U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Readings in Western Culture: Martin Luther, 500 Years Later

Editor's Note

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 oneentry 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.

10 Thoughts on this Post

    • That’s debatable, but if you’ve ever read the correspondence at the Diet of Worms, that line is of little significance. What Luther argued had far-reaching consequences. I think that is the point being made on this significant day. Don’t miss the forest for the trees.

      • That’s not the point. Historic accuracy is part of history.

        Or I thought it was.

        Per LD’s own follow-up, I think it’s kind of a mug’s game to date the Reformation to one date. Also, although they in a sense “failed,” what does that do to Hus, Wyclif, and others?

        Luther did have influence, tis true. And a lot. But, let’s not overrate it, either. That’s in part because specifically Lutheran countries did little in the way of New World colonizing, among other things.

  1. Great blog. I just revisited Mark Noll’s Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity. He argues that Luther’s quote at the Diet of Worms, “Here I stand, God help me; I can do no other”–which you aptly included at the end of your blog–birthed the Protestant Reformation, not the nailing on Whittenberg’s door. Noll argues that historians normally associate Worms merely with where Luther made his stance, and they fail to see other arguments that were introduced. For example, Luther’s refusal to recant spurred an important question by the imperial court posed to Luther: What is everyone simply followed his or her own conscience? The end result was obvious—“we will have nothing certain.” Noll writes “the authority of the individual conscience had been proclaimed over against the authority of church councils, in contradiction to the weight of tradition, and in the very face of the emperor himself. Even though Luther spoke of his conscience as bound by Scripture, he had introduced, with moving power, a new principle of authority.” [Might I here inject Anne Hutchinson, Thoreau, Bradly Manning…]

  2. David, thanks for the comment. I knew the legitimacy of the “Here I stand” quote has long been in dispute, and isn’t settled — wasn’t aware of any controversy over his posting the call for disputation on the church door, but apparently that’s also in dispute. Whichever of these things actually happened — he did or did not say it, he did or did not nail it on the door — my argument stands. I’m intrigued by Noll’s contrarian dating of the “actual” start of Protestantism, but I would rather nail it to 1517 instead of 1521. It wasn’t that Luther stood by the dictates of his own conscience that was important — though it surely was. It’s that he, in his “soul competency,” to borrow a term, dared to raise these questions in the first place as he did, when he did.

    When I’m teaching the broad epistemic shift from a hierarchical, divinely ordered and immutable conception of the world to a more fluid and contingent world order — the shift from medieval thought to modern thought (or at least early-modern thought), I don’t identify any single point where everything tipped (because there wasn’t one, surely), but the “discovery” of the New World and the (traditional) challenge to the old order at Wittenberg are a couple of hooks on which I hang the narrative.

    For a second I was flummoxed by your mention of “Manning” — I thought, “Wait a minute, that’s a Puritan preacher I haven’t heard of.” But of course you were referring to Chelsea Manning. That’s an interesting comparison to draw, and I suppose it would offend some, but in terms of recognizing the basic cast of the Protestant sense (in some ideal or absolute sense) of the relationship between selfhood and ultimate authority, you are absolutely correct.

    Thanks for the thoughtful reading, and for engaging with my argument.

    And Happy Reformation Day!

    • Is it not problematic to try to “nail” the Reformation to one date? First, this overlooks Hus, Wyclif and many other pre-Lutherites.

      Second, it either ignores Zwingli or else acts as if he were little more than a Luther appendage in his early Reforming years, an idea many scholars don’t agree with.

      Personally, I think he was fairly independent fairly early on.

      • Acknowledging that Luther started the Reformation is no slight to Hus or Wycliffe. Or, for that matter, the innumerable heretics and reformers erased from history. All tried to help break the totalitarian grip of Catholic theocracy, but only Luther succeeded.

        Hus and Wycliffe were the leaders (or figureheads) of major socio-religious insurrections, but there were many other important reformers/revolutionaries who are deemed less important to history by the Streetlight Effect. Their poster child is Peter Waldo, who merits a seat beside Luther at the Denkmal in Worms (along with Hus, Wycliffe and Savonarola). He is credited with being the founder of the Waldensian heresy in the 12th century, but more likely he took his name from the movement rather than vice-versa. Just as “heathen” comes from heath-dwellers, and pagan from “pagani” (rural folk) Waldenses can be interpreted as “forest dwellers”.

        The attempted imposition of Catholic ideological uniformity throughout Europe caused widespread resistance, and though there were called heretics, they could more accurately be termed reformers – or revolutionaries. Or even as conservative pagans, since they fought for a return to the pluralistic religious ecosystem of pre-Christian Europe.

        Luther was able to push the system over the edge. Maybe the discovery of the New World played a role. It’s an attractive hypothesis. About the same time Copernicus was formulating his heliocentric theory. But trying to cherry-pick uni-causal explanations for major transitions in any complex system are almost always wrong. The Reformation is generally considered the trigger for the German Peasants War in 1524, but it might be more accurate to consider them both as indicators of a complex system on the brink of instability, where any perturbation could trigger an avalanche. The tap of a hammer on the Wittenberg door was all it took.

  3. A tad embarrassed to admit that I’m not sure I’ve ever made a connection between the “discovery” of the Americas and the Reformation or Reformations (plural), as some prefer to style it/them. Just goes to underline my ignorance of the pertinent historiography, I guess.

    That said, the ‘epistemic catalyst’ argument itself perhaps needs unpacking. If the discovery of two hitherto unknown continents raised the question “how can we know … that what we are being told to believe is really true,” then that might conceivably apply not only to what the Pope and the Catholic Church told people to believe, but also to what the various Protestant schools of thought told their followers to believe. For while I do, of course, understand the point made above about Luther and Protestantism generally putting considerably more emphasis on the individual conscience and judgment than the Catholic Church did, Protestantism still required certain beliefs to be accepted basically on faith (and without a great deal of questioning).

    I think that for many (not all) of the people involved in the bloody wars of religion on both sides, the struggles were seen as contests between Truth and Error. If there was an element of what, from a contemporary vantage point, looks like something approaching fanaticism in the wars of religion, and if that element was not the sole property of one side or the other, then that possibly complicates a narrative of a shift from a hierarchical, unchanging worldview to a more fluid and contingent one. Not that that narrative is wrong, but it may not line up completely neatly with the religious struggles, or it may in some ways occur after they are over.

    To be blunt and flippant, I guess what I’m cautioning against is any suggestion that 16th-century Protestants were 18th-century philosophes or 20th-century Pragmatists. Because my impression is that they generally weren’t. A number of them might have been disciplined, radical agents of ‘revolution’, as Walzer (Revolution of the Saints) argued, but I don’t think that alters the point.

  4. I don’t want to sound just like a nag. On the positive side, L.D. notes “revolution” not just “reformation.” And, on the secular side, we have to tie in the Peasants’ War, and Luther’s eventual strongly negative reaction to it.

    And, per Louis’ comment, yes, that’s one of the worst things about Eric Metaxas’ new Luther bio.

    Luther stood for a freedom of conscience guided by Scripture. And in his disputes over the Eucharist and related issues with the Reformed, he showed that ultimately, he wasn’t willing to listen to anyone else’s interpretation of Scripture. That alone is why I’m leery of ascribing any Enlightenment-like values to him.

    No. 2 is related — his most acclaimed book is generally considered to be “On the Bondage of the Will.” (And, Orthodoxy, which Luther basically ignored, would say “what” about the whole book, primarily because it regards Augustine — and most of his ideas — as minor. That’s all, and more, in my linked blog post.)

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