished in the German national church because of their corrupt nature. In articles thirteen to twenty-three, Luther abolished the practice of indulgences, pilgrimages to Rome, holidays (except Sunday), fasts, masses dedicated to the dead, and other such rituals and practices. He concluded this section with attacks on Aristotelian education, papal authority, and the Holy Roman Empire, the last article which deserves some attention. According to Luther, Rome had been irrelevant to world politics, with France, Spain, Venice, and Turkey then playing a significant role. Furthermore, the historical and legal authority invested in the pope was fraudulent, for the title of the emperor originally belonged to Constantinople, so that the pope had no authority to transfer the title to the current emperor. As a result, the western empire of Christendom was a legal fiction based on an illegal transaction.
In spite of this fraud, the existence of a western empire based on the Germanic nation was a historical fact, and the empire’s authority should be based on this fact rather than anything that was associated with Rome; consequently, the Germans and not the pope should have control over the title of emperor as well as the land. It is clear from the list of concerns that Luther cited that they have more to do with the protection of German civilization from Roman intervention and exploitation than ecclesiastical reform. If there were any doubt on this matter, article twenty-six focused solely on reforming social and economic policies: luxury food imports and sumptuary laws should be stopped; usury should be curtailed, if not outright banned; land should be cultivated more efficiently for the livelihood of the people; overconsumption of food and drink should be discouraged not only for moral reasons but for economic ones. From the Address it would seem that Luther was more concerned about social, economic, and political reform for the Germanic people than ecclesiastical reform.
Protestant Faith, Works, and Love
From the scholastic perspective, Luther’s doctrine of justification by grace through faith alone was problematic for two reasons: it attacked the doctrine of justification by grace through good works; and it attacked Aquinas’s doctrine of faith formed by love (fi des caritate formata). Luther was able to partially counter the first criticism with his doctrine of the universal calling; but he failed to address the second. In his Summa contra gentiles, Aquinas defined the essence of faith as the friendship between God and man, a friendship which required an intellectual apprehension of the beatific vision, towards which man’s life, will, and reason were oriented (C.116).
The relationship of friendship therefore was mutual in nature, with the presumption of God’s love for man as an act of grace through which man’s nature became “supernaturally” formed by God. Faith therefore was an experience of God’s grace that formed man’s orientation towards love. By lacking a necessary intellectual component, Luther’s attack of Aquinas’s formula of faith formed by love made Lutheran faith conceptually undistinguishable from sentimental feelings of pseudo-grace, whether liberal utilitarianism, messianic romanticism, or modern Gnosticism. Without a required intellectual content, Luther’s faith raised the question about the nature of faith itself.
In his On the Freedom of a Christian, Luther tackled this very question, when he asked: “A Christian is a free lord over all things, and subject to no one. A Christian is the serf of all things, and subject to everyone.”5 Luther examined this antinomy by organizing the treatise into two parts: the first explored the soul’s escape from the world through faith; the second probed into man’s subservience to temporal and bodily existence. The Christian was “a free lord over all things and subject to no one” when he had been offered and accepted God’s grace, after the experience of his failure to live according to the Ten Commandments and the Gospels. By having accepted God’s grace, the Christian united his soul with the words of his promise: “As the word is, so will become the soul through it.” Faith has liberated the Christian from the consequences of an impossible assignment, i.e., living a life according to the Old and New Law, due to his fallen nature. What was holy and just of Christ now has become the property of the Christian’s soul, while what was evil and sinful of the Christian’s soul has now become unburdened onto Christ.6
The second part of the treatise inspected how the Christian was also “the serf of all things, and subject to everyone.” For Luther this was true in the sense that God’s grace through faith did not redeem his fallen nature—such redemption existed for the Christian but only in the afterlife. If all this were true—that the Christian were justified by grace through faith alone and that his nature could not be redeemed in temporal reality—then Luther was confronted with the problem of moral indifferentism: why should anyone follow the Old and New Law if he had not received grace? Luther overcame this obstacle by reintroducing good works but not connecting them with God’s grace. According to Luther, regardless of whether one was justified by grace through faith alone, man must still “govern his body and have commerce with other people” out of a love for God, Who may save him. This love of God included following such biblical commandments as working the earth and serving his fellow neighbor. The Christian thus did not live a solitary existence but was “in Christ and with his neighbor” through faith and love: “Through faith he rises above himself to God; from God he then descends below himself through love; and thus remains forever in God and godly love.”
Luther’s division of man into his body and soul was not only a forecast of modern philosophy’s dichotomy of body and mind; but, more importantly, it abstracted the soul from the conditions of human existence. According to Luther, the soul could be redeemed but the body was forever condemned. There was no orientation for the human body in temporal and spatial existence for man to follow. What would be the purpose of good works, if the soul were abstracted from the body and the body were unredeemable? Whereas in Aquinas’s formula of faith formed by love, the Christian’s body became supernaturally formed by God, Luther’s theology did not offer any such possibilities.7 Thus, to overcome moral indifferentism, Luther had to reintroduce good works but at the price of theoretical consistency.
Luther’s doctrine of good works was best articulated in his Commentary on Galatians, where “if our faith is formed by love, then God would take into consideration our works.”8 The reintroduction of good works was not only to avoid moral indifferentism but to present a constructive principle of social order based on love. Through love, all works became good, which encompassed the sphere of all social relations because all righteousness’s works “become equal, and one is like the other; all distinctions between works fall away, whether they be great, small, short, long, few, or many. For the works are acceptable not only for their own sake, but because of the faith which alone is, works, and lives in each and every work without distinction.” Justified by grace through faith alone, the Christian’s efforts became transfigured into good works which supported Luther’s Christian state: all works were equally transfigured into God’s love. This was the doctrine of the universal calling—all human occupations from lowest to highest were equal after its members had accepted God’s grace through faith—and became the great driving force behind Protestant civilization, especially in its Calvinist variety, for the realization of God’s love.
Thus Berman was correct in pointing out that justification by grace through faith alone was the theological basis for Luther’s doctrine of universal calling; however, he did not explore how Luther reintroduced good works back into his theology, which, in turn, became the basis for the new Lutheran community. In fairness, this was not the aim of his book on law, institutions, and legal science, but Luther’s abandonment of theoretical consistency may have repercussions in these fields. For example, is it really true that only the justified by grace through faith alone do good works? What about evil works making an evil man? And what about the salvation and virtue of pagans and non-Protestant Christians? All these questions would seem to raise ethical (although not necessarily legal) questions for Luther, who either was silent or had dismissed them: “everyone can note and tell for himself when he does what is good or what is not good; for if he finds his heart confident that it pleases God, the work is good, even if it were so small a thing as picking up a straw. If confidence is absent, or if he doubts, the works is not good.” But the question is whether we should accept such a dismissal on faith?
4. Luther, Martin. Luther’s Work, ed. Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 44 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1962–71).
5. Luther, Martin. Luther’s Works, eds. Helmut T. Lehmann and Harold John Grimm, vol. 31 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1962–71).
6. Although this exchange transpired between the Christian and Christ, it must be remembered that in Lutheran theology the Christian’s fallen nature was not redeemed once he had accepted God’s grace.
7. To his credit, Luther did not suggest that a transfiguration of reality could occur in human existence. Fundamentally fallen, human nature was not capable of any redemption in human existence.
8. Luther, Martin. Luther’s Works, eds. Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 27 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1962–71).