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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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7 occurrences of Dictionary_of_the_History_of_Ideas
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2. The Reformation in Germany. The Reformation
is to be regarded as essentially a religious movement
and all our history becomes distorted unless we see
it as arising primarily out of the spiritual needs and
aspirations of earnest men. Social conditions might
place certain sections of the population in a favorable
position for hearing propaganda or for welcoming
it—rather in the way that townsmen may be more
ready than peasants to open their minds to a new
thing—and such factors might have an effect on the
social or geographical distribution of a new religious
system. The current forms and the current needs of
society might affect that fringe of ethical ideas and
practical precepts in which a new form of faith works
out some of its more mundane implications.

In history, everything is so entangled with every-
thing else that for many students the political or eco-
nomic consequences of the Reformation might appear
more momentous than any other aspect of the move-
ment. But religion is the stone that is thrown into the
pool, the agency that starts all the ripples. In the
Reformation itself we are dealing with people for
whom religion was not merely a matter of opinion or
speculation, leaving an opening for alternatives. They
were people who superstitiously feared the powers of
hell, and reckoned the afterlife as clear a vested interest
as anything in the world—people, also, who believed
that only one form of religion could be right, and
regarded it as a matter of eternal moment that God
should be served and propitiated in the proper way.

Martin Luther, while still a young man, and a mem-
ber of the Augustinian order which was to produce
so many supporters of the Reformation, became re-
markable through the intensity of his inner experience
and his exaggerated attempts to secure the salvation
of his soul by his own works and religious exercises.
In this whole endeavor he would seem to have over
looked certain aspects of theological teaching that had
not been lost in the Middle Ages, and he was brought
into the predicament of Saint Paul—powerless to
achieve the good that he so greatly wanted to achieve.
After a distressing time, the help of his own superior
and the study of the Epistle to the Romans brought
him further light, and he came to the view that man
is justified by faith alone, but that the Catholicism of
his time was preaching salvation by “works,” even by
religious exercises.

In reality historical Christianity had always excluded
as Pelagianism any idea that a man could save himself
by his own efforts; and Luther, though he had seized
on something that had been part of the Church's tradi-
tion—going back to certain aspects of Saint Augustine
and Saint Paul—went to the opposite extreme, insisting
on the corruptness of man and his inability to have
a part in his own salvation, so that he ran to predes-
tinarian ideas which were later systematized by Calvin,
and which gave the Reformation an antihumanist
aspect. The later Middle Ages had seen a concentration
on the problem of both freedom and the will in both
man and God; and it seems clear that unfortunate
consequences followed from too intent a consideration
of the power and sovereignty of God, if these were
regarded as separate from His love.

In a sense Luther's views sprang from the intensity
of his own spiritual experience and his feeling about
what had happened in his own case; and they answered
to what many people throughout the ages had felt to
be their own experience—the sense of being drawn
by a power greater than themselves, pulled into salva-
tion by forces which they tried in vain to resist. Luther
therefore had been open to the criticism that he in-
ferred too much of his theology from his personal

In Wittenberg he was one of those people who
promoted a local religious revival, and his immediate
superiors were encouraging him in his work, advancing
him to a professorship so that his influence would be
enlarged. He was a mountain of a man, capable of great
profundities and giant angers, but possessing a vein of
poetry, and, at times, the heart of a little child. But
he was liable to be intellectually erratic, and when in
1517 the abuses of indulgence-selling led him to offer
his ninety-five theses as a debating-challenge, he en-
larged the issue by his theological assertions and pro-
vided his enemies with a basis for attack. Instead of
calmly reasoning with him, they too set out to enlarge
the issue, driving him from one logical conclusion to
another and into positions that he had not anticipated.
And he—incited by the wave of feeling that he had
aroused in Germany as well as by his own mighty
passions—was glad to be provoked, moving forward


until he had denied the authority of popes and councils,
and denounced the condition of the whole Church.

Carefully measuring his power, he enlarged the
whole campaign in 1520, setting out to undermine the
sacramental system of the Church which contributed
to the power of priests. He called in the secular au-
thority to carry out the work of reform which the
Church seemed unable to achieve for itself. Against
the power of a vast organization that had long had
the governments of Europe behind it, he asserted what
he called “the liberty of a Christian man.” Soon he
was attacking the monastic system to which he had
once been devoted. And he convinced himself that the
pope was Anti-Christ.

He was helped by a certain religious dissatisfaction
and by the anger, particularly in Germany, against
ecclesiastical abuses that were associated with Italy.
He was enabled by the printing press, and by his own
prodigious energy, to conduct what was perhaps the
first really large-scale publicity campaign of the kind
that makes its appeal to general readers.

An enormous factor in the case was the weakness
in Germany of the Emperor Charles V, who was dis-
tracted by the problems of the many countries over
which he ruled, and by the princes of the separate
states in Germany who sought to aggrandize their
authority and were sometimes ready to see the advan-
tage of an alliance with Lutheranism. The Emperor
was to be held up still further by the advance of the
Turks, which made it necessary for him to postpone
the solution of his German problems. When the cause
of the Reformation came to be preached—in the cities
of South Germany for example—it found an eager
reception; and for a considerable time even regions
like Bavaria and Austria—regions that later became
renowned for their Catholicism—seemed to be moving
over to Protestantism.

In reality Luther seems to have been a man of con-
servative and perhaps authoritarian disposition. He had
been moved to action because he could not bear the
manner in which the Church was tolerating both prac-
tical abuses and misrepresentations of the faith. But
in the period of the great revolt he put forward certain
theses which were to be remembered as the great
Reformation principles, and were to have a broader
historical influence than even his theology. They as-
serted the right of the individual to interpret the
Scriptures; the priesthood of all believers; and the
“liberty of a Christian man.” When others took these
theses according to their obvious meaning but at the
same time came to conclusions that were different from
his, he made it plain that he could not tolerate their
individualism, and that indeed he had no use for rebels.
There was one interpretation of Scripture, and that
the true one; and only sheer perversity could induce
a man to read anything else into the text. Neither the
Roman Catholics nor the Zwinglians nor the Ana-
baptists were free to interpret the Scriptures for them-
selves. And when Luther came to the construction of
his own system, he showed himself in many respects
a conservative at heart. Clearly it had not been his
desire to divide the Church, but his theological
teaching—and his persistence in it after it had been
condemned—was almost bound to produce that result.
The general historian of Europe would have to say that
the most momentous consequences of the Lutheran
revolt were things of which Luther would have

Lutheranism itself remained essentially Teutonic,
and, outside Germany, it established itself at the time
only in Scandinavia. There was a moment when it
seemed likely to sweep over Germany, a politico-
religious unheaval of the kind that can create a nation.
Once it failed to carry the whole country however,
it was bound to have the opposite effect, creating a
new, confessional division, in some respects more bitter
than any of the others, more difficult to overcome. It
resulted in one important contribution to the German
nation, however—Luther's translation of the Bible into
a language which was to prevail over local dialects
and to have a unifying effect. But, though Luther, when
he called for the aid of princes, thought of them as
servants of the Church, bound by duty to serve the
lofty cause, he produced a situation in which princes
had the power to choose between competing systems
and so acquired great authority in religious matters.
His pessimistic ideas about man and the world may
have had the effect of diminishing the role and the
influence of religion in the political realm, making
Lutheranism too uncritical an ally of monarchy.

In the period immediately after his condemnation
at the Diet of Worms (April 1521), Luther was in
hiding at the Wartburg castle, and during his absence
more radical developments began to take place. In
Wittenberg itself, Andrew Karlstadt (or Carlstadt)
promoted a further movement against the Mass and,
on the strength of the Old Testament attacked images
and called for a stricter sabbatarianism, so that signs
of the later Puritanism were already visible. This, in
March 1522, provoked Luther's return to Wittenberg,
for he did not give the same authority to Old Testament
law, and, in regard to the things that the populace
loved, he deprecated a destructive policy conducted
without sufficient previous explanation. In the mean-
time the reform movement had been establishing itself
in towns where the social conflict had made the situa-
tion almost revolutionary; and by the spring of 1521
Thomas Müntzer had combined the religious cause


with civic revolt in the town of Zwickau. Before the
end of the year he had proclaimed in an apocalyptic
manner the downfall of the Church; he insisted that
a scriptural religion was not enough since the voice
of God spoke directly within the believer, and he
threatened the opposition with punishment at the
hands of the Turk. Also some of the other “prophets”
of Zwickau moved in 1522 to Wittenberg, where they
produced trouble for the Lutherans. Soon the objec-
tions to infant baptism became significant.

Forms of apocalypticism and mysticism had made
their appearance in various regions in the later Middle
Ages, and in Germany not only the peasantry but the
lower classes in the towns provided promising soil for
these movements. Now, as so often in history, religious
radicalism could quickly lead to political extremism
and to the feeling that the time had come for the
destruction of the godless. Thomas Müntzer came to
be connected with the Peasants' Revolt in 1525, and,
when speaking to the rebels about the enemy, could
say: “They will beg you, will whine and cry like chil-
dren. But you are to have no mercy, as God com-
manded through Moses.” Yet he is deeply moving when
he writes of his spiritual experience and the voice of
God in the believer: “Scripture cannot make men live,
as does the living Word which an empty soul hears.”
The sects for which Luther so unwillingly opened the
way did not know how to apply the brake, and when
they captured Münster in 1534 they established polyg-
amy, while in Moravia they experimented in commu-
nism. It was they who carried the seeds that were to
be so important to the far future—the insistence that
God regarded men as equal, that Christ had made them
free and that there was an Inner Light which men had
to obey. The twentieth century has shown that even
the apocalypticism can be deeply ingrained in man and
admits of being secularized. It goes back to biblical
times, but (at least when the pattern has once been
established) it can exist without a supernatural religion.