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The Reformation As Historical (and historiographical) Problem – Part 1

Martin Luther broke the world. Standing before Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms, he refused to recant. In his refusal, he uttered words of momentous consequence for Western history. Perhaps already springing to your mind is Luther’s famous (and possibly fictional) declaration: “Here I stand.” Those were not the fatal words. Nor should the spotlight fall squarely on Luther’s preceding line: “To go against conscience is neither right nor safe.” That statement was not the birth of a modern sense of individual autonomy, but rather a medieval commonplace. No, we must go one line further back to find the hammer that shattered the medieval world, stationary amidst the whirling crystalline spheres: “I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves” [1].

As an academic who has sometimes fallen into difficulties while making an argument and who has recognized the same phenomenon in countless student papers, I cannot help but perk my ears up at the phrase, “Since it is well known.” Now, in the Middle Ages, the intellectual and ecclesiastical leaders had recognized that the many authorities encompassed by the term Tradition did not always speak with perfect harmony. However, they were confident that the institutions and methods at their disposal were adequate to deal with whatever problems might arise. At the universities, scholastic theologians employed techniques derived from ancient logic to demonstrate how statements taken in one sense as contradictory might, if taken in a different sense, be compatible after all. Their colleagues, the canon lawyers, filtered an ocean of tumultuous ecclesiastical pronouncements into purified, organized bottles of actionable precepts. From the corner office of this grand enterprise of Christendom, the pope, the successor of St. Peter, the representative of Christ on earth, supervised everything. Filled with the Holy Spirit, he was the personal guarantor of the unity of the Church and the continuity of Christian teaching. Occasional glitches and heretics aside, all of these people, institutions, and forces worked together to create the impression that there was One Church and One Tradition [2].

Doctor Luther disagreed. His disagreement so profoundly shook Christendom, however, only because it neither began nor ended with his statement at the Diet of Worms. In fact, Luther did not originally envision himself coming into conflict with the papacy at all. His early forays into controversy, such as the Ninety-Five Theses, accused his opponents of misunderstanding the pope’s teachings and misrepresenting his will. Luther was certain quite early on that he had rediscovered in the attic boxes of St. Paul and St. Augustine, covered in the cobwebs of medieval commentary, the pure gospel. Only as progressively higher-ranking church officials rejected his articulation of the gospel did more and more of the Church fall under his suspicion. When the papacy declared itself the enemy of Luther, and thus of Luther’s gospel, Luther inferred that the papacy was the enemy of Christ, that is, the Antichrist.

Luther’s identification of the papacy with the Antichrist can strike the modern person as too hyperbolic, histrionic, or self-serving to be taken seriously. Somehow, it has never quite gotten the same level of recognition as many of Luther’s other doctrines, perhaps because it’s difficult to express it in a snappy Latin phrase beginning with sola. For understanding the historical imagination and history writing of the sixteenth century, though, it is probably his most important doctrine. A host of consequences followed from it. Most generally, it functioned as the central thread in a conspiracy theory that could not help but be vast. No aspect of European life was untouched by the papacy. The Church itself was Europe’s largest employer. Every city and town swarmed with clergy. Moreover, the Church either directly dominated or kept tabs on all the halls of power. Higher education was controlled by clerics. Everything was tainted, everyone suspect.

But Luther was far from thinking the conspiracy had begun in his own lifetime. In his imagination, history is a great battlefield, or perhaps chessboard, on which a struggle between God and the Devil is being played out. The Devil’s long-term strategy is not to make people openly renounce God, but to make people think they are worshiping God while they trust in their own goodness and their own capacities. As such, he put his plan into motion very early indeed. Even in the times of the Church fathers, some had misunderstood the teaching of the gospel. Some Christians became obsessed with feats of spiritual strength, proving their powers through the ascetic or monastic life. Legends and Lives of these people circulated, spreading the fascination with works rather than grace.

Not coincidentally, Luther would point out, the papacy multiplied in strength around the same time monasticism started to flourish in Western Christendom. When the “barbarians” had finished plundering Rome’s cities and decimating its culture, opting instead for a more permanent residence, the papacy filled the power vacuum and dispatched loyal monks as its representatives to Romanize Europe, in the sense of bringing it under papal domination. Through trickery the popes outmaneuvered various secular leaders who could have kept them in check, such as Charlemagne or Emperor Henry IV.  To cement its power, the Vatican forged and falsified all kinds of documents, from official deeds (The Donation of Constantine) to stories of saints.

It is almost impossible to convey just how revisionist this approach to history was, or how unsettling it could be to the people of Europe. It stripped away almost every origin story, from whole kingdoms to individuals towns and churches. In France, the monarchs of the Capetian dynasty were anointed with holy oil during their coronation. This oil was believed to have been the same oil used to anoint Clovis, the first King of the united Franks, at his baptism. When St. Remigius came to baptize Clovis, no proper oil could be found. Suddenly, a dove came from heaven bearing a flask. Remigius baptized Clovis with the heavenly oil, which signified divine approval of his rule; the supposed continuity in oil conferred the same divine approval on the Capetian dynasty [3]. When Luther encouraged people to laugh at such tales, he undermined the legitimacy of the French throne.

Cities had problems of the same sort. Zurich was among the first to embrace the Reformation, but its own history was deeply steeped in saintly legend. Charlemagne himself was credited with its founding (or at least refounding), when he decided to build the Grossmünster church there. Why did he decide to build a church there? His horse tripped over a grave, which turned out to hold the bones of Saints Felix and Regula, Roman soldiers martyred for their faith. But even the placement of their grave was miraculous. After being beheaded a ways down the river, they calmly picked up their heads and walked to the place they wished to be buried. All these miracles were so the people of Zurich, and especially the clergy of the Grossmünster, could be sure of God’s favor on them. Not to be outdone, the Fraumünster cloister across the river also claimed a miraculous foundation. King Louis the German’s two daughters were on their way to church when a stag with burning antlers led them to the spot where it should be founded; they became its first abbesses. If God had not directed people to build Zurich and its churches, why were they there at all?

Individual families were also affected by the change. People were often named after saints, who could then serve as their personal models and protectors. What would it mean to be named after a saint that Luther and his followers thought of as wicked rather than holy, or perhaps as not even real? How was the Benedictine monk, who had dedicated his life to following St. Benedict’s example, to respond to this casual dismissal of his exemplar’s piety? What about the hundreds of roadside shrines where people had had prayers answered or miracles performed? If they were not real, how did they get there, and what was to be done with them now?

The people persuaded by Luther’s doctrines were more or less forced by consequence to adopt the general outlines of his historical imagination. For the historians among them, a methodological problem emerged. How could the past be reconstructed when the corrupting influences of the papacy had run for so long and had gone so deep? Could a corrected, purified history be written? But for everyone touched by Luther’s gospel, existential questions loomed. Who are we, how did we get here, and how do we fit into the broader story of Christianity? If the idea that the church declined under the papacy furnished the possibility for reformation, it simultaneously presented one of the reformers’ most intractable problems.

To be continued


[1] Luther’s Works 32.112.

[2] Neither the scholastic theologians nor the canon lawyers were naive. They were not blind to disharmony in the tradition but thought that the way forward was through a progressive, institutional understanding of the church that retained as much accumulated opinion as possible. Luther was radical in insisting that disharmony was a reason to excise an acknowledged authority, or rather, whole categories of authorities. Compare Marcia Colish, “Authority and Interpretation in Scholastic Authority,” with the description of Luther in David Bagchi, Luther’s Earliest Opponents, 80.

[3] On Clovis’ oil and other marks of regal sanctity, see Dale Van Kley, The Religious Origins of the French Revolution From Calvin to the Civil Constitution, 1560-1791, 16-22.

For further reading:

On Luther’s view of church history, probably the most accessible, comprehensive resource is the aptly titled Luther’s View of Church History by John Headley. A nice survey of recent scholarship is available in Matthias Pohlig, Zwischen Gelehrsamkeit und konfessioneller Identitätsstiftung, 79-93.

For reformers turning to the past to construct the future, see Luca Baschera et al. (eds.), Following Zwingli: Applying the Past in Reformation Zurich.



Published inReformation