In Defense of Martin Luther (part 3)
|September 15, 2011||Posted by Joseph Keysor under Blog|
2. Unclean language
3. Hostility to science and reason
4. Luther’s responsibility for later events in German history
5. Luther and German nationalism
a. Some misconceptions
Before we examine the (in my view) greatest problem of Luther’s attitudes toward the Jews, we need to look at one more issue: the hideous and damaging charge that Luther inspired German nationalism (or at least contributed to it significantly). Apart from the obvious (but not necessarily true) reasoning that Luther was an important German in the 16th century, so therefore he had something to do with everything that happened three hundred years later and more, there are also statements like those of the 19th-century super patriot Heinrich von Treitschke and others. These claimed that Luther was the embodiment of the German character; that he inspired the German national consciousness; that he was a prophet of the new German national identity, and so on.
More modern claims include the assertion that nationalism in Europe began around the time of the Protestant Reformation and was the result of the breakup of Europe’s Catholic unity; that Luther was obsessed with “German-ness”; that he embodied negative nationalistic elements that were transmitted, by his influence, to the entire German people over centuries. And, there are countless comments which are the result of reading modern catastrophes backward into Luther’s time, and making many associations that would have been incomprehensible to people of Luther’s day.
If we were to read some other comments of Heinrich von Treitschke or others like him, we would instantly recognize them as ridiculous falsehoods emerging from confused minds. That “national honor” is “the sublime moral good”; “the sacred power of love which a righteous war awakes in noble nations”; German soil fertilized by German blood; the racial struggle against the Lithuanians – none of this would be taken seriously by any sensible person today. But, when extreme claims by these same thinkers are made about Luther, they are taken at face value by people who are not only badly informed or uninformed about what Luther actually believed, but are also eager to believe anything bad they hear about him. So they suspend their logical faculties and associate Luther with attitudes and beliefs totally foreign to him.
It is somewhat disappointing to have to deal with misconceptions disseminated by people who are unfamiliar with Luther’s main ideas and goals. Luther’s 95 Theses of 1517, the document which led to the Protestant Reformation, was not a Germanic document. It was a European document, and dealt with issues of equal importance to all of Catholic Europe. This was one reason it spread so rapidly, and had such a deep impact in so many countries.
The church should not use force to suppress criticism (point 90). If the pope has the power to liberate souls from purgatory, why does he not do it freely out of love, instead of asking for money? (82). What is the benefit of giving funeral masses for people who have been long dead? (83). It is not right to say that the insignia of the cross with papal arms is equal in value to the cross on which Christ died (79). The sale of indulgences is nothing more than a way of getting money (67). “It is vain to rely on salvation by letters of indulgence, even if the commissary, or indeed the pope himself, were to pledge his own soul for their validity” (52). Those who buy indulgences and neglect giving to the poor earn not God’s forgiveness but his anger (45). Extreme claims for the power of indulgences exceed papal authority (42). Those who rely on indulgences for their salvation will be eternally damned (32).
Luther’s goal in presenting these points for debate was to point out abuses in the Church with a view to reforming it. He was initially respectful to the pope (95 Theses point 9), but when his attempts to reform the church were met with opposition he became increasingly convinced that reform was impossible, that his desire to have a Christianity founded on the bible alone would never be realized within the existing structure.
Luther’s first concern was not with Germany and German nationalism. Germany in Luther’s day was divided into hundreds of kingdoms and independent domains of various sorts, and the Germans of that time were not seeking unification, conquest, and domination. Luther’s An Appeal to the Ruling Class of German Nationality as to the Amelioration of the State of Christendom was not a political appeal, urging the Germans to arise and conquer because their special essence made them inherently superior to other peoples. It was an appeal to Germany’s many different rulers to reject the spiritual teachings of Rome; to deny papal claims to spiritual superiority over earthly jurisdictions; to allow for free interpretation of scripture without fear of papal punishment; and to institute substantial reforms in the Church by means of a Church council to which the pope should be obedient.
He objected to the ostentatious wealth of the church; to the corruption of the ecclesiastical authorities; to the huge loss with no benefit of revenues to Italy; to ecclesiastical abuses and corruptions widely known and criticized throughout much of Europe. This treatise is a call for religious reform, and is very far removed in tone and content from the bombastic, haughty, militaristic, imperialistic noises emitted by chronologically and spiritually distant German nationalists of a later era drunk with new-found power (whose empty dreams were shortly exposed as totally false). True, Luther did write to the Germans, as a Frenchman might properly address French rulers or an Englishman English ones, but modern nationalism was still in its beginning stages in Luther’s day, and was less advanced in Germany than it was in England and France.