On Luther

Last Sunday, writing in the Conservative Woman, Henry Getley recounted a brief history of Martin Luther and the Reformation. He outlined the history of Luther’s break with Rome, offered a few characterizations of the doctrines and practices that were at issue, and mentioned some old historiographical theses on the social effects of Protestantism. Mr Getley was quite right to mention the late-15th and early-16th century scandal of unlicensed hawkers’ offering of invalid indulgences for money, and to mention the evident influence of the reformation upon society. Certainly, when one considers these traditional themes from a traditional English point of view, the Catholic Church looks foreign and unattractive—and so it’s quite reasonable to discuss them. 

Today, however, I myself want to consider some of these themes from a contrasting, Catholic view point. For one thing that I’ve noticed about my fellow Catholic converts is that we tend to ask certain kinds of questions. We do not ask ‘Did mass literacy develop slightly earlier in Protestant countries?’ or ‘Were there scandalous practices in the Church?’, nor such other, common questions as ‘Is the Book of Common Prayer more beautiful than the Missal?’ or ‘Is modern Catholicism too baroque to suit the English temperament?’. Instead, we tend to ask ‘What is true?’. ‘Is protestant doctrine true, or Catholic? Which makes more sense?’. When one puts these questions first, one sees Luther, the Reformation and the Church in a rather different light. Besides, this is the right starting point from which to answer questions about the social effects of the Reformation: in the mad mass of interrelated causation that is history, one needs to be clear about the logic of an idea, and what it implies, before one can understand its effects. I want, then, to talk a little about Luther and his attitudes, to see how his character influenced his doctrine, and then to see how that doctrine has influenced society throughout the Modern Period.

Martin Luther, God rest his soul, was a clear instance of a man psychologically unsuited to the practice of the Catholic faith. Take any faith, even a true one, and there will always be some people who are mentally unsuited to practising it; psychopaths and the profoundly intellectual disabled, for example, rarely come to any religious faith, but one hopes and trusts that God will have mercy upon them. Luther was neither a psychopath nor intellectually disabled, but he had in abundance that classic Germanic affliction—angst. As a young man, he became an Augustinian monk. Again and again, he decided that he had fallen into serious sin, torturing himself with shame, worry and depression. Imaginary sin followed upon real minor sin upon imaginary sin; he was a burdened, seething mass of guilt and self-accusation. His monastic confessor, Fr Johann von Staupitz, sensing his angst, enjoined him to hope in his loving saviour, and to remember the wounds he had suffered that we might have forgiveness.1 Luther himself would later say that God, working through the staunchly Catholic von Staupitz, had saved him from hell.2

Yet Luther’s angst continued. According to the traditional account—naturally now much disputed by the many scholars of such things—Luther had an epiphany in his tower: his Turmerlebnis or ‘tower experience’. To understand this experience, we need to know a little about the Catholic doctrine in which Luther had been educated. Catholic doctrine had said that God, who ever holds all things in being, was the cause of the Christian’s justification (in the Greek of the New Testament, dikaioma or dikaiosis). God made the faithful Christian righteous (dikaios – literally ‘just’), and so fitted him for heaven. Yet despite God’s sovereignty, we still had free will; and our acts of free will, our conscious willing response to the grace of God—that is, to his offer of shared divine live—were part of the causal chain by which God justified us. Hence, as St Paul had said, one was justified by one’s God-given faith; but that was to be a faith freely lived out in one’s life. The Church believed herself to hold the same, apostolic faith of St Paul, handed down by men, and given life by the Holy Spirit. For the Church, years of responding to dangerous errors, years of reflection on the faith and scriptures entrusted to the her, had given her the technical language with which to pick out the true, biblical and apostolic faith from a world of error; justification, she could say, was intrinsic—it involved a real change—and it was by formed faith—a faith consciously matured and acted on for as long as one lived, albeit through many mistakes and times of dryness and backward steps. 

But this faith was no antidote to Luther’s habitual, almost narcissistic self-accusation; his elaborate penitence; his angst. In his tower, a new way of reading scripture popped into his head. Man could never really become righteous. Man, as he would later say, was a ‘dunghill’ who ‘commits sin as long as he draws breath’. Even a man’s tendency to sin, his concupiscence inherited from Adam, was itself sin, whether or not he freely assented to its promptings. No: justification was not internal, and one’s actions had no role in its causal chain. Rather, justification was a legal fiction: an imputation of Christ’s righteousness to oneself. The justified Christian was clothed in righteousness, but this clothing was external to him. He didn’t need to worry about the foul dirtiness within himself, because he was in Christ by legal decree. He knew he would be saved, unless he apostatized. Justification was external, and by fiduciary faith alone—not a belief in revealed truth, but a mere conviction that God, for the sake of Christ, would not impute our sins to us. Later, when Luther produced his translation of some of the scriptures, he would add the word ‘alone’ (‘allein’) to St Paul’s claim that we are ‘justified by faith’. Such was and is the doctrine of sola fide. In response to Catholic complaints about his mistranslation, Luther wrote:

Please do not give these donkeys any other answer to their useless braying about that word sola than simply this: “Luther will have it so, and he says that he is a doctor above all the doctors of the pope.” Let it rest there. I will from now on hold them in contempt, and have already held them in contempt, as long as they are the kind of people (or rather donkeys) that they are.3

Yet sola fide was not the doctrine of the Catholic Church—nor indeed of the Eastern Orthodox Church (estranged from Rome for various reasons in the early second millenium), nor the Oriental Orthodox Church (which had left communion following linguistic misunderstandings at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D.), nor the Church of the East (which had left communion following similar misunderstandings at Ephesus in 431 A.D.—though most of its remembers would become Catholic again more than 1,000 years later). For Luther, the only solution was to reject the concept of the teaching Church, the ecclesia docens, as well. Hence his other key doctrine: sola scriptura, the doctrine that scripture was the only source of Christian doctrine. 

Before we consider the logic of these two doctrines, and see how they created the modern West, we ought to see how these doctrines themselves reacted upon Luther’s own character, eliciting from him attitudes that many of his followers would themselves religiously absorb. Two examples are particularly notable. First, Luther, with his strong sense of the foulness of mankind, had a virulent hatred of unredeemed non-Christians, especially the most prominent non-Christians of early-modern Europe, the Jews. Before Luther, the Jews and Christians of mediaeval Europe—members of those two great, uncompromising Abrahamic faiths—had often had a tense relationship, and Christians’ sense that they had displaced the Jews as the people of God no doubt added to this. The Church, the defender of what was still an essentially monocultural Christendom, had often acted to restrict the civic rights of Jews; and sometimes local Christian people, even the lower clergy (but rarely the higher clergy) had driven out or persecuted the Jews, who, as the only usurers in Christian Europe, were useful, but subject to suspicion and resentment. Yet Luther poured forth a hatred hitherto unknown in any respected Christian leader. In his book Von den Jüden und iren Lügen (On the Jews and their Lies), he said that they were full of the ‘devil’s faeces… which they wallow in like swine’. (Being ever filled with a sense of the foulness of man—being, in many ways, the Lady Macbeth of Christian theology—Luther had a love of poo-metaphors). He wanted the Jews’ synagogues set alight, their homes razed, their books destroyed, their property confiscated. He wanted them to be forced to do manual work, and to have no safe-conduct on highways.4 Though no princes adherent to Luther’s new religion did all he recommended, many clamped down on the Jews. 

Luther, the renegade monk who married a renegade nun, also had a dim view of women. Perhaps, sure of human foulness, he failed to note women’s spiritual receptivity, as evinced in the holy obedience of the Blessed Virgin Mary (and so well articulated in contemporary writing by Alice and Dietrich von Hildebrand). Catholics had reverenced Mary, the God-bearer, and had also had respect for holy nuns. Many a wise, Right Reverend abbess had contributed greatly to the intellectual and spiritual life of the Church. For both reasons, Catholics did not tend to belittle or demean women. Women of extraordinary intelligence had a means of pursuing their studies—religious life; and there was room to recognize talent in both sexes without compromising on morals, or on the needs of children; without, indeed, pretending that the sexes were interchangeable. Later, in 1750, Pope Benedict XIV would appoint the laywoman Maria Agnesi to a full professorship of mathematics at the University of Bologna; she would be the first ever woman professor of that subject. In a gracious, respectful culture, this milestone could be reached without any sense that women would then demand an equal number of professorships of mathematics.

Luther, in contrast, held views that made the later overreaction of modern feminism almost inevitable—and, indeed, almost justifiable. As he said, ‘The work and word of God tell us clearly that women must be used for marriage or for prostitution. If women get tired and die of bearing, there is no harm in that; let them die so long as they bear; they are made for that.’5

But we still need to consider the substance of Luther’s teaching, and whither it has led the West. First, the doctrine of sola scriptura. The Catholic Church had taught that she was the visible, institutional ecclesia (ἐκκλησία) that Christ promised to build; to lead which, he had commissioned the apostles. The Holy Spirit guided this visible Church, leading her in truth, because he guided her faithful members; of whom she would never be lacking. The Church taught that the scriptures were divinely inspired, so that the writers of them had written exactly what God wanted to write, no more no less, and that they were therefore of the highest authority. But the Church still had the apostles’ authority to teach and to interpret God’s public revelation to man, a revelation which had ended with the death of the last apostle. She was the appointed guardian of this Deposit of Faith: both sacred scripture, and the other teachings passed down from the apostles themselves, which were known as sacred tradition. All people were called to membership of the Church; and therefore, though individual bishops and theologians might teach errors about the Faith, the whole Church could not—for no-one could be called by God to accept error. 

Luther’s doctrine of sola scriptura rejected this teaching in two ways. First, Luther taught that the ἐκκλησία was best understood not as an institutional Church backed by divine guarantees, but as an assembly—the ordinary, secular meaning of the Greek word. This assembly consisted of all ‘pure saints’6. Second, Luther rejected sacred tradition as a source of knowledge of the revelation of God to man; he said that the Church, with her tradition, had distorted scripture. Logically, the doctrine of sola scriptura needed a scriptural basis, and he claimed to have found it in St Paul’s advice to Timothy at 2 Timothy 3:16-17, which reads:

Πᾶσα γραφὴ θεόπνευστος καὶ ὠφέλιμος πρὸς διδασκαλίαν, πρὸς ἐλεγμόν, πρὸς ἐπανόρθωσιν, πρὸς παιδείαν τὴν ἐν δικαιοσύνῃ, ἵνα ἄρτιος ᾖ ὁ τοῦ θεοῦ ἄνθρωπος, πρὸς πᾶν ἔργον ἀγαθὸν ἐξηρτισμένος.

A translation would be:

Every scripture is God-breathed, and useful for instruction, for refutation, for correction, for training in all justice, that the man of God might be the finished article [ἄρτιος], fully furnished [ἐξηρτισμένος] for every good work. 

Luther translated it as:

Denn alle Schrift, von Gott eingegeben, ist nütze zur Lehre, zur Strafe, zur Besserung, zur Züchtigung in der Gerechtigkeit, daß ein Mensch Gottes sei vollkommen, zu allem guten Werk geschickt.


For all scripture put into man by God [von Gott eingegeben] is useful for doctrine, for correction, for improvement, for rearing in justice, that a man of God be complete, deft at every good work.

(Note how ‘every scripture’ becomes ‘all scripture’ (perhaps because Luther was translating from the Vulgate ‘omnis scriptura’, which is formally though not lexically ambiguous), and also how all the Greek things ‘for which’ scripture is ‘useful’ are essentially social, shared activities, whereas Luther uses German words that, taken overall, could have a more private ring–i.e. could sound like things that one could do at home alone with one’s bible. My two English translations cannot perfectly convey this difference. In part the difference comes from the different cultural settings of Koine Greek and early modern German: e.g. literal, early-modern ‘Züchtigung’ is a similar concept to literal ‘παιδεία’, but the latter feels to me rather more inextricable from a literal, public connotation of one person’s training/rearing another. This is partly because ‘παιδεία’ is cognate with ‘παις’, and so has a definite human reference, whereas ‘Züchtigung’ is something one can also do to plants and animals. Note also the subtle difference between ὁ τοῦ θεοῦ ἄνθρωπος, ‘the man of God’, which seems to imply a shared, objective standard of what it is to be the ‘man of God’, and ‘ein Mensch Gottes’, which again is more reconcilable with a more private, subjective reading of the passage).

Before we can see the intellectual consequences of Luther’s claims, we need first to consider whether they made sense. Was Luther right to reject sacred tradition, and the Church’s authority to interpret both that sacred tradition and holy scripture? For certainly, Our Lord himself had condemned the παραδοσις of the Pharisees in the Gospels, and St Paul also condemned the παραδοσις ‘of men’. This Greek abstract noun, παραδοσις, literally meant a ‘handing along’. Ιts exact etymological equivalent in Latin was traditio, the word with which it is translated in the Catholic Latin bible (the Vulgate). So our Lord, and Paul’s epistles, did condemn some tradition.

On the other hand, if one thinks about it, it is not possible to manufacture a chasm between the New Testament, and what the Church contemporary to it was teaching. The Gospels are a divinely inspired record of the life of Christ, but nothing within them suggests that God overrode the functioning of their authors’ human intellects, making them mere speaking-trumpets. On the contrary, the scriptural authors claim that they are recording what the Church has seen and taught, as reported to, or seen by, themselves. St Luke says that that he is recording what ‘those who were eyewitnesses and servants of the Word from the beginning handed down’ (Luke 1:2). The verb here is παρεδοσαν, a form of παραδιδωμι, which is the cognate verb of παραδοσις, traditio. In other words, Luke’s gospel records the Church’s traditio in a divinely inspired way. God’s inspiration of the writers of the Gospels, then, resembles—but is more perfect than—the inspiration of a holy preacher. God raises up a preacher’s mind; yet, in order to be a subject of fruitful inspiration, a he will have lived a life of prayer and study. So it was with the human writers of the Gospels, and indeed with the authors of the Old Testament too: they wrote from their human knowledge, but with their minds inspired by Holy Spirit. This also explains why each biblical book has its own style, and why much of the New Testament is written in rather mediocre, non-native Greek.

The same is true of the other parts of the New Testament. For example, there is no sense in which St Paul’s inspired teaching in his epistles was discordant with his other, verbal teaching. He did not preach one doctrine by epistle, another by mouth. Moreover, scripture itself asserts not only its dependence on sacred tradition—the Church’s oral teaching—, but also asserts the apostles’ authority to establish that tradition, and the Church’s authority to teach it. St Paul enjoins the Corinthians (1 Cor 11:2) to hold to the παραδοσεις, the traditiones (plural) that he has handed down (‘παρεδωκε᾽, from παραδιδωμι). He tells the Thessalonians (2 Thess 2:15) to keep to the παραδοσεις that they have been taught, whether by letter or by word of mouth; and (2 Thess 3:6) to keep away from those who have stayed from the παραδοσεις that they had received from him. Indeed, in Acts 15:28-29, the apostles issue an authoritative determination of doctrine, which they present as having been inspired in them by the Holy Spirit. Protestants have ever claimed that the apostles’ authority was temporary, lasting until the last scripture had been written. Yet scripture no-where says this. It should be remembered that Christ commissioned his twelve apostles to teach the faith, and yet only some contributed to scripture. In Revelation, John is given a scroll to eat, which reminds us that the apostolic Church’s mission was not only to produce scripture, but to teach orally. Indeed, Acts shows the apostles ordaining a successor for Judas on their own authority.

Nor does 2 Timothy 3:16-17 prove Luther’s case. In the immediately preceding verses, Paul appears to the apostles’ teaching authority, telling Timothy to hold to what he has been told, ‘knowing from which persons you have received it’. He then mentions that Timothy has read salutary scriptures (‘holy writings’) from his youth. Hence the ‘every scripture’ in verses 16-17 seems most likely to refer the Old Testament, most of the New not having been written; and it in no way sets up a tension between the Church, and what would much later become the Bible. At any rate, it is a risibly weak foundation for the doctrine of sola scriptura, a doctrine totally at odds with the prior teaching of all the Christian churches, whose institutional continuity with the apostles—and with those who had inhabited the same culture, and had spoken the same languages as them—gave them a greater claim to understand St Paul aright. 

But what about the claim that the ecclesia (ἐκκλησια), which younger languages than Latin would give the unique name of ‘Church’, was really just an unorganized ‘assembly’? Considering this claim will help us to see the intellectual effects of Luther’s doctrine. For the problem with it is this: that scripture cannot be bound to the ordinary, contemporary sense of Greek or Hebrew words. For example, everyone admits that ‘justification’ is not reducible to ‘making just’, though that is what the Greek term for ‘justification’ literally means. The term was used to point to a new, Christian reality in ordinary, intelligible, human words. But how are we to understand these new Christian things, if they are distinct from all prior things, so that we cannot fall back on the mundane senses of the words of scripture? The answer must be: by experience, through the Holy Spirit. But then how do we know our interpretations are spiritual? 

The simple, Catholic answer is that we conform ourselves to the visible Church; that she really is the thing against which Christ said the gates of hell would not prevail. Luther’s answer amounts to this: one knows that one is right, and so one trusts one’s own reading of scripture; which is so perspicuous that any true, saved Christian will be able to read it correctly. For Catholics, understanding scripture was an essentially communal endeavour; Luther thought that he had a right a private interpretation. 

We can now see the problem. As Orwell taught us, human language can be made to mean anything. (And the scriptures, though inspired, are written in human language; otherwise we would not be able to understand them). Luther established the principle of private interpretation. But he was soon to learn its frustrations, as other men established their own interpretations and followings. One of these was the Swiss, Zwingli, who denied the real presence of Christ in the eucharist, a doctrine Luther considered obvious and fundamental. Luther met Zwingli at the so-called Marburg Colloquy of 1529. Unable to persuade Zwingli to accept the doctrine of the real presence, Luther in frustration took a chalk, and wrote across the table, ‘HOC EST CORPUS MEUM’, ‘THIS IS MY BODY’. 

At this point, perhaps another man would have realised that this was what he had reduced theology to. Whereas Catholics had their scholastic disputations, the new protestants could but scrawl their proof texts on their table, angry and frustrated that others could not see it their way. Fully protestant countries like Scotland would later see this pattern repeating itself time and time again, as sects split in aphasic acrimonious flurries of proof texts, dwindled, merged, and split again. Luther, though, always found it difficult to understand how anyone could not see things his way. (One wonders whether he was spoiled as a child). As he once said of Catholics: 

For we are not going to be students and disciples of the papists. Rather, we will become their teachers and judges. For once, we also are going to be proud and brag, with these blockheads; and just as Paul brags against his mad raving saints, I will brag against these donkeys of mine! Are they doctors? So am I. Are they scholars? So am I. Are they preachers? So am I. Are they theologians? So am I. Are they debaters? So am I. Are they philosophers? So am I. Are they logicians? So am I. Do they lecture? So do I. Do they write books? So do I.

I will go even further with my boasting: I can expound the psalms and the prophets, and they cannot. I can translate, and they cannot. I can read the Holy Scriptures, and they cannot. I can pray, they cannot. Coming down to their level, I can use their rhetoric and philosophy better than all of them put together. Plus I know that not one of them understands his Aristotle. If any one of them can correctly understand one preface or chapter of Aristotle, I will eat my hat! No, I am not overdoing it, for I have been schooled in and have practised their science from my youth. I recognize how deep and broad it is. They, too, are well aware that I can do everything they can do. Yet they treat me as a stranger in their discipline, these incurable fellows, as if I had just arrived this morning and had never seen or heard what they teach and know. How they do brilliantly parade around with their science, teaching me what I outgrew twenty years ago!

Luther was one of those men who is always on transmit, never receive. This was perhaps just as well, because, to his own frustration, he was soon inundated with correspondence requesting his doctrinal ruling on all manner of subjects; for his followers, he became, in effect, tradition and the fathers and the bishops and the pope rolled into one. They called themselves ‘Evangelicals’; it was Catholics who first gave them the name of ‘Lutheran’, the idea being that they were people who followed Luther rather than Christ and his Church. 

Despite Lutherans’ deference to an extra-scriptural authority, namely Luther, it was Luther’s principle of private interpretation that had the longer-term effects on Western religious and intellectual life. Consider the position of a Christian at the turn of the 18th century. Already scores of major denominations taught mutually incompatible teaching. This tended to lead philosophers and theologians in one of two contrasting directions. The first direction was liberalism: the belief that men could not reasonably be expected to come to mutually compatible religious views; that therefore Church and state must be strictly separate, and societies should be based on the principle ‘each to his own’. The second was sectarianism. Christians who endorsed sectarianism insisted that their sect’s views just were the true ones; and that, if some else really could not accept its view of the Bible, then that just proved that he was not saved, and that therefore one could not expect him to understand anyway. Whereas the Catholic Church had taught that reason could guide one to the Catholic Faith (even though that Faith itself was always a free gift of the Holy Spirit), both liberalism and sectarianism implicitly denied the power of human reason to draw us to agreement about the deepest truths.Liberalism implied that reason was powerless to point people towards any shared comprehensive world-view, although it did allow that reason pointed to liberalism. Sectarianism dismissed reason altogether—the Elect just were the Elect, and understood the Bible; the non-elect just were the non-elect, and did not; reason did not come into the matter. (Both doctrines’ attitudes towards reason, indeed, are consistent with Luther’s extremely dim view of fallen man’s intellectual capacities, another strut in the structure of sola fide).

Over time, both Christian communities, and whole nations, adopted one or the other system. Today, Protestants tend to fall into one of two types of community: liberal communities, which purport to have an intellectual life of sorts; and non-liberal communities, which have avoided liberalism only by shunning high-level intellectual life altogether. In the West, serious, leading philosophical work is largely conducted by an atheist majority and a Catholic minority, plus few practicing Jews.

Luther’s right of private interpretation also lies behind the disastrous liberalism of modern states. Consider the United States of America—that ‘Enlightenment’ project par excellence. The premise of the Constitution of the United States was liberalism: the community should not be founded on any shared, fulsome account of the meaning and purpose of life, such as Christendom had had (a ‘thick’ metaphysics—what R.R. Reno calls ‘strong Gods’), but rather on a minimal shared commitment to let each man pursue ‘happiness’ in his own way–to pursue what Rawls would later call his ‘comprehensive conception of the good’. (This was a ‘thin’ metaphysics—what R.R. Reno calls the ‘weak Gods’ of liberalism). As a matter of contingent circumstance, the U.S. long consisted of various highly homogeneous Christian cultures, and so most Americans lived in communities with a shared sense of purpose, pursuing ‘happiness’ in quite sensible ways. But as these communities have broken down, we have seen the madness of the liberal premises of the U.S., and the true weakness of its ‘weak Gods’ of liberalism: for everyone knows that the best way of one’s being miserable and mentally unbalanced is to pursue ‘happiness’ as an end in itself, without reference to others, and without deference to some shared, fundamental philosophy. (Though it should be said that American is as American does, and that some of the most promising developments within the Western Church are now happening in the U.S., not to mention many other ongoing humane and scientific achievements. I like Americans, if not the reasoning of the Founders).

Indeed Luther’s own teaching manifested both liberalism and a sectarianism irrationalism. On the liberal side, Luther’s doctrine of the Two Kingdoms was a prototype doctrine of the separation of Church and state. On the irrational side, he seems to have known almost nothing of St Thomas Aquinas and the other mainstays of Catholic thought, though in 1520 he did organize a public burning of Catholic theology books in Wittenberg, and he called reason—which Catholics had thought God wanted us to exercise—‘that pretty whore’7. (He had tried to acquire a copy of Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae for the book-burning, but it seems that no-one in Wittenberg was willing to give him one8). As Chesterton put it in his book St Thomas Aquinas: “The Dumb Ox”:

…it never occurred to [Aquinas] to use anything except his wits, in defence of a truth distinct from himself. It never occurred to Aquinas to use Aquinas as a weapon. There is not a trace of his ever using his personal advantages, of birth or body or brain or breeding, in debate with anybody. In short, he belonged to an age of intellectual unconsciousness, to an age of intellectual innocence, which was very intellectual. Now Luther did begin the modern mood of depending on things not merely intellectual. It is not a question of praise or blame; it matters little whether we say that he was a strong personality, or that he was a bit of a big bully. When he quoted a Scripture text, inserting a word that is not in Scripture, he was content to shout back to all hecklers: “Tell them that Dr. Martin Luther will have it so!” That is what we now call Personality. A little later it was called Psychology. After that it was called Advertisement or Salesmanship. But we are not arguing about advantages or disadvantages. It is due to this great Augustinian pessimist to say, not only that he did triumph at last over the Angel of the Schools, but that he did in a very real sense make the modern world. He destroyed Reason; and substituted Suggestion.

Before discussing sola fide, I ought also very briefly to mention one other theological problem with sola scriptura. The problem is this: how does one know which texts belong in scripture? The Catholic answer was that the Church, over time, discerns which texts are truly inspired. As a matter of fact, this process was not easy: the current canon of the New Testament was not definitely established until the close of the fourth century, and indeed the New Testament of the Armenian Church (an Oriental Orthodox church which left communion with Rome a little before this), still contains two additional books.

Luther’s answer was that scripture was self-defining: the Christian man would just know which texts were true scripture. Again, he took the Catholic office of the whole Christian community, led together into truth by the Holy Spirit, and he gave that office to individuals—above all, to himself. The problem was, not everyone agreed with his canon of scripture—that is, with his list of scriptural books. Luther called the letter of St James an epistle ‘of straw’ (a colloquial Latin way of describing something as worthless), and he could see no inspiration in Hebrews, Jude and Revelation. Bowing to popular opinion, he did include them in his translation of scripture, but relegated them to the end of the New Testament, and questioned their status in his prefaces to them. Of Revelation he said, ‘My spirit cannot accommodate itself to this book. For me this is reason enough not to think highly of it: Christ is neither taught nor known in it’. Until the turn of the end of the seventeenth century, many Lutherans excluded these books altogether. On the other hand, Luther did include the Deuterocanon in his Bible, marking it as ‘useful’ but not fully scriptural. (The Deuterocanon is that part of the Catholic scriptures found in the Septuagint (the Greek Old Testament), but not in the extant Hebrew). It was found in many Protestant bibles until 1826, when then British and Foreign Bible Society decided to remove it. Parts of it still feature in the liturgy of the Church of England, and indeed we heard a reading from Ecclesiasticus, also known as Sirach, at the funeral of the Duke of Edinburgh. 

Ultimately, the Protestant attitude to the Bible that Luther first stirred—the idea that the Bible was always an obvious given, and that every Christian must derive his faith from personal reading of a copy—is profoundly unhistorical. (In his recent translation of the New Testament, the Protestant N.T. Wright, with bizarre anachronism, often translates Jesus’ talk of ‘the Scriptures’ as ‘the Bible’, as if such a clear-cut thing then existed). The Reformation was roughly co-incident with the rise of printing, but for most the Middle Ages, the average book cost more than the average house. Personal Bible-study is certainly very valuable, and the Catholic Church encourages it; but if it were needful for faith, then only a small minority could have had faith before the modern period.

(On the other hand, the Church’s attitude to the bible has never been as protestants have depicted it. Protestants often rightly say that the Catholic Church kept bibles on chains; but she only did so because they were made available in public areas, and were far too expensive to be left loose. True, most copies were in Latin; but King Alfred and others circulated Anglo-Saxon translations of parts of scripture, with no objection from the clergy. Tyndale translated παραδοσις / traditio as ‘tradition’ when it had a negative sense, and ‘ordinance’ when it had a good sense, which is one reason why his loaded, distorting translation was suppressed).

Finally, we must briefly consider the doctrine of sola fide. As said, this doctrine states that we are saved by trust in Christ alone. When we make this act of trust, were are justified: God imputes the righteousness of Christ to us, and so all our past present and future sins are cancelled out, extrinsically by legal fiction, though justification involves no inward change. Henceforth, we know we are saved. (Though Luther, unlike Calvin, seemed to think that a justified man could lose his salvation by apostasy). I cannot possibly discuss the theology of doctrine in full today. Suffice it to say that it had no parallel even in history of Christian heresy, and that it is hard to reconcile with e.g. Romans 6:14-16, in which Paul advises the justified not to sin, lest they suffer spiritual death. 

However, I do have space briefly to consider its intellectual and social effects. (Since the original ‘evangelicals’—the Lutherans—have drifted back towards a more Catholic doctrine of justification, as have many other protestants, I here consider modern evangelicals to be the truest heirs of the sola fide tradition). Recall that part of the doctrine of sola fide was a doctrine about sin: the doctrine that everything we do is sin. Yet this sin, according to sola fide, is all imputed away by Christ’s action. The combination of these two claims has tended to give evangelicals a rather unbalanced attitude to sin, and little interest in human nature. First, they have had no reason to think seriously about gradations in sin; indeed the concept of ‘sin’ becomes blunted when there are no non-sinful actions to contrast sin with. Hence evangelicalism has jumped from an early-modern phase, in which a grim, severe, sorrowful style of worship was dominated by a sense of human sin, to a late-modern phase in which the sense of sin—which had become almost too big a thing to see—, and the sense of our sorrow for sin, have been almost entirely lost, and there is a feeling that one who really trusts in God will always manifest a chronic jollity. This chronic jollity must be a crushingly wearisome burden in ‘this vale of tears’. But the burden is greater, too, because evangelical worship is so performative; there is a psychological need to demonstrate to oneself, by one’s felt fervour, that one is truly saved. Sadly, evangelical worship is rather like the action of a man who tries to make himself amused by laughing hard.

A compounding problem has been that sola fide marginalizes the value of any serious thought about human nature, or what is good for it—which had been the basis of St Thomas’ ethics. For Catholics, justification involved real change within us. Given this, we could really become righteous only if we were not acting in ways contrary to the good of human nature—contrary, in other words, to the law-like patterns written into the human heart known as the Natural Law. Hence the Natural Law—knowable in principle by reason but reconfirmed by revelation, and brought to the forefront of our consciences by grace—was of eternal importance. The reason, for example, that a Christians should confine sexual activity to a life-long exclusive marriage, was that human children needed long and stable rearing, and that therefore marriage was implied in human nature.

Protestants had far less reason to consider natural morality, because in their view, the justification of a person did not involve any real change in him. Luther himself—though sincere protestants did not follow him in this—once wrote to his bigamist populariser Philip Melanchthon: ‘Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ more strongly, who triumphed over sin, death, and the world; as long as we live here, we must sin.’ But when Luther said, ‘If adultery could be committed in faith, it would not be a sin’, he was expounding the logic of the tradition that he was founding. For his point was that it was only the biblical injunction against adultery that made it impossible for one to commit it in faith; he was not interested in whether it was good or bad for human nature. This detachment of ethics from man’s nature was to have disastrous and evident results in the modern period. (It also explains why conservative Anglicans have always been frustrated with the views of most their higher clergy. For it is often quipped that the Church of England has a Catholic Prayer Book, and Protestant articles, and the average English Christian long retained the instincts and assumptions that he had inherited from almost 1,000 years of English Catholicism, including an interest in natural morality. But the higher clergy, better understanding the implications of their Protestant articles, have generally been less interested in such things than the laity and lower clergy). 

What then are we to say of Luther? Chesterton again: ‘He was one of those great elemental barbarians, to whom it is indeed given to change the world.’.

1cf https://blog.cph.org/read/2018/11/johannes-von-staupitz




5Werke12.94 and 20.84 (Germany: Weimer Press 1883), quoted in Alice von Hildebrand, ‘Personalist Responds to Critic of Paul VI’, Pro Ecclesia (2002), available at https://www.alicevonhildebrand.org/personalist-responds-to-critic-of-p as of 18th April 2021

6Bjarne W. Teigen, ‘The Church in the New Testament, Luther, and the Lutheran Confessions’, Condordia Theological Quarterly, vol. 42 no. 4 (October 1978) p.383, available at http://www.ctsfw.net/media/pdfs/teigenthechurch.pdf as of 18th April 2021

7 https://www.crisismagazine.com/2016/luther-looks-islam

8 Martin Brecht, Martin Luther: His Road to Reformation, 1483-1521 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), pp. 423 ff, cited here https://research-repository.st-andrews.ac.uk/bitstream/handle/10023/19798/Schw_bel_The_Summa_Theologiae_and_the_Reformed_Traditions.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y as of 20th April 2021