(with a bit of ersatz theology thrown in for good measure)
In the past, centennial celebrations were times for rejoicing and celebration. Quincentennial celebrations were times for over-the-top rejoicing and raucous celebration. For the last few decades, however, these milestones have often been the occasion of less than flattering revisionist historical treatments. Cultural icons and iconic events, previously re-canonized every one-hundred years, now almost always have their clay feet exposed.
In this quincentennial observance of the (perhaps apocryphal) nail pounding heard around the world (or at least throughout Christendom) we have the iconic Martin Luther with at least two clay feet: his strongly (one might say deadly) worded advice to political authority in the matter of the Peasants’ War and his indisputably anti-Semitic utterances toward the end of his life. To these we could add a number of lesser, but still bothersome, incidents of Luther’s hot-headed rhetoric where an irenic tone (perhaps in the manner of Philipp Melanchthon) may have served the cause of Christian unity better.
The editors of Let’s Talk kindly extended an invitation to me to write a piece considering the implications of these clay feet, particularly the extent to which they might cause us to refrain from seriously engaging his copious other writings. Does the bile of these unfortunate tirades compromise and/or corrupt Luther’s discourses on various theological and liturgical issues as well? The invitation came specifically from one of the editors who is my former pastor, fellow scholar, and good friend. He knows that I am neither a Luther scholar nor a specialist in the history of Central Europe in the sixteenth century. However, he suggested that in my thirty-nine year career of teaching at the university level I have most likely dealt with the generic “cultural icon with feet of clay” issue in a wide variety of specific forms. Indeed I did. It came up multiple times in every class in every term from 1966 to 2005. Specific examples included, but are by no means limited to: Thomas Jefferson and Slavery, Andrew Jackson and Cherokee removal, Abraham Lincoln and equivocation on both equality of races and full unconditional emancipation, Martin Luther King, Jr. and plagiarism.
I responded to the invitation with a quick and resounding “YES!” because I am presently working on a book manuscript about the problem of knowledge generally and in the discipline of History specifically, the roles of projection and perception in our social and individual constructions of reality, and how all of this impacts hermeneutical considerations.
Given the nature of the invitation I proceed with the assumption that I am under no obligation to shed any new light on the specific problem of Martin Luther’s dyspeptic remarks—indeed, I am neither qualified nor competent to do so. For those who are interested in well researched treatments of Luther, the Peasants War, and the Anti-Semitic remarks toward the end of his life placed within the context of his life as a whole, I would recommend Heiko A Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil (pp. 18, 49, 66, 84, 205, 283 for the Peasant Peasants’ War; pp. 289, 290, 292-297 for the anti-Semitic remarks), Richard Marius, Martin Luther: The Christian Between God and Death (pp. 414-435 for the Peasants’ War; 377-380 for the anti-Semitic remarks), and Lyndal Roper, Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet (pp. 171, 248-58, 261-63, 276, 293, 298, 311, 336 for the Peasants’ War; 378-85 for the anti-Semitic remarks).
What I can do is discuss how we approach the generic “cultural icon with feet of clay” issue and how that might impact our approach to Luther’s other writings. In order to do this with integrity I need to lay all my cards on the table (there are lots of cards in my hand, so I’ll spread them out over the following pages). Historians come in a variety of packages and perspectives. Some construct straight-forward narratives; some enter into the realm of analysis. Some assume that the truth of the past is located in original documents; some consider each document the result of someone else’s subjectivity and thus simply a perspective on an experience in the past and not a capsule of the past pure and simple. Some are on a quest for historical truth that will stand the test of time; some are on a continuing quest for historical understanding with the caveat that at any given time that understanding is at best only partial and may indeed be so diluted with the historian’s own cultural bias as to be of little use.
My approach to the discipline of History (and thus to the “cultural icon with feet of clay” issue) is informed by the second characteristic in each of the three variables in the above paragraph. That summary needs a little elaboration. For me History is not “what happened in the past.” It is the analysis of thoughts, actions, and behaviors of the species homo sapiens in the dimension of time and the settings of diverse cultures in order to discover (insofar as possible) that which is persistent and that which is mutable in the human condition.
In short, the content of what follows may strike some as overly academic (though I will try to keep that perspective to a minimum) and the style will strike those of an academic bent as a bit too colloquial, but I hope to make this as accessible as possible and engage as many people as I can in a brief conversation about the thorny world of historical inquiry, hermeneutics, and interpretation.
First, let’s tackle inquiry. In a case like this (and all cases dealing with cultural icons) inquiry begins with a consideration of the relevant primary sources, including prevailing interpretations of that icon by his or her contemporaries. Luther became a cultural icon (positive or negative depending on where a commentator stood) soon after his career as a reformer began. (See Andrew Pettegree, Brand Luther: How an Unheralded Monk Turned His Small Town into a Center of Publishing, Made Himself the Most Famous Man in Europe—and Started the Protestant Reformation) Luther may have been born in obscurity, but rapidly following October 31, 1517, he was known far beyond Wittenberg and Saxony. He was considered important (and dangerous) enough for Pope Leo X to promulgate his encyclical Exsurge Domine in June 1520, for Henry VIII to publish Assertio Septem Sacramentorum in 1521, and for a group of critics (including heavy hitters such as Thomas More and Johann Eck) to launch a steady stream of refutations of Luther’s arguments from 1518 to 1525; even negative reviews can contribute to iconic status. (See David V.N. Bagchi, Luther’s Earliest Opponents: Catholic Controversialists 1518-1525) Add to this the crowd at Worms and the widespread publication of the Ninety-Five Theses and treatises that followed and we can make a case for considering Luther something akin to a sixteenth century rock star, complete with a “bad-boy” reputation among both friends and foes.
The second step in our inquiry has more to do with us than with the cultural icon, but it is a crucial step that requires a high degree of rigorous honest self-evaluation on the part of the investigator. We need to survey the literature about our subject written in our own time and in past decades and centuries. We may do this in part for quick references to the primary materials, but of greater importance we need to each ask ourself what predilections and prejudices we may have gained through direct or indirect exposures to this body of literature. Have we been more impressed by the literature that comes close to canonizing Luther? Conversely, have we been more impressed by recent literature concentrating on his allegiance to secular power and lack of support of the populist masses during the Peasants’ War, and/or his anti-Semitic remarks in the 1540s? If we are of the latter disposition, we need to take a look at some of the positive accomplishments, but not loose sight of the darker side. If we are of the former disposition, we need to take a closer look at the darker side but not loose sight of those contributions upon which we wish to build.
Yes, we are talking about balance—hard to achieve and even harder to maintain, and thus a lifelong task that is never achieved with perfection, but is a goal to be sought anyway.
And that brings us to hermeneutics, a big word for keeping some common sense principles in mind as we work our way from a consideration of the relevant evidence to an interpretation of the phenomenon, movement, or (as in this case) the cultural icon under investigation. What do we bring to the reading of a document? How do we attempt to enter the document from a world outside of that document? Decades ago I developed two primary hermeneutical assumptions that have served me well (let’s not be coy and call these assumptions “principles.” I am guessing, and scholars do that more often than not.)
The first assumption is that we must always remember that authors who were not basically different from us wrote these texts. Thus we need to be open to universal themes even in the face of significant conceptual and stylistic differences. This assumption is based primarily on Carl Gustav Jung’s conceptualization of the “Collective Unconscious.” Just as human beings have basically the same physical structure over a vast expanse of space and time, we should not be surprised to encounter some non-physical attributes that we share with persons across both of those expanses. Can we not identify with a tragic hero or heroine in a play by Sophocles written over two millennia ago? Though separated by almost three millennia, most of us can empathize with the grief of David as he cried out over the loss of his son. Some common elements of the human condition do not need contextualizing.
The second assumption is that we must always remember that these are texts written in a variety of cultural contexts that are often quite different from ours. Thus we always stand in need of historical, linguistic, and anthropological continuing education This is not the inverse of the previous assumption, which has to do with themes of the human condition that transcend time and space. This assumption has to do with differing modes of conceptualization and expression over time and space and our need to be mindful of this as we encounter the documents.
But there is more, and the “more” takes the form of musing or thinking out loud. Bear with me as I bare my scholarly soul. Every historian is aware (though some try hard to forget) that the record of evidence is woefully incomplete; is skewed toward the interests of various factions, parties, and other categories of people; is created by human beings with preconceptions, assumptions, and a variety of other subjective factors impacting the final outcome of each document. We then are engaged in our subjective interpretations of the subjective reflections of those who generated the original documents. If we attempt to tell stories as the primary mode of history our narratives project at least as much of our predilections on the documents we use as we perceive in those documents. Obviously the same can be said of analytical approaches to history, but concentrating on the question (which is what makes analytical history analytical) forces us to at least confront our own biases. Thus we need to be very cautious about rushing to answers.
One could, of course, throw one’s hands in the air and conclude that history is impossible, at least history that is accurate. But some sense of history will most likely be part of both our collective conscious and unconscious for as long as the species persists. In spite of the epistemological and methodological problems I think it quite important that we, both individually and collectively, come to terms with our pasts. Or, more precisely, that we continually come to terms with our pasts by refusing to adopt a firm and final “standard” or “orthodox” interpretation of any given historical question. Indeed, one of the problems I have with narrative history is that the emphasis is usually on the answer rather than the question. The answers become concretized, whereas the questions are usually broader than a specific historical moment and the questions need to be kept in play over generations: revisited, revised, revisioned, and reframed.
To summarize the preceding overly long paragraph (and to court the charge of heresy), questions give rise to discussion—a good thing. Answers give rise to dogma—a questionable outcome, at least in critical scholarship. And yes, that is fair warning that I am not going to get anywhere near giving an answer to the question of what we do with our shared icon with admittedly clay feet. Rather I will offer a perspective about how we might fruitfully enter into a conversation about Luther’s faults, and how that might broaden into a more general discussion about all of us—past, present, and future—who live within the constraints of the human condition, bounded by freedom and necessity, and riddled with complexity, ambiguity, and contradiction.
All of this I covered in far greater detail when I regularly taught a graduate course on historiography and historical methods. That took place in a secular university. In this venue I feel compelled to explore these matters further from a specifically Christian perspective. We all have predilections, pet theories, and perspectives we would like to promulgate as absolutes. We are aware of some of them, but most likely not all of them. We do indeed project at least as much as we perceive. Add to this my strange combination of Christian anthropology (equal parts of Luther’s simul justus et peccator and Calvin’s innate depravity) and I come to the conversation aware of my own sinful nature and thus am neither surprised nor shocked (as some Christians evidently are) that sinners often sin. Put another way, I am aware of my subjectivity which cautions me against passing judgment based on my biased evaluation, but that very limitation gives me empathy for other sinners.
I warned (promised?) I would give no answers but I will offer a perspective, which is neither an answer nor knowledge (a word used far to often and far too loosely). It is an informed perspective, but not “authoritative,” a word I would like to see removed from the language.
I have serious problems with Luther’s siding with the princes in the Peasants’ War (and his obeisance to political authority in general), but I am mindful of two important factors (whether they are mitigating I can’t yet say). First, his position was not unequivocally supportive of the nobility. Second, and most important when it comes to my continuing wrestling with this problem, I am acutely aware that I was able in the 1960s and early 1970s to speak out vehemently against American policy in Southeast Asia without having all that much to fear. Luther lived in a different place and time. He was alive thanks to the patronage and protection of the Elector of Saxony. Support of princes had pragmatic survival value for him. On the other hand, others such as Zwingli did side with the peasants. I continue to wrestle with this, but I do not find echoes of this problematic stance in the larger corpus of Luther’s work.
Luther’s negative remarks about Jews—particularly On the Jews and their Lies (1543)—I find highly offensive, and somewhat enigmatic. In the 1520s, he wrote a few pieces that chastised Christian treatment of Jews in Europe. From time to time he sought to convert Jews to Christianity, or more precisely he hoped they would be so impressed with his reframed Christianity that they would come in droves to the fold. Luther’s later anti-Semitic remarks were limited to non-theological rants during the last few years of a life that now seemed to him an abysmal failure. His name was known throughout Western Christendom, but he was geographically isolated in Saxony. His circumstances did not allow him to participate in the presentation and defense of the Augsburg Confession. He had rhetorically painted himself into a corner with his over-the-top attacks (sometimes ad hominem) on both the office and person of the Bishop of Rome, Erasmus, and a host of others. By the time of his last years he was not the only great reformer on the scene. Actually, he seemed rather mild in comparison to some of the newer voices (or even such contemporaries as Karlstadt) in spite of his “Brand.” Jews had not converted in great numbers, as he was sure they would have done. By this time Luther was something of an Ishmael—his hand was against every man and every man’s hand was against him in his view. He lashed out with bitter anguish and took aim at a wide variety of targets. It is instructive that the penultimate chapter in Roper’s Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet bears the title, “Hatreds.” None of this is offered as an excuse for the despicable words he wrote, but I do not consider his other writings invalidated by these regrettable utterances of an obviously very unhappy and disturbed man facing the end of his life. That having been said, I continue to struggle with what to do with such a hotheaded contrarian who had flashes of great insight, grace, and wisdom.
If my brother Martin had shared his 1540s remarks about Jews with me in person, I hope I would have followed the advice in the Gospel according to Matthew 18:15-18. I would have placed his advice to the nobility in the 1520s and his remarks about Jews in the 1540s alongside the criterion of the Gospel and asked Martin to consider the extent to which he had stepped way outside the Gospel. And I would further have pointed to many of his other works (Bondage of the Will, On the Freedom of a Christian, Commentary on Romans, Commentary on Galatians, among others) and encouraged him to stay in that groove. Given that we encounter Luther only in absentia we can regret his writings that fall short of his work that we honor for it’s service to the Gospel. We should not ignore the sinful nature of his remarks and try to cast him as a Christian Super-Hero. On the other hand we should not condemn him. We can accept Luther as a brother, who like each of us, is flawed and broken. And we can and should continue to interpret the meaning of what he wrote and what he did (for better or for worse) in community with others as we try—individually and collectively—to discern what it means to be in Christ as both saint and sinner.
I offer no answers here. This is only a rumination about how one person continues to wrestle and struggle.
So where do we go from here?
I know you have been paying attention, so your response is likely, “Conversation.” That exchange of perspectives between sisters and brothers is far more important than anything I have opined in the previous paragraphs. What follows now is a recommendation for an approach to faithful continuous conversation about matters of importance in how we interpret the Gospel in the context of a given time and place, recognizing that the conversation is ongoing. I nominate a great guide for us as we do so.
Josiah Royce (1855-1916) was an American philosopher on the faculty of Harvard University. In 1913 he wrote a book entitled The Problem of Christianity. I would place this tome in the hands of every Christian if I had the financial resources to do so. Royce writes a great deal about the Church as both the body of Christ and the creature of the Spirit. He speaks of the Church, in both its congregational and universal manifestations, as the “Beloved Community.” He defines the Church in terms of neither dogma nor organization. It is “. . .a progressively realized community of interpretation.” In Royce’s conception of the Church we are to enter into serious conversation in which we interpret both the Gospel and the world in which we are called to minister, and this is a prelude to ministerial action. Given that our understanding is progressive, in the sense that it is dynamic and must adapt constantly to new realities, our understanding of the Gospel will be protean and the contexts in which we live out the Gospel are similarly mutable.
In the specific set of concerns which gave rise to this brief article, Royce’s “community of Interpretation” invites us to enter into an ongoing conversation. Our entry point may be with a piece or pieces of Luther’s writing, but it is not a conversation about Luther. It is a conversation with Luther, as well as each other. It takes into account those with whom Luther was in conversation when he wrote the documents under consideration. It also takes into account others who have joined the conversation since Luther (which puts us into interpretive conversation with Hegel, Dilthey, Kierkegaard, Berger, Tillich, Bonhoeffer, Küng, Bratten, Jenson, Marty, Senn, and Hauerwas among others).
A community of interpretation works best when we ask new questions and continue to refine and reconsider old questions. Put another way, a community of interpretation functions only through conversation and ceases to exist if we think we have found the correct answer (or, perhaps, more precisely when we have grown weary of thinking about difficult questions and wish to opt instead for a “definitive” answer).
Royce took the Communion of Saints seriously. From this perspective, the body of Christ is perpetuated in part by the conversation that both maintains and propels community. In this sense, one can imagine ecclesia as an expansion of that perpetual conversation suggested by Rublev’s famous 14th century icon of three angels, often also interpreted as the Trinity.
If we take Communities of Interpretation seriously as a sort of ecclesiology in action, we can more intentionally follow the mandate to love one another as Christ has loved us. This has implications for how we deal with our sisters and brothers in our own time, in the past, and in the future. If we engage the Gospel, one another, and the super-persona of ecclesia in this continuing conversation, we will continue to engage those who have gone before us as well as those who are with us now. By so doing we also keep faith with our sisters and brothers who have yet to be born. If we do this, we will have prepared a forum of faithful dialogue that they will be able to engage.
A Pendantic Addendum
While writing this brief rumination, I encountered a recently published book synthesizing cutting-edge research in Cognitive Science. It is worth reading for its own sake, and also as an empirical buttress for Royce’s philosophical argument published 104 years ago: Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach, The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone (New York: Riverhead Books, 2017). We all know far less than we think we know, and one of the most important bits of knowledge we can acquire is a reckoning of the profundity of our ignorance. We borrow the summary of knowledge from each other without comprehending how shallow that summary is. The authors advocate intentional “communities of knowledge” in which we distinguish between what we think we know and what we actually know, share perspectives with each other, and resist the conversation squelching settlement on a singular orthodoxy. While not identical to Royce’s “communities of interpretation,” the two concepts are compatible. Indeed, I would argue that neither concept has much utility without the other. In both cases, the emphasis is on conversations that continue to wrestle with important questions. One must, of course, take my recommendation of this book with a grain of salt. It very nicely confirms my predilections about preferring the concept of “perspective” over the concept of “knowledge.”
Full Citation of Referenced Works
David V. N. Bagchi, Luther’s Earliest Opponents: Catholic Controversialists. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991.
Jennifer Hockenbery Dragseth (ed.), The Devil’s Whore: Reason and Philosophy in the Lutheran Tradition. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011.
Richard Marius, Martin Luther: The Christian Between God and Death. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999.
Heiko A. Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil. New York: Doubleday, 1992. (Originally published in 1982 by Severin und Seidler, Berlin as Luther: Mensch zwischen Gott und Teufel)
Andrew Pettegree, Brand Luther: How an Unheralded Monk Turned His Small Town into a Center of Publishing, Made Himself the Most Famous Man in Europe—and Started the Protestant Reformation. New York: Penguin Press, 2015.
Lyndal Roper, Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet. New York: Random House, 2017.
Josiah Royce, The Problem of Christianity. Washington: Catholic University Press of America, 2001. (Originally published in 1933 by Macmillan)
For more on the problem of historical interpretation and Josiah Royce see:
Gregory Holmes Singleton, “Is History Possible? A Prolegomenon to an Agnostic Epistemology” http://homepages.neiu.edu/~ghsingle/IHPr4.pdf
Gregory Holmes Singleton, “Josiah Royce and 21st Century Theology” http://homepages.neiu.edu/~ghsingle/ROYCE.pdf
Both of the above are more useful for the recommendations for further reading than they are for the substance of the arguments.