Heiko A Oberman: Luther

August 30, 2016

517E2TV6GBL._AC_US200_I should probably give up on reading religious history, because I never seem to achieve the clarity I’m looking for. It will be 500 years next year since Martin Luther’s famous 95 theses started the Reformation, splitting western Christendom irreparably and in England leading to cultural vandalism of an order that parallels that wrought in other lands by ISIS and the Taliban in more recent years.

So, what am I looking to find out? What Luther and associates actually disagreed with Rome about, in theological terms, the question of justification and righteousness, and whether by faith alone or by good works too. The well-known stuff about the horrendous abuses and immoralities of the mediaeval church is easier to take on board.

This book clearly demonstrates how religious reform and politics were inextricably tied up with the evolution and development of the modern nation-state, which I’d deduced after a fashion, but never been fully clear about: across the whole of Europe, people were seeking independence from Rome’s interference, the spiritual trying to usurp the temporal, and what’s more, some attempting to do this whilst remaining Catholic, while others moved definitively away from the church. It’s very detailed and probing in its survey of what is known of Luther’s life and the development of his thought and theology, and presents new knowledge and insights: the theological wranglings remain incredibly difficult to follow, even for someone who has read quite a bit in this field, both history and theology. He catalogues the wider ramifications of events, and debunks a good number of long-held myths, too. It was news to me how much of a millenarian Luther was, as well as how increasingly anti-Jewish he became.

And the nit-picking… how many angels can you fit on the head of a pin? The more I read, the more I’m astonished at the twisting and perverting of what we think was the original basis of Christianity: the heresies, the councils, the definitions, the religious bureaucracy, the torturing and killing of those who dared to question or disagree… it does seem utterly bonkers. In a few days I shall be visiting some of the Cathar sites in southern France. They were a Christian sect annihilated by the Church in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, with a Catholic bishop famously instructing troops to kill everyone in a captured town without distinguishing between heretics and true believers, on the grounds that “God will recognise his own”…

What the reformers were not interested in doing was going back to the origins, the church of the earliest days of Christianity: too many vested interests involved there. It all does seem, sadly, to have been as much about grabbing temporal power and wealth, at least for those not actually inventing the new theologies. An interesting, and difficult book.

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