This post first appeared at The Nation.
Theology is morality is politics is law — and whether or not it’s immediately obvious, the world is steeped in theology. In contemporary America, and especially in the more secular precincts of Western Europe, it seems unlikely that one could look at a property deed or a government budget and find, just beneath its explicit reasoning, traces of old theological disputes and their resolutions. But they’re there, and examining them offers a view of what might have been, had history — in particular, the Protestant Reformation, ignited 500 years ago this October by a German monk named Martin Luther — unfolded differently.
Luther cuts a perplexing historical figure. In various depictions, he is by turns fiery or meek, bombastic or shy, licentious or pious, revolutionary or reactionary, cunning or naively bewildered by what his high-minded remonstrance unleashed on the world. In Erik Erikson’s famous study of the early Luther, we find a young monk in the throes of an identity crisis that would eventually hurl Europe into a similar one; in Roland H. Bainton’s Here I Stand, we find Luther beset by tumultuous bouts of desolation as well as stunning moments of insight and clarity. Luther’s theology would place an emphasis on spiritual simplicity, but his interior life was anything but uncomplicated.
In Lyndal Roper’s new biography, Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet, he’s a charismatic, irascible German chauvinist with a temper as quick as his wit, who is caught somewhat flat-footed by the trajectory of the revolution he launched. Roper notes that major fractures would begin to appear among Luther’s followers less than a year after he defended himself at the Diet of Worms in 1521; three years later, the Peasants’ War broke out, a popular uprising fueled by the anti-authoritarian thrust of Luther’s ideas, and one that wouldn’t be rivaled in size in Europe until the French Revolution. Luther, Roper observes, initially castigated both the rebellious peasants and their feudal lords, but he eventually endorsed the cause of the princes, declaring the rebels “mad dogs” up to “pure devil’s work.” “With this stance,” Roper writes, “the social conservatism of Luther’s Reformation became apparent.”
This paradox — that the Reformation could birth a peasant revolt while its instigator rallied behind the princes — is a picture of Protestantism’s confusing political legacy in miniature. Protestantism arguably brought about many of the preconditions for the Enlightenment and liberalism, and at the very least introduced Europe to a headier skepticism of authority than had prevailed before. (Indeed, Roper credits the Reformation with sparking the secularization of the West.) On the other hand, the release of significant portions of life — namely politics and economics — from the purview of religious authority may have expanded certain freedoms, but it didn’t result in a betterment of conditions for the most disadvantaged, even as it helped transform the Christian message into something far more internal and private than that of the earlier church.
Reconciling the confusing, often paradoxical origins of Protestantism in Luther and his successors seems like a good project for a half-millennium retrospective. But if there is one conclusion to be drawn from Roper’s book — as well as from two other recent works, Alec Ryrie’s Protestants: The Faith That Made the Modern World and John C. Rao’s anthology Luther and His Progeny: 500 Years of Protestantism and Its Consequences for Church, State and Society — it’s that Luther himself was more catalyst than creator. Five centuries on, some Protestant sects still bear the marks of his thought and personality, but others seem barely touched by them at all. Every religion is fissile and given to change, but the antinomian streak in Protestantism makes it especially so, and the monumental role it imagined for the individual conscience helps to explain, at least by Ryrie’s lights, the origins of modern thought.
Martin Luther was born in 1483 and grew up in the small German mining town of Mansfeld. “The son of a peasant,” by his own account, Luther spent his childhood in Mansfeld’s muddy, coal-dusted and pugilistic streets, which introduced him early to the culture of vicious insults and brutal argumentation that would later characterize — and help to popularize — many of his famous polemics.
Luther’s story has been told many times, but Roper handles it with special sensitivity, offering both an engrossing narrative and capturing the ways in which Luther’s early life and education contributed to the fixations that would occupy him in his later years. After a dreary childhood in Mansfeld, the young Luther set off to attend school in Magdeburg in 1497. He went on to study at the University at Erfurt and entered law school uneasily at his father’s behest.
It didn’t last. Luther instead was drawn to the church and took vows as an Augustinian monk in 1505. He was particularly attracted to the order’s learned friary and intellectual tradition, and Augustine’s political theology — at least its rhetorical shape — would go on to form an important dimension of Luther’s own. In 1512, he received his doctorate in theology. Now a thoroughly educated and opinionated man of God, Luther began teaching theology at the University of Wittenberg, giving sermons in the local church, and tallying the errors of his peers and superiors.
By 1517, Luther had established himself as an accomplished, if quarrelsome, preacher. He was known to have a particular (and entirely reasonable) animus toward indul-gences, the means by which certain church authorities parted faithful Catholics from their money with theologically specious promises of salvation and other favors. It was during one such dispute over the sale of indulgences that Luther finally met his destiny, on the last day of October 1517, at the doors of a Wittenberg church. There, he posted his 95 theses disputing established Catholic teaching — and launched a revolution that would transform the Christian world.
Roper’s narrative adds rich detail to the story of Luther’s youth and its impact on his later theological focus, and it teases out the anxieties and doubts that plagued him even as he pressed forward with the challenge that would become the Protestant Reformation. Roper also diligently follows the ways in which Luther frequently found himself at odds with the new form of Christianity he had initiated, illuminating in moving detail the relationships that crumbled around him as he became less the reform-minded intellectual friar he once was and more the influential defender of earthly princes.
Ryrie’s Protestants also tells us about Luther’s life, as well as about many of the early Protestants who helped spread the Reformation throughout Western Europe. But Ryrie also wants to tell the story of how the Reformation transformed not just the religious and political world but also our social and economic one. A practicing pastor, Ryrie already knows well that it is difficult, if not impossible, to speak of a single Protestantism, and so he centers his book instead not on the religion itself, but on its adherents and their shared, often contentious history. This influence is hard to overstate, especially for those of us in the United States, the even more stridently Protestant offspring of Protestant England.
Ryrie’s central contention is that the Reformation changed the ideological contours of Europe by toppling the traditional sources of authority — indeed, the stability of any worldly authority whatsoever. By so doing, it hastened (in some cases) or precipitated (in others) the rise of modernity, a condition that in Ryrie’s view is marked by a chronological era as well as the spread of liberalism, secularism, democracy and capitalism. Ryrie’s approach is historical and detailed; in his survey, he moves from Luther’s beloved Germany to England and the Americas, then to Asia and beyond. He devotes as much time to the denominations of South Korea and China and the Pentecostal sweep in Latin America as he does to Western mainline churches. He is emphatic that Protestantism is more a family of widely varied tendencies than a single, unified religion. Above all else, Protestantism is, for Ryrie, a love affair with God, unmediated by institutions.
Of course, love can find any number of expressions, and it’s the particular shape of Luther’s love that helped define the personality of Protestantism for centuries. As Roper tells us, Luther’s “unbearable revulsion” — at his own sins, mainly, but also those of others — was his “spiritual staple.” Feces and bodily decay feature prominently in his sermons and disputations, Roper notes, advancing a dim if not altogether disgusted view of man before his Creator. Perpetually caught up in a kind of spiritual anxiety, Luther was certain that there was nothing humans could do to redeem themselves even remotely in God’s eyes; instead, faith alone could provide one with the opportunity to be saved. “One must give up on attempting to find God through ‘the whore’ of reason,” Roper writes of Luther’s theology, “for the point of faith is that it exceeds rationality and reveals the distance between God and man.” For Luther, that distance seems to have provided some comfort: While human affairs are marked by filth and confusion, God reigns in remote majesty, unsullied and glorious in perfect certitude, even as He offers His sinful creatures a promise of the same.
This view of the gap between God and man helps explain Luther’s allegiance to the German princes: His theology, from the start, imbued worldly goings-on with far less spiritual significance than the Catholic Church had, and it did so in order to make Christianity a more “democratic” religion, one in which individuals enjoy unmediated access to God. But Luther’s Reformation didn’t simply undermine the church’s particularly exploitative practices; it also envisioned a rift between heaven and earth that, in Catholic thought, wasn’t nearly as wide or intractable. The “inner man should have faith in God,” Roper writes of Luther’s theology, “and we cannot arrive at faith through works of the outer man.” Each person, then, is a kind of self in a shell: One’s body is immersed in the profane and mundane grind of daily life, but one’s innermost soul is withdrawn and can be focused on heaven.
This distinction had immense consequences for how Christians in Luther’s tradition would go on to engage the world around them. For Luther, Ryrie writes, there was “an earthly kingdom: the kingdom of secular politics, a place of law, justice and punishment”; and then there was, “existing alongside it, and far more important than it…the kingdom of heaven, whose only king is Christ…. And this is where Christians’ hearts should be set, not on the lumpen business of human politics.”
For Protestants, this represented an important remonstration against the corruption and violence of various church-state interactions, as well as a renewed image of God as the ruler of a kingdom purer and better than the one we can experience corporeally. It was an essentially spiritual call to arms against the Vatican’s perceived materialism. But for many, the rupture of heaven and earth also opened up a different vista: that of secularism and of a world emptied of religious meaning. Luther emphasized that human works made no difference to one’s salvation; doing good was right, of course, but only God’s grace — and one’s faith — could decide the destiny of one’s soul. This liberated Christianity from some of its worldly constraints, but it also meant coming to view the private and religious spheres as divided from the public and secular ones.
The formation of a set of spheres separate from God’s purview was perhaps an unexpected development for a faith desperate to be closer to Him than the Catholic Church’s bulky intercession would allow. And over the long history of that faith, many Protestants haven’t seemed entirely convinced of the material world’s separateness: When political events or institutions come to be understood as obviously, egregiously wrong — slavery for some Protestants, abortion for others, taxation for still others — then the moral language concerning what God does or does not want emerges. But this new mode of religious thinking also helped open the door, Roper argues, to a new secular age: a world in which church and state, conscience and politics, remained separate on principle.
In a way, it takes a Catholic — or a set of Catholics, like those that John C. Rao gathers in his anthology Luther and His Progeny — to clarify just how transformative Protestantism was in changing the modern world. By separating the political and economic spheres from the realm of spiritual consideration, Protestantism not only inaugurated our secular age; it also helped — at least in the view of some of its critics — to give the market free rein. As Brian McCall argues in his contribution, while in the Catholic vision “economic works, as well as any other type of works, will affect not only natural but also supernatural ends,” the Protestant tradition proposed that religion and morality remain realms distinct from that of the economy.
This separation of economic considerations from spiritual ones had its own political implications. “The Church and church jurists,” McCall observes, “were intimately involved in the development of economic laws that placed restraints on individual economic freedom up to the eve of the Reformation.” Thus, by disavowing those moral
constraints on the market, Protestant countries could reclaim a sphere that was otherwise still shaped, to some extent, by the Catholic Church from afar. But when the authority of the church receded from this newly delineated political-economic sphere, something else happened inadvertently: Contract and property law, now released from adherence to religious law, shifted over time, and a new social order began to develop throughout much of the Western Hemisphere — especially in the English-speaking North Atlantic. Protestantism did not create modern capitalism, but it did clear a considerable amount of space for its development.
“Protestant theology contributed to a shift in the underlying basis of contract liability,” McCall writes, “shifting from causa to consideration and promise to bargain.” Catholic jurists had formerly required that the purpose of a contract be a just and equitable one in order to enforce it, and they viewed breach of contract more as an issue of breaking promises than of failing to meet the substantive terms of the agreement. But Protestant theology gave rise to the idea that contracts were covenants, “which, although freely made, once entered into [were] absolute.” Thus, by the middle of the 17th century, Protestant courts had no obligation to try to bring about a general moral good when they adjudicated cases on property and contracts.
While much of the jurisprudence in Catholic countries relied on a view of limited property rights that might allow their societies to realize God’s intention for all of His creation to be commonly held, the moral and legal thought in Protestant countries more often argued that the best way to look after the weak and needy was for each person to become as wealthy as possible and then give freely of that wealth. As the Enlightenment progressed, this vision blossomed into the liberal tradition as we know it, and into an insistence on ever more absolute property rights, sacrosanct from intrusion by church or state (except, curiously, when the state enforced them), with any means of redressing social or economic inequality primarily beholden to a citizen’s own conscience.
Of course, in both strains of Christianity, human beings can hardly be trusted with the careful stewardship of limited resources — “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked,” says the Lord — but the Protestant theology that followed from this period left little room for coercion by church or state. Other factors besides Protestantism converged to aid in the rise of liberal thought in the 18th century — shifting economic possibilities, a burgeoning interest in the sciences and the specter and reality of civil war, to name a few — but at the root of it was a perspective of the world that centered on the individual. “When no human power can direct or absolve the conscience, it is the conscience that becomes the true sovereign,” Ryrie writes, and the conscience, more often than not, demands to be left to its own devices.
Where could the elevation of the individual conscience and the bifurcation of holy pursuits from profane politics lead? Enlightenment liberalism was not, and is not, capitalism; the former is a collection of political, social and economic theories, and the latter is a vast material system. Nor can (or should) Protestantism, in all its variegated forms, be equated with either liberalism or capitalism: There are expressly anticapitalist and entirely illiberal Protestants, and no tradition encompassing the Quakers, the Shakers and the Amish could seriously be framed as a simple extension of liberalism. Yet there appears to be an important connection between the liberal thought that followed from Protestant arguments and the emergence of capitalism. “The kind of sociopolitical structure that Protestantism engenders — based on free inquiry, participatory politics and limited government — tends to favor market economics,” Ryrie argues, and “a certain generic restlessness, an itchy instability, is absolutely a core characteristic of the Protestant life.” As a result, he explains, “this self-perpetuating dynamo of dissatisfaction and yearning has helped to fuel and support the growth of capitalism.”
It is hard to say what Luther himself would make of all this. In her biography, Roper reminds us that “Luther was not ‘modern’” and had no intention of ushering in a post-Christian era, whether secular, liberal, democratic or capitalist. Not coincidentally, Luther doesn’t appear to have been particularly gifted at foreseeing how his ideas would transform politics or would themselves be transformed by their emergence in public life. His two-kingdoms theology “left him without a positive account of what the state can do and how it might help its citizens,” Roper writes, “and it did not allow for a situation where a Christian or a Christian ruler would have to resist a superior authority.” When such events arose in his lifetime, Luther “abdicated responsibility, and left the matter for jurists to decide.”
Nonetheless, the outcome of Luther’s revolution is visible in our society today, where free markets and atomized individuals are given primacy over whatever moral vision a religion or ideology might attempt to impose on them. This wasn’t the intent of the Reformation, and history is thick with Protestants resisting modernity’s drift away from an interest in the common good. Yet the way in which Ryrie divides his book makes the ambiguous economic and political legacy of Protestantism all the clearer. Act I concerns Protestantism versus Catholicism, with the former in many respects successfully toppling the authority and power of the latter. Act II is more like Protestantism versus modernity, and modernity comes out on top — and not just any kind of modernity, but the one specifically shaped by capitalism’s rise. “The reality of a democratic age,” Ryrie writes, “is that churches are answerable to the footloose believers who fund them. Those who try to deny this fact are swimming against the tide.”
The irony is that while Protestantism contributed some of the ideological foundations for liberalism, it has also become wedded to the logic that liberalism then fashioned into common sense: If you don’t like something, simply take your money elsewhere. Hence the prominence of the highly entrepreneurial Christian right in America, and the relative weakness of the Christian left: For the well-heeled, free-market Christianity — which levels no rebuke at the rich and limits its moral expectations to the sphere of the private and the personal — is a much more compelling product than its older, less laissez-faire counterpart.
But surely the true and honest message of Christ shouldn’t blossom or wither based purely on the caprices of the moneyed classes. And yet, if one does adhere to the radical centrality of the individual’s conscience and to the relative uselessness of earthly works, then how can he or she seek to upset the social order? Ryrie’s expectations on that score are muted: “Protestant political activism will certainly continue,” he writes, but “few Protestants will have the stomach for forcing their own moral disciplines onto entire societies…. Where they do campaign for coercive legislation, they will do so on secular grounds.” But if Protestantism insists on separating our religious lives from our earthly ones, then does this mean the powerful will be held to account for their actions only in the afterlife? “Are Protestants, then, doomed simply to tag along behind social shifts, finding justifications for them after the fact?” Ryrie asks. “Very often, yes.”
Near the end of his book, Ryrie offers this uninspiring message. But his history of Protestantism, like Roper’s biography of Luther, also seems to offer an alternative set of possibilities. Over and over again, Ryrie emphasizes that Protestantism is, at heart, a love affair with God, as well as a radical rejection of anything and everything that might come between lover and beloved. Luther’s passion for God, in Roper’s retelling, also appears as a romance. But love affairs are never static, so what may have once been a requirement for loving God better on the eve of the Reformation may no longer obtain now. Indeed, while indulgences and vast networks of church authority once have stood between the faithful and their love of God, it seems that these days, the spheres created to separate our lives do much the same, dividing the neediest among us from all that was intended for them. There is no single resolution to this circumstance, but understanding how we came to it helps us also imagine a path forward.