Welcome to Quadrant Online | Login/ Register Cart (0) $0 View Cart
Menu
October 31st 2017 print

Merv Bendle

The Reformation: 500 Years On

To Luther, God always remained a stern and majestic judge and he a snivelling sinner. The mystic was not for him, and so, ultimately, his path led to the 95 Theses being nailed to the door of Wittenberg church on this day five centuries ago

lutherA spiritual lobotomy that plunged people into ignorance and cut them off from the warm and comforting embrace of the Church, is that what the Reformation was? Or was it an overdue rebellion that liberated people from superstition, exploitation and corruption, gave birth to modern individualism, and laid the foundations of modern Western civilization?

The Reformation has always attracted extreme interpretations. Indeed, historians have struggled for 500 years to make sense of this cataclysmic epoch. Much of their work was dominated by ‘confessional histories’ that celebrated or defended the roles played by particular churches, e.g., Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, Anabaptist, etc. Eventually the very concept of ‘The Reformation’ was criticised as being a value-laden Protestant pre-judgement of history and it is now common to speak also of the ‘Catholic’ and ‘Radical’ Reformations that accompanied or responded to the religious revolution sparked by Martin Luther.

Luther had no idea what he was starting as he nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg church on All Hallows Eve, October 31, 1517. Provoked by deep spiritual concerns, he was inviting debate over some esoteric theological issues, but soon he was fighting for his life against charges of heresy, while all around him society seethed with religious and revolutionary fervour as the millennia-old foundations of Christendom were undermined and began to give way.

With hindsight it is possible to see how massive religious, intellectual, political, economic, and social forces had been building up for decades or even centuries, but nobody at the time had any idea how violent the convulsion would be once these forces were unleashed – least of all Luther, as he contemplated his Theses and wondered at the response he would get to this theological challenge.

Before he knew it, his critique was translated from scholarly Latin into the vernacular, printed up as a pamphlet and widely distributed throughout Germany, where it inflamed passions already raw with resentment at clerical abuses. Initially dismissed by the Church hierarchy as yet another irascible monk who would be soon brought to heel or sent to the stake, he proved a reluctant but also resourceful opponent who enjoyed crucial support in just the right places.

Moreover, Luther proved to be vital inspiration for religious revolutionaries driven by their own fierce enthusiasms, many of whom went far beyond anything Luther could have envisaged. Within a few short decades a fissure opened  in European society as war and persecution tore the continent apart. Indeed, it was not until the end of the Thirty Years War in 1648 that Europe was able to re-establish some equilibrium, while the tensions and hatreds festered for centuries to come.

To understand the Reformation we need to understand Luther, and to understand both we need to enter another world alien to our secular age – a world saturated with religion and superstition, where God and his angels battle Satan’s hordes for the souls of the faithful.  We begin with Luther’s background and his decision to become a monk. We note the crisis of scholastic theology and the collapse of the medieval synthesis that bound society together, and the burden this collapse placed upon Luther, especially given his dread fear of a wrathful God, death, hell, and the devil. We also explore the key concept of Anfechtungen, the spiritual crises faced by Luther, what they reveal about him, and how their resolution opened the path to the Reformation.

THE EARLY LUTHER

Luther was born in 1483 in Eisleben in central Germany. His father, Hans, was a well-off copper miner — a no-nonsense self-made man who had risen from a peasant background — while his mother, Margaret, came from the professional middle class. He went to school in Mansfeld and Eisenach (where he was treated with the usual brutality) and was later admitted to the University of Erfurt, graduating with a Masters of Arts in January 1505. The intention was to become a lawyer, an ambition close to his father’s heart. At Erfurt he trained philosophically as a nominalist and was influenced by Humanism, especially its study of ancient texts in the original language. However, he never shared the Humanist optimism about the innate goodness and capabilities of man – far from it.

A pivotal event in Luther’s life occurred in July, 1505. He was caught outside in a ferocious thunderstorm and was thrown to the ground by a bolt of lightning, leaving him mortally afraid. Death was already a vivid reality for Luther, as he had recently lost a close friend and had himself nearly died from an accidental knife-wound to his groin.

Death, usually unspeakably grim and painful, was ever-present in the Middle Ages. Moreover, it had assumed an even more dreadful visage in the shadow of the Black Death that killed nearly half the population of Europe between 1347 and 1353, and had broken out several times since. A painful death was a near certainty and on the other side lay aeons of torment in Purgatory, even for the faithful, while unredeemed sinners were delivered into the Hellmouth and an eternity of suffering. Consequently, amongst the best-sellers of the new age of printing were handbooks on death, like Ars moriendi (‘On the Art of Dying’). Illustrated with graphic woodcuts, this focussed on how the mortally ill must, in their final agonized moments, retain their faith in a God’s mercy. Above all, they must resist the demonic fiends who came to torment them, ridicule their hope of deliverance, and drive them to despair and eternal damnation. Another book offered a history of the world, emphasizing the brevity of human life and ending with the Day of Judgement, with Christ seated upon a rainbow. From one ear extends a lily, symbolizing the saved who are shown below rising from their graves and being ushered by angels into paradise. From the other ear extends a sword, symbolizing the fate of the damned who are shown being dragged by demons to their infernal fate

Petrified at such visions, and with the thunder and lightning closing in on him, Luther called upon St Anne (the mother of Mary and patron saint of miners) to protect him, promising that he would become a monk if she delivered him from death. He survived, and a fortnight later he sought entry to the Observant Augustinians, the strictest religious order available to him. In a matter of days, Luther sold the very expensive law books his father had just bought for him and threw a farewell party for his friends. He then went to live in the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt, setting out on the monastic path of spiritual purgation, cleansing, and illumination towards true holiness and unity with the divine mystery of God. This decision perplexed and appalled his father, who was above all a practical man and had counted on Luther becoming a lawyer and supporting his parents in their old age (as was customary).

THE MONK

Luther was ordained in 1507 in Erfurt Cathedral, and a second pivotal event in his life occurred when he conducted his first Mass. This was a very special event that his father attended, bringing with him a large retinue and a handsome donation for the monastery. Martin however was terror-struck as he took his place before the altar, overwhelmed that he was addressing Almighty God:

“With what tongue shall I address such Majesty, seeing that all men tremble in the presence of even an earthly prince? … Shall I, a miserable little pygmy, say ‘I want this, I ask for that’? For I am dust and ashes and full of sin and am speaking to the living, eternal and true God.”

Moreover, he was about to perform the miracle of the Mass – transubstantiation – whereby the bread and wine became literally the body and blood of Christ. As Luther’s leading biographer observes:

“The terror of the Holy, the horrors of Infinitude, smote him like a new lightning bolt, and only through a fearful restraint could he hold himself at the altar to the end.” (Roland Bainton, Here I Stand, 1955, p.30)

Nor did the agony and self-doubt stop there. After the Mass he approached his father, who remained wounded and disappointed that Luther had not pursued a legal career and been able to provide for his parents in their old age:

“But father, I could do you more good by prayers than if I had stayed in the world”, he argued, reminding Hans that he had felt a call to become a monk.

“God grant,” replied Hans, “it was not an apparition of the Devil”, that had led Martin onto this path.

His father’s words haunted Luther, as the devil was very real to him, as it was to all people of the time. This was especially true in the monasteries, where Satan appeared as the Great Fiend, the Evil One, and above all as the Tempter and the Father of Lies, committed to disrupting and derailing the monks as they pursued their quest for spiritual perfection. Luther recalled how Satan himself told him bluntly: “God doesn’t want to forgive you”, while lesser demons ridiculed his efforts: “Behold, you’re weak. How do you know that God is gracious to you?” When Luther replied that by baptism he had been incorporated into Christ, the demons quoted the Bible: “That’s nothing, for many are called, but few are chosen.” (Mt.22:14)

Dealing always with intense introspection and doubt, and swinging always between exaltation and despair, Luther nevertheless persisted in the Augustinians while studying at Erfurt, where he excelled at biblical studies and theology. In 1508 he was invited by his mentor, Johann von Staupitz, to teach theology at the recently founded University of Wittenberg. In 1512, he was awarded his Doctor of Theology and succeeded Staupitz in the chair of theology, from which he lectured on the Psalms and the New Testament. He was also made provincial vicar of the Augustinians for Saxony and Thuringia in 1515, overseeing the complex affairs of 11 monasteries. He remained in the monk’s habit for 19 years and despite his spiritual turmoil he was efficient and immensely productive.

 

LUTHER’S AGONY

As events like the thunderstorm and the first mass reveal, Luther had a profound sense of living under the judgement of an almighty and wrathful God. He had become a monk above all else to attain a level of holiness that would deliver him into God’s good graces. From the outset, seeking purgation of his sins, he devoted himself to a strict regime of fasting, long hours in prayer, pilgrimage, and frequent periods of lengthy confession (stretching out to 6 hours!). This bordered on the obsessional, and drove Staupitz, who served as his confessor, to complain that if he wanted to bother God so often, he should come along with some really serious sins, like murder or adultery, instead of just petty misdemeanours. God is not angry with you, Luther was told, you are angry with God!

Here we arrive at the psychological key to Luther’s theology. At times Luther was utterly terror-stricken with anxiety about his own perceived sinfulness and inability to live up to God’s demands. The word he used to describe these attacks, Anfechtungen, has no exact English equivalent. It refers to devastating onslaughts of spiritual crisis, isolation, terror, despair, desolation, and desperation. These were, he said, literally mortifying, as is recorded in his Collected Works:

“So great and so much like hell that no tongue could adequately express them, no pen could describe them, and one who had not himself experienced them could believe them. And so great were they that, if they had been sustained or had lasted for half an hour, even for one tenth of an hour, he would have perished completely and all of his bones would have been reduced to ashes.”

The central experience was of utter forsakenness:

“At such a time, God seems so terribly angry, and with him the whole creation. At such a time, there is no flight, no comfort, within or without, but all things accuse … In this moment … the soul cannot believe that it can ever be redeemed.”

These attacks were so psychologically and physically debilitating that Luther at times wished for annihilation to escape them.

Even the impeccable life of a devout monk failed to quieten his anguished soul and deliver him from this terror. As Luther later observed: if anyone could have gotten into Heaven on the basis of their devout ‘monkishness’ it was him, and yet he always felt he had failed. What then was the path to salvation?

 

THE MEDIEVAL SYNTHESIS

The answer had been provided for over a millennium by the Catholic Church with a very carefully worked out scheme of salvation based on various components: recognition of the fallen state of humanity, but faith in the saving mission of Christ; observance of the seven sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist, Confession, Ordination, Matrimony, and Extreme Unction, understood as spiritual signs and channels through which the grace of God manifests itself in the world; belief in God’s providential role in history; and conscientious Christian living and good works. All this is augmented in various observances, including pilgrimages, devotion to the saints and holy relics, donations, etc.

This scheme of salvation was underpinned institutionally by the Medieval Synthesis that held society together in a virtual theocracy for centuries. This was based on the all-pervasive presence of the Church, and the conviction that the essential areas of life of Christendom should be united together in a mutually reinforcing structure, binding together Church & State, Reason & Revelation, Church Membership & State Citizenship, and Theology & Culture. Theologically this was sustained by the various grand scholastic systems, exemplified by the work of Thomas Aquinas. These purported to unite faith with reason and tie God and all of creation together in one enormous, all-encompassing

Luther’s predicament was that this grand synthesis was falling apart. Institutionally, he was witnessing its disintegration all around him. Powerful nations and empires were vying for dominance (e.g., France vs the Holy Roman Empire); the mighty Ottoman Empire was approaching the gates of Vienna; the Church had slipped into corruption and a general malaise (as Luther witnessed on his trip to Rome in 1510); and various heretical movements were emerging (e.g., the Albigensians, Waldensians, Lollards, and Hussites).

Theologically, Luther faced an unprecedented catastrophe. Scholastic theology — fine-tuned over centuries – simply didn’t work for him or for many others. Indeed, its heroic attempt to use reason to grasp the nature and purposes of God had failed. For example, the rationalism of Aquinas, despite its powerful proofs of God as the pinnacle of Reason holding the universe together, had found its way into a theological cul-de-sac and apparently heretical conclusions that attracted official condemnation. Meanwhile, the voluntarism of his great rival, John Duns Scotus, had produced a vision of God as Pure Will – arbitrary and almighty – and of the universe as entirely contingent upon that Will with reason itself reigning only while God willed it! And then, cutting across all this was the nominalism of William of Ockham, which obliterated the philosophical foundations of scholasticism and rendered futile any attempt philosophically to grasp the nature or purposes of God, and leaving only faith and revelation.

In his decade of intense study and contemplation Luther had witnessed the deconstruction of the vast edifice of medieval theology. Desperately he had explored it, searching for answers, but it had fallen apart around him. Theologically he had found himself at a dead-end and in profound despair.

There was one alternative left. His mentor, Staupitz, was a mystic and he revealed the mystical path to Luther: instead of striving heroically to win God’s approval, or trying to reach Him through reason, Luther should just surrender. Negate the ego, shed all pride, arrogance, assertiveness, self-seeking, and everything that gave expression to the I, the me, the self. He should throw oneself onto the mercy of God, submerging the self in the Absolute like a drop of water in the ocean. Find final peace in the abyss of Being, Luther was advised. And he did explore this path and even edited and published the mystic masterpiece, The German Theology.

Luther, however, could never understand God as any sort of abyss; rather God always remained a stern and majestic judge confronting Luther as a snivelling sinner. The mystic path was not for him. And so, ultimately, Luther had nowhere to go.

THE REFORMATION BREAKTHROUGH

At the heart of Luther’s dilemma was the collision between the infinite and unapproachable majesty of God and the total sinfulness of humanity – that ‘mass of damnation’, as St Augustine, the father of his order, called it. Luther was convinced that there was literally nothing that human beings could do to contribute to their own salvation. He reasoned that a just and righteous God could only condemn him and everyone else to damnation. He believed he saw the horror of his sinful nature as God saw it and even felt his own conscience damning him. As a recent historian observes:

“It was an unbearable, unending dark night of the soul in which every attempt to please and love God led away from Him.”Carlos Eire, Reformations, 2016, p.141

Faced with damnation, Luther often gave up hope of salvation and longed for annihilation. His studies reinforced this despair. Between 1510 and 1517, he lectured on the Psalms, Hebrews, Romans, and Galatians, and he was acutely aware of the scriptural passages concerning the absolute righteousness of God. At one point he was studying Romans 1:17:

“For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’”

And he lamented:

“I greatly longed to understand Paul’s epistle to the Romans and nothing stood in the way but that one expression ‘the righteousness of God’, because I took it to mean that righteousness whereby God is just and deals justly in punishing the unjust.”

He was filled with dread at the implications of this for his own fate:

“My situation was that, although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would assuage Him. Therefore I did not love a just angry God, but rather hated and murmured against Him. Yet I clung to the dear Paul and had a great yearning to know what he meant.”

And then, around 1517, the answer came to him, revealed to him through his close reading of the scriptures. Firstly, he found himself meditating on the agonized words of Jesus on the Cross, quoting Psalm 22:

“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

And he realized that Jesus was expressing here the same sense of utter spiritual forsakenness – the same agonizing Anfechtungen – that had assailed Luther throughout his life. So totally had Christ become human, Luther concluded, that he even shared the same dread-filled alienation from God that afflicted all humanity. Luther felt himself united with Christ at the most fundamental existential level. Secondly, in what became known as the ‘Tower Experience’, Luther achieved the theological breakthrough that laid the foundation for the Reformation consciousness that was to sweep the continent:

“Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the righteousness of God and the statement that ‘the just shall live by faith’. Then I grasped that the righteousness of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise.

“The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before ‘the righteousness of God’ had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven.”

In this one flash of insight, Luther was released from his torment. This was a defining experience of metanoia: a transformative change of heart and a spiritual conversion, after which everything looks different and nothing can ever be the same. It is an event found in many religious traditions.

Immediately, Luther was convinced that the Church had lost sight of the central truth of Christianity. This was the doctrine of justification by faith alone, by which God declared a sinner righteous through the latter’s faith in Jesus Christ. As Luther later insisted in the first of the Smalcald Articles of 1537:

“The first and chief article [of Protestantism] is this: Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, died for our sins and was raised again for our justification (Romans 3:24–25). He alone is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29), and God has laid on Him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:6). All have sinned and are justified freely, without their own works and merits, by His grace (Eph 2:8-9), through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, in His blood (Romans 3:23–28). This is necessary to believe.”

Luther was adamant that salvation (justification) cannot be achieved actively by the sinner who strives towards God, nor can it be delivered by the Church, e.g., through the sacraments; rather, it is a free gift of a gracious God, received passively by the humble believer.

This cannot be otherwise acquired or grasped by any work, law, or merit. Therefore, it is clear and certain that this faith alone justifies us… Nothing of this article can be yielded or surrendered, even though heaven and earth and everything else falls (Mark 13:31).”

“This one and firm rock, which we call the doctrine of justification”, he declared elsewhere, “is the chief article of the whole Christian doctrine, which comprehends the understanding of all godliness.” It is the core of the Christian faith around which all other Christian doctrines revolve, he insisted. And it is upon this doctrine alone that the Church would stand or fall.

In this fashion, by late 1517 Luther had developed a radical new theological perspective out of an extended period of intense spiritual malaise and its resolution. And it was all based on the principle of ‘justification by faith alone’.

CONCLUSION

In one stroke Luther’s twin realizations liberated him from the massive spiritual and psychological burden that had afflicted him throughout his life. He felt himself at one with Christ at the most fundamental – existential – level, and reconciled with God through an unconquerable faith. This underpinned a certainty about his theology that rendered it impregnable, and that gave his supporters great hope and confidence as they followed Luther into an epoch-shaping battle with the Church. However, it also fuelled an arrogance and impatience that Luther’s enemies found insufferable and took as evidence that he spoke not of the true faith but of something diabolical. But above all, Luther could never retreat, because that way would separate him from Christ, alienate him from God, and deliver him back into the dread clutches of Anfechtungen. From here on, throughout his life, he never wavered from his convictions.

The doctrine of ‘justification by faith alone’ had profound implications for virtually every aspect of Church theology and practice. As quickly became obvious, it was to be the theological solvent that dissolved the structure of Christian orthodoxy as it had reigned for over a 1000 years, attacking it on virtually every front, especially the sacramental system.

But it also laid the foundations of a new theology based on the principles of Sola scriptura, Sola fide, Sola gratia, Solus Christus, and the ‘priesthood of all believers’. This revolutionary power would be realized, explored, and applied not only by Luther, but also by militants far more radical than he. Breathlessly, these fanatics declared war on the teachings, institutions and traditions of the Church. Although Luther hadn’t realized it yet, his insight would become the driving force of the Reformation as it tore Europe apart.

And this began with his 95 Theses on Indulgences, posted 500 years ago today.

 

Comments [18]

  1. pgang says:

    A good summary from Bendle, and his references to the Scriptural basis for Luther’s worldview are much appreciated. This is much better than his usual perspective which damns the Reformation for every historical evil that has ever occurred.

    It is impossible to measure how much Christians owes Luther in freeing us from the tyranny of Scholasticism and politics, so that we can now pursue the clear truth and saving grace of Scripture without political hindrance. We are so used to it now that we take it for granted.

    But just as the pendulum in those days had swung way up into the abyss of authoritarianism, obscuring fundamental truth behind power and sacramental structure, so now it is swinging into an abyss of Liberalism, obscuring the truth with relativism, individualism and nauturalism.

    If you’ve never read Luther I would highly recommend it. He is as lucid and feisty in his writings as he was as a man.

  2. pgang says:

    I always think of Luther and Paul as being very similar. This really is a momentous anniversary.

  3. Jody says:

    This is a very tiny sample of what come indirectly out of the Lutheran Church and I’ll never stop being grateful every hour I live:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Roa-5BV46f0

  4. Jody says:

    I was amused recently to watch an old episode of “The Book Club” with Jennifer Byrne (whilst parliament was about to come on at 2pm). Noel Pearson was there discussing his transcendent experience reading Milton’s “Paradise Lost” which he claimed to have read 5 times and upon which he spoke very poetically. It moved me but, as he admitted, he was a more than average “god botherer”. How eloquent he was and what a pleasure to see an aboriginal person who has survived cultural appropriation and who is grateful for the liberal arts education he got at Sydney University. Another lefty woman on the panel complained that the God of Milton’s tome was “mean”. She said she didn’t like being lectured by God (well, such a spectacular case of lack of self-awareness I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed!). But it’s typical of the Left to use emotive words like “Mean” to describe anything or anybody who has an expectation of human beings. As my eldest son quipped, “don’t stand between a lefty and their ‘deconstructions’”!!!

  5. Jim Campbell says:

    An excellent article. Thank you Merv. There is a tendency for people to think that the Reformation ‘sorted out’ Christianity and it is cited as an argument for Islam to be similarly ‘reformed’. It is always worth remembering that the reformation did not change one word in the Bible: it simply returned Christianity to the truth of the Gospel.
    I agree with pgang, the pendulum has swung too far towards liberalism. Unfortunately, not all can be saved as we see from some of our dear friends and scribes.

    • Ian MacDougall says:

      Jim:

      Unfortunately, not all can be saved as we see from some of our dear friends and scribes.

      Might it be possible that you have me in that distinct class, and on the road to perdition? (Just out of curiosity, mind.)
      My late mother was very devout, but my late father was a militant atheist: so militant that he damn near had apoplexy when at the very mature age of 15 I joined the local Anglican Church, when to a particularly fervent week-long residential house party in the Blue Mountains, and came back strongly influenced by a devout believer I met there who was setting off shortly to become a missionary in South America: said mission being either to rescue Catholics from their Error, native animists from their abysmal darkness, or a bit of both. I told both my parents that I also wanted to join his most worthy cause.
      Mum thought that to be a bit short of a mile over the top, while Dad spent a long time in a deep depression over it; relieved only when I passed out of that religious phase, after having had one too many discussions with fervent Evangelicals who told me that I was taking the Sermon on the Mount far too literally, and that I should concentrate more on the Letters of St Paul, and that Christianity was all about sin and redemption.
      But I got a fantastic lot out of my Christian days. The music was magnificent, my favourite hymns being John Bunyan’s To Be a Pilgrim and Luther’s A Mighty Fortress is our God, group singing of which taught me music and singing. Theology and its issues started me on the road of independent thought, into Marxism and then out again. But Church history and the writings of the Schoolmen remain an abiding interest. And I still sing those hymns, accompanying myself on keyboard or guitar (depending, as Elton John might say, on my mood.)
      The salvation you refer to is from Original Sin, transmitted by a mysterious process no modern geneticist can explain. But my abiding question you might be able to answer for me is a simple one: what exactly was that Original Sin?

      • Jody says:

        It was a default position adopted by the church; you were born with it and had to spend your life losing it. A bit like “Millionaire Hot Seat”, German style, where you start with the million and lose it with every question you get wrong!! Well, with Christianity you needed to get it right. I admit that, at the age of 10, I found distinctly arcane. I just needed to know from my parents whether I should worry about my sins; my mother assured me that Catholicism was by far the superior religion and by virtue of that I’d be ‘saved’. Today I don’t worry about it – not that I really ‘worried’ about it then either!! Today the christian church remains a mystery to me but I love and admire its rich history and potent ritual. But I don’t believe for a second in life after death; it’s of no use to me anyway.l

        • Doubting Thomas says:

          I heard ‘Panis Angelicus’ on the radio today, the first time in probably more than 60 years. Beautiful.

        • Stephen Garland says:

          Jody, are you saying that existence without a body is worthless? What if eternity means either heaven or hell based on our life decisions? Don’t you think it is worth seeking God just to make sure there is nothing of value (or of suffering) after death. Eternity is a long time. It is the intelligent thing to do.

          God does not come to the self-sufficient (those who choose to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, full of pride). If God made us, to seek and worship him, with a free will to go either way, doesn’t it make sense that true happiness and fulfilment can only come by worshipping God (We were made for him). Eternity in heaven will be beyond belief, quite useful in fact.

          It only takes the faith the size of a mustard seed (mostly doubt with a smidgen of maybe) to start seeking. One little step towards God and see what happens. You will get your proof.

      • Jim Campbell says:

        Ian – you chose two great hymns as your favourites and, in my view, both of them point to the originator of our sinful nature.

        Luther’s makes that clear, ‘The old evil foe now means deadly woe; deep guile and great might are his dread arms in fight; on earth he has no equal.’ But then the answer, ‘Despite all foes, the Word shall stand against all their endeavour; God’s gifts and Spirit, close at hand, shall be with us forever.’

        And, Bunyan similarly speaks of ‘hobgoblins and foul fiends’ but encourages the (Christian) pilgrim to press on with confidence.

        I am no expert on Original Sin or even genetics, but I know all about the sin that Luther and Bunyan write about and it comes from the evil foe that continues to distract me from acknowledging God in my life.

        Keep on singing those hymns!

      • whitelaughter says:

        The Original Sin? Probably cannibalism. Re-read the tale of the Garden of Eden while considering that i) Snakes are pure meat eaters(so won’t eat fruit), and one of the few creatures that are maneaters, ii) that the Hebrew word for fruit does double duty for meat, iii) that long pig is the only food we instinctively know we shouldn’t eat, iv) that trees are often used as a metaphor for people in scripture.
        Then have a look at the archaaological evidence of wide spread cannibalism in the stone age.

        I’m guessing that the tale got bowdlerized at some point.

        As a more general rule though, we all carry a huge amount of inherited baggage. The most pitiful being the ‘crack babies’ being born as addicts. No, it’s not their fault that they are addicts, but they have to deal with consequences of that inherited sin. We all have to deal with something, and should be grateful that it is less painful for us than it is for them.

        I can’t help noticing that the trendy set who scream loudest about Christianity being evil and judgemental are also the loudest voices trying to get us to be ashamed of our heritage: replacing a concept of Original Sin that can be absolved with a concept that can never be forgiven, and instead requires ever more sacrifices to the aggrieved.

      • Stephen Garland says:

        From the catholic catechism

        III. ORIGINAL SIN
        Freedom put to the test
        396 God created man in his image and established him in his friendship. A spiritual creature, man can live this friendship only in free submission to God. The prohibition against eating “of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” spells this out: “for in the day that you eat of it, you shall die.”276 The “tree of the knowledge of good and evil”277 symbolically evokes the insurmountable limits that man, being a creature, must freely recognize and respect with trust. Man is dependent on his Creator, and subject to the laws of creation and to the moral norms that govern the use of freedom.
        Man’s first sin
        397 Man, tempted by the devil, let his trust in his Creator die in his heart and, abusing his freedom, disobeyed God’s command. This is what man’s first sin consisted of.278 All subsequent sin would be disobedience toward God and lack of trust in his goodness.
        398 In that sin man preferred himself to God and by that very act scorned him. He chose himself over and against God, against the requirements of his creaturely status and therefore against his own good. Constituted in a state of holiness, man was destined to be fully “divinized” by God in glory. Seduced by the devil, he wanted to “be like God”, but “without God, before God, and not in accordance with God”.279
        399 Scripture portrays the tragic consequences of this first disobedience. Adam and Eve immediately lose the grace of original holiness.280 They become afraid of the God of whom they have conceived a distorted image – that of a God jealous of his prerogatives.281
        400 The harmony in which they had found themselves, thanks to original justice, is now destroyed: the control of the soul’s spiritual faculties over the body is shattered; the union of man and woman becomes subject to tensions, their relations henceforth marked by lust and domination.282 Harmony with creation is broken: visible creation has become alien and hostile to man.283 Because of man, creation is now subject “to its bondage to decay”.284 Finally, the consequence explicitly foretold for this disobedience will come true: man will “return to the ground”,285 for out of it he was taken. Death makes its entrance into human history.286
        401 After that first sin, the world is virtually inundated by sin There is Cain’s murder of his brother Abel and the universal corruption which follows in the wake of sin. Likewise, sin frequently manifests itself in the history of Israel, especially as infidelity to the God of the Covenant and as transgression of the Law of Moses. And even after Christ’s atonement, sin raises its head in countless ways among Christians.287 Scripture and the Church’s Tradition continually recall the presence and universality of sin in man’s history:

        What Revelation makes known to us is confirmed by our own experience. For when man looks into his own heart he finds that he is drawn towards what is wrong and sunk in many evils which cannot come from his good creator. Often refusing to acknowledge God as his source, man has also upset the relationship which should link him to his last end, and at the same time he has broken the right order that should reign within himself as well as between himself and other men and all creatures.288
        The consequences of Adam’s sin for humanity
        402 All men are implicated in Adam’s sin, as St. Paul affirms: “By one man’s disobedience many (that is, all men) were made sinners”: “sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned.”289 The Apostle contrasts the universality of sin and death with the universality of salvation in Christ. “Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men.”290

        Paragraph 7. THE FALL
        385 God is infinitely good and all his works are good. Yet no one can escape the experience of suffering or the evils in nature which seem to be linked to the limitations proper to creatures: and above all to the question of moral evil. Where does evil come from? “I sought whence evil comes and there was no solution”, said St. Augustine,257 and his own painful quest would only be resolved by his conversion to the living God. For “the mystery of lawlessness” is clarified only in the light of the “mystery of our religion”.258 The revelation of divine love in Christ manifested at the same time the extent of evil and the superabundance of grace.259 We must therefore approach the question of the origin of evil by fixing the eyes of our faith on him who alone is its conqueror.260

        I. WHERE SIN ABOUNDED, GRACE ABOUNDED ALL THE MORE
        The reality of sin
        386 Sin is present in human history; any attempt to ignore it or to give this dark reality other names would be futile. To try to understand what sin is, one must first recognize the profound relation of man to God, for only in this relationship is the evil of sin unmasked in its true identity as humanity’s rejection of God and opposition to him, even as it continues to weigh heavy on human life and history.
        387 Only the light of divine Revelation clarifies the reality of sin and particularly of the sin committed at mankind’s origins. Without the knowledge Revelation gives of God we cannot recognize sin clearly and are tempted to explain it as merely a developmental flaw, a psychological weakness, a mistake, or the necessary consequence of an inadequate social structure, etc. Only in the knowledge of God’s plan for man can we grasp that sin is an abuse of the freedom that God gives to created persons so that they are capable of loving him and loving one another.
        Original sin – an essential truth of the faith
        388 With the progress of Revelation, the reality of sin is also illuminated. Although to some extent the People of God in the Old Testament had tried to understand the pathos of the human condition in the light of the history of the fall narrated in Genesis, they could not grasp this story’s ultimate meaning, which is revealed only in the light of the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.261 We must know Christ as the source of grace in order to know Adam as the source of sin. the Spirit-Paraclete, sent by the risen Christ, came to “convict the world concerning sin”,262 by revealing him who is its Redeemer.
        389 The doctrine of original sin is, so to speak, the “reverse side” of the Good News that Jesus is the Saviour of all men, that all need salvation and that salvation is offered to all through Christ. the Church, which has the mind of Christ,263 knows very well that we cannot tamper with the revelation of original sin without undermining the mystery of Christ.
        How to read the account of the fall
        390 The account of the fall in Genesis 3 uses figurative language, but affirms a primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man.264 Revelation gives us the certainty of faith that the whole of human history is marked by the original fault freely committed by our first parents.265

  6. StephenD says:

    The author’s reference to “our secular age” is an error. There never has been a “secular age” and this certainly isn’t one. The vast majority of the world’s population today is religious, as it always has been. Perhaps what the author has in mind is that he is addressing a segment of society that is ignorant of Christianity. That to me is a more accurate description than “secular” in this context.

    I think however that the Reformation, though important, cannot be understood in the manner implied by the way this article is written. What is necessary is to begin with basic Christian teachings. Without a grasp of these, the Reformation and Christianity will remain a closed book. By attempting to proceed without this grounding the author has tied him himself (and the reader) in a lot of unnecessary knots.

    Having completed a course on the Reformation at my church in recent weeks, I can only say that I find this article extraordinarily convoluted. From a Christian perspective, the Reformation is not complicated. Luther’s experience is just part of everyone’s Christian life. What makes him exceptional is his pivotal role as a communicator of basic biblical doctrine in age when there was widespread dissatisfaction among Christians with aspects of Roman Catholicism. Luther’s writings became a rallying point for thousands of Christians whose everyday religious experience was much like his.

  7. Bill Martin says:

    I must begin by confessing my almost complete ignorance of Martin Luther and of the Reformation he brought about. My excuse is that I grew up during the Soviet Communist domination of Hungary, the country of my birth. Yes, I had some hazy notions of Luther and his Reformation, but the details I learned from this article constitute a much appreciated revelation for which I am most grateful to the author.

    Having said that, I quote the following from the article:

    “His mentor, Staupitz, was a mystic and he revealed the mystical path to Luther: instead of striving heroically to win God’s approval, or trying to reach Him through reason, Luther should just surrender. Negate the ego, shed all pride, arrogance, assertiveness, self-seeking, and everything that gave expression to the I, the me, the self. He should throw oneself onto the mercy of God, submerging the self in the Absolute like a drop of water in the ocean. Find final peace in the abyss of Being, Luther was advised.”

    As the direct result of having been exposed to that sentiment during some 20 years of involvement with a school of practical philosophy, to me the above advice seems eminently wise and totally valid. While I mostly fail to practice that understanding, I am frequently reminded of it when confronted with serious personal dilemmas or contemplating the trials and tribulations faced by others. It is a safe, calming and reassuring harbour on the heaving ocean of life.

    This quotation from near the end of the article seems to support the aforesaid:

    “Luther was adamant that salvation (justification) cannot be achieved actively by the sinner who strives towards God, nor can it be delivered by the Church, e.g., through the sacraments; rather, it is a free gift of a gracious God, received passively by the humble believer.”

  8. ianl says:

    > “To understand the Reformation we need to understand Luther, and to understand both we need to enter another world alien to our secular age – a world saturated with religion and superstition, where God and his angels battle Satan’s hordes for the souls of the faithful”

    Reforming superstition to another version of it is quite a tricky path. The Enlightenment occurred as a somewhat clearer path out of that. The current state of play – Disenlightenment – leads back into the swamp, albeit with different monsters (identity politics, argumentum ad hominen pretending as empirical evidence, deliberate, widespread disinformation from the MSM …). Essentially, human nature constantly struggles with itself; I still hope that the Age of Reason is not just a longish flash-in-the-pan. I’m aware that particular hope has a strong touch of the naive brush.