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Luther, modernity, and placing the blame: A response to Carl R. Trueman

Not all the problems of modernity can be laid at the feet of Luther, Descartes, and Rousseau. But no one is making that argument.

Portrait of Martin Luther (c. 1532), by Lucas Cranach the Elder (WikiArt.org)

A historian, according to Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary, is a “broad-gauge gossip.” By that, I suppose, the nineteenth century satirical (and irreverent) American writer meant that academics who study history — if they want to be popular — tend towards the provocative and simplistic exposure of our forebears’ faults. His definition takes on an added effect given that a “broad gauge” is a railroad gauge that is wider than the standard gauge of 56.5 inches, meaning historians are the worst kind of malevolent gossips.

Grove City professor Carl Trueman (a fellow contributor to CWR) in a recent essay at First ThingsBlame It On Luther?,” accuses me (and French philosopher Jacques Maritain) of being a bit of a broad-gauge gossip when it comes to Martin Luther and the German reformer’s impact on modernity, individualism, and subjectivism. “Luther is simply not the great apostle of subjectivism that Maritain claims he is,” says Trueman. “He was not arguing for human beings as isolated, atomized human beings.”

Trueman views this common Catholic critique of Luther as both incomplete and unjustified. He writes: “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.” Luther, notes Trueman, rises to prominence in history because of his conflicts within the Catholic world, conflicts stemming from his nominalist philosophical convictions and his (admittedly justified) frustration with the abuse of the sale of indulgences and the corruption of the papacy. “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,” notes Trueman. “Perhaps modernity is the fault of a failed papacy and not a Saxon friar?”

Professor Trueman has a point. Of course all the problems of modernity cannot be laid at the feet of Luther, Descartes, and Rousseau (the three “reformers” who Maritain discusses in the book which inspired my article in Public Discourse which with Trueman takes issue). Neither I (nor Maritain) would argue as such. Maritain himself acknowledges that Luther’ was profoundly influenced “by the Occamist and nominalist training in philosophy which Luther received.” Not even Notre Dame historian Brad S. Gregory, whose work has offered one of the strongest rebukes of Protestantism in the last decade, thinks this is what the earliest Reformers were up to. As he argues in Rebel in the Ranks, “Protestant reformers five centuries ago were not heralds of modern individual freedom and autonomy.”

Luther (and his religio-philosophical framework) is not the ultimate genesis of modernity’s problems. Besides Occam’s rejection of universals (which facilitated deeper skepticism towards philosophy and natural theology as being capable of ascertaining reality), we could also cite Marsilius of Padua and John Wycliffe, who in urging secular rulers to assert their authority over the the Church’s hierarchy, sought to vitiate ecclesial autonomy. “The pope ought, as he formerly was, to be subject to Caesar,” Wycliffe argued. We could also cite Machiavelli, a contemporary of Luther, who believed religion was subservient to, and should be manipulated by the state. “All things that arise in favor of that religion they [leaders] should favor and magnify, even though they judge them false… and their authority then gives them credit with anyone whatever,”claimed the Italian political theorist.

We could go on, and much further back, though all intellectual histories must stop somewhere, even if they eventually terminate in the Fall. If every study was required to do this, the result would be mind-numbing tedium, as if any scholarship of ideas that doesn’t account for Pelagius, Marcus Aurelius and Heraclitus is somehow wanting. Trueman, whose excellent book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self dissects the negative influences of Rousseau, Nietzsche, Marx, Darwin, and Freud, among others, knows this.

The concluding point of Trueman’s essay seems to be to warn against religious triumphalism, be it Catholic or Protestant, as well as “simplistic blame game[s]” and “partisan point-scoring.” I can assent to that, though I think accusing Maritain (or me) of that is also a bit simplistic. Yes, Luther’s intended outcome for Western civilization was not the subjective, self-destructive autonomy that now defines much of our world. Whether or not that was his intention, many scholars, such as Gregory and John Henry Newman, have argued elevating the autonomous individual and his private judgment over an ecclesial hierarchy that bears apostolic authority— and expediently leverages the state to help accomplish that end — tends towards such an outcome.

Of course Luther isn’t the sole originator of modernity’s errors and excesses. There were plenty of other medievals (and ancients) who can share the blame, and, as Trueman observes, many, if not most, were Catholics. Yet do these theological and intellectual “heretics” articulate an authentically Catholic intellectual paradigm? The history of Catholic teaching, which has unequivocally sided with Thomas Aquinas, Robert Bellarmine, and Thomas More, among other pre- and post-Reformation theologians and political thinkers, would suggest an emphatic “no.”

If Occam, Marsilius, and Machiavelli don’t reflect authentic Catholic conceptions of man and God, but an aberration, then we might further ask what modern intellectual and theological paradigms they have influenced, and how. Given Luther’s own antipathy for Aristotelianism and Thomism, his assertion of his own novel theological beliefs and scriptural interpretations as normative, and his exhortations for political elites to seize and direct religious institutions, it’s not difficult to trace a line from them to the Reformers to the Enlightenment to a “liquid modernity” in which narcissistic man is subject to no one except an increasingly coercive secular state.

This argument was the intention of my original article, and, to some degree, Maritain’s Three Reformers. It is not partisan point-scoring but an attempt to analyze current religious, intellectual and cultural problems in the realm of history, as does Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua or Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation. However noble Luther’s original aims of combating corruption and theological confusion, if his broader religious and philosophical project was based on flawed premises, as I, a former Reformed seminarian believe it to be, identifying and rejecting them will be part of what is required to reverse the disastrous triumph of the modern self, which Trueman and I both hope to achieve.

So sure, I will heartily acknowledge the shared blame of certain elements of medieval Catholicism for the mess of modernity. I have no desire to play the role of the condescending Catholic “broad-gauge gossip.” The medieval era was no halcyon religious and intellectual utopia to which we must return, but a mixed bag of goods that must be prudentially appropriated for our own contemporary needs. What Trueman and other Protestants choose to accept and reject from that era, as well as that of the Reformation, will be determinative of the role they, and their own institutions, can play in overcoming our anxious, decadent age.


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About Casey Chalk 26 Articles
Casey Chalk is a contributor for Crisis Magazine, The American Conservative, and New Oxford Review. He has degrees in history and teaching from the University of Virginia and a master's in theology from Christendom College.

10 Comments

  1. A different slant on Luther and modernity is developed by the central European aristocrat, Eric von Kuehnelt-Leddihn (1909-1999). He argues that historically the monarchic element is more “liberal” in the protection of liberty and diversity than is (mass) democracy. And, therefore, later he proposed constitutional monarchy is the best and yet imperfect political model even for modern times.

    In his historical analysis he (well-traveled, fluent in six languages and reading fourteen) stressed that monarchs (a kind of fatherhood) can at least mediate between the various segments of society, as well as protect the public from the experts.

    Now, with regard to Luther, in his early “Liberty or Equality” (1952, some 960 detailed footnotes), he outlines a genealogy of Western devolution, also beginning first with Waldo, Marsiglio and Wycliff, only then leading into Luther and then a grand array of familiar movements, movers and shakers (the diagram looks a lot like a pinball machine) all feeding into—not individualism—but National Socialism, in Germany. The French Revolution, of course, is also central to the narrative.

    Included in his book is a pair of microscopically districted maps showing (a) “percentage of Catholics in Germany” (1934 Census), and (b) “Percentage of Nazi Votes” (1932). Predominantly Catholic Bavaria and westernmost Germany show a very low Nazi vote compared to the rest of Germany. (Wikipedia: “He argued that Nazism, facism, radical liberalism, anarchism, communism and socialism [all] were essentially democratic movements, based upon inciting the masses to revolution and intent upon destroying the old forms of society.”)

    As for the Catholic and Protestant ingredients, both (!), von Kuehnelt-Leddihn concludes:

    “It is the combination of the degenerative process of Protestantism with Catholic absolutism and extremism which became such a dangerous explosive mixture [all italics]. Old hierarchical strains from Bohemia were necessary to stimulate the refuse of Catholic Germandom—Men like Hitler, Himmler and Goebbels—who in turn were acclaimed by the Protestant masses. Without [he proposes] the control and the necessary corrective of monarchy, these forces could develop freely within the loose frame of a parliamentary democracy; and they carried the very heart of the Old World to its doom.”

    Makes some wonder whether a levelized synodality within the Church itself, if actually led by the unstructured German “synodal way,” even while appealing to the Holy Spirit and the sensus fidei, might be hijacked. Déjà vu?

  2. Trueman is solid when it comes to pointing out many of the errors of the secular world, but he definitely has an anti-Catholic bias based on stunning ignorance in accepting and promoting myths and false claims about the Catholic Church while praising the alleged superiority of Protestantism that supposedly first manifested itself in the Reformation and ever since then. In another First Things Article (not challenged by any of the Catholics of First Things so far as I can tell) entitled “Lessons From the Reformation’s Pamphlet War” (11/4/2021), Trueman writes:

    “As a Protestant, I rejoice that the Reformers carried the day in many places, with their appropriate emphasis on biblical authority, divine grace, and the finished work of Christ. They recovered the gospel and paved the way for many of the freedoms we in the West now take for granted.”

    Trueman’s outlandish declaration is so far off the mark that he is, as they say in the scientific world, “not even wrong.”

    Falsehoods broken down: “appropriate emphasis on biblical authority, divine grace, and the finished work of Christ.” Egregiously wrong on all three accounts and a direct, maliciously false attack on the Catholic Church regarding the proper place of the Bible in teaching the Faith, the Catholic Church’s correct teaching on Divine Grace, and the Catholic Church’s correct understanding of Christ’s “finished work” that is necessarily quite different than the incomplete and intellectually weak Protestant claim pushed by Trueman that actually diminishes Christ as all of the myriad forms of Protestantism do in one form or another.

    Next falsehood: “They recovered the gospel.” Nonsense. From whom did they allegedly recover the Gospel from? Just another vicious lie and outrageous attack on the Catholic Church and its rightful preservation and protection of the Gospel, but again, First Things seemingly has no problem publishing this malevolent lie against Christ’s Church without challenge.

    So it is refreshing and most encouraging to see Casey Chalk stand up for the Faith and call out this particular wolf in sheep’s clothing. Trueman can be an ally in the larger fight against the secular world, but he is certainly no friend when it comes to faithfully following Christ as Christ Himself commands in establishing His One True Church FOR ALL TIME, warts and all among its human members.

  3. Let us not forget that we are a fallen people so these arguments to and fro are more self-serving than in service to God. Only the objective truths refined by Revealed Law, Metaphysical Laws (reason, logic, mathematics) and Natural Law lead to God.

  4. Read Scott Hahn’s and Benjamin Wiker’s latest book on the secularization of Scripure, Luther was clearly not the first (they trace it back even to Greek and Roman skeptics), but Luther surely played his part, especially in giving secular power authority over Church and the “wild rabble” –so much for priesthood of beleiver!!!

  5. I admire Trueman’s work, but if he still can’t see the spiritual abyss that separates Luther from a St Francis of Assisi, he remains a prisoner of Protestant prejudices. I hope he becomes deeper in history, in Newman’s sense of the phrase.

  6. “Whether or not that was his intention, many scholars, such as Gregory and John Henry Newman, have argued elevating the autonomous individual and his private judgment over an ecclesial hierarchy that bears apostolic authority— and expediently leverages the state to help accomplish that end — tends towards such an outcome.”

    The intention itself doesn’t matter. What matters is what became of it. The fact is that the Catholic Church maintained its dominance in Europe until the heretic Martin Luther.

    With the abandonment of the Catholic faith by some, it was probably only a matter of time before things “broke down.” Pretty much all moral and political issues nowadays can be laid at the lack of adherence to the Catholic Church by Catholics of Luther’s time. If Luther had been quickly executed, things would probably have been much different.

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