The Reformation


Totalitarianism: the Effects of Martin Luther

by Art Sippo


Martin Luther's revolt against the Catholic Church was intensely personal and often motivated more by feelings and passion than by reason. In fact when he was confronted by the reasoned objections of men like Erasmus, Eck, or Emser, Luther's arguments often degenerated into personal insults and knee-jerk opposition to everything these men said regardless of whether or not he actually agreed with them.

This extreme dialectical opposition was typical of Luther's general style in theology. His early works describe what is called his "Theology of the Cross" in which he relays his own reaction to the crucifixion. He claimed that God was both completely hidden (deus absconditus) and totally revealed (deus revelatus) in the crucified Christ. In this, he was not making a paradoxical statement where two apparently incompatible ideas could actually be shown to both be true. He actually saw these two concepts as logically contradictory. The same is true for his other famous antinomies: "At the same time just and a sinner " (Simul iustus et peccator) and "Sin strongly, believe more strongly."

This style of reasoning was called dialectic sub contradictio. It allowed Luther to take an absolute dialectical opposition against all of his critics without the limitation of logical consistency. Many pro-Luther apologists fail to make the important distinctions between paradox and dialectic sub contradictio and defend an interpretation of Luther that is frankly wrong and contrary to his own self-confessed understanding.

This dialectical style was translated into the famous doctrine of the "two swords" dealing with authority in society. Luther argued that the authority of the Church ("the sword of doctrine") extended only to "spiritual" matters and that the Church should never interfere with the running of the state ("the sword of the princes"). In fact Luther taught that the princes could do whatever they needed to do to maintain order without regard to moral concerns. After all, justification was by faith, not by works and only dealt with one's eternal standing before God, not with one's temporal standing in the world. This was the first use of dialectical morality in Christian European history and was used to justify the brutalization, torture, rape and murder of peasants, Jews, Catholics, Anabaptists, and anyone else who threatened the absolute authority of the princes in their realms. Needless to say, this made Luther very popular with the more rapacious German nobles.

In subsequent German history, a Lutheran theorist named Thomas Erastius would develop a political theory with the prince as absolute ruler over both church and state. This was essentially an updated version of "caesaro-papism" which had been a problem during the Christian phase of the Roman Empire. It broke apart the medieval division of powers and concentrated all authority "on heaven and on earth" in the Monarch.

Erastianism became the operative paradigm in England during and after Henry VIII's apostasy and was used as justification for the persecution of Catholics and religious dissenters by the crown. The same system was used as the justification given for the "divine right of kings" on the continent and was opposed by the Catholic Church. The staunchest opponents of this view were St. Robert Cardinal Bellarmine and other Jesuits over the centuries.

Two hundred years after Luther, the philosopher Hegel took Luther's dialectical approach in theology and applied it in a systematic way to philosophy. It is rarely appreciated these days that Hegel was trying to develop a "modern", "non-scholastic" (i.e. non-Aristotelian) philosophy. Since the Law of Non-Contradiction was the very basis of Aristotle's metaphysics, it had to go. Hegel took dialectic sub contradictio and made it the working paradigm of all philosophy. A century later Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels would use this method in the development of a "dialectical materialism" culminating in the Communist Manifesto. The dialectical approach to morality and the need for a "constant" dialectical class warfare would result. It is safe to say that Martin Luther thus became the great-grandfather of Communism.

During the Nazi period in Germany in this century, Luther was resurrected again as a great German hero. His defiance against the Pope was seen as the same type of rebellion against foreign interference that the Nazis wanted to inspire against the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles. Luther's support for absolute authority vested in the secular ruler was quite supportive of

the fascistic goal of concentration of power in the hands of a "great leader." Also, Luther's vituperant anti-semitism was used to give religious support to the persecution of Jews and eventually the genocidal intent of the "Final Solution".

The Nazis invented what was called the "German Church Movement." The vast majority of Lutheran ministers in Germany joined this movement. Many of them actually preached their sermons while wearing Nazi regalia. The members of this movement encouraged the people to join with the Nazi goals and ideologies.

There was opposition to this nazification of Lutheranism from within the Protestant community. Native German pastors like Neimoeller and Bonhoffer were publicly critical of the German Church Movement. Several dissenters —including the Swiss protestant theologian Karl Barth— came together and wrote the anti-Nazi Barmen Church Declaration. It was because of his work on this document that Barth had to flee for his life back to Switzerland. After the war Barth stated his opinion that it was Luther's doctrine of the "two swords" which had paralyzed the Lutheran Church in Germany and made it willingly complicit in the Nazi atrocities.

Martin Luther did not merely rebel against the Catholic Church of his day. He rebelled against all external authority and made his own will the supreme authority in his life. This formula of self-adulation leads inexorably to personal moral autonomy. When this principle is extended into the political realm, it leads to totalitarianism with the power concentrated in the hands of the few.

Medieval society functioned under Catholic auspices, recognizing the legitimate distinction between the powers of the individual (subsidiarity) and those of the various levels of collective community (solidarity). This balanced view limited the authority of both the individual and the nested hierarchy of social strata so that there was a synergistic support for the rights of all the elements in society with minimal conflict and the goal of fostering the common good as its ultimate aim.

The starkness of Luther's dialectical vision led instead to the diametrically opposed concepts of individualism and collectivism which are constantly vying for supremacy over each other in an eternal "class struggle." The usual solution to the struggle is moral compromise, not constructive social integration for the sake of the common good.

If only history had not taken the serious wrong turn of the Protestant "Reformation," Catholic social principles would have dominated in the politics of the west and many of the great disasters of recent history could have been averted.

Art Sippo
The Catholic Legate

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This article originally appeared in the Nov/Dec. '96 issue of
St. Catherine Review.