Blame It on Luther?

Published December 2, 2021

First Things

Many years ago I had the privilege of delivering a lecture on the life and ministry of John Calvin in the unlikely context of the Interfaith Seminar of the Catholic Archdiocese of Trento in northern Italy. A lone Reformed voice speaking to a room filled with priests and monks at the historic epicenter of the Catholic Reformation, I may not have been the exact modern equivalent of Leonidas at Thermopylae but I enjoyed being heavily outnumbered nonetheless.

At the end of my lecture, every single question I was asked related to the burning of Michael Servetus by the Genevan authorities in 1553. The fact that Servetus was burned in Geneva was almost an accident of history. A hunted, notorious heretic, he might have perished at the hands of numerous others, Protestant and Catholic. But again and again those in the audience demanded to know how I could lecture dispassionately on the man who killed Servetus. Eventually, I pointed out that, when it comes to who burned whom in the sixteenth century, neither side in the Reformation emerged with much glory. It is always easier to blame the other side for the dark crimes of history while assuring ourselves that it would have been so much better if we had been in charge.

I was reminded of this when reading Casey Chalk’s recent article, “The Autonomous Self Is a Coercive God,” at Public Discourse. Chalk argues that conservatives need to be very careful about unconditionally embracing comedians Jim Breuer and Dave Chappelle. Though conservatives may appreciate the stands Breuer and Chappelle have taken against cancel culture and certain elements of woke orthodoxy, we must keep in mind that they are representatives of a libertarian notion of the autonomous self that is scarcely compatible with Christianity. Certainly I can affirm this central concern of Chalk’s argument.

Yet I dissent from Chalk’s genealogy of modernity. He goes on to argue that this notion of the autonomous, emotivist self can be traced to Martin Luther. In part this is because Chalk depends upon Jacques Maritain’s Three Reformers: Luther, Descartes, Rousseau for his reading of Luther. Luther is simply not the great apostle of subjectivism that Maritain claims he is. It may well be that subjectivism is where the Protestant Reformation led, but it was certainly neither Luther’s intention nor his own stated position. The debate with Zwingli over the reality of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist is the most obvious example of his concern for objective truth detached from the individual’s own beliefs, though one might also point to his notion of conscience as formed by the Word of God in the context of the Christian life, not as some principle of autonomous personal judgment. Whether Luther’s positions on these issues proved stable in the long run is a matter for debate. The point is that he was wrestling with how to balance objective truth and personal commitment (an issue found throughout the New Testament). He was not arguing for human beings as isolated, atomized human beings.

This points to a deeper difficulty with Chalk’s genealogy. In presenting Luther as the beginning of the problem, Chalk opts for the standard Catholic triumphalist opening: The Protestants are to blame. But Luther does not emerge from a vacuum. Philosophically, he is the heir of late medieval nominalism (a Catholic phenomenon). He achieves public prominence by asking for a debate about the sale of indulgences (a Catholic practice). Wondering about whether the sale of indulgences as exemplified by Tetzel represents the teaching of the Church seems wholly reasonable for a Catholic pastor concerned about the financial fleecing of his congregation. And the crisis of authority that Luther represents is not of his own making. The corruption of the papacy and the chaos of the fifteenth century shattered papal authority. Astute theologians might respond by saying that we are not Donatists, that the corruption of the men who lead the Church and even the corruption of the papal bureaucracy do not negate the truth of the gospel. That is true at a theoretical level. But in practice hypocrisy undermines credibility. It is not surprising that at the start of the sixteenth century there was a crisis of popular authority with regard to those who claimed to be Peter’s successors and Christ’s representatives on earth and yet who ostentatiously indulged the sins of the flesh. If Luther was wrestling with the question of religious authority, it is in large part because the religious authority of his day had so signally failed in its task. Perhaps modernity is the fault of a failed papacy and not a Saxon friar?

We can complicate the narrative of authority yet further. The advent of the printing press and the rise of cities and trade served to reconfigure social structures across Europe. Power, once tied to land, started shifting more toward capital. The marketplace rose in prominence, challenging old hierarchies. Increasing levels of literacy served to remake and energize self-consciousness. Even if, purely for the sake of argument, one were to allow that the thirteenth century represented a rather harmonious period in which church and state, and faith and reason, lived together in perfect harmony, that world depended upon a social framework that required material conditions that technology and trade simply swept away. There is no medieval solution to the problems of modernity. 

The above is not intended as a piece of Protestant triumphalism. Rather, it is a call for more self-awareness regarding the matter of the problems of our present age. Did Luther cause modernity? Was it the failure of the medieval papacy? Or was it the printing press and the rise of capitalism? Until such time as we eschew the simplistic blame game and start to think more historically, we are unlikely to move beyond partisan point-scoring. More significantly, we will prove incapable of moving beyond pipe dreams and nostalgia to real solutions to our difficulties.

Carl Trueman is a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Carl R. Trueman is a fellow in EPPC’s Evangelicals in Civic Life Program, where his work focuses on helping civic leaders and policy makers better understand the deep roots of our current cultural malaise. In addition to his scholarship on the intellectual foundations of expressive individualism and the sexual revolution, Trueman is also interested in the origins, rise, and current use of critical theory by progressives. He serves as a professor at Grove City College.

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