Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Martin Luther: "the most brilliant theologian of the age"

In his "The Age of Reform, 1250-1550" (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1980), Steven Ozment had this to say about Martin Luther:
We are so accustomed to think of the young Luther as a melancholy monk preoccupied with his own salvation that we sometimes lose sight of the fact that he was the age's most brilliant theologian. He led the revolution against Rome and traditional religion not as a visionary spiritual reformer, but as a skilled doctor of theology (Ozment, 231).
In many ways, Luther was uniquely qualified to be used by God as "the tip of the spear" of the Reformation. But as James noted in a comment below, Luther notes that at first, he was "inexperienced." "At first I was all alone and certainly very inept and unskilled in conducting such great affairs. For I got into these turmoils by accident and not by will or intention. I call upon God himself as witness." [LW 34: 327-328]."

In my earlier post I outlined the process by which Luther came to understand the great doctrines of the Reformation. Bernard Lohse, in his work "Martin Luther's Theology" (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press 1999) traces what he calls "Luther's Theology in its Historical Development."

There were many, many things going on in these years. The Church was still reeling from "the great schism," when there were two, and even three competing popes were anathematizing each other and their followers, for a period that lasted some 78 years. This council ended the schism and in the year 1417 a single pope was elected, but that doesn't mean, by any stretch, that things had righted themselves.

One of the reasons for my writing on the early papacy is to establish a context for the papacy that Luther did not understand. Some would portray the papacy as a legitimate institution that had fallen; my hope has been to portray it as a completely illegitimate institution from the beginning.

For example, in 1492, Pope Innocent VIII died.
The ensuing conclave saw Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia elected as Alexander VI (1492-1503), although he was the only non-Italian in an electorate of twenty-three cardinals, of whom eight were nephews of former popes. (Roger Collins, Keepers of the Keys of Heaven: A History of the Papacy, New York, NY: Basic Books 2009, pg 339)
Such was the inbred power structure that really had ruled, in one form or another, for centuries.
Thirty five years as cardinal had provided him with much wealth, numerous offices and several palaces, all of which were offered to fellow members of the college in return for their votes in the conclave (ibid).
Fortunately, bribery in papal elections was outlawed after this. Eamon Duffy notes, "at the time of his election [he] was already the father of eight children, by at least three women. That such a man should have seemed a fit successor to Peter speaks volumes about the degradation of the papacy.
[A Spaniard,] he held sixeen bishoprics in Spain alone, and his office of vice chancellor was the most lucrative post in the Curia.

His pontificate has long been regarded as the most scandalous and dissolute of any pope, certainly since the tenth century. His conduct came in for criticism in his own lifetime, but this was as nothing to how it was regarded in the centuries that followed, he and members of his family were accused of murdering many who stood in their way, and the pope's death in August 1503 and the simultaneous illness of his son Cesare were quickly attributed to a botched attempt on their part to poison one of the cardinals (ibid).
While pope, Alexander "continued to live openly with his mistresses and in producing nine illegitimate children during his years as cardinal and pope." Defenders of the papacy use the "Alias Smith and Jones" defense in holding his place in "the succession": "For all the trains and banks he robbed, he never taught anyone."

J.N.D. Kelly ("Oxford History of the Popes") said, "his consuming passion, gold and women apart, was the aggrandizement of his relatives, especially Vannozza's children. (She was a Roman Aristocrat.) Thus he soon named Cesare, still only eighteen, bishop of several sees, including the wealthy one of Valencia, and a year later, along with Alessandro Farnese (brother of Giulia, his current mistress), a cardinal. Cesare's brother Juan, Duke of Gandia, he married to a Spanish princess, and in 1497 he enfeoffed him with the duchy of Benevento, which he carved out of the papal state. For Lucrezia he arranged one magnificant marriage after the other. [Serial annulments, no doubt. Not one of them genuinely a marriage.] In his absence from Rome he sometimes left her as virtual regent in charge of official business. In June 1497 he was momentarily shattered by the murder of Juan, his special favourite, with suspicion falling on Cesare. Grief-stricken, he vowed to devote himself henceforth to church reform ... But he lacked the resolution to abjure sensuality; he soon resumed his pleasures and family machinations, with Cesare now increasingly his evil genius." (253).

Still, it is said "he took seriously" his ecclesiastical duties, "with a love of show and magnificance." "In the later years of his pontificate, Alexander VI became more concerned with the inheritances of his children." In exchange for annulling the marriage of King Lois XII of France, Cesare was made "Duke of Valentinois" and was given a princess to marry.

Alexander and Cesare "envisaged the appropriation of the entire papal state and central Italy," and "this project, with the systematic crushing of the great Roman families, filled the rest of the reign. The enormous sums required for its realization were raised by assassinations, followed by seizures of property, and by the cynical creation of cardinals who had to pay dearly for their elevation (Kelly, 253-254).

This is the world in which Martin Luther became a young man. In 1501 Luther entered the University of Erfurt; by 1505 he had earned his master of arts degree and entered the monastery of the Hermits of St. Augustine at Erfurt.


Truth Unites... and Divides said...

"Some would portray the papacy as a legitimate institution that had fallen; my hope has been to portray it as a completely illegitimate institution from the beginning."

If I'm not mistaken, haven't you cited both Catholic and non-Catholic historians who've written about the very early C/church and that there was no papacy?

"Defenders of the papacy use the "Alias Smith and Jones" defense in holding his place in "the succession": "For all the trains and banks he robbed, he never taught anyone.""

His behavior is the teaching.

John Bugay said...

If I'm not mistaken, haven't you cited both Catholic and non-Catholic historians who've written about the very early C/church and that there was no papacy?

Yeah, a bunch of them.

His behavior is the teaching.

Yeah, a bunch of them.

steelikat said...

Better to concentrate on the beginning. One could respond to this argument by suggesting that the reason the papacy became corrupt is that the medieval popes were temporal rulers, princes as well as pastors. Once feudalism ended and the bishops ceased to be feudal lords the era of bad popes ended.

John Bugay said...

Steelikat, assuming the beginning of the papacy was illegitimate, then the whole lineage of them was, and continues to be, illegitimate.

louis said...

This is a good reminder of what this institution really is. It's not a Godly succession of men, but a thoroughly corrupt succession of worldly power.

Andrew said...

What is amazing to me is the ease with which many Roman Catholics just deflect this kind of stuff. I have a Roman Catholic friend with who I argue via e-mail and we have discussed the papacy at some length. I have brought up the point raised by Truth Unites...and Divides (great tag btw) about the a-historical nature of the papacy and the response is always to attack my sources as either protestants with an obvious agenda, or liberal catholics who cannot be taken seriously by virtue of their liberalism. When I challenged him to produce evidence of a firmly established papacy in the first 150 years of the Christian Church he responded by telling me that I would just find another argument and although he could show me it would ultimately be a waste of time. It's weird because this guy is intelligent and in the normal run of things he is a fairly reasonable guy. We're not talking Bellisario here. I find it to be very frustrating.

John Bugay said...

Hi Andrew -- What is amazing to me is the ease with which many Roman Catholics just deflect this kind of stuff. ... I find it to be very frustrating.

We have to keep in mind that this "deflection" has been going on for almost 500 years. And we also have to keep in mind that the folks in charge over there (not to mention their Scholastic supporters like Aquinas, who totally bought in to the forgeries of the era) and their Jesuitical, casuistical followers) have had lots and lots of time to think through their "deflections," and they are well thought out.

On the other hand, I think the Internet as a medium of communication gives us tremendous advantages over our Protestant predecessors, in that we have the ability to hold much, much more information in mind at one time. So whereas it took a Martin Luther years to think through the papacy (not having known of a church without a papacy), we do have the benefit of hindsight and history.

Tim Enloe said...

It can be argued that Rome has reacted to the acidic skepticism of the Enlightenment Age by progressively becoming fideistic. I forget whether it was here or on my friend Frank's blog that it has been shown in detail that, say, 17th century Roman Catholics argued strenuously that everything they believed was firmly rooted in history. These days, however, the prevailing view, especially among the more intellectual ones, is to merely to chant the word "history" like a magic talisman while emptying it of all substantive content.

The tendency is to privilege Theology over everything else, to disconnect Theology from everything else, to make it a self-justifying, self-perspicuous, self-defending, uncorrectable norm. We must not forget that this is a fideistic reaction to the Enlightenment, and never cease to hold Rome's toes to the fire of a sober-minded, "eyes open" historical faith. The Apostles did not preach a gnostic gospel about a spiritual truth that could never be related to the real world, like all these sophistical arguments about the "sinless Church" that some Catholics make. "These things were not done in a corner," Peter said of the deeds of Jesus, and Jesus proved Himself "with many infallible proofs" that were quite situated in physical reality.

One extreme is to become positivistic, to say that only what can be verified with reference to a document can be true. We don't need to go that route. The other extreme, Rome's reaction to the first, is to pretend that documents, and really all of history, simply do not matter as long as one has "faith" in "theology." That is simple fideism, not biblical faith.

steelikat said...

"assuming the beginning of the papacy was illegitimate"

Exactly. That really gets to the meat of the question in the way that the history of bad medieval and Renaissance Popes doesn't.

John Bugay said...

Tim, you may have seen Frank discussing Bishop Bossuet (and the Chadwick work "From Bossuet to Newman") -- Bossuet was the one who argued that the Catholic Church had never changed. And then 150 years or so later, Newman was explaining away all the changes.

louis said...

A rotten tree bears rotten fruit. That's the point.

louis said...

I read somewhere that Newman was influenced by Darwinism. His theory of church development fits nicely with theories of biological organisms developing and evolving into higher life forms. Does anyone know if this is actually demonstrable from Newman's own writings?

John Bugay said...

Louis, that's a good question, and I don't know the answer to it.

I do know that Dr. Witt has written some other pieces on Newman -- I haven't had time to go through them as well as I'd have liked, but take a look here:


That first article that appears is entitled "Newman's Incoherence".

Tim Enloe said...

John, just for purposes of clarity, what do you mean by saying the papacy was "illegitimate" from the beginning? There are several ways that might be taken, and which way one takes it would depend a lot on such things as political theory (i.e., the prevalent Modern assumption that only "democracy" is legitimate) and historical method (i.e., the problem of anachronistic interpretation driven by an ambiguous use of the term "the papacy").

I do not seek to defend the papacy as "legitimate" in the sense of it being theologically normative for all Christians, but I would be willing to say that it was "legitimate" in the sense of being a politically permissible option within a certain historical and cultural framework (that is itself now no longer the case for most of the world).

In my view, the exegesis used to support it is questionable because it only makes sense biblically if one is reading the Bible in Latin, with one's own mind steeped deeply in all the cultural concerns of Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages. Once one returns to the sources, meaning the Greek texts of the New Testament, and brings in other factors such as Augustine's criticism of the libido dominandi ("lust for domination") that characterized the Roman Empire, the exegetical case for the papacy collapses. So I would certainly not defend it as legitimate exegetically, except within a certain framework of thought that is demonstrably NOT universal and so cannot be made to support universal claims of sovereignty.

What do you mean by saying the papacy is "illegitimate from the beginning"?

John Bugay said...

Tim, when I say "illegitimate from the start," I am thinking in terms of the whole concept of "successor to Peter." That is, the "theology" surrounding the papacy today is that the Apostles formed a kind of "college," that Peter was somehow a "leader" (and with Vatican I, we can see what that means), and that this whole "college" with Peter as its "head" sort of has been marching in lockstep in charge of the church down through history.

As you know, that kind of thinking was NOT what some popes were saying to justify themselves.

The development of the episcopacy aside (and that itself was a development of the mid-second century), when the earliest attempts were made by Roman bishops to claim some kind of "primacy" were stiffly rebuffed, whether it was [possibly] Tertullian vs Callistus, or Cyprian and Firmilian vs Stephen -- the response to any attempts to claim some sort of superior rank were just sort of shock -- "how dare they?" It wasn't just these early writers, but also Eastern writers from all ages. The papacy is a textbook example of someone being invited to Christ's banquet table, then taking a higher seat than they were invited to take.

steelikat said...


Fruit can rot on good trees, too. And OK maybe this is stretching the analogy too far, but some pretty pathetic looking or dying trees can bear excellent fruit once in a while.

Tim Enloe said...
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Constantine said...

John and Tim,

Interestingly, I've been reading “The Historical Jesus: An Essential Guide” by James H. Charlesworth, the author being a professor at Princeton for several decades now. His book may be recommended.

Professor Charlesworth's specialty is Church History with an apparent strong emphasis on archaeology and sociology.

With regard to Tim's question re: legitimacy, this tidbit seems relevant:

“...I have tried to organize and clarify the widely recognized perceptions and articulations that represent a new consensus emerging among historians and archaeologists devoted to re-creating first-century Palestinian social and religious phenomena. In them, we have not encountered the term Christian or the concept church. These two nouns are clearly anachronistic within first-century Jewish phenomena.” (Kindle location 1282).

A little earlier, the author notes, “...but the fundamental source of Christological thought within the Palestinian Jesus Movement was the one who founded and defined the Movement: Jesus from Nazareth.”

The nub is that these two observations would illegitimate the RC claims to apostolic succession back to our first-century Peter and its further claims that Christ instituted the church in His stead.


Tim Enloe said...


I figured you meant mainly theologically illegitimate. I certainly agree that in terms of its fully developed theology (ala Vatican I) the papacy is theologically illegitimate and need not be feared or obeyed by anyone. If (to be counterfactual) certain important events in history had proceeded very differently, we might all be living in a form of the "universal Empire of the Romans" today, and so the basic concept of a "first among equals" would not seem as foreign, let alone as "illegitimate," as it does owing to our cultural descent from the Reformation. "Illegitimate" is a very strong word, incapable of qualification. I'd use a different word myself, such as "excessive" or "immoderate" or even, ironically, "blueprint for anarchy" (if there's anything that being "deep in history" bears out, it's that the "servant of the servants of God" has often been merely the servant of his own interests at the expense of the interests of others, and has been the focal point and cause of more schisms than not).

Still, politically speaking, the papacy may be seen as the natural - and so the "legitimate" - successor in the West of the Augustan Principate - as even a skeptical wag like Hobbes recognized when he said the papacy was just the ghost of the Roman Empire sitting crowned on the corpse thereof.

The parallel with Augustus Caesar is very instructive, for Augustus retained the outward form of the Roman Republic but sophistically changed the content of all the terms so that, in effect, what used to be a Republic (a limited, constitutionally-bound system) became an uncheckable dictatorship. It may be argued that it took the dictatorship (and so the tyrannical) aspect of the system a long time to develop into what it was at the time of the Reformation because of the peculiar historical and political circumstances that characterized the West from 476 A.D. forward.

Viewed that way, the papacy's development (even given Newman's account) was just a development of one facet of the broad Western tradition, and it may be further argued from that point that that facet was taken to extremes and so brought upon itself the judgment of God.

Tim Enloe said...

Constantine, yes, let's take it back to Jesus, where it should always start and end.

Jesus said that the organization of the Church would not be like that of the Gentile nations, with rulers lording it over followers. Although we must "make allowances," so to speak, for the vastly different times in which our forebears (prior to the Reformation, especially) lived, and we must understand that "the best of men are men at best," still, it seems clear that the papalist system violates Jesus' maxim quite egregiously by construing the Church as basically the property of "Peter," to be lorded over by him at his whim.

Until the time of Innocent III, the pope was considered to be merely the "Vicar of Peter," and, as Thomas F.X. Noble has masterfully shown in his The Republic of St. Peter, the pope's temporal power was a natural outgrowth of certain sociopolitical conditions in Late Antiquity, modified by the decline of government into a feudal mode because of the horrific invasions of Italy by various powers.

In the hands of more or less good popes such as Gregory the Great, papal power was oriented toward the good of its feudal subjects. But this was not, alas, the norm. As time wore on, the papalist system developed (mutated, really) into a tyranny, which, again, is classically defined as a ruler who seeks his own good instead of the good of his subjects. Temporal power (potestas) was progressively fused with and spiritual authority (auctoritas), and the result was a monstrosity that many of its own adherents spent a few centuries trying to figure out how to regulate precisely so that it wouldn't be a mere tyranny. Unfortunately, the saner voices within the Roman communion failed to correct the head's abusive tendencies, and so we got the Reformation.

John Bugay said...

Tim -- I can understand the need for a leadership structure. But the Roman claim is that the papacy was "divinely instituted" and therefore above -- or even on the same level as -- Scripture. This is the usurpation of which Rome is guilty, and it is so on the level of theology/doctrine where papal claims are blasphemous.

I don't doubt the historical details as you related them. I don't doubt that in any organization, even a church, there needs to be some kind of leadership, and that some bishops of Rome, as administrators, did some good during dark times.

What is heinous is that Rome is claiming divine sanction for a kind of "leadership" that never, ever had any kind of Scriptural warrant.

And I don't know if you've read any of the "ecumenical" talks, but it is not beneath Rome to take the good will of some Protestant negotiators who are willing to say (as you and I have done), "yes, we see the need for some kind of leadership" and they will segue that via the usual process of Roman equivocation into trying to attribute some sort of legitimacy to their particular theory of "petrine primacy" and then the cycle of confusion and obfuscation continues.

Tim Enloe said...

I totally agree about Rome's usurpations relative to Scripture. I've tried to make that clear, but if I haven't, let it be clear now.

I agree also about how Catholicism on the official level often uses the ecumenical impulse. For a while, I was a bit snookered by that (I was trying to go with what I thought was "the best" of Catholic thought rather than the manifest extremism of the online apologists). My friend Frank (whom you may remember was himself struggling with the authority issue for a while) helped me see through it and move back to a more healthy Reformed view of the matter. Peter Escalante has helped me sharpen my "theological-political" thought in terms of classical Protestantism, as well, so that I am now able to bring 10 years of liberal arts study more fully to bear and in a much more focused manner on the disastrously wrong claims made by the papacy.

John Bugay said...

Tim, I was pretty sure that was where you have been coming from.

I'm watching those discussions over at Wedgewords, and I'm amazed at how Peter Escalante is able to pull all of that together.

You are right, too, that "Catholicism on the official level often uses the ecumenical impulse."

It is a perfect illustration of what Calvin said in Institutes 4.1.1.: "In the papacy, Satan has corrupted all the good things that God intended for our salvation." (That's working from memory, but that's the gist of it.)

Tim Enloe said...
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Tim Enloe said...

Since you're quoting Calvin, we also need to remember that the judgment of the Reformers in terms of "synagogue of Satan" and the like was directed against the hierarchy of the Church and its learned defenders, men who had such materials and training at hand that they ought to have known what they were doing wrong. The average lay Catholic at the time of the Reformation wasn't equipped to grasp the system he followed, which is why the Reformation aimed so much of its work at educating laymen and why the impulse for vernacular Bibles was so strong. No tyrant can withstand a truly educated and mobilized populace for long.

Most Catholic laymen on the Internet today also do not grasp Catholicism well, and this is the moreso true when they are converts from superficial Evangelical traditions. You see it in their romanticized portraits of what "crossing the Tiber" did for them. You see it in their caricatures of the Reformation, which 90% of them won't bother to correct by getting hold of and reading GOOD books rather than trash convert books.

The Reformers were right to use strong language against the hierarchy, which ought to have known better. The question for these "trenches" we're in, though, is when to use that kind of language with the laymen, most of whom are just pitiably superficial people clinging desperately to what they (wrongly) see as a life preserver thrown to them by Rome. Some little mom who spent 6 months reading convert stories between changing baby's diapers and keeping her house clean probably doesn't deserve to be called a "papist" and ripped up one side and down the other for her "false Gospel." A "professional apologist" who repeatedly demonstrates a head made out of concrete is a different matter.

John Bugay said...

Tim: The average lay Catholic at the time of the Reformation wasn't equipped to grasp the system he followed, which is why the Reformation aimed so much of its work at educating laymen and why the impulse for vernacular Bibles was so strong. No tyrant can withstand a truly educated and mobilized populace for long.

More and more, this has become my motivation for doing what I'm doing. Unlike some of the guys here, I'm not going to contribute any new and original historical research. But what I can do is to "put it out there," with a clarity and relevance (I hope) for the average layman who might be looking into these sorts of things.

I've got no grudge against the every day Roman Catholic -- my own mother is such a one. It's those as you say who "ought to know better" who are the problem.

Andrew said...

John I have a slightly off topic question for you. It is my belief that while Roman Catholicism itself is a non-christian religion, there is enough light there, mostly through the scripture, that there are probably individual Roman Catholics (many perhaps?) who do understand the gospel and are themselves, Christians. Where do you come down on this? I am interested in your view because of your having been a self-described "devout Roman Catholic".