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Saturday, April 10, 2010  

Some Things Smart People Always Seem to Get Wrong

It's awfully hard to write about late-medieval/early modern Europeans, since their preoccupations seem so familiar but their preconceptions were so different. The age bounded by, say, Machiavelli at the start and Hobbes at the end is full of people we think we know but who are for the most part strangers to us. One of the figures that writers who are not specialists in the age almost never fail to get wrong is Martin Luther. Since I re-read James Wood's essay on Thomas More, "A Man for One Season," recently, I settled on a few obvious, egregious, and common mistakes Wood--a really smart guy--makes in describing Luther in particular and the age he shared with More more generally. If you're an essayist, keep this page by your desk as a reminder to call up a professor friend and have them read your draft before sending it off to the editor.

The Mass

Luther, Wood writes in a common mistake, "concluded that people believed [transubstantiation] only because the church told them to. Instead, Luther saw this sacrament as a divine promise, a symbol rather than a proof." There may be an arcane usage of "symbol" for which this statements is accurate, but even so it is terribly misleading. Luther's main complaint against the practice of the Mass had nothing to do with transubstantiation (though he thought that doctrine put Aristotle above Christ in authority). It had to do with the withholding of the cup from the laity, the transformation of the Mass into a sacrifice and a good work rather than a means of grace, and the abuse of the sacrament as a way to speed the dead through purgatory. The "private mass," often said by a priest in a chantry endowed to help the ancestors of the rich, was a particular target of Lutheran ire. It is also true that the processions of the host were suppressed in Lutheran areas, but that was because they considered it irreverent to parade the elements around rather than to eat them as Christ had instructed. Even Calvin, who moved the ball a lot closer to what Wood is suggesting than Luther did, hardly reduced the sacrament to a symbol.

Faith and Works

"On one issue," Wood continues later, "More was right: Luther's belief that faith alone, without good works, justified one in the eyes of God was a cruelty that not only demanded an inhuman mental loyalty, but that, brought to its logical end, abolished the purpose of Christian conduct on earth." First of all, the formula is "faith alone apart from works," not "without works." The distinction is a good example of what early modern thought loses in translation. Luther nowhere argues that good works are not mandatory for the Christian, but rather that they are a consequence of justification, not a cause of it. The Augsburg Confession (which Luther did not write but which distills the thought of his party in a definitive way) makes this quite clear, even if it was not convincing to all. It is also very anachronistic to describe faith as "a cruelty" and "inhuman mental loyalty." Since that is not an objection any of Luther's contemporaries--many, diverse, and prolific as they were-- managed to hit upon, a modern critic might ask himself whether Luther had something else in mind. And indeed he did: faith, on Luther's account, was fiducia or trust. Where the scholastic theologians had divided faith into different kinds, the Lutherans understood faith not as intellectual knowledge of the truths of the church--that this was required for salvation was not in any doubt at the time--but acceptance of the effect of the truths. Not just, "Jesus was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary" but "for my sake Jesus was incarnate" etc. The Reformers consistently argued that the effect of faith was consolation, peace, and assurance, not inhuman self-torture. It was the emphasis on good works, predisposing attitudes, removal of obstacles and other such scholastic claptrap that made Christianity a torment to doubtful souls circa 1500--souls who did not doubt that Christ died for human sins, but who had been given every reason to doubt that his death would avail them at all. As for the idea that this doctrine would abolish "the purpose of Christian conduct," one need only point out that the areas where the Reformation took hold actually spent their church funds on feeding the indigent rather than filling useless chantries with equally useless private priests.


Here's another chestnut: Luther's challenge "was to move God back from the visible while simultaneously expanding our invisible encounter with God." Wrong. First of all, Luther defended religious images and came out of hiding to help quell an iconoclastic revolt in Wittenberg. He objected to the veneration of images and relics as detracting from faith (and it did not hurt that relics were mostly fraudulent). It may be true in some very narrow sense that Luther "expand[ed] our invisible encounter with God" in that he favored reading or, more likely, hearing the Bible over going to Santiago or some other such religious japery. But he was adamant over and over again that God comes to human beings by external means--the Word and the Sacraments most obviously, but also music, art, and all the tangible aspects of family and parish life. He railed against overly spiritualized versions of Christianity, whether monastic or anabaptist, favoring always the close, homely, and visible. What Wood is describing here is the Reformed tradition, not anything having to do with Luther.

The Church

One point where Wood misunderstands both Luther and More is on ecclesiology. More "refused to acknowledge that if the church acts merely humanly, then its authority is merely human, not divine." This is certainly how it looks to us--I remember saying essentially the same thing in a class session on the American Catholic writer Orestes Brownson--but it could not have been voiced this way either by More or by Luther. Since the church was guided by the Spirit, More had to define the "human traditions" as not really human at all. Since the traditions were obviously human, Luther had to define the Spirit-guided church as something other than the visible hierarchy centered in Rome. Both Luther and More would have taken it for granted that "the Church" is incapable of doctrinal error. The question under debate was not, "does the church forfeit its authority by acting in a human manner?" but "where is the church of Christ?"

If you want to make a trans-historical point about these people, the stakes involved in getting their ideas right go up. Wood wants to take More down a few pegs, which I appreciate. But judgment must wait upon knowledge. More was a violent man, possibly a fanatic, and certainly a tyrant, but it was an era unbelievably violent, fanatical, and tyrannical next to ours. We rightly recoil at a man who would burn a poor tradesman at the stake for printing a book saying mean things about the clergy, but even this needs some context. The Peasants' Revolt had claimed perhaps 100,000 lives. Catholics, Lutherans, and Reformed alike dreaded disorder more than we can imagine. Luther, blasting Erasmus in the midst of this upheaval, told the world how very important these debates were nonetheless:

Let me tell you, therefore--and I beg you to let this sink deep into your mind--that what I am after in this dispute is to me something serious, necessary, and indeed eternal, something of such a kind and such importance that it ought to be asserted and defended to the death, even if the whole world had not only to be thrown into strife and confusion, but actually to return to total chaos and be reduced to nothingness.

In our age this has the color of hyperbole, but in More's age it was deadly serious. Unless you agree with him, this man and his followers must clearly be stopped. The Ottoman Empire would threaten Western Europe for thirty years after More's death--and with real, honest-to-God armies, not with the ridiculous excuse for warriors sent into "battle" by Al Qaeda. Christian unity was understood to be critical to the continent's defense. Intra-Christian religious warfare would last a hundred years past Luther's life. We tend to take the results, of a Europe at religious peace and primed for a new birth of inquiry and freedom, for granted. At the time, however, the outcomes were all very much in doubt. Liberalism was not on the table.

Eventually Luther too agreed that a few heretics (anabaptists, I think) had to be executed to keep people from treating religion too lightly. His early flirtation with proto-liberal religion died a hard death, as people granted their Christian freedom proved as slothful as ever in coming to church and asking for confession from the priests. Let the pope have them and punish them a little longer, Luther said. That's a Lutherism I'd like to see a general-interest critic use in an essay some day.

The striking juxtaposition of Wood's stylistic verve and his scholarly malpractice serves to remind us that a very good writer can swing a rhetorical thurible well enough to obscure the topic with lots of smoke and perfume. When it comes to evaluating the figures of the early modern period, the similarities between our ages tend to conquer the differences. We grasp that they were facing religious diversity, challenges to traditional sources of authority, changing--sometimes rapidly changing--social relationships, and since we think we know these things so well, we more often than not pronounce their responses to be deficient. The harder task, and the one I have found more fruitful, is to let the differences between our age and theirs have their say and imagine how we might stand in light of what these complicated and tragic men (and women) believed.

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posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 11:45 PM
You're writing a great article on trans-historical interpretation and I'm googling Thomas More because I remember so little about him. I feel so ashamed.
I just noticed today that your interwebz brother-in-arms Billmon uses the term "Faith over works". It's been a few days since I read this post (I'll try to re-read it tonight), but does he get mulligan?
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