This is the fourth in a series of posts discussing the texts included on the reading list of Stanford’s 1980s “Western Culture” curriculum. (See entry number one, entry number two, and entry number three.)
On this day, 500 years ago, a German monk of the Augustinian order and a professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg, appalled at how the Church exploited peoples’ fear of damnation in hell in order to enrich itself, rather than preaching the Good News of salvation by faith alone in Christ’s atoning work, nailed 95 theses to the door of the local church. That act was the equivalent of placing a public notice in the classifieds section of the newspaper.
Martin Luther wanted a debate, a disputation, a meeting of the minds that would lead to some movement for reform within the one holy Catholic and apostolic church. Thus have we come to call this day the beginning of the Reformation—though that moniker is a concession to orthodox ecclesiology. Luther may have wanted reformation, but what he let loose was revolution – not simply wars of religion, but a top to bottom (or, perhaps, bottom to top) transformation of people’s conceptions about the sources of authority, the social order, and their place within it.
Now, we know that neither Martin Luther himself nor the Reformation itself – neither its intellectual battles nor its temporal conflicts – actually caused or began the upending of old hierarchies or the replacement of magisterial authority with the small democracy of the soul’s competence via the Spirit to judge the Word and the world. At least, we intellectual historians don’t explain it that way. We tend not to explain anything that way – history as we tell it is not a simple causal chain, but a complex contextual web of significant shifts and shifts in significance.
Nevertheless, we choose some plot points for our stories, and Martin Luther nailing the 95 Theses to the door of the church and letting loose the wildfires of the Reformation is one of them.
But then, of course, we must explain this: who or what lit a fire under Martin Luther? What epistemically cataclysmic shift made Luther’s call for reform the one that caught and took, consuming and reshaping the world and world-view of Europe via a crucible of conflict and change?
When I teach the first half of the U.S. history survey – pretty much every semester – I explain to my students that one of the ways to explain the timing of the Reformation or the Protestant Revolution or whatever one wants to call it is to consider the stunning impact that the “discovery” of the lands and peoples of the Americas had on Europeans’ ideas of where or to whom they could turn to know what was true, or even to know what was. It took a long time for European invaders to even realize what the sailors’ stars were telling them: This place fits nowhere within our prior knowledge. The Church has taught us nothing of these people (“Are they people?” There was that debate.) or where they come from (But you, rapacious strangers, were the ones who came from somewhere else) or how they fit or if they fit into the genealogy of Noah?
There were lots of attempts to make these “discovered” lands and peoples fit into an old cosmology, and some worked better than others. But overall, what European theologians and scientists and political leaders and everyday people in the street were dealing with was in fact a New World for them – new wine, a vintage blend of empirical observations and fantastical reports, that burst the old wineskins of how anyone could know the structure and hierarchy of the cosmos and their own place within it.
“The facts were simple enough,” writes Donald R. Kelley in Faces of History, the first volume of his trilogy tracing the explanatory schemes of Western historiography, “but not so the meaning of these facts, which verged indeed on the marvelous, although they had to be assimilated to human dimensions. There had been anticipations of a New World in the West by poets like Dante, Petrarch, and Pulci; but from the first news of the Columbian expedition, beginning with the admiral’s own letter of 1493, the historians took over from the poets, though with no less sense of the marvelous. The basic question was how the new hemisphere, with its two new continents, new peoples, and unknown history, fitted into the old story of the three continents, four monarchies, and six ages of the world? How could historians do justice to what the historian Francesco López de Gómara called ‘the greatest event since the creation of the world’—excepting, for Christian peoples, the Incarnation?….The resources of Western historiography were barely up to the task of describing a wholly ‘new’ world” (156-157).
Western historiography, Western theology, Western ecclesiology, Western political theory, Western political systems – all too limited to neatly contain the sudden awareness of this world that had always been beyond their horizons. Who could explain it? Who could explain anything? If what we have always known to be the full and final truth has shown itself rather to be in some kind of error, or at least in need of some kind of correction or addition or elaboration—well, then how can we know, how can we know, that what we are being told to believe is really true?
Those are the kinds of questions that laid the ground for Protestantism. It’s possible that “the Reformation” or something like it might have come about without the epistemic shock of a New World. But it would have come about differently, and, for better or for worse, it would have made for a different world than the one we live in now and seek to understand.
And yes, I realize, that this post is completely out of order, not keeping its proper position on the list of readings for this series, but jumping out ahead to assert its claim to be read and listened to far sooner than those who follow the reading list are ready to do, and on a day that its author doesn’t usually post–just boldly upsetting the order of things, willy-nilly. But that’s Protestantism for you. It suits me; I guess it ought to, since it made me. Here I stand, God help me; I can do no other.