Martin Luther stands in the annals of Western, global, and religious history as a giant with few companions. In the world of “disciples,” he certainly ranks alongside Saint Paul as the most influential “follower” of a religious founder. Luther also doesn’t stand far beneath the likes of Jesus, Mohammad, and Buddha among the most influential religious figures who ever lived. But what, exactly, is Luther’s real revolution or reformation?
Luther’s name is synonymous with the Reformation. We are all familiar with the half-truths and lies that accompany it. Luther was a devout Christian (Catholic) monk who grew aghast with the abuses of the late Renaissance Catholic Church, hierarchy, and papacy. He took a stand for anti-corruption, the people, and personal piety—nailing his 95 Theses on the Wittenberg Cathedral. The obtuse Catholic Church refused to heed Luther’s call for cleaning house. Luther, therefore (possibly with the protection of the Holy Spirit, pending your theological commitments), broke away to start Christianity anew: inaugurating an age of anti-corruption, personal piety, and pro-Biblicist Christianity unseen since the apostolic age.
We are not here to discuss the merits of the pro-Reformation story. We are here to discuss the forgotten revolution Luther unleashed, one with significant consequences for the development of human consciousness, philosophy, science, and history through to the modern age. Luther’s stand against ecclesiastical abuse and privilege, noble as it may have been, isn’t the real revolution Luther began. Luther’s real revolution was how we, as humans, related to the world and understood ourselves in the world.
Prior to the Reformation, the long tradition of Greek philosophy and Catholic theology had been synthesized through anagogic consciousness. Following from Plato, but especially Aristotle, the Western intellectual from the Greeks to Catholicism understood the world in a layered, hierarchical, manner. There were multiple levels of existence, the most common dichotomy being the material and the spiritual (or ideal). These multiple levels of existence were synthetic to each other, rather than in opposition to one another (an idea derived from Plato and expanded upon by Aristotle in his Metaphysics). There were, therefore, multiple “causes” of existence (per Aristotle: the material, the formal, the efficient, and the final). Humanity’s place in the world was to peel back the veil of existence, to push beyond the material, to find what lay beyond the mere objective, and enter the totality of existence. It was a highly contemplative understanding of the world and our place in it. It privileged thought over action (though it did not shun the importance of activity in the world).
Luther’s battering ram against the Church was not so much directed against the Church as the anti-Catholic polemical story suggest. Rather, Luther spent more time hammering Aristotle and Greek science more than Catholic abuses and theology. We must recall, even in the 95 Theses Luther actually accepted the validity of indulgences and other practices that we mistakenly claim he opposed. But why did Luther assail Aristotle so much? Why did he call Reason a “Whore”?
Luther’s assault on Aristotle and Greek science had to do with his attack on the anagogic consciousness of Catholicism. For Luther, the layered cosmos was a fraud. An invention of the Greeks which had tainted Christianity. The goal of the Christian life wasn’t to contemplate the many layers of existence through the many layers of Christian Scriptural interpretation (the Fourfold exegetical principles begun in the patristic era and solidified in the scholastic). The goal of the Christian life was understanding one’s place in the unfolding of History, the movement of Divine Providence from alpha to omega, beginning to end.
Luther was not the first to attempt to find our place in the world in accord with the movement of History. One can make a plausible argument that this tradition is very much Scriptural, found in the various authentic epistles of Paul as well as the Johannine writings. Other churchmen and theologians through the eras had also taken such approaches. However, Luther was the first to gloriously plant his foot into the ground, take his stand, and unleash the historicist mode of thinking that now dominates modern consciousness.
When we speak of the “Movement of History,” the “Arc of History,” the “Meaning of History,” the “Progress of History,” the “Right Side of History,” we are all the unwitting heirs of Luther’s revolution. The most educated, which means not the likes of most people on the internet or the New Atheist Movement, know this. That means, however, few people know this. Most think that it is a novel, modern, concept.
According to Luther, Christian contemplation over the anagogic reality of the world endangers one’s spiritual commitments to Christ and His prophetic Second Coming—the final stage of world history and its consummate completion. Our contemplation leading to action shouldn’t be about figuring out the hierarchy of angels (Luther accepts the reality of angels but places not great stock in their significance because debating the hierarchy of angels is only a concern to the anagogically-minded). It should be about understanding where we stand in the movement of history.
Luther, therefore, far more-so than Augustine and other precursors like Cyprian and Lactantius, does much more in advancing the idea of a linear, or at least a teleological conception of history. Before Luther, teleology was contained to man and the cosmos. This is what Greek and Catholic philosophy and theology concerned itself with. With Luther, teleology shifts away from man and the cosmos to history. History has the primary telos in Luther, man is just caught up in that teleological movement. Thus free-will, the prized theological commitment of post-Hellenic Catholicism, is lost. If man has a telos, as Catholicism says, man is also partly responsible for actualizing that purpose. In Luther, history’s telos overrides man’s purpose; we are just along for the ride.
The teleological conception of history that Luther entrenches becomes foundational to the development of German philosophy, especially Kant, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel. Even decidedly anti-theological philosophers, like Nietzsche, still carry the residue of Luther in them. As do political writers and philosophers like Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels and economic historicists like Eduard Bernstein. The “Dialectic of History” and “Scientific History” and “Economic History” offered to us by the likes of Hegel, Marx, and Bernstein are all but secularizations of Luther’s historical consciousness. As is the teleological conception of science offered in Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. The purpose of evolution and the movement of evolutionary science to higher forms of consciousness, even sans the Divine, echo with boisterous thunderclaps of Luther’s pulpit preaching.
The real revolution that Luther begat to the world is the historical imagination; a historical consciousness. Those of us—almost all of us—who contemplate in a relationship to history, the progress of science, or the evolution of consciousness owe a great debt to Luther. Rather than contemplate about our place and purpose in the broader cosmos, the purpose of our nature in relationship to the rest of nature, Luther’s revolution detaches us from nature and directs our consciousness to the concept of history which has, in time, become devoid of the theological and become the concept of politics, the concept of economics, the concept of progress, the idea of scientific progress and evolution, etc. In this way Luther’s reformation has been far more successful and influential than the spread of a new religion: Protestantism. Almost all of us moderns, especially those living in Western countries, whether religious or irreligious, Protestant or not, are all disciples of Luther. History and its meaning, rather than human nature, became the focus of Luther’s thought and is undeniably a hallmark of modern consciousness and modernity. More than 500 years later, we are still wrestling with history and its meaning just as Luther did.
*For the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, Curtis L. Thompson wrote an important article bringing back Luther’s contribution to “historical meaning,” it remains one of the best introductory writings on this immensely important topic: “Martin Luther, History, and Its Meaning”
Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor of VoegelinView and a writer on art, culture, literature, politics, and religion for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Diseases, Disasters, and Political Theory. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and theology (biblical & religious studies) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.
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