Further thoughts on Luther, the Reformation—and G. K. Chesterton

Martin Luther had the opportunity to become one of the greatest saints in the history of the Church. But he did not believe he was reforming a Church simply because it needed some house cleaning.

Left: Martin Luther in 1532 portrait; right: G.K. Chesterton in his study, date unknown (Wikipedia)

So, I took some heat from my previous article on the Reformation—“The Bible, the Reformation, and G.K. Chesterton”—because I implied that the Reformation was started by Protestants. Apparently I did not spend enough time attacking the Catholic Church, which, as everyone knows, was responsible for the creation of Martin Luther and company.

But since we are still in the midst of our year long observance of Luther’s Halloween treat at the door of the Wittenburg Cathedral and all that followed, we can certainly afford to draw out this discussion a bit longer.

So let’s make it clear. There was plenty of corruption in the Catholic Church five hundred years ago. Bishops and Abbots openly kept money and mistresses and used their ecclesiastical privilege to gain political power. The sales of indulgences were going unchecked and did untold damage not only to true piety but to the correct understanding of Purgatory and prayers for the dead. It was a far-reaching scandal throughout Christendom.

But it was not just Martin Luther who spoke out against it. St. Catherine of Siena and St. Bridget of Sweden and others fearlessly and sometimes very effectively confronted the hierarchy. And it wasn’t as if this had not happened before. Three and half centuries earlier a little friar named Francis of Assisi turned a worldly Church around simply by choosing to live out his own life according to what Jesus preached in the Gospels. The result? Genuine Reform.

Martin Luther had the opportunity to become one of the greatest saints in the history of the Church. But he did not believe he was reforming a Church simply because it needed some house cleaning. He said explicitly that one should not condemn a doctrine on the basis that the man who holds it lives a sinful life. On the contrary, “The Holy Spirit… is patient with the weak in faith, as is taught in Romans 14:15… I would have very little against the Papists if they taught true doctrine. Their evil life would do no great harm.”

There you have it from the Reformer’s mouth. He did not part ways with the Catholic Church because of ne’er-do-well priests and bishops. He thought and taught that Catholic doctrine was false. He rejected the Magisterium, the teaching authority of the Church.

If the bishops had rent their robes and donned sackcloth and ashes, it might have done great good for the Church and the world, but there is no evidence it would have changed Luther’s mind, because what was in his mind was a new theology.

Hypocrites who have turned away potential followers of Christ throughout the history of the Church. Still happens. But that argument only goes so far. If the unbeliever wants to blame corrupt bishops for his own doubts about the truth of the Catholic faith, why is he not drawn back to the Church by the witness of the saints? Why isn’t St. Francis of Assisi or St. Catherine of Siena, or more recently, St. Teresa of Calcutta, enough to make him overcome his misgivings about the Church? Saints inspire holiness because they are holy. Rebels inspire rebellion. Even against themselves. Sainthood is always a better option than breaking away from the Church founded by Jesus Christ and set into motion by his chosen Apostles. It was that Church that built Christendom.

But as one observer has pointed out, what Martin Luther’s rebellion was not against a corrupt Pope, it was against a quiet Dominican friar who had been dead for over 200 years. St. Thomas Aquinas.

G.K. Chesterton says, “It was the very life of the Thomist teaching that Reason can be trusted: it was the very life of Lutheran teaching that Reason is utterly untrustworthy.”

St. Augustine, a true saint and a giant among converts, was limited in one respect. The only philosophy he knew was that of Plato. St. Thomas Aquinas introduced Aristotle into Christian philosophy, and the Augustinian Platonists never really accepted it. They had a different approach to objective reality. One of those Augustinians was a monk named Martin Luther. Chesterton argues that the Reformation was really the revenge of the Platonists. You could say it started with a difference in emphasis, you could say it started as a quarrel among monks, but Luther’s emphasis on emotion rather than reason, on subjective truth rather than objective truth, and most unfortunately, on Determinism rather than Free Will, opened the door for an attack not just on Scholasticism but on all philosophy.

Lutheranism, says Chesterton, “had one theory that was the destruction of all theories; in fact it had its own theology which was itself the death of theology. Man could say nothing to God, nothing from God, nothing about God, except an almost inarticulate cry for mercy and for the supernatural help of

Christ, in a world where all natural things were useless. Reason was useless. Will was useless. Man could not move himself an inch any more than a stone. Man could not trust what was in his head any more than a turnip. Nothing remained in earth or heaven, but the name of Christ lifted in that lonely imprecation; awful as the cry of a beast in pain.”

St. Thomas and Luther are “the hinges of history,” and Luther managed to loom large enough to block out the huge figure of Aquinas. “Luther did begin the modern mood of depending on things not merely intellectual.” He was a forceful personality. He was a bully. He claimed Scripture as his authority and then altered Scripture itself, adding a word here and there in his own translation to accommodate his own theology. When confronted with the act,”he was content to shout back at all hecklers: ‘Tell them that Dr. Martin Luther will have it so!’ That is what we now call Personality… He destroyed Reason; and substituted Suggestion.”

Luther and every other Reformer cannot blame the Church for the consequences of their own actions. It is typical to talk about the corruption of certain bishops in Germany, but no one seems to want to discuss the actual heresy of Martin Luther and all that happened in its wake, from the splintering of Christianity into thousands of different denominations to the disintegration of philosophy into one detached and narrow and bizarre speculation after another because we lost the plain common sense, the reason and reality that was once so clearly articulated by St. Thomas Aquinas.


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About Dale Ahlquist 36 Articles
Dale Ahlquist is president of the American Chesterton Society, creator and host of the EWTN series "G.K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense," and publisher of Gilbert Magazine. He is the author and editor of several books on Chesterton, including The Complete Thinker: The Marvelous Mind of G.K. Chesterton.

9 Comments

  1. This is the most excellent article I have read on Martin Luther. It gets to the meat of who he is. The damage is incalculable. Every Catholic politician who cant live hi/her faith walks with his errors. The moral climate today can be blamed on his errors.

  2. About time on Luther and what he actually accomplished instead of so many current columns that attempt to make him an “alternative saint.”

    Too many Catholics are incredibly ignorant on the Deposit of Faith; how the early Church defined Doctrine and just how truly Scriptural it is..and how Luther subjugated reason for his own subjective opinion in order to worship God on his own terms.

    • So Luther can be seen as the beginning of Relativism, which we deal with today in democratic countries through a Dictatorship of Absolute Relativism.
      It is Very Real and very threatening to the Catholic Church, and all who try to live a Christian life!

  3. That is a magnificent explanation about the theologies at war in the Church and their origin. In order to find solutions we must be able to identify the problem accurately.thank you CWR for posting.

  4. Bravo! You’re now a member of the League of Self Inflicted Catholic Gentlemen. Personally I didn’t think your first take on Luther warranted acknowledgment of Catholic failures at the time. Nonetheless you’re Chesterton appraisal of Luther distinguishing the total break with Aquinas and reason reducing the Christian to hapless shrieking toward the Heavens is powerful stuff.

  5. This is an uncharitable understanding of Luther. The author seems to not realize how complex and contradictory Luther was, especially in the author’s use of quotes. Luther was a personality, most definitely. He was an emotional man who was a devout believer in what the Catholic Church taught concerning God and man and he had obeyed to his uttermost. He was so committed that he went further than all his fellow monks in rigor of discipline and confession. Because of his devotion he had essentially put himself through a form of self-torture. He was a monk who came to understand that though he was a sinner he was also saved. Luther was a monk who found out he was free from having to justify himself, that God had already accepted him. The battle for his soul had already been won by Christ. Because of his extreme life and nature, he would at times speak out of both sides of his mouth. This This was no Aquinas with mental nuance and fine-tuning – though he was capable of that when needed. This was a man who did not think the Law was a guide for us to make us like Christ as Calvin did but thought the Law of God only condemned us and encouraged us to faith in Christ, and yet, the very first thing he teaches in his Small Catechism are the Ten Commandments explaining how they should be followed for the common folk. Contradiction? Most certainly. So when he says he doesn’t care about the moral failures of the church but their doctrine, he was being hyperbolic. Of course the moral failures troubled him. In fact, it was his experience of Rome with all its immorality that added to his concern for the church as a whole. Was he a personality? of course! But to say that personality overwhelmed reason is a joke. Luther was not against reason. Luther was against so-called reason that distorted what he considered the clear teaching of Scripture. Luther was not a perfect man, by any means. He was a great sinner. But he was also a man who preached a gospel that he sorely needed himself. To this day, the Roman Catholic Church needs to contend with the radical devotion of a man who reminded Christendom that the Church had a Bible. Yes, this was written by a Protestant.

    • Good points and well-said. Luther was a brilliant and volcanic personality. It is reported that his scrupulous confessions sometimes lasted six hours. After leaving the Church, six children (four of whom survived him) and eleven others adopted, not counting an open door to live-in university students.

      But we also read that “to this day, the Roman Catholic Church needs to contend with the radical devotion of a man who reminded Christendom that the Church had a Bible.” Yes, the Church did and does have a Bible. The Church wrote it; it’s part of the Tradition. Often too much neglected over the centuries, but not entirely. A wide range of hand-made translations preceded Luther’s German edition of 1521, though not with mass distribution thanks to the Guttenberg printing press…

      Some 2nd Century translations were made from the Greek to Latin for those Western Christians who did not understand the original Greek. The most common was the Old Latin, or Itala. Of the complete translations, a Gothic version is dated in the 4th Century still near the same time that St. Jerome in the East translated the Vulgate from Greek to (the more vernacular) Latin. A sampling of either partial or complete and mostly early translations are in Gaelic, Anglo-Saxon, Italian (1500), Cyrilic (9th Century and which first required Sts. Cyril and Methodius to invent the Slavic written script), German (980) Armenian (4th and 13th Century), Icelandic (1297), French (807 under Charlemagne, others in the 15th and early 16th Centuries), Russian (New Testament, 10th Century), Flemish (1210), Polish and Bohemian (six editions beginning in 1478), Italian (1471), Spanish (1478 and 1515), and Slavonick (early 16th Century).

      In the modern languages and before the first Protestant version was issued from the press, six hundred twenty-six complete or partial editions of the Bible were published by the Church, and of these one hundred ninety-eight were in the language of the laity. Between the invention of printing and Luther’s German version, early complete German editions after 1462 were numerous, with five editions at Mentz, fifteen at Augsburg, and others at Wittenburg, Nuremburg and Strasburg.

      The vast majority of other translations or copies no longer exist due either to religious wars, invasions and the pillaging of the Reformation, all adding to a cumulative loss of monasteries, libraries and manuscripts. Over the centuries these self-inflicted European losses must rank alongside the historic devastations of Constantinople by the crusaders (!) and the Library at Alexandria possibly by the Saracens.

      (Source: Leicester Ambrose Buckingham, The Bible in the Middle Ages [London: Thomas Cautley Newby, 1853], cited in my book: Beyond Secularism and Jihad—A Triangular Inquiry into the Mosque, the Manger & Modernity [University Press of America, 2012]).

      As a Catholic from a family of mixed religious background (French father and German mother), I happily note since the ecumenical Second Vatican Council the greater prominence in the sacrifice of the Mass given to both Scripture and Homiletics, due in large part to the Protestant influence.

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