Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Random Reformation Thoughts

Luther posted his 95 theses in the year 1517, but his views weren't completely finalized on many topics. The theses of 1517 were actually rather mild toward the papacy. By 1532, Luther had crystallized his more mature views, which were different than those in the 95 theses. The theses marked the beginning of Luther's critique of ecclesiastical practices, but only a beginning. Luther intended his 95 theses more as a starting point for discussions, and not as a statement of his views. His hope was to inspire an academic discussion among the university's professors and students; he got that, and much more! Luther was surprised by the explosive reaction to his theses.

The rise of "humanism" (not to be confused with "secular humanism") was instrumental in the Reformation. The notion was that logical, rational investigation of the texts was the path to objective truth. This lead to research in the original languages of the texts, Hebrew and Greek. Human beings, as rational and independent creatures, could each examine these texts, and discover for himself or herself the truth. Scientific reflection upon the nature of language dictated that it was better to read the languages in the original than in a translation, thus the Latin translation was regarded as "inferior" to the original Hebrew text. Yet at the same time, the desire to allow each person to independently discover the truth drove the Reformers to offer translations, not in Latin, but in the common languages of the people (German, English, etc.). Translations were available before the Reformation, notably the Gothic language edition of the fourth century, and Wycliffe's English translation of 1382. But the Reformation popularized such translations.

Between the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, both Roman Catholicism and Lutheranism experienced a type of "return to the source". The task was to strip away fifteen centuries of mere tradition, and see what the texts actually said. The institutions and practices of either group may be judged as good, bad, or otherwise, but each had to justify itself with reference to a Mediterranean Jewish peasant who preached 1500 years earlier.

The popularizing of the translations meant that people had to confront difficult passages in the text. The particular statement that "not one person is righteous - all have sinned" caused consternation. Luther's Reformation argument asserted that human failure dictated that entry into the afterlife was a divine gift - an unearned ticket into paradise. The Roman Catholic side countered that a person would have to work very hard to earn admission into heaven. The debate continues to this day.

Because humanism and the Reformation pointed the individual toward the text, and asked the individual to examine and discover for himself or herself, a new sense of "the force of intellectual conviction" arose. Luther stated his views, not because these views were handed down by his parents and grandparents, but because he had studied the texts and the languages himself. Luther claimed that his views were dictated by logic: no other conclusion could logically be drawn from the evidence in the text, he said. This process of analyzing evidence until one is "convinced" of an answer is the foundation of scientific revolution. "Intellectual conviction" was, in the eyes of the humanists, not a choice, but the inescapable result of study. One does not choose to believe that the earth is a sphere: one is presented with so much evidence that one can't believe otherwise.

After Luther's death, the German principalities negotiated a religious tolerance treaty in 1555, which continued for centuries, broken only by the Thirty Years War (1618 - 1648). This allowed Lutherans and Roman Catholics (and later Calvinists and Zwinglians) to live together without armed conflict. A by-product of this was also more tolerance shown toward the Jews. In the years after 1555, Jews migrated to Germany from France, Italy, Spain, England, Poland, and Russia. It is an irony of history that between 1555 and 1938, the safest place in Europe for a Jew to be was Germany. What made the Holocaust such a monstrosity was that many of the Jews who were murdered by the Nazis were the descendants of Jews who had moved to Germany to escape persecution in England and France. The Reformation and the treaty of 1555 paved the way for tolerance in the following centuries.

Some historians include a debate called "the Averroist dispute" in the history of the Reformation; this debate, triggered by an Arabic philosopher whose books were studied among the European philosophers, was interesting, but not actually part of the Reformation. The Averroist dispute can be summarized as a dispute about whether God was simply a "force" or whether God had a "personality" (i.e., emotions, desires, plans, etc.). The Averroist dispute was not directly involved in the Reformation, but was a symptom of a growing engagement of humanist reflection on theological issues.