The 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s “Ninety-Five Theses” has called forth multiple celebratory declarations that he was the progenitor of modern freedom. In “How Martin Luther Advanced Freedom” (Wall Street Journal, Oct. 27, 2017), Joseph Leconte says that Luther “preached the gospel of freedom.” Eric Metaxas’s new biography Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World claims:
The quintessentially modern idea of the individual was as unthinkable before Luther… And the more recent ideas of pluralism, religious liberty, self-government, and liberty all entered history through the door that Luther opened.
Unfortunately, something other than these things came through the door that Luther opened: political absolutism in the modern state – the very antithesis of freedom. Luther redefined the nature of man and man’s relationship to God. In so doing, he also changed the way in which man thought of political order. Here is how it happened.
Luther’s diminishment of the imago Dei in man through his drastic exaggeration of the effects of original sin led ineluctably to the denigration of reason and the denial of free will. These, in turn, reinforced secular authority, which no longer had to contend with notions of popular sovereignty, the requirement of consent, or the right to revolution, all of which Luther denied. He was closing doors, not opening them.
Key to understanding Luther is what he saw as the radical extent of the corruption of man’s nature:
Conceived in sorrow and corruption, the child sins in his mother’s womb. As he grows older, the innate element of corruption develops. Man has said to sin: ‘Thou art my father’—and every act he performs is an offense against God; and to the worms: ‘You are my brothers’—and he crawls like them in mire and corruption. He is a bad tree and cannot produce good fruit; a dunghill, and can only exhale foul odors. He is so thoroughly corrupted that it is absolutely impossible for him to produce good actions. Sin is his nature; he cannot help committing it. Man may do his best to be good, still his every action is unavoidably bad; he commits a sin as often as he draws his breath.
Luther famously declared that reason is “the whore of the devil. It can only blaspheme and dishonor everything God has said or done.” “Does reason shed light?” he asked rhetorically; then answered, “Yes, like that which filth would shed if it were set in a lantern.” Therefore, “You must abandon your reason, know nothing of it, annihilate it completely or you will never enter heaven.” In his last sermon preached at Wittenberg, Luther even more energetically proclaimed: “Reason… is a prostitute, the Devil’s appointed whore; whore eaten by scab and leprosy who ought to be trodden underfoot and destroyed, she and her wisdom… Throw dung in her face to make her ugly.”
Philosophy, of course, is a work of reason, and Luther turned as vehemently against it as he did against reason itself: “I indeed believe that I owe to the Lord this service of barking against philosophy and urging to the study of Sacred Scripture… One should learn philosophy only as one learns witchcraft, that is to destroy it; as one finds out about errors, in order to refute them.” Luther contemptuously inveighed against Aristotle, as he had against Thomas Aquinas, who, he said, “never understood a chapter of the Gospel or Aristotle.” Luther found that, “The whole Aristotle is to theology as darkness to light.” He wrote in 1517 that, “Should Aristotle not have been a man of flesh and blood, I would not hesitate to assert that he was the Devil himself.” Of Aristotle’s Ethics, he said, it “is the worst of all books.” Reason cannot know what Aristotle and Aquinas said it could know, such as the difference between right and wrong.
It is worth reflecting for a moment on what a momentous change Luther represents from the Aristotelian/Thomist understanding of human nature at the heart of Western civilization. That understanding held that the natural end of the intellect is truth. In turn, the natural end of the will is the choice of those actions that bring one into conformity with the truth. The highest end of intellect is knowledge of God. Therefore, the highest end of free will is the choice of those paths that make possible the attainment of knowledge of God. With Luther, all of this became anathema. Reason can know nothing of God; revelation is the only source. Just as reason is totally corrupt, so is the will. In 1517, he wrote: “It is false to state that the will can by nature conform to correct precept …. One must concede that the will is not free to strive towards whatever is declared good…” Man can neither know the good nor perform the good.
This is how Luther described the total subjection of man’s will:
Thus the human will is placed between the two like a beast of burden. If God rides it, it wills and goes where God wills… If Satan rides it, it wills and goes where Satan wills; nor can it choose to run to either of the two riders or to seek him out, but the riders themselves contend for the possession and control of it.
Luther also enthusiastically endorsed Melanchthon’s Notes of the Lectures on Romans and 1 Corinthians, which pithily reflected Luther’s views: “Everything in every creature occurs of necessity . . . It must be firmly held that everything, both good and bad, is done by God.” Far from being distressed by the deprivation of free will, Luther celebrated it: “I frankly confess that, for myself, even if I could be, I should not want ‘free will’ to be given me, not anything to be left in my own hands to enable me to endeavor after salvation…”
To make his idea of predestination amply clear in his dispute with Erasmus on free will, Luther wrote that God
loves and hates according to his eternal and immutable nature… And it is this very thing which compels Freewill to be a mere no thing; namely, that the love of God towards men is eternal and immutable, and his hatred towards them eternal; not only prior to the merit and operation of Freewill, but even to the very making of the world; and that every thing is wrought in us necessarily, according to his having either loved us or not loved us, from eternity: insomuch that not only the love of God, but even his manner of loving, brings necessity upon us.
Because salvation is by faith alone and is predetermined by God, Luther eliminated anything that smacks of good works, like pilgrimages, penance, religious orders, monasticism, clerical celibacy, and fasting, or any other form of asceticism, all of which presumed a relationship between man’s acts and spiritual merit. All intercessory prayer was eliminated, including the last half of the Hail Mary. Certainly, good works were expected of those who had been “saved”, but those works were no more than the effect of being saved, and absolutely were not related to salvation as a contributory cause. Luther “freed” Christian man from such a relationship.
What were the consequences of Luther’s views for constitutionalism? Needless to say, the loss of the integrity of free will and reason had a huge impact on the rationale for constitutional rule. If man cannot know the good, how could he legislate based upon it? If reason is not a legislator, why have legislatures? If man has no free will, why would he need free institutions? If even the prince behaves in a foreordained way, how could he be held accountable for his acts? According to Luther, he couldn’t be.
But the most immediate consequence of Luther’s thought in Protestant lands was the destruction of the Church. The logic of its destruction came from Luther’s voluntarist theology. Why would God need a Church, or priests, or even sacraments to affect his will? No intermediary between God and man is necessary or allowed. Every man becomes his own priest. Since the Church is no longer a mediator, it could not possibly have the authority of a mediator. Without this authority, it could not contest or hold accountable secular authority, even when it transgressed the Church’s own spiritual realm. It no longer had a realm in any terrestrial way.
The destruction of the institutional Church had great consequences for the political order in both theory and practice. For all practical purposes, it eliminated the dual sovereignty of Church and State under which medieval man had lived. A single sovereignty now monopolized man. As Brad S. Gregory notes in The Unintended Reformation, a “corollary to justification by faith alone was power exercised by secular rulers alone.” On December 10, 1520, Luther burned the corpus of medieval canon law, the Corpus juris canonici, in front of the church at Wittenberg, disparaging it as “heretical, anti-Christian, and unnatural”. Up in flames went the ecclesiastical corporations that had hemmed in secular authority. With the elimination of canon law, the Church as a corporation disappeared. The abolition of these organizational structures left it toothless. In effect, sovereignty was now the State’s alone. Lutheran churches became state churches. In Protestant lands, all power transferred to the magistrate—and it was to him that Luther looked for church reforms. John Neville Figgis wrote, “When Luther burnt the Corpus luris Canonici … he destroyed, in fact, the metaphor of the two swords; henceforth there should be but one, wielded by a rightly advised and godly prince. It is a curious fact that Luther, whose fundamental motive was a love of liberty and care for the rights of one’s neighbors, should have been so powerful a supporter of absolutism.”
In abolishing canon law, Luther destroyed the source from which the constitutional principles and practices of the Middle Ages had emerged. Now, pointed out Heinrich Rommen, “the historical concrete state in its constitution must be considered as instituted directly by God without the intervention of free human act based upon natural law.” Sovereignty is no longer vested in the people who, through their consent, transfer it to the prince; it is the prince’s directly from God, unmediated by man’s consent. This was completely inconsistent with the entire medieval tradition. The ruler is not inhibited by the notion of any social contract with his people, and their obedience to him is not conditional on his fulfilling any obligations toward them. Therefore, the people do not possess a right to rebellion should the ruler become tyrannical. According to Luther, the State could not be resisted under any circumstances and is owed at least passive obedience, if not complete submission. In their Medieval Political Theory in the West, R.W. and A. J. Carlyle remarked, “As far as we have been able to discover, the first writer of the sixteenth century of whom we can say that he, at one time, held and affirmed the conception that the temporal ruler was in such a sense representative of God that under no circumstances could he be resisted, was Luther.” Violence against the ruler was forbidden.
If one presupposes that man is fundamentally evil – incapable of keeping his own internal order – it becomes all the more important that the State be strong enough to impose external order. Luther declared: “The princes of this world are gods, the common people are Satan, through whom God sometimes does what at other times he does directly through Satan, that is, makes rebellion as a punishment for the people’s sins. I would rather suffer a prince doing wrong than a people doing right.” Therefore, contrary to Thomas Aquinas and the entire medieval tradition, Luther wrote that rebellion is never justified:
It is in no wise proper for anyone who would be a Christian to set himself up against his government, whether it act justly or unjustly. There are no better works than to obey and serve all those who are set over us as superiors. For this reason also disobedience is a greater sin than murder, unchastity, theft, and dishonesty, and all that these may include.
Innovation and secularization
The de-divinization of the secular ruler achieved by medieval Christianity went into reverse with the re-sacralization of the prince and the melding of Church and State. “Luther,” wrote Joseph Costanzo, “restored to the state the sacred rights of the ancient pagan cities.” Since the distinction between Church and State was the very thing out of which medieval constitutionalism grew, it is not surprising that its diminution foreclosed any further constitutional development or even the maintenance of what had already been achieved. In short, as Lord Acton observed, “The progress of the Constitution, which it was the work of Catholic Ages to build up, was interrupted by the attractions which the growth of absolutism excited and by the Reformation’s transferring the ecclesiastical power to the crown.”
And thus, as George Sabine pointed out, “The disruption of the universal church, the suppression of its monastic institutions and ecclesiastical corporations, and the abrogation of the Canon Law, removed to the strongest checks upon secular power that had existed in the Middle Ages.” This may not have been Luther’s intention, as strictly speaking he had no political philosophy, but the enhancement of State power was the unavoidable consequence.Heinrich Boehmer, the great German biographer of Luther, wrote: “The result of these innovations was also a great secularization, principally in favor of the temporal power. The latter, at last, gained full freedom of movement throughout the wide field of secular life; indeed, it soon succeeded in obtaining the direction of all purely spiritual matter , too… Government, as the holder of the paternal power, claimed authority over all departments of social life.”
“The establishment of the Lutheran territorial Church under the supervision and control of the prince,” observed Christopher Dawson, “involved a thoroughgoing reconstruction of society, to the benefit of the prince, who thus acquired a patriarchal religious authority that was almost absolute.” Heinrich Rommen ironically noted, “all that the pope claimed for the liberty of the Church is now claimed by the absolute king.” No doubt, this is what John Neville Figgis had in mind when he said, “Had there been no Luther there could never have been a Louis XIV.” These results flowed from premises taken from one area (theological) and applied to another (political). Luther was not aiming at absolutism; if anything, he was trying to counter what he saw as absolutism in the Church. He did not seem to consider that his metaphysical undermining of the Church’s authority and the abandonment of natural law would ultimately clear the path to absolute political authority. Such may not have been his intention, but such was the result. With the obliteration of natural law and the segregation of religious faith, the public arena was open not only to Luther’s Christian prince, but to Machiavelli’s amoral one. As faith diminished under the pressures of secularism, it became more Machiavelli’s prince than Luther’s who prevailed in the public arena.
Charles McCoy observed that after the Peace of Augsburg (1555) adopted the principle “cuius regio eius religio” (the religion of the prince determines the religion of the people), “Catholic and Protestant princes alike affected a ‘union’ of Church and State, of religion and politics precisely as Machiavelli had recommended: Christianity was made a tool in the hands of the political masters.” As horrified as Luther would have been by the amoral political principles of Machiavelli, he inadvertently abetted their application. McCoy stated: “… by delivering the state from the guidance of the Church as a divinely established society, its effect was such that ‘the principles which Machiavelli… developed in opposition to the Christian consciousness… became capable of combining with [that consciousness] and being strengthened by it’.” Machiavelli seems to have worked out in the secular sphere what Luther worked out in the theological sphere. As Luther inadvertently opened the door to the politicization of religion, Machiavelli walked through that door, totally subordinating religion to the utility of the State. Luther helped put religion in the power of the state, and Machiavelli taught the State how to use it.
So long as the will of the ruler was constrained by firm Christian belief, there were limits to it. However, when that belief was weakened or removed altogether, then the exercise of will became unlimited – as was seen so often and so graphically in 20th-century totalitarianism. Luther did not foresee the consequences of his teaching of sola fide in a world sine fide. He could only envisage Christian princes. However, as the tide of faith receded, the positivist legal order became accepted as the only moral order, whatever it might be. In the absence of both faith and reason, man lost access to knowledge of the summum bonum. This ineluctably led to Hobbes’ Leviathan.
The great 20th-century philosopher Eric Voegelin delivered this epitaph:
Concretely, in the wake of the Reformation, the taboo had to fall on classic philosophy and scholastic theology; and, since under these two heads came the major and certainly decisive part of Western intellectual culture, this culture was ruined to the extent to which the taboo became effective. In fact, the destruction went so deep that Western society has never completely recovered from the blow.
This hardly seems something to celebrate. Mourning might be more appropriate.