Luther’s “faith”

The post-mediaeval Christianity that resulted from the Reformation was western Christendom’s last self-conscious apparition before the modern age.  It represented a decentralized, nation-state version of the same theocratic and aristocratic system that the “barbarians” had salvaged and re-constructed out of the rubble of the collapsed Roman empire.  It dominated the sub-continent and its colonies until the time of the American and French Revolutions.  Its own immediate predecessor — the Catholicism of the late middle ages — was the version, modified to serve the needs of an imperial papacy, that the reformers tried to bring back to what they believed was authentic Christian tradition.  But the historical momentum of a thousand years of the Christianity of Late Antiquity limited how far “tradition” could go.

Luther’s rejection of Papal Catholicism was not a reform of “first intention.”  He was drawn into that objective only secondarily and little by little.[1]  Authority had not been a problem for Luther.  It was his personal anguish over damnation that impelled him to reject the program of salvation offered by the mediaeval Church.  It was only when his attempts to rectify the distortions that had created his torment met with theologically indefensible resistance from the authorities that he realized that it was the hierarchy that was preventing change because they were benefitting from the way things were.  His structural critique stemmed from there.  Luther believed that his scriptural and patristic discoveries represented authentic tradition and he became convinced that the Papal counter-attack was heterodox and had to be of the devil.  It was then that his cries of “Anti-Christ” directed at the Vatican began to be heard.

I contend that Luther’s original personal anguish, which he attributed to the quid pro quo mechanisms created by a self-serving Roman hierarchy, was in fact due to Late Antique Roman Christianity: the seriously flawed Augustinian concepts of “God” and man — the source of an autogenic disease that has pervaded Western Christendom unchallenged from Augustine’s time to ours.  Luther, like all 15th century Catholics, was infected with the contagion: he had no doubt about his own utter corruption and could find no reason why he should not be condemned to eternal torment by a wrathful “God.”  The discovery he made — the grace of a trusting faith — simply leap-frogged the problem: it saved him without confronting the source of the self-loathing and mistrust of LIFE.  For Luther believed he was just as corrupt, and that “God” was just as wrathful, after his enlightenment as before; the only difference was that he was assured — from scripture and tradition — that because of the death of Christ he would not be punished.  It validated his direct experience of the “free grace” of “God” evoking a trusting faith in his soul … just as it had for Paul and Augustine before him whose written accounts he believed confirmed his own.  What he had experienced was all there in black and white in scripture and the writings of St. Augustine.  Those sources convinced him that what he had gone through — the surrender of faith — was what “God” had planned for those he would save.  Luther was sure he had found the lost key to salvation, hidden by the fallacies promulgated by a priestly caste who would turn free Christians into slaves chained to Catholic ritual ministrations and a concocted list of “mortal sins.”

Luther had no inkling that the problem all along was the erroneous concepts of “God” and humankind, established in Late Roman Antiquity, that dominated mediaeval Christianity; Luther’s “solution” therefore was itself a reinforcement of those flaws.  Let me try to explain what I mean.

Roman Christianity in Late Antiquity

It all began with Platonic dualism, embraced by Christianity in the second century.  By pitting the “soul” against the body, platonism set in motion a human dynamic in which the organism was required first to distrust and then to suppress itself.  Once embraced by Christianity with its belief in “sin” as an offense against a “God”-person, failure to suppress the body not only deformed your humanity, it was to risk damnation.

Two hundred years later, Augustine intensified the effect by interpreting the fall of Adam in a way that confirmed Platonism’s worst implications.  “Original Sin,” he said, was the source of an intrinsic corruption that made human flesh incapable of not sinning without the grace of “God.”  This was accompanied by an inherited guilt condemning each human individual — even newborn babies — to eternal torment, unless baptized.

It was a “one-two” punch that produced an insurmountable alienation for the believer at the most intimate level imaginable — the level of the origination of the “self.”  It virtually guaranteed a life of constant internal conflict at very best, and often resulted in something much worse, viz., physical or psychological mutila­tion aimed at the self, or, turned outward, hostility toward others.

That the “self” was a separable spiritual “soul” trapped in a body of corrupt and alien matter, was the central fact of Luther’s world as it was for the Christian world before him for more than a thousand years … and continues for most Christians today.  It’s no surprise it survived the “Reformation;” there was no possible alternative at that point in time.  The existence of “spirit” had long since ceased being a Platonic theory; it had come to be accepted as a cosmological / metaphysical “fact” that no one doubted.  Even William of Ockham, the consummate 14th century “nominalist” who rejected claims that the immortality of the soul could be proven by reason, never challenged it as a fact.  He simply shifted the proof from reason to faith.  Philosophical Platonic dualism, in other words, had so dominated universal opinion, that it even survived the complete demolition of its rational justifications.

Most people are unaware that, for Christians, it was not always so.  The separable disembodied soul/self, fully present after death, was not a feature of the Christian religion until more than two hundred years after the birth of the common era.

For the first Christians the fact that they were spiritual did not mean that there was a separate “soul” that could exist by itself without the body.  They believed, like most of their contemporaries, that reality had a spiritual side but “spirit” was not a separate “thing.”  This belief in the integrity of the human being corresponded to NT imagery about “God” that was not Platonic but Stoic (i.e., pan-entheist) that is unmistakably evident in Paul and in “John.”[2]

The earliest Christians believed the world was coming to an end imminently and that Jesus was coming back to usher in “God’s” definitive triumph over evil, rectifying the horror that life had become under Roman domination.  All this was expected to take place within their lifetime.  Those few that may die before the Apocalypse, would be brought back for judgment, but the “kingdom of ‘God’” was primarily meant for the flesh and blood humans presently alive; it was not meant for their “souls.”

But all that changed.  Platonism displaced Stoicism as the conventional wisdom of the age; and as it became increasingly clear that Jesus was not coming back anytime soon, Christians began to believe that the soul alone was the “person,” just as Plato said, and that it was the soul alone that would be judged after death and given a reward or punishment.  Prior to this time, there is documentary evidence from early Christian theologians, called “Apologists,” that the immortality of the human soul was considered a pagan theory singled out for condemnation as not Christian.[3]  The earliest Christian creed extant, the “Apostles Creed,” originating in the second century, proclaims as essential to Christian faith the “resurrection of the body” and a judgment when Christ returns; but quite conspicuously, it does not mention a “particular” judgment of the individual at death or an eternal punishment, and the word “soul” does not even occur.

Even as late as 208, Tertullian, a latin speaking Christian writing from Carthage, North Africa, thought that the human “soul” was produced by the parents; it was not “infused” independent­ly by “God,” an essential element of the Platonic view.[4]  Tertullian believed  the “soul” died with the body at death and would be resurrected with the body for judgment on the last day.  Given Tertullian’s antiquity and his insistence on apostolic tradition as a norm of doctrine, it is unlikely that he would have held such a position unless it was a general belief at the time.  At any rate it seems indisputable that the particular judgment of the individual “soul” at death was not a universal belief of the Church by the first quarter of the third century in the latin-speaking West.  So the transition did not occur until sometime in the third century.  This puts it at a great remove from apostolic tradition.

But by Augustine’s time It had become an established conviction.  In 387 the year of his “conversion,” the “soul” was considered not only separable at death and subject to judgment, but the newborn monastic movement functioned on the belief that the soul benefitted from being separated little by little from the body during life by the practice of “mortification.”  By “mortifying” the body through celibacy, fasting and other forms of self-denial you “made it die” little by little and thus progressively liberated the “spirit” from its dungeon of matter.  It’s easy to see how such a perception might descend into some form of self-mutilation.

The immortality of the separable human “soul” became such a fundamental assumption that it was not even considered an article of faith peculiar to Christians.  It was just “reality,” taken for granted to such an extent that for a thousand years the Church felt no need to define it as a dogma … and did so only in 1517 at the fifth Lateran Council in response to “Aristotelians” like Ockham, who said it could not be philosophically justified.

But consider: If there is no “self” that lives on after death, then there is no individual judgment.  But strange as it may sound to our ears, such a denial was completely compatible with the earliest Christian creeds.  An individual salvation was not part of the original narrative.  The story found in the NT said that by being grafted into the Body of Christ, growth in divinization (love for one a other in imitation of “God’s”love) was set in motion, and barring an unlikely reversal of intention, one had a guaranteed place in “the communion of saints.”  Immortality was not natural.  It was the gift of “God” sharing divine immortality with the community that was Christ’s “Mystical Body.”  There was no suggestion that there was any immortality without it; Greeks were drawn to Christianity precisely because of the promise of immortality, and immortality was communitarian — a function of incorporation into the Christian community.

The shift to the Platonic paradigm with its belief in the naturally immortal soul demanded a “particular” judgment, otherwise the incentive factor would be lost.  It created a radical individualism which had the effect of overriding the original corporate and bodily view of salvation; for in the Platonic / Augustinian view, even after becoming a member of the Church you were still on your own.  The burden on the individual was crushing; you could rely on nothing but yourself and the “grace” of a whimsical “God.”  Even the sacraments of the Church were reduced to mere preparations for an individualized grace which always remained “God’s” free choice for the “elect.”  You had no control over grace, and yet without it you were doomed.  It was in this fateful transition that the westerm “I” — guilty, terrified and alone — was born.

The individual was driven to resist the obliteration that Christian culture said s/he deserved.  The psychic vulnerability embedded in the platonic doctrine of the separable soul tied to the Augustinian version of “Original Sin” and predestination was fatal.  From birth to death, you lived in a state of trembling insecurity with no defense against “God’s” inscrutable choice.  You could do nothing to insure your salvation … nothing.  “God” would save you or not as “he” wished, and there was no way of affecting the outcome.

You can see how under these circumstances, since you could not change your destiny one way or the other, after years of struggle and despair you might simply give up.

Luther’s faith

For me Luther’s “faith” has the scent of this type of surrender.  Having realized that “salvation” was simply beyond his control, he gave up the way an alcoholic admits powerlessness and throws himself on his “higher power.”[6]  The difference is that while Augustine and other addicts sought respite from what they saw as their own self-destructive behavior, Luther’s surrender was “theologized;” it was called upon to resolve the problem of justification itself — an obsessive fear of damnation created by belief in the moral depravity caused by Original Sin, the main preoccupation of the mediaeval Christian.  Only the miraculous grace of “God” could pull you out of inevitable deterioration … and eternal torment.

In Luther’s case, the psychological release that accompanied being absolved of responsibility while simultaneously assured that he would not be punished, served as a kind of internal proof that he had stumbled upon the very mechanism of salvation.  That there was evidence of the same experience in both Augustine and Paul provided confirmation in scripture and tradition.  Against the background of the self-loathing and terror of doom caused by original sin on the individual immortal soul, faith as “surrender” brought a sense of security and inner peace that Luther had never felt before.  He spent the rest of his life trying to share his discovery which he always characterized as “freedom.”

He fully realized from his own experience such a trusting faith was not the product of effort.  Like Augustine before him who had experienced a similar “brick-wall” moment and surrender, he was sure it was the result of “grace,” the miraculous intervention of “God.”  But Luther applied his experience categorically, and so abstrated from its psychological features; he never demanded of others that it take as dramatic a form.  The faith of the ordinary Christian, if sincere, was sufficient to insure membership in the “community of salvation;” and it was membership in the “true church” that mattered.

Anabaptists

But “faith” became a major source of division among the reformers.  Those who focused on the life-transforming nature of conversion insisted that every Christian must experience a similar moment of surrender.  Since Baptism was the outward sign of inward surrender to “God,” infant baptism was seen as a travesty and invalid.  No infant was capable of any such surrender and therefore baptism in infancy could not establish membership in the community of faith.  Those that had been baptized as infants needed to be baptized again as adults.  These reformers were called anabaptists.[7]

Anabaptists were considered “radicals” and were rejected by the mainstream protestants and their aristocratic supporters who collaborated in trying to eradicate them, often by violent persecution.  In the theocratic and aristocratic mindset that remained intact after the Reformation such an assertion of secular authority was not considered inappropriate, and in fact the reformers relied on local authority — even when it was not aristocratic as in the case of the Swiss cantons — to support their efforts.[8]

In all cases, however, it was membership in the “true church” of consenting faith — the community of the predestined — that freed the Christian from slavery to the Catholic pseudo-Church which demanded obedience to its man-made laws, superstitious practices and self-serving mis-interpretations of scripture.  Shifting the definition of “Church” from the “earthly” to the “heavenly” community — taken right from books 20 to 22 of Augustine’s City of God — undermined hierarchical authority.  It provided the justification for local, regional and national churches and created a power vacuum at the papal and curial level that secular rulers were all to happy to fill.

Luther was a conservative.  He believed there was only one church; he never intended to start another one.  His goal was to reform and renew “the Church” and he had always hoped the Vatican would  embrace the authentic traditions he had uncovered.[9]  His reformed church offered a practical program that was virtually the same as the Catholic.  He had no problem with infant baptism and considered the anabaptists fanatics who had abandoned authentic tradition; he insisted on the real presence of Christ in the eucharistic species and had a great falling out with Zwingli over the issue; he acknowledged the priesthood of all Christians but he expected the community to elect and ordain qualified clergy and entrust them alone with public preaching and the liturgy.[10]  The German peasant uprising of 1525 was a direct effect of the social implications of his message and, to my mind, an indication that he was on the right track; but when the revolt turned into revolution and threatened to change the social order Luther condemned it and encouraged its violent suppression by the authorities.  He saw the nobility as divinely appointed to rule and even called on them to put an end to the abuses of the Church.

His main focus throughout was personal conversion; when it came to Church practice Luther was not interested in re-inventing the wheel.  He changed the minimum necessary to ensure separation from the parasitic Papal “abomination” that had disorted the Church with self-serving accretions. Luther’s agenda was very simple: get rid of those distortions and allow authentic tradition to have its full effect.

Luther’s “discovery” made sense only in the context of the worldview that he assumed was real.  For our purposes, however, it is important to emphasize that if none of it is true: … If there is no “immortal soul” … if there is no “particu­lar judgment” … if human flesh is not “corrupt” … if humankind does not bear the guilt of Adam’s sin … then not only do the problems that Luther’s “solution” was designed to resolve, disappear, but the entire post-apostolic Christian vision, based on humankind’s collective liability for Adam’s sin and Christ’s “sacrificial death” in atonement, evaporates as well.  Luther, in other words, was set up big time.  He awoke in a suffocating atmosphere, and he did what he had to do to breathe.  But it was based on illusion.  The Christian chimera had been conjured into existence from even before Constantine and the Council of Nicaea.  Luther slew a millennial dragon that had been created from thin air; he found an escape route out of an imaginary dungeon that was a thousand years old, and in doing so confirmed the “existence” of what was never there.  His “reform” served to intensify belief in the very thing that had created his “problem,” the very thing reform needed to eradicate: Western Europe’s autogenic disease.

If there is to be another Christian reform in our time, it is to these depths that it must reach.

 

[1] Roland Bainton, Great Voices of the Reformnation, Random House, NY, 1952, p. 69

[2] Especially Acts 17 and the Epistles of John.

[3] Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition, U. of Chicago Press, 1971, p.30 cites Tatian (+ late 2nd century).  The immortality of the soul was considered a pagan doctrine that was originally attacked by the early Christian apologists.  cf Adolph Harnack, The History of Dogma, tr. Buchanan, Dover, NY 1904, vol II p.191,fn.4; p.213, fn.1 “Most of the Apologists argue against the conception of the natural immortality of the human soul.” Tatian 13; Justin, Dial. 5; Theoph. II.27

[4] This was re-asserted as recently as 1992 by the Vatican: The Catholic Catechism, editorial vaticano, 1992, ## 365, 366

[6] Steps 1, 2 and 3 of the 12 step AA program was modeled on the paradigm of Christian conversion characteristic of the “faith” of the reformers.  http://www.aa.org/pages/en_US/twelve-steps-and-twelve-traditions

[7] “Ana-“ is a Greek prefix, the equivalent of “re-“

[8] Bainton, Great Voices …, p.71

[9] Ibid.

[10] Luther, Concerning Christisn Liberty (1520); Concerning the Ministry (1523)