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Luther and Liberalism

Numerous historical accounts present Martin Luther as the starting point for the rise of Western liberalism. In the most recent issue of the Concordia Theological Quarterly, historian Korey D. Maas writes:

Whatever our ultimate assessment of liberalism, however, the fact remains that from the eighteenth century into the twenty-first, some of the most dominant narratives of both its proponents and its opponents tend to begin with Luther.

While serving as a convenient dividing point—and however significant in other ways—I am unsure that Luther truly rates either as a positive or negative factor in the rise of liberalism.

Part of the problem, as Maas suggests, is too often assessment of the role of Luther in the rise of liberalism tends to be little more than a backward projection of the writer’s attitude toward Luther and the writer’s attitude toward liberalism. Maas’s simple model accounts for a huge amount of variation across opinions. Almost everyone’s views fall into one of four possibilities:

  1. Luther was a proto-liberal and that’s a good thing.
  2. Luther was a proto-liberal and that’s a bad thing.
  3. Luther was not a proto-liberal and that’s a bad thing.
  4. Luther was not a proto-liberal and that’s a good thing.

While the first three have their various proponents, Maas is not aware of anyone publicly articulating the last view; there is, as yet, Maas writes, no Deneen-like debate among conservative Lutherans. (Why that might be is grist for another mill.)

Although Luther provides a convenient dividing point in telling the story of liberalism in Western history, the temptation exists to mistake a convenient focal point for causation—the old post hoc (ergo propter hoc) fallacy.

If anything, Luther was a catalyst rather than a cause. Both fans and detractors treat Luther as introducing something truly de novo. Truth is, Luther was very much a man of his times. His theology was, if anything, a reaction to long existing and deepening individualistic (and, hence, liberalizing) currents in the religion and society of his day. It was because of the individualistic turn in Medieval piety prior to Luther that his theology struck the nerve that it did while earlier proto-protestant movements did not. Even the groundwork for the unintended political consequences had been set prior to Luther in the Schism and “papal revolution” (Harold Berman’s phrase in Law and Revolution for Pope Gregory VII’s reforms) of the 12th century.

My point is not to deny that Luther is an important figure in the history of the West. The question is whether he is—for better or for worse—the causal figure of so much liberal historiography. Luther may be better understood as a man more reflecting his time than creating it. Or, perhaps, a figure who served as a catalyst rather than as a causal agent.

Several significant, already long-existing currents made Luther possible. These currents were both religious and social.

First and foremost there was a signal change in Christian piety and self-understanding in the centuries prior to Luther. Modern Christians and modern non-Christians largely miss the signal aspect of this change. We miss it because we think as modern Christians that this was always true of Christianity.

A signal turn in the history of Western Christianity occurred when the central question of the tradition became, “Will I go to heaven or hell when I die?”

If as a reader you just asked yourself, “What else would Christianity be about?” That question shows the depth of this change, the displacement of Christian (and Hebraic) categories with Platonic categories. Moderns—whether believers or nonbelievers—can scarcely imagine what Christianity is supposed to be about if it’s not about that.

Fully tracing the older answer would take us too far afield. In brief: It’s not as though heaven and hell are unknown before this radically individualizing pivot in Christian piety. Obviously. But the accent of the older view was on the start of a new creation in the midst of the old, with God breaking into a fallen world in and through his Son. In more abstract theological terms, the story of Jesus is the story of an inaugurated, but not overrealized eschatology. The focus was on the start of a new humanity in the here and the now. To be sure, a new humanity that extends into the Age to Come, and would be fully realized only then. But the focus was on union with Christ, both in the vertical sense—with the Second Person of the Godhead—but also in the horizonal sense, of union with one another in the “communion of the saints.”

As N.T. Wright explained in his Erasmus lecture a few weeks ago,

A biblical view of Easter has to struggle not just against skepticism—which was just as strong in the ancient world as in the modern—but against Christian misunderstandings going back in western theology to the Middle Ages, when “heaven and hell” became the big categories and the very idea of “new heaven and new earth” was forgotten, despite its prominence in the New Testament itself.

Similarly, this turn in Christian piety forms a central part of Charles Taylor’s argument for why Western society secularized in his book A Secular Age.

There was, Taylor writes, a turn in attention in Medieval piety from the transformation of the cosmos (Wright’s “new heaven and new earth”) to divine judgment after one’s death—with the focus on “one’s” death. This “anxious turning toward death,” Taylor writes, brought with it “a certain individuation . . . . The whole dimension of response to the call, judgment, transformation is one which appeals to individual responsibility.”

This shift occurs for a number of different reasons, according to Taylor. Dating from at least the Lateran council of 1215, “the whole effort of Latin Christendom [aimed] toward raising the level of religious devotion and practice of the whole society.” The tool to do so? Scaring people with the threat of hell after they die in order to increase the rigor of their piety during their lives. This was a tactic employed by both Church hierarchy and on the ground level with the preaching of mendicant friars and others, according to Taylor.

The shift wasn’t only religious, however. Concurrent with this was an increase in commercial life in Europe in which people left traditional social structures and lives in villages and joined the more socially-mobile life in the towns. Further, among this class of laity, as well as among parish-level clergy, “people were seeking a more personal religious life, wanted a new kind of prayer, wanted to read and mediate the Bible themselves.”

In the midst of these religious and social currents, Luther’s extreme angst about his own personal salvation is not idiosyncratic at all. Rather, as Taylor argues:

In propounding salvation by faith, Luther was touching on the [centrally distressing] issue of his day, the central concern and fear, which dominated so much lay piety, and drove the whole indulgences racket, the issue of judgment, damnation, salvation.

In this reading, Luther’s angst about personal salvation does not represent anything particularly new. It is only another moment in the working out of social and religious trends that started centuries before he nailed his theses to the door of the church at Wittenberg. Of course, Luther gave an individualizing answer in the Leipzig debate, that the Bible did not teach about the sale of indulgences to reduce time in purgatory. He could have done no other. But the existing answers were already individualistic answers, they just weren’t answers that satisfactorily responded to the individualistic angst of a broad swath of the Christian population by that time.

As I mentioned above, even the presumably unintended consequences of Luther’s actions might have continued, even catalyzed, fractionalizing outcomes but did not cause them. The East/West schism of 1054 and Pope Gregory VII’s “papal revolution” of the 11th Century created the paradigm for subsequent Western revolutions. The very form of the Church after this time provided the example for the modern nation-state ultimately reflected in the settlement of Westphalia.

We can still praise, or condemn, Luther for what he taught. The question, however, is Luther’s role in the development of liberalism. Whether Luther was a protoliberal or not—or whether he is somewhere in the muddled middle—the answer in fact makes little difference in the trajectory of Western liberalism. The roots of Western liberalism both precede, and go far deeper, than Martin Luther and his influence.

Reader Discussion

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on December 10, 2019 at 08:33:37 am

I comment as someone who has spent a lifetime (pretty much literally) encouraging people (fellow scholars and non-academics as well) to consider the period before the Reformation as something other than the "persecuting society" of R.I. Moore's imagination. When John Rawls in the Introduction to Political Liberalism (or perhaps Preface--I don't have the volume to hand presently) proclaimed medieval catholicism to be "authoritarian" and that the essence of liberalism--and liberalism alone--to be religious toleration, he perpetuated a self-serving liberal myth. Rogers alludes to the tip of a quite substantial iceberg that I urge him to explore under the waters for what will lead to, I believe, some rather surprising discoveries. But “Bravo!” on an excellent start.

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Cary J. Nederman
on December 10, 2019 at 10:48:42 am

Luther’s angst about personal salvation does not represent anything particularly new. It is only another moment in the working out of social and religious trends that started centuries before he nailed his theses to the door of the church at Wittenberg. Of course, Luther gave an individualizing answer in the Leipzig debate, that the Bible did not teach about the sale of indulgences to reduce time in purgatory. He could have done no other....

Persuasive post, cleverly written; thank you.

But while we're talking about exaggerations related to Luther, let's note that there are doubts that Luther nailed his theses to the door, or that he said "Here I stand; I can do no other."

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nobody.really
on December 10, 2019 at 11:07:08 am

I had never (until this essay) considered Luther's behavior as responsible for so much as a political expression of what the author points out was "...the individualistic angst of a broad swath of the Christian population by that time." Nor had I thought pre-Reformation Catholic Europe authoritarian with Luther responsible for Europe's liberalizing trends in the centuries after his effort. Nor, per the commenter's reply, had I ever thought either that the essence of political liberalism was religious toleration or that religious toleration arose from Luther's behavior or that Luther's behavior was responsible for the "essence" of liberalism. I lay much of the latter, the essence of liberalism, at the doorstep of Catholicism.

The Reformation following Luther's behavior levelled theological and political blows to the unifying force of the Church which surely aggregated and aggravated that "individualistic angst" which, as the author notes, predated Luther and the impacts of which are felt to this day.

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Fustigate Plumply
on December 10, 2019 at 11:30:21 am

nobody:

"Persuasive post, cleverly written; thank you. "

Agree with two thirds of this; but am curious: What is so clever about it.
I do not mean to impugn Rogers (or you for that matter) but I am curious as to what makes this so clever. (Clearly you do not mean it as an opprobrium or snark as I am wont to employ the term). I sense you have a far better understanding of religious history than do I, so.....('splain, if you will). The antecedents to Luther's "nailing" the problem and the consequent social / political / religious responses ought to have been plain to most who review history (small "h") - so what do I miss here.

BTW: I am as shocked to hear that Luther was not the "hammerer" that he was made out to be as I am that George Washington forgot his axe that day and the cherry tree did not fall victim to his blows.

Does it matter if either tale be true. Both are iconic - and, I submit, we (cultures) need iconic moments.

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gabe
on December 10, 2019 at 11:39:29 am

What is so clever about it?

I was referring to Rogers's statement, "Luther gave an individualizing answer in the Leipzig debate, that the Bible did not teach about the sale of indulgences to reduce time in purgatory. He could have done no other…." as alluding to Martin Luther's famous, but probably apocryphal, line.

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nobody.really
on December 10, 2019 at 13:45:33 pm

“Luther may be better understood as a man more reflecting his time than creating it.”

True. But then one could say the same for Jorge Bergoglio, who prior to his election as pope, stated, in regards to same-sex sexual unions and thus same-sex sexual acts:

“If there is a union of a private nature, there is neither a third party, nor is society affected. Now, if the union is given the category of marriage, there could be children affected. Every person needs a male father and a female mother that can help shape their identity.”

This statement by Jorge Bergoglio, not only denies the Sanctity of the marital act within The Sacrament of Holy Matrimony, and the fact that God, The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity, Through The Unity Of The Holy Ghost, Is The Author Of Love, Of Life, And Of Marriage, it also declares that sin is not sin if it is of a “private” nature.

The Catholic Church, informed by Christ, through The Deposit of Faith, has always taught, that although it is not a sin to have disordered inclinations, it is a sin to not desire to overcome our disordered inclinations, so that we are not lead into temptation and sin, but rather, become transformed by accepting Salvational Love, God’s Gift Of Grace And Mercy.

We can know through both our Catholic Faith and reason, “ It is not possible to have Sacramental Communion without Ecclesial Communion”, due to The Unity Of The Holy Ghost, For It Is , “Through Christ, With Christ, And In Christ, In The Unity Of The Holy Ghost”, that Holy Mother Church exists.

Thus we can know through both our Catholic Faith and reason, that the denial of The Unity Of The Holy Ghost, is the source of all heresy

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Nancy
on December 10, 2019 at 14:33:48 pm

Okey dokey!

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gabe
on December 10, 2019 at 15:30:32 pm

I thought that the chief significance of Luther's solae to the Western liberal tradition was not so much their formal assumption/acknowledgement of "the individual" as their empowerment of individual thought and agency as against the institutional authority of the Catholic Church as exclusive mediator between person and Christ/God, i.e. on matters of belief, conscience and morals. Sola fide and Solo Christo may have germinal stages in earlier times (just as early socialists found their socialist principles in early Christianity), but Luther's assertion of them boldly and directly was radical, was it not? Calvin's principal efforts were toward the reconstitution of (his own) ecclesiastical authority backed by state power following the anarchy in religious governance and its relation to state authority loosed by the Reformation, or so I have understood.

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QET
on December 10, 2019 at 16:46:43 pm

“Moderns—whether believers or nonbelievers—can scarcely imagine what Christianity is supposed to be about if it’s not about [favorable afterdeath].”

My ovum came from my mom and was fertilized by my dad and the conception had no fear. My person has always resisted the imposition of fear. Facing the realities of physics and its progeny, I do all I can for safety, security, and well-being, both for myself and fellow citizens including family.

Beginning on September 8-12, 1787, a controversial, republican oligarchy of 5 delegates consigned to individual privacy both speculative afterdeath and religious doctrine. The U.S. Preamble proposes responsible human liberty under 5 public institutions: Union, Justice, Tranquillity, defence, and Welfare. It tacitly leaves the development of mutual, equitable liberty as the standard of performance for the 5 institutions.

Political regimes oppose the U.S. Preamble. On consideration of the U.S. Preamble, citizens divide themselves by acceptance, passiveness, dissidence, rebellion, and traitor-ship. We hope most citizens are of We the People of the United States.

The fellow citizen who would impose religious practice/fears on others seems at best a dissident. I read, write, speak, and listen so as to promote consideration of the U.S. Preamble. It is labeled “secular” but is in fact neutral to religion (and gender, race, ethnicity, wealth, etc.)

Perhaps Luther was inspired by Chapter XI Machivaellianism.

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Phillip Beaver
on December 10, 2019 at 17:10:15 pm

Certainly there can be no liberalism without protestantism (Luther)--that's why you don't see liberalism in Islam (no protestant Islam) or China (no protestant Buddhism). But you also couldn't have liberalism without widespread literacy, i.e., the printing press. But that doesn't mean protestantism or the printing press inevitably started and lead to liberalism. China has printing presses and that has never caused them to be like Hong Kong.

There would've been no Massachusetts Body of Liberties or English Bill of Rights without protestantism. But perhaps while Luther started the spirit of defiance, Rabelais started the spirit of liberalism . . .

"All their life was spent not in laws, statutes, or rules, but according to their own free will and pleasure. They rose out of their beds when they thought good; they did eat, drink, labor, sleep, when they had a mind to it and were disposed for it. None did awake them, none did offer to constrain them to eat, drink, nor to do any other thing; for so had Gargantua established it. In all their rule and strictest tie of their order there was but this one clause to be observed,

Do What Thou Wilt;

because men that are free, well-born, well-bred, and conversant in honest companies, have naturally an instinct and spur that prompteth them unto virtuous actions, and withdraws them from vice, which is called honor."
-Gargantua by Francois Rabelais (1532)

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Peter Motteux
on December 10, 2019 at 18:58:12 pm

nobody gives a crap about you as an ovum or where it came from or where it is destined to go.

I suppose that you wish us to believe that The Preamble is the *ovum* to the Constitution.

Please stop this silliness!

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gargamel rules smurfs
on December 10, 2019 at 20:52:26 pm

Years ago in my youth I volunteered to work a few evening hours a week in a legal aid clinic providing legal service to a specific mental hospital in Chicago. One night a patient involuntarily committed for psychiatric evaluation by the Cook County Criminal Court came into the clinic to seek my legal advice on getting discharged. He had been arrested and then sent to the mental hospital for observation for making repeated telephone calls to Chicago Sun Times columnist Ann Landers and for then approaching her one afternoon at lunchtime in the lobby of the Sun Times Building on Michigan Avenue. Neither his phone calls nor his one attempt to talk personally with Ann Landers involved a physical threat. He had only wanted to seek advice from Ann Landers about the voices in his head which he thought were the consequence of a CIA takeover of his brain.

At the mental clinic the night he sought my legal advice he recounted the story of his CIA-induced voices. After enduring 30 minutes of monologue I ended the meeting and told the medical assistant that I would have no role in any effort to compel judicial release of the man from the mental hospital. He clearly needed psychiatric care and was where he needed to be. She agreed.

I lost track of the matter when I moved from Chicago shortly thereafter, but I suppose the man who sought advice unsuccessfully, first from Ann Landers and then from me, was eventually medicated and released to become a resident of the streets. From time to time over the ensuing years I wonder what became of that man, and sometimes personal experiences bring him to mind. Whenever I see Adam Schiff, for example, I think of the "Ann Landers Man.'' And there are others.

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Fustigate Plumply
on December 11, 2019 at 09:31:35 am

Actually, there is no unity in Islam or Buddhism, no final authority, no cohesiveness of belief.

“Liberalism is a political and moral philosophy based on liberty, consent of the governed, and equality before the law.”

The problem with liberalism, is that with Time, if you find you have liberated yourself from the very source of your inherent Right to Life, to Liberty, and to The Pursuit of Happiness, The Author Of Love, Of Life, And Of Marriage, The Ordered Communion Of Perfect Complementary Love, The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity, Through The Unity Of The Holy Ghost, and have become, in essence, a slave to sin, then all hell can break out.

Which is why, at the end of the Day, we can know through both Faith and reason, that only The Truth Of Love, Our Savior, Jesus The Christ, can set us free, and lead us to Salvation.

You cannot answer the question, “Who do you say that I Am”, if you deny The Unity Of The Holy Ghost.

“Truth In Love”; “Love In Truth”, Through The Unity Of The Holy Ghost. Amen

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Nancy
on December 11, 2019 at 09:50:34 am

Our Lady Of Fatima, Destroyer Of All Heresy, who, through your Fiat, affirmed The Unity Of The Holy Ghost, and the fact that there is only One Son Of God, One Word Of God Made Flesh, One Lamb Of God Who Can Take Away The Sins Of This World, Our Only Savior, Jesus The Christ, Hear our Prayers!

"[21] That they all may be one, as thou, Father, in me, and I in thee; that they also may be one in us; that the world may believe that thou hast sent me."
[John 17:21]

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Nancy
on December 11, 2019 at 14:52:27 pm

nobody gives a crap about you....

Of course I do. I trust we all do.

Happy holidays to us all, and God bless us--every one.

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nobody.really
on December 11, 2019 at 16:08:17 pm

Tht was kind and gracious of you.
And Happy Holidays to you as well.
Nobody.really deserves a good Christmas as do us all!

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gabe
on December 12, 2019 at 11:10:48 am

Yes, an excellent start!

“Luther was a proto-liberal and that’s a bad thing.”

https://www.thecatholicthing.org/2019/12/12/a-liberal-christian-feast-of-sentiments/

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Nancy
on December 12, 2019 at 12:30:18 pm

So much to discuss, but the issue of heaven or hell is of first importance:

https://downtownministries77.blogspot.com/2019/04/gospel-of-grace.html?m=1

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David Tiffany
on December 12, 2019 at 13:14:56 pm

"Do What Thou Wilt;

[...]

-Gargantua by Francois Rabelais (1532)"

I'm unfamiliar with the author. But whenever I hear "do what thou wilt" I think of Aleister Crowley. (Oh, Mr. Crowley!)

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Jonathan Rowe
on December 12, 2019 at 13:39:30 pm

Luther as catalyst is certainly reasonable, as long as we don't forget that his actions took great courage. Courage was as rare then as it is now.

Catalyzing the catalyst that was Luther was the then-new printing press. I think it is easy to neglect the impact that technology had on the Medieval world. Whether or not Luther actually nailed his 95 Theses to the chapel door is a non-sequitur--what matters is that the Printing Press enabled fast, broad distribution of his writings--even without his blessing. The printing press allowed the flame of Reform to spark protest and unrest across Europe in very short order. Without the press, I think it fair to say we would not know Luther's name.

I believe our contemporary time, exactly 500 years in the future, is a direct echo. While Luther's reform movement was catalyzed by the Press, our cultural agitators are catalyzed by the Internet generally, and social media specifically. Just as the Press catalyzed the 500-year Western Post Reformation cultural epoch, I believe The Internet has closed that cultural epoch and is transforming Western culture into a new Digital Epoch. I expect this transition to be just as painful, brutal, and deadly as the the Reformation was in Luther's time, and that there will indeed by conflicts analogous to the 30 Years War. Hang on, it is going to be a rough ride!

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R. Henry
on February 05, 2020 at 02:27:08 am

Well, I think, if I may, the way the subject concerned is approached partly fails. You are right in saying that „the existing answers [sc. prior to Luther] were already individualistic answers“, and you are also right by going on to state that „they just weren‘t answers that satisfactorily responded to the individualistic angst of a broad swath of the Christian population by that time“. However, you stop halfway through missing to make a substantive point about why Luther‘s answers were capable of actually doing so. There are not just external facts to be stated, but internal reasons to be considered too. In the latter regard it is basically two things that matter. The one is about the ‚freeing power‘ of Luther‘s ideas, which convey the experience of freedom right at the centre of people‘s individual being: the experience of (in faith) being freed from one‘s own efforts of self-preservation and self-assertion. This inner freedom put an end to fearfully focussing on one‘s own personal redemption in self-interested terms of reward and punishment. And here the circle of history closes upon itself, which takes us to the second point, as what ensues from this experience is very much the ‚turning up again‘ of the idea, which was left behind, the idea of a „start of a new humanity in the here and the now“. This is something that cannot just be observed, but must be grasped. Hence, the subject 'Luther and Liberalism' takes both eyes to be open. Even though contingent circumstances might have been favourable to Luther‘s ideas, which they were, it was his ideas that pulled the trigger for those to reverberate as they did. Fading out this aspect is on the flip side losing sight of the corresponding context that internally matters, as yes, there is relevant context to be regarded, but both externally and internally. This idea of Christian freedom (cf. famously 'The Freedom of a Christian', published 1520) put forward a strong and new understanding as to what liberty is, and it pointed beyond the theological, not as a formally valid, universally acknowledged and thus ‚modern‘ principle already, to be sure, but yet and still as a principle – a principle one would get familiar with at the innermost level of one’s personal being. It revealed freedom‘s basic grammar, both in terms of its ‚negative‘ aspect of being free from ‚things‘ (that bind us), which can be understood as the precondition for any substantiated sort of freedom, on grounds of which alone we come to know the other aspect of freedom too, its positive aspect, by now, and only now, knowing what we are free to and for. A person, a tergo-bound by forces that determine her rather than her him- or herself, such a person can certainly not be called a free person. This is at the core of Lutheran, of, as Luther always claimed, Pauline theology. The inevitable failing of the protestant reformation in terms of freedom lies not so much, if at all, in what Luther discovered, but in how it was meant to be caught up again by (new) ecclesial institutions and socially organised practices. Institutions of any sort could never substitute the ongoing, flowing, living dynamics of direct interpersonality, which take place in the unique and as such freeing reality of what might be called the ‚love of Christ‘. True, Luther‘s „extreme angst about his own personal salvation“ was „not ideosyncratic at all“, but to be delivered from it to find one’s personal freedom certainly was! It is not enough to just denote the specific psychological condition true of his day without, at the same time, paying attention to Luther's powerful articulation of what (Christian) freedom means. What he found in that freedom was himself, not the ‚old self‘ that he was with his self-centred fears, but himself as a newly created human person, and by finding himself as such a person humanity, that is himself with the other. So he rediscovered, as it were, what had got lost in the social coagulations of religious practices ‚ever since those days‘. In that way, Luther was more than just „reflecting his time“, but indeed „creating it“. Yes, his understanding of freedom was strictly subject to the particular semantics of Christology, which is why he argued so relentlessly against Erasmus over the issue whether we are free in general and by nature, which of course he answered with the strictest of all possible no‘s in his famous 'De servo arbitrio' (1525). Yet, if we managed to detach ourselves sufficiently from the ideological stance of religious talk, taking things rather in terms of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer meant when speaking of a „non-religious interpretation“, we might be able ‚to extract the root‘ of what Luther‘s work basically and essentially was about.

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Thomas

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