Sunday, August 30, 2020

Spiritual Quote of the Day (Martin Luther, on the ‘Pope’s Court’)

“If we took away ninety-nine parts of the Pope's Court and only left one hundredth, it would still be large enough to answer questions on matters of belief. Now there is such a swarm of vermin at Rome, all called papal, that Babylon itself never saw the like. There are more than three thousand papal secretaries alone; but who shall count the other office-bearers, since there are so many offices that we can scarcely count them, and all waiting for German benefices, as wolves wait for a flock of sheep? I think Germany now pays more to the Pope than it formerly paid the emperors; nay, some think more than three hundred thousand guilders are sent from Germany to Rome every year, for nothing whatever; and in return we are scoffed at and put to shame. Do we still wonder why princes, noblemen, cities, foundations, convents, and people grow poor? We should rather wonder that we have anything left to eat.”—German theologian and Protestant Reformation leader Martin Luther (1483-1546), Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate (1520)

The argument advanced by Martin Luther in this passage will elicit nods of agreement not just for millions of those who followed his lead in leaving the Roman Catholicism Church, but also theologians who have remained in the hope that the central teaching authority of the Church would eventually accept their thinking.

The vast bureaucracy underlying the Church has been the subject of both humor (Pope John XXIII, asked how many people worked at the Vatican, joked, “About half”) to lamentation (“The Curia does its best to stifle criticism in the episcopate and in the church as a whole and to discredit critics with all the means at its disposal,” German theologian Hans Kung charged in a 2010 “Open Letter to Catholic Bishops”).

But few have matched the extraordinary vigor of the questioning by Luther. It cites striking statistics (those “three thousand papal secretaries”!), historical allusion (sinful ancient Babylon), animal imagery, and tying it all to the condition of his native Germany.

In contrast to another pillar of the Protestant Reformation, John Calvin, whose presentation and style often reflected his early training as a lawyer, Luther’s prose burned with passion and invective.

Address to the Christian Nobility, issued 500 years ago this month, was the first of three tracts in 1520 that propelled the rebellious monk further towards irrevocable defiance of the Pope. In The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, he called for reducing the number of sacraments instituted by the Roman Catholic Church from seven to two. In The Freedom of a Christian, he continued to attack abuses of the Vatican, only this time he began to explore, with greater eloquence, the essential equality of all believers: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”

But Address to the Christian Nobility especially fell on fertile ground. It helped that Luther wrote it in German rather than the Latin common to theological explication of the time. Communicating in the vernacular, coupled with the rise of the printing press (particularly in Luther’s own Wittenberg), meant that his attacks on the papacy found a far wider audience of lay readers than just his own community of theologians.

Within this wider lay community, Luther reached two receptive groups. The first—more important in ensuring he would not be executed like an earlier Church dissident, the Bohemian cleric Jan Huss—was the German nobility. 

Jealous of their prerogatives, they resented especially what Luther called the “three walls” used to safeguard the papacy’s absolute sway: the elevation of spiritual power above secular; the claim that nobody but the pope could interpret scripture; and the assertion that only he could convene a council of the Church.

In this environment, Luther’s call for secular princes to assert their proper temporal authority (“Oh noble princes and gentlemen, how long will you suffer your lands and your people to be the prey of these ravening wolves?”) furnished them with intellectual and theological justification for defying the papacy. 

The second lay audience for Luther’s tract—those outside the nobility—was far more problematic for him. He predicted that Germany would suffer the same fate as Italy, where, to create and maintain cardinals of the Church, “the convents are destroyed, the sees consumed, the revenues of the prelacies and of all the churches drawn to Rome; towns are decayed, the country and the people ruined.”

This baleful prophecy fed anger not only among merchants who might have read his tracts themselves but also German peasants who, though illiterate, would have heard his thoughts spread through the network of preachers already flocking to his standard. 

Five years later, when the “Peasants’ Revolt” erupted and spread in southern Germany, Luther—angry at insinuations that he had provoked the disorder, alarmed that he might lose the protection of powerful princes against the papacy—reacted with another tract whose title conveys better than any commentary the intensity of his feelings: Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants.

Luther’s appeal to secular authority and his frequent, revolutionary use of the German language arose from his intense identification as a German—an instinct all the more remarkable because that land was still a motley collection of states within the Holy Roman Emperor, not the united nation-state it became after the Franco-Prussian War in 1871.

But in calling for the overthrow of one form of unequaled authority, he was merely exchanging it for another: the power of the princes. Once he advocated for obedience to these secular rulers—even urging these princes to forsake leniency against protesters (“It is the time of the sword, not the day of grace”)—he was priming the masses for absolute fealty to a political colossus unrestrained by the fear of God that gripped and restrained him throughout his life: Hitler’s Third Reach.

 (For a searching discussion of the consequences of this, please see William Castro’s “Luther and German Nationalism” in the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals’ “Reformation21.”) 

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