Thursday, July 24, 2008
I am rereading Hilaire Belloc's book How the Reformation Happened. It is so full of facts and statements about a monumental time in history that I think I'll end up reading it at least one more time.
One statement of his is especially true, as I survey my society and its surroundings.
In describing the flaws of those looking back at certain controversies in history, he notes how so few people actually read the texts of the day leading up to the event in question.
To quote Belloc on these historians:
"Again (another grave weakness in his trade), he did not read the key-points: he despised and neglected those writings which would have explained to him the formation of that very culture from which he proceeded."
I think for me a key thing to understand is exactly how Luther interacted with his peers in his day. This letter to Pope Leo X is enough to make one question all of the things that movies and stories of lore have stated about Martin Luther.
It was written in 1518, roughly 1 year from the infamous day when Luther nailed his 95 theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg. Also keep in mind that no Catholic has accused those theses of being unorthodox. But let's keep our minds back in the 1500s.
I want to point out some key parts of this letter that are particularly poignant to me.
Luther starts off by saying:
Most Blessed Father,
wisheth everlasting welfare.
I have heard evil reports about myself, most blessed Father,
by which I know that certain friends have put my name in very
bad odor with you and yours, saying that I have attempted to
belittle the power of the keys and of the Supreme Pontiff.
Therefore I am accused of heresy, apostasy, and perfidy, and
am called by six hundred other names of ignominy. My ears
shudder and my eyes are astounded.
Note that the claim that the successor of Peter contains a special merit of leadership by having power from the keys handed to him through Christ cannot be an innovation from Vatican I (in the 1800s), as Luther himself is fluent with this idea. Note also his thoughts on the 95 theses--at this point his actions, whatever they were meant to produce, did not include an attack on Rome. They may have had stern words for Tetzel or some local Germans using indulgences for evil purposes, but Luther does not impute this to the Papacy.
Another statement later on in the letter shows me how the common legend that the world was in some sort of blind stupor of allegiance to the Church, with no regard to any corruption of the day, is utterly false. It is commonly said that Luther rang a clarion call against corruption, as though no other human before him had the heart and soul to cry out against corruption. On the contrary, Luther states:
None the less, however, stories about the avarice of the
priests were bruited in the taverns, and evil was spoken of
the power of the keys and of the Supreme Pontiff, and as
evidence of this, I could cite the common talk of this whole
If this were the common talk of the whole land, how could there have been a general blindness to corruption? What was so special about Luther's observations?
At the end, his closing includes these words:
Wherefore, most blessed Father, I cast myself at the feet of
your Holiness, with all that I have and all that I am.
Quicken, kill, call, recall, approve, reprove, as you will. In
your voice I shall recognize the voice of Christ directing you
and speaking in you. If I have deserved death, I shall not
refuse to die.
Again, I am struck by Luther's devotion to the Pope. The key thought that I would ask you to consider and ask yourself is to read the whole letter and ask, what changed? Did he discover that the local corruption led to the root at Rome? Was he fed up with trying to invoke reforms? Was it something else?
It is clear that Luther's thoughts underwent major changes, as did the world at large. Looking more closely at his interaction with the Church leadership, and the thoughts he formulated as he broke away from submission to the Pope may unravel how, in a sense, the Christian world unraveled at the initiation of the Reformation.