Dr. Larry Arnn and Matthew Gaetano Discuss Martin Luther and the Reformation
HH: Today, we’re going to tackle Luther. And since we didn’t have a Hillsdale Dialogue last week, we’re going to take both hours to do this. And as I said to the gentlemen before we began, I’m quite certain this will generate more controversy than any other show we’ve done, because Luther just does that. Dr. Arnn, welcome. I’m sure you agree with my decision to replay Harry Jaffa last week as opposed to begin Luther.
LA: No, he’s 93 now, and the recent word, you can never quite tell, is that he’s declining. And when he passes, is the day, when that day comes, it’ll be a very sad day.
HH: And we will, however, we will always have his discussion of the Declaration, which is really quite magnificent, I got the same amount of mail from last week that I always do – voluminous, because people hear him for the first time. And that, we taped probably ten years ago.
LA: Yeah, he spent his life on that.
HH: And it’s remarkable. So let’s begin and talk a little bit, Dr. Gaetano, or Professor Gaetano. Why are you so interested in Luther, and why do you teach the Reformation course both for the online Hillsdale course on Western Heritage, but also for the undergraduates?
MG: That’s a great question, Hugh. And again, it’s great to be back with you. But I mean, the Reformation is one of the most critical moments in the history of Western Civilization. It’s a time when some of these unities that had grown up over the course of the Middle Ages are being brought into significant controversy, that the way in which Rome provided some sort of stability, some sort of point of contact for Christians throughout the Latin West, that that’s no longer the case. In fact, many Christians in England, in Germany and elsewhere look at the pope as the antichrist. And so this leads to a major shift in the way in which Europeans understood themselves, their relationship to the great, long history of Christianity, and is important for understanding some of the developments that lead to what we think of as the modern world.
HH: We are coming up on the 500th anniversary. We are 497 years removed from the legendary nailing of the 95 theses to the cathedral door. And as I was preparing, I understand that that is disputed by some as to whether or not it occurred.
MG: That’s right.
HH: But I also said two weeks ago, before we took our week break, that I think of Luther as the man of the millennium in a Time Magazine kind of way, because he broke the millennium in half. And Dr. Arnn, I wonder what you think about that. And I also think of him as sort of the first modern revolutionary around whom many people could find examples for their conduct in the future centuries.
LA: Well, first of all, how like you to think in a Time Magazine kind of way.
HH: (laughing) Backwards-ran sentences to reel the mind. That’s an inside joke.
LA: (laughing) But second, look what he did, you know. I mean, the structure of the Church as existed in the 16th Century understood itself to be 1,600 years in the building, and a great continuity all the way through it. And here comes a radical doctrine that deprives the Church of a kind of authority that it claimed for itself, and successfully around much of the world for beginning with much of, especially, Northern Europe. So it was a turning point. I mean, you won’t say it’s a turning point like the birth of Jesus, but since then, hard to think of a bigger one.
HH: I also, what he broke was enormous, Professor Gaetano. I was with my friend, Bud, in the Dominican Republic once, and we turned the corner in downtown Santo Domingo and saw there Santa Maria, the cathedral. And I pointed it out to him that it was finished before Luther began. And so it was, and that kind of brought him up short. And I said you know, using my papist rhetoric on him, how exactly did he come by the authority to do what he did? And so what’s the answer to that?
MG: That’s a great, another great question. I think it is important to recognize that Luther even in his own time was seen to be this kind of man of the century, a heroic figure. He was called by those not only in Germany, but in what’s today Switzerland. He was called the German Hercules standing up against the emperor, and against the pope as an Augustinian friar. I mean, he’s what we would think of today as a monk, a priest, a professor of theology. This isn’t the makings for the image of Hercules that I think many of us have. So he is seen that way, and he’s seen as having this kind of potential of really transforming the way in which the world at that time was organized. But I think it’s really important to recognize, and this qualifies what I said in my opening remarks, that Luther himself didn’t see himself as revolutionary, as pushing toward some great, modern, new world. And he really hated the people, and I don’t think that that’s really a poorly chosen word. He really despised those who say him as beginning some kind of unfolding process that will only culminate over the course of decades and centuries. For him, for Luther, it was in some ways a very simple thing. It wasn’t about reform. It wasn’t even about the immorality of the Church. He saw that as something that’s typical of the human condition. For him, it was the Gospel. It was the good news that human beings are justified by faith alone, by throwing themselves on the mercy of God who is humbled in Jesus Christ. And for Luther, that was the central message. And he really was opposed to those who wanted to break the icons and throw out many of the sacraments. For him, he really cherished a lot of traditional, what we think of as Catholic practices, and only would just take away those that he saw as contradicting Scripture and contradicting the doctrine of justification by faith alone.
HH: When we come back after the break, I want to do a little biography before we launch into his teachings, his theories, and his most well-known pronouncements, but Dr. Arnn, I just had finished reading the Madison book by Lynne Cheney, and before that, Jon Meacham’s book on Jefferson. So I was thinking about Jefferson, and what a contrast. Jefferson reveled in being understood as a revolutionary, right?
LA: Oh, yeah.
HH: And Luther recoils from it. What’s the difference, though, if you both make a revolution?
LA: Well, there’s a similarity and a difference. The similarity is Jefferson thought he was stating principles that had always been true, and that obedience to them was the only way. And Luther very much thought that. That’s what Matthew just said. Jefferson thought also that he was overturning a world where the practice of those principles had either neither ever been fully instituted, or was being ignored. So he did proclaim himself a changer of things.
HH: And Professor Gaetano, did Luther at least understand himself as a changer of things?
MG: He did see himself as proclaiming the true Gospel. At times, you see him, an image of himself not only as a priest, as a professor of theology, which did give him significant authority in that time. He did have credentials, unlike many of the more radical figures. And he pointed that out, that he had a doctorate. But you know, the other image that he sometimes has of himself is as a prophet, and a prophet of the last days. It wasn’t that he was beginning something new and fresh that would last for centuries. He really saw himself at many points in his life as living at the end of all things, and that Satan, through the papacy, the mother of all the churches, had set up the antichrist. And there was a remnant called out to proclaim the Gospel. That’s a very different image, I think, of someone, you know, as a prophet of the last days than the image of Jefferson has as perhaps a kind of point of dawn for a better, greater world to come.
HH: Very well said, the beginning as opposed to the end of things. When we come back from break, a biography on Luther, history of the Reformation, and then we go into those very dangerous waters. We’re going to talk about what Luther believed. And I know, as I said, many of you will think we leave something out, or we omit too much, or we skip over too quickly. But it’s only two hours, and so Martin Luther gets double the ordinary amount of time we give someone because of his significance, and with double the amount of expertise. For all the Hillsdale Dialogues, past, present and future, go to www.hughforhillsdale.com. For all of the Hillsdale courses, including the Western Heritage course in which Professor Gaetano lectures on the entire Reformation at length, you go to www.hillsdale.edu. And while you’re at www.hillsdale.edu, be sure to sign up for Imprimus, which is the speech digest which comes out every single month from the college. That’s www.hillsdale.edu.
— – – –
HH: Professor Gaetano teaches the course on the Reformation at Hillsdale. He is also online at the Hillsdale Western Civilization Culture course with an extraordinary offering on the Renaissance, Reformation and Counter Reformation. Boy, in one hour, that’s got to be quite the lecture, Professor Gaetano.
MG: It’s tough.
HH: So we are talking about Martin Luther today in two hours, and before I go to the biography, poor Tetzel, I’m wondering if he had taken left as opposed to the right turn, and hadn’t gone to Wittenberg, would this have inevitably happened somewhere else? Let me ask you that, Professor Gaetano.
MG: The really remarkable thing about Luther’s early life is how if you understand Luther in his own context, that some of the things that do happen seem almost to be accidental, that they didn’t have to happen. They weren’t inevitable, that Luther in 1516, ’17, ’18, even at 1519 and ’20, really saw himself as just being a professor of theology who was a preacher of God’s Word, who saw someone teaching an error about this doctrine of indulgences…
HH: That’s Tetzel for the benefit of our audience.
MG: This is Tetzel, who was a preacher who was going around serving the Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz, who…
LA: He was raising money to build a big church, right?
MG: The Pope, Leo X, was interested in really establishing himself in Rome, and this is, you know, the popes of this period in the early 16th Century, Alexander VI, the Borgias, I mean, these are the most notorious popes in all of history. Leo X wasn’t as much this kind of notorious figure, but he was the son of Lorenzo de’ Medici, right? He was a Florentine elite. And you know, he saw himself as really serving the Church by making Rome a place where the papacy could really establish itself. Remember, in the 14th Century, the popes were in Avignon in Southern France. And in the 15th Century, early 15th Century, you have multiple popes. And Rome had always been a very difficult place because of the fights between the nobility and so on. And the popes wanted to really establish themselves. And these big building projects, the magnificence of those building projects that I think many of us have enjoyed in going to Rome, were part of the popes really kind of asserting their place within this kind of Roman, complex Roman milieu. But to do that, they needed to raise money. And these indulgences were in fact a part of that.
LA: What was the transaction, Matthew?
MG: So indulgences, it’s a very complex doctrine. Now of course, no one said out loud if you give us money, we will have your sins be addressed. You know, that was the sin of simony, right, which goes back to this 1st Century figure that’s mentioned in Scripture, Simon, who…
LA: By the way, if you’re raising money, it would be a pretty good spot to be in.
HH: Yes, it would be. It would be a very fine…something is occurring to President Arnn.
LA: That’s right.
MG: If only he could forgive sin.
LA: We’re doing okay without that.
MG: Right. But I mean, basically the idea was not buying and selling spiritual benefits, because that was just seen as you know, sinful as something that all of the reformers for hundreds of years before the Reformation were opposed to, and they saw tendencies towards that just in human interactions. But the idea was well, if you do a certain good work that the temporal punishments of you sin, in other words, those that you’d have to address with penances on Earth, prayers, good works and other things, or in Purgatory after death, before being brought to Heaven, that the idea was that you could deal with some of these temporal, not eternal, not hellfire, because only Christ could do that, but the temporal limited punishments of your sins through certain good works. And one of those good works was giving money to the Church. And so you could see how very easily this kind of complex justification could turn into something that really looked like buying and selling these spiritual benefits. And Luther was profoundly opposed to this sort of thing.
HH: Well, the corruption of any institution by money is almost inevitable…
HH: Unless it is gartered against, and Tetzel is a Dominican, I believe, right? And he’s itinerant and he’s off wandering around. But if he hadn’t gone into Luther’s way, would Luther have ended up being Luther anyway because of what he was writing? I guess that’s what I’m getting at.
MG: There, it’s impossible to know for sure. What’s really remarkable is in September of 1517, of course, the famous 95 theses, that debate being initiated with October 31st, 1517. So the month before, Luther put forth a radical disputation against scholastic theology, where he really emphasized this deep doctrine of human sinfulness, this way in which there’s nothing, absolutely nothing that even Christians can do to please God, and they can only despair and root in that despair, and then fling themselves on the mercy of God revealed in Christ. And he’s really starting to lay that doctrine out in the month before his much more modest, I would argue, much more modest 95 Theses. Most of the 95 Theses are pretty standard, but which made Luther, this Germany friar up in Northern Germany, famous. It was the debate about indulgences, in part because, sad to say, it hit the pocketbooks of some really powerful men in the Europe of that time.
HH: It hit the seam. Go ahead.
LA: So let me make a distinction here that’s important. First of all, this is a questionable practice, and Matthew just laid it out, right? First of all, isn’t it plausible to think that if you do really good things that they will offset really bad things you do? There’s some common sense in that. So you can see how they might go in that direction. And on the other hand, they did consistently and explicitly condemn the idea that you could forgive your sins by giving the Church money. So they’re in a questionable situation. And this doctrine of Luther’s about faith and works becomes important in part because of that questionable situation. It ignites a fire in part because of the power of these very well to do and powerful people. But the doctrine is separate from that thing. It’s something he’s working on anyway. He’s got a very radical idea about what salvation is, and the relation between man and God. And he didn’t come to that because he was offended by these indulgences.
MG: Right, what I think the indulgence controversy really does to Luther, I mean, it does deepen his reflection on the way in which the whole doctrine of penance, right, and we’ve all seen it in the movies, going to confession, addressing your sins in that way, that he saw this as, interestingly enough, making things a little too easy. We often think of the late medieval Christian as burdened by all of these complex practices, and that Luther was this liberator. But Luther really saw a lot of these medieval religious practices as making things a little bit too simple…
HH: How interesting.
MG: …and that Christian think oh, well, I just go to confession, I say a few words, and everything’s dealt with rather than despairing in your sins and running to Christ, which is really the center of his message.
— – – –
HH: I wanted to make sure people understand the relevance of this, to this day, to this very day. The Roman Catholic Church teaches a doctrine of indulgences, correct me if I’m wrong, Professor Gaetano. For example, a plenary indulgence is available for people making a good confession, saying a Rosary and receiving Communion within a space of time. And indulgence is available when the Door of Forgiveness is open at St. Peter’s. There are lots of indulgences. It’s just that this particular practice which looked like selling indulgences to Luther has been abandoned, correct?
MG: That’s right. The Council of Trent, which is the council that meets in the midst of the Reformation right after Luther died, or right around the time when Luther died in 1546, the Council of Trent begins in 1545, concludes in 1563. The Council of Trent does affirm this idea of indulgences. And the word indulgence just means a pardon, right? You can actually think of it along the lines of almost a presidential pardon, in fact. But this doctrine of indulgences was detached from this tendency towards corruption by the way in which, in other words, you couldn’t get a doctrine of indulgences, you couldn’t get an indulgence through giving money to the Church anymore, because that was just too easy to be corrupted. And they condemned the way in which filthy lucre became a part of this penitential practice. But you’re right, other than that, the idea of indulgences has not been abandoned by the Roman Catholic Church.
HH: And would Luther have been as offended by today’s understanding of indulgences as he was by the practice of them then, given his theology?
MG: I don’t think, perhaps he would not have been as offended, because I think he was deeply disturbed by the way in which money came into the process. But I think the basic thrust of Luther’s concern, which was that doing these things can give one comfort, can make it feel easier to please God, that would be, I think, as disturbing with the way it’s practiced today in that respect as it was in 1516, ’17, and ’18.
HH: And that brings me to the biography part. Now we’ve said that…
LA: Can I ask him a question before he goes on, because that’s a perfect place.
HH: Please, please.
LA: So it’s Luther’s view that we’re all so deeply flawed and fallen that the realization of that, and then throwing ourselves entirely on the mercy of God is our proper place. Does he think that’s essential to salvation?
MG: He does, that…
LA: And so it would carry with it a kind of an indulgence if one does that.
MG: You would be forgiven of your sins, certainly, but, and you would be pardoned, and that’s what the word indulgence means. You would be pardoned by God. But it wasn’t through doing certain prayers or going to certain churches or on any pilgrimage. It is faith alone. It’s that confidence in God’s mercy alone.
HH: Well, actually…
LA: And there’s a human agency in it, though.
LA: …in having that spirit. Is that true? That’s necessary to salvation in Luther?
MG: For him, there is, you could say a certain kind of agency, but Luther really wants to attend to the fact that the reason it’s faith alone and not all these other works, and many Catholics would say works wouldn’t save you before baptism, before you’re actually a Christian. But Luther would even go as far as to say that hope and love are not actually the very things that lead to you being justified, to you being declared right before God, but only faith. And the reason that that’s the case in part is because faith is for him passive. He describes it as a bag that you simply open, and then it’s filled by the righteousness of Christ by Divine mercy. And so it’s the very passivity, the receptivity of faith that makes it the thing that can be that which justifies alone.
LA: So I’m going to add something here. So when C.S. Lewis writes about this, he tries to write in a way to make a consensus or a treaty. A treaty might be good. And so the way he treats the questions when they come up is that these are fine shades. And there are some fine shades here, right, because I think if I read Luther rightly, it’s in our power to close that bag if we want to. And if we do that, we’re going to hell. So at least in that way, we have some agency in our salvation.
MG: Faith alone…
HH: Hold that thought. Hold that though. The music means I’ve got to take the break.
— – – —
HH: I don’t want to break too much from what we were talking about, because it occurs to me that Dr. Arnn has raised something I’ve never actually thought of remotely before, that the doctrine of Luther is in fact a sort of prime directive indulgence. It’s sort of the uber indulgence. And I know I’m going to get in…
HH: I know I’m going to get in trouble for saying that, but I find that to be a fascinating, you do have agency in it. So what’s the difference, Matthew?
MG: Well, Luther would also say that one can only, if you will, perform this act of faith, this flinging yourself on the mercy of Christ, if you are enabled by the grace of God. Famously, in his debate with Erasmus, he talks about man’s will being bound, being enslaved, and that only God’s grace can liberate it. So even the act of faith is only possible by the grace of God, and in that way, he’s actually not saying anything all that radical. Someone like Thomas Aquinas and certainly Augustine would say it’s only the grace of God that can make you, can help you do a supernatural act of faith in the first place as well.
LA: Yeah, yeah. See, and that’s why I make the point about fine shades, because I don’t actually know any serious medieval or Renaissance thinker, and I don’t know as much about them as Matthew does, who doesn’t agree with that, right? I mean, in other words, the decisive things are done by God. Everybody thinks that. I think the Catholic Church at this time thinks that. And I know they think it today, because John Paul had doctrines about that, John Paul II. So the question is how much different was the thing he was saying? There’s an argument about that.
MG: That’s right. We really like to oversimplify things by saying there’s this medieval monolithic Church where everyone believed the same thing. And I think your listeners have realized how untrue that is. You know, all the debates in the Middle Ages, all the rich controversies over humanism, over the different theological perspectives, over poetry, all of these things were characteristics of a rich period which we think of as the Middle Ages, which comes before the Reformation. And then we’ve really looked to oversimplify the Reformation itself. We say, you know, for Luther, it’s faith alone. For the Catholic Church, it’s faith in works. For Luther, it’s grace alone. For the Catholic Church, it’s grace plus freewill in cooperation with God’s grace. But a lot of these things are these fine distinctions that are really easy to miss. What I think is really one of the clearest differences, and this will probably generate some controversy among your listeners is the different views of human sinfulness, of original sin in particular, the sin that we inherited from Adam. For Luther, even after baptism, even after one is a Christian, one is brought into communion with God, one still retains original sin. There’s still that, in itself, there’s something in you that’s damnable, that’s worthy of God’s condemnation. And the Catholic Church by that time, certainly, was very clear that at baptism, at salvation, original sin is washed away. It’s removed. And so for Luther, this is very important, because even when you’re a Christian, you are, the famous expression, Simul Justus et Peccator, at the same time, righteous in Christ and a sinner in yourself. And so you could never really rest, or you could never say well, this is a pretty good work, this is relatively pleasing to God. For Luther, really, everything, even as a Christian, is tainted by original sin, which makes the whole doctrine of meriting Heaven, of doing these works worthy of eternal life, that makes all of that really deeply, deeply problematic, which is why he rejects it. And for him, it’s not all about just emphasizing human sinfulness, but about making it so clear that it is really in a very profound sense Christ alone, that you are sinful, and you are flinging yourself, I keep on using that word, because I think it’s so critical for understanding Luther, flinging yourself on the mercy of God as it is revealed in Christ Jesus.
HH: I also want to point out that they’re, the disagreements that he has, are not limited to this. And for someone who is wandering in off the street and have never even thought about Lutheran Church versus Catholic Church, he wrote, and I prepared for this by pulling to the Christian nobility of the German nation, you sent me on Christian Liberty. But in this letter to the Christian nobility of German nation, he says to the rulers around him, you’ve got to take on the idea that there’s a spiritual power that’s greater than the temporal power. You’ve got to tackle the Pope’s authority to interpret Scripture only, and especially his authority to call a council. You’ve just got to rebel. So he’s got lots of, he’s got an agenda that’s much bigger than what we’ve been talking about. Am I…
MG: I think that’s a really important point, and this goes to what I think is so critical about the indulgences controversy, because when Luther puts forth the 95 Theses, at the end, he says he’s defending the Pope. He thinks Tetzel, this Dominican preacher, was by teaching something so false when he was saying I’m raising money, if you will, for this church in St. Peter’s, that it was making the Pope look bad, from Luther’s perspective. And Luther saw himself as defending the Pope’s honor. And when the Pope didn’t really receive the 95 Theses all that warmly, Luther was deeply disturbed by this. He thought how is it possible that what I’m teaching, which is so clear and such a clear expression of especially what St. Paul says in Scripture, is not being received by the powers that be? And in that way, I still think it’s correct to think that for Luther, it’s really the Gospel, of justification by faith alone, that’s central, and then his rejection of the Divine institution of the papacy, his rejection of some of the other Sacraments, all these other things really do follow from that. The fact that the Pope again would not receive the Gospel as articulated by Luther was part of the reason, part of the reason, mind you, that Luther ended up rejecting that institution. In fact, just as to clarify that point, even as late as the mid-1530s in his great work, his Magisterial Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians, Luther says something perhaps a bit hyperbolically, which is you know, that he would kiss the Pope’s feet and put him on his shoulders if the Pope would affirm the doctrine of justification by faith alone.
HH: Wow. When we come back for our last segment this hour, I’m going to ask, though, about Leo X, who’s got, every dance has two partners, and Leo was the other partner to the Reformation’s beginning.
— – – –
HH: As we go into that, Professor Gaetano, Leo X, he’s kind of like Larry Arnn. He doesn’t really react immediately, and then he tries to kill you. And so I’m just curious, would you describe how Leo X did react? You just said in the last segment, Luther got exercised, because he didn’t do anything. And Leo looks to me to be a busy man who’s dealing with one theologian, and he does so rather diplomatically at the beginning.
MG: Yeah, Leo X, he is really caught up in affairs of his own concern that a northern German Augustinian friar, that was not the center of his thoughts. When he first heard about Luther, he was disturbed by some of the things that he had to say, and especially, his, Leo X’s personal theologians were even more disturbed by some of the things that he had to say. But Leo really saw a lot of this as just a typical Medieval theological debate between some Augustinians and some Dominicans, these friars who were always fighting about theological nuances. And Leo at this time had bigger fish to fry. As I said, he’s involved in these building projects in Rome. He is afraid about this Charles V figure. Well, he’s not Charles V, yet. Charles, who is the grandson of Ferdinand and Isabella, who would, if he became the Holy Roman Emperor, which he did in fact become so, would not only be the Holy Roman Emperor in Gemany, but also control the Iberian Peninsula and this kind of still somewhat mysterious new world. And Leo was really concerned that someone with that amount of land and that amount of power would inherit the imperial crown, and he really didn’t want this whole Luther fiasco to get in the way.
HH: So when we come back, because we’ve got a minute, I’m going to ask Dr. Arnn, because it seems to me, Hillsdale has this graduate school of statesmanship, correct?
LA: We do.
HH: That it would be the ultimate, one of the greatest abilities of a statesman to recognize revolution in the offing before it actually gets kindled up. And when we come back to start the second hour, I want to ask you if that’s not true, and how do you do that, because obviously, Leo X judged wrong in that succession worry that he had. He put that ahead of his Luther worry, and he ended up missing the whole deal.
— – – —
HH: Where we left off, Dr. Arnn and Professor Gaetano, was Leo X. And I’m wondering if there’s a personality there like George III, or many others, who did not see revolution coming. What is it about, obviously, we don’t know which revolutions were avoided by statesman-like action, or maybe we do if you look at Washington. But what’s the error that is made there in misjudging combustibility, Larry Arnn?
LA: Well, it is just like George III, right? George III wrote the letter in 1776 that kept Washington’s army together. And it was a letter intended to recruit the army to his cause. His misunderstanding was so great of what was thought over here, and you know, this revolution that Luther sparked went way beyond what Luther anticipated, too, as Matthew said at the beginning, right? In other words, it touched a nerve. And I don’t think either Luther or Pope Leo understood how much it would do that.
HH: And Matthew Gaetano, when Luther got going like a snowball going down the hill, he seems to gather force and fury. I mean, that is the one thing, I’ve been around Luther a little bit, not much. If you go to parochial schools, you don’t hear much about him at all, and then you have to kind of catch up later. And he’s marvelously entertaining, and I want to talk about the problems with Luther, and the anti-Semitism, and the German side of it as well. But he does gather great force and fury as he rolls along.
MG: He’s a fiery figure, and I think that aspect where you do have this self-image that he has of himself as a prophet of the last days, fighting the Devil, fighting antichrist, you know, that’s a pretty, very deeply troubling sense of one’s self where you, it’s hard to compromise with the Devil. And from the outside, people saw him, as I said before, as Hercules. But that’s not how he saw himself. And you could just see how badly handled all of this was, because everyone’s looking for something different. I mean, the best story about Leo X is when Exsurge Domine, which is the document that promises the excommunication of Luther if he doesn’t recant, which comes out in June, 1520, that when this is being put together, we have this son of Lorenzo de’ Medici, Leo X, hunting wild boar. So he doesn’t have his, he’s not as focused on this figure, this theologian who ends up being a giant figure. I mean, it’s hard to exaggerate not only the significance of this man, but even in his own life how prolific he was. The Weimar edition of Luther’s writings, I mean, this is the energy of this man, you know, fill 121 volumes, 80,000 pages that this man wrote. He translated the New Testament in a matter of weeks. I mean, this is one of these really kind of world historical energetic figures who sees himself as a prophet, other people see him as Hercules It’s really hard to capture a man like Martin Luther. He’s just a really incredibly dynamic figure.
HH: He also sets loose in the world, though, the idea that you can be your judge. And you just made me think of John Brown. And perhaps two years ago, I read a new biography of John Brown, and I never much paid much attention to him. But he viewed himself as a prophet, and he viewed himself as a radical, and he was empowering of himself by virtue of his own resort to Scripture, which is what Luther let loose in the world, right? Nobody gets to check you. You get to read the Bible and decide if you are a prophet or a king or an emancipator.
MG: And when you look at the image of Martin Luther in the Enlightenment, in the 19th and 20th Centuries, that’s absolutely correct, that people say well, if Luther could do it, we can extend his reformation further in not only transforming the Church, but transforming the world. And Luther almost immediately has to tell these peasants who revolt right away that they have completely misunderstood what he’s trying to do, that again, for Luther himself, he says I am a trained theologian. I am a professor of theology. I am a priest of the Church. And that gives me a kind of authority to interpret Scripture, that not every peasant and bourgeois Joe has.
HH: Too late. Too late. And I’ve got to ask Dr. Arnn, since you are the Lincoln scholar, what did Lincoln think of John Brown?
LA: Too radical. You know, Lincoln, John Brown helped provoke the war, and Lincoln tried very hard to prevent it. And he thought that John Brown was guilty, such people were guilty of forgetting that we have to live under the law. And if we don’t have the law, we’re done. And so this idea that I’m a prophet, and I can go and use violence on my own initiative, and that’s not what Luther proposed at all. So yeah, and you know, so I have to tell an anecdote about Luther. It’s questionable, because I can’t find the letter, but I’ll look it up and I’ll apologize on the air if it doesn’t exist. But years ago, Doug Jeffrey, my colleague, who’s a Lutheran, and also, it’s important to understand has an advanced degree in beer making…
HH: Of course, he’s a Lutheran, then.
LA: …sent me a copy of a letter that Luther wrote from the Diet Of Worms, which has got to be the greatest named conference in human history. And the letter says, and paraphrased, and I haven’t read it for years, I confess. I could have spent all my days over there devastating you with my arguments, but I preferred to stay over here and drink beer and let the Lord do it, which is a kind of commentary on faith and works.
HH: All right, now this brings me, I got so out of joint here at the beginning, we haven’t give our poor Pittsburgh Steelers fans the least idea of the life of Luther. And we don’t, we’re talking about this man, and they drive by churches named for him. I think the only denomination out there that is that way, correct? And there have been movies made about him, and there’s this tremendous controversy about him. Why don’t you, Professor Gaetano, sort of set up who he is, where he came from, and how he ended up setting the world on fire.
MG: He certainly had humble beginnings. 1483, Luther is born in a town, Eisleben. His father’s kind of a middle class figure involved in coal mining. And Luther was given, because of his middle class background, a decent education, and was training to become a lawyer, which was the next step up the ladder from his father’s point of view. And when he was coming home from finishing up part of his degree at Erfurt, which is one of the early German universities, he is afraid of being struck by lightning, and says to St. Anne, who’s the traditional mother of Mary, that he would become a monk if he was saved from this storm, and he was saved from the storm, and joined this very radical, and when I say radical, I mean very observant, very reformed Augustinian friary.
HH: And what are the Augustinians known for? Are they, obviously, they’re devoted to the work of Augustine, but what’s their rule?
MG: In fact, the Augustinians come together, they’re actually called the Augustinian hermits, because early on, in the 13th Century, early 13th Century, there are all of these hermits who were causing certain problems for the Church, because the Church wanted some organization, some go-to people if there’s any problems. And so gather together all of these hermits together and other monks, and put them under the Augustinian rule, which is a pretty standard rule. Even the Dominicans, the more famous order, had a modified Augustinian rule. And that was really the only reason they were called Augustinians until eventually they really did become devoted to the doctor of grace, St. Augustine, in part because you know, I’m oversimplifying slightly that the Franciscans had Francis and Bonaventure, and eventually Scotus…
HH: Oh, no kidding? They didn’t start out to be Augustinians? They just ended up there?
MG: That’s absolutely right. In the beginning, it was the rule. The rule started it, and then eventually, they became deeply devoted to the works of St. Augustine, as all medieval theologians were, but they had a special, special devotion to his writings. And by the time Luther is joining up, that was well established.
HH: Now Dr. Arnn, before we go to break, when I say Luther, do you think Aristotelian? Or do you think anti-Aristotelian?
LA: Anti, but Matthew tells me that there’s more than one side of that story.
HH: Well, because in my reading, I got both sides, and so I thought I would ask you. So you don’t, so Dr. Arnn has no opinion on that question?
LA: No, I think it’s ambivalent.
— – – – –
HH: When we went to break, Dr. Arnn, I had asked you about Aristotle, and you said Matthew has a different view on this. And so I bring it up only because if folks have been dutifully listening to the Hillsdale Dialogues week after week, they will have known that Aquinas was the great reintroducer of Aristotle, and obviously, a few hundred years later comes Luther. And he’s going to know what Aquinas, the great doctor, has written and said, and he’s going to have to have an opinion on him, won’t he, Matthew Gaetano?
MG: Absolutely, and Luther after he joins the Augustinians is recognized for his gifts as a student, and is moved very quickly through his theology training. He receives his degree quite early in his life, much earlier than typical theologians of his time because of his brilliance as a theologian. And if you’re training to be a theologian in the 15-teens, you’re reading Aristotle. And a part of what made Luther famous before the 95 Theses and so on and so forth was he was seen to be another university reformer along the lines of an Erasmus. Wittenberg was a young university. It was only founded in 1502. It’s under 20 years old by the time Luther’s teaching.
HH: Oh, I didn’t know that.
MG: It’s a very new university. And Luther really is trying to put in more Latin literature along the humanist lines. And he doesn’t want excessive commentaries and logic chopping that he saw as typical of the scholastics. And then in 1520, so just around the time when he’s being condemned, he does say the universities need to be reformed by the German nobility. They need to get rid of Aristotle’s Physics and Metaphysics. This is a waste of time. But you know, even then, even in one of his most radical points, he says we really need to preserve Aristotle’s Ethics, excuse me, not Aristotle’s Ethics, Aristotle’s Logic and Aristotle’s Poetics and his Rhetoric, that those are really valuable writings. What he was really disturbed by was the way in which Christian theologians looked to Aristotle’s Ethics, which is all about how one can, through virtue, secure happiness. And Luther, because of his profound sense of human sinfulness, thought why are we concerning ourselves with what some pagan pig, which he is said to have written about Aristotle at one time, what is a pagan pig have to know about happiness when we know what happiness really is, which is the Heaven that is secured by Christ through His grace. And so it was really the Ethics that disturbed him.
HH: Now I have to, I am astonished at the presumption. I know, I’ve known a lot of PhD’s, so I’ve known some people to be presumptuous. But I also know a lot of humble PhD’s. He takes on the Pope, he takes on Aristotle…
HH: He instructs the German nobility?
LA: If you want to criticize Luther, first of all, the Ethics is the place where Aristotle most definitely speaks of the immortality of the soul. He says in the Ethics that we care about our children and our grandchildren, and maybe our great-grandchildren intensely after death, maybe not others so much. And this does, by the way, seem to me, the things he wrote about the Ethics, they seem to me arrogant. He says that, I didn’t know this until I read Matthew’s thing, this point, but he says that he understands Aristotle better than Aquinas did. Wowie. But then he, in my opinion, he doesn’t. Aristotle’s account of the human being begins by what you can see. And here’s what you can see, he says. You can see that we’re animals, and that we die and live like animals, live and die like animals, and you can see that we are possessed of an immortal soul capable of grasping the eternal. And so why would such a soul be in such a body? He understands the two to be an integrity, and then he says since nature makes nothing in vain, it’s hard to think that the soul would be given these capacities and then perish as in a non-rational being. So Aristotle’s account of all that, in my opinion, is beautiful and power and innovative, but then, second, it has been picked up by what I regard as the greatest Christian writers on this point, and reconciled, because obviously, there’s a puzzlement in the middle of Aristotle. He’s not asserting he knows everything. And so Thomas Aquinas’ treatment of all that is these things that Aristotle says are true and perfect knowledge of such things, to which Aristotle does not pretend would only come from the knowledge that’s give us by God. And that seems to me like, first of all, a truer, and second of all, a more defensible position than Luther’s is. But Matthew knows more about this than I do, and he writes that Luther’s friend, Melanchthon, was a great Aristotelian. And Luther did something more than abide that. And maybe you could speak to that, Matthew.
MG: That’s right. Philipp Melanchthon was called the Preceptor Germaniae in the decades after his death. Philipp Melanchthon was the young man, and preceptor Germaniae, he’s the teacher of Germany, that he was seen to be one of the great educators of his time. And Luther was present at the University of Wittenberg while Melanchthon was commenting upon and using many of the texts of Aristotle in the classroom. And so you know, to see Luther in this early moment, who yes, does say Luther is a rascally heathen, that God sent Aristotle as a plague upon on us Christians for our sins, but in the decades after this kind of critical early moment, Luther was willing, and he saw just at Luther, if you want to give students in 1530 a good education, they’re going to need to read a lot of Aristotle. And I think Melanchthon certainly understood that, evidenced by how much he commented upon and lectured on Aristotle. But I think Luther certainly had to have not been all that opposed to it if, as the great figure in Wittenberg, he saw this happen, he let it happen, and he remained a great, he was deeply, he almost reverenced Melanchthon, saying he wrote one of the best books that’s ever been written, which is Melanchthon’s great theological treatise, the Loci Communes.
HH: Well, this is going to provoke a lot of email from my Lutheran friends, but it seems to me Thomas Aquinas ended his life, as people who listened to that Dialogue will know, saying it’s all straw, and he stopped writing, and that Luther ends his life getting bigger and bigger in his pronouncements, and that I am suspicious of that, Matthew Gaetano, that it seems to me more knowledge would make you more humble. But what is it that drives Luther’s enormous confidence? We have a minute to the break.
MG: I think early on, it’s the sense that the Gospel, the good news revealed by God in Christ was under threat. And he thought he had to do whatever it took to salvage that from the hands of the antichrist. But I think over the course of time, he did see all these radicals, he did see those who were everyone around him were claiming this mantle, and really, at the end of his life, Luther ends in a remarkable way. I mean, he says, Lord, now let us thou, Thy servant, depart in peace. Amen. He said the traditional prayer, which many medieval Christians said when they were about to die. Into Your hand, I commit my spirit. You have redeemed me, o Lord, faithful God. And at the very end, he does affirm what he has preached, but in a real spirit of humility that is quite remarkable.
— – – – – –
HH: Okay, I have to deal with the anti-Semitism, and I have to do that because we’re in the shadow of it just this month. Three Jewish teenagers, one of whom was also an American citizen captured and killed, the most recent explosion of violence that rages on. And it’s because of Jew hatred, Jew hatred which is you know, all around the state of Israel, and it’s deep in our history. And a lot of people, Matthew Gaetano, I’ll start with you on this, say Luther has a heavy hand in this, that he put it into the marrow of the German bone, and that it’s in his writings. Is it true? Is that charge justified?
MG: This is a very difficult question. I think, I mean, I think it’s important to recognize, and you know, I’m a great admirer of the Middle Ages and medieval Christendom, as well as some of these signal moments in the Reformation. But you know, that a certain, really sad attitude towards the Jewish people, as those who killed Christ, as theocides, you know, or deicides, I should say, those who killed God, right, in Christ, that that attitude is not new, certainly, with Luther. Now Luther was hot about a lot of things. And as much as I’ve been, you know, trying to show how he understood himself, from the outside, many did see him as arrogant, as filled with fury. Even Melanchthon, his great friend and student, at his funeral, or at Luther’s funeral oration, at his funeral, said, Melanchthon said that, you know, Luther had, was at times a little bit too hot-headed. So even with his corpse lying in the tomb, or lying in the coffin, Melanchthon’s willing to say something like that. So he said things very forcefully, and about the Jews, he did say some really terrible things. But this is not completely new. But we also have to distinguish this from the modern…
HH: Oh, and the Catholic Church is as guilty of anti-Semitism as the Lutheran Church as well, and has publicly repented of it. And it’s a modern blessing that we know the disease, and can identify it and cure it.
MG: I think that’s right.
HH: But nevertheless, I didn’t want to pass over it, because my Jewish friends are always quick to tell me this…
MG: That’s right.
HH: …that Luther put this into the German spirit. And I don’t know if it’s fair or not, and I’m not a scholar, and I really haven’t spent much time. But Larry Arnn, I’m sure you’ve heard it before. But it’s something that I think is almost obligatory to raise at least for the purposes of putting on the table and noting.
LA: Yeah, you know, Christianity, so here’s my little opinion, Christianity changed the way human beings relate to their government as well as the way they relate to God. And there was a temptation in it to use the old way. And the old way was God was the source of the law in each city. And so this anti-Semitism thing, it’s partly that we have to build a polity in which everyone agrees and it faithful, and is compelled, because their souls and their salvation depends on it. And so one can see why the Jews would be a problem if you think that way. And the richer strain, and the true strain of Christianity, in my opinion, was discovered by the founders of America, especially prominently, and that was Jesus said My kingdom is not of this world, and no man comes to God except through faith, a Lutheran teaching, right? And so it doesn’t do any good to castigate the people who don’t believe in Christ. He Himself prevented violence against the very people who arrested him. And so it looks to me like that’s wrong, and you could read Luther’s life, because it decentralized authority in the Church as being a step away from that. But the thing about the Jews in him is not good.
HH: Go ahead, a minute to the break, Matthew.
MG: And I think just one of the reasons that Luther was particularly angry at the Jews along with the Pope and many others was that he really believed that when he proclaimed this true Gospel in a way that he thought it was obscured in the centuries before, that even the Jews would sort of flock to this rearticulation of the Gospel, again in the last days, as I’ve been saying, and when he didn’t see that happen, he was deeply disappointed.
HH: When we come back from break, we’ll spend out last segment talking about how you might go best about approaching Luther if you are not yourself steeped in Lutheran teaching, whether it’s table talk or whether it’s the small catechism, or whatever it is, I’ll ask Matthew Gaetano and Dr. Larry Arnn how one would tackle Luther if he wanted to go deeper, or perhaps a best biography of him, even.
— – – – –
HH: At the college less than a month ago, Eric Metaxas was your commencement speaker, and he probably was, because he wrote a very important book a couple of years back titled simply Bonhoeffer: A Life, Bonhoeffer himself a Lutheran pastor who was all that was great about Luther and Lutheranism. And so I thought I’d ask you, Matthew Gaetano, how would someone go about accessing Luther if they’re not Lutheran. You sent me On Christian Liberty to read, and to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, I think is important. The Small Catechism is sort of his concise Lutheranism. But how would you encourage them to understand him?
MG: I think you’ve covered a lot of the great treatises. The three great treatises of 1520, On Christian Liberty, To The German Nobility, and then the Babylonian Captivity of the Church. But you know, this is hard material, and except for Christian Liberty, it’s very polemical. I think you really see Luther in his greatness, though this is difficult material, in his commentary of Galatians, written in 1535. It’s really a brilliant, brilliant work, and you see Luther’s theology on display all the time. It’s polemical at times, because it’s Martin Luther. But you really see him engaging with the Word of God, which was so, Scripture alone, which was so important to Martin Luther. I would also recommend the biography of Luther by a man named Heiko Oberman.
HH: Oh, that’s easy to spell.
MG: Right. Oberman. And it’s Luther: Man Between God And The Devil.
MG: And it’s a really remarkable work. It’s not a just year by year, month by month kind of account. It really makes a case for this, a lot of what I have been saying. Luther, who understands himself not as, you know, building some new, modern world, but as the prophet of the last days.
HH: The title again?
MG: Luther: Man Between God And The Devil.
HH: Okay, and Oberman, I can remember that. So tell me, Larry Arnn, why do you think Eric Metaxas’ Bonhoeffer resonated so well? It’s, yes, he’s a martyr. He’s a martyr of the Nazis. He’s a Lutheran. But I mean, it’s 70 years ago. Why does this become and remain a bestseller, the author of whom is invited to a place like Hillsdale to address your graduates on an important day?
LA: Well, Eric’s account of why it’s so important is he prayed a lot about it. But yeah, Bonhoeffer is an inspiring story. And he, you know, if you read it, here’s what you’ll learn. Here’s a young man who comes within inches of surviving the Nazis having lived for 15 years under imminent threat of destruction from them. And he’s got a beautiful woman, and he’s going to marry her, and at the last minute, two weeks before the war was over, the Gestapo catches him and hangs him. And every account we have of his comportment throughout this time, especially once he was arrested, is that he was serene and faithful. And it’s just hard to read about anybody so clear-headed and so self-possessed and so obviously moved by faith in all he did.
HH: And I would ask Matthew, and so very deeply Lutheran, right, that whatever it is that Bonhoeffer had, he got because of Luther.
MG: That’s right.
HH: Well, Jesus, of course, but Luther…
LA: Of course.
MG: That’s right, and a lot of this is rooted in the teachings of Jesus and St. Paul. But you know, Luther towards his dying day really found this one verse of Scripture deeply meaningful to him. If God be for us, who can be against us? And how is God for us but in God humbling Himself in the manger. He loved Christmas at his mother’s breast and on the cross. So this is what Luther’s all about, and you see this in Kierkegaard, and you see this in Bonhoeffer, that sense of God for us, for me. And you know, Bonhoeffer’s a remarkable guy, and just one quick point on that is that he took a tour of America, and really brought this Lutheran understanding of Christianity as part of a real critique of what he saw in American Christianity. He called American Christianity Protestantism without the Reformation, that it was all about getting rid of superstition, and purifying worship and so on, but it didn’t have, in Bonhoeffer’s view, American Christianity didn’t have a strong enough sense of the Church, of the Church as a community of the faithful, and of the way in which it’s all about fundamentally, you know, in his view, the proclamation of the Gospel, and this flinging yourself on the mercy of Christ, and for him as a Lutheran, this is so important to Luther, in the Sacraments, right, in the real presence of Christ in communion. So all of this, he saw as a way in which Luther, and a Lutheran way of conceiving Christianity, could enrich American Christianity in general.
HH: Now I’m curious if you saw in Benedict XVI, the retired pope, and almost admission, and a German, as German as German could be, an admission that hey, Lutherans, the Church got it. It absorbed much of what Luther had to say, let’s come gather around now and go back to back as Christians, because I always thought of him as almost Lutheran when he would write about Paul and things like that as opposed to being like John Paul, the great, much more deeply Roman.
MG: Yeah, I really think that there’s a way in which the Counterreformation, and we can’t make that monolithic, either, but there are ways in which Roman Catholics put up the bastions, and became defensive, and really emphasized the very points where Catholics and Protestants disagreed rather than realizing that you know, if you’re a Christian, you of course affirm what St. Paul says, that we are justified by faith apart from works, and that has to mean something. And I think Benedict XVI and others in this ecumenical movement, which sometimes kind of goes off the rails, but the idea that there are some really significant problems in this world, and Christians have a great deal in common, and so much in the 16th Century, all of this apocalypticism, war, conflict, mistrust, that we really need to examine the issues in a much more careful way, and just realize that all of the things, in all of the ways in which, the real significant disagreements were surrounded by all sorts of misunderstandings and caricatures of one’s opponent’s position.
HH: And Dr. Arnn, 30 seconds, you mentioned earlier C.S. Lewis. He was really the great bridge between all of this, with his Mere Christianity work.
LA: Yeah, and I think that’s, my position on most of these questions is dominated by that kind of thinking. I think I grew up in a Protestant church in the South. I go to a liturgical church today. It looks to me like there’s Christianity in both of them.
HH: Larry Arnn, and so much Matthew Gaetano, thank you to both of you, Hillsdale Dialogues at www.hughforhillsdale.com. Don’t miss next week.
End of interview.