Wrong Man Luther, or Why I am Not a Protestant

I am trained as an historian of early modern Britain, and so I have no claim to any professional expertise in the matter of the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. But I did come to a belief in the Catholic Church while I was in graduate school, and read enough in the way of secondary literature about the Protestant Reformation that I knew, very early on in my search for God, that I could never be a Protestant (and by that I should clarify that I mean any body in the West which is not in communion with the see of Rome).  I read little or nothing in the way of the actual writings of the Reformers themselves until I began to teach as a GTA, when I was required to teach the “Letter to the German Nobility” of Luther for my Western Civ classes.  Since then I have read “Freedom of a Christian,” bits and pieces of the Babylonian Captivity, one of his sermons, and a few pages of his treatise called “The Keys.”  I have also since then read a few paragraphs of Calvin’s Institutes.  I’ve been trying to read more, not because I’ve come to question my beliefs, but because I have gained from my graduate research a desire to read primary sources, and to educate myself more thoroughly as to why I believe Luther and company were wrong.  I have to say, this has been a slow process, mainly because the more I read of Luther, the more contempt I have of his “thought”;  I have Protestant friends who swear he is a genius, but most of what I have read confirms me in the opposite opinion.  I have therefore not tried to read too much of him, to avoid not becoming bitter and hateful toward Protestants.  What I would like to do in this post is outline, such as they are, my objections to Luther, and therefore to what I take to be Protestantism as a whole. 

One of the misconsceptions people seem to have about Luther, at least from my reading of him, is that he was arguing for individual conscience, or that his theology was subjective, and that’s why the Reformation is somehow a bridge to the modern world.  (I once read a glowing but rather ignorant review of the Diarmaid McCulloch’s The Reformation, which spouted this sort of nonsense; McCulloch’s book does argue basically the same thing, but in a less silly way.)  One finds this argument articulated by those who wish to credit Luther with beginning the modern world (usually Protestants who wish to valorize him) or those who wish to deplore it (usually Catholics who blame him for reducing belief to subjectivity).   None of this is true, however; Luther’s major complaint was not that an impersonal church was stifling his private, individual conscience, but that it was stifiling the gospel:  he refers again and again in his three works of 1519-1520 to papal supporters who “contravene such plain and powerful words in Scripture in order to acknowledge the mere dreams of your brains!” or those who “presume upon your figments alone against the clear Scriptures of God.” (“The Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” Three Treatises, Philadelphia, 1970, p. 139)  to Luther it was the Pope and his abettors who were “subjective,” if one wishes to use that term, since they corrupted the scriptures, which were plain and easy to understand, apparently only for Martin Luther:  according to Mark U. Edwards in his book Luther and the False Brethren, Luther denied any especial authority in debate with Catholic writers, even though they accused him of claiming such authority.  But in his debates with other reformers, he often invoked his special position as the one who had “rediscovered” the gospel when confronting them, and abusing them in a way they never did to him.  The other reformers treated Luther with deference even though he thought them all under the sway of the devil, at least according to Edwards.   This was no doubt because he believed he was the only who had read the scriptures aright.  But it is not because he necessarily was claiming the sole authority to do so.   In other places, he merely adverts to the “priesthood of all believers”  to justify breaking with Rome’s authority.  In a short work he wrote in 1523 called “That a Christian Assembly Has the Right and Power to Judge All Teaching, and to Call, Appoint, and Dismiss Teachers, Established and Proven by Scriptures,” written after a couple of towns in Germany asked him if their parish congregations had the right to select their own priests.  In it Luther claims that bishops popes priests and “everyone else” has the right to teach, but it is “the sheep [i.e., the congregation] who are to judge whether they teach the voice of Christ or the voice of strangers.” (LW, Vol. 39, p.307)  Earlier in this treatise he wrote that one can identify a true Christian congregation by the “sure mark” that “the pure gospel is preached there.” (305)  This is perfectly circular, as it is the Congregation that gets to decide what teachings are in accord with the gospel in the first place.   But he does have a rationale for this.  After admitting that a Christian congregation indeed requires preachers and teacher, he goes on to say that “since in these last accursed times the bishops and the false spiritual government neither are or wish to be teachers–moreover, they want neither to provide for or tolerate any, and God should not be tempted to send new preachers from heaven–we must act according to Scripture and call and institute from among ourselves those who are found to be qualified, and whom God has enlightened with reason and endowed with gifts to do so.” (p. 309)  Luther is appealing to the congregation because the bishops, by their denial of the gospel, have effectively abandoned their office, and the whole Christian congregation can exercise the priestly ministry, because all are priests by baptism.  At least that is how I read him here.

My point is not to approve of what Luther was saying; far from it, as I believe he was horribly wrong.  My only point is that he believed he was acting on an objective criteria in doing what he was doing:  the word of God is clear, and the pope and his allies have muddied it with “human teachings,” laying burdens on the faithful that are not necessary to salvation, etc.  Only by getting rid of the pope, bishops, and so forth, and instituting the clear word of God could remedy this in his mind.  This, of course, means reducing the office of bishop to that of preaching, which is  the “highest office in Christendom” while the “lower offices such as baptism and other pastoral care” are merely secondary. (p.314) The errors in seem very clear to me now:  his mostly non-sacramental way of viewing the office of the priesthood, his misunderstanding of the divine/human character of the church, and his misunderstanding of the bible are painful to read, I have to say.   But even years ago when I was trying to decide which version of Christian belief was true, and things were much less clear to me, his ideas never really seemed to add up.  One of the reasons I could not countenance Protestantism was probably my background an English major; I had imbibed enough lessons from postmodern ideas about language that, whatever the shortcomings of those theories, they forced me to understand that human language can be interpeted in a multitude of mutually incompatible but equally reasonable ways.  Luther’s  insistence that the Scriptures were easy to interpret, and by implication all those who interpreted them wrongly (which included everyone who disagreed with him) were basically anti-Christ, struck me as implausible.   That’s why I understood, more implicitly than explicitly, the need for a divinely guided, infallible interpreter of the deposit of the faith-the Church, in other words.  The writers at the blog Called to Communion have a maxim that describes the concept of “authority” which Luther and all other Protestants subscribe to:  “if I only submit when I agree, the authority I submit to is me.”  In other words, if the definition of the authority of scripture or any other authority includes being able to judge said authority according to  whether you agree with it or not, you are guilty of solipsism–whatever agrees with you is right, and whatever doesn’t is wrong. 

Luther’s beliefs were not subjective so much as they were impossible, and the contemporary experience of the ecclesial bodies that still bear his influence attests to this fact.   In fact, his successors in the Reformation understood this too, which is why they probably moved rather quickly in a more subjective direction in terms of their understanding of authority, given the fact they felt compelled to reject the papacy.   To give one example, the writers at Called to Communion have a way of referring to Protestant ideas of how one knows they have interpreted the Scriptures in light of the Holy Spirit.  They call it “bosom burning,” meaning people who make appeal to some sort of interior, emotional experience.  They accused Calvin of this in one of their posts and I, not wanting to take their word for it, went and looked up an English and then a Latin edition of the Institutes.  Sure enough, in a chapter about how one is to understand the Scriptures, Calvin talks about the “secret testimony of the Spirit” and the “inward testimony of the Spirit”:  he says that one will feel a “vim numinis” that gives you the conviction that the word of God is true.   (Institutes, Part I, Chapter 7, section 5)  Just so, I understood, again, in a sort of unspoken way, that the Church would not satisfy every desire I had, and I didn’t necessarily need to embrace all of its doctrines with emotional enthusiasm.  If one wants a religion that is tailor-made for one’s personality or desires, one has simply made a mistake.  Truth is not like that; it is independent of us.  We conform to reality, and not reality to us.  Like the Roman Stoics used to say, “ducunt fata volentem, nolentem trahunt” (fate guides the willing, but drags the unwilling).    But that was what I was seeking: an authority which was independent of my own ego, my desires (or the desires of the congregation; no use adhering to an authority you get to vote in my mind), primarily because it was my feelings, and not my reason, that had convinced me that God did not exist.  I needed to be sure I wasn’t trying to believe in Christ because I wanted to cease feeling miserable and hopeless (which I did, very badly), but because it was true, and for that I needed such an authority.  Only the Church of Rome fit that description, and none of the various Protestant theories of what the church is seemed even possibly true.*  And I have heard or read nothing that has changed my mind about this convinction since.

So, it was really Luther’s conception of the Church that I could never accept, and by extension, from any Protestant author or representative that I’ve encountered.  Luther, with his anxiety about human corruptions, wanted to separate the divine from the human, the Word of God from the words of men.  The problem with this for me is that the Incarnation, if I understand it correctly,  forever broke down the boundaries between God and mankind.   The kind of absolute separation, and therefore absolute clarity that Luther seemed to covet with regards to salvation, I simply don’t think is possible for a Christian.  God has forever changed the game by becoming one of us, and the fact that he left his authority with the Church means that it is not a mere human institution, but a divine/human institution, even if its memebers are horrible and sinful; for God can work through the evil and the corrupt, can transmit his Divine word through human words, so that “the gifts and callings of God are irrevocable.”  He does not withdraw his promised authority from the Church, even when, as it has recently with the sexual abuse scandals, made a mockery of Him by the actions of those who wield his authority.  This, I think, is what Luther could not accept:  not that God could, but that He would work our salvation through the medium of such wretched fellows asmany of the Renaissance Popes were.  Luther sought to bypass troublesome humanity, and appeal directly to the text of the Bible; he turned the abuses of the popes’ and bishops’ offices into a justification redefining their offices out of existence.  But this is impossible, since books can’t interpret themselves, and in any case aren’t written for their own sake, especially the bible.  It was written for the sake of others in our human words, though inspired by God.  There is no separating the Word from human words anymore;  as the book of Revelation says, “the dwelling place of God is with men,” and it is futile to try to get him to dwell in a only in a book (even the Holy Scriptures!).  Actually, I knew intuitively why Luther was wrong, because his emotional reactions to Roman claims for authority are basically my own:  if I could have come to salvation on my own, by the bible alone, I would have.   I cherish above all things my independence, and it is hard for me to say that his inclinations were totally wrong.  But I was at a point where this was simply not possible; I could not even believe in God, much less the bible, so how could I come to the faith alone through the bible, without human aid?  And in fact, the Christ with his Church teaches us the exact opposite of this reaction. It teaches that your salvation will come through the particular community of human persons he has ordained to transmit the faith to you, and you will have to open yourself up to it in order to be saved.  The bible itself and even the eucharist are, as the prayers of the Roman liturgy proclaim, “the work of human hands,” and you simply have to encounter the humans who bring these gifts to you; that is the way God wanted it, as far as I can realize it.  And I can’t think of any thing I would rather do less than trust another person with the ultimate meaning of my life, and yet this is what Christ asks us to do in the Church:  “whoever seeks his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake, will find it.”  In Luther’s thought, God confirms you as you are, proclaims you righteous even if  you are not;  for Christ and the Church, he transforms you into the righteous person you were meant to be, even if you didn’t really want to be that to begin with.  It was the authoritative voice of the Church, who like its founder “taught as one having authority,” an authority which does not always agree with me, that drew me to her, and away from Protestantism.  I’ve never really looked back, and I bless the God who led me here, and who continues to lead me into all truth–even if he has to do it with me kicking and screaming sometimes.

*The Churches of the East are a different matter, as their claims demand more respect and consideration than do Protestant objections.  However, the essentially conciliarist position which I take to be the basic conception behind their view of primacy in the Church is, I think, open to some of the same objections.

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~ by Alypius on November 7, 2010.

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